The First Kiss

Book 2 in the Sweetest Kisses series

Classical pianist Vera Waltham is recovering from a bad break up by taking a hiatus with her daughter in the Damson Valley countryside. She’s content with her music, and has no interest in complicating her life with further attempts at romance.

Attorney James Knightley is a numbers guy who reads contractual fine print for lunch, and wants nothing to do with damsels, in distress or otherwise. Nobody is more surprised than James when he falls for Vera Waltham, and the only contract on James’s mind when it comes to Vera is holy matrimony.

Grace is thrilled to bring to readers her first Contemporary Romances, lovingly set in Scotland,

The First Kiss:

Sourcebooks

Series: Sweetest Kisses

ISBN: 978-1402278877

Feb 3, 2015

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Grace's Genres: Contemporary
Chapter One

A year in divorce purgatory had taught Vera Waltham two lessons.

First lesson: When her ex acted like an idiot, she was allowed to be angry—she was getting good at it, in fact.

Second lesson: Vera could rely, absolutely and without hesitation, on her attorney’s word. If Trent Knightley said somebody would soon be on her doorstep with a copy of the restraining order, that somebody was already headed her way.

Vera’s emergency automotive repair service was a shakier bet.

“Ma’am, if this is the number where you can be reached, we’ll call you back when we’ve located a mechanic in your immediate area.”

“In my immediate area, you’ll find cows, chickens, and the occasional fat groundhog. The truck is sitting in my garage.”

“Then this isn’t a roadside emergency?” The dispatcher clearly had raised small children, for she’d hit the balance between dismay and shaming smack on the nose.

“I’m stranded without wheels, nothing but open fields, bad weather, and my lawyer’s phone number to comfort me. Please get somebody out to fix that tire, ASAP.”

Vera was stranded in her own toasty kitchen, but what if Twy came home from school with a sore throat? Long walk to the urgent care in freezing temperatures, that’s what, because bucolic Damson County boasted no rural taxi service.

“We’ll do the best we can, ma’am. Please stay near your phone until a mechanic calls you back.”

“Thanks. I’ll do that.”

The line went dead, which meant the next step was locating the truck’s owner’s manual. Vera was still nose down in a description of something called the spare brace assembly when wheels crunched on the crushed gravel of her driveway.

An SUV pulled up at the foot of her steps, and a man in a sheepskin jacket and cowboy hat got out.

Could be a mechanic. He was broad-shouldered, he drove a motorhead’s sort of vehicle, and he wasn’t wearing gloves.

A pianist noticed hands. His were holding a signature Hartman and Whitney navy blue folder. When he rapped on Vera’s door, she undid all three dead bolts and opened it.

Not Trent Knightley, but a close resemblance suggested Vera beheld one of the brothers with whom he shared a law practice. Same blue, blue eyes; same lean, muscular height; same wavy hair, though this guy was blond rather than dark.

“Hello,” she said, opening the door wider. “You’re either from Hartman and Whitney, or you’re the best dressed truck mechanic I’ve ever seen.”

“James Knightley. Pleased to meet you.” He stepped over the threshold, removed his hat, and hung it on the brass coatrack. “Trent asked me to bring you a copy of a restraining order. He said it was urgent.”

“My thanks, Mr. Knightley.” Vera closed the door behind him and shot the dead bolts, then extended her hand in anticipation of gaining possession of a copy of the court order.

Instead, Vera’s hand was enveloped by a big male paw, one graced with calluses she would not have expected to find on a lawyer.

James Knightley had manners—also warm hands. When he’d tended to the civilities—firm grip, not out to prove anything—he passed her the blue folder.

Vera flipped it open, needing to see with her own eyes that he’d brought her the right court order.

“Was there a reason to get it certified?” she asked.

“The courthouse was on my way here. If you needed a certified copy, then nothing less would do.”

Consideration and an eye for details were delightful qualities in any man.

As were warm hands and a mellow baritone voice.

“May I offer you a cup of tea, some hot chocolate? It’s cold out, and this errand has brought you several miles from town.” Vera offered out of basic good manners, but also because anger eventually burned itself out, while a front tire on her only serviceable vehicle was still slashed, and the intricacies of the spare brace assembly thingie had yet to reveal themselves to her.

Then too, James Knightley had something of his brother’s reassuring air. Maybe lawyers took classes in how to be reassuring, the way a pianist took a master class in Brahms or Rachmaninoff.

As he unbuttoned his jacket, James glanced around at the foyer’s twelve-foot ceilings, the crown molding, the beveled glass in the windows on either side of the foyer. Vera had the sense he did this not with a mercenary eye—not pricing property in anticipation of litigation—but rather with the slow, thorough appraisal of the craftsman. Pine dowels in the cross beam, handmade stained glass insets for the oriel window—he inspected these, the way Vera had to stop and listen for a moment to any piano playing in any venue, however faintly.

“A cup of hot chocolate would hit the spot,” he said, shrugging out of his jacket. “Trent said you had a lovely old house, and he did not lie.”

That smile.

Good heavens, that smile. Trent Knightley was tall, dark, and handsome, a charming and very intelligent man whom Vera had happily flaunted in Donal’s face, but this James…

He left a subtly more masculine impression. Donal would hate him on sight.

James’s gaze held a warmth Trent’s had lacked, at least when aimed at Vera. His smile reached his eyes, eyes a peculiarly dark shade of blue fringed with long lashes.

Vera had no business admiring a man’s eyelashes, for the love of St. Peter. Or his hands, or his voice.

“To the kitchen, then,” she said, leading James through the music room and into the back of the house. “My favorite room in the house.”

“I’d guess this place predates the Civil War. Did you have a lot of work done?”

“I intend to raise my daughter here, so I had the house fitted out exactly as I wanted it.” Right down to the security system, which had done her absolutely no good earlier that very afternoon.

“I have a renovated farm house of my own. Every night when I tool up my driveway, and she’s sitting under the oaks waiting for me in all her drafty splendor, I am glad to call her mine.”

A poet lawyer, who composed odes to his farm house. Different, indeed.

“But we’re not so glad to pay the heating bills,” Vera said as they reached the kitchen. The room was blessedly cozy because of the pellet stove sitting in one corner of the fireplace.

“Good Lord, this must be original.” James ran a hand over the gray fieldstones of the hearth. “Five feet square at least, and these look like genuine buggy axles.”

He fingered the pot swings on either side of the enormous fireplace, then draped his coat over the back of a chair.

“I don’t know what they are,” Vera said. “An old Mennonite gentleman came to point and parge, and he ended up doing a great deal more than that. I love that fireplace, but I also love the exposed chestnut logs and the flagstone floor. This time of year, I wear two pairs of wool socks twenty-four-seven. Have a seat.”

James wandered around the kitchen a while longer, a man who apparently enjoyed touching things—the mantel, the cabinets, the marble counters, the drawer pulls of the antique breakfront that stored her mother’s china. He caressed wood and stone as if he’d coax secrets from Vera’s counters and chimney, while she wondered where he’d acquired his calluses.

“Whipped cream, Mr. Knightley?”

“Please, and a little nutmeg, if you have it.”

“A connoisseur.” And lo, lurking next to the oregano in Vera’s spice rack was a canister of nutmeg, probably leftover from holiday baking. A connoisseur would appreciate fresh, homemade cookies, so she got down her cookie tin and peered inside. “We’re in luck. My daughter has left us a few cookies.”

Half a batch of homemade chocolate-chip pecan turtles remained, and they’d be scrumptious with hot chocolate.

“Don’t bother putting them on a plate,” James said. “I can dip into the jar, same as any other civilian. How long have you lived here?”

He could probably finish the entire batch without gaining an ounce, too, and keep up the small talk the entire time.

Which was…charming? A lifetime spent in practice rooms and concert halls didn’t equip a woman with a ready ability to analyze men.

Sobering thought.

“I moved here with my daughter a little over a year ago,” Vera said, putting a plain white mug of whole milk into the microwave. “Twyla will get off the school bus in about fifteen minutes, and if I’m going to walk to the foot of the lane, I’d better not linger over my hot chocolate.”

A bit rude, offering the man a drink one minute and hustling him along the next. Anger could leave a woman that rattled, but Vera’s guest didn’t seem offended.

“Your lane has to be half a mile long, and it’s not quite thirty degrees out with a mighty brisk breeze. Are you sure you want to walk that distance?”

“I’m sure I do not,” she said, giving his hot chocolate a final stir. “But somebody has broken into my garage. Today, I don’t expect an eight-year-old to trudge that distance by herself.” Though Twyla did, on the days when her mother wasn’t feeling paranoid.

Angry, not paranoid. Rattled, anyway.

And mildly charmed.

Something in James’s expression changed, became more focused. “Your garage was broken into? You mentioned a mechanic.”

“One of my tires is flat. I’ve called the road service, but I’m off the beaten path, and finding somebody to put on the spare will take a while. I’m pretty sure I can figure it out. I’ve changed a tire or two.”

Half a lifetime ago, on a vintage Bug, while one of her brothers had alternately coached her and laughed uproariously.

Now would be a good time for a guy with broad shoulders and competent hands to tell her that tires went flat for no reason all the time. Even brand-new tires that had cost a bundle to have put on and balanced.

When Vera had squirted whipped cream onto James’s hot chocolate, he appropriated the nutmeg from her and did the honors, then spun the lazy Susan that held her spices and added a dash of cinnamon.

They worked in the same assembly line fashion on Vera’s drink, the spices contributing a soothing note to the kitchen fragrances.

“Ladies first,” James said, saluting with his mug.

Because James looked like he’d wait all winter, Vera took a sip of her drink.

Rich, interesting, sweet, and nourishing—an altogether lovely concoction in the middle of a dreadful day. A small increment of Vera’s upset slid away, or at least from her immediate grasp.

“Your vehicle was vandalized while your car sat in a garage that I’ll presume you keep locked,” James said, staring at his mug. “You suspect your ex is behind this?”

Lawyers, even hot chocolate–swilling lawyers with interesting blue eyes, were good at putting together facts.

Right now, that was a helpful quality.

“I’m fairly certain my ex is carrying a grudge,” Vera said, “and fairly certain he stole my copy of the restraining order. Without it, if I call the cops, they might show up, but they won’t do anything if they find Donal here. If I can wave the order at them, they might lock him up.”

James helped himself to a paper towel and passed one to Vera, folding his up to use as a coaster on her butcher-block counter. He wasn’t shy about sharing personal space, and he smelled good—piney, outdoorsy, and—best of all—not like Donal.

“Domestic relations law hasn’t been my area for several years,” he said, “but I think you have the gist of it. If you like, I can reach Trent on his cell and verify that.”

“Please don’t. I already feel like a ninny for calling him. He’s newly married, isn’t he?”

“Very, and he chose well this time.”

James’s tone suggested the first Mrs. Knightley had not enjoyed her brother-in-law’s wholehearted approval, though her successor apparently did.

“I chose reasonably well the first time,” Vera said, “not so well on the rebound.”

“Whereas I have yet to choose. You make a mean hot chocolate, Mrs. Waltham.” He touched his mug to Vera’s, probably signaling an end to the self-disclosure session.

“Call me Vera, and have some cookies.”

He took a bite of cookie, catching the crumbs in his hand. “What time did you say the bus came?”

“Any minute. Why?”

He put a set of keys on the counter. “We can take my car.”

“That’s not necessary.” In truth, as charming as he was, as handsome as he was, the idea of getting into a vehicle with James left Vera uneasy. Donal was handsome and occasionally gruffly charming. He could also be a damned conniving snake with a bad temper.

“You take the car then.” James slid the keys toward her. “It’s colder than a well digger’s…boots out there, and I have a niece who’s seven—a pair of them, actually. This isn’t weather a lady should have to face alone at the end of a long day.”

Twyla bounced up the lane on colder days than this, and James had to know that—the Knightley family was local, after all. He’d passed Vera his keys for another reason, one having to do with her near panic at having no wheels, and ladies facing bad weather all on their own.

“I can put your spare on while you wait for the bus,” he said, while the keys sat three inches from Vera’s hand.

Until fifteen months ago, Vera had never lived on her own, ever. She’d given up leaning on a man, and so far, the results had been wonderful—when they weren’t scary.

“I can’t let you do that, James. It’s too much trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all to a guy who was tearing down engines from little up. I like the smell of axle grease, and I haven’t had homemade cookies since I don’t know when. Scat,” he said, taking her hand and slapping the keys into her palm. “If you leave now, you can have the seats nice and toasty by the time your daughter gets off the bus.”

