Daniel Montgomery tossed the large bag filled with moving supplies he’d
just purchased into the back of his SUV then closed the trunk with a satisfying
thump. “That’s one more thing I can cross off my to-do list.”
“What’s next?” asked his brother Kevin, not even attempting to stifle
his yawn. “Hopefully something that involves a cup of coffee. If I’d known my
offer to help you pack required waking up at the crack of dawn, I wouldn’t have
“It’s almost ten a.m. That’s hardly the crack of dawn.”
“It is when you didn’t go to bed until 5 a.m.”
Daniel forced himself not to chuckle at Kevin’s grumpy tone. “Maybe you
should have gone to bed earlier.”
“No can do. This is my last semester of college. It’s my duty
to stay out late.”
Recalling that he’d pretty much felt the same way eight years ago during
his last college semester, Daniel didn’t argue. Instead he resettled his
glasses on his nose, leaned against the SUV’s bumper and slid his to-do list and
pencil from the back pocket of his jeans.
After crossing off “packing tape and bubble
wrap,” he said, “Still need to stop at the grocery store--“
“Yeah, where you need coffee--“
“--and beer and hot dogs. While we’re there
we’ll pick up more empty boxes. Another dozen or so should do it. Besides my
computer equipment, all that’s left to pack are my books, CD’s, DVD’s, some
kitchen stuff and my clothes.” He blew out a long breath. “Another two weeks
and I’ll be leaving Austell behind.”
Kevin’s brows rose. “And that’s good...right?”
Daniel hesitated then said, “Sure. Why do you
“Because you sounded weird. Like unhappy or
unsure or something.”
“Nah, it’s all good. Taking the new job, moving
to a new city, it’s the right thing to do.”
He frowned at the scuffed toes of his well-worn Nikes, his stomach tight
with the same odd feeling that gripped him every time he again questioned his
decision to move. Which was crazy. Of course leaving Austell was the right
thing to do. In recent months it had seemed that his life had fallen into a
boring, predictable rut. Something was missing...something he couldn’t quite
put a name to other than to know it filled him with an unsettling sensation of
discontent. His recent thirtieth birthday had proven a turning point, jolting
him to action as it was the perfect time to reassess his life. Make some
changes. Try something new. It was just the anticipation of moving to Boston,
starting a new job that caused the momentary stomach jitters.
Not only would the manager position with
prestigious Allied Computers information technology department be a feather in
his cap, being in the corporate world as opposed to working out of his house
would get him out more. Give him more opportunities for a social life. Force
him out of his well-worn rut.
“I think leaving this small town will be good for
you, man. How you can have a social life here,” Kevin said as if reading
Daniel’s thoughts while waving his arm to encompass all of Main Street, “is
“It’s a challenge,” Daniel agreed. It didn’t
help that his current job of designing websites didn’t require him to leave his
home office. In the last two months especially, ever since he’d broken up with
Nina--or rather, she’d broken up with him--it seemed as if he’d turned into an
all work, no play recluse. But thanks to his life reassessment, all that was
about to change. Hello thirty years old, goodbye well-worn rut.
He looked up and his gaze wandered over the neat
old-fashioned storefronts cast in golden rays of sunshine. He could understand
why at twenty-one Kevin couldn’t see Austell’s quiet appeal, but then he and
Kevin were pretty much opposites when it came to living arrangements. Daniel
had always preferred low key while Kevin thrived in his frat house
Yeah, it would be hard to leave this quaint,
picturesque town with its historic downtown, quiet streets, well-kept park and
friendly residents where he’d lived for the past eight years, ever since
discovering the town while attending the nearby college. Austell had given him
a sense of belonging that he’d missed after leaving home. But hey, bigger and
better things awaited him.
“So what’s next on the list?” Kevin asked.
“Tell me quick. Before I fall asleep standing here.”
Daniel’s gaze fell back to his list and his jaw
tightened as he focused on the next two items. “Grass seed and a dozen bags of
“Yippee. What’s that for?”
“I guess you didn’t see my back yard.”
“Consider yourself lucky. Another plus about
moving is that I’ll have new neighbors. No more dealing with Carlie Pratt, aka
The Scatterbrain With the Unruly Dogs That Routinely Dig Up My Yard and Wake Me
Up At Ungodly Hours With Their Barking--or Miss Headache and the Crazy Canine
Crew, for short.”
Kevin grimaced. “Bummer. Maybe you should get
“I’m better off with the top soil. I’d need a
hell of a lot of earplugs to fill up those holes in my back yard.”
Daniel pressed his lips together so as not to
burst out laughing at Kevin’s blank expression. Humor that wasn’t Three Stooges
slapstick or didn’t involve bathroom bodily functions more often than not sailed
right past his younger brother. “Dude, I meant for your ears,” Kevin
said slowly, as if explaining it to a first grader. “So the barking wouldn’t
wake you up.”
