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Kerry Endicott has a lot of apologizing to do. Still, returning to a community that sees her as a thief is harder than she expected. How can she find an apartment, let alone a job in Castle Creek if nobody trusts her? That’s why it’s such a relief when, finally, someone looks at her with something other than suspicion. It might just be lust, but Gil Cooper really seems to see Kerry. And the sexy nerd thing he has going on doesn’t hurt. But her reputation here runs deep, and Gil might not be as immune to it as he seems…

“That’s far enough.”

Kerry Endicott lifted her gaze from the graveled path and stared into the scowling face of the man she’d traveled five hundred miles to see.

“You need to leave,” he continued, his tone curt. “Now.”

The man who obviously had no interest in seeing her.

Even after all this time.

After all she’d been through.

A cold, quiet curl of hurt lodged in her chest. But what did she expect, after what she’d done?

Kerry drew in a slow breath and gazed mutely over his shoulder, at a trio of Quonset huts. Shadowed rows of hanging baskets inside each plastic-wrapped structure accounted for the rich odor of damp earth delivered by a teasing April breeze. Weathered outbuildings and shrubs with spindly arms bowed by the weight of sunshine-yellow blooms dotted the property around the huts. To the right of the driveway, at the crest of a long, gentle slope, sat a two-story farmhouse, its plain white exterior brightened by apricot shutters. To the left, the backdrop of feathery pines gave way to vivid green Pennsylvania farmland and a horizontal strip of blue that had to be Lake Erie.


This place—Castle Creek Growers—was much nicer than he’d described. Then again, that last mention had been more than two years ago. They’d talked only once after that, when she’d begged him to visit her. He hadn’t even hemmed and hawed. Just offered a naked no.


“It’s beautiful here,” she said.


He took a hesitant step forward. Kerry held her breath. Then a woman called his name from inside one of the huts and he pushed out his chin and widened his stance, as if prepping to protect the owner of the voice.


From Kerry.


She tightened her grip on the keys in her right hand and a sudden staccato blare made her jump. Her heart flung itself into a slam dance. Car alarm. Chill. Stones skittered as she whirled toward the driveway and fumbled to press the panic button again on her fob.


Finally, silence. An echo pulsed in her ears, but it wasn’t the rhythmic shriek of the alarm.


“You need to leave,” he’d said.


Slowly she turned back to face him. “Dad,” she croaked, half greeting, half protest. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” No response. Her cheeks heated and her eyes burned. “I’ve been driving all day,” she said thickly.


His gray-blue eyes had gone hard. “No one asked you to.”


God. She’d known this would be tough. She just hadn’t expected it to be this tough.


A door slammed. A girl in jeans and a pink sweatshirt clomped down the porch steps. His boss’s daughter? Nicole? No. Natalie.

As she jogged around the side of the house, she aimed a curious glance at Kerry.

“You’re late,” came the gruff words from Kerry’s father.

The girl’s gaze moved to the older man. “Can’t help it. Mom made muffins. Growing bones and all that. Banana chocolate chip. Too bad I didn’t save you any.” With a smart-alecky grin and one last glance at Kerry, she took off across the yard, toward the nearest Quonset hut, brown hair bouncing on her shoulders.


Harris Briggs’s snort bore more affection than pique. “If she thinks she’s going to eat all the muffins and get out of snail duty, too, she has another think coming.”


“What’s snail duty?”


The indulgence on his face dimmed and his gaze dipped to Kerry’s ankles. He wouldn’t be able to see anything, since the hem of her dark gray pants reached nearly to the toes of her high-heeled boots.


“Been six months already?” he asked, almost idly.


“All things considered, time went a little slower for me.”


He grunted. “I have to get back to work. Anyways, the answer is no.”


She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her light wool jacket to keep from yanking at her hair. “I haven’t asked a question.”


“You didn’t come all this way just to show off your bare ankle. You should have saved your gas money. I’m done opening my wallet for you.”


“I didn’t come to borrow money. I came to return it.”


Her father, a former marine with more hair in his eyebrows than on his head, folded his brawny arms across his chest and waited.


Good grief, he looked even more intimidating than she remembered. But she wasn’t a little girl anymore.

She felt like one, though.

Kerry licked her lips. “I mean, I don’t have the money now. But as soon as I get a job, I’ll be able to pay you back.”


“And you think I can help with that.” His thick brows lowered. “If you’re countin’ on me getting you a job here with the Macfarlands, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Reid’s been through enough, and his wife, Parker? Don’t know what I would do without her. She’s like the—” He stopped.


“The daughter you never had?” Kerry swallowed. This was worse, so much worse than she’d expected. But at least he was talking to her.


