Because hectic Monday mornings didnâ€™t suck enough all on their own merits, Lauren Carpenter managed to miss her lashes and apply mascara straight to her eyeball. Cursing and blinking, she groped for a tissue.
She wasnâ€™t sure why she bothered making herself up anyway. Over her years working as the entire office staff for the only insurance agent in town, sheâ€™d seen communications swing from office visits to phone calls and faxes and then to email. Entire days could go by without anybody but her boss actually stepping foot in the place.
It was the principle, she decided as she mopped up the damage and tried again. Sheâ€™d long ago given up on giving a crap what anybody thought of her, but it made her feel good to look good. There was a limit, though, and she smiled as she shoved her feet into the battered leather loafers that were even older than Nick. Her feet were usually under her desk anyway.
Thinking of Nick, she glanced at her alarm clock and sighed. Morning battle to commence in threeâ€¦twoâ€¦
â€śMa!â€ť The bellow made her cringe.
Sheâ€™d asked him not to shout at her from across the house even more times than sheâ€™d asked him not to call her Ma. Ma made her think of calico dresses and aprons and churning butter. It also made her feel old, and being the mother of a sixteen-year-old was reminder enough of that, thank you very much.
Lauren left her bedroom and went down the hall, purposely not glancing into the train wreck that was her sonâ€™s room, fastening small pearl earrings as she walked. â€śDonâ€™t bellow, Nick.â€ť
â€śIf I donâ€™t, you wonâ€™t hear me.â€ť
He was in the kitchen, rummaging through his backpack at the table while a full bowl of cereal turned into mush on the counter. â€śYou planning to eat your breakfast?â€ť
Shrugging, Nick pulled a crumpled ball of paper out of his bag. â€śYeah. You need to sign this.â€ť
â€śWhat is it?â€ť She carried the bowl of cereal to the table and traded it for the paper. â€śEat. The bus comes in five minutes.â€ť
When he kept his eyes down and shoved a heaping mound of cereal in his mouth, Laurenâ€™s stomach sank. Whatever the paper was, it wasnâ€™t good.
Physically, Nick took after Dean, her ex-husband. Nickâ€™s hair was darker than her blond and his eyes were a lighter brown. Heâ€™d gotten not only his dadâ€™s good looks, but his struggles in school, too.
It was a detention notice, assigned due to missing homework. â€śNick, youâ€™ve only had three weeks of school and youâ€™re slipping already?â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t like the teacher,â€ť he mumbled around a mouthful of cereal.
â€śYou donâ€™t have to like the teacher. You do have to do your homework.â€ť He shrugged and the nonverbal whatever was the straw that broke Monday morningâ€™s back. â€śI know which form I wonâ€™t be signing and thatâ€™s the driverâ€™s ed registration.â€ť
â€śSave it. The bus is coming.â€ť
She signed the detention paper while he dumped his bowl in the sink, then watched him ball up the notice and shove it back in his pocket. The faint rumble of the bus came into earshot and he hefted his backpack.
â€śWalk straight home after detention,â€ť she said to the back of his head as he walked toward the front door. â€śAnd no video games.â€ť
After the door closed behind himâ€”he knew better than to slam itâ€”Lauren leaned against the counter and blew out a breath. Something was going on with her son and sheâ€™d be damned if she could put her finger on what. He didnâ€™t get a pass because he was a teenager or because of that boys-will-be-boys crap, so it was time for an attitude adjustment. And that meant talking to Dean, because if they werenâ€™t on the same page when it came to Nick, she may as well find a brick wall to talk to.
Of course, talking to Dean Carpenter was always like talking to a brick wall. Communication wasnâ€™t his strong suit. Their son, though, was more receptive if his parents were giving him the same message. Usually.
Sheâ€™d have to find a few minutes to talk to her ex when he picked up Nick on Friday evening, which meant having an idea what she was going to say before he showed up. And sheâ€™d worry about that some other time, because now she had less than ten minutes to get to work.
