by Nancy Naigle
Series: Boot Creek, Book Two
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Montlake Romance
Release Date: August 30, 2016
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Megan Howard used to be a successful painter—but that was a long time ago. These days she’s struggling to move forward, convinced her heart is permanently broken after her last relationship and grief stricken over the loss of her father. Clinging to memories of happier times, she holds tight to her father’s most cherished possession: a 1958 DeSoto Adventurer. Though she needs the money, she’ll never sell it—even loaning the prized automobile to her best friend on the day of her wedding stirs up painful memories.
Avowed bachelor and car collector Noah Black has never seen a car he can live without…or a woman he can live with. Reluctant to see his best friend condemned to matrimony, he flies to Boot Creek from California to be the best man in the wedding. But after discovering that the gorgeous maid of honor owns the car of his dreams, Noah makes a pricey bet that he’ll add the DeSoto to his collection, no matter what it takes.
Despite their determination to stay single, Noah and Megan soon find they can’t resist each other. His attention turns from getting the car to getting the girl, and thanks to Noah, Megan can imagine a life in the present. But when the truth about Noah’s wager comes to light, will it threaten to throw Megan’s new perspective into reverse?
The oppressive heat took a toll on folks this time of year in Boot Creek. The humidity hung on Megan’s skin and permeated her hair, now three times its normal size. As she sorted through her mail, the envelopes clung to each other, damp and lacking that crisp sound of paper she’d normally expect as she opened them.
August. It was always hot in North Carolina in August, but for some reason this summer seemed heavy—like winter and spring had gorged on too many baked goods. Megan missed the normal hustle-bustle of neighbors out on Main Street grabbing lunch and finishing up errands, but it was so stifling that people were staying inside. The mayor had even suspended the road-crew work until this heat wave passed.
Megan dropped the junk mail in a trash can next to the light post on the corner of Main Street, then ran her freshly painted nail under the seal on an envelope from the town of Boot Creek. They hadn’t wasted a moment billing her for Daddy’s prized possession. She’d only had the 1958 DeSoto Adventurer convertible for a few weeks.
Apparently since the old car had antique tags, she got a flat rate regardless of the value. She wasn’t sure how much the car was worth, but word had traveled fast that it was hers now and the offers she’d already received were impressive.
Johnny Morris had offered to put in a whole new air-conditioning system with dual zones at Balanced Buzz, her candle business, in exchange for Daddy’s car, but there was no way she could part with that car. Daddy was a lot of things, including an embarrassment at times, but she was a daddy’s girl and that car meant the world to him, so it meant the world to her.
That car wasn’t going anywhere, even if Balanced Buzz could really use that air-conditioning upgrade. This time of year it just didn’t pay to make candles in the hot part of the day. The air-conditioning in her old building worked hard enough without her adding heat from melting beeswax to the equation. So Megan adjusted her hours to keep the expenses down and profit margin wide. And that was fine with her, because she always had been a night owl.
To her, the value of Daddy’s car lay in the memories they’d shared riding around in it. Enough memories to fill that car, and that was really saying something. That model had to be one of the longest two-door cars ever built. Darn thing just barely fit in her garage bay.
And seeing’s how she lived in what used to be a gas station with commercial-sized mechanics bays . . . that was saying something. It wouldn’t surprise her to learn that this car wouldn’t fit in the garage of a modern-day home.
Lucky for her, daddy had hooked her up with the gas-station-turned-house and workshop when she graduated from college. Maybe that was the reason he’d left the car to her and not his way-too-young-for-Dad, go-go-dancin’ bride, Tiffany.
The thought of that girl made Megan bristle. To be fair, Tiffany wasn’t a dancer anymore, but it was no secret that Daddy had discovered her at Headlights Bar off the interstate a few exits down. Not one of his finest days.
Tiffany had no clue how special the car was. She’d begged Daddy to sell it and buy a new sports car. Something flashy and red. No surprise that Tiffany had gone right out and bought herself a bright red Corvette as soon as that life insurance check cleared the bank. Thank goodness Daddy had updated his will. Tiffany never would have let Megan have the car otherwise. Even though everyone knew that was Daddy’s intention. Tiffany was a gold digger from the word go.
