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If Avery Grant had to sum up the last twenty-four hours it would be akin to her Uncle Steve’s peeled pickled lemons. They were exactly as nasty as the name suggested. He didn’t even try to doll it up after she’d asked about the odd-looking fruit on his counter one summer afternoon when the only thing she had to worry about was high school drama and who would be taking her to prom.
A shudder started in her shoulders and worked through her body all the way to the tips of her toes. Years later and the name still had the power to make her taste buds shiver and threaten a revolt.
Those homemade sour bombs lingered on the tongue for days, weeks even, and were just as putrid to smell. But in one of her uncle’s moments of sharing deep life lessons, he swore to her and all her brothers, if they all managed to eat one nothing else would compare when it came to the lemons life liked to deal out.
She chuckled at the memory.
She learned two things that day. Nosiness might be good for reporting, but there was a limit and to never ask a question you didn’t want the answer to.
The memory forced her face into a pucker. Not that her uncle’s knowledge helped in any way at the moment, but she had to admit the man was right.
Her current situation smelled and tasted like a pickled lemon.
As of nine the previous morning her boss delivered a one hundred percent bitter and admittedly well-earned ultimatum in a none-too-sweet fashion. Either turn in a story about something that hooked readers on every word. Or, she could turn in her clearance badge. No more extensions, no more excuses.
She tightened her grip on the wheel. Fog would be easier to see through than her clouded mind. Maybe she should ask for a transfer to the gossip column and have a little fun writing about some silver screen hunk and his latest Hollywood squeeze.
On the heels of that thought came another. “Maybe Chris Pratt would be open for an interview.”
Avery gazed out as hints of blue and fuchsia lit the fringes of the summer sky overtop the mountains.
Reporting flowed through her veins like melodies did for a singer. At the age of nine, she wrote about the neighbor’s new puppies. At twelve she secured a spot at the school’s paper with yet another piece on getting more nutritious lunches served. And then again in high school when she went after better equipment for the sports teams that earned her accolades in her senior year with the football team.
The sweet memory pulled a smile across her lips. Her full-page article earned her a coveted date with the hunky quarterback. She’d been the most popular girl that year.
Drake Hunter. He’d been her first true kiss. Ah…to be that age again.
By the time college rolled around, she worked her way up to editor for Vancouver’s BCU. It wasn’t long after opportunities knocked when a piece she wrote on youth centers in the city grabbed some important bigwigs’ attention and gave her a foot in with New York’s top paper.
She tapped her thumb on the steering wheel to a saucy country tune she didn’t quite feel.
All that success weighed more than the world on her shoulders. Everyone from her editor to her parents looked to her next piece expecting it to be better than the last. Frankly, it sucked the life out of her and her muse let her know it too.
She flicked the radio off, preferring the silence to some heartbreaking romance about too much whiskey and too little love.
She gripped the wheel and forced determination around her noodle of a spine.
“Snap out of it, Grant.” Since when did the Grant family back down from a challenge or quit? She wasn’t about to be the first.
“Think happy thoughts. Think happy thoughts.” Avery chanted until the pressure on her chested eased a fraction.
Everything from her lavender-tipped toes up vibrated as she popped the clutch in her old-timey Beetle and down-shifted as she rumbled over the city limit. A friend had dropped the oldie but goodie off at the airport for her on their way out to Switzerland. The arrangement worked out great. Her friend didn’t have to pay parking fees and she didn’t have to rent a car.
Avery rubbed a hand over the tan leather seat. Worn around the edges a bit, but it had gotten her through high school, and much to all her girlfriend’s disbelief, college.
Like a balm of calming energy, the second she eased down the interstate off-ramp Avery leaned into the worn leather of her seat, an instant smile in place. Snow-capped mountains peaked over the building as the familiar view of Main Street greeted her.
For a moment she let all her troubles take a back seat.
An odd, warm feeling crept over her and replaced the stress she’d worn like a vest for the past three weeks. For the first time in as long she didn’t feel like tossing her computer off the nearest bridge and making a mad dash for Bora-Bora. Much to her mother’s disbelief. The only thing that stopped her was the unfortunate need to pay pesky bills and buy things like underwear and lip balm.
After hearing about her run-in with her editor, Avery’s mother had insisted she visit. Come home, clear her head and let the fresh air do its job.