“Oh,” Daniel said, very seriously. “Good
Actually, he’d tried earplugs but they didn’t help much as they always
seemed to fall out. Not much fun waking up with a wad of wax stuck in your
hair. But in two weeks, he wouldn’t have to worry about that any more.
Nope, he sure wouldn’t miss the chaos that had
lived on the other side of his backyard fence since Carlie and The Hole Diggers
had moved in three months ago. He wouldn’t mind so much if she’d just keep her
chaos on her side of the wooden fence that separated their backyards, but
her dogs--two rambunctious puppies, both of whom showed promise of growing to be
horse-like in size--managed to escape almost on a daily basis. And they somehow
always ended up in his yard, much to the detriment of his lawn. His realtor had
taken one look at the crater-like muddy holes marking his grass, then decreed in
an ominous tone that reeked of plummeting property value, “That mess
must be fixed immediately.”
Well, he’d fixed it, but it wasn’t long before
Peanut Butter and Jelly--P.B. and J. for short, and sheesh, who named their dogs
after food anyway?--had returned and wreaked havoc on his yard again.
Since when did dogs like to digs holes so much? It was as if those crazy
canines thought freakin’ pirate booty was buried in his backyard. Yeah, Carlie,
had profusely apologized each time, and he couldn’t deny she looked pretty cute
while doing so, but c’mon--enough was enough. Probably he wouldn’t have minded
so much if he weren’t selling the house. Probably. But according to his
realtor, many potential buyers harbored aversions to backyards that looked as if
explosives had detonated in them.
“Can’t say I’m turning cartwheels at the prospect
of going to the nursery for grass seed and dirt,” Kevin said. “What else ya
Daniel once again consulted his list. “Stamps at
the post office.”
“That doesn’t sound the least bit like ‘coffee at
Starbucks’. What else?”
“Spackle and caulk at the hardware store.”
“You’re killing me.”
“Birthday gift for Mom.”
Kevin’s eyes widened. “Whoa, I’d totally forgotten.”
“So you owe me big time.”
“Oh, boy. That doesn’t sound good. I’m going to end up filling
doggie-dug holes with dirt, aren’t I.”
“But her birthday’s on Valentine’s Day. That’s like two weeks
“I want to buy her present today and get it mailed off. Before I get
buried under with moving.”
Kevin’s expression turned hopeful. “Since we always get mom chocolate
for her birthday, I foresee something sweet to eat in my immediate future. And
where there’s chocolate, coffee can’t be far behind.” He rubbed his hands
together. “Let’s go.”
Since he couldn’t disagree that buying chocolate sounded a lot better
than buying grass seed and dirt, Daniel pushed off the bumper and slipped his
to-do list and pencil back into his jeans’ pocket.
“There’s a new candy place opening today that I
read about in the newspaper.” He headed toward the corner and Kevin fell into
step beside him. “It’s called Sinfully Sweet and it specializes in
chocolates.” He grinned. “I think Mom has met her match.”
His grin widened at the thought of their mom, a
teacher at the same high school he and Kevin had graduated from. Those
teenagers didn’t stand a chance against Norma Montgomery. With thirty years of
teaching under her belt, not to mention raising two kids of her own--three if
you included Dad as she laughingly insisted one must--she knew every trick in
the book. And, as Daniel well knew, she possessed those “mom eyes” in the back
of her head. Since her birthday was on Valentine’s Day, no one in the family
ever had a problem figuring out what to buy her for a gift. Ever since he’d
been a kid it was the same thing--chocolate. Over the years it had become
something of a joke between them all, with mom trying to guess what sort of
chocolate concoctions she’d receive, and he, Dad and Kevin trying to come up
with something unusual she’d never guess. Only she always seemed to guess--must
be that “eyes in the back of her head” mom thing.
Well, Mom might be hard to catch off guard, but
this year he had an advantage, or so he hoped, in the form of Sinfully Sweet.
According to the ad in the newspaper, the shop promised an amazing array of
extraordinary chocolate confections.
While he and Kevin walked the short distance to
Larchmont Street where the store was located, Daniel enjoyed the contrast of the
warm northern California sun tempered by the cool breeze. They’d no sooner
turned the corner, however, when the sight of a familiar figure walking toward
them slowed his footsteps. Then he halted. As if he’d walked into a wall. And
Kevin, who’d fallen a few steps behind him,
bumped into his back and grunted at the impact. When Daniel remained frozen in
place, Kevin moved to stand beside him and asked, “So what are you supposed to
be imitating here--the rock or the hard place?”
His powers of speech freakishly suspended, Daniel
continued to stare. At Carlie Pratt, sans P.B. and J.--which meant the devilish
duo was probably at this very moment joyfully digging more holes in his yard.
Carlie Pratt, who, with the golden sunshine gleaming on her tousled, shoulder
length reddish brown curls, appeared to be surrounded by a gilt halo. But that
was the only angelic looking thing about her.