Standing there on the corner of Water Loop Way, Megan felt her heart squeeze. A rush of heat soared through her body. Don’t let this be a heart attack. This wasn’t the first time she’d had that sinking feeling and pain in her heart right down to her gut since Daddy died. Now the DeSoto was hers, and that was all she had left. This bill made him being gone feel that much more final. Was that enough to give a gal her age a heart attack?
She pressed her hand against her heart and took in a breath. Relax. Sweeping a hand under her nose to chase that tickle that came right before tears fell, she straightened and inhaled deeply.
Tucking the rest of the mail into her purse, she shifted on her feet. How long had she been standing there? The pavement was scorching. She wished she’d worn her tennis shoes instead of these strappy heels. When she’d put them on, she’d thought it would be a good short walk to break in the shoes she’d be wearing in Angie’s wedding so her feet wouldn’t be killing her all night at the reception next weekend. Bad idea. She crossed over Cabot Street and tugged on the door to Mom’s shop, Bootsie’s Bouquets.
Brightly colored summer blooms filled tall hand-painted cones that Megan had painted for Bootsie, her mother, years ago. They’d held up well. Next to the flowers, racks of beautiful ribbon that Mom made special buying trips to pick out looked like a kaleidoscope of texture and color. Across the room, an antique breakfront painted whimsical lavender and distressed with turquoise accents held a hefty inventory of Balanced Buzz candles. Mom was Megan’s biggest fan. She hand sold a fair share of candles each year, but most of Megan’s sales came from her storefront on the Internet.
“Good morning, Mom.” She forced an easy smile, hoping that Mom wouldn’t notice the panic she’d been feeling just moments before.
Bootsie raised a hand in the air from behind the counter where she was ringing up a customer.
Megan headed straight for the glass-front refrigerator where the fresh flower arrangements were stored. She opened the doors, holding her arms out to the side. Her skin drank in the cool air, and thankfully her heart rate began to slow. It was only three lousy blocks from her house to Sew ’n Sew Formal where she was meeting Angie and the others for the final dress fitting. And after only one block, she was sticky with sweat. Crazy. How gross to go to a dress fitting feeling like you just finished a hot yoga session? She watched her mom walk her customer to the door. The man carried a long white box with a generous lipstick-red ribbon tied around it. Roses, no doubt.
“There a movie playing in there?” Bootsie asked.
“Real funny.” Megan smirked, but the truth was that phrase gave her pause. Not because it was something Mom had always said. No, it reminded her of Dad. And Mom knew it. Her parents may have been divorced for going on eight years, but no one knew Daddy better. He’d made that comment a million times when Megan was growing up—and that memory tugged at her. But not like most dads would have said it, because he wasn’t complaining. He knew looking in the fridge for a sweet treat was a waste of time. She got her sweet tooth from her Dad, but Mom had been such a health nut there’d never been anything besides fruit and yogurt. Luckily, he’d rescue her from the waste of time standing there wishing for a cupcake or soda, suggesting they go out and hunt down a snack together. Living one block off of Main Street had made life very convenient for that, and it was probably all the extra time they’d spent together dodging Mom’s health-nut kicks that had made her closer to him.
“It’s hotter than h—”
“Don’t even say it.” Bootsie narrowed her gaze.
“Heck. Hotter than heck out there.” Megan let the door slam, thankful for that last rush of cool air that pushed against her. Even now, close to thirty, Mom ruled.
“You trying to make some sort of new fashion statement?”
Megan looked down at her soft pink blouse, opened over a bright pink tank top and faded blue jeans. “What’s wrong with this?”
Her mom homed in on her feet.
“Yes. I can’t say that high heels and blue jeans is exactly a good look. Although it is nice to finally see you wearing something a little ladylike.”
Mom was always hounding her about being a lady. It was old when she was thirteen, and now closer to thirty . . . it was still not welcome advice.
Bootsie’s lips bunched. “You know you can’t wear open-toed shoes without your toenails painted. Totally taboo.”
