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Authors: Hope Ramsay

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BOOK: A Fairytale Bride
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“Good God,” the duchess said.

Which was totally an understatement, because Jeff had started his day without underwear.

Melissa was momentarily stunned by the view, which probably explained why she was a little late in coming to Jeff’s aid. But that was okay because the beanbag chair had cushioned his fall. He shucked off his shoes, disentangled his legs, and covered his private parts with those manly hands of his.

Even so, the view was stirring. Especially when he stood up and streaked into the back room, slamming the door behind his incredibly hot backside.

Chapter Five

D
amn.

It was bad losing his pants. Although he still wasn’t sure exactly how that had happened. One moment he’d been up on the ladder, and the next he’d been stuck to the wall and then falling.

A flush of embarrassment heated his body from head to toe. This was his penance for not doing his laundry. Although he had to admit he didn’t mind Melissa seeing his junk, and in the nanosecond before he covered himself, she’d certainly been looking. With interest.

Being half naked in Melissa’s presence didn’t suck. Not so much with Aunt Pam though.

Why the hell was Pam here? Of all the places in Shenandoah Falls, this was the last place he’d ever expected his aunt to visit. Had she recognized him?

He eased the door open a crack, just large enough to see the checkout counter where Pam and Melissa were talking.

“So, Melissa,” Pam said in her Tennessee drawl, “I see you’ve been making improvements. I’m so glad. Maybe my visit is well timed.” She cleared her throat, then glanced toward the scene of his disrobing. “Who was that man?”

He tensed. Pam would figure it out if Melissa said his name.

“Just the new helper,” Melissa said, thank God.

“Uh-huh.” Pam paused for a long moment as she swept her gaze over the store’s interior before turning back toward Melissa. “Darlin’, I know your grandmother had a blind spot about some things. But we both know her determination never to mortgage this property was old-fashioned.”

“She had her reasons,” Melissa said, crossing her arms over the
Sleeping Beauty
T-shirt she was wearing today.

“Well, yes, I suppose she did. But look, we need your help. The Town Council and the Liberty Avenue Property Owners Association have agreed to move forward with a request for a block grant to revitalize the historic structures downtown. That means we need every property owner between Lord Fairfax Highway and Sixth Street to agree to a special assessment that will provide the matching funds for the project.”

“Every property owner? That means the Lyndon Companies and me, right? And when you say a special assessment, you mean a special tax, don’t you?” Melissa sounded downright belligerent. Her body language said it all. She didn’t like Aunt Pam.

Pam spoke again. “It’s true that the Lyndon Companies owns more buildings than anyone else, but there are a total of five additional landowners, including yourself. And an assessment is not a tax.”

“Oh, okay, how is it different?”

“To begin with, it’s voluntary. But those who chip in will get matching funds to renovate their storefronts. By participating, you’ll save a lot of money on the storefront renovations needed to get this building listed on the historic register. And, darlin’, this building is worthy of that honor.”

“I would love to see this building on the historic register, Mrs. Lyndon. But I can’t afford your assessment without a mortgage. And if I mortgage the place, I’ll probably have to close the store and find a more lucrative tenant.”

“Darlin’, that doesn’t sound terrible to me. You could make money on this building. And while I know this is a difficult time for you, I really need your support. The deadline to submit our application is June fifteenth. That’s just three weeks away. We’ll have a better chance of winning this grant if we have unanimous participation.”

“I need to think about it,” Melissa said.

Aunt Pam leaned over the checkout, her body language aggressive. “In a few days you’ll be officially in arrears on your property taxes. At that time the county will start proceedings to foreclose on this property, and Lyndon Properties is ready, willing, and able to buy this building. We’d prefer to pay full price if you’re willing to sell. But you could finance this, Melissa, and make a lot of money. Rick Sharp down at the bank is ready to help you with the financing, and I know Walter Braden would help you find a well-paying commercial tenant.”

“I need to think about it,” Melissa repeated as she uncrossed her arms and stood toe to toe with Pam, staring her down.

Pam stepped back. “All right. I understand. But you don’t have much time left, you hear?” She turned and headed toward the door. Dickens hissed at her on her way out.

*  *  *

Melissa was shaking when the bell above the door finally jangled and Pam Lyndon left the store. The time had come to make a decision. And, unfortunately, the decision would require her to close Secondhand Prose. Forever.

Her eyes filled with tears as she studied Dickens. “Maybe Jeff will take you,” she whispered, then blew out a long breath. She stood there for a moment, collecting herself and wiping her cheeks.

When she’d regained control, she headed toward the back of the store to examine the damaged pants; then she headed toward the back room.

“Hey, are you okay in there?” she asked through the door.

“I’m good,” Jeff replied. His voice eased her jangled nerves and soothed her aching heart. Just the sound of him calmed her down.

“I just checked your jeans. They’re beyond repair.”

Silence greeted her from the other side of the door, and her momentary melancholy was replaced by something else. It might be fun to open the door and have a good look at him. It would definitely distract her from her problems.

“Guess I picked the wrong day to go commando, huh?” he finally said. “Truth is, I need to do some laundry.”

“Do you do laundry?”

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that your wardrobe is always so…”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Together. I figured you took everything to the dry cleaner’s.”

“Well, yeah, I do.”

“There’s a good dry cleaner on South Third Street. Just sayin’.”

“Thanks. But that doesn’t exactly solve my current problem. Got any ideas?”

Melissa had a few, but they were all bad ones. The best thing would be to get him some pants so her libido would go back to sleep.

“Okay, look, hang loose…” She paused a moment because these words brought an image to her mind that was X-rated. “Uh…um, maybe that was the wrong choice of words. Just wait there for a minute, and I’ll get you a pair of pants.”