He brought his mug to the sink and rinsed it out, leaving it in the drain rack. The line of his back was long and lean in the vest of what looked like a very expensive three-piece suit.

What was Vera doing, ogling the man’s back?

James Knightley washed his dishes, and for some reason, that reassured Vera he could be trusted to change a tire. Even so, she had to wonder what Trent Knightley had told his brother of her divorce. Attorney-client privilege was one thing, but James was both brother and law partner to Trent.

Men gossiped. Alexander had assured her they gossiped as much as women did, and Vera’s first husband had not lied to her…all that often.

“The garage is this way,” she said, leaving her hot chocolate unfinished. “You can take the cookies with you.”

“They’re good.” He took one more and set the tin back up on top of the fridge with the casual ease of a tall man. “Trent recalls your cookies fondly.”

Not a hint of innuendo in that line—not that innuendo would have been welcome.

“I’ll drop a batch off the next time I’m in town,” Vera said, turning on the garage lights. “Call it a wedding present. I think the temperature has fallen as the day has gone on.”

“We’re supposed to get a dump of snow later this week and—Vera Waltham, I am in love. You own a 1964 Ford Falcon, and this blue is probably the original paint color. My, my, my. Does she run?”

Cars and houses were female to James Knightley. Would he also consider pianos female?

“Not at the moment. The Faithful Falcon needs a battery, among other things, but some fine day, I want to see my daughter behind that wheel. The car belonged to Alexander’s grandmother, and he wanted Twyla to have it.”

James left off perusing the old car and scowled at Vera’s other vehicle, a late-model bright red Tundra, listing slightly.

“That’s why nobody wants to come change your tire.”

“What’s why?”

“These pickups have the spare up under the bed,” he said, opening the truck’s driver’s side door.

His movements and his voice were brisk, all male-in-anticipation-of-using-tools-and-getting-his-hands-dirty. “The mechanism for holding the spare in its brace always gets rusted, and to get the tire down, you have to thread this puppy here”—he rummaged under her backseat—“through a little doodad over the tag, and into a slot about”—he emerged holding the jack and a long metal rod—“the size of a pea, and then get it to work, despite the corrosion. I love me a sturdy truck, but the design of the spare brace assembly leaves something to be desired. Why are you looking at me like that?”

Like she’d heard no sweeter music that day than a man recounting the pleasures of intimate association with a truck? He cradled the jack assembly the way some violinists held their concert instruments.

“You reminded me of my oldest brother. I forget not all men are like Donal.”

Some men dropped their afternoon plans, took time to get a court order certified, minded their manners, and rinsed out their dishes. Some men changed tires without being asked. Vera would never be in love again—Olga had an entire lecture about the pitfalls of romantic attraction—but Vera could appreciate a nice guy when one came to her door.

“I couldn’t stop you from changing that tire if I tried, could I?”

“No. You could not. Trucks and I go way back, and I don’t like this Donal character very much.” James’s gold cuff links had gone into a pocket, and he was already turning back his sleeves. “Don’t you have a school bus to catch?”

He said it with a smile, with one of those charming, endearing smiles. Could he know that for Vera to even drive down the lane alone would take a bit of courage?

Fortunately, nobody embarked on a solo career at age seventeen without saving up some stores of courage.

“You’re right. I have a bus to catch,” Vera said. “You’re sure this is OK?”

“Shoo,” he replied, positioning the jack under the axle with his foot. “I may not be done by the time you get back, but I will put the hurt to the rest of those cookies before I go, if your daughter doesn’t beat me to it.”

Vera left him in her garage, cheerfully popping loose lug nuts. If she’d had to do that, she’d probably have been jumping up and down on the tire iron while calling on St. Jude, and still the blasted bolts would not have budged.

“My brother, my very own brother, an officer of the court admitted to practice law in the great State of Maryland, has lied to me,” James informed the Tundra as he rotated the rod that lowered the spare from its brace. “He led me to believe that Mrs. Waltham was a lonely old fussbudget whose Mr. Waltham was more annoying than dangerous.”

That last part might be true—annoying and cowardly.

The spare was properly inflated—praise be—and James rolled it around to lean against the driver’s side door.

“You’ve been slashed, my dear,” James said, eyeing the front tire. “I was hoping for a leaky valve or winter pothole wreaking predictable havoc. This is not good.”

Contrary to television drama, driving a knife into a truck tire—a new truck tire especially—took significant strength. Vera Waltham’s attribution of vandalism to her ex wasn’t as outlandish as James wanted it to be.

He raised the truck, wrestled the damaged tire off, and fitted the spare onto the axle.

“A real spare,” James observed, spinning the five lug nuts onto the bolts. “Not one of those sissy temporary tires, which any rutted country lane will reduce to ribbons before you can say, ‘Which way to the feed store?’”

Vera was isolated here, a single lady with a little girl, her house set back from the winding country road by a good half mile. Woods stood between the house and the road, assuring the property had privacy.

James liked his privacy too, liked it a lot, but sometimes privacy didn’t equate to safety.

“Trent also neglected to tell me his former client is a very attractive woman,” James groused to the truck. “She has good taste in vehicles, I might add.”

Vera Waltham stood about five foot six, and she packed a lot of curves into a frame substantially shorter than James’s own six feet and three inches. She had sable hair worn in a tidy bun at her nape, and big, dark eyes that revealed a deep brown upon close inspection.

“Nobody wears their hair in a bun anymore,” James said as he lowered the truck off the jack. “I like it—gives a lady a classic look, though a tidy bun wants undoing.”

James, unlike his brothers, was one to closely inspect the women in whose kitchens he found himself.

But then, Mac was a monk, and Trent was such a damned saint he was constitutionally incapable of noticing a client was pretty. James noticed, and occasionally did more than that.

At least until lately.

By the time James had re-stowed the equipment, voices came from the kitchen adjoining the garage.

A second pair of big brown eyes studied James as he crossed the kitchen to wash his hands at the double sink. These eyes were set in a heart-shaped little face and regarded him with frank curiosity.

“Is that the man who lent you his car?”

“Twy, say hello to Mr. Knightley,” Vera instructed. “And, yes, he was kind enough to lend me his car.”

“Hullo, Mr. Knightley. You look like the other Mr. Knightley. He was Mom’s lawyer. You ate some of my cookies.”

“I’ll eat every last one of your cookies, they’re so good,” James said, sliding onto the stool beside the child’s, same as he would have with either of his nieces. “I’m James. How was school?”

“School is boring,” she said, much as Grace or Merle might have. “You really look like my mom’s lawyer.”

“Trent’s my older brother, and I think he’s kind of handsome.” One should always be honest with the ladies. He reached for a cookie. “What do you think?”

The girl smiled, clearly understanding that James had set himself up to be complimented. “I think my mom said he’s a damned fine lawyer.”

“Language, Twy,” Vera murmured.

Was that a blush? Vera was making quite the production out of choosing a mug from the colorful assortment in the cupboard.

“Well, you did say it, Mom.”

“What kind of name is Twy?” James propped his chin on his fist, because of all things, Vera Waltham was shy. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Twy before.”

“Short for Twyla. I’m the only Twyla in the whole school.”

“And you like that.” James liked this kid, too. “Always had lots of Jameses and Jims and Jimmys in my classes.”

“Was it horrible?”

“Bad enough.” Other parts of his upbringing had been horrible. “What’s your favorite subject?”

The child prattled on happily about her favorite, her least favorite, and some juvenile reprobate named Joey Hinlicky, who’d learned from his older brother how to snap the bras of the fifth-grade girls daring enough to sport such apparel.

Over at the stove, Vera stifled a snort of laughter, suggesting despite her bun and tidy kitchen, she might be the sort of woman who could be teased, or even tickled.

Or not. The house was spotless, a showplace, and the garage floor had been clean enough to eat off of. Other than the kitchen, which was inviting, the rest of the dwelling had a posed quality, like a movie set, not a home. The big black grand piano in the front room actually gleamed.

Did anybody ever play it? Such a fine instrument ought not to be simply for show.

“I can pick you up a battery for your Falcon,” James heard himself say around a mouthful of excellent cookie. “It wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Vera replied.

She stirred something at the stove in such a manner that surely, her thank-you was about to turn into a no-thank-you.

“I’ve imposed on you enough, though. Twy, what’s in the homework notebook?”

“Vocabulary, fractions, and social studies.”

“Busy night,” James said. “You need any help?”

The child’s brow’s rose, while Vera’s stirring slowed. “No thanks, but thank you for offering. School isn’t hard for me, except for the boys.”

“Boys take a while, but they’ll grow on you eventually.”

“They blow the best arm farts.”

“That’s enough out of you, Twy,” Vera said, but she was again trying not to laugh. “If you’ve demolished your cookies, you can start on that homework, and do the fractions first.”

“Yes, Mother.” She swiped one last cookie and flounced out of the kitchen with the longsuffering air of a child who knows where the limits are.

“What a neat kid,” James said, helping himself to the last sip of Twyla’s milk. “Is school truly easy for her?”

“She skipped kindergarten, so she’s small for her grade, but, yes, it’s easy, except for the math.”

Homemade turtle cookies and milk had to be one of the best combinations ever.

“I never had any trouble with math. I’m a CPA, though I keep that under my hat.”

“A CPA and a lawyer?” She laid out two place mats on the butcher-block island where James had pulled up his barstool.

Flowers, pumpkins, and roosters in green, red, and orange.

“I don’t advertise the CPA part, as it hardly impresses the ladies, but it’s handy when the accountants start throwing around the tax code like it was handed down on Mt. Sinai. My clients are businesses or people setting up businesses.”

“A third brother is in practice with you, if I recall correctly?”

She’d set out napkins in the same autumn barnyard motif—Laura Ashley need not apply—and an orange pepper grinder, all on a weeknight for a kitchen meal with her only child.

“MacKenzie is the criminal defense expert,” James said. “Trent’s wife, Hannah, will soon handle all the alternative dispute resolution services for us, so her expertise will cut across disciplines.”

Vera next set a matching red salt shaker beside the pepper grinder. “My first husband was a lawyer, though he never sat for the bar exam.”

“The guy you chose well?”

She arranged silverware next, each utensil carefully lined up with the others. She’d loved the Husband Who Got Away, maybe still loved him, which had probably irked old Donal the Tire Slasher.

It might irk any guy lining up to provide post-divorce rebound services, too.

“Women divorcing second spouses often go back and revisit their first love,” James said. “It isn’t anything to worry about.” Nor was that something passed along in law school.

Vera snatched a third napkin from the center of the island.

“Alexander was killed by a drunk driver five years ago. I’m damned lucky he’d made a will, leaving everything to me, or we’d still be wrangling with probate.”

She turned the napkin into cloth origami, so it resembled a half-open rosebud. Vera Waltham had beautiful hands—also a broken heart.

“When you said you married Donal on the rebound, I concluded you were bouncing back from a divorce. I’m sorry.”

“And I didn’t correct you.” She shook out the rose and started folding again. “Don’t ever bury a spouse, Mr. Knightley. Divorce them all day long, provided you don’t have children with them, but don’t say that final good-bye.”

Mr. Knightley was James’s late father.

A moment later, a napkin-peacock sat in the middle of the island. Vera crossed to the cupboards, took down two crystal water glasses, and kept her back to James for a moment longer.

James liked women; they were interesting, dear, sweet, and lovely. Also fun to take to bed, but they could be complicated as well, which he did not enjoy. Nor did he enjoy being called Mr. Knightley by a pretty woman whose bun had slipped a tad off center.

“What makes you think your ex slashed your tire?”

“He left me a phone message. Not the first, and probably not the last.”

When Vera faced James, her expression was mildly pissed, an improvement over mooning after Saint Alexander.

“You recognized his voice?”

“It’s disguised, whispery, but, yes, it sounds like him. Would you like to stay for dinner?”

James was in the habit of accepting invitations from the ladies; he was not in the habit of accepting invitations to dinner. Vera’s house was too tidy, she was still entangled in a nasty divorce, was a client of his brother’s, and was pining for a man who’d been gone for years.

Nope, nope, nope.

“Dinner would be nice, provided you let me find you that battery.”

Vera regarded James curiously over the cloth peacock. “Negotiation is probably second nature to you, isn’t it?”

More of a survival skill, when both older brothers were attorneys. “Why would you say that?”

“You’re a corporate lawyer. You wheel and deal for a living.”

“I don’t think of it as wheeling and dealing,” he said, putting the cookies back on top of the fridge. “I think of it as collaborative problem solving. I want to hear Donal’s message, and you should consider reporting it to the authorities.”

