USA TODAY BESTSELLER
"Small-town contemporary romance at its finest." - Krist Cook, NYT Bestselling Author
Twenty-five years is a long time to be stuck in the Friend Zone. For the last dozen of those years, Jayne has lived half way across the country, and even though she and Nick have stayed in contact, she hasn't actually seen him since he kicked her out of his wife's funeral almost four years ago.
Does she still have feelings for Nick? Possibly. . .maybe. . .okay, yes, but the Jayne who left town all those years ago is not the same Jayne who's moving back. This Jayne is smarter, more experienced, and determined to build herself a better life, the kind of life she wants and deserves. She's a grown-ass woman with a plan for crying out loud, and she's not about to let these feelings for Nick slow her down another second.
But from the second she hits town, she knows it's only a matter of time before this freight train of disaster derails in spectacular fashion, and when it does, she's not only going to lose her best friend, but the only family she's ever known.
© copyright 2014
We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.
—Andrew Clark, The Breakfast Club
Half-hidden in the growing shadows of the store-lined street, and almost four years since Jayne had last seen him, the walk was still the same; left hand tucked down the front pocket of his jeans and a slight limp on the right.
He shuffled to a stop a couple feet away from her, hesitated, then stood there with an awkward half smile, half wince like he wasn’t sure if it would be okay to hug her or if he should duck in case she took a swing at him. It wasn’t that she hadn’t thought about punching him—and hard—over the last four years, but this was Nick.
She couldn’t very well stay mad at her best friend forever.
But best friend or not, that didn’t mean Jayne wanted him hugging her right there in the middle of Main Street for Pete’s sake. He’d do it anyway, it was just a matter of when, and even though she knew it was coming, Jayne wasn’t ready. She never was. The only thing she could do was resort to her usual defense: crossed arms, a sigh, and a smirk.
“You can never just stick to a plan, can you? I said I’d call when I got here.”
“You also said you’d be here by one and it’s . . .” Nick tapped his watch, held it up to his ear, then tapped it again, his eyes softening into a mocking grin as he did. “Look at that—two fifteen.”
He held his hands out, palms up, and started toward her. Jayne took a step back but not fast enough. He was already hugging her. Tight. And right in the middle of the sidewalk for all the lookie-loos to see.
“Welcome home, Jayne.” His arms were like a vise; not letting up even after she’d given him her token pat and let her arms fall.
Jittery laughter caught in her throat, trapped by an avalanche of emotion she was wholly unprepared for. Gillette Foamy, sunshine and sawdust; it was the combined scent that had always been his, the one she’d tried so hard to put out of her mind, and failed so miserably at.
“I . . . can’t . . . breathe.” She squirmed and twisted until his grip began to ease, albeit slowly. Finally free, Jayne retreated a step, scowled at him through her grin, and tried to ignore the stares from the two old guys outside the hardware store across the street. Thackery and Thayer Ostlund never missed a thing that happened downtown. They’d opened that store long before Jayne had been born and the only way they’d leave was in side-by-side pine boxes.
In unison, the twin brothers grinned and waved, which Jayne returned with a chuckle and an added eye roll.
“Great. Back in town two minutes and by this time tomorrow, T-Squared’ll have everyone thinking we were having sex on the sidewalk.”
“Look at you.” Nick’s grin warmed as his gaze moved over her face, completely oblivious to the old guys’ stares. “You look great.”
Jayne snorted and adjusted the brim of her faded blue ball cap. “No one looks great after being on the road for three days.”
If this is what he thought great looked like, he obviously needed a good optometrist. Her hair was at least six months past its last cut, her face hadn’t seen makeup since Christmas, and the only good thing she could say about her clothes was that the rip across her knee was from constant wear and washes, and not from the ten pounds she’d gained since the last time she saw him.
Nick, on the other hand, looked just as good now as he had in high school; maybe better. His thick dark hair was still short and untidy, the little gold and green flecks in his eyes seemed to have darkened a bit, and his Garth Brooks T-shirt fit him better now than it did when she bought it for him senior year.
Who kept T-shirts for that long? And, more to the point, who could still fit into them?
His awkward smile returned, bringing with it a shadow that fell over his eyes, a worry that could only mean one thing.
“Oh no.” Jayne shook her head slowly, trying to warn him off with a wide-eyed glare. “Don’t even—”
“I’m really sorry.”
Damn it. Normal people waited until they were somewhere a little more private, but that’s not how Nick worked. He’d never cared what anyone else thought of him. If he wanted to hug someone, he did it, if he wanted to say something, he said it, and he never gave a good hot damn where he was or who was watching.