Megan wasn’t sure what made her mother think she was the fashion police, but still, there she was, ready to make an excuse. “I’m just wearing them to the fitting, and we have pedicures set up for Thursday. I promise I won’t let anyone see me. Besides, I thought I’d break them in, but there’s not much to these things for as much as they cost. About burned my toes off out there.”
“Fine. Well, since you’re here, Angie’s ribbon finally came in. I’ve got it over by the register.” Bootsie turned and hurried to get the ribbon. She made up for being short by walking two or three steps to the one of any average person, which had always made Megan think of the Energizer Bunny, the way she scampered. Bootsie lifted two large spools of ribbon for Megan to see. “Sure hope it matches this time.” She bounced the two big spools in separate hands, looking a bit like a scale of justice. “I got this roll of white with pearlescent seed beads along the edge, just in case we have to go to plan B. Take them with you, so Angie can decide what she wants to go with.”
“You always think of everything.” Megan walked over and took the two spools of ribbon and tucked them into the top of her oversized leather handbag. “Thanks, Mom,” she said, leaning over the counter to kiss her on the cheek. “Love you.”
“You’re welcome, darling.” As Megan headed for the door, she called out, “Send me a picture of you in your gown. I’m dying to see you in it.”
“Come with me. You know Angie won’t mind. It’ll be fun.”
“I can’t,” Bootsie said. “This weekend is the first high school football game of the season. I’ve got orders for thirty-eight corsages to make for that, plus putting together all of the bouquets and arrangements for Angie’s wedding. I can’t get away. Text me, though.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Megan knew what the unspoken words that followed would have been. High time you walked down that aisle too, Megan.
Since Daddy’s unexpected passing, even Mom had been gentler. Megan’s heart ached for her dad. He drove her half-crazy most of the time; Mom had always said that was because Megan was so much like her daddy, but knowing he’d never be back made it darn near impossible to breath sometimes.
Megan crossed over at the second block to Sew ’n Sew Formal and Tailoring. When she walked inside, soft music filled the store. Funny she hadn’t noticed it the last time they’d all met there to pick out the dresses, but darned if it didn’t sound a lot like the funeral home. She shook off that thought. Maybe everything felt like a funeral lately.
Last night she’d decided that she needed to be honest with Angie about the DeSoto. It wasn’t going to be an easy discussion, but ever since the car had been delivered to her, she’d been a nervous wreck about it.
Daddy had agreed to let Angie and Jackson use his prized convertible as the getaway ride for their wedding. It had really surprised Megan, because Daddy never let anyone drive that car. It had been a generous gesture on his part. But then Angie had been like a second daughter; she and Megan had spent so much time together.
Yet now that Megan had the car tucked safely in her garage, she wasn’t sure she could risk taking a chance on it getting damaged. The Adventurer had never even seen a raindrop. What if something happened? What if it rained? Dad leaving her that car came with an unwritten agreement that she’d love it just like he had.
Written or implied, she took it seriously.
So, after a lot of thought, she’d decided to rent a limo for Angie and Jackson’s big day. She’d even sprung for the champagne package. Five hundred dollars for the fanciest car they had was a small price to pay for protecting her last connection to Daddy.
“There you are,” Carla, the owner of Sew ’n Sew Formal, said, sounding a bit stressed.
“Fashionably late,” Angie said with a laugh. “Carla was worried to death. I wasn’t.”
But Megan knew better. Angie had been just waiting for something to go wrong and ruin her perfect happily ever after. She was so darned certain that if she’d only paid attention to the warning flags when she married Rodney, her good-for-nothin’ first husband, she could have spared herself a lot of heartache. So now, Angie was hyperaware.
Carla waved her hands in the air, clearly frustrated to be off schedule. “Come on over here, Megan. Everyone else is already in the back waiting. You’re the maid of honor, dear, you’re supposed to be the first one here.”
None of them lived more than a couple miles away. What was the big deal? Okay, so she’d dawdled the whole way over. And she’d intended to be on time today. For a change. Maybe she wasn’t quite as ready to have that conversation with Angie about the car as she’d thought.
“I stopped and got the ribbon Mom reordered.”
Angie held up her hand and crossed her fingers. “I’m praying it matches.”
