I’ve been working steadily toward the release of my latest romance, book two in the Promise Me Series, Touch Me.
When a young woman agrees to help her best friend reconnect with his engaged true love, her efforts result in a romantic connection of her own. One she hadn’t planned.
In this story, Leda’s best friend August asks for help reconnecting with his true love, Isabel. The problem? Isabel is engaged to another man. Eager to help August-whom Leda considers a brother-she agrees to distract Isabel’s fiance and work toward a happy ending, despite the potentially negative impact on her reputation. When Leda meets Duncan, the output fiance, she finds romantic sparks and a soul-deep tingle. Uh oh! She and Duncan grow closer, even as her dreams of opening a bakery slip further away.
Enjoy a sneak preview of Chapter One below:
“I have a proposition for you.” August McKenney smiled considerately —more than considerately. He had one of those few and far between smiles with a dollop of sweet encouragement in every inch, one you may only see on the rare individual.
The sun blazed high overhead and sweat pooled along my spine to dampen my tank top. Summer. I know children loved the free days and lazy nights, but I was much more of a winter gal myself. Even at our high mountain elevation, the hazy humidity settled in and turned me into a couch potato. The air became heavy, each breath a struggle, a weight pressing down on the lungs.
I could only imagine how the lower states baked. It was too damn hot.
But the telephone had chimed on the wall and urged me deeper into the country. Along winding two-lane roads with my heels pushing the pedal to the floor. All because I owed August McKenney a favor. More than a friend. He was family. And when family called, you went.
“You hear me, woman?” August asked. “Earth to Leda!”
Leaning against the shed wall, I fired a grin at him, using a hand to block those devilish rays so I could better see him. My poor, adorable, single friend who was more like a brother than any I’d ever had. We were two old poet souls living in a small town.
“What’s it about?” I sounded too sweet, too Southern, not enough backbone. The next sentence saw me trying to rid my tone of its honeyed softness. “I shudder to ask.”
August sent me another slow, lazy smile that moved his freckles, running a fine chisel over the back of a guitar-in-progress. His hands caressed the wood as one would a lover, with all the tenderness and care of his profession. A luthier. Was there a demand for such items anymore? There was in this county.
“I’m calling in my favor now, Leda,” he said. “Think what you will, but I need your help.”
Something in the tone of his voice pulled at my heartstrings. I’d never been able to resist August when he asked for help though I couldn’t very well let him know that.
My response came slow, accompanied by a shake of sunny blond hair. Somewhere along the line I’d grown into the sort of woman who would have intimidated my Mama. Normal days I left the makeup minimal and wore easy to clean clothes, shorts and skirts and form-fitting blouses. They were thrift store finds with the ability to present a picture. One my mother would have instantly mistaken for more than she made in a month.
“I should have never agreed to owing you. Who knows what kind of godawful scheme you’ve concocted! You’ll have me running across state lines to fetch you a new tool. Or hauling through the woods for a fallen tree you can’t carry alone.”
Though he laughed, there was tension in the sound. “You’re thinking too literal. Who has the pea brain now?”
It was our running joke. I adored teasing him, mostly because August gave as well as he got. It made for a fun and easy relationship, a give and take most men outside a blood relative would find intimidating.
After the silence continued on a tad too long, I said, “Too literal? Now I’m scared. What is it?” I rubbed my slickened forehead. “Please tell me before I get sick with anticipation.”
We’d known each other since my first music festival, the same year I moved from South Carolina into the rural wilderness of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d volunteered as stage manager, a position I’d never accept again because it wasn’t worth the effort, and helped coordinate the acts so the locals remained peaceful. Nothing like a crowd of restless natives who hadn’t showered for days.
A last-minute cancellation left me in the lurch. Without a backup plan, August and his available band, the Heartwood Harmonics, stepped in to save the day.
Of course, I’d been out of my mind with joy and agreed to whatever he desired to fill the empty slot and save myself from the restless festival goers.