Heat swept her cheeks, but she had to ask. “Would it be possible to stay with you? Just until I find my own place.”


“If you’re bent on stayin’, there’s a motel down the road a ways.”


She bit back a sigh. A motel it would be, though she couldn’t afford more than a couple of nights. She’d better find a job quick, or she’d be sleeping in her car.


“But it’d be a hell of a lot easier on everyone concerned,” he continued, “if you just headed on back home and forgot about writin’ a check I won’t ever be able to cash.”


She tipped up her chin. “Easy got me into this mess. I’m not going anywhere.”


Approval was too much to hope for, but anything other than the stark disbelief on his face would have been welcome.


You got you into this mess. Anyways, what kind of job you thinkin’ you can get in Castle Creek that’d pay enough to get you out of debt?”


She was tempted to tell him she’d be dealing drugs, but he’d probably believe her. “Any job that’s available.”


His face said that yeah, he’d believe her. “Dad.” He flinched yet again. She’d have to find something else to call him. “I’m not the same person I was. That’s why I’m here. To prove that to you.”


“I’m not interested in your money, and I’m sure as hell not interested in your promises.”


“Eugenia, too. I want you to know she’ll get every penny back.”


He paled, and his thick arms dropped to his sides.


Oh, no. “You two aren’t together?”


“Not anymore.”


So it was more than the return of the prodigal daughter that had him looking so miserable. “May I ask what happened?”


His expression soured. “She wanted to invite you to the wedding.”


Kerry sucked in a breath. This wasn’t going to work. Why had she thought this would work? She stumbled in a half circle and started back to the driveway. She’d managed two steps when the voice she’d heard calling her father stopped her.


“You’re not leaving, are you?”


Kerry hesitated, then turned slowly back around as the woman added, “Harris? Aren’t you going to introduce us?”


A tall, striking redhead in overalls and a long-sleeved plaid shirt almost identical to the one Harris was wearing stood sandwiched between him and the girl who’d run out of the house earlier.


“I’m Parker Macfarland and this is my daughter, Natalie. When Harris here isn’t home practicing his grump face, he’s pretending to help my husband and me run this place. And you are?”


She already knew. Kerry could tell by the chirp in her voice.


“No need to be pokin’ your nose in the pepper patch,” Harris said stiffly.


Parker offered him a lofty eyebrow. “If you’d followed that same advice, I wouldn’t be about to celebrate my second wedding anniversary, now, would I?”


“And I wouldn’t be getting a little brother,” Natalie added.


Kerry’s gaze dropped to Parker’s stomach, but there was no telling what she was hiding behind those baggy overalls.


Parker laughed. “I’m about four months along. Overalls aren’t the most flattering thing to wear, I know, but they’re comfortable. Practical, too. The other night I walked out of the house with a roast beef sub and a dozen chocolate chip cookies stashed behind this bib, and no one had a clue.”


“We knew,” said Natalie smugly.


“You did?”


Her daughter rolled her eyes. “You were looking a little lumpy, Mom. I dared Dad to go up and give you a big, squeezy hug, but he said we shouldn’t keep you from your picnic with The Munchkin.”


Her mother’s eyes went soft. “I see.” She smiled at Kerry and patted her belly. “That’s what we’re calling this little guy until we can agree on something more permanent.” Her gaze sharpened. “And speaking of names…”


Kerry forced her lips into a curve. “I’m Kerry.” She couldn’t manage any more than that. Couldn’t bear to see her father flinch again. “I’m glad to meet you. Congratulations on the baby. And on your home. It’s lovely here.”


“Thank you,” Parker said. “It’s about time you introduced us to your daughter, Harris Briggs.”


“Wait, what?” Natalie swept her bangs out of her eyes and passed a frown from the older man to Kerry and back again. Parker made a sound that was half warning, half distress, but the oblivious teen shook her head in confusion. “You never said anything about a daughter.”




Staring down the invoice for sixty seconds straight hadn’t scared it into dropping any zeroes, so Gil Cooper slammed it on top of the stack in the accounts payable tray, also known as IOU oblivion. His elbow jostled his coffee cup and tepid black liquid sloshed onto the arm of his shirt, his open package of peanut butter crackers and the fresh stack of bills he hadn’t had the balls to open yet.


Damn it, he’d already rolled his sleeves up as far as they would go to hide the orange juice stain he’d created that morning. Good thing denim could disguise a lot. Since he took his coffee black, at least he wouldn’t be smelling like French vanilla or butter pecan all damned day. Still, maybe he should consider giving up coffee, like he’d given up his beloved sports channels and his Friday night sirloin. He could avoid stains and save a few more bucks at the grocery store.


