Amy Jameson tugged at the leash in her hand, nudging the white fluff-ball of a dog her son was currently smitten with further down the aisle of Perry’s Pet Boutique. Can’t we keep him? Dreaded words to a dog-allergic, overworked single mom. “Honey, you know we can’t. We’re only fostering him until he finds a new family.”
Noah sighed, reaching down to pet Yoda the poodle mix.
Surprisingly, the dog didn’t bother Amy’s allergies as much as she’d expected. And as of last week, she and Noah had a house of their own to call home, a house that leaned more toward money pit than fixer-upper. But it was hers. And it had a yard, a safe place for Noah to play outside.
Her “no pets allowed in the apartment complex” argument was no longer valid. So how did she explain to her son that she just plain couldn’t handle the responsibility, or the expense, of another mouth to feed?
“He needs treats,” Noah said, his voice little more than a whisper. “And a bone to chew. And toys.”
“Aunt Merry sent over plenty of toys and goodies when we agreed to foster him for her. He just needs a bag of dog food.”
“But I really like this one.” Noah picked up a chew toy, running his hand back and forth over the raised rubber bumps ridging its surface.
She drew a deep breath, ready to tell him why Yoda didn’t need another chew toy, why the half-chewed up thing Merry had sent over with him was totally fine, but she was so tired of saying no. How much could a little chew toy really cost? She reached out and flipped over the tag. $11.99.
She could pay for Noah’s school lunch for a week with that money. “He doesn’t need it. Aunt Merry sent plenty of toys for him.”
Noah was silent, still rubbing his hand over the rubber nubs on the toy, but she saw the frustration in his eyes. He was tired of hand-me-downs, both for himself and for the mutt sniffing the aisle ahead of them—already a hand-me-down himself as he’d been given up by his first owners, landing him in the animal rescue run by Amy’s brother’s fiancée until he found a permanent home.
Which would not be with Amy and Noah. She could barely afford to feed the two of them. “I’m sorry, bud.”
He put the toy back onto the shelf and walked ahead of her, turning the corner to the next aisle. Always so quiet when he was upset. Just once, she wanted to be able to say yes to what he’d asked for, to see his eyes light up with excitement, to hear him squeal with joy the way he so rarely did.
“Someday,” she muttered.
Yoda yanked at the leash in her hand, and she glanced down to see him raise his rear leg in the direction of a pile of rope toys.
“Yoda, no!” She bent and grabbed him around his scrawny ribs, but it was too late. A stream of urine shot out from him, going everywhere. She stumbled forward with a squeak, giving the dog a small shake to get him to quit peeing, and her head bumped into something—or someone.
She turned her head and found herself eye level with a man’s crotch. And oh God, she had just head-butted him in the groin. She lurched upright, sending a stream of Yoda pee all over the poor guy’s pants in the process. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry—”
That voice. It sent a bolt of longing through her so intense that her whole body sizzled with it. She looked up and into the slightly amused eyes of Luke Benson.
Yoda slipped through her fingers, leaping to the floor to finish his interrupted business.
If it was possible, he looked even better than she remembered. The cocky, lean teenager who’d stolen her heart at the tender age of sixteen had matured into a tall, solid man who filled out his worn jeans and T-shirt with a lot more muscle than he’d had in high school. His brown hair was shorter now, close-cut, but his eyes were the same: hazel flecked with a million different shades of green, gold, and brown.
She cleared her throat while her heart pounded against her ribs and her cheeks grew suspiciously warm. “Luke. You’re back in town.”
“I am.” And he was looking at her the way he had in high school, a way no man had since: like she was the most beautiful woman in the room.
Or, in this case, the pet store.
And, oh God, there was a streak of dog pee on the front of his pants. She pressed a hand to her mouth. “I am so sorry about that.”
He glanced down at himself and chuckled. “I’ve had worse.”
Right. Because he was a hot-shot doctor now. Divorced and living in Baltimore the last she’d heard. Not that she’d kept tabs on him since they broke up fifteen years ago, because okay, she totally had. “He’s—” She looked down at Yoda, who’d finished relieving himself and was once again busy sniffing his way down the aisle. “He’s not really mine, or particularly well-behaved.”
