Josh Kowalski’s life could be summed up in just a few words—thirty years’ worth of itches he couldn’t quite scratch.
He itched to get out of Whitford, Maine, and away from the Northern Star Lodge. He itched for adventure and travel and a job he’d chosen, rather than one chosen for him before he was even born. He itched to find the woman who’d make him want to forsake all others until death do they part. There was no medicated powder to cure those kinds of itches, either. All he could do was bide his time, and that had gotten harder with every passing year.
This year, though, things were looking up. Josh grabbed a six-pack out of the fridge and bumped the door closed with his hip since he was clutching a bag of stolen baked goods in his other hand. Breaking his leg back in July had sucked. But his brothers coming home to help out at the lodge, giving him the chance to let them know he resented being left holding the bag just because he was the youngest, had been his big break.
“You heading out?”
He almost dropped his beer. In her sheepskin-lined-suede winter slippers, Rosie was almost silent as she moved around the lodge. “Yeah. Half hour until kickoff.”
Rose Davis had been the housekeeper at the lodge for as long as he could remember, but when Josh’s mother died when he was only five, she’d become much more than that. She was as close to a mother as he could have. That meant, of course, that he was thirty years old and essentially still lived with mom. No wonder he had such a hard time scratching that need-a-woman itch.
“If you—” She broke into a coughing fit and Josh frowned. A bad cold had gone around Whitford a while back and Rose had ended up with pneumonia. She’d bounced back pretty well, but he didn’t like the sound of that cough. “If you see Katie, tell her I said hi.”
“Maybe I should stay home.”
She scoffed and waved her hand. “I’m going to curl up with my knitting and the Criminal Minds marathon. The last thing I want to listen to is you screaming and swearing at the television in the other room.”
“You had pneumonia, Rosie. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up back in bed.”
“Is that my banana bread in your bag?”
“You’re trying to change the subject.”
“You’re stealing my banana bread.”
“You told me you wanted to lose a few pounds, so really I’m doing this for you.” He was busted, but he didn’t even break a sweat as she raised an eyebrow at him. “Even though you’re perfect the way you are, I just want you to be happy. Eating this banana bread won’t make you happy, but it’ll make my friends—including your daughter—very, very happy.”
Rose laughed, but it quickly deteriorated into another bout of coughing. Josh didn’t like it, but it passed fairly quickly and she waved away the concern she must have seen on his face. “You think you’re a charmer, Joshua Kowalski, but I’ve had your number since you were four years old and told me you peed on the back of the toilet so I’d always have something to clean and your parents would keep paying me. You were doing that for my sake, too.”
“See? I’m always thinking of you, Rosie.”
She shook her head and made a shooing motion with her hand. “Go. Take the banana bread. And I bet you put a dent in the cookie jar, too.”
Busted again. He’d dumped at least a dozen oatmeal raisin cookies into a baggy to supplement the loaf of banana bread. Usually a guy didn’t bring baked goods to watch a game with his buddies, but nobody in Whitford could resist goodies from Rose’s kitchen. He preferred chocolate chip cookies himself, but Katie liked oatmeal raisin and, if he was going to steal her mother’s cookies for her, at least they would be her favorite.
“You have your cell phone in your pocket?” he asked before he opened the back door.
She nodded, patting the pocket of the thick cardigan she was wearing. “I’ll call you if I need you.”
“I’m fine, Josh.” She gave him a tender look and his heart squeezed when he thought about how sick she’d been at the beginning of November. It had scared the crap out of him and he didn’t want a repeat of that anytime soon. She’d been well enough to celebrate Thanksgiving at the new home of his brother Mitch and his wife, but he was constantly worried she was pushing too hard. It had been ten days since then, which meant almost a month since she’d gotten sick, but he still worried every time she coughed.
“You’ll call me if you need anything at all?”
“I promise. Now, go, so I can make my tea and get back to my show.”