“Yeah,” Jayne muttered. “The first three hundred apologies made that pretty clear.”
“Phone calls and emails don’t count.”
“Some were texts. And those first few came with flowers.” She pulled her key ring out of her pocket and twirled it around her index finger until Nick grabbed it and held it still.
“Nick.” She tipped her face up to his and offered him the same mocking little grin he’d flashed her a minute ago. Didn’t work. The worry lingered in his eyes, his mouth twisted a little to the right. If she gave even the slightest hint at how much he’d hurt her, she’d no doubt find herself back in his vise grip until every one of her ribs popped. Best to dismiss it—and quickly.
“So you kicked me out of your wife’s funeral in front of a church full of people. Big deal. It’s not like it was the first time I was shown the door in this town.”
The green flecks in Nick’s eyes darkened and his jaw tightened, but before he said anything else, she yanked the key ring out of his grip and stared straight back at him.
“Seriously. Enough already.”
After a long exhale, he tipped his chin toward the papered-up store front behind her. “You been inside?”
“No.” She hesitated, turned her gaze toward the old building. “Not yet.”
Water-stained brown paper covered the windows and door, and a thick layer of grime plastered the glass on the outside. How many times had she washed those windows? How many books had she displayed behind the glass and how many times had she taken the broom to those nasty cobwebs hanging from the shingle overhang?
Twelve years ago she’d stood in this exact spot when Gran shut the door behind her without so much as a goodbye, good luck, or kiss my ass. Over those dozen years, Jayne had come back to town a few times to see Nick, but as much as she’d wanted to, she’d never set foot back inside the store, and after being humiliated at Abby’s funeral four years ago, Jayne had made a point of avoiding the whole town in general.
There was no avoiding it now; it was long past time to accept the fact that Gran had never loved her, and all those years of wishing for a normal family had been a waste of time.
Nick could hug her until the cows came home, it wouldn’t make a spit of difference now. Gran was dead and Jayne had no other family.
What she did have, though, was the bookstore. Eleven hundred square feet that had been her escape for so many years. If she closed her eyes, she could still tell exactly where and how deep each crack was in the plank floor, how many pocket books fit in any given section, and how many times the baseboard heaters clicked before they warmed up. Six on a normal day, eight in the dead of winter.
“Hey.” Nick’s voice, low and quiet, startled her back to the present. “You okay?”
He only hesitated a second. “Liar.”
Jayne chuckled through a snort and shrugged. “Yeah. Just seems weird to be back here now after everything.”
Pinching the key tightly, she slid it into the lock, then stopped. “When I picked up the key at the lawyer’s office,” she said, “he told me one of the building inspectors wants to meet me here on Tuesday morning to ‘go over some things,’ so I’m guessing there are a few problems.”
“Well, sure. The building’s old, and your gran’s had it locked up tighter than Fort Knox for . . . what . . . six, seven years at least. It’ll definitely need some work, but we’ll get in there before—”
“Easy there, Extreme Makeover.” Jayne held up her right hand. “Slide the hammer back into your tool belt and relax. All he said was that there’s been some kind of code violation, so there’s no need to get yourself all excited yet.”
“Violation?” Nick frowned. “What kind of violation?”
“He didn’t say, but I don’t want you to start swinging your hammer until I’ve had a chance to talk to him.”
“We’ll talk to him together,” Nick muttered. “And then we’ll fix whatever the problem is and the city can go to hell, just like your gran would have wanted.”
“Assuming it’s fixable, you mean.”
“Jayne. Your gran wouldn’t leave you the store if it was beyond repair.”
“Seriously?” Jayne snorted. “Gran’d do it just to spite me.”
Nick could give her all the guilt-inducing looks he liked; Jayne wasn’t about to pretend the relationship she had with Gran was anything other than what it was.
“You were the one who grew up like Beaver Cleaver, Nick, not me, so let’s not kid ourselves here. She left me the store because her only other option was letting the city claim it after she died and we all know she’d rather hand it over to Satan’s spawn—me—than give it to the city.”
With a deep, steadying breath she pulled the door open, but only got a single step inside before she stopped. Something wasn’t right. With the windows papered up; she expected the place to be dark, but this was too dark. Suffocatingly dark.
And the smell!
Nick moved around her into the gloom and bobbed his head toward the wall. “Hit the light.”
Her hand instinctively reached out for the switch, but at the first whisper of cobweb against her hand, she jerked back.
