Authors: Lydia Rowan
Tags: #Contemporary Interracial Military Romance
Where You Least Expect
A Thornehill Springs Novel
Welcome to Thornehill Springs!
Navy SEAL Joe MacDermid came to Thornehill Springs, North Carolina seeking peace and quiet and maybe a break from his hectic life. But his next-door neighbor Verna Love seems intent on making sure he doesn’t get any of either.
Verna takes pride in being a nice person, but when it comes to Joe, she just can’t help herself. Getting under his skin gives her an unexplainable satisfaction, and it doesn’t hurt that Joe is the picture of masculine perfection, especially when he’s angry. She’s smart enough to know that he’d never be interested in her, not with all her flaws, but she can’t pretend that goading him isn’t one of the highlights of her day.
But when circumstances force the two of them together, they might find love where they least expect.
Where You Least Expect
is the first book in the Thornehill Springs series. Look for the next book in the series,
Who You Least Expect
, coming in 2015.
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Joe MacDermid looked up at the sound of the pounding on his door and a flare of irritation spiked through his veins. He couldn’t put a finger on exactly how, but he knew who he’d find on the other side. He had half a mind to ignore her, but painful experience had taught him she’d just bang and bang and bang some more until he answered. Verna Love was as persistent as she was annoying, so he had to weigh the cost of talking to her against the prospect of her knocking all morning. Best to get it over with, he decided, so he walked toward the door, though he didn’t move with any particular urgency.
“Hey there, neighbor,” she said once he’d opened it.
He cringed at the words—he was never going to get used to hearing them, not from Verna anyway—and the syrupy-sweet tone with which they were delivered. He was fully aware that the speaker was neither syrupy nor sweet, despite any effort she might make to pretend otherwise. Not that she’d ever pretended to be nice, at least not to him.
“What, Verna?” he uttered harshly.
“Well, good fuckin’ morning to you too,” she said as she pushed past him and into his foyer and then on to his living room, where she plopped down on his couch.
Joe pressed his lips into a tight line.
“I don’t recall inviting you in,” he said, voice still harsh.
“And I don’t recall asking,” she tossed back, putting a foot on the coffee table as if to underscore her point.
, was why having Verna Love as a next-door neighbor had been a fate almost too awful to contemplate, why he’d been willing to go to extremes to prevent it. When Quinn had mentioned she’d be renting her house to her best friend Verna once she and her son Ethan had settled in Geneva, Joe had been floored. On the best days, Verna raised his blood pressure fifty points, and on the worst… He shook his head. With her around, simple, would-be pleasant events turned into a battle of wills. Joe’s opinion of something seemingly made Verna feel honor-bound to take the opposite, and she was all too willing to vocally, and repeatedly, express that opinion whether he asked for it or not.
He’d tried to get Quinn to reconsider, cajoling, almost begging, in fact. Then he’d gotten desperate. He’d offered to rent the house himself, to even buy the damn thing if necessary, but Quinn hadn’t budged.
His heart sped, and he could feel his irritation increasing by the moment. Staring death rays at the back of Verna’s head, he took deep breaths, wondering, not for the first time, why dealing with a small-town waitress resulted in him resorting to mood-management techniques that should have only been necessary in the heat of battle. Although, sparring with Verna was sometimes akin to battle, especially at times like these.
“What, Verna?” he asked, trying and failing so very hard to take the anger out of his voice.
She glanced back at him. “Why the long face, G.I. Joe? Surely you’re happy to have me here,” she said, voice still sweet, though he could hear the tease in her tone.
Joe ground his teeth and counted to ten. He’d been to war, had completed some of the most high-level missions in this country’s history and was a decorated Navy SEAL. He would not let some…
goad him into losing his cool. Not even if that woman happened to be Verna Love.
Nope, he was going to keep it steady. So, with a great degree of discipline, he managed not to explain for the thousandth time that he was not in the Army, so that ridiculous nickname that she thought was just the funniest thing did not apply to him, and was not in fact funny.
“Move,” he said instead as he walked toward the couch. “That’s my spot.”
He stood silent until, with a put-upon sigh, she slid over.
“Well,” she said a moment later, “aren’t you going to sit?”
“I didn’t say that. I just said that was my spot.”
“So mature,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, mature like barging in uninvited and making yourself right at home?”
“No, mature like treating a neighbor and friend of a friend with such poor hospitality.”
“I didn’t invite you!”
“You should still be polite.”
He repeated his breathing exercises and glared down at her. A smile, one he’d have considered friendly had it graced the features of another human being, lit her face, giving her rounded cheeks, with their prominent cheekbones, and soft jawline an open, welcoming feel that he didn’t doubt most found comforting. Verna’s face was the kind that people trusted, and when he’d first met her, he’d imagined she’d have made a good preschool teacher, or maybe a nurse.