Screw that. He picked up his Cap’n Crunch mug and tossed back the rest of the not-so-fresh brew inside. If he gave up coffee he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on scrambling an egg, let alone finding a way to keep Cooper’s Hardware open.


His jaw started to ache and he unlocked his molars.


Besides, he’d only find something else to spill.

Gil picked up the carton he’d just signed for, carried it out front and set it on the counter between items that hadn’t changed since his grandfather opened the shop eighty years ago. Aside from the cash register, which Gil had replaced with a digital version, praise God, it was all the same. Friendly Village china creamer with a chipped handle that did a damned fine job as a pen holder. Wicker basket of fresh apples and walnuts still in the shell, complete with nutcracker. Glass jar of stick candies that for some unnatural reason saw less action than the fruit basket.


The smell of the place hadn’t changed, either—at least, not since Gil was a kid. Still a mingling of machine oil, fresh sap, paint thinner and rubber. What would he do if he couldn’t breathe it in anymore?


He swallowed a hot, useless surge of anger and methodically emptied the carton. Smaller boxes of screws, nails, wing nuts, washers. He tossed the outer box aside, picked up a container of nails and headed for the galvanized metal bins against the back wall.


Five steps away from the counter, he tripped over an uneven joint in the aged hardwood floor and lost his grip on the container. A jangling thud as three thousand plastic cap roofing nails hit the floor. Bits of bright orange skittered under the counter and beneath the shelving, like prisoners eager to escape their cage.


He could relate.


He could also see a lot of time on his hands and knees in the near future.


With a sweep of his foot, Gil shoved the nearest band of fugitives aside and assumed the position. An unseen nail bit into his kneecap and he swore.


And got smacked upside the head.


“What the—?” He twisted around.


Seventy-something Audrey Tweedy stood over him, legs braced, eyes righteous, her puke-green monstrosity of a purse cradled in both hands. He jumped to his feet before she could strike again.


“Audrey.” He dusted off his hands and pushed his glasses up his nose. “What can I do for you?”


“Besides watch your language?” Her high-pitched, pixie-like voice matched her short, tousled hair but not her lumberjack physique. A plastic strip of bacon as long as his pinkie dangled from each earlobe.


“I didn’t know you were there,” he muttered. He kicked more nails under the counter and rubbed his head. “I apologize.”


“You can make it up to me by helping me find a wedding present.”


“Who’s getting married?”


Audrey shifted her grip on her purse. Luckily, the thing jogged his memory without making contact.


“You and Snoozy,” he said. “Next weekend. Justice of the peace, right?”


She beamed. Wisecracking, protein-pushing, tougher-than-toenails Audrey Tweedy goddamn beamed, and Gil felt a burn in his throat that had nothing to do with stale coffee.


“Less than two weeks,” she said reverently. “I can’t wait to be a bride.”


“Audrey, that’s—”


An exasperated glance and a beefy elbow to his gut turned the rest of his words to a wheeze. So much for sentiment.


“I need a gift for my bridegroom,” she said. “I seem to have caught you at a bad time, though.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the orange-dotted floor, then pointed at his knee. “You might want to get that.”


He looked down. Oh. Right. He freed the nail protruding from his knee. Luckily the thing had grabbed more denim than skin.


“A broom would work better.” She rummaged in her purse, gave a satisfied cluck and held out a squat tin can.


Gil squinted at the label. “You have to be joking.”


“If you ate more protein, you’d have probably been reaching for a broom before that box even hit the floor.” She lifted an eyebrow, as if expecting him to start slurping the contents of the can right then and there. Yeah, not going to happen.


When he slid it onto the counter, she sighed and nudged a roofing nail with the toe of her tennis shoe. “These are pretty, dear. What are they for?”


“Roofing felt. And house wrap.”


“Do they come in other colors?”


“You cannot be considering these for a wedding present. How would you feel if Snoozy got you a box of thumbtacks?”


“You have a point.” Audrey snorted. “See what I did there?”


The cowbell over the door did its thing and Gil braced himself for the Hazel and June show. Wherever Audrey Tweedy was, her cohorts, the Catletts, weren’t far behind.


Ever since the sisters had been elected co-mayors of Castle Creek, their appearance made people especially nervous: they never walked away from a conversation without first having talked someone into donating their time or their money in support of the Catletts’ longtime pet project, the community center.


At the moment Gil was short on both, which meant only one thing. He’d have to throw Audrey under the bus.


When feed store owner Seth Walker strolled into the store instead, Gil relaxed. Until he got a load of the look in his trail buddy’s eyes.


Crap. Saturday night.