It took her twelve to drive across Whitford because she had to stop for gas, so Gary Demarest, insurance agent extraordinaire, was already in when she arrived. Sheâ€™d worked for him since her divorce eight years before, when sheâ€™d been looking for a job in town with motherâ€™s hours. Demarest Insurance had mostly fit the bill, though Nick got out of school a couple of hours before she left work. When he was younger, the neighbor had kept an eye on him. Now he was mostly on his own, though in a town like Whitford, somebody was always watching.
â€śI left some notes on your desk,â€ť Gary said. He was in great shape for a man in his mid-sixties and prided himself on being a smart dresser, despite the fact that the majority of his clientele wore jeans and T-shirts. â€śPaige Sullivanâ€™s going to be renting out her mobile home, so she needs a price on adjusting the property insurance accordingly. Iâ€™ll let you know when I get the numbers together, but you can get started on the paperwork if you get a chance.â€ť
â€śNo problem.â€ť When Gary disappeared into his office, closing the door behind him, Lauren leaned back in her very nice office chair and sighed.
Paige Sullivan was going to rent out her mobile home because she was marrying Mitch Kowalski and they were going to buy a house together. And, of course, thinking of Mitch naturally led her to think of his brother.
Ryan Kowalski. Her what-if guy when she let herself indulge in ridiculous fantasy. What if sheâ€™d said yes?
Heâ€™d been in town a few times lately, she knew, helping his brothers straighten out the Northern Star, their family-owned snowmobile lodge. But, as in the past when heâ€™d visited, he stayed close to home and they never got close enough to speak. She wasnâ€™t sure whether it was deliberate, but heâ€™d managed not to run into her since heâ€™d graduated from college.
The phone rang before Lauren could give in to the what-if fantasy, which was a good thing. With Nick needing an attitude adjustment and Dean to deal with, the last thing she needed was another guy with issues. Her ex-husbandâ€™s exâ€“best friend could stay out of sight and out of mind where he belonged.
* * * * *
Ryan Kowalski made very few mistakes when it came to running his business, but trapping himself in a pickup with an idiot definitely counted as one. â€śPut the phone on vibrate.â€ť
Dill Brophy snorted, just as the phone in his hand sounded another incoming text with the grating, electronic sound of a duck call. For almost five freaking hours heâ€™d been listening to Dillâ€™s phone quack, and if he had a shotgun heâ€™d pull over and play an impromptu round of Duck Hunt. Not even a minute later, it quacked again.
Ryan jerked the wheel hard to the left and had the satisfaction of hearing Dillâ€™s head thump against the passenger window.
â€śOw! What the hell, man?â€ť
â€śMatt wants to know if weâ€™re almost there yet.â€ť Quack. â€śOr if not, can we stop for lunch, because itâ€™s after lunchtime.â€ť
Ryan put on his blinker and pulled over onto the shoulder. Once Matt Russell had pulled in behind him, he turned to Dill. â€śLet me see your phone.â€ť
Rather than throw it out the window and run over it repeatedly, as he wanted to do, Ryan took it and powered it down. Then he got out of the truck, slamming the door with Kowalski Custom Builders painted down the side, and walked back to the identical vehicle Matt was driving. Well, not totally identical. Ryanâ€™s had heated leather seats and a custom sound system. It was nice to be the boss.
Matt lowered the window. â€śWhatâ€™s up?â€ť
â€śGive me your phone.â€ť Since both guys carried company-provided cell phones, refusing wasnâ€™t an option. When he had it, Ryan gave the young carpenter a stern look. â€śYou text while driving one of my trucks again, youâ€™re fired.â€ť
After he tossed both phones into his door pocket, they got back on the road and Ryan took a deep breath when, not long after, they passed the Welcome to Whitford, Maine sign. Home again. Dammit.