That was until he’d spotted that slightly demented gleam in her bright brown eyes, though so far, he seemed to be the only one who saw it. In any case, he’d immediately reconsidered, unable to imagine Verna working with children. Or old people. Or adults. And finding it hard to believe that anyone would choose to subject himself to her willingly. Especially him.
For that matter…
“What, Verna?” he repeated.
“Joe,” she said, peering at him expectantly, that infernal impish glint lighting her eyes.
He grunted a response, at which point she continued.
“I need your help.”
The surprise that lifted his eyebrow had Verna smiling.
“What?” he finally said, tone impatient.
“I have lunch shift today, but they’re coming to pick up my little storage unit, so I need to get the rest of my shit out before they get here.”
He scowled at the thought of the giant white monstrosity that had been planted on the lawn, an eyesore in the midst of the well-maintained yards of the neighborhood. It had been an exercise in self-control for Joe to hold his tongue about the unit, and he halfway suspected she’d put it there just to piss him off. But the prospect of having it gone and maybe restoring his ability to pretend that Verna hadn’t taken up residence next door was enticing.
“Come on. It’s just a few things, and it’ll give you a chance to help out a damsel in distress, and I know you love that shit.”
The snort bubbled from his throat, and Verna gave him a little half smile of acknowledgement, but otherwise stayed silent.
“Stay right here. And don’t touch anything!” he said finally as he headed toward the garage to put on his shoes, moving with the urgency that had been missing earlier.
He’d often wondered if other people looked at her and saw the cheerfully overweight waitress with an unfortunate penchant for swear words but otherwise always ready with a quick joke and a smile. The way others interacted with her, especially at her parents’ restaurant, led him to believe that was indeed what they saw.
But not him. She
a cheerfully overweight waitress with an unfortunate penchant for swear words but otherwise always ready with a quick joke and a smile, and after he’d first met her, he’d thought that maybe he’d been mistaken and had misread her. But the second time he’d gone to the cafeteria, he’d again seen that streak of mischief in her eyes and had picked up on the scalpel-sharp wit that no one else seemed to notice. She’d lived in Thornehill Springs forever, so maybe all the other townspeople had gotten used to that “baby Love girl,” as she was commonly called, but as a newcomer to town, he hadn’t been prepared for it or for her or the jabs and barbs that only he seemed to hear and the pushiness that often left him speechless and kept him on high alert.
Still, Love’s Cafeteria was the best restaurant in town, at least for breakfast, and he wasn’t much of a cook, so he found himself there on a regular basis. At first, he’d tried to go when Verna wasn’t there, but it had seemed that Verna was always there, so if he’d wanted a decent meal, she was a part of the package. It’d been easy enough, he supposed, but when he’d bought his house, one that just so happened to be adjacent to that of her dearest friend from childhood, things had gotten interesting. He’d barely believed that Quinn and Verna were friends; the women were wildly different, but that didn’t seem to have an effect on their bond. No, much to Joe’s annoyance, Quinn and Verna had been joined at the hip, which meant that Verna had spent a lot of time at Quinn’s house.
True enough, Joe could have avoided Verna, but doing so would have meant avoiding Quinn, and seeing as the other woman had been so nice and friendly, his first new friend in his new town, he hadn’t been willing to limit their interaction. So Verna was a part of that package too.
And now with Quinn gone, she was the entire package, one that struck an unfamiliar fear in his combat-hardened heart.
He returned to the living room no more than two minutes later and found Verna standing in front of his fireplace, hand reaching out. He cleared his throat and she had the decency to look remorseful, if only for a brief moment.
“Let’s go,” he said, hitching his head toward the front door and not waiting for her to respond.
He shook his head in disgust as he noted her beat-to-shit car with its ridiculously noisy muffler parked at the very edge of the driveway, right next to his extended-cab pickup, a vehicle that would have been the love of his life had it been human. Never mind that Quinn’s driveway could accommodate two cars or that there was also a two-car garage. No, Verna had chosen to park as close as she possibly could to his truck, no doubt to get under his skin.
She walked beside him, her long strides almost matching his own and her height placing her at almost eye level. Her hair was as he’d always seen it, pulled back into a tight ponytail-bun thing that would have looked old on someone else, but that gave Verna an almost girlish air despite the fact that she was in her late twenties. Her standard-issue T-shirt and jeans were remarkably similar to his own attire, though he swapped the jeans for cargo pants and sneakers for boots.
He’d always found her clothing an odd thing. They were ill fitting; the voluminous fabric hanging off her obscured any hint of a shape and only enhanced some of her girlish air, but even more, it didn’t really reflect her personality at all. Based on her clothes, one would think Verna timid, shy, and she was anything but, although, if she dressed to suit her personality, she’d be clad in acid green or tie-dye.
They reached the unit, and when she unlocked the container and lifted the door, Joe grimaced.