Less of a girl with a plan and more of a toss-it-like-a-salad-and-see-what-happens type of woman, Avery agreed on the spot and secured red-eye tickets for that morning. A fresh outlook and some peace and quiet just might do the trick. She could tuck herself away in her parents’ flower shop, Bea’s Blooms, and get the job done.
With a little more elbow grease than she remembered needing, she cranked the window down and stuck her head out.
Early morning wind still untouched by the warming sunshine brushed against her cheeks and tussled her loose hair. On days like these Avery questioned why she decided the bustling lifestyle of New York City could outshine the glittery novelty of her hometown.
She leaned back in and caught her reflection in the rearview mirror. No amount of concealer or magic would hide the dark circles hanging out under her eyes.
Gah. Could she look any more like a washed-up writer?
Avery gritted her teeth and ground the gears of her ancient bug. Shopkeepers set up for the day as sunlight teased the town with a promise of a bright, warm day. Within five minutes of rolling over city limits several old family friends pointed and waved, welcoming her home.
As much as it twanged the heart, she had to admit, maybe her mom was right and all she needed was a few days back home to help her find her voice again.
Avery slowed for a red light. From her right, a glint of sunlight on something shiny caught her eye.
“You’re kidding!” She leaned over the steering wheel for a better look. Vows from Venus stood out in bold metallic lettering against worn red brick on what used to be Evergreen’s newspaper building. “You finally did it. Venus Halliday, you kick butt woman, you. You finally opened your wedding shop.” Shaking her head, she chuckled, grabbed her phone and snapped a quick picture to the sound of a few horns from behind her. While all she talked about growing up was writing, her best friend through grade school and up could only talk about the perfect wedding dress and happy-ever-afters.
Horns blared from behind.
“Oops!” She tossed the phone in the passenger seat and gave a quick wave to the traffic quickly backing up behind her. “Sorry!”
One of the towns best bakeries came into view a few blocks down. Pie in the Sky was the go-to for hot cocoa in the winter and coconut cream pie in the summer. The Masons were already out and about setting up their summer terrace on the wide sidewalk for tourists and locals alike to enjoy the cool mountain air.
Hmm. Maybe a small change in her game plan wouldn’t hurt.
Five minutes later she pulled out of the drive-thru, a sticky bun in one hand and two coffees in a cup holder. Dad preferred his herbal tea, but her mom would appreciate the tall double espresso.
The moment the sugary goodness touched her lips, a doughnut-induced daze set in.
She couldn’t help it, she sighed.
Right then and there she vowed if she somehow managed to nail this crazy tight deadline, she would come back and binge on all the sinful concoctions she passed over as a reward.
She’d lost a little time with her pitstop but figured less than ten minutes to her parents’ flower shop, another fifteen to work through the when are you getting married, Avery conversation her mom insisted on and the flood of hugs and kisses. Five to snag a refill for her coffee and five to crank open her laptop.
That left her a little under two hours before her editor hit up her cell phone with the scheduled check-in call to see how her piece on who knows what was coming along.
She took another bite of the fresh, warm pastry and possibly moaned a little too loud.
A tiny whimper piped up from the back seat.
Avery smirked and canted her head to peak at the other half of the ultimatum she hadn’t mentioned to her mom.
That extra forty-eight hours she’d wiggled out of her editor came with a catch. And a leash. While her editor took a spa break with her bestie in upstate New York, Avery got to watch the new pup gifted to her editor from an appreciative coffee shop owner for the flattering review.
She looked at her doughnut. Hey, maybe she’d be a good fit as a food critic.
“Don’t blame me, little man. I’m not the one that suggested this little weekend getaway for you.” Large brown eyes stared back at her from the cutest puppy face. “You can try, but I am butter proof. Those puppy dog eyes won’t work on me. No doughnut for you, mister.” She lied. Those eyes totally melted her. She broke off a piece and slipped it to her tiny companion. “Don’t tell your mom, okay. Our secret, buddy.”
Avery waved her half-eaten doughnut in the air. “You make it so hard to be mad. We’re almost there. Can you hold for five?” A six-hour flight from New York to Vancouver plus another two-hour drive to Evergreen had to be torture on a guy that small.