She moved toward him with a slow, wickedly
seductive stroll that brought to mind cool, satin sheets, and hot, sweaty sex.
Damn, what a walk the woman had. Like steamy sin in motion. How was it that
he’d never noticed it before? Probably because every time he saw her she was
rushing around after her dogs. Or driving her car. Or had her arms filled with
grocery bags. Or was carrying the large, portable padded table she brought to
her massage therapy clients’ homes. Or was sitting in a lawn chair in her
backyard, whose grass, to be fair, was marred with even more holes than his.
Well, she wasn’t rushing or driving or sitting
now, and the sinuous sway of her curvy hips as she leisurely walked, her
attention focused on the store windows, rooted him to the spot as if he’d turned
into a pillar of cement. Normally she was dressed in either a bulky sweater or
loose-fitting clothes that resembled hospital scrubs. But not today. No, today
she was dressed in a pair of snug faded jeans that hugged every gorgeous
curve--and damn, she had more curves than a roller coaster--and a V-neck sweater
the color of a ripe, juicy peach. She all but made his mouth water.
Kevin clapped a hand on Daniel’s shoulder then
said in an undertone. “Whoa, dude. I see what put you in this trance. She.
Yes. She. Was. He’d thought her attractive
from the day she’d moved in, but had ignored the observation as he’d been with
Nina at the time. Then, even after Nina was out of the picture, with both he
and Carlie working and his moving plans, they’d seen little of each
other--except for the puppy incidents.
Well, he was seeing plenty of her now.
And liked everything he saw.
For a guy who prided himself on being practical,
logical, and sensible, he experienced a rush of heated lust that all but
incinerated and stupefied him where he stood. A reaction that could not in any
way be described as practical, logical, or sensible.
And apparently he wasn’t the only one who liked
what he saw.
“If that’s what the girls in Austell are like,”
Kevin said, “I’m thinking you’re crazy to move. And the way you’re looking at
her...man, you’re a goner.” He tapped Daniel non-too gently under the
chin. “You might want to lose the slack-jawed, buggy-eyed look before you
Daniel swallowed and relocated his voice. “No
introduction needed. I already know her.”
“Yeah? Know her as in the biblical sense?”
A crystal clear image of Carlie, naked in his
bed, materialized in his mind’s eye and with a frown, he blinked it away. But
not without the image leaving a trail of heat in its wake.
“No.” He lowered his voice further. “She’s my
pesky neighbor. The one with the hole-digging dogs.”
From the corner of his eye he saw Kevin’s
speculative look. “You’re not looking at her as if you think she’s a pest. If
you want my opinion--“
“She’s enough to make a guy want to buy a house
just so he could have a yard so her dogs could dig in it.”
Daniel turned and looked at his brother. He
wasn’t sure what his expression looked like, but whatever it was, it had Kevin
putting up his hands in mock surrender. “Hey, I was just making an
observation. No need to shoot me the ‘hands off’ glare. I want a house and a
yard like I want a bad rash. She’s all yours.”
A frown yanked down Daniel’s brows. “She’s not
all mine. I don’t want her. Hell, I can’t wait to move away from her.”
“Uh huh. Okay. Whatever you say.” He jerked
his head. “She’s stopped.”
Daniel’s head whipped around. Carlie had paused
to look into a store window, affording him a side view, which was just as curvy
and outstanding as the front view. The breeze caught her hair, blowing several
shiny curls across her face which she tucked behind her ear with an absent
gesture. Then without glancing their way, she entered the store and vanished
from his view.
Her disappearance yanked him from stupor into
which he’d fallen and he blinked and rubbed his hand over his face. That’s when
he realized that his glasses had slid down his nose and his jaw was once again
hanging open. Definitely not his best look. Good thing she hadn’t seen him.
She’d think him a gawking, slack-jawed nerdy techno-geek. While he couldn’t
deny he was a techno-geek, and by default of that he supposed kinda nerdy, no
way was he a slack-jawed gawker.
At least he hadn’t been until thirty seconds ago.
He started walking, his limbs feeling oddly
stiff, as if they really had turned to cement, and he craned his neck to see
which store she’d entered. He vaguely noted Kevin walking beside him and
pretended he didn’t hear his brother’s poorly suppressed chuckles. Seconds
later he realized she’d gone into Sinfully Sweet.
It suddenly struck him that the words sinfully
sweet and Carlie Pratt seemed to go together very well. Sorta like
hot and steamy. Hot and bothered. Hot and
who the hell had lit his jeans on fire?
Hmmm...was she making a purchase for herself--or
looking for a Valentine’s gift for a boyfriend? He frowned. Did she have
a boyfriend? He hadn’t ever seriously considered that question, but suddenly he
all but burned with the desire to know. When she’d first moved in, he’d assumed
she had several boyfriends after he’d observed through his home office window a
number of men entering and leaving her house. Then, when he’d returned her
muddy puppies to her the first time they’d dug under