“I’ll report it to the sheriff’s office, but they’ll just make one more note in my extensive file and wish I’d leave the county.”

No. They’d wish her ex would leave the county—as did James. “Let’s listen to the message before Twyla comes down to spy on us.”

Vera moved the cookie tin—more splashy, autumnal flowers—so it was dead center on top of the fridge. “Do you have younger sisters?”

“I have nieces. Not quite the same species, but in the same genus.”

Vera hit a few buttons on an old-fashioned answering machine on the counter, then stood staring at the little piece of equipment like it had eight legs and stank.

James prepared to listen to some sour grapes ranting from a spurned husband, though, Vera couldn’t have been married to the guy for long if she’d been in this house for more than a year, and dear Alexander had gone to his reward only five years ago.

“Don’t think I’ll forgive you, Vera,” said a raspy voice. “Don’t think you’re safe. Don’t think you’ll ever be safe.”

Not very original, but the hair on the back of James’s neck stood up. “Play it again.”

She did, twice, while James tried to absorb not only the words, but also the emotions. That voice, and that threat, whispering across this cheery, colorful kitchen were obscene.

“He leaves you frequent messages like that?”

“No. He lets me believe he’ll go away and abide by the protective order, and just when I think I’m about to put him and his miserable tricks behind me, he starts up again. I honestly never thought Donal would stoop to this level. He hates messiness and whining, and in its way, this is a lot of messy whining.”

James hoped that was all it was. “Can you trace the calls?”

“He knows my schedule, apparently, because he never calls when I’m home.”

James was beginning to sound like Mac with a witness in a criminal trial. “Do you get hang-up calls?”

She moved away from the answering machine and its malevolent little red number one on the message counter. “He’s cunning, Donal is. It’s part of what made him a good agent.”

“Agent for whom?”

“For me. How do you like your hamburgers?”

“Medium,” James said, stifling an urge to unplug that answering machine and toss it in the trash.

Vera set about making hamburgers, mashing a whole egg, some spices, salt and pepper, and a few bread crumbs into extra-lean ground beef, then using her hands to form the patties.

For a woman tormented by her ex, she was calm, but when she managed to meet James’s gaze, anger and exasperation lurked behind her basic cordiality. Her movements were quick, a touch brittle, and when Twyla had been with them, Vera had watched the girl a tad too closely.

Trenton Knightley, Esquire, needed to follow up with his client.

“I’ll make you two,” she said. “Unless you’re a three-burger man?”

“Two will be plenty. What can I do to help?” Help—with dinner, only with dinner, because the trouble Vera faced was best handled by cops and court orders.

“Can you make mashed potatoes?”

“I’m a bachelor. If I didn’t learn to cook, I’d soon lose my boyish figure.” He foraged in the fridge for butter, sour cream, and ranch dressing. The potatoes, still in their skins, were boiling away on the stove.

He and Vera worked in companionable silence, she tending the meat while he drained the potatoes and used an old-fashioned masher on them until they were relatively smooth.

“What are you doing to those potatoes?”

“Old family recipe. I guarantee Twyla will love them. Are we going to heat some green beans?” Every farm boy knew that the bliss of burgers and mashed potatoes had to be balanced by the penance of some green vegetables.

“Green beans sound good, and I have a tossed salad in the fridge. Beans would be in the freezer.”

He found a pack, put them in a pot with some water, tossed in a bouillon cube, and started opening cupboards.

“What are you looking for?”

“Slivered almonds.”

She gave him a skeptical look, but produced nuts in a bag rolled up and sealed with a rubber band.

He couldn’t exactly ask her about the Ravens latest televised game, now could he? Beside, the Ravens had sucked goose farts on national television, and James was, to his surprise, out of practice with the predinner chit-chat.

“Does Donal have visitation with Twyla?” Really out of practice.

“He does not. I was adamant about that, and Trent backed me up. Stepfathers have no basis in law to assert a right to visitation, not yet.”

James turned down the heat under the beans. “I take it Donal lacks paternal inclinations.”

“He has children of his own, and he does love them, though he’s incapable of showing affection for them. They’re older than Twy, and he has his hands full with them. I try to keep in touch with the kids, but when there’s a restraining order, that’s tricky. I don’t want to send a mixed message to anybody. The buns are in the bread box.”

James wasn’t picking up a hint of a whiff of a frisson of a mixed message—unless the lack of a third place setting was significant.

Vera slid the cooked burgers into a bright red ceramic dish with a clear glass lid, then called up the stairs, “Twy! Dinner’s ready!”

Next she tended to that third place setting, arranging a place mat, cutlery complete with two forks, folded linen napkin, and crystal water goblet just so.

Was a woman neurotic if she used linen napkins to eat hamburgers in the kitchen with her kid?

But even as James considered the question, he mentally played back the message her ex had left her. Linen napkins and matching place mats could be a defense against feeling chronically victimized and objectified.

A lousy defense.

Twyla came down the stairs, her expression pleased.

“We never have company anymore. Is Mr. Knightley going to have dinner with us?”

“He is. Wash your hands, Twy, and think up some grace.”

“Company grace,” Twyla said, twirling around on one stocking foot. “I haven’t had to do a company grace forever. I’m good at it, though. If I have enough time, I can make it rhyme.”

As James pulled up a barstool and bowed his head on cue, he felt Twyla’s hand slipping into his. On his other side, Vera was holding her hand out to him, palm up.

“Mine are clean,” Twyla said. “Mom’s hands are always clean.”

A family ritual, then. James had almost forgotten such things existed. He took Vera’s hand, and to his surprise, her fingers gripped his; they didn’t merely rest in his hand.

A sincere family ritual, then.

“For what we are about to receive,” Twyla said, “we are grateful. I’m also grateful to have skipped a grade so I’m not in the same class as Joey Hinlicky. Amen. Are there nuts in the beans?”

“Almonds,” James said, putting half a spoonful on her plate. “Vera?”

“Please.” She served her daughter a hamburger, and James two. Twyla’s did not sport cheese.

“You don’t like cheese?” James asked the child. “It’s good for you.”

“I like cheese raw, not melted so it sticks to the bun and the meat both. These beans are good, but they taste different, and they crunch.”

“Textural variety,” James said. “Makes the meal almost as interesting as the company. Did you get your homework done?”

“Nah.”

The kid knew enough to put her napkin on her lap and keep her elbows off the table. She also didn’t talk with her mouth full. Were females born knowing these things?

“Fractions got you stumped?”

She pushed the green beans around with her fork. “I don’t get the common denominator thing. It’s complicated.”

“You just have to learn your way around them. Did you bring your math book home?”

“Too heavy,” Twyla said, taking a bite of mashed potatoes. “Man, these are good. We should have company more often, Mom.”

James did not gloat, but he did offer Vera another helping of mashed potatoes, because she’d taken about a teaspoon the first time around, and James would finish off the batch when she’d enjoyed a proper portion.

“They are good,” Vera said. “Can you write the recipe down?”

“You cook with recipes, then?”

“She does,” Twyla volunteered, “but Mom says you have to improvise sometimes too, like with the cookies.”

“I learned the cookie recipe thoroughly first,” Vera said. “And you will not be improvising your way past learning fractions, Twy. I can help you with them when we get the dishes done.”

“Or I can,” James said. “But then, I’m certified competent to do dishes as well. Who’s your math teacher, Twy?”

“Mrs. Corner. She’s old.”

“I think my niece has her for a few subjects too. My nieces.”

“Who are your nieces?”

“Grace Stark and Merle Knightley. They’re in second grade.”

“I know them,” Twyla said, pausing with a forkful of potatoes halfway to her mouth. “That’s so cool. Grace is really good at drawing horses, and Merle has horses.”

Vera shot him a “now you’ve done it” look as James put the rest of the mashed potatoes on his plate.

“I take it you like horses?” James plainly loved them, always had.

“I adore them, but I like all animals. Mom says we might get a cat, because the mice like our house a lot when it gets cold. She says when the cornfields come down, the mice think moving to the house is like going to Florida for the sunshine. What’s for dessert, Mom?”

“Fractions, and maybe a brownie.”

“Mom makes the best brownies. We have them with ice cream sometimes, but mostly I like them plain. I do not like fractions.”

“Fractions aren’t so bad,” James said between bites of very good potatoes, if he did say so himself. “You just have to show ’em who’s boss.”

“How will you do that when she brought only her worksheet home and not her math book?” Vera asked, repositioning the napkin-peacock in the middle of the table.

“Fractions and I go way back,” James said, swiping a neglected crust of bun from Vera’s plate. “Show me a work sheet, and I go to town.”

“Like you and axle grease?”

“Not quite that close a bond, but almost. You have a little piece of green bean…” He extended his pinkie finger to brush the offending morsel off Vera’s lip, but she flinched back.

Well, damn it to hell.

She used her napkin.

“You got it,” he said, determined not to make her feel self-conscious—her, too. “You want my green bean recipe too?”

“We do,” Twyla said. “You probably want our brownie recipe.”

“Then we’ll trade, but let’s not make your mom do the dishes.”

“We can all clean up,” Vera said, “and that way, Twy will get to her fractions that much sooner.”

“Can’t wait to get to those fractions,” James said over Twyla’s theatrical groan. They made short work of the dishes, though without the extra forks and table linen and all the trimmings, the job might have been done much sooner.

But then, James was bachelor, and a cold hamburger occasionally sounded like breakfast to him—lately.

“Come on, sport,” he said, running a hand over Twyla’s dark hair. “Let’s wrassle some fractions.”

She looked pleased at the prospect, which was inordinately flattering. James didn’t exactly have trouble inspiring females to spend time with him, but the lure had never been fractions.

“I get the part about inverting and multiplying,” Twyla said. “That’s easy. It’s finding a common denominator so you can add them that takes forever.”

James sat beside the child in the big warm kitchen, and walked her through the business of finding common denominators and reducing to a lowest common denominator. She caught on fairly quickly, though her attack was marked by impulsivity rather than a methodical approach.

“This is a slow and steady wins the race kind of thing,” he said to her. “Your teacher doesn’t want to just see you know the steps, she wants you to get the math right too.”

“It’s boring, but at least it’s done. Thank you, Mr. Knightley.”

“I think, seeing as we’ve conquered fractions together, you might call me James. With your mother’s permission?”

Vera had been wiping counters for the past ten minutes—they were the cleanest counters in the county by now.

“He who spares the mom the Battle of the Fractions can choose his own moniker. Who wants a brownie?”

They were good brownies, damned good, in fact, but James limited himself to one the same size as Twyla’s. “I do want the recipe.”

“I’ll write it down,” Twyla said.

“You need to pick out your clothes for tomorrow, pack your lunch, and get into your jammies,” Vera countered. “Then we can have some princess time. Say good night to Mr. Knightley.”

Twyla’s lower lip firmed as if she were preparing to stage a post-fractions rebellion, so James stuck out his hand.

“Pleased to have made your acquaintance, Miss Twyla. I never in my whole, entire, long, and illustrious-nearly-to-the-point-of-being-famous life met another Twyla, and I will never forget you.”

She grinned at him, mutiny forgotten. “Never?”

“Never one time,” he said, “and I would not lie to a lady.”

She shook his hand and scampered up the stairs, yelling good nights over her shoulder.

“A good kid, Vera. I hope you’re proud of her.”

“Very, but I’m also anxious. I’ll blink, and she’ll be a teenager.”

This prospect appeared to daunt Vera, while Donal the Slasher had merely pissed her off. Had her priorities straight, did Vera Waltham.

“Nobody likes teenagers,” James said, indulging a need to speak up for his younger self, “but I think they’re wonderful. They can mow grass, do laundry, keep an eye on the little ones, make dinner, run the vacuum cleaner, and work on engines. I can’t wait until my nieces are teenagers.”

“When they are, their parents will gladly hand them off to their favorite uncle James. Thank you for showing Twy the math, though. She and I do not operate on the same wavelength when it comes to schoolwork.”

“Parents and their offspring never do,” James said, considering a second brownie now that the kitchen was adults only. “If it weren’t for my brothers, I’d probably have flunked out of high school.”

No probably about it.

Vera worked the controls on some high-tech coffeemaker thing, her movements as efficient as a short-order cook’s.

“You’re a lawyer and an accountant. How could school have been hard for you?”

“I was a boy, that’s how.” A boy whose brothers had simply expected him to make good grades. They’d made good grades—how hard could it be?

“Time I was heading out,” James said, though he’d watched a few princess movies in the line of uncle duty. “You should get your tire repaired, or at least buy a functional spare. I can take care of that if you like, but for now, the damaged tire is sitting in the truck bed.”