He went because the sooner he left, the sooner Rosie would curl up with her tea, knitting, and her show. But, as he climbed into his truck and fired up the engine, he wondered what was going to happen when the Northern Star opened for the season in a couple of weeks. If Rose hadn’t bounced back to her usual self by then, he was in trouble.
The easy answer was to hire one of the teenage girls in town to help out around the place for a while. They’d done that in the past occasionally, but for the past few years they hadn’t been able to spare the money. They already had a record number of bookings this year, thanks to the woman who handled all the internet stuff for Mitch’s company. She had revamped the lodge’s website and gotten them on Facebook and such, but every dollar they paid extra help was a dollar less in the profit column. Profits were the key to Josh’s freedom, so he’d wash the bedding and scrub the toilets and make the beds himself if he had to.
But he’d worry about that tomorrow. Weekdays were for work, but today was for football, friends and food. Sometimes he was convinced those few hours each Sunday when he could sneak away from the home and business that had consumed his life for as long as he could remember—although when the snow was really good, he couldn’t get away even on Sundays—were the only things that had kept him from just saying “screw it” and walking away.
So he’d drink beer, eat stolen banana bread and yell at the television. Katie would give him a hard time and he’d end up making some stupid bet with her. Hopefully, the Patriots would win and the good mood would carry him through Monday.
But when he parked his truck alongside the few that were already in the yard, Josh didn’t see Katie’s Jeep. She never missed Sunday games at Max’s house, and a glance at the clock told him it was almost time for the kickoff, and the Pats were playing the early game.
With all the germs the people of Whitford had been spreading around the last couple of months, maybe she was sick. The thought dampened his enthusiasm a little. He liked hanging with Katie and he’d even risked the wrath of Rosie to steal oatmeal raisin cookies for her.
He told himself he’d give her a call if she didn’t show or text by the end of the first quarter, just to see if she was sick. Watching football without Katie wouldn’t be quite the same.
* * * * *
Katie Davis wedged her ancient but much-loved Jeep Wrangler between two pickups and grabbed the grocery bag of munchies off the passenger seat. She was running late, but one didn’t show up at Max Crawford’s house empty-handed, so she’d run into the market for some junk food. Fran had been in the mood to talk, of course, so paying for a couple bags of chips and three tubs of dip had taken almost fifteen minutes.
The big white truck with Northern Star Lodge on the sides was hard to miss, so she knew Josh was already inside. He made it to Max’s whenever he could, but it was still nice to have the advance warning. She’d become quite the actress over the years of hiding how she really felt about her best buddy, but she still needed a few seconds to take a deep breath before going onstage.
The stage, in this case, being Max Crawford’s living room. He lived alone, loved every sport but golf and tennis, and had the biggest television in Whitford. Nobody was quite sure what he did for a living—something to do with the high-tech security system in his basement, which had Rosie convinced he’d be the inspiration for a future episode of her beloved Criminal Minds. But as long as he had the games in HDTV, and three battered leather sofas, nobody asked too many questions.
Max was in the kitchen when she went in the side door. He was a tall, blond, really built, sports-loving hottie who did absolutely nothing for her. And she’d tried. No matter how often she looked at his handsome face and made a mental catalog of all the reasons he’d be so right for her, however, her body refused to cough up so much as a hiccup in her pulse. Nothing.
“Hey, Katie. Wasn’t sure you were going to make it.”
“Fran was feeling sociable.”
“Ah.” Max took the bag from her and peeked inside. “Yes! Nobody else brought dip. You saved the chips.”
She rolled her eyes and left him with the bag so she could go to his gigantic fridge for a soda. “Bet somebody already stole my corner.”
One of the comfy leather sofas was a sectional and Katie’s favorite spot was the corner. She could pull Max’s Bruins throw blanket off the back and make herself a nest. Even though they all generally sat in the same place, she wouldn’t put it past somebody to take advantage of her being late to steal the prime couch real estate.