“Guh!” Before she had time to find the flashlight app on her phone, Nick snickered, leaned behind her, and flicked the switch himself.
The lights stuttered on one at a time until the entire store—or what used to be the store—was bathed in twitching, yellowish fluorescent light.
“Oh my . . .” The rest of Jayne’s words got sucked out with her breath.
A thick blanket of gray dust covered everything—and there was a lot of everything. Boxes teetered in stacks almost ceiling high, huge green garbage bags bulged and spilled out through tears, newspapers, magazines, dishes, blankets, silk flowers, a toy shopping cart . . .
So. Much. Stuff.
There must be some mistake. This couldn’t be Gran’s store. What happened? Where were the bookshelves? Or the sales counter? For the love of God, where was the floor?
The only empty spaces Jayne could see were the small bare spot they were standing on and a narrow path trampled between the stacks that led toward the back of the store. She didn’t know how long they stood there, but it was long after the door whooshed shut behind them that she finally blinked.
Nick’s wide eyes stared back at her. “Holy shit.”
“I’m . . .” She pressed her hand against the nearest box and exhaled slowly. “I-I . . . what the hell is all this?”
Nick lifted a box from the top of the nearest stack, shifted it to his left hip, and sliced open the tape with his pocketknife. Bundles of baby clothes; knitted booties, sleepers, undershirts, and a whole stack of cloth diapers folded in neat squares.
Nick glanced up at Jayne, his brow raised as he whistled softly. “Something you wanna tell me?”
“Very funny.” It was all she could do to shake her head. “Could it be someone else’s stuff?”
“I don’t know, but why else would she have all of this, and how did she get it all in here?” Her fingers tightened around her phone as she narrowed her glare at Nick. “And why the hell didn’t anyone tell me?”
“Don’t look at me.” He tucked the flaps together and foisted the box back where it came from. “Mom said your gran hadn’t let anyone in here since she closed the place.”
“Someone had to know!”
“Who?” he asked. “Who’d let her do this and not say anything?”
“I don’t know, Nick, but someone had to know something. No sane person has this much crap without it being noticed—especially in this town!”
“Yelling’s not going to help.” He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “I’m tellin’ you, she was the exact same Tilly she always was. The clothes . . . the hair, the makeup . . .” His voice dropped. “The shopping bags.”
“What? She always carried those bags with her, you know that.”
Okay, he had a point.
“Where was she living?”
Nick swallowed hard. “Here.”
“If she’d moved somewhere else, Mom would’ve told me.”
A tiny shred of hope flickered in her mind. “Then maybe the apartment isn’t like this. Maybe it’s okay.”
Nick didn’t even pretend to look convinced; he just exhaled slowly and squeezed his way through the too-narrow path between the stacks. Jayne moved behind him, keeping her hands above her head in case something started to fall.
“God almighty.” She gagged into her elbow. “What is that smell?”
They inched farther until they made it to the stairwell at the back of the store. To the left of the stairs was the tiny space that led to the back door. It was also the space Gran had always used to sort incoming books, but now it was crammed with more crap, and in addition to the deadbolt that had always been there, the back door was now secured with three separate padlocks.
“Don’t suppose you have keys for those?” he asked.
Jayne shook her head and eyed the stairs anxiously. By the looks of it, Gran had trampled herself a path to the top of the thirteen stairs, but to do so, she’d walked over more clothes, more bags, and God only knew what else.
“Oh my God. It’s a wonder she didn’t fall and break her neck.” At the top of those stairs was the tiny one-bedroom apartment Jayne had grown up in; the same one she was supposed to be moving into right this minute. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen.
Using his foot, Nick pushed everything on the bottom step to the far right, leaving just enough room for them to get their feet flat. He then repeated this twelve more times before they were able to open the door at the top.
“Oh my . . .” Flies dive-bombed open garbage bags, dirty clothes, papers, and food-encrusted dishes. Plastic Santas, cardboard boxes, tipped-over plants, kitty litter, wicker baskets, boxes of crackers, bread, empty soup cans, rotting vegetables, Elvis bobbleheads . . . there wasn’t an inch of clear space anywhere. They’d found the smell.
“Watch it.” Nick’s arm shot across her chest, pushing her back a step as a long gray rat darted past them and disappeared into what used to be the living room.
Jayne’s stomach heaved and her knees started to buckle. “I can’t . . . I . . . what . . .”
Nick whipped her around and marched her back down the stairs, making sure the door was closed tight behind him. He half lifted, half pulled her through the mess downstairs until they were outside with the front door locked behind them.