“Thank you, James. I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

He’d known she’d refuse his help, but had felt compelled to offer anyway. “You’ll tell Trent about the messages Donal is leaving?”

“I don’t see what Trent can do,” she said, crossing her arms and leaning back against the counter. The coffeemaker gurgled and steamed behind her as a beguiling caramel aroma filled the kitchen.

“Trent can put the state’s attorney on notice, he can send a threatening letter to Donal’s lawyer, he can rattle swords like nobody’s business, and create a paper trail that will incriminate the daylights out of Donal when you do catch him violating the order. You should tell Trent.”

“If I don’t, you will?”

She remained braced against the counter, arms crossed, her expression carefully neutral. From upstairs, Twyla started bellowing the lyrics to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Vera turned to the coffeemaker, but James would have bet his best set of jumper cables she was smothering a smile.

“Wanting to keep a woman safe doesn’t make a man a bully, Vera Waltham. If you can’t see your way to calling Trent for yourself, do it for Twyla.”

She nodded, though James knew it was no guarantee she’d call Trent; but then, he hadn’t promised to keep his mouth shut either. He was about to yell a final good night up the stairs to Elton John’s latest competition when Vera half turned, her gaze straying to the window and to the darkness beyond.

And instead of “good night, thanks for a wonderful meal,” what came out of his mouth?

“I live two miles away.” He scrawled his house phone number on a notepad beside the phone. “That’s my number. We’re neighbors, Vera, and you owe me a brownie recipe, while I owe you a battery for your Ford.”

“You don’t owe me anything, and even a CPA lawyer needs his beauty sleep. Good night, James, and thanks for wrangling those fractions.”

Good night, James? Wrangling fractions? No, James did not want to become entangled with this lady, but neither would he accept a brush-off. A guy had standards to uphold. He’d made his signature mashed potatoes for her, after all, and tamed the dreaded, fire-breathing least common denominator.

“If you asked me to stay,” he said, as upstairs, Simba and Nala caterwauled their way toward a litter of lion cubs, “I would. You and Twyla are isolated here. It’s pitch dark out, there’s no moon tonight, and that fool man means to upset you.”

She tore off the page that had James’s phone number on it—a phone number he’d stopped giving out months ago.

“Of course, Donal’s out to rattle me. You think I don’t know that, James?”

“I think you don’t know what to do about it,” he said gently.

Vera affixed James’s phone number to the fridge with a rooster magnet. “I’ll call your brother tomorrow.”

Her promise relieved James more than it should have. “I’m your neighbor. Around here, that still means something. You can call me too.”

Except she wouldn’t, which was probably all that allowed him to make the offer.

Vera put the kettle on as James Knightley’s SUV rumbled off into the night—the coffee would have been for him, had he stayed. Olga had disparaging things to say about caffeine in anything more than moderation—Olga had disparaging things to say about much of life—so Vera got out the chamomile tea.

The phone rang as Vera turned the coffeemaker off.

Her first reaction was to stick her tongue out at the machine, but the caller ID assured her Donal wasn’t making a further nuisance of himself.

“Hello, Olga. I was just thinking of you.”

“You think of me,” came the accented reply—tink uff me, “but you do not call. You are a bad girl, my Vera, making a lonely old woman wait by the phone for you to call.”

A shameless old woman, also ferocious and endlessly dear. “I’m sorry. Twyla has just now finished her homework, and I did mean to call you.”

Soon, not tonight.

“Homework, bah. You should find a man to flirt with you and take you dancing.” The way Olga said “dancing” suggested even a 94-year-old veteran of four marriages might relish an occasional flirtation.

“We had company for dinner tonight. My lawyer’s brother brought me some paperwork and then joined us for hamburgers.”

A considering silence from the other end. Vera could picture the older woman having a sip of chocolate from a translucent porcelain service that probably cost as much as Vera’s useless security system.

“He’s nice,” Vera added, because Olga would not pry, but she’d wield a silence more effectively than some conductors wielded their batons.

“The nice ones are often overlooked,” Olga said. “What did the child think of him?”

Insightful question, which from Olga was to be expected. Olga Strausser was a living legend among classical musicians. As a girl, she’d been introduced to Rachmaninoff, whom she’d referred to forever after as, “that poor, dear man.” She’d taken tea with Serkin, and given a private four-hands impromptu recital with Rubinstein that was still talked about.

She’d traded licks with Eubie Blake, and known Brubeck as a young man, “before he could read music, much.”

Vera had been sixteen when she’d snagged a slot in one of Olga’s rare master classes, and so nervous she’d barely been able to eat for a week prior. Once the class had begun, Olga had become a fairy godmother to the music, the auditors had fallen away, the nerves had fallen away, and Vera had learned as she’d never learned before.

How to be present to nothing but the music.

How to listen and play.

How to make judgment calls as a piece unfolded, crafting the music as it wanted to be performed on that instrument, in that hall, on that day by the person Vera was on that occasion.

Olga had continued as a benign presence in Vera’s musical development, gently steering her toward her first international competitions, when the professors at the conservatory had suggested she wait another year, or two, or three.

“They are old men,” Olga had said. “They think if you don’t win, they lose. We know better. We know you are ready, and you can still gain experience worth gaining if you come in last. But you play what I tell you, the way I tell you, not what those old men have been teaching for the past fifty years.”

Vera had won, and won again.

Olga had steered Vera into Alexander’s hands as a manager.

“He’s a good man. Look how patient he is with the wife, and her such a child. He will pace your career, so you can still perform at one hundred, like me.”

About Donal MacKay, Olga had been mostly silent, but her distaste for Vera’s agent had come through.

“That Scot. To him, all is pennies and nickels and bright, shiny dimes. When did coin ever soothe the soul?”

Hot chocolate and cookies soothed the soul, and watching James tutor Twyla through the intricacies of third-grade math had also gratified some need Vera couldn’t describe to herself, much less to her friend.

“Twyla got on well with James,” Vera said, recovering the thread of the conversation. “He’s patient, he has a good sense of humor, and he’s bright.”

Brilliant, probably—a CPA and an attorney, for pity’s sake. Why hadn’t some equally brilliant lady lawyer snatched him up?

“Children know whom they can trust,” Olga observed. “When will you bring my Twyla to visit?”

“Not this week,” Vera said, pouring the boiling water into her mug. “We’re supposed to get snow by the weekend.” Thank heavens, because Olga would expect Vera to play for her, and that she could not do—yet.

“You have that great, noisy beast of a truck,” Olga scoffed. “In Russia, we had mountains of snow, and managed it with mere horses and a nip of vodka. You must not be afraid, Vera. You can no longer play like a young girl, and that’s good. The music will sort itself out.”

Vera took a sip of tea and scalded her tongue.

“I’m practicing.” Practicing hour after hour, with a single-minded concentration she’d not had as a younger musician.

“Better that you invite that young man over for more than hamburgers. Play him the Chopin. If he can listen to Chopin, that will tell you much.”

“You have a naughty mind, Olga. Twyla is summoning me to Pride Rock.”

“Pride, something you could use more of. Sweet dreams, my Vera, and come see me.”

Click.

Olga was a force of nature, but a mostly a kind one. She’d made her points—stop hiding, book more concerts, dip a toe in the waters of flirtation and frolic—then retreated with a verbal hug and encouraging wink.

The idea of playing Chopin for James had an intriguing appeal. He’d looked sexy, patiently explaining one simple concept after another to the child, until an entire process had been made clear.

His patience, his generosity, his kindness to somebody else’s little girl, they’d been sexy.

Not his smile, his broad shoulders, or his big, competent hands—those had been a little unnerving.

But his kindness; that had been sexy. Vera added a dash of honey to her tea and ventured another sip, the temperature now perfect for a chilly night.

She hadn’t found anybody or anything sexy in years, but James Knightley in her kitchen with a pencil behind his ear…

Interesting.

“How’s my niece?”

“She’s asleep,” Trent said into the phone. James had known Trent left the office to heed a summons from the school nurse so Trent should have expected this call. “We hit the urgent care on the way home from school, and she’s on antibiotics. Grace brought home all Merle’s homework, and life is good.”

Trent had just finished giving the same report to Mac. Hannah’s parents would probably call next.

“Grace holding up OK?” James asked.

“She had a similar bug a couple of weeks ago, so I expect she’s safe for now. You got that order to Vera Waltham?”

“I did,” James said, his reply holding a touch of evasion only a brother would have sensed.

“But?”

A pause, and Trent could hear James rearranging word choices, polishing the facts to a higher shine—preparing his proffer for the court.

“I ended up staying for dinner.”

“It’s a nice old house.” Owned by a lovely, and possibly lonely, woman. James liked old houses. He liked women between the ages of five minutes and ninety-five years too. “I suppose you met the daughter?”

“Twyla. A neat kid, and she knows Grace and Merle. She’d be a good candidate for a playdate.”

“Three little girls in my house? If anything happens to me or Hannah, you and Mac are named co-guardians in our will, by the way. Be mindful of what you sew, little brother.”

Trent had meant the words in jest, but they reaped a small silence.

“You really mean that? We get the girls if anything happens to you?”

“Who else would we entrust them to? Hannah’s folks are not young, and she has no siblings.”

“I just… I mean… Thanks.”

A double load of responsibility and expense, and James said thanks.

“You’re welcome. I’ll tell Merle you did a wellness check.”

“Ah, Trent?”

“Hm?”

“Vera Waltham is having trouble with her ex.”

Wasn’t that what exes were for? “She told you this? In my experience, she’s jealous of her privacy.”

“She apparently let you into her kitchen.”

“But only into her kitchen,” Trent said. “Unlike you, the sight of me doesn’t make most women’s clothes fall off, with the happy exception of my wife. What sort of trouble is Vera having?”

“He’s leaving her threatening messages, but is clever enough to disguise his voice and make the threats vague. Somebody slashed the tire of her truck while it sat in a locked garage, and she suspects him.”

Why was Veracity Waltham confiding these things in James rather than telling them to the attorney who’d spent a long, hard year battling on her behalf?

“I can’t do anything about it until she tells me to, James.”

“She said she’d call you tomorrow, but if she doesn’t call you, I might nose around, see what I can find.”

Like most younger siblings, James was a first-class noser-arounder, second only to the private investigators the firm kept on retainer.

“You’re not her lawyer,” Trent said, not sure if he was being protective of Vera or of James. The guy had a soft spot for damsels in distress, and all the swashbuckling and mighty swordsmanship in the world didn’t disguise that from his own brother.

“I’m not her lawyer, which means I can discreetly discuss her business with my brother, and I can drive past her place on my way to and from work, and I can get a damned battery for her 1964 Ford Falcon.”

“Her what?”

“Never mind. Tell Merle to get well soon, and give Hannah my love.”

James hung up before Trent could ask what he’d thought of that lovely old house—or if, in his raptures over an antique car, he’d even noticed the house.

 

Chapter Two

The third Saturday of every month was James’s one inviolable standing date. He ran riot the rest of the month, or had until recently, sometimes doing drinks with one woman, dinner with another, and—when he was particularly restless—the final round of the evening with yet another. The third Saturday of the month he was up early, in his jeans, and headed out by 8:00 a.m. without fail.

“Hi, Uncle James!” Merle clambered off the hay bale she’d been using for a grooming stool. “I told Grace you’re never late, didn’t I, Grace?”

“You did. Hello, Merle’s uncle.”

They were two dark-haired little peas in a pod, stepsisters by virtue of Grace’s mom having married Merle’s dad, and friends by virtue of divine providence.

James swung Grace off her hay bale and perched her on his hip. “None of that. I’m your uncle James now too.” He did not glance at Merle, because he’d already had this talk with her, and she’d given her blessing.

“You’re not related to me.”

“Your mom married my brother,” James said, poking her gently in the tummy. “That means I get uncle privileges where you’re concerned. Mac does too.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ask your mom if you don’t believe me, but I’m right, aren’t I, Merle?”

“Yes, Uncle James. Grace is my sister now too.”

“Stepsister,” Grace said, gaze on the barn’s dirt floor.

“Details.” James set Grace on her feet and kept her hand in his. “Step, schmep. Are these your stephorses now?”

“Merle’s…Dad explained we’re a family, and the horses belong to the family. But Pasha is Merle’s personal horse.”

So careful, like her mother. Grace and Hannah both liked order and predictability, and given what they’d known prior to joining the Knightley family, James didn’t blame them.

“Well, I’m special,” James said, “I get more than one personal niece. We’re going out for breakfast as soon as I tell your parents you’ve been kidnapped.”