Gil backed toward the counter and reached out, blindly searching for a distraction. His fingers closed around the gift from Audrey. Meanwhile Seth smoothly greeted the older lady while laser-beaming his disapproval at Gil.


“Fish balls,” Gil said.


“Yeah, you should be worried.” Seth threaded his fingers together and made a show of cracking his knuckles. “How about after you finish up with Audrey here you meet me out front?”


Gil shook the can at Seth, thinking its easy-open lid probably tasted better than what was inside. “I’m trying to be polite here by offering you a snack.”


Seth squinted at the label. “Glad you finally got yourself some balls, man. A little big for you, aren’t they?”


Audrey tut-tutted at Seth. “That’s not very nice.”


“Neither is standing up a date. One who was so excited about your dinner plans that she went out and got herself a new dress.”


Gil winced.


Audrey gasped. “Gilbert Wayne Cooper.” She snatched the can of fish balls out of his hands and shoved it back into her purse.


“I didn’t stand her up,” he protested. “I canceled in plenty of time.”


Seth crossed his arms. “She got a text while Mama Leoni was leading her to your table.”


“She hadn’t ordered yet. It’s not like she was out the price of a meal.”


“Seriously?” Seth’s disgust was a lot harder to take than his hard-ass bit.


Audrey’s bacon strip earrings swayed as she wagged her head. “You owe that young woman an apology.”


Yeah, he knew it. What he didn’t know was why he’d allowed Seth to set him up in the first place. Gil liked his privacy. Sure, he liked sex too—a lot—but nine times out of ten, everything that came along with it wasn’t worth the effort.


The one time it had been, she’d waited until the day they returned from her birthday gift—a long weekend in Cancún he’d had no business springing for—to tell him she’d decided to give her ex another shot. Was it any wonder his ego had issues?


Seth was staring daggers at him. If Gil didn’t make things right, and fast, he risked losing the best friend he ever had. Plus Seth would probably want his weight bench back. Then again, the guy seemed to be doing just fine without it.


“It was easier for you,” Gil said. “You never dropped your date’s house keys down an elevator shaft, or leaned in for a kiss and chipped her front tooth, or took her to the diner when she was wearing white and knocked her into a server carrying five orders of blueberry cobbler.”


Seth grinned. “I remember that. They never did get the purple splotches out of the ceiling.”


Audrey was shaking her head. “Just because you’re a klutz doesn’t mean you get to be an asshat.”


The only sound in the store was the chiding hum of the cash register. There was something very wrong about that word coming out of those straight-laced lips.


Gil coughed. “I’ll call Olivia and apologize. Meanwhile, Aud, mind if I get back to you on Snoozy’s gift?”


“Not at all, dear.” She headed for the door, then swiveled back to Seth. “Just out of curiosity, what did Ivy give you when you two got married?”


Seth shifted his weight as blood hauled ass into his cheeks. “A, uh, part for my truck. J-jumper cables,” he stuttered, and it was so obviously a lie, Gil hooted and Audrey’s expression graduated from curious to determined.


“It’s personal,” Seth growled.


Audrey nodded. “Uh-huh. Where is your wife now? Is she at home?”


Seth’s eyes went wide. “She won’t tell you.”


The old woman patted her purse. “Never underestimate the power of a summer sausage.”


Gil let loose a strangled laugh while Seth pulled out his phone and started texting.


“Discuss the subject of my wedding gift amongst yourselves, boys,” Audrey said. “And make sure you come up with something good, because this prime piece of meat is looking forward to a whole lot of tenderizing the weekend after next.”


Once the door shut behind her, Gil and Seth groaned in concert.


“If only we could unhear that.” Seth banged his palms against his ears. “Guess I should have listened when you said you weren’t into Olivia.”


“She’s not into me, either. She only agreed to the date as a favor to you.”


Red flashed back into Seth’s cheeks. “Maybe,” he muttered. “Okay. Fine. I’ll stay out of it. But you owe me one. Hubbard Ridge this weekend?”


Gil and his mountain bike both needed the workout, but he couldn’t pull an economic miracle out of his ass if he was sitting on it.


“Sorry, man. I need to be here. Rain check?”


“You’re not getting enough exercise, Coop. Last time we rode, you puked. Twice. You’re not careful, you’re gonna lose that manly figure.”


Gil wanted to ask what the hell that mattered, since no one would be seeing him naked, but that sounded too pathetic, even for him.


When he didn’t respond, Seth shrugged. “But Joe’s tomorrow night, right?” He read the answer on Gil’s face and sagged back against the counter. “Are you serious right now? You’re blowing off poker night, too?”


“Duty calls.”