“Me too.” Megan held up the ribbon that was supposed to match and the white, pearl-edged ribbon. “We’ve got options. It’ll work out.”
“Brilliant!” Angie heaved a sigh of relief. “You always have a backup plan.”
Carla led Angie and Megan to the fitting room area.
Katy sat on the love seat next to Flynn, who owned the B and B in town.
“Megan! Finally!” Flynn, the teetotaler of the group, spun around in such delight that if Megan didn’t know better, she’d think she’d been sipping champagne, but that was highly unlikely for any of them in this bridal shop, since Carla was the preacher’s wife.
Carla moved through the room as if she were on roller skates. “Now that we’re finally all here, we can begin.”
“Sorry.” Megan was pretty sure Carla still hadn’t forgiven her for the time Megan had accidentally ridden her bicycle through the woman’s treasured rose garden. It had been no picnic for her either. Dr. Hansen had had to dig stickers out of half of Megan’s right side that day. The woman had been snippy with her for the next fifteen years. Talk about holding a grudge.
Megan lowered herself into an old velveteen Queen Anne chair. The hodgepodge of fine antiques and practical things, like the tall plastic oscillating fan, held its own kind of charm. The air-conditioning was no competition for the heat in this old draft building. Wispy fabrics fluttered every time the fan made a thankful pass from left to right.
“Here we go.” Angie followed Carla into the bride’s dressing room. The heavy door clicked closed behind them. The elegant etched glass that adorned the back of the door had to have been from the early nineteen hundreds—the glass wavy and scratched.
Megan’s nerves fluttered as they waited for Angie. Katy and Flynn chattered about potato salad recipes, but Megan only half listened. Her mind was on Angie and the wedding. Jackson was so good for her best friend, but her own anxieties about relationships and weddings wouldn’t quit nagging at her. Why couldn’t she just be happy for Angie and not worry so much?
A moment later the mirrored door opened and Angie stepped out onto the raised carpeted platform.
A collective hush fell across the room.
Angie’s smile was wide, but a nervous twitch played at her lips. She held her arms out and turned slowly, the ivory chiffon gently sweeping the floor. “What do you think?”
A simple sleeveless A-line, with subtle beading at the waist, looked as elegant as her dark hair, which Carla had swept up into a loose chignon.
“Oh, Angie.” Megan blinked. Why am I so emotional today? “You look beautiful. Jackson is going to fall in love with you all over again when he sees you in that dress.”
Carla walked around her, tugging and smoothing Angie’s gown. “Looks perfect. How does it feel?”
“Perfect,” Angie whispered.
“It sure is,” Flynn said, then reached over from the love seat to where Megan was seated and grabbed Megan’s hand. “I hope I’ll be as beautiful when I’m a bride.”
“You will be.” Megan hoped Flynn would find a suitor soon. Bless her heart, the girl was dying to be married. Why was it the girls who wanted to get married never attracted the settling kind, and yet it seemed like every guy Megan went out with wanted a committed relationship? And she was never going down that road again. She’d found her soul mate, and Kevin had not only broken her heart, but wrecked her soul. A loss she still carried around like it happened yesterday.
Angie pointed toward Katy. “I have a feeling Katy might be your next customer, Carla.”
Katy blushed. “We haven’t gotten that far yet.” Katy, the newest resident of Boot Creek, had made fast friends with Angie the first week Katy happened into town. And even though Katy had only meant to stop for gas in Boot Creek, she’d come on the day of the Blackberry Festival and met Derek Hansen. It had been the day she was running away from heartbreak, and what she’d found in Boot Creek was a second chance at love and a whole new career.
“You will,” Angie said. “I know Derek. And yeah, he was broken when Laney died, but he is whole again with you.”
“He completes me too,” Katy said. “We’re not rushing things, but when the time’s right, all of you will be there at my side too. Right?”
“Of course,” they all agreed.
Megan lifted her hands in the air. “Angie, I think it looks like I can check off final wedding dress alterations from the list.” Her goal was to complete every single thing on this project plan on time with zero problems. Yes, everyone kept saying that was an impossible goal, but she took her goals seriously and was determined to make that happen.