Merle caught his other hand, and he let them drag him into the house.

“Anybody home?” he bellowed.

“James, welcome.” His newly acquired sister-in-law came out of the kitchen, wearing sweats, a dish towel over her shoulder, and a T-shirt that said “Lawyers do it in their briefs.”

Also a smile.

“Greetings, Hannah.” He kissed her cheek, enjoying the flowery, female scent of her. “Prepare to repel boarders. I’ve come to kidnap these beautiful damsels, but first you have to assure Grace I’m a properly certified uncle with all the privileges and immunities attendant thereto.”

“He’s talking like a lawyer,” Merle said to Grace. “He does it to be silly.”

“My secret is revealed. We must ask Merle why it is her uncle Mac talks like a lawyer, because he’s never silly.”

“Is too,” Trent said, emerging from the hallway to his study. “Mac’s silliness is subtle and coincides with full moons. You have to watch for it. Good morning, Brother. Have you come to steal our treasures?”

“At least until this afternoon. Come along, treasures.”

James bundled the girls into the backseat of his SUV and headed out to the county’s only mall. The weather was too brisk to spend much time outside, particularly with Merle getting over a cold, and James needed to make a stop at a certain car parts store.

The girls were full of energy, and ran James ragged from one store to another when they’d finished a course of Belgian waffles with all the trimmings. Grace found a stuffed unicorn, a silly, fluffy little thing with a pink horn, and insisted James buy it for himself.

“Everybody needs one. It can be your personal unicorn too, Uncle James.”

“You have to give her a name,” Merle said.

What came out of James’s mouth would matter to his nieces, and they mattered very much to him. What should he call the first stuffed animal he’d acquired in nearly thirty years?

“Justice?” he suggested. “No. She’d have to be blind then, and these big blue eyes don’t look blind to me. I don’t know. I’ll have to think on it.”

“Take your time,” Grace said. “My first bear was named Aloysius, but I couldn’t say that when I was little. I called him All The Wishes, and then he said he wanted his name to be Wishes, and that’s what it is.”

“Pasha is really AM Appomattox,” Merle chimed in. “We call him Pasha for short.”

“I’m really Lucy Grace,” Grace added…and the girls were off into a conversation regarding names of classmates, stuffed animals, Disney characters, and entire universes that uncles—even doting uncles—were excluded from.

James suffered a pang, to know he’d been nudged down a hair in Merle’s pantheon of grown-ups. With Grace as a friend and sister—nothing “step” about her—Merle didn’t need James’s avuncular companionship quite so much.

The word for that realization was lowering. Maybe Mac would admit to the same observation, that Merle was growing up, but Mac would never in a million years admit to feeling nonplussed about it.

“We having ice cream cones for lunch?” James asked.

“Mom says you have to take us to the park for ten minutes if we get ice cream for lunch,” Merle said.

Mom would be her stepmother, Hannah, but Merle had been without a maternal figure for so long, she didn’t dither over what to call the woman her father had recently married.

“Then it’s ice cream cones and a walk to the park, but only for ten minutes, Merle Knightley. It’s cold out, and I’m a tired, skinny old uncle who might blow away on the first stiff breeze.”

“You’re not skinny,” Grace said. “You’re just right.”

Ten minutes at the park turned into twenty, of course, but James called a halt to the festivities before anybody was truly cold. The girls kept moving the whole time, and James was dragooned into underdoggies at the swings, and twirling the merry-go-round, so even he stayed comfortable.

“I’m going to ride beside Uncle James,” Merle said, tearing off for the car. By rights, Grace should have followed, arguing at the top of her lungs, but James was learning that little girls often did not act the same as little boys.

“Uncle…James?” Grace kicked the dirt, then stared off in the direction of the SUV. “You’re a lawyer, right?”

“I am.”

“Can you do things at court like Merle’s…like my dad?”

“I can. I do different things from Trent because my clients are businesses usually, not individual people, but I use the same courthouse, the same judges.”

“I think I need a lawyer.”

Her expression was resolute, and she was one smart little girl. “Do you have any money in your fanny pack, Grace?”

“Sure.”

“Give me a dime. If I’m going to be your lawyer, you have to pay me, and then all your business with me stays private.”

He didn’t know what prompted him to insist on this ritual, but it seemed to make sense to Grace.

“My mom says there’s a word for it.”

“Attorney-client privilege,” James said, taking a dime from Grace’s small hand. “Now before your sister is here listening to our every confidential word, tell me what’s on your mind.”

James led her to a bench, and while Merle waited patiently in the front seat of James’s SUV, James listened to his client. When she’d finished a few minutes later, he agreed that she did indeed need a lawyer, and he’d be only too happy to take her case.

“I need a riding instructor,” Trent said. “In your vast social network, can you point me to any?”

James looked up from the subcontract he was reviewing—one without a merger clause or a conflict of laws clause, which always signaled weak draftsmanship.

“You know how to ride. Has marriage addled your wits?”

“The instructor isn’t for me.” Trent took a chair, as if subcontracts were never urgent matters. “It’s for Grace, and possibly Hannah.”

“Hannah doesn’t have a suitable mount,” James said, setting the document aside. “Pasha’s too old and too little to do lessons for Grace and Hannah both, as well as pack Merle around, Zeus is too damned big, and Bishop has a dirty spook.”

Though the gelding was a former steeplechaser, and nobody should hold the spook against him.

“He has an honest spook, not a dirty spook,” Trent said, picking up an old Rubik’s cube. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in doing some horse shopping?”

Instead of teaching some Washington, DC shyster-meister how to write a fair subcontract?

“Sure I would, but why me?”

Trent start flipping the cube around, lining up the greens first. “I ride,” he said, “but when it comes to horses, you know what you’re doing. I’d ask Mac, but no horse on earth would be good enough in his eyes for Hannah, much less for Grace.”

True enough. “So we’re looking for two horses?”

More flipping, which suggested James ought to retire the damned toy to a desk drawer.   “Maybe. Start with one for Grace.”

“You is doomed, Brother,” James said, taking the Rubik’s cube from Trent before he had it all organized. “That will bring you up to five, and five horses is a lot of horses when viewed from the business end of a muck fork. I’m telling you this for your own good. You have to feed them, worm them, look after their teeth, get the farrier after them regularly, buy the bedding, the tack, the fall inoculations, the spring inoculations, foot the vet bills when they do stupid horse things like run smack into trees… You’re smiling.”

“You sound like Mac.”

“Cripes, that’s low, Trent.” James tossed the Rubik’s cube into a drawer, and tucked the lousy subcontract back into its file. “I’m only trying to give you some perspective.”

James also considered giving his brother a hand with the herd—keeping a couple of the mighty steeds in his own back yard, for example—and discarded the notion.

Horses were beautiful and first-rate company, but way too much work.

Trent fished a pile of colorful paperclips out of the glass bowl on James’s desk and started stringing them into a chain.

“Riding will be a family pastime,” Trent said. “I’ve already resigned myself to that. We all need recreation, and the girls won’t outgrow the horse crazies until they’re at least teenagers.”

When they’d graduate to boys, as James could attest.

“Adelia Schofield is a good instructor. She’s fun but safety conscious, and she said hanging out with horses growing up added two years to her virginity.” She hadn’t been wearing a stitch when she’d shared this with James.

“The things women tell you.”

“Under the circumstances, it wasn’t that much of an admission,” James said, though God above, riding did great things for a woman’s thighs. “She has a point. Not too many young swains are afflicted with the horse crazies, at least compared to the number of girls who have it. I was the exception, but then, I realized early on that the odds at the horse barn favored a guy, provided he was straight.”

One of the paperclips broke, and James held out his hand for the resulting casualties.

“Is that why you took to riding so enthusiastically?”

“I like horses, I like women better.” James had loved the horses, loved the smell of the barn, loved the sense that in the saddle, none of the problems at home could catch him.

“You need a hobby though,” Trent said, rising. “You can’t work and chase women all the time, James.”

“Can too.” Maybe he’d get a dog, though.

“Except you’re not.” Trent scanned James’s office, which was neither as cushy as Mac’s nor as cozy as Trent’s. “You’re putting in brutal hours because you’re in such demand, but you’ve hardly kept up with your usual social whirl. I might worry, except I’ve concluded you’re making a strategic retreat.”

Dogs were a lot of trouble too, and they stank and rolled in dead groundhogs.

“A strategic retreat?”

“So the ladies will be that much more appreciative when you’re riding circuit again.”

“Quite honestly, if the ladies were much more appreciative, I’d be…”

“You’d be what?”

James would be dead. Worn out from sexual excesses and the accompanying disillusionment.

“I think there’s something wrong with most men,” James said, leaning back in his chair and feeling a twinge at the base of his spine. “All the ladies want is a little consideration, some affection, someone to take genuine pleasure in their company. Am I the only guy who understands that?”

“I have dated a few women,” Trent said, holding up the paperclips in a rainbow-colored loop and letting it coil into the bowl. “I am more inclined to think you underestimate yourself, James, than to conclude most men are too dumb to treat their womenfolk decently. You have Adelia’s phone number?”

“Hold on.” James popped open a directory on his computer. “Write this down.” He gave Trent the number. “If she can’t take you on, try Amory Bennington at this number.”

“Thanks.”

Trent left, while James sat frowning at his screen for long moments.

Trent hadn’t asked him to teach the ladies how to ride, though James had put himself through two years of college as a riding instructor. Maybe Trent did not want to impose, or Hannah was self-conscious at the thought of James teaching her to ride.

James scanned down the list of names on his screen, dozens of them, recalling the women he could, trying to remember those whose faces eluded him.

He was nearly thirty years old, and what he had to show for himself was a long list of lonely women and a pile of business documents that, quite frankly, bored him to tears.

Maybe Trent was right. Pets were a lot of bother, but maybe it was time for a hobby. A real hobby.

“Is James coming to dinner again?”

Vera should have seen that question coming, because Twy had been loudly hinting every night for a week.

“He might some day, but I haven’t invited him back. How was school?”

“We had a quiz in math, and I nailed it,” Twyla said, grinning, and executing one of her signature kitchen pirouettes. “I showed those fractions who was boss.”

“Mr. Knightley was helpful, wasn’t he?” Mr. Knightley had been a godsend.

“He said I could call him James,” Twyla replied, reaching blindly above her head for the cookie tin. “He’s tall enough to reach the cookies. I think you should invite him back.”

“I think you should wash your hands before you have your snack.”

“Are we having mashed potatoes again? They were de-licious.”

“They were good, but no, we’re having lasagna with salad and garlic toast.”

“Yum.” Twyla went to the sink and let the hot water run until steam rose. “I bet James knows how to make lasagna, though. You should ask him.”

At dinner, Vera endured more of the same. James this, Mr. Knightley that, until Vera wanted to scream.

She hadn’t called Trent Knightley, but she had made the requisite report to the sheriff’s office. They’d taken down her statement, the same as they always did, and told her they’d keep it on file.

The phone rang as Vera put away the dinner dishes, and on principle, she picked it up without glancing at the number.

“Hello, Waltham’s.”

“Hello, Vera. James Knightley here. I hope I didn’t interrupt dinner or fractions or vocabulary?”

Good God, he had a sexy voice, like a concert grand Bösendorfer she’d performed on in Berlin. Silky, resonant, and so very, very male.

“Dinner is over, the fractions are cowering in complete subjugation, and Twy has been singing the praises of your mashed potatoes for days.” While Vera had just about convinced herself she’d never hear from James Knightley again.

“A guy likes to know he’s made a good first impression, or his mom’s mashed-potato recipe has. I picked up a battery for your Ford.”

Who knew an antique Ford could be a guy-magnet? “The Falcon is Twy’s, technically. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yeah, I did. You might need back-up wheels if Donal decides to slash more than one tire next time.”

“Cheer me up, why don’t you, counselor?”

“It’s been nearly a week, Vera, and I suspect you haven’t called Trent, so when can I bring over this battery?”

James glossed over his accusation like so many grace notes, but Vera still heard the reproach.

Also a genuine offer to be helpful. “I’m free this Saturday, James. Twy likes to sleep in Saturdays, though, so let’s make it about eleven.”

“Saturday at eleven, then.”

He rang off before Vera could ask him what the battery had cost, or remind him to bring his mashed-potato recipe.

Twy would ask, after all.

“Who was that?” Twyla came down the kitchen steps on her backside, bumping down one step at a time.

“Doesn’t that hurt your back?”

“No. I heard the phone ring.”

“It was your friend, James. He’s bringing over a battery for the Faithful Falcon on Saturday.”

