August 23, 2023
Nothing is sweeter than the first kiss of summer…
Say You'll Stay by Susan Mallery
Shaye Harper has sworn off men for good. But when she meets army vet Lawson Easley during a pit stop on the road to a fresh start, she’s drawn in by the quirky town—and the handsome stranger she can’t resist. Lawson knows there’s no place better than Wishing Tree. Too bad the woman he's certain is “the one” is just passing through…unless he can convince her to give him and his hometown a chance at forever.
This Time for Keeps by Synithia Williams
Home to care for her ailing father, Michaela Spears is on a mission: reconcile with the one man she can’t forget. She broke his heart years ago, so when Khalil appears on her parents’ doorstep in his scrubs, she knows it’s her last chance. Khalil Davenport shouldn’t have taken the job as her dad’s home nurse, but he couldn't resist her. Their timing was never right, but now can he trust that she’s home to stay?
Best Man Next Door by Stefanie London
For Sage Nilsen, coming back to her small Massachusetts hometown for a family wedding feels like high school all over again. Except Jamie Hackett has gone from charming boy next door to handsome best man. And sparks are suddenly flying between the popular guy and the so-called outcast. As the wedding gets closer, Sage finds herself on the edge of something unexpected—a second chance in the town she left behind…with the guy she’s never forgotten.
SHAYE HARPER STARED at the crowd on the street. She’d grown up in a small town, so she was used to the quirks, but something very strange was happening here.
“I don’t get it,” she said aloud.
“It’s a 5K run.”
She turned toward the voice and saw a guy about her age smiling at her. As her head barely came to his shoulder, she would guess he was six feet tall. Cute, with big brown eyes, wavy brown hair and an easy smile.
“I understand the 5K part,” she told him with a laugh. “It’s the antlers that have me confused.”
“It’s Christmas in July. Every year on July 5, the three-week celebration launches with the 5K Reindeer Run.”
“Christmas in July?”
“Yeah. We take our holidays very seriously here in Wishing Tree. Especially Christmas.”
She glanced back at the participants, most dressed in shorts and T-shirts, all wearing reindeer-antler headbands. They ran or walked through the center of town. Crowds lined the route.
Now that she looked more closely, she could see the signs on several of the stores. They were very holiday-centric, with names like Jingle Coffee and Santa Baby Boutique.
“But it’s July,” she said. “Yesterday was the Fourth of July.”
She would know: she’d spent a very lonely afternoon and evening by herself in a motel just outside of Spokane. Travel for one was not the thrill she’d hoped it would be.
The cute guy smiled again. This time she noticed he had dimples. She’d always been a sucker for a guy with dimples. Thank goodness she was just passing through, otherwise she would be tempted to flirt with him. Flirting often led to liking, and that led to trouble—at least, in her world. The only guys interested in her were disasters. Sad but true. Therefore, the only way to keep herself safe was to avoid men—especially men with yummy eyes and cute dimples.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No. I’m from a small town in Iowa.” She looked at the last of the walkers, heading out of the town square. A square that was, oddly, round. “We have our traditions, but no one ever wears antlers.”
“Christmas in July is a big thing for us,” he said. “Like I said, it starts with the 5K, then we have the holiday bake-off, the tree-lighting at 10:00 p.m. on the fifteenth, the Sparklefest Ball, and finally the classic car show. That’s on the twenty-fifth, the last day of the celebration. There’s a big parade, too.”
“With Santa?” she asked as the people around them started drifting away.
“Seriously? You have a Santa in a parade in July?”
“Christmas in July.”
“Sure. Why not. But why is the tree-lighting on the fifteenth? Why not tonight? And what tree do you light?”
“A Christmas tree, of course. It goes right there.” He pointed. “In the middle of The Wreath.”
“The Wreath. It’s like our town square, only it’s round. See all the businesses around it? They’re in a circle.” The smile and the dimples returned. “Come on. You have to admit, it’s charming. I’m Lawson.”
“Shaye. So you’re a hometown boy?”
“Born and raised.” He looked past her. “I’ve seen a lot of the world, and to me there’s no place better than Wishing Tree.”