Angie pressed her hands together and raised her fingertips to her lips. “It’s all coming together. Thank goodness. I’d already told myself that if there were any hiccups, I’d heed the signs and throw this all in reverse.”
Megan certainly wasn’t going to be the one to start that. That limo would just have to be cancelled. “It’s going to all go according to plan, Angie. I promise.”
“And I put together all the paperwork and itineraries for the honeymoon,” Katy said. “I brought the packet with me. I’m jealous that y’all are going to Alaska for two whole weeks. That is so on my bucket list now.”
“We could never have planned a two-week honeymoon if you and Derek hadn’t offered to keep Billy. I’m still so anxious about leaving him so long,” Angie said. “I know he’ll be fine with y’all. He’s so excited. But . . . ”
“And he’ll be fine. He loves Derek, and you know how I feel about him. The practice sleepovers have gone fine.”
“I know I’m a worrywart when it comes to him. I can’t help myself—he's a handful. All boy. I don’t think you know what you’ve got yourself into.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m excited,” Katy said. “Derek and I are going to have a blast playing house. It’s good practice for us. And I’ve always wanted to go school shopping. Now I have Billy as an excuse. Usually I pretend I’m stocking up for children that I don’t have so I can take advantage of all the amazing deals. I mean really. Who doesn’t go gaga over school supplies?”
“True,” Angie said, her brows knitting together. “Maybe I could squeeze in taking him school shopping this week.”
“Don’t you dare steal my fun, Angie! You can do school prep with Billy for the next ten years. And you’ll be home in plenty of time for his first day of school.”
“I would have never been able to plan this wedding without y’all. I have the best bridesmaids ever.” Angie’s eyes glistened, and as much of a pain as Megan could imagine her own mother would be in planning a wedding with her, she couldn’t imagine not having her mom around to do it.
A tear spilled down Angie’s cheek. “I love y’all. You’re the best friends any girl could ask for.”
“As maid of honor, I forbid any sappy crying jags. Even though we are pretty awesome.” Megan stepped onto the platform and handed Angie a tissue. “Don’t be getting weepy on us, you’ll stain your dress.”
Angie dabbed at her eyes. “We might need some wine on Saturday. Do you think they allow wine in the brides dressing area? I’m suddenly very nervous.”
“Not like back out nervous. Right?” Megan asked.
“No. Not like that. Maybe nervous isn’t the right word. Excited. Anxious. Insanely lucky. Too-good-to-be-true lucky.”
“No such thing,” Megan reassured her.
Carla walked over to the door at the far side of the room, then clapped her tiny hands together. “Okay, ladies. Let’s get your dresses on and check them one last time for fit.”
“Y’all’s turn,” Angie said. “I’ll be waiting right here.”
Carla rushed the girls along.
Megan, Katy, and Flynn followed Carla into the large dressing room. Their blue gowns, the color of summer skies in Carolina, hung on shiny silver hangers from hooks, one next to the other, along the wall. In the center of the room, a tall pedestal table gave the girls a little bit of privacy as they changed.
As soon as Carla left the room, Flynn said, “I hope my dress fits this time. Carla took it in the first time and out the second. I swear she got the measurements mixed up with one of y’all’s. I hadn’t gained or lost a pound.”
“Wouldn’t doubt it.” Megan laughed. “Old lady Carla has to be pushing her late seventies. She did the alterations on my mom’s wedding gown and that was over thirty years ago.”
As a little girl, Megan used to stare at the bridal portrait of her momma that hung in the hallway of their home. She’d looked so beautiful. And Megan dreamed of wearing that pretty white dress with the layers of chiffon. That was a long time ago. And all of those fairy-tale dreams had been shattered that summer night seven years ago.
Megan was the last one to step into her dress. Katy zipped her up just as Carla came back in carrying a box of silk flower bouquets that had seen better days. Years-old dust caked the green silk leaves in the stand-in bouquets. Megan’s mouth twitched in amusement as she rolled ick off of one of the petals. Flynn’s shoulders rocked as she got a fit of the giggles over it too.