“I can see that. You look good, Amy. How have you been?”
She rubbed her hands over the front of her threadbare cotton skirt. Tired. Lonely. “I’m good. And you—what brings you back to Dogwood?”
“Joe and Amanda’s wedding,” he said.
Of course. Joe Royce had been a close friend of Luke’s in high school. Which was just super because Amy would be at that wedding too. In fact, she was one of Amanda’s bridesmaids. She was going solo, of course, and if she had to sit there all night and try not to feel jealous of Luke and his date, she might lose it.
“I’m a stand-in groomsman,” he said, a hint of humor in those hazel eyes.
“Eddie deployed a few months ago, and apparently Amanda wanted to keep the bridal party even, so they asked me to step in.”
“Oh.” Right. She’d heard that Joe’s friend Eddie had deployed, but she was certain Amanda hadn’t mentioned anything about asking Luke to join the bridal party in his place. “Well, I’m glad it worked out. I know Amanda has been stressing over all the details lately.”
He nodded. “I just got back into the states after putting in some time with Doctors Without Borders and didn’t have a new apartment in Baltimore yet, so I decided to come visit Mom for a few weeks before the wedding.”
“That’s nice. How is your mom these days?” Amy had always adored Mrs. Benson. She reminded her a lot of her own mom: warm, caring, and funny. And fiercely protective of her only son.
His gaze softened. “She’s great. Still up to no good. You know how she is.”
Amy laughed softly. “Remember how she busted us that time when you snuck out after your curfew, and I came and picked you up?”
“Yeah.” He smiled, and his eyes heated.
Yeah. They’d had sex on the backseat of her Ford Focus that night too.
“Mom?” Noah’s small voice pulled her back to the present. He stood at the end of the aisle, a bag of dog food in his arms.
Luke’s brow wrinkled as he glanced over his shoulder in Noah’s direction. Yep, that’s right. She had a kid now. A kid who came before anything else in her life, especially men. Probably Luke would say an awkward goodbye and be on his way.
Which was for the best really.
“Hi there,” Luke said instead. “What’s your name?”
Noah looked away quickly, rocking from side to side as he clutched the bag of dog food.
“Noah,” Amy said quietly. “His name is Noah.”
And he’s autistic.
And no doubt Luke was mentally calculating the swiftest escape route, much as Noah’s father had done. Squaring her shoulders, Amy walked toward her son, dragging the ill-behaved poodle mix behind her.
Luke Benson eyed the rows of dog food in front of him, but it was all he could do not to stare at the woman beside him. Damn. If possible, she was even more gorgeous than she’d been in high school, tall and slender yet curvy in all the right places. Her brown hair had light streaks that might have come from the salon, but he suspected she’d gotten them the old-fashioned way: spending time outside.
He imagined her at her parents’ farm, riding horses with Noah. Yeah. She’d always been fun and adventurous; never afraid to get her hands dirty. And after all these years, she still made his heart beat too fast.
He glanced at the boy. Probably eight or nine, scrawny as Luke himself had been at that age, with a shock of brown hair and round glasses that gave him a bit of a Harry Potter look. “My name’s Luke. I’m an old friend of your mom’s. I’m here to buy dog food too.”
“You have a dog?” Amy asked as she walked to her son and lifted the bag of dog food from his arms. He tucked himself in behind her, his hands fluttering restlessly at his sides.
Autistic, maybe. Luke kept his eyes on the shelves in front of him to keep from making the boy any more anxious. “It’s my mom’s dog. I offered to pick up some food for her, but I had no idea there were so many choices.”
“This kind has blueberries, and fruit is good for you,” Noah said quietly.
“That’s a good point,” Luke said, picking up a bag of the food Noah was pointing at. “I bet Dove—that’s my mom’s dog—would like blueberries.”
“They’re good for you,” Noah said again.
“I’m sold.” Luke tucked the bag of dog food under his arm. “Does your dog like the blueberry kind?”