A while back, when his youngest brother, Josh, had busted his leg and the oldest, Mitch, had gone home to give him a hand, the shit had really hit the fan. The Northern Star Lodgeâ€”which had gone from gentlemanâ€™s hunting lodge to snowmobiling lodge under the ownership of several generations of Kowalskisâ€”was in bad shape, both financially and physically. Some rehab needed doing and, since Ryan was a builder, it was his turn to spend a little time in Whitford.
Because heâ€™d be away from his business for who knew how long, heâ€™d left his top guys and most experienced builders down in Massachusetts to keep the jobs going, which was how heâ€™d ended up stuck with two young, less-experienced pinheads to work with.
That wasnâ€™t quite fair. They were good kids and they worked hard. If they werenâ€™t he wouldnâ€™t have them on his jobs. But his current feelings toward them were colored a bit by four and a half hours of the quacking duck and the twinkly chime that sounded when Dillâ€™s pregnant wife texted. And she texted a lot.
For a second, he regretted shutting Dillâ€™s phone off, but then he told himself that if there was an emergency, sheâ€™d call him or the office, looking for her husband. And when they got to the lodge, heâ€™d give the phones back.
As eager as he was to get to the lodge, he didnâ€™t want to show up with two hungry guys looking to rummage through Rosieâ€™s kitchen, Ryan decided to stop at the Trailside Diner and let them eat before driving the last few minutes to the Northern Star.
Because it wasnâ€™t quite two yet, Paige Sullivanâ€”his future sister-in-lawâ€”was behind the counter and she smiled when she saw him.
â€śRyan! I didnâ€™t know you were coming in today.â€ť
He leaned across the counter to kiss her cheek. â€śIt was kind of fluid. Had to wrap up some stuff and wait on a granite delivery, then I made a break for it today.â€ť
â€śDoes Rosie know?â€ť
â€śI called her when I hit the road this morning.â€ť Rose Davis was housekeeper at the Northern Star Lodge by title, but sheâ€™d helped raise the Kowalski kids after their mother died. Ryan knew better than to pop in without giving her enough advance notice to make his favorite dinner. Not that he expected her to, but Rosie liked to fuss. â€śIs Mitch at the lodge?â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s in Miami for a few days. I donâ€™t think he expected you until at least next week.â€ť
He realized the guys were hovering behind him, obviously waiting for an introduction, so he gestured to each in turn. â€śThis is Dillon Brophy and Matt Russell. They work for me and theyâ€™ll be helping out at the lodge. This is Paige Sullivan, my brotherâ€™s fiancĂ©e.â€ť
Matt and Dill straightened up, smart enough to catch his cue that Paige was as good as a member of the bossâ€™s family. Both guys were in their early twenties, but the similarities ended there. Dill was tallâ€”almost as tall as Ryanâ€”and skinny, with sandy hair and an easy smile. Matt was shorter, more muscular, and had the dark and serious thing going on. Ryan watched them each shake Paigeâ€™s hand, both very respectful, before heading off to a table to look over the menu.
â€śRosieâ€™s just going to eat them up,â€ť Paige said, her eyes filled with laughter. â€śSheâ€™s always complaining she doesnâ€™t have enough people to fuss over anymore.â€ť
â€śTheyâ€™re employees, not grandchildren. She doesnâ€™t need to fuss over them and Iâ€™ll kick their asses if they let her.â€ť
The look she gave him was pure skepticism, and he shook his head before joining the guys. They all had cheeseburgers and fries, and Ryan had to admit that, despite the fact he hadnâ€™t wanted to stop at the diner, the food hit the spot. The mood was good all around, especially when he told them they could retrieve their phones while he paid. They were out the door before he got all the words out.
â€śTheyâ€™re worse than kids,â€ť he muttered, handing the check and the company credit card to Paige.