“Like Josh would let anybody take your spot.”
Katie froze in the act of pulling up the tab on her soda. What was that supposed to mean? The can hissed as she finished opening it so she could wet her mouth. “He doesn’t care where anybody sits as long as he can see the screen.”
“Maybe not ‘anybody,’ but he cares where you sit.”
She snorted, making a show of how stupid she found that observation. No matter how much she wanted it to be true, the last thing she needed was to be a topic of conversation for the guys.
“I don’t think he even knows it,” Max continued, “but he definitely puts out a vibe.”
“The Katie sits near me vibe.”
“I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, but you might want to cut back.” Katie had been waiting for Josh to put out that kind of vibe for most of her life—and she’d just skipped celebrating her thirty-third birthday—so if there was one, she wouldn’t have missed it.
It wasn’t as though she’d been sitting in some tower her entire existence, pining away for her oblivious prince. She’d dated. She’d even had a few serious relationships, but, in the end, none of them were Josh. No, if there was a vibe, she would have felt it.
“Everybody in this town knows you’re his girl but him.” Max didn’t seem to notice the heat she could feel lighting up her cheeks like a stoplight. “You should…I dunno. Wear some lipstick and put some of that crap on your eyes.”
“Makeup? I don’t think so.”
“Men notice that stuff.”
“I have worn makeup before, you know.” Not often, but for the occasional funeral or wedding. “He didn’t do any kind of cartoon double-take and walk into a wall.”
“Maybe you need more.”
“I’m not doing my face up like a clown to get him to notice me, Max. This is me and this is always going to be me, so if I don’t do it for him like this, then I don’t do it for him at all.”
“He just needs a nudge.”
“I’ve known him my whole life. The only thing that nudges Josh Kowalski is a softball bat upside the head.”
“And yet your soft, nurturing nature hasn’t drawn him in yet. I’m shocked.” Max dumped the entire bag of chips into a cheap plastic bowl.
“Bite me, Max.” She took the bowl and the dip and walked into the huge living room. When he’d moved to town and bought the place, Max had removed some walls and let the space absorb what had been a formal dining room.
She glanced toward the sectional and found that, as Max had predicted, the corner was still empty. And Josh smiled at her when she walked over to claim it, setting the chips and dip on the coffee table. That damn smile had always made her feel like a giddy teenage girl, but she had years of practice hiding that giddy girl from the world.
“Thought maybe that junk of yours finally shit the bed,” he said when she’d dropped into the corner.
“Leave my Jeep alone, Kowalski. She’s outlasted three of your pickups.”
“Because I know when to put a vehicle out to pasture.” He leaned forward to grab a slice of what looked like her mother’s banana bread off the table and turned his attention to the big screen, where the pregame chatter was wrapping up.
“Hi, guys,” she said to the room at large, and she got some hellos and a “Hey, Katie” back. Gavin Crenshaw, who cooked at the Trailside Diner, was there with his dad, Mike. Butch Benoit, whose wife, Fran, had made her late, was sitting in the recliner. He was the oldest guy, so he got the prime leather real estate. It was a light crowd this week. Usually there were a few more guys, but it was the first weekend of December and she knew the town well enough to know there were a lot of Christmas lights being hung in lieu of watching football.
Since her spot in the corner put Katie just slightly behind Josh, she was able to watch him through the corner of her eye. She was pretty sure Max was wrong about Josh putting out any kind of vibe where she was concerned, but even the possibility was enough to make her heart beat a little faster.
He looked better, she decided. Some of the tension had left his expression over the past several months, and more of his usual charm shone in his blue eyes. Even though her mother never said much, Katie knew Josh well enough to see the strain the past few years had put on him. He’d been unhappy and had started drinking enough that she’d half-jokingly given him a hard time once in a while. But then he’d broken his leg, his brothers had come home to Whitford to help and they’d all devoted themselves to getting the Northern Star back on its feet.