“My best friend is moving back into town.” August continued to sand with no move toward answering right away. He enjoyed the expectation, making me wait for his answer while I melted in the boiling sun.
The interior of his shop offered no respite from the temperature. The small studio was dirty on the best of days, crowded with half-finished projects and boxes waiting for shipment.
At least outside I had a better chance of catching a breeze. Wind whipped around the side of the shed where he created, bringing with it the sounds of birds, bees, and summer creatures. All at home in the fields and brush.
I cocked my hip and my head in unison. “Your best friend. Okay. Do you need me to throw a welcome home party? I have a killer new dessert recipe I want to try.”
“First of all, my best friend is a she.” August chuckled. Sawdust speckled the air with his loud exhalation. “Her name is Isabel Cook.”
Ah, yes, now I understood the tone. Desperate devotion. How had I not known about this before? “Ooh, kinky,” I teased.
He took a deep breath before continuing, his face flushing with embarrassment. “Please don’t judge. I need you to distract her fiancé.”
I should have been sitting down. Which wasn’t going to happen unless I, too, wanted to have my outfit covered in dirt and wood chips. Instead I clung to the wall to keep from the exaggerated fall I felt coming on at his words. “What? Distract?”
“Distract her fiancé, yes.” Sending me the smallest curve of his former grin, August barreled forward with, “I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, but I love her. She can’t marry him.”
“You have to be kidding me.”
“Not at all!” August stopped his sanding.
I saw a flicker of something on his face I hadn’t seen before. It was the flash of an emotion, and if I hadn’t been paying attention I might have missed it. Dread. August was a pillar in my life, and when I saw him now, my blood went cold.
“He doesn’t deserve her,” he continued, “and I know I would make her happier.” August shifted his gaze and locked eyes with me, a split second of time. Faster than the heartbeat of a mouse and gone just as quickly.
A love story. What woman in her right mind could withstand a potential happily ever after? Still…
“Do you think I’m a prostitute? I may be single by choice, but I won’t damage my integrity on an easy lay. Like I’ll jump all over a stranger because I owe you a favor? This body came from hard work.” I gestured down to the nipped in waist, accented by a pair capris and crimson top. “Give me a break. I’ll pass and move on to the next favor. Even for you, this is asking a lot.”
August had the nerve to laugh. Full blown guffaws accompanied by a snort at the end. “I never said you should sleep with the guy. I would never do that to you! I need him out of the way so I can convince Isabel she feels the same for me as I do for her. If anyone can turn his head, it’s you.”
“This girl must be damned special,” I retorted for lack of anything better.
“She is.” August stopped to wipe his hairline with the back of his arm. Nostalgia colored his features, taking him into a memory where I couldn’t follow. “You see, she and I made a pact when we were twelve. If neither one of us married by thirty-four, then we would marry each other.” He mimed pointing to a wristwatch. “I’m running out of days, here, Leda. And I’m getting scared I’ll lose her.”
“Why haven’t you told me anything about her before? I thought we were close. I’ve shared my dirty laundry with you.”
“We are close, but I’m embarrassed. I didn’t want you to think of me like some sentimental sap pining after his childhood love. Asking me why I never told her how I felt, or why I didn’t move to California with her…” he trailed off. “I’ve made mistakes. I love Isabel more than anything in my life.” He waved his arm through the beams of sunlight, splitting them in two. “I would give all of this up in an instant for one day with her. I want to show her I can be the man she needs, instead of whatever fiancé she’s bringing back here.”
Dammit, I should have remembered the sunglasses. This haze was hell on my vision. I blamed the misty eyes on the cloudless sky. “It’s a beautiful story, August.”
“If I can’t convince her, Leda…I don’t know what I’ll do.”
This was it. One of those moments where a miracle happens and two people fall in love until the end of time. “This is your grand gesture,” I commented, feeling myself melt. It was too perfect. I wanted it to work for them.