â€śYou took their cell phones away? Totally a dad-like move.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m not that old.â€ť He signed his name to the slip she handed him, then took his card back. â€śIf you talk to Mitch, let him know Iâ€™ll be around for a while this time.â€ť
As he turned to leave, he was aware of the door opening and he stopped walking so he wouldnâ€™t run into anybody while tucking his card back into his wallet. Then he looked up.
Dirty-blond hair. Dark-chocolate eyes. A body that time and some added pounds had molded into curves any man would take his time savoring. And a familiar face that hit him like one of his brotherâ€™s wrecking balls.
* * * * *
Lauren might have forgotten how to breathe for a few seconds. God, he looked good. Even better than he had in her imagination. Since his brothers had aged well, she shouldnâ€™t have been surprised by the still-thick dark hair or the flat stomach and broad shoulders shown off by the Kowalski Custom Builders polo shirt. But part of her wished heâ€™d gone downhill a little. Or a lot, actually.
Sheâ€™d seen him a couple of times since Josh had broken his leg, but always at a distance. So she hadnâ€™t been able to see the blue eyes or the way the years had added character to his face, nor could she have smelled whatever delicious cologne or aftershave he was wearing.
And distance meant not having to do this awkward dance of not knowing what to do or say. They hadnâ€™t actually spoken since Nick was a baby, when Ryan had asked her a question that could have changed her life and sheâ€™d said no.
He was supposed to stay away. It was unspoken, but understood.
â€śHi, Lauren.â€ť His voice was deeper. Stronger.
â€śHow have you been?â€ť
For a few seconds he looked like he was trying to figure out how to sum up fifteen or so years in a few words, but then he smiled. But it was the polite smile, not the full, devastating grin, for which she should probably be thankful. â€śIâ€™ve been good.â€ť
â€śGood. And how are things at the lodge?â€ť
â€śAnd Joshâ€™s leg?â€ť
â€śThatâ€™sâ€¦good.â€ť Now that theyâ€™d established everything was good, sheâ€™d reached the end of her having-a-clue-what-to-say rope. â€śI donâ€™t have a long lunch break, so I should probably order.â€ť
â€śOf course.â€ť He stepped out of her way. â€śIâ€™ll see youâ€¦around.â€ť
He left before she could say anything else and that was fine, since all she could think to say was â€śgood.â€ť And seeing him around would be anything but.
As she sat down, Lauren tried to shake off the nerves that being so close to him seemed to have set to quivering, only to find herself pinned by Paigeâ€™s all-too-observant stare. She should have made the time to pack a lunch this morning.
Lauren pressed a hand to her stomach, cursing the butterflies. â€śI think Iâ€™ll have decaf.â€ť
â€śThey have that effect on women.â€ť
Uh-oh. The last thing Lauren needed was the population of Whitford thinking she had a thing for Ryan. â€śHectic morning. Nick didnâ€™t want to get out of the house and then things at the office were crazy. Iâ€™ve already had more than my fair share of the high-test stuff.â€ť
â€śMmm-hmm. What are you eating?â€ť
â€śGrilled cheese on wheat, I guess. With coleslaw instead of fries.â€ť
â€śSo, the regular, in other words.â€ť Paige rolled her eyes and went to give the order to the cook, but she was gone only a few seconds. â€śWerenâ€™t your ex and Ryan best friends back in high school?â€ť
It was to be expected, Lauren told herself. The woman was marrying a Kowalski, so it was natural people would fill her in on the family details. â€śYeah, they were.â€ť
They werenâ€™t anymore. There hadnâ€™t been a fight between the guys, but Dean seemed to think Ryan had gone off to become a big shot and forgotten where he came from. There was some resentment on Deanâ€™s part, but it was misplaced. Lauren had never told her ex-husband about Ryanâ€™s visit, even though it had been a serious betrayal of the guysâ€™ friendship. Ryan had gone away, and every week, then month, and finally year he was gone made it easier to justify not telling Dean.