“C’mon, bro. We’re already one man down. Harris didn’t say what he’s got going on, but it must be serious if the old man’s willing to miss meatball night. Can’t your shit wait?”


The truth about Gil’s “shit” was that he couldn’t afford to play because he couldn’t afford to lose. And he always lost. But if he fessed up, Seth would insist on staking him.


“Do me a solid, Walker, and let it go.”


Seth pushed upright. “Maybe that’s what you need to be thinking about doing.”


“Don’t even.”


Seth waved an arm at the paint cans and power tools, croquet sets and fishing rods surrounding them. “You’re killing yourself here. And for what?”


“Like you weren’t putting in eighteen-hour days when you were running the feed store and working at Ivy’s farm at the same time.”


“That was love, jackass. What’s your excuse? We both know you’d rather be anywhere else than here.”


“We both know that’s you, not me.”


Seth jerked his head back. “I don’t have anything against the store. It’s what you’re letting the place do to you, for no reason.”


“No reason?” Gil grabbed a straw broom off the rack behind him. He gave the floor a vicious sweep, enjoying the rattle as roofing nails scattered. He shot Seth a warning glance. “We’re not going there.”


“Apparently we’re not going anywhere.” Seth stalked out of the store, and moments later Castle Creek’s sole real estate agent sauntered in.


Gil clutched the broom tighter, momentarily tempted to brush her right back out again. This was shaping up to be one hell of a day and he hadn’t even knocked over his second cup of coffee yet.


Valerie Flick tossed her jet-black, corkscrew ponytail over her shoulder and glanced out the front window at Seth, who was slamming into his ancient pickup truck.


“Looks like you two might need couple’s counseling,” she said dryly. She turned away from the window and scanned the store.

With a delighted “Ooh,” she click-clacked over to the display of paperwhite growing kits. “One of these would look great on my desk.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Know what else would look great on my desk? A contract with your signature on it. Changed your mind about selling yet?”


Gil concentrated on long, steady strokes of the broom. “Go away, Val.”


“I came to sweeten the deal.”


“Yeah?” He didn’t look up. “How?”


“I’m trying to show you,” she said, voice edged with impatience.


He raised his head. She was leaning back against the counter, the spread of her elbows pulling her suit jacket open to reveal the lacy, dark pink cups of a barely-there bra. Damn, he hadn’t even realized she wasn’t wearing a shirt under there. She’d kicked off one high heel and was running the ball of her foot up and down the smooth expanse of her other leg.


He couldn’t deny she was a hot-looking woman. Yet his dick didn’t so much as wiggle.


Gil stacked his hands on the end of the broom and averted his gaze. When he didn’t speak, Val rolled one shoulder. “Nothing to say?”


“Only that it’s ridiculous to pretend you’re attracted to someone for the sake of a sale.”


“It’s more about the commission,” she said, and gave the hem of her jacket a yank. “Anyway, give me a break. Cooper’s has been circling the drain for years. Let me have the building. You won’t recognize it when I’m done.”


“Therein lies the problem.”


She huffed hard enough to blow her bangs out of alignment. “At least let me tell you what I have planned for the space.”


“This is not a space. It’s a piece of history, and I wouldn’t sell it to you if you planned to turn it into a free clinic for kids.” He hesitated. “You’re not planning to turn it into a free clinic for kids, are you?”


She laughed, genuinely amused. “In Castle Creek? It would be empty half the time.” She tipped her head. “Kind of like your hardware store.”


Gil propped the broom against the nearest shelf, walked to the door and held it open. “Cooper’s is not for sale.”


Val advanced slowly, trailing a polished fingernail along the length of the counter. When she reached the cash register, she gave it a pat. “That’s not what Ferrell said.”


Gil released the door and strode back inside. “When did you talk to him?”


“Last week. He said he’d reason with you. Help you understand it’s time to negotiate.”


Gil’s laugh was ugly, even to his own ears. “I haven’t had a conversation with my brother in six years and I don’t intend to start now. I suggest you break the habit yourself. He’s gotten all he’s going to get out of this place. Unless you plan to select something from one of these shelves and lay down money for it, you have, too.”


He marched back to the door and shoved it open again. He had to raise his voice above the clatter of the yardsticks he knocked over in the process. “Cooper’s is here to stay. Unlike you, Val.”


She plucked an apple from the basket on the counter and joined him at the door. “You’d better start practicing your social skills, Gilbert. You won’t be able to finance this hideout of yours forever.”


She tossed the apple up in the air, caught it and sidled out the door.


Her laugh drifted back down the sidewalk, and for the first time in a long time, Gil let himself wonder what the hell he’d do if he didn’t have Cooper’s Hardware in his life.

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