There was something in his tone: the promise of a story. Not that she knew him well enough to ask what it was. She supposed everyone had past experiences to deal with. She certainly did.
“Are you here with your family?” he asked.
“No. I’m by myself. I was driving west on the highway when I saw the sign for Judy’s Hand Pies, so I decided to stop.” She paused, not sure if that made her sound odd. “I had them for the first time yesterday, and they were delicious.” She smiled. “I guess I like pie.”
“Me, too. Come on, let me buy you lunch at Judy’s Hand Pies.” He winked. “I happen to know the owner.”
She laughed. “It’s a small town, Lawson. I’m pretty sure you know a lot of people who live here.”
“Not all of them. And we get a lot of tourists so there are plenty of new people to meet.” He winked again. “Meeting new people can be a lot of fun.”
She wanted to say that she wasn’t exactly a tourist—she was just passing through on her way to somewhere else—but decided there was no point. She would have a quick lunch with him before getting back in her car and driving the remaining distance to her destination.
The crowds had thinned out since the last of the runners had passed by. She and Lawson walked the short distance to Judy’s Hand Pies. The storefront was similar to the one she’d seen in Spokane. There were big windows with a mouthwatering display of hand pies and a small Help Wanted sign in the corner. When they stepped inside they were greeted by a pregnant woman, who looked at Lawson, then at her. Her brows rose as her expression shifted from welcoming to speculative.
“I didn’t expect to see you here today,” the woman said.
Lawson turned to Shaye. “This is my sister, Adien. Sis, this is Shaye. We met at the start of the 5K.”
Adien mouthed Quick work before smiling at Shaye. “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Wishing Tree.”
“Thank you.” She looked at Lawson. “So your family owns Judy’s Hand Pies?”
“What?” Adien laughed. “I wish, but no. I work here part-time.” She patted her belly. “At least, I will for the next month. Then this one will make an appearance.”
Shaye ignored the little stab of envy that pricked her heart. She’d always wanted a family, but so far she wasn’t even close to having that happen. And given how she’d sworn off men, well, the whole falling-in-love-getting-married-and-having-a-baby plan was going to be a real challenge.
Adien pointed out the specials, then retrieved a small to-go box. “What’ll you have?”
Shaye chose a chicken mushroom and a spinach feta, along with a fresh berry pie for dessert. Lawson picked two chicken sausage hand pies and a beef stroganoff. He also chose a berry pie, and they each took a can of soda. They had a brief argument about paying, which Adien settled by taking Lawson’s money rather than Shaye’s, then they grabbed plenty of napkins before heading to the seating area at the far side of The Wreath.
As it wasn’t yet noon, there were plenty of empty picnic tables. They chose one in the shade. While it was still only in the midseventies, it would be getting hot later in the day. From what Shaye had heard on the local Spokane news, the start to summer in the Pacific Northwest had been a warm one.
They settled across from each other. Lawson passed out the food, while she split the napkins between them.
She took a bite of the chicken pie and had to hold in a moan.
He grinned. “As good as you remember?”
“Better. I thought the store in Spokane was the only one, but I guess they’re a chain.”
“Mostly in the western half of the country. Toby—he’s the owner—started in Austin, using his grandmother’s hand-pie recipe. She’s the Judy in Judy’s Hand Pies.”
“How did he get from Austin to here?”
“He grew up here.” Lawson’s brown eyes crinkled with amusement. “You can take the boy out of Wishing Tree…”
“But you can’t take Wishing Tree out of the boy. I get it.”
Up close, Lawson was even better-looking than he had been at a distance. He was casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, but he had an air of confidence about him, as if he knew he could take care of himself in any situation. He was strong—she could see the outline of muscles in his shoulders, arms and chest—which could have been intimidating, but there was also something friendly and welcoming in the way he looked at her.
“Toby came back,” Lawson added. “Last fall. Right about the time I came home.”
“Where had you been?”
“All over. I did an eight-year stint in the army. Spent time in a lot of the US, then did tours through Germany and Afghanistan.”
Her eyes widened. “Doing what?”