Sheâ€™d almost forgotten Paige was standing there, no doubt waiting to hear the rest of the story. â€śAnd Ryan got his degree and moved to Mass and that was that.â€ť
â€śOh, come on. Itâ€™s me!â€ť Paige bent down and rested her forearms on the counter so they were at the same height. â€śMitch thinks thereâ€™s some kind of history between you two.â€ť
â€śNope, sorry.â€ť It wasnâ€™t exactly a lie, but it wasnâ€™t exactly the truth, either. It was time to change the subject. â€śSpeaking of Mitch, when are you guys getting married?â€ť
Paigeâ€™s face lit up and, almost by reflex, she put out her left hand to admire the sparkling ring on her finger. â€śIt hasnâ€™t even been two weeks since he asked me.â€ť
â€śFrom what Iâ€™ve heard, Mitch is in a hurry and youâ€™ll be lucky if he doesnâ€™t have you kidnapped and put on a plane to Vegas.â€ť
â€śWe want to get married at the lodge, but we donâ€™t want to do it during the sledding season and he doesnâ€™t want to wait until spring.â€ť
â€śThat doesnâ€™t leave you a lot of time.â€ť
â€śWeâ€™re thinking about Columbus Day weekend,â€ť Paige said. â€śIt falls early this year, so maybe weâ€™ll still have some fall foliage.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s also not quite three weeks away.â€ť
â€śWe donâ€™t want anything fancy. Heâ€™s going to call everybody when he gets home and see if we can make it work. As long as his aunt Mary and uncle Leo can make it from New Hampshire, and his brother Sean and his wife, weâ€™ll probably go for it. But heâ€™d like his sister to fly in from New Mexico, too.â€ť
â€śI havenâ€™t seen Liz in ages.â€ť
â€śI guess nobody has, except when Sean got out of the army. They had a party for him at Ryanâ€™s.â€ť
And back to Ryan again. Thankfully the bell dinged and Paige left to pick up Laurenâ€™s grilled cheese sandwich, because Lauren could feel the heat creeping into her face. She was going to have to come up with a way to stop doing that or wear more makeup or something. She couldnâ€™t blush every time somebody mentioned the manâ€™s name.
To make matters worse, it wasnâ€™t some leftover attraction to a young Ryan, which was more nostalgia than anything. Itâ€™s not as if sheâ€™d been lusting after him while running around with his best friend. Sheâ€™d loved Dean and, while she found Ryan attractive, it wasnâ€™t until later her subconscious mind had given him the starring role in her sexual fantasies. Probably because he was safely far away so fantasy couldnâ€™t intrude on reality.
But right now, grown-up Laurenâ€™s body, which hadnâ€™t been up against a naked manâ€™s in way too long, seemed to think the very grown-up Ryan was just the man for the job.
Paige set Laurenâ€™s lunch in front of her, then untied her apron. â€śI hate to run out on you, but I have an appointment to look at a house.â€ť
Lauren had been so wrapped up in trying not to think about Ryan Kowalski, she hadnâ€™t even noticed that Ava, the second-shift waitress, had shown up. â€śI have to inhale this and get back anyway. When I step out for lunch, itâ€™s like Hurricane Gary passed over my desk during the half hour I was gone.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t make any plans for Columbus Day weekend,â€ť Paige reminded her as she headed for the door. â€śIâ€™m not planning on having bridesmaids, but you and Hailey have to be at my wedding.â€ť
â€śI wouldnâ€™t miss it,â€ť Lauren said, and she meant it. But as the door swung closed behind Paige, her undersexed mind coughed up a tantalizing image.
Ryan in a suit. Her in a sexy dress. A few drinks. A slow dance or twoâ€¦
She shoved a forkful of coleslaw in her mouth and told herself to get over it. There was enough on her plate as it was and she already knew they had almost nothing to say to each other. He was as good as a stranger now and, no matter how her hormones felt about the matter, it was best he stay that way.
It seemed like heâ€™d been avoiding her for years. Now it was time for her to avoid him. Simple as that.