As if he understood, the tubby pug bounded from one side of the car to the others, stopping only long enough to lick the window and then do it all over again. He suffered from a serious case of lick-a-nitis. Nothing nor no one was safe from the blubbery pug’s affection.
She stole another glance. Maybe she should pull over and put the little guy back in his crate, but after hours on the road he finally tuckered himself out. Her too, but she could sleep after typing those two magic words—the end.
Or, and man did she hate where her mind took a dark turn, the vacation she’d done without for the last three years might be in her near future after all. The permanent variety accompanied by a freshly inked pink slip and one of those flimsy cardboard boxes with all her office belongings stuffed inside.
She rolled her eyes at her own drama.
A couple of more turns and another red light and Avery squeezed her old-timer between a Cadillac she hadn’t seen before and a modern sedan she recognized as her dad’s.
After several sputters and worrisome knocks, the motor went silent in her bug.
The parking lot was located at the back of Evergreen’s oldest building and out of sight from Main Street. One of the few structures still standing from when the town was founded way before her time. Heck, before her parents’ time.
Sections of the stonework needed refurbishing. Winters this far north were brutal on exteriors while other areas needed a complete overhaul, but the quaint feel of the familiar building stirred fond memories of summer spent helping her parents while surrounded by flowers and happiness. Memories that warmed her stressed-out heart right when she needed it the most.
Sweet-smelling lavender greeted her as she slid from her car, coffees and doughnuts in hand. The whole area smelled of her mom’s favorite flower since as long as she could remember. She kept two large pots full of the flower by the back entrance and more at the front.
A loud bark that, for one heart-stopping second, sounded like a warrior cry served as the only warning.
Coffee and doughnuts flew as a streak of white fur made a mad dash across the quiet parking lot, leash in tow.
Avery sprang into a full-throttle run, made impossible from the coffee-drenched flip-flops. Each squeaky step a miracle because she couldn’t keep the death traps from tripping her up.
High-pitched barks served like a radar ping under parked cars, through low rose bushes, and past a sleepy reindeer. Wait. Gravel slipped underfoot as she slowed. Okaaaay? Whatever. She’d revisit that later.
Somehow, they got turned around and now the barks led back toward her car. And traffic.
Her heart clenched. No! This was bad. Very bad.
A horn basted in the close distance.
Oh no. She picked up her feet, pushed faster, but the loose gravel shifted, worked against her, and she was going down. Hard.
She squeezed her eyes closed and braced for a gravel facial.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you,” came a strange yet deep, sexy voice from her left.
Her breath whooshed from her lungs—from relief, fear… the need to breathe. All the above!
And true to his word, he did have her, right before the bumper of a Caddie did the catching.
A strong arm wrapped around her until she had her balance.
“Whoa, there little man. Where are you off to? Are you giving your momma a hard time?”
The stranger slid from her side and loosened his hold but left his hand on her upper arm.
“Good catch. I was not looking forward to a second breakfast of pavement.” She breathed the words rougher than intended and turned in her squeaky flip-flops to see the face that went with the voice.
She straightened to the sight of a stranger sporting a warm smile. With one hand still on her arm, the tall stranger held her runaway troublemaker like a football in the other. Only this football had a tongue and it was desperately trying to lick the man’s chin.
In the span of five seconds her entire life played out before her eyes and her untimely demise. Her tombstone would have read: Death by Pug. Not how she wanted to be remembered.
Avery worked fresh air into her lungs while the offending pup panted happily, oblivious to the danger they had both been in.
She let that sink in for a second while she considered her hero.
He stood over her by a good five inches with shoulders that no doubt earned the man a sports scholarship. Then again, she reconsidered.
Board-room polished, most definitely. Hunky eye candy, you better believe it.
Commanding, powerful with or without the three-piece suit that clung to his towering frame, no doubt.
She didn’t know the man but his eyes told an interesting story. A honey gold with a hint of green and… gentle. Not an adjective she would link with a man of his size, but there you have it.
The way he stood and held her gaze as he spoke was another trait she picked up. No suit needed to convey the confidence that rolled off him. He could be in board shorts and she’d bet he’d still command attention.
He wore his dark hair in a classic cut and neatly combed. Sunlight caught a few blond strands here and there.