The smile returned. “I’m a car mechanic. Been crazy about cars since I was maybe three. I started working in a local repair shop here in town when I was fourteen. When I enlisted, they put me to work doing what I do best. If you have a Jeep or a Humvee break down, I’m your man.”
“Sorry to disappoint. I drive a ten-year-old pickup.”
“I can fix that, too.”
His smile was infectious and nearly as yummy as the pies.
“My dad was a car guy,” she said. “I loved hanging out with him, so I learned to help. We used to restore old cars together. Every spring he’d go find some old clunker, and we’d spend the summer making it right. It was fun.”
Lawson’s eyes lit up. “It is. One day I want that for my hobby. Just not now.”
She finished her chicken mushroom and started on the spinach feta.
“So you got out of the army a year ago?” she asked.
“No.” He raised a shoulder. “I was honorably discharged just about two years ago, but I didn’t make it home until last fall.”
“What were you doing for that year?” She paused. “Sorry. I’m asking too many questions. I’m kind of curious by nature.”
“Curiosity is a good thing. It’s how we learn.” He smiled. “Let’s just say that transitioning to civilian life isn’t always easy. I knew I had some things to work through, and I didn’t want to do that here. So I took a year to travel cross-country, working in gas stations and repair shops along the way. I got my head right, then came back.”
He returned his attention to her. “And here I am. I work at the same auto-repair shop I did when I was fourteen. The owner’s a good guy with two daughters who have no interest in the business. I’m taking online small-business-management classes and saving my money so I can buy him out in five years.”
The flutter-inducing smile returned. “I’ve been saving since I was fifteen. Auto-repair shops are expensive.”
“I can imagine.”
She kept her tone light, but on the inside, she was openmouthed in shock and more impressed by a guy than she had been in probably forever. The men she knew tended to drift toward whatever easy money-making scheme they’d come up with—probably over one too many beers. They were opportunistic, thoughtless and likely to disappoint. Well, not her father, but he’d been the exception.
“You remind me of my dad,” she blurted, then wondered if he would take that wrong. “I mean that in a good way. He was the best man I’ve ever known.”
His steady gaze locked with hers. “That’s a powerful compliment. Thank you.”
LAWSON EASLEY KNEW he was in trouble. He’d assumed he was immune to a pretty face, but he’d been wrong. The second he saw Shaye, with her long red hair and freckles, he’d felt a kick in the gut that had about sent him to his knees. But that was nothing: appearances were superficial. The real problem was the more she talked, the more he liked her.
“Where is your father now?” he asked, picking up his berry pie.
She held in a sigh. “I lost him three years ago. He had a heart attack and died. It was really unexpected. It was just the three of us. Neither of my parents had any family, so we were tight. When we lost him, my mom and I were both in shock.”
She tried to smile. “I moved back home to stay with her for a few months. I’d been going to college part-time, working the rest of the time to pay for it. My parents never had any money. My dad worked for the post office, and my mom had health problems, so she couldn’t always hold down a job. They’d offered to take out a mortgage on the house to pay for school, but I wouldn’t let them. They’d worked hard to pay off the house, and it was going to keep them safe during their retirement. I couldn’t take that.”
“I get it,” he said. “All our lives, they take care of us, but then something shifts, and we start thinking about taking care of them.”
She nodded. “It was exactly like that. Then he died, and I was so grateful my mom had the house, free and clear. He had a small life insurance policy, so she was going to be fine. I was just thinking of reapplying for college when she died, too.”
She looked at him, her beautiful green eyes filling with tears that she quickly blinked away.
“She was sleeping late, which she sometimes did. It was no big deal, but then I got a feeling something was wrong. I went into her bedroom, and she’d died in the night.”
Instinctively, he reached across the picnic table and took her hand in his. “I’m sorry. That must have been so hard on you. Losing them both like that.”
“It was. They both went so fast, with no warning. I just… I fell apart. I didn’t have any family, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. My friends helped, but they were busy. It was a bad time.”
She pulled back her hand and looked at him. “I have no idea why I just told you all that. You must think I’m very strange.”