She checked the size of the shredded jeans and then headed down the street to the Haggle Shop, the local consignment store, where she scoured the rack for a pair of jeans with a thirty-four-inch waist and a thirty-six inseam.

The Haggle Shop had lots of cool vintage stuff, but you never knew what you’d find there, and the selection of guys’ pants in a thirty-six inseam was limited to four pairs of ugly beige khakis and one pair of cool argyle golf pants in kelly green and pastel yellow.

*  *  *

The pants were loud. And fun. Wearing them was like being invited into Melissa’s slightly weird, totally unique world of fashion. He opened the door to find her standing there with a naughty gleam in her too-blue eyes.

“I like the pants,” he said. “I’m thinking I need more color in my life.” He took a step forward. This time she didn’t retreat, and he caught a whiff of her scent: a mountain meadow.

“Look, Melissa, I overheard what that woman said.” He touched her shoulder, and she pressed herself in to his hand. Just like a cat hunting for a good scratch.

“I’ve been trying to tell you that the bookstore is a lost cause,” she said. “I have to put it up for sale. I’m scheduling an appointment with Walter from Braden Realty on Monday.” Melissa’s voice was full of defeat.

His heart stumbled. “Won’t that play right into that woman’s hand?” His words came out in a rush.

“Maybe. But it’s got to be done. Jeff, I’m sorry. I’ve been sitting here for a few weeks, unable to make a decision. That’s why I left the ‘Help Wanted’ sign on the door. And then you arrived, and I got all caught up in the ridiculous fantasy that maybe I could keep the store going. But I can’t. Taxes are due, and I have to mortgage the place to pay them. But I can’t make mortgage payments by selling used books. There just isn’t enough income in it.” Her voice wobbled as she spoke, and then her eyes filled with tears.

He took her big black glasses off her face and pulled her into his arms. “It’s okay. Just let it out. I’m thinking maybe you haven’t even let yourself cry for your grandmother.”

She didn’t cry. But she leaned against him like Hugo did when he wanted attention. Jeff stroked the back of her head, her curly hair gliding under his palms, igniting a deep yearning. He had to admit the truth. It wasn’t so much the bookstore that had him coming here every day as it was Melissa. He wanted to protect her. He wanted to be the comic book hero who swoops in and saves the world and gets the hot girl at the same time.

And why the hell not? He didn’t need any superpowers to fix this problem. Money would do the trick, and if Jeff had anything, it was money—a gigantic and bothersome trust fund that made people think he didn’t have any ambition or drive. A mother with so much money she needed someone to manage it all. Money was a big pain in the neck for Jeff, but it could solve all of Melissa’s problems.

He could fix this for her and thwart Aunt Pam’s plans at the same time. He just needed one day to make the arrangements.

Like changing his name, it would be the ultimate statement of rebellion.

*  *  *

Oh God. She was in Jeff’s arms, and it felt like heaven, leaning up against his hard, male body. A girl could get used to leaning on a guy like Jeff. He was steady. Dependable. Sweet. Considerate. And he dressed well.

Also, his lips were warm and soft where they rested against her forehead. She wanted him to do something naughty with those lips.

She tilted her head, hoping he would get the message that she wanted to be kissed. He was all blurry since she wasn’t wearing her glasses, so she couldn’t read his expression. Was he just being kind? That would be so frustrating.

She wanted more from him than help with the store. The store was irrelevant. It had to be closed and the building had to be sold.

And just like that she made the decision she’d been putting off. She would sell out, and she would stop waiting around for life to begin.

Today was the first day of the rest of her life, and she was going to seize control of it. Jeff Talbert might not be a forever love, but he was a nice guy and she was alone in the world. Besides, she’d been living like a nun for too long.

“So,” she said, letting her voice drop into the husky range. “The store is closed tomorrow. You want to do something fun? I could take you up to the falls. It’s a fun hike. Or are you opposed to long walks in the woods?”

“Are you asking me out on a date?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess.”

“You guess? You don’t know?”

Damn. The man was impossible.

“Yes, I’m asking you out on a date. Tomorrow.”

She must have frowned at him or something because he started stroking her forehead with his thumb. The touch was comforting and arousing all at once. The cats loved it when he rubbed his thumb over their foreheads. Now she understood. She didn’t purr, but her body definitely started to rev itself up for more. In fact, she closed her eyes and made a little moan of pleasure.

That obviously did it for him. He stopped stroking her, settled his hands on her hips, and pulled her in tight against his chest and thighs and all his other hard manly parts. His lips went back to her temple, but this time he kissed his way down the side of her face, over her cheek to the corner of her mouth. She moved into the kiss and opened up for him.

When their tongues finally met, she threw her arms around his neck and pulled him into the kiss. He was a virtuoso at this dance of tongues, doling out something sweet, carnal, mysterious, and addictive.

But when one of his hands left her hip and moved up toward her breast, she inadvertently stiffened. It happened like a reflex. She might fantasize about no-strings sex, but she was abysmally bad at actually having it. Her underlying caution always reared its head.

Damn.

And wouldn’t you know it? Jeff was such a gentleman that he backed away a little. “Not okay?” he asked.

What was she supposed to do now? It was all so awkward. So she said nothing, even though she really wanted him to go back to kissing her and maybe even touching her.

Instead he relaxed his grip and put her in a safer zone without actually letting her go. “So,” he said in a rough voice, “I’d love to take a hike with you up to the falls.”

Oh, good. She’d have a second chance to get this right. “Great,” she said.

“Cool,” he replied. “Why don’t we meet at Gracie’s Diner for brunch or something?”

BOOK: A Fairytale Bride
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