Nothing about him looked out of line. Even stubble didn’t dare add an imperfection. Not that she’d complain. Yet, here he stood with a dirty pug in one hand and no mind to the mud dripping off one paw or the puppy slobber.
He looked like he belonged in some big city boardroom or law office. Not some small-town back parking lot. Lucky for her and the pug that was the case.
She looked down at herself. If her siblings could see her now they’d never let her live this down. They always said she’d meet Mr. Right at the most awkward of times.
“What’s your name?”
“Sir Pugly Gilbert,” she answered off hand. Mr. Right? Where the heck was her mind going with that?
“Odd name for a beautiful woman.”
She froze and looked up with a heavy sigh. “Sorry. It’s been quite the morning. I believe I owe you a big thank-you. That was about to turn real ugly faster than I care to think about.” Understatement of the year.
He wore a soft grin that lit his eyes. “Are you okay? Here let me help you.”
The hand on her arm tightened just slightly until she had her balance.
Heat colored her cheeks. To busy her hands and make a faster getaway, she took the bundle of energy. “I made the mistake of feeling sorry for this little guy tucked away in a small crate and let him out in the car. Won’t happen again.” She wagged her finger at the pug who looked less than intimidated.
“Easily done. These guys are master manipulators. No joke. I think it’s part of some form of puppy training we aren’t privy to. My brother has a couple of his own. They rule the house.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “You know, I totally believe you.”
There went that smile again.
“You hang out in parking lots playing hero, much?”
“Maybe. Or I could have gotten lucky and turned at the right time.”
“Make that lucky for me.” Avery stuck her hand out. “Avery Grant. Again, I can’t thank you enough. I’d offer you the second coffee I snagged from Mason’s place a minute ago, but I seem to be wearing it at the moment.” She looked down at her BCU T-shirt, now brown instead of blue and her drenched cutoff shorts then back at him with a cringe.
He slipped his hand over hers, his grip warm, firm like a perfect fit. “It happens. Hudson Deveroux and if it’s okay I’d like to take a raincheck on that coffee. How’s that?” He placed his other hand over hers.
Sweet Jesus. This man had the moves that made a girl want to say yes to almost anything.
A sexy name to go along with the sexiest honey-gold brown eyes rimmed with the thickest set of black lashes she’d ever seen on a man? Too surreal, but she was looking at the proof of perfection.
“Mr. Deveroux, are you asking me out on a date?”
Oh holy hotness.
The sort of deep, warm laugh that did strange things to a girl’s heart. Why? At twenty-five years old she still didn’t have an answer to that question. But when a man laughed with such easy fit-him-like-a-glove confidence, it made a girl’s heart do things. She didn’t know how else to describe the weird sensations that made her cheeks blush and her lips glide into a comfortable smile of their own.
She told herself to not stare at the cute cleft in his chin or the way it dipped when he spoke. No. The smart answer here was no, move on and stick to her deadline.
“I would like that.”
She must be a glutton for punishment. She mentally smacked herself. She didn’t have time for flirting, handsome man or not.
She heard a phone ring from the direction of her car, bringing her back to reality. “Unfortunately, I’m only in town for a couple of nights and have a deadline.”
“Then I better not take my time. Tonight? Say seven o’clock? I know a quaint bistro that serves the best steak down the way. We can watch them set up for the flower show while we talk about how Sir Pugly actually got that name.”
Her smile deepened. “Interesting story, I assure you. Ms. Kincaid’s place. I know it.”
“I’m sure. Where should I pick you up?”
“Um, how about outside Bea’s Blooms, just around front?” She pointed in the direction of Main Street.
“Perfect. Until then, Ms. Grant.” He took her hand in his again and placed a tender kiss to her knuckles.
And with that her hero bid his farewell and disappeared around the corner.
Nothing in life turned out perfect, but she couldn’t find a single flaw. That made her nervous. Not wanting to dive too deep into the tender kiss or how he filled out a tailored suit, she plucked her keys off the ground where they had fallen in her crazy attempt at wrangling a pug.
Leash and pup firmly in hand, she fought off licks and kisses as she snatched her cell phone out of the front seat of her car and the two small suitcases from the back seat.
Too bad she couldn’t write a piece on the ideal man. Now that would be fun to write—and read!
CONTINUE READING IN WALKS LOVE