“Cool.” She was on her feet and scampering back up the stairs.

“Where are you going?”

“To look for some more recipes for him!”

That was why Vera should have shooed James off, or told him to return the battery. Twyla missed the influence of an adult male in her life and would get ideas about James, and about James and Vera. Vera should have told him to leave the battery with his brother Trent, whom she’d been meaning to call.

But calling Trent meant admitting Donal was not going away, not going to behave according to the court order, and Vera labored under the stupid, stubborn hope that if she just ignored Donal long enough, he’d sprout some of common sense the Scots were supposed to be famed for and leave her in peace.

Maybe she should get a dog—a big, noisy dog with lots of teeth.

“Mom?” Twyla called down the stairs. “For the turtle cookies, do you put the vanilla in before or after the melted chocolate?”

“After.”

“What time is James coming over?”

“Around eleven, but if you want to carry on a conversation, stop bellowing and come down here.”

Silence. Vera finished wiping off the counters, telling herself the whole time that accepting a man’s offer to put a battery in her car did not obligate her to anything more. She’d be pleasant to Trent Knightley’s brother on Saturday, wangle his mashed-potato recipe from him, and ply him with a few fresh, warm, sinfully good brownies.

Then send him on his merry, practical, sexy way.

Harper Nash was a scrumptious woman, on the tall side with big green eyes and masses of red hair that she tried to subdue into a French braid. Best of all, she was smart enough to listen to her lawyer, though James was having a hard time remaining focused on their conversation.

“You want a clause in the subcontract that gives you control over the lower-tier subcontractors your vendor gets in bed with,” James said, though he might have chosen his words more wisely.

“Why do I want my nose in their business?” Harper asked, tapping laquered red nails on James’s conference table. “I’m hiring them to do a job, I’ll inspect their work, and if it’s not to spec, I’ll withhold payment.”

“Damned right you will,” James said, though two years ago, when Harper had first inherited her dad’s business, she’d written checks simply because invoices came in. “You don’t want a subcontractor who’s just skimming a percentage. You want to hire a driller, say, because he has the equipment and know-how to take all the samples you need, on time and within budget. If you don’t keep control of the subcontract-consent language, then your subs can give a piece of your business to your direct competitors.”

She wrinkled her pretty nose. “Hardly in my best interests.”

“Hardly,” James agreed, tidying up the papers spread before him. “Then too, you don’t want just anybody on your work site, watching how you go about a project, talking your best people into jumping ship. You want to be the gatekeeper.”

While James wanted this appointment to be over.

“I don’t want my subcontractors colluding to jack the bid prices up,” Harper said. “Tell me again why I don’t sell this business?”

James fished an orange paperclip out of a small bowl only to find it was attached to about thirty others.

“Because then,” he said, twisting the orange clip free, “I wouldn’t get to see you from time to time, and my dreary life toiling among the fine print is made bearable if I have at least a few clients whose company I enjoy.”

Not quite a lie. James liked Harper. He liked homemade turtle cookies more.

Harper crossed long, shapely legs. “Do they teach you that kind of flattery in law school?”

“It’s not flattery,” James said, unhooking more paper clip. “It’s the God’s honest truth. My small-business clients do a much better job of considering my advice than the big boys do, and I can feel some pride when they prosper as a result.”

“You give advice I can understand,” Harper said, coming to her feet. “What are you doing for lunch, James? My stomach is reminding me that breakfast was hours and a spin class ago.”

“I have a few errands to run,” he said, rising as well. “I also want to finish marking up this draft subcontract for your contract administrator before close of business. The construction season will begin sooner than we think.”

“We live in that hope. Thanks again.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek, lingering near for a mere, telltale instant.

In that instant, James’s body heard the invitation in places low and friendly. Harper was quite, quite single, up to her ears in keeping the family business together, and likely as much in need of comfort and affection as any lady in her position. She trusted James, she liked him, and she found him attractive.

So why not?

She left his office, treating James to the lovely sight of her retreating backside. Harper knew how to dress, and she knew how to walk away from a man so he might harbor a few regrets.

Except James…didn’t. What he felt, watching her walk away, leaving him in peace for the afternoon, was an odd kind of relief. When he sat down at his computer, he opened his address book to the particular directory that held the most names.

He had a printout of the list somewhere in his hard-copy files, and it likely lurked in his email too, because emailing files to himself was a cheesy way to make a backup.

Why keep such a list? The women invariably called him, though the only number he gave out was the office number. They slipped him their numbers, and he dutifully catalogued each one, but he was the one they called when they were between boyfriends, at loose ends, trying to get back on the horse after a bad breakup, or just plain horny. If Damson County had an award for booty call of the year, James would have won the past three years at least, hands down.

Because when the ladies called, he answered.

He stared at the screen for a long time, then, in a few deft keystrokes, deleted the entire file.

“He’s here! He’s here!” Twyla went tearing to the front door, sliding at the corners on the hardwood floors. “James is here!” She threw open the front door and would probably have run right down the steps, except she was in stocking feet.

“Hullo, James! Is that my battery?”

“Hello, only-Twyla-I’ve-ever-met, and yes, this battery is for your Ford.”

Twyla hugged him around his middle, squeezing tight, while he stood holding the battery and smiling over the child’s head at Vera.

“If I’d known what bringing a battery did for my reception, I’d take one with me everywhere. Good morning, Vera. Sorry I’m a few minutes late, but I stopped at the hardware store.”

Even his version of sheepish qualified as low-grade sexy.

“You’re male,” Vera said. “If you were loose without supervision in a hardware store, we’re lucky to see you before sundown. Come on back to the kitchen. Twyla made you a fresh batch of brownies.”

As greetings went, that wasn’t exactly gracious, but the sight of her daughter being so openly affectionate with James unsettled Vera. Twyla had never hugged Donal like that. Had never hugged Donal at all. She barely tolerated the offhand affection Darren, Donal’s son, showed her.

“The best part about baking,” James was saying, “is the whole house smells good. They ought to make candles scented like brownies.”

“They do,” Twyla said. “Mom won’t let me have candles in my room, or I’d have one. Do you want ice cream with your brownie?”

“I want to get this battery into that car, and then we can talk about brownies. How’s that?”

Twyla looked a little nonplussed at this example of male single-mindedness when in Fix-It mode.

“I’ll need some help with the battery,” James added, “and if we cut the brownies too soon, we’ll get a mess. You think you can be my assistant?”

“Sure!” Twyla trailed after him through the kitchen and into the garage like a puppy with a new canine buddy at the dog park.

“You have the key to this old sweetheart, Vera?” James patted the hood of the Falcon, his hand smoothing over the metal as if it were warm and alive.

“Here,” she said, taking the keys off a pegboard near the door and tossing them at him. “I have some laundry to fold, but holler if you need anything.”

He caught the keys one-handed, then reached under the grill and popped the hood. “Twy will keep me out of trouble, won’t you, Twy? The first thing I’m going to ask you to do is get a stool from the kitchen, so you can see what we’re doing.”

What did it say about Vera that she resented James, simply for showing polite consideration to Twy, who’d had far too little to do with considerate men?

It said Vera was insecure and selfish, and not as healed from her divorce as she wished she were.

She folded the towels—did anything smell as good on a winter morning as clean laundry?—and had most of them put away when James and Twyla came back into the kitchen, James toting the borrowed stool.

“You looked pleased with yourselves,” Vera said. “Mission accomplished?”

“James showed me how to check the tire pressure and where the oil pan is and what a valve-stem cover is.”

His automotive genius-ship set the stool down near the sink, and Twyla climbed up on it to wash her hands, as she had as a much younger child.

How had he known to do that?

“Somebody takes care of that car,” James said as he lathered his hands. “The timing is close to perfect, but you should take it out for spin every so often.”

“We do,” Twyla said. “We go for road trips and take a picnic basket. It’s lots of fun.”

“Be a little breezy picnicking in this weather.” James appropriated a towel, dried his hands, and then draped the towel over Twyla’s shoulder, which had the girl positively beaming. “I heard a rumor some brownies in this kitchen might be looking for a good home.”

“Mom, can we get the brownies now?”

James was so easy with the child, so relaxed and charming. Vera wanted to order him from the house, though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

She also wanted him to show her what a valve-stem thingie was.

“Brownies for lunch, then,” Vera said, going to the refrigerator. “We’d best have ice cream if we’re to make a meal of it. Chocolate or vanilla?”

“Some of both,” James said. “I like variety in my pleasures.”

Vera wasn’t looking at him, so she couldn’t tell if he’d meant that as lasciviously as she’d heard it. “Twy, what about you?”

“Some of both,” she said, beaming at James.

The child was well and truly smitten, and by a guy whose greatest accomplishment so far was that he was a motorhead who could explain fractions, for the love of Saint Elizabeth.

“Whereas I will have neither,” Vera said, aiming a look at James, “because I like my pleasures simple and uncomplicated.”

He reached for the chocolate ice cream, dipped a spoon into the middle, and took a bite, sliding the spoon out of his mouth s-l-o-w-l-y.

“Vive la différence,” he said in a perfect French accent, lowering his lashes. “I guess I’ll need another spoon, lest I get my wrist slapped for double-dipping. Where are the spoons, Twy?”

She showed him which drawer, and he kept the used spoon for his own bowl, but served himself and Twyla with a clean spoon while Vera cut the warm brownies.

“I like brownies for lunch,” Twy declared, hopping up onto a stool. James took the stool from near the sink, and planted it right next to where Vera stood at the island.

“I wonder if brownies for breakfast would be as good,” he mused, settling onto the stool. “Might have to do a direct comparison, have brownies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” He took a bite, and again, Vera had the sense he’d made some almost-flirtatious remark.

Why did he have to smell so good? Not like a grease monkey, but like a jeans commercial made sniffable.

“Could we, Mom? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner?”

“We’ll ask James how his experiment goes instead,” she said, breaking off a corner of her brownie. “That will save on our dentist bills.”

“I hate the dentist,” Twy said, sculpting ice cream with her spoon. “We go during summer break, and it’s the worst thing about summer.”

“What’s the best thing?” James asked.

Point to James for diversionary skills.

“I had riding lessons last summer, and that was the best,” Twyla said. “We go swimming when Mom doesn’t have to work, and we go on picnics, and sometimes make a trip to see the ponies at Chincoteague and hike on the Appalachian Trail or the C & O towpath, and all over. What’s your favorite thing to do in the summer?”

James studied his empty spoon, holding it at mouth level.

“I like to do nothing. To put a book over my face and hang out in the hammock for an hour or two. I built my niece a tree house last summer, but my brothers had to help, which was sorta fun, and sorta not, because they’re my older brothers. I take the occasional walk in the same places you do, but I think I should get a dog to go walking with me. I also like to sit on the porch swing at night and listen to the crickets and cicadas, and enjoy some of my favorite music as it gets dark.”

Quite a speech for him, and his low, lovely voice brought, sleepy, sultry summer nights to mind as if conjured by magic. What would he listen to? Country? Blues?

What would it be like, to lie in that hammock with him and do “nothing”?

 

 

Chapter Three

Vera was rescued from further inappropriate musings—about hammocks, summer evenings, and James Knightley—by Twyla’s chatter.

“I want a dog too,” Twyla said. “We have lots of room for a dog, and I’d take real good care of it.”

“Dogs take a lot work, Twy,” Vera said. “They’re a commitment for life. Even a hamster costs money and requires constant care.”

“This would be a perfect property for a dog,” James said—the dolt. “I’m sure when the time comes, you’ll pick out the very best dog in the whole world for it, but right now, I need to get up and move around, or I’ll sit here and help myself to another brownie.”

“He can have seconds, can’t he, Mom?”

“I cannot have seconds,” James said, which spared Vera the next step in the argument: If James could have seconds, why couldn’t Twy? “I’ll become a fixture in this kitchen if I take another bite, like Winnie the Pooh when he ate too much honey. I noticed something about your garage door, though.”

“What did you notice?” Twy just had to take the bait.

“Your garage door locks down nice and tight, but the service door doesn’t have a dead bolt.”

“What’s a dead bolt?”

“Come here, I’ll show you.” He led Twyla to the kitchen door, and showed her how the mechanism on the dead-bolt lock worked. Twyla had used the lock herself many times—locking doors was a house rule—but now she was fascinated with it.

“When I was at the hardware store, I picked up a dead-bolt assembly, and I would be happy to install it on that garage door,” he said, and now he was watching Vera, no hint of teasing or flirtation in his blue eyes.