Katy and Flynn lined up at the door, and Megan fell in behind them. Megan wasn’t the cry-at-a-Hallmark-movie kind of girl, but she had to admit this was pretty exciting. And realizing how very different Angie’s life was going to be now filled her with joy.
The door swung open and the girls filed out of the dressing room.
Angie gasped, a wide smile spreading across her face. “Y’all look beautiful.” She swept at a tear with the balled-up tissue she held in her hand.
“You’re crying,” Flynn asked.
“Again?” Megan said.
“She’s fine,” Katy said.
“Happy tears, right, Angie?” Megan forced a smile. This was going to be one long week.
“Totally happy tears. It’s overwhelming. Everything is so perfect. After being married to Rodney, and the hell he put me through to get that divorce, I never thought I’d be happy again. And now, not only do I have a son who brings joy to me every single day, but also I have the best friends. Y’all are so special to me. And I have Jackson. He loves me. He gets me, and I love him. The perfect guy. Perfect family. Perfect wedding venue, caterer, flowers, photographer, and even the perfect car to drive off in after the wedding. Could it possibly be any better?”
Megan swallowed hard. Probably not the perfect time to mention not letting Angie use the car.
“Not one red flag,” Angie continued. “I mean, it’s got to be some kind of sign when everything falls into place like it has. I know you remember, Megan. There was problem after problem planning that wedding. Right up to the day of. Why didn’t I see those snapping red flags?”
“Because you were in love with the idea of being in love, and the man you wanted Rodney to be,” Megan said. “Let it go. But I do remember you crying when the justice of the peace croaked on you the morning of the wedding, and you had to scramble for a new one. And that the cake was chocolate instead of almond, which I still say Rodney had something to do with.”
Angie’s lips curled. “Had to have been him. After all, it was his aunt who made the cake. You don’t just mix something like that up.”
“And why we’re not using her for your cake this time,” Flynn piped in. “You don’t have to worry about that nincompoop anymore.”
“Unfortunately, I still have to deal with him because of Billy, but my boy is worth every aggravation that man ever caused me. This time there aren’t any warning flags. Not one last-minute hitch.” She reached her hand for Megan’s. “And that reassures me that things are going to be different this time. I really am this lucky.”
Megan’s heart shrank. How can I let Angie down? She’d been so excited to use Daddy’s car for her wedding. What kind of maid of honor am I? “I won’t let anything ruin your day.” Megan hugged Angie. “And I know Jackson is right for you. Don’t you worry.”
“Let me get a picture,” Carla said, waving her hand to get them to scoot in. “Smile, and say happy.”
“Happy,” they said in harmony.
Carla waved her arm toward the group, then clicked off a couple pictures. “Okay, you girls all go get changed. Angie and the rest of y’all, do you want me to have the dresses delivered over to the bridal area at First Baptist Saturday morning?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Angie said. “That’ll be a big help, Carla.”
Katy was the first to get changed and leave. Megan hung back, hoping to get a minute alone with Angie where she could discuss the car with her, but between Flynn talking about the arrangements for all of the out-of-town guests that would be arriving the next day to stay at her bed and breakfast and Carla running down a punch list of things with Angie, Megan finally begged off.
Probably a sign.
Megan still had to finish several special orders including the guest gift votives that Angie had asked her to make for everyone coming to the wedding, and that meant she was going to need to pick up an extra order of beeswax from the local apiary to fill the orders she’d get this week.
With a couple quick hugs, and promises to catch up later, Megan stepped outside. At least a slight breeze was kicking up now. In the last hour and a half, it had at least turned bearable out here. The breeze blew through her hair, cooling against the hot sun. It was during these dog days of summer like today that Daddy would have taken her for a ride in the Adventurer. There’d be no ride today, though. She hadn’t even had the heart to start the thing since the tow truck had delivered it and maneuvered it into the tight quarters of her garage bay.
Daddy, I wish I knew for sure what it was you wanted me to do with this car now that you’re gone, because riding in it will never be the same without you.
USA TODAY Bestselling author, Nancy Naigle, writes love stories from the crossroad of small town and suspense in hopes that readers will find an escape from their hectic day-to-day in the make-believe worlds she creates.