Noah nodded, picking at a loose thread on his shirtsleeve.
“He’s not ours,” Amy said. “We’re just keeping him a little while for T.J. and his fiancée while they look for a permanent home for him.”
He let himself glance at her again, and damn if just the sight of her didn’t leave him as breathless as if he’d just finished a five-mile run. “How is your brother?”
“He’s doing really well.” Amy shifted the bag of dog food in her arms.
Noah crouched in the aisle to pet the dog. “Mom?”
“If Mr. Luke is a friend of yours, maybe he could fix our air conditioner.”
“Mr. Luke is a doctor. He fixes people, not air conditioners, and I told you I can fix it myself. I watched a Youtube video.” She glanced at Luke. “We just moved into a new house, and it’s kind of a fixer-upper.”
Luke knew an opportunity when he saw one, because he’d never been satisfied with the way things ended between them back in high school. He wasn’t letting Amy walk out of his life a second time until he was damn sure this thing between them was finished, and, right now, it sure didn’t feel finished. “Well, as it happens, I’m pretty good with my hands.”
Amy blushed. “Thanks for the offer, but I can take care of it myself.”
Suddenly, it didn’t feel like they were talking about air conditioners. Luke cleared his throat and dragged his mind out of the gutter because they were standing in the middle of the pet store with a misbehaving mutt and Amy’s son as an audience. “I’m happy to take a look. I’m here all week just hanging out with my mom, and I think she’s already getting sick of me.”
Amy took a step backward. “Thanks, but I already have someone scheduled to come by tomorrow if I can’t fix it today.”
He shrugged. “If you’re sure.”
“I am. Well, we should be going. I need to let someone know about that—” She gestured to the yellow puddle on the floor, “and get this guy out of here before he makes any more messes.”
“Right. So, I’ll see you at the wedding?”
“Excellent.” Suddenly this wedding felt like something to look forward to, because he absolutely wanted to see Amy again. As she hurried toward the checkout counter, with Noah and the dog following behind her, even the wedding seemed too long to wait.
Amy kicked the busted air conditioner. “Dammit.”
She clutched her toe. Kicking the air conditioner while wearing flip flops was not her brightest idea. But damn, this house was a money pit. The night around her hummed with insects. And it was hot. Miserably hot. It was only mid-May, but summer temperatures had arrived early in Dogwood, North Carolina. Amy brushed a damp lock of hair back from her face. So far, homeownership had not been the dream come true she’d been hoping for.
After her grandfather passed away a few months ago, the house had been left to Amy and her brother. Since T.J. already owned his own farm, this little house had fallen into her lap. And it was perfect for her and Noah, if it didn’t fall down on its foundation around them. The window screens were full of holes, which she and Noah had spent most of the afternoon patching with construction paper so that they could at least keep the windows open without serving as a buffet for all the hungry mosquitoes in the area.
The carpets were worn and stained. The faucet in the guest bathroom didn’t work. And there was a suspicious soft spot under the linoleum in front of the refrigerator that made her fear she’d fall through the floor every time she got a cold drink.
But it was hers. And despite its many problems, the house sat on some seriously amazing land. Acres of woods, even a stream for Noah to play in and have boyish adventures until his heart was content. Once she’d finished fixing the place up, it was going to be their sanctuary.
In the meantime…
Amy rubbed at her big toe and debated giving the air conditioner one more kick for good measure. The capable chick on Youtube had made it look like a simple fix. Not so much. At least her failure would make a great entry on Everyday Emmy.
Yeah, her friends and family had no idea she moonlighted as a blogger and was making enough money at it that she’d been able to give up waitressing nights and move to a morning schedule. It meant fewer tips, but so much more time with her son.
Amy was the opposite of most successful “mommy bloggers.” She shared real-life experiences that were definitely not Pinterest-worthy. She shared her struggles as a single mom and as the mother of a high-functioning autistic son. She told humorous stories about failed do-it-herself attempts like tonight’s air conditioning fiasco. And she got honest about the hardships she faced in a way she seldom did with anyone who knew her in real life.