“I can’t believe that door has no dead bolt,” Vera said, abandoning her last bite of brownie. “I’m certain I ordered dead bolts installed on every outside door, but now that you bring it up, I can’t recall throwing the bolt on that door. Show me.”

She followed James and Twyla out to the garage, and sure enough, no additional lock had been installed on the service door.

“This solves a mystery, in any case,” she said. “A credit card ought to be sufficient to slip this open.”

“Not for long,” James said. “Let me get the hardware out of my car, and we’ll take care of this before I’ve digested my brownie.”

Vera wanted to tell him no, that he wasn’t allowed to get anything from his car, he wasn’t allowed to correct this troubling oversight, but she kept her mouth shut. She could install a damned lock, but not until she’d bought a power drill and some other tools and figured out how to use them.

Besides, she was too relieved at the realization that Donal hadn’t somehow managed to get his hands on a key.

“Twy, didn’t you have a recipe written down for James?”

“It’s up in my room. I’ll go get it, and maybe write down the one for raccoon droppings too.” She scampered off, leaving Vera alone in the garage with James Knightley.

“Raccoon droppings?”

“Chocolate peanut butter oatmeal no-bake cookies. Some people call them school-lunch cookies. Alexander said they looked like raccoon droppings.”

“I have seen raccoon spore,” James said, one corner of his mouth tipping up. “The man was mistaken.”

Well, of course James Knightley had seen raccoon droppings, and he could probably describe them in French too, while building palaces with his bare hands and arguing arcane law before the World Court at The Hague.

Men. “Weren’t you going to get some hardware from your car?”

The second corner of his mouth tipped up. “Be right back,” he said, going through the unlocked door.

Minutes later, he was drilling and squinting and muttering to himself, a man transported by the mysterious task of installing a lock, while Vera wrestled with an uneasy mix of gratitude and resentment.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Vera said, talking to his long, muscular back, “but I’d appreciate it if we didn’t see much of you after today.”

The power drill went silent. “Hand me that rag, would you?”

He didn’t turn, but instead inspected the doorknob, turning it this way and that, then turning the knob that controlled the dead bolt.

Vera passed him a rag. “I said we’re grateful, but I’m concerned Twyla will get attached to you, and that wouldn’t be good for her.”

Concerned Twy’s mother—who hadn’t noticed the lack of dead bolt on her own garage door—might be tempted to call on James for something other than handyman skills she ought to have acquired herself by now.

“I think that about does it.” James closed the door and shot the bolt, then packed up his tools in a metal box Vera could probably not have lifted to save herself. When he straightened, he seemed taller to Vera, more imposing.

“Now what are you going on about, chasing me off the property like I’m some stray dog you don’t want getting into your garbage?”

“It isn’t that,” Vera said, for stray dogs never made a pair of worn jeans look half so good. “It’s that Twyla lost her father, then she lost her stepfather, and I’m protective of her. She’ll get ideas about you.”

He set the toolbox down with a solid thunk, all the tools rattling about the way Vera’s insides rattled when she had to manage a confrontation with anything other than classical repertoire.

“Twyla is about as well adjusted as a kid can be, Vera, and that is thanks to you. I could tell you we’re neighbors, and you’d be within your rights to occasionally ask me over to see to something like a lock, or a squeaky hinge, or a dead battery. I’d gladly accept some homemade cookies in return, but you wouldn’t believe I could be that kind of neighbor.”

Was that how it was supposed to work? “You live two miles away.”

“By the road. As the crow flies, one farm and some woods are all that separate us. That makes us neighbors out here in the country. The problem isn’t Twyla. The problem is you, and whatever that damned Donal or sainted Alexander did to annihilate your confidence.”

“He didn’t annihilate my confidence,” Vera said, except he had, and that wasn’t the worst of it. “Maybe the problem is you, James, and the fact that I’m not interested in being neighbors, as you put it.”

Unfair. Vera knew the words were unfair. She used to be a fair woman who could control her own mouth, one who didn’t feel like crying for no reason at the worst possible times.

James stared at the newly installed dead bolt, then hefted the toolbox. “Please ask Twyla to get me those recipes, because her feelings will be hurt if I don’t take them with me. But, Vera…”

The expression he turned on her was somber to the point of sadness, as solemn as the key of B-flat minor.

“You’re snakebit and gun-shy. I understand that because maybe I am a little too, but I am not who and what you need to be afraid of. I’ll go—I’ve worn out my welcome, clearly—but I want a promise from you. Two promises.”

She nodded, because he was leaving. He’d said he was going, and that was what she wanted. Sort of.

“First, call my brother. He’s a damned fine family-law attorney, and if anybody can spike Donal’s guns, it’s Trent.”

“I will call him. I’ve been meaning to, but I’ve been busy.”

“Stop thinking you have to take on an idiot like Donal by yourself. Trent can make him go away, and stay away, and you deserve at least that.”

“What was the second promise?”

“Second, keep my number, and show Twyla where it is. You’re isolated here. If you’re concerned about Donal coming on the property in broad daylight, you really ought to get the place posted, and put a damned gate across the foot of your driveway. Failing that, keep my number.”

Was it controlling behavior to ask woman to keep a phone number? To steer her back to the attorney who’d done such a good job for her in the past?

No. It was not. Not by any sane lights.

“I tossed your number out. I didn’t mean to. I was tidying up. I don’t have your number.”

Even his smile was solemn. “I’ll give it to you again,” he said, taking out a pen and a scrap of paper, “and again, and as many times as it takes. The whole world is not your enemy, Vera.”

“I know,” she said, but when the man she’d married turned into an enemy, the man she’d entrusted her entire career to, she’d stopped relying on her ability to gauge who was a friend and who wasn’t.

James waited in the garage for Vera to fetch Twyla and the recipe card. He made a fuss about how to halve the recipe—“How ’bout that? Fractions everywhere!”—before stuffing it into his jacket pocket.

“When you’re in school on Monday, riding drag on those fractions,” he said to Twyla, “you take a minute to spot Merle and Grace on the playground, and tell them you helped me install a battery and a lock. They’ll be no end of impressed that you have your own car already. Might even want to come over and see it, assuming your mom’s willing for you to have some company of your own.”

As closing arguments went, James’s suggestion was dead-on, because nothing would do but he had to write down a phone number for his nieces, and suffer another hug from Twyla before he left.

Vera walked him to his car, wishing this morning, like many parts of her life, had come equipped with a do-over button.

James scanned the wintry landscape of her property, set the toolbox in the back of his vehicle, then leaned in close, close enough that Vera could catch a whiff of expensive, spicy aftershave.

“You know,” he said, speaking almost into her ear, “if you were any other female who’d treated me to a brownie and some company on a Saturday morning, I’d be kissing your cheek when we parted, maybe sneaking in a friendly, innocuous hug. It wouldn’t mean much, just a gesture of casual affection, but you might have enjoyed it. I know I would have.”

He drew back, his expression still very much in B-flat minor.

“Thank you for installing the lock, James, and the battery, and for being so nice to Twyla.” And to me, which was the real problem.

“Call Trent, Vera. Please.”

Because she was an idiot, a cold, lonely idiot who felt a lot safer thanks to the man she was about to run off, Vera balanced with a hand to James’s shoulder and planted a swift kiss on his cheek.

Before she could thank him again, or apologize, or make some other kind of fool of herself, he was gone.

His SUV had disappeared down the lane and into the trees, and Vera was still standing in the chilly breeze, her fingers tracing the cold curve of her unkissed cheek.

Why, why in the name of all that was sensible, sweet, and lovely, did the first kiss she’d given a man in years have to be a kiss of parting?

“I do believe this is a historic moment.” Mac plopped his briefcase down on the conference table and settled into a chair catty-corner from James. “You are in the courthouse archives, doing research, and no delectable clerks are fluttering about, stepping and fetching. You have no patience for research.”

James had no patience for fluttering.

“I don’t dislike research,” he said, though he disliked the file in front of him very much. “I’d lose my edge as a litigator if I didn’t occasionally read an appellate opinion, but this isn’t quite research.”

He tossed a glossy color photo across the table, then another.

“Well, shit.” Mac didn’t pick them up, but he studied them where they lay in all their appalling and dubious glory. “Somebody done somebody wrong.”

“Vera Waltham’s second husband,” James said. “She’s lucky she didn’t lose an eye or suffer permanent scarring. He didn’t land a lot of blows, but the one she took counted.”

“She’s one of Trent’s clients? The cookie lady, right?”

“Was one of Trent’s clients.” She still baked a mean batch of cookies. “The decree is final, and a restraining order is in place.”

“I expect this kind of evidence when I’m defending an assault and battery, or assault with intent to maim, but in a domestic…” Mac passed the photo back, handling it by one corner, as if it were contaminated with some nasty virus. “I cannot imagine this happening between people who promised to love, honor, and cherish each other, but it does. All the damned time.”

“A woman is abused in this country every fifteen seconds, according to this morning’s reading. I don’t know how Trent stands it.” And if the mother were abused, what chance did the children stand?

Mac sat back, as if seeking distance from the evidence James had been studying.

“Trent fights the good fight, and I imagine it helps for him to think of all those battered wives as somebody’s little girl, somebody’s Grace or Merle. It gives him an edge, a determination.”

“Never thought of it like that.” James stuffed the photos out of sight, back in the court file.

“You might have asked Trent about this. Did she press charges?”

“She didn’t. She damned well should have, but she didn’t. I haven’t checked with District Court, but I’m guessing she would have invoked spousal privilege to avoid testifying against her husband. The divorce hadn’t been filed when this happened, and the restraining order was by consent.”

“Hard call to make,” Mac said, his gaze straying to the court file. “Most guys don’t get more reasonable when you put them behind bars, but this wasn’t a wild punch after a long night at the bar. This was purposeful.”

Like harassing Vera by phone had to be purposeful. “Her ex has kids. My guess is that carried weight with Vera.” Two kids in the hellacious throes of adolescence.

Poor Vera, poor Twyla, and as for those teenagers… They needed horses, or dogs, and different parents.

Mac wrinkled his nose. “So Vera dumped the guy and left those kids to deal with him alone?”

James tipped back in his chair, feeling a headache start up at the base of his skull. “Vera had to choose between his kids and her kid, and she did what any sensible mom would do. She took her kid and got to high ground, but stays in touch with her stepchildren as best she can.”

“Hard to do with a restraining order in place.” Hard to do legally, was what Mac meant. “What prompted you to dig into this particular file?”

“I’m not used to being given the bum’s rush,” James said, closing the file. “This makes it easier to understand.”

But not easier to accept.

“Vera Waltham turned down a chance to tango with Lance Romance himself?”

“You’re just jealous.” The ribbing was inevitable, and yet it grated. “When’s the last time you enjoyed the intimate company of a willing woman, Mac?”

“That’s a state secret. You truly never get turned down?”

“I don’t do the asking. Less chance of rejection that way.” Though right now, James did, indeed, feel rejected. He’d taken three days, a gallon of whole milk, and two batches of brownies to figure out even that much.

“You must have asked something,” Mac said, “because she gave you the bum’s rush. A lady doesn’t turf a guy out for standing around looking adorable.”

James felt about as adorable as a hungover porcupine. “Maybe she does, if she’s so tired, disillusioned, and rattled she can’t notice how adorable he is.”

“Vera, a pleasure to see you again.”

Trent Knightley got to his feet when a lady entered the room, but he didn’t offer his hand. He was old-fashioned enough to wait until the woman made the overture first.

Which Vera did—she liked her lawyer, and had found his courtliness a much needed comfort when her second marriage had been in shambles. Then, too, to go with his fine manners, Trent Knightley had the litigating instincts of a buzz saw, and those had appealed to her just as strongly.

“Good to see you too,” Vera said, “and these are a wedding present.” She passed him a tin of turtle cookies, which he set aside to help her off with her coat.

“Partner cookies,” he said, waggling dark eyebrows. “Not for distribution to the lowly associates, if I don’t want my brothers giving me grief for the next three weeks. Have a seat.”

He directed her to a conversational grouping and took the chair beside her. She appreciated that about him too—he didn’t take the trappings of his profession to heart, didn’t use the big, pretentious desk to put distance between them, didn’t ask his paralegal to sit in and take notes for him.

“What’s up, lady? And don’t try to pretty it up. James warned me you might make an appointment, but he didn’t give me any details.”

“May I congratulate you on your recent nuptials?” Because simply being here, in this office, made Vera’s chest feel tight and her palms itch.

“You may,” Trent said, his smile bashful. That smile—not one Vera had seen on him before—completely undermined his GQ legal-eagle look, and made him more closely resemble James. “Not only did I marry the woman of my dreams, but she’s provided Merle with the sister of her dreams.”