“I think you’ve been through a lot, and you’re coming out the other side. Not everyone does. Be proud of the progress you’ve made.”
She offered a smile that made his breath catch.
“I guess you’d know about dealing with the unexpected,” she murmured.
He nodded slowly. “I’ve seen some things. I might have spent eight years working on vehicles, but I was close to the action in Afghanistan.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like. Where’d you get the courage to go?”
“To enlist, knowing there was a war going on. Several. You had no way of being sure you’d come back.”
“It’s important to serve.”
She smiled, and the whole world lit up again. “Just like that? You went because it was the right thing to do?”
He didn’t understand her question but answered, “Yes.”
“That’s not wow-worthy.”
She laughed. “It kind of is, but I’ll let it go. Are you glad to be home?”
“I am. I’m ready for the next part of my life.” He hesitated, then decided to confide in her. “I’m thinking of buying a house.”
“Good for you.”
“The down payment will eat into my savings, but I want to be settled. Right now I rent an apartment over my sister’s garage. I like being close to Adien and her family, but I think it’s time for a little separation.”
“Is she your only sibling?”
“No. I’m one of five. I’m the middle kid, but the oldest boy. My two older sisters are still in town, but my younger sister and brother both wanted to see the world. My folks are still here. My mom has four grandchildren and one on the way, and she’s still complaining she wants more.”
“You’re feeling pressure?”
He grinned. “Every now and then I have to deal with her tears as she tries to guilt me into fathering a few grandbabies.”
“So far you’ve resisted?”
“I think I want to get married first. I’m traditional that way.”
They looked at each other, then smiled.
“Want to take a walk?” he asked. “I can show you around The Wreath. It should stay quiet. The 5K ends at String of Lights Park, where there’s a whole barbecue set up for the participants and families. People won’t make their way back into The Wreath for a couple more hours.” He winked. “I can give you all kinds of insider information.”
“I’d like that.”
They tossed their trash and put their soda cans into the recycling bin. Lawson pointed to the first store on their left.
“Navidad Mexican Café. Everything’s good. Seriously, their combo platters are the best, and my sisters and mom swear the margaritas are delicious.”
Shaye grinned up at him. “You’re not a margarita kind of guy?”
“Not my thing. Okay, next is Holiday Spirits. That’s a bar. And they mean what the name says. Spirits.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Hard liquor. No beer or wine. Howard, the owner, is very fussy about that. And while there’s a food menu, he doesn’t like when people order from it.”
Shaye laughed. “Then, why does he offer it?”
“I have no idea.” He pointed. “You know about Judy’s Hand Pies, so there’s no need to explain that.”
They took a few more steps.
“We should go in here,” he said.
“Yule Read Books? I love the name.”
“It’s a bookstore-slash-gift store. There’s a lot of girl stuff like scented lotion and candles.”
Her mouth twitched as if she were trying not to smile. “You don’t enjoy scented lotion?”
“Not personally, but I like it on the women in my life.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Women as in plural? More than one at a time? Lawson, you shock me.”
He groaned. “I meant my sisters and my mom. They like to wear different scents, and it’s nice. They always smell good.”
“And the future Mrs. Lawson…”
“Easley,” he offered. “As of now, she’s being elusive, but I’m pretty sure she’s going to smell good, too.”
“Have you ever been married?”
“I was engaged once. She decided Wishing Tree wasn’t for her, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
They were standing nice and close. He liked that. Lawson thought briefly about kissing her. He already knew it would be a good kiss, the kind that not only got his blood pumping but actually meant something. Those were the kisses that mattered. He wasn’t interested in a single night—not anymore. He wanted a relationship, and a first kiss often told him if that was going to happen. But it seemed a little soon, and he didn’t want to rush things. Not when everything about Shaye felt so…right.
“Let’s go check it out,” she said, pointing to the bookstore. “I could use a good book and some scented lotion. You can help me pick out the right one.”
“I can suggest several books,” he teased.
She gave him a gentle push. “I meant the lotion.”
“I knew that.”
“I knew you knew.”
They were both still laughing when they walked inside.