She called herself Emmy, and Noah “Bud,” her real-life nickname for him. And somehow her little blog had started bringing in enough ad money that she’d dared to take a leap of faith and move into this house. She was dreaming big for once, terrified of crashing and burning but determined to make life better for herself and her son.
Rubbing at a fresh mosquito bite on her elbow, she tromped inside. Yoda nipped at her heels as she walked to the kitchen for a cold glass of water. He looked up at her, panting.
“Yeah, it’s hot in here. I know.” She bent and rubbed his fluffy head. Poor dog. He must be roasting under all that fur. “Want a haircut?” She was joking when the words left her mouth, but why not? She had a set of hair clippers she used to trim around Noah’s neck after she cut his hair. Same principle, right?
Yoda cocked his head. Now that she thought about it, Merry had mentioned something about him being overdue to be groomed. “Come on, then. Let’s give it a try.”
She brought her cell phone with her to the bathroom to take pictures, giggling as she mentally started composing her next Everyday Emmy post. A poodle trimming, and a busted air conditioner. Maybe she could even mention his earlier pee-geyser at the pet store. A flush rose in her cheeks at the memory.
Two hours later—and with a somewhat-evenly shaved poodle at her side—Amy hit “publish” on her post titled “Fluff and Stuff.”
And then, exhausted, she went to bed. As she lay tossing and turning in the hot, humid air, she tried very hard not to think about Luke Benson. He’d been her first real crush. Her first boyfriend. Her first everything.
And they’d been so good together. So much in love.
For one perfect year, they’d been inseparable. But Luke was older, a year ahead of her in school, so when he got accepted into the pre-med program at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Amy tried to be a realist. He’d be living five hours away, a college student in a big city. And Amy, well, she’d just be the small town high school girl from back home.
She knew how these things ended. Rather than waiting around for him to break her heart, she’d done the sensible thing and broken up with him before he left for college.
Except it hadn’t been sensible. She’d been miserable without him, and she’d hoped—foolishly—that he’d been miserable without her too. So, she’d scraped together her courage and gone after him, but Luke—looking ridiculously cool and mature on his college campus—had told her it was too late. When he returned home the following summer, he brought his fiancée, Georgia, with him.
A fiancée. At nineteen.
Amy’s heart was broken all over again. He’d so willingly walked away from her to sow his wild oats in the big city, only to get engaged a few months later? Everyone speculated that he must have gotten Georgia pregnant, but no news of a baby ever came. And Luke married Georgia the following summer, staying in Baltimore with her after he graduated from medical school.
Amy hadn’t been much of a believer in love and marriage after that. She and Daryl had been dating for two years when she got pregnant with Noah. And so she hadn’t married him, which in the end only made it that much easier for him to leave after their son was diagnosed with autism.
No strings. No looking back.
No more men in her life. Period.
Noah was her priority now. She saw him onto the bus the next morning before hurrying to her shift at the Dogwood Diner. The pay at the diner was less than she’d made at her old job at Finnegan’s Irish Pub, but her hours more closely matched Noah’s school schedule, allowing her to spend so much more time with her son, and, for the time being, her income from the blog was covering the difference with even a little bit to spare.
Her friend Amanda texted her at lunchtime. OMG total wedding disaster. There may not even *be* a wedding. Call me.
Amy shook her head in disbelief. What in the world? Her friend wasn’t prone to dramatics. In fact, this had been the most drama-free wedding Amy had ever been a part of. What happened? she responded. I’ll be home from work at 2.
Amanda was waiting in her driveway when she got home, eyes red and puffy. “You’ll never believe what’s happened.”
Amy motioned for Amanda to follow her inside, only to be assaulted by a wall of impenetrable heat inside the house.
“Holy cow,” Amanda said, waving a hand in front of her face.
“I know. My AC is busted. I’ve got someone coming later today to look at it. Let’s take some iced tea out on the back patio.” Amy ushered Amanda into the kitchen, where she poured two glasses of tea—carefully avoiding the soft spot in the linoleum lest the ground open up and swallow her whole—then led the way out back. “Is it Joe? Did he…?”