A warm breeze blew across my cheeks and wound through the chopped strands of hair I left loose. “You’ve found your person. I’m envious.” Braving the dirt and debris, I dragged an empty plastic container from my left and plopped down.
“She is my person.” August’s smile cut through the sawdust dotting his face and deepened he dimples on his chin.
Other women in town found him attractive and vied for his attention without fail. I heard more than my fair share of oohs and aahs from the leather and plated-chrome beautician chair in my sun room. More of ‘you’re so lucky to get close to him’ than I knew what to do with.
He and I had spoken at length about our single status, always relating it back to finding that one special someone. When I asked him about her, whoever it was who brought the sigh to his lips, he would shovel out a vague, ambiguous answer and swivel the attention back to me. Now I understood.
Despite being a romantic, I remained alone because I needed the tingle. The sure sign I’d found the hunk of my dreams. So far every man I dated churned up nothing but a chalky cloud of apathy. They may be attractive, or smart, or charismatic, but without the tingle, I didn’t want to waste my time.
I chewed on my thumbnail contemplating the dilemma I recognized in front of me.
August forged ahead. “I need you to take the guy out and show him the town while I talk to Isabel. Take him for a hike or whatever people like to do around here in the summer.”
Admittedly, the beautiful landscape was a huge draw in this part of the state. Rolling rivers and rising hills trying to touch the sky. Forest, fields, farms and glades made Heartwood a haven for the outdoorsy types. It had a mix of openness and sky complete with mountain peaks turned snow-dipped in winter. Those somber hills were full of life.
“And how long will this take? A few days? A week?” I wanted to know.
He shrugged, deflating. “I don’t know. If she feels the way I do, then days. But she’s a stubborn woman,” he amended. “In the best of ways, mind you.”
It took effort to remove my thumb from my lip and settled against the rough wooden walls of the shed. “This is a big deal.”
“Trust me. I know, and it’s for true love. Can I count on you to help? I will get down on my knees and beg.” He moved into position. “Leda Cox, I am calling in my favor!” He held his arms aloft, hands clasped in front of him and staring up at me. Pleading.
On any other man the gesture would have appeared contrived. A ploy. On August it was simpler and ten times more potent. I stared down into those cornflower-blue eyes and my inner romantic copied his movement. She slipped down to her knees in my mind’s eye to beg me to assist him no matter the consequences. Love mattered. His happiness mattered.
I grumbled, letting my head drop back and closing my eyes.
“Can I take your silence as a yes?” August dropped his palms to my knees before squeezing. “Please tell me it’s a yes.”
Lips pursed, I nodded. “It’s a yes. Anything for family.”
“And family sticks together. I’m so glad we met.” A light tap of his knuckles on my chin. A playful gesture. “You are a wonderful woman. I’m not sure I tell you enough. I love ya, kid.” He took his time rising before dusting off his knees. The sun glinted off the auburn curls sticking to his forehead. I wondered how he managed to wear jeans without drowning in a pool of his own sweat. I was ready to die in capris.
“You are too much,” I said. I told myself it was the dust in the air making my throat scratchy and gaze wet. “Please go on. Even though you’re talking about kicking some poor guy to the curb.”
The sandpaper attacked the guitar until the surface was as smooth as glass. “I can’t think about him in this. I think about Isabel. Her laugh, the color of her cheeks. The way the wind seems to caress her when she walks.”
Yes, it was a beautiful tale. “If you weren’t so good with instruments, I’d call you a poet,” I said, shaking my head. Could I ever find a love to speak of in such a manner? With sweet tenderness? “Isabel obviously loves this man enough to want to marry him.”
“I know. It was like a punch to the gut when I heard.”
“If she finds out you want to stop her wedding, she is going to kill you. I’ll say goodbye to you now so there’s no messy scene later.” Two fingers went to my forehead in a solute. A small joke to lighten the mood in the studio.
August pursed his lips. “Your opinion is not necessary.”