“Blended families can be a challenge, but you sound very happy.” Why didn’t they call them chopped, pureed, or frapped families? Blended sounded calm and smooth, though Vera’s experience with Donal and his children had been anything but.

“I didn’t know it was possible to be this happy,” Trent said, “but it seems in poor taste to toot my marital bliss horn when your situation is so…different.”

Weasel words—of course, he’d excel at weasel words. “I was happy too, Trent, once upon a time, and I’m not unhappy.”

“How’s Twyla?” He would remember. He was a dad too, not only a lawyer.

“Thriving, complaining that school is boring, angling for a dog.”

“A dog might be a good idea.”

No. It would not. Donal, of all people, liked dogs. “Why do you say that?”

“You’re not exactly in a crowded subdivision, Vera, and dogs deter intruders.”

The small talk was abruptly over—how had Trent done that?—and it was time for Vera to once again entrust her private business to a man she paid to care about it. At least he did care—not all lawyers would.

“I suspect Donal of breaking the restraining order.”

“In what regard?”

She laid it out for Trent, and he took notes, asked questions, and when she plugged in her answering machine and played the last five messages for him, he listened.

“You’re sure that’s Donal’s voice?”

“I’d bet my vintage Steinway on it, but not Twyla.”

“Something about it sounds different from Donal, though. What kind of home security do you have?”

“Very stout locks on every door.” Now Vera had stout locks on every door. “I thought I had a decent electronic system too, but I deactivate it during the day if I’m home. You’re not rattling off motions and petitions and other lawyer-speak, Trent. Why not?”

“Because we need proof.”

He set his yellow notepad aside, though Vera had heard the word “we.” We meant she wasn’t crazy—and it meant more legal fees.

“Donal doesn’t fit the profile of a serial abuser,” Trent said. “You had one incident of domestic violence, Vera, right at the time of separation, when it’s most likely to occur to any couple.”

God spare me from attorneys playing devil’s advocate.

“But Donal wouldn’t turn my money loose,” she said. “He wouldn’t let me take anything from the house except my piano, my computer, and our clothes. He damned near got me sued, because he booked performances knowing full well I was taking a hiatus.”

Even reciting that litany had Vera’s pulse rate accelerating. She didn’t hate Donal, precisely, but she had a healthy loathing for the havoc he’d caused in her life.

Trent opened the tin of cookies and held them out to her.

Vera took one to be polite, though she felt like upending the entire tin.

“Donal’s a first-class horse’s behind,” Trent said, munching on a cookie. “That doesn’t make him a stalker. Anybody could have gotten into your garage, and we’ll have a difficult time proving he’s leaving these messages.”

A difficult, expensive time was what Trent meant.

“So you want me to get an unlisted phone number? Stop all contact with his children? They’re teenagers, Trent, and their own mother hardly gave them the time of day before her last round of rehab. They call me, and they come visit, and I don’t want Twyla to think I’ve tossed them over the transom.”

Though Vera had done that exactly. Left a pair of nearly motherless adolescents to deal with a man who was a stranger to charm on his good days. She got up, crossed the office, and pitched her uneaten cookie in the trash.

“All I want is for you to take a few precautions.”

Trent sounded so damned reasonable, Vera wanted to bean him with the rhododendron thriving on the windowsill. The plant had grown at least half a foot wider and taller since the last time she’d been in this office, while Vera felt as if her life had only contracted.

“The ray of sunshine here.” Trent said, “is that you know to within a three-hour window when your tire was slashed. I’ll send a letter to Donal’s attorney, asking him to prove Donal’s whereabouts during that window, and threatening all manner of mischief if he can’t.”

“That might help.” She hadn’t thought about the timing. Hadn’t been calm or logical enough to think it through. She resumed her seat, and perversely, now she wanted a damned cookie.

Also a glass of cold milk.

“You can afford the security cameras and motion sensors,” Trent said. “I’m guessing you don’t want to go that route.”

He had a point. Trent Knightley was a good lawyer because the legalities never outran his common sense, but Vera resented his honesty mightily.

Of course, she resented everything these days, from the privacy of her home, to Twyla’s chattering, to memories of James Knightley, whispering about hugs and kisses.

Life had been easier when Vera had limited herself to practice rooms and concert halls.

“I don’t want to put that much energy into squashing a bug,” she said. Or that much money—that much more money. “Even in that analogy, I’m thinking and talking like Donal does, in scarcity and survival terms. If I let that mindset take over, then I’ll have nothing left for my music.”

Trent sat back and considered her, and Vera knew the urge to squirm. God help his daughter’s eventual boyfriends if they brought the young lady home ten minutes late.

“Are you playing again?”

“I practice.” Vera busied her hands with packing up her answering machine. “I teach as many as a dozen lessons some weeks. I haven’t booked any performances, and I don’t know if I ever will again. Traveling and being a single parent don’t mix.”

Being a single parent and being broke didn’t mix well either, though for now, Vera was doing well enough.

“You’re a pianist, Vera. I can’t imagine you being content without occasionally making music for an appreciative audience. DC, Baltimore, Richmond, Philly, Pittsburgh, even New York—they’re all within driving distance and full of concert halls.”

“You didn’t push this before.” Vera’s decision to take a hiatus from performing didn’t come anywhere near qualifying as a legal issue, and yet, she’d had no one to discuss it with save Olga. “Why bring it up now?”

He put the lid back on the cookie tin. Vera had chosen the Winnie the Pooh tin for this batch because Trent often wore whimsical ties.

“A performance,” he said, “even one booked two years in advance, will give you something to look forward to and take your mind off Donal’s stupid maneuvers. Anticipating a professional future will make you stronger, in a sense, and less vulnerable, like a good security system.”

“Very subtle, Trent, but you forget: Donal was my agent, and I wouldn’t know the first thing about booking a gig. I was the talent. I came. I sat down. I played. All the contractual baloney, the fine print, the business details were beyond me, and I liked it that way.”

She got to her feet, because the legal discussion was over, not because her lawyer was being too damned perceptive about matters outside the courtroom.

“So make a few phone calls,” he said, rising. “Or I can make them. James is bound to know somebody in DC who does entertainment law, and they can hook you up with a new agent.”

James could hook her up? “That’s a very kind offer, but no thank you. I’m not ready.”

He escorted her to the door—or followed her. “Your fans won’t care if you play the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’”

“I like the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’—it’s tricky, in its way, but I mean I’m not ready inside.” She tapped her chest. “My technique is benefiting from time working on the basics, but the rest of me…”

The rest of her, as had been made clear over the weekend, was a nervous, cranky, ungracious, defensive wreck. She’d even gone so far as to draft a note of apology to James, then realized she’d have to send it to him at the office, where a secretary might open it.

“Yours was not a cordial divorce,” Trent said when she trailed off. “Give it time, and then give it more time. I’ll let you know what Donal’s lawyer says, and thanks for the cookies.”

He held her coat for her, held the door, and walked her out toward the reception area; but they took a left when she was used to taking a right, passing through a suite of offices she didn’t recognize.

“Beulah, is James in?” Trent asked an older lady at a secretarial station.

“He’s working on some indemnity language for those doctors, Trent. He worked through lunch, so approach with caution.”

“Trenton Edwards Knightley—” Vera began.

“That will teach me to leave my diplomas hanging where anybody can see them. Come along.” He took Vera gently by the wrist and towed her into James’s office.

“Greetings, James, it’s time you took a break from the dreaded indemnity clause.”

“Damn it, Trent—” James slapped some fat volume closed and was on his feet before Vera could beat a retreat. “Vera Waltham. Hello.”

This was his jungle, his briar patch, and he looked right at home in it.

The steel-blue suit had to have cost a pretty penny, the tie was silk, possibly Hermès—blue with an abstract pattern of intersecting red snaffle bits—and the loafers looked like Gucci’s. She recognized the same scent she’d picked up on in her driveway. Sage with notes of smoke and spice, a masculine do-me fragrance if ever she’d inhaled one.

Expensive, maybe even a custom blend.

“We have a question,” Trent said, his fingers around Vera’s wrist still, preventing her from pelting out of the office at a dead run.

“Shoot,” James said, settling back against the front of his desk. “I might have an answer.”

“Vera needs to talk to somebody who handles entertainment contracts. Any ideas?”

From the gleam in Trent’s eyes, Vera had an awful suspicion that James was an expert on entertainment law.

“Let me give it some thought. I’m in touch with half my law school class, and several of them had their sights on entertainment law. It’s an interesting field.”

“You have Vera’s number?” Trent asked.

“I can get it from the file.”

“Great. Vera, I’ll be in touch, and you should consider that security system. It could get you the proof you need much more quickly than we’ll find it otherwise.”

Just like that, Vera’s attorney, her zealous advocate, the man she entrusted with her dirty laundry and her personal fortune shamelessly deserted her in enemy territory.

“He means well,” James said, closing the door after his brother. “I’d apologize for him, but I can’t recall Trent pulling a stunt like this before.”

So Trent had ambushed them both. Maybe that explained why they were both smiling.

“I have two brothers,” Vera said. “They get odd notions, brothers do. Your office is different from Trent’s.”

“Different how?”

“Sleek where his is cozy, a little intimidating where his is comforting.” Her gaze lit on a small colorful painting on the wall beside his desk, a luminous image of flowers adorning a country porch. “That’s a signed original?”

“I inherited it, so don’t ascribe any good taste to me. I do like it, or I wouldn’t hang it.”

When a student wasn’t prepared for a lesson, they found endless ways to talk about the pieces they hadn’t spent enough time working on. Vera had no patience with their prevarications, or with her own.

“About the entertainment law thing? You can forget it.”

“All right.” Not an instant’s hesitation, which should not have been a disappointment. “Just like that? Your brother came close to browbeating me over it.”

“Trent’s in love. He wants everybody to be as happy as he and Hannah are. Give it a few years, and he’ll be as grumpy as the rest of us.”

“Is that why you’re not married?” She peered at him, past the French designer tie, the Italian shoes, and Savile Row tailoring, to the shrewd country boy—hiding?—beneath. “You don’t believe in romance?”

“I believe in romance,” he said, uncrossing his arms. “Sometimes I think I’m last man standing who does, but marriage is hard, and I don’t have to quote the divorce statistics at you. Trent’s department turns away business.”

“So you’ll not even make the attempt? Do you ever intend to marry?” Why did his answer matter, when Vera wouldn’t see him again after today?

“I don’t know,” he said, shifting to touch a corner of the painting. “I haven’t thought much about it. I assume you’re soured on the whole marriage thing?”

“Your assumption is in error.” Her answer surprised her and made that corner of his mouth lift higher. “I had a good marriage the first time out. We weren’t passionately in love, by any means, but we were a team, and we respected each other. Donal was a bad choice made out of grief and inexperience. I’m older and wiser now.”

And buckets less confident.

James left off fussing his inheritance. “So it’s me you don’t approve of? You intend to get back on the horse. I’m simply not a suitable mount?”

Had he set her up for that question, as if she were a hostile witness on cross-examination? But no, Vera had put her own foot in her own mouth.

“I don’t disapprove of you. I… someday, I might remarry, but not… I’m not ready.” Not ready for even a hamster, for God’s sake.

He blatantly watched while a blush spread up Vera’s neck and across her cheeks. When she was well and truly mortified, he offered her a shameless smile and winged an arm at her.

“While I’m enjoying this conversation immensely, I have three pages of insurance clauses to get through by midnight. I’ll walk you to your car.”

She took his arm, as if they were mincing up the aisle at some society wedding, and let him lead her through the building and out to her truck.

“I will not ask you if you’ve replaced your spare yet, and I will not ask you why Trent wants you to get a security system, and I will not point out that a dog would be a lot cheaper and more fun,” he said as she stowed her gear.

“Good of you.”

He leaned close again, exactly as he’d done in her driveway. Vera studied his gold tie tack—a rearing lion—rather than close her eyes and inhale through her nose.

“But, Vera, I will tell you I’ve been thinking about that hug I didn’t cadge, and that kiss I didn’t steal.”

Vera had thought about them too. She continued to think about them all the way to the tire shop, all through the afternoon’s lessons, and then all the way home.

End of Excerpt

The First Kiss is available in the following formats:

Sourcebooks

February 3, 2015

Connected Books

The First Kiss is Book 2 in the Sweetest Kisses series. The full series reading order is as follows:

Book 1: A Single Kiss Book 2: The First Kiss Book 3: Kiss Me Hello Novella: A Kiss for Luck