Amanda’s eyes rounded. “Oh God, no! Nothing like that.” Amy exhaled in relief as she plopped into a chair. “Okay then. Tell me everything.”
Amanda sat in the rocking chair beside her. “The country club called this morning. A pipe burst, and there was all kinds of water damage. They’re closed for at least a month.”
“Oh, crap.” This was lousy news, but so much less horrible than the things Amy had been imagining since she’d gotten Amanda’s text. No one had died, or cheated, or had anything horrible happen to them. There would still be a wedding, it just wouldn’t be at the country club.
“The wedding is only twelve days away! Any place worth getting married at will have been booked months ago.” Amanda sniffled as she gulped from her iced tea.
“It could be tricky,” Amy agreed.
“My mom is calling every place in the area today anyway, just in case. We might have to elope, but we can’t postpone the wedding.” Amanda glanced at Amy. “We found out last week that I’m pregnant.”
“Oh my God!” Amy lurched out of her chair to hug her friend. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Amanda was beaming now. “We quit using birth control last month since we’re both in our thirties already. We knew we didn’t want to wait long, although I didn’t necessarily think it would happen this fast. But we’ve got to tie the knot while I can still wear my dress. It cost a fortune.”
Well, at least this explained why her normally level-headed friend was such an emotional wreck this afternoon. “You could elope in Vegas. I’ve always thought that sounded fun.”
Amanda laughed. “It does hold a certain appeal. But we love Dogwood, and we want our friends and family to be here to celebrate with us.”
“I wonder if there are any local parks that would let you hold a wedding ceremony?”
“That’s a thought.” Amanda gazed thoughtfully over the open field behind Amy’s little money pit of a house. “Something like your backyard would be beautiful.”
“My backyard, only better tended.” Amy looked at the overgrown field behind her house. It would be beautiful…someday. When she’d had time to tame it.
Amanda tapped her fingers to her lips. “This might sound crazy, but what would you think if we had the wedding here?”
“Here?” Amy choked on a mouthful of tea. “As in, at my house? I don’t even have a working air conditioner!”
“Out here.” Amanda gestured around them, sounding excited now. “We could put an altar right over there.” She pointed toward a spot between two oak trees. “And rent a tent. There’s plenty of room out here to host everyone.”
“Um.” It could work. The grounds behind the house were definitely the best part of the property. “It would mean a lot of work. No one has done anything with this land in years.” “I’ll call Joe and see what he thinks. If he got all his friends out here to help, they just might be able to pull it off.” She paused and turned to Amy, her eyes wide and sincere. “If it’s okay with you, of course. This is your house. You’ve barely moved in, and here I am planning my wedding in your backyard.”
“Of course I don’t mind. It would be really special to have two of my favorite people get married here. My only concern is pulling this off in twelve days, because the inside of the house is barely habitable right now, and the land is gorgeous but totally overgrown.”
“Joe’s friend Max is a landscaper. If he has time, he could be a huge help. And you’d get a whole bunch of free labor—and hot guys—to help get your new house all fixed up.” Amanda smiled.
“I’d definitely need help getting the place ready for an event in less than two weeks.” Amy twisted her fingers. “But I didn’t agree to this to get free work done on my house.”
“Sweetie, I know that.” Amanda touched her arm. “But we’re getting a full refund from the country club, which means I’m saving oodles of money any way you look at it. I’m imposing on you. The least I can do is make sure my wedding disaster doesn’t cost you anything.”
Amanda left soon after to talk to Joe and see who they could rally for the project. Amy stood in her living room, trying to swallow down a growing feeling of panic. This place was a total dump inside. How in the world could she ever get it ready for guests in just twelve days?
Her phone pinged with an incoming text. It was from Amanda. I’ve got someone coming over to take a look around. Be nice to him. This was followed by an emoticon with wagging eyebrows.
What in the world was that supposed to mean? Amy was rarely rude to anyone.
Ten minutes later, she heard a knock at her front door. She pulled it open to find Luke Benson standing on the other side, wearing khaki shorts, a blue T-shirt, and a panty-melting smile.