“Don’t you want to listen to reason?”
“I’m in too deep. I’ll never have another opportunity if she goes through with this marriage. Then she’ll always see me as her friend.” His frenzied motions slowed and he stared off into space. “Instead of a man who would devote his time and energy to ensuring her happiness.”
Oh yes. Inner romantic clutched her heart and fell to the floor in a sigh over the unrequited passion she heard.
If he continued to speak, I would have to leave to blot my face. I shifted my position at the knot of wood digging into my back. “I hope it works for you. I do. But you want the unattainable. A happy ending.”
He shot me a look from under a mass of hair. “Aren’t we all looking for one?”
“I’m not sure whether you’re crazy or sweet.”
“A bit of both, if we’re being honest.” August rubbed a kink out of his neck.
There was nothing to do so I rose. Stretched a single arm out into the afternoon light and felt the heat against my skin. I stared longingly out at the fields surrounding the farmhouse. Every inch of the fifty-acre spread belonged to August. “When is this wonderful woman moving back home?”
August spared a check at his calendar. “Do you see the circled day?”
“Our fifteen-year high school reunion,” he told me. “She’ll be back by then.”
I quirked a brow. “You have a fifteen-year high school reunion?”
“It’s a Heartwood thing. You wouldn’t understand because you moved here after graduation.”
“I can be happy for small things,” I answered, flecking a curlicue of wood from my thigh. “Otherwise I’d be stuck going to a fifteen-year reunion. I didn’t even make it to my own for ten.”
“It’s not terrible. I get to catch up with the guys and eat free food. Two of my favorite f-words. This year will be extra special because Isabel is back. I know she was gone for a bit, but it was five years of torture for me.”
“Why?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“I told her about a cheating boyfriend and she refused to speak to me. Packed up her stuff and moved to the West coast.”
“So now I get to sit on the sideline and watch you put the moves on your childhood love. You make me sick, McKenney.”
He didn’t pause in his furious sanding yet still managed to study me. “You don’t have a problem playing my woman friend for, like, the next month?” he joked.
“I’m already your woman friend.”
“How else am I going to explain you being around?”
“If you’re trying to convince Isabel of your availability, having a girlfriend around, even a pretend one, seems like the worst plan,” I stated, considering him. Not bad looking by any means, but not my type. August didn’t have enough meat on his bones for my liking. He was too lanky, too pretty, not enough rough edges.
“Trust me on this. I need you around.”
“I’m not sleeping with you either.”
He held his hands up in front of him. “I’m not asking for sexual favors. I just need you to be there. Deal?”
I scratched the side of my head. All I had to do was say yes and I would get the chance to focus on something else beyond my own incapacity to move forward in life. Did I take the risk? “Okay. Yes.”
“I’m happy to hear you say it, Leda. You’re a heck of a lady.”
He caught me in a weak moment. “Sure, weasel your way through my defenses, McKenney.”
August considered the choice of chisel before moving on with his production. “You out of here?”
Stretching, I said, “I have a few appointments this afternoon I can’t reschedule. Some of us have to work for a living.”
“You’ll find your passion soon. Trust me.”
The advice came matter-of-factly, the offhanded comment most make when they were half-listening to a conversation.
“Your optimism is enlightening, it’s true.” I crossed the distance between us and leaned in for our obligatory hug. The unforced kind few pull off, an easy affirmation of affection. “Take care of yourself, okay? I don’t want to scrape you off the sidewalk once this fiancé gets a hold of you. We’re in this together.”
August gave me a single, sweaty squeeze before releasing. “I’m glad I can count on you, sweetie.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved him off. “I hope you remember this the next time I need my oven cleaned out, because I don’t do the scrubbing.”
“I would for you, sure,” he commented.
I flashed him a wink over my shoulder as I walked to the car. “You better believe it.” I crossed my fingers and hoped agreeing to August’s favor wouldn’t spell doom.