Katie had mixed feelings about that. She’d practically grown up at the lodge, so she didn’t want to see it go under. And it had been her mother’s home since Katie went off to college and it didn’t make sense for Rose to have her own place anymore. They were turning things around, which was good. Whether they hired a manager or sold the place, she knew her mom would be taken care of.
But, in either scenario, the endgame was Josh leaving Whitford. As the youngest, he’d seen his older brothers and sister all go off to live their own lives and, by the time it was his turn, he’d been unable to leave his dad to run the place alone. Then Frank had passed away and everybody had just assumed Josh would go on taking care of business. He wanted out and the day was coming when he’d get his wish. Katie didn’t want to think about that.
Josh pulled off his Patriots ball cap and pushed his dark hair back before settling the hat back on his head. He’d need a trim soon, she thought, and she had mixed feelings about that, too. On one hand, she knew what it felt like to run her fingers through his hair. On the other…she knew what it felt like to run her fingers through his hair. It could be excruciating, touching him like that—especially when he made that little moaning sound if she washed his hair before cutting it—but she couldn’t deny herself the pleasure. Plus, there was nowhere else to go but the beauty parlor, and sending Josh there would be too cruel a thing to do to her best friend.
“What the hell are you doing?” Josh yelled, sitting forward on the couch as if he could physically intimidate the television into taking back whatever had set him off. His voice was almost drowned out by the other guys shouting, and Katie realized she’d been so busy mooning over the side of Josh’s head, she’d missed the kickoff. Damn.
She grabbed a handful of chips and forced herself to focus on the replay. If she got caught making googly-eyes at Josh in this crowd, she’d never hear the end of it.
* * * * *
After almost fumbling the ball during the first kickoff return, the Patriots got their act together and Josh relaxed against the superior cushions of Max’s couch, wishing he could afford furniture like this for the lodge. Someday he was going to get a straight answer from the guy about what he did for a living. It wasn’t easy to keep a secret in Whitford, but Max Crawford managed.
But if anybody would know, it would be Fran. And if Fran knew, Rosie would know, which would mean Katie might know.
When Max went into the kitchen at the start of halftime, Josh slapped Katie’s leg. “Hey, does Rose know what Max does to earn couch and television money?”
He’d kept his voice low, so she had to lean closer to him to answer him in the same tone. “Nobody knows. It’s no secret he doesn’t go anywhere on a regular basis, so I guess he works in his basement.”
“It’s quite a lock he’s got on the door.” Had a security keypad and everything.
“So nobody can find the bodies.”
Josh snorted and shook his head. “It’s weird that he’s lived here, what…five years? And nobody knows what he does?”
“Has anybody actually asked him outright? I haven’t.”
She usually got her information the normal way—from Fran, her mom or from keeping her ears open and her mouth closed while the old bucks chatted in the barbershop. But Josh didn’t get out quite as much, and Fran didn’t share gossip with him as much as she did with other women.
“I did once,” he said. “He changed the subject and didn’t even try to make it smooth.”
“I bet I can find out before you do.”
That perked him up and he turned his body so he was fully facing her. “Whaddya got, Davis?”
“If I find out how he makes his money before you do, I’ll cut your hair free for six months.”
He snorted. “Lame. Winner washes the other’s vehicle once a month for a year.”
She hesitated, but he’d expected that. It was a half-hour drive to the car wash and twelve bucks down the drain, but Katie never backed down from a bet. “Car wash when it’s cold, but hand wash and wax from May through August?”
“Done.” He stuck out his hand, then pulled it back before she could shake it. “Wait. I have a condition.”
“Admitting it’s the first step.”
“Funny, smart-ass. The condition is no using feminine wiles.”
She laughed, which made everybody in the room stop talking for a few seconds. Katie had a great laugh. “Feminine wiles? What are you, eighty?”