“Oh. My. God.” Jayne managed to make it to the curb before her legs gave out. “Tell me she wasn’t living there with rats.”
Nick shook his head in disbelief but didn’t answer. As he lowered himself to the curb next to her, he wrapped his arm around Jayne’s shoulder. Instead of pulling away like she normally would have, she closed her eyes and inhaled a long, deep breath of comfort; Gillette Foamy, sunshine and sawdust.
She’d given up everything to move back here; her apartment, her furniture. Her job. And now she had no place to live, no income except the money Gran had left, and everything she owned was crammed in the back of her six-year-old Ford Escape.
“I can’t even . . . I don’t . . . I have to go.” She tried to stand, but Nick held her down.
“Where’re you gonna go?” His voice was low, even, and stable. So Nick. “Just sit still for a second and try to calm down.”
“Calm down?” Jayne choked over a snort. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”
Nick rubbed his hand up and down her arm as though to warm her, but Jayne shrugged out from under his touch. Experience had taught her that sitting with him like that while she was stressed would only do one thing, and she was not about to cry out there on the curb.
She leaned over her knees and pressed her fists tight against her eyes as Nick pulled his arm back and sighed.
“Sorry, She-Who-Should-Not-Be-Touched, but you don’t have to hide from me, Jayne. Go ahead and cry—”
“I’m not crying!” She sat up and dropped her hands in case he didn’t believe her. Hell, she even forced a smile. Or maybe it was a grimace. “Nothing Gran did ever made me cry, Nick, it was always you.”
“I never made you cry,” he murmured. “I let you cry. There’s a difference.”
Ignoring her protests, he pulled her back against his side and held her tighter than before. “Cry or don’t cry. I don’t know what else to do right now, so I’m just going to sit here and hug you until we come up with a better idea.”
They sat in silence for a long while as people in orange vests set up barricades at the intersection in front of Gran’s store and redirected traffic to Second Avenue and Loggers Lane. It didn’t seem to matter that Jayne’s dream had just come to a screeching halt; it was the first weekend in August, and in the town of Newport Ridge, that meant Loggers Sports Weekend. People came from all over the world to take part in the events—everything from chair carving to the springboard chop, from the chokerman’s race to log birling, a huge parade, and tonight’s opening event—the bed races.
In a couple hours, the sidewalks would be swarming with families jockeying for the best place to watch as teams raced their decorated gurneys down Main Street.
Did any of them know what was behind the papered-up windows of the old second-hand bookstore? Did any of them care?“Are you running a bed tonight?” Jayne forced each word past the tightness in her throat. It was a stupid question; of
course Nick was running a bed, he always did, but how much longer could they sit there and not say anything?
“Jayne.” Nick breathed a sigh against the top of her head, completely ignoring her question. “It’s going to be okay.”
“How?” she choked. “How the hell is it going to be okay? That store was like . . . a refuge . . . and not just to me. It was the one place a person could go and not be judged. Fat or skinny, ugly or pretty, it never mattered. Geek, nerd, jock, princess . . . you could always find understanding in a good book. And if the only parent you ever had was a miserable old bat who’d been forced to raise you when her own daughter OD’d, those books were especially understanding, and now it’s . . . it’s . . . shit!”
“I know.” He squeezed her tighter yet, then helped her up. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
What else could she do but nod? She didn’t even protest when Nick wrapped his arm around her shoulders again and steered her down the street, away from her store, her car, and what was supposed to have been her new home. Now what the hell was she supposed to do?
“Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want.”
Typical Nick; she could ask for the moon right then and he’d find a way to wrangle it. But Jayne didn’t want the moon.
“I could use a drink.”
“Just one?” His laughter rumbled quietly as he squeezed her shoulder. “I think I could use six.”
“. . .the ride of a lifetime. . .” – Camille Flores, Girl Meets Books
“A tale told well—without being overly steamy.” - Judy Taylor Garner, Library Journal
“Absolutely charming, engaging and entertaining – The Book Goddess, Amazon review
“. . .perfect feel good, friends to lovers romance. . .I really loved each and every character in this story. . .” – Jaime @FTLOBbyJBlog, Amazon review
“Romantic love, almost delicate, Laura Drewry captures love at its best with humor, warmth and a trip down memory lane at the beginning of each chapter!” – Dii, Amazon review
“It’s comical, sweet, cute and refreshingly innocent.” – Dalitza, Amazon review
“I loved this book!” – cleosmom, Amazon review
“. . .I loved it, such a great story. Check it out and you will love it too.” – Mary8808 B&N Review