“Call it whatever you want, but no flirting or making kissy faces or letting him look down your shirt to get information out of him.”
“How do you see that going, exactly? ‘Hey, Max, if you tell me what your job is, I’ll let you see my boobs’? You’re a moron.”
“That’s the deal.”
“Fine.” She shook on it.
Josh loved a good challenge. Gathering up their empties and a couple of used paper plates off the table, he headed for the kitchen to restock.
Max was leaning against the counter, cell phone to his ear, and Josh shoved the stuff into the garbage can as quietly as he could. Then he opened the fridge, looking for a couple bottles of water.
“I promised you it would be there before Christmas, and it will be,” Max was telling whoever was on the other end of the line. “I’ll shoot you an email when I ship it out, okay?”
Josh didn’t try to pretend he wasn’t eavesdropping as Max ended his call. He really had no choice but to overhear, since they were the only two people in the kitchen. “Christmas present?”
“Yup.” Max snapped his phone back into its holster.
“Something for work?” It was a natural segue into the conversation he wanted to have.
“When are you and Katie finally going to hook up?”
Josh’s head whipped around. That wasn’t the conversation he wanted to have. “What the hell are you talking about? Why would I hook up with Katie? She’s…Katie.”
Max shrugged. “Just seems as if you two would be good together.”
“We are good together. That’s why she’s my best friend. Hell, we practically grew up together, so that would be weird, man.”
Max shrugged again, then grabbed a soda off the counter. “Shame. You guys are a great couple.”
He brushed by and was out of the kitchen before Josh could think of a response. What was he supposed to say to that? Katie was like one of the guys and they’d known each other their whole lives. If they were going to be a great couple, it probably would have come up before.
Halfway back to the couch, he realized Max had managed to evade answering the question about whether his phone call was work related. And he’d done it by deliberately blowing Josh’s mind with the concept of hooking up with Katie. It was a slick move on Crawford’s part, Josh had to admit.
During a lull in the third-quarter action, Josh pulled out his phone to make sure he hadn’t missed any calls. Butch and Mike had disagreed on a referee’s iffy call and the volume level had been pretty intense for a few minutes. There was nothing, so he had to assume Rosie was still watching television. It was tempting to call and check on her, but she wouldn’t take kindly to that. Or to being woken up if she’d nodded off.
“Waiting for the 1-800-Loser hotline to call you back?” Katie asked, sticking her toe out from under Max’s blanket to poke at Josh.
“Yeah. I told them I was worried about you.” He shoved the phone back into his pocket. “Have you talked to your mom lately?”
She frowned. “A couple of days ago. Why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, probably. Did anybody ever say how long her cough might linger after the pneumonia?”
“A little while, I guess, but it should be getting a lot better by now. Is it bad?”
He tilted his head and shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know. She seems to be coughing a lot, but she says she’s fine.”
“She said she was fine last time, too, right up until she passed out. I think she was even saying it as she hit the floor.”
“If it gets any worse, or doesn’t get any better, you should talk her into a follow-up appointment.” He felt bad when he saw how the concern scrunched up her face. Rosie said she was fine, and he was certainly no doctor. “I’ll keep an eye on her. It’s probably just left over from having pneumonia.”
“You’ll call me if you think there’s anything wrong with her, right?”
“Of course. Unless I’m on the phone with the 1-800-Loser hotline. You getting help is really important.”
She laughed and shoved at his hip with her foot before pulling it back under the blanket.
The other guys cheered and Josh turned back to the game, but Max caught his eye. Crawford jerked his head toward Katie and then made some goofy motion with his eyebrows. Josh gave him a what-the-hell look and then focused on the television.
Dude was losing his mind. He’d run with Katie for as long as he could remember, through good times and bad. He wasn’t screwing up a lifelong friendship to get in her pants, even if she was into him. And she’d never given any sign she wanted him in her pants.
Yeah, Max Crawford was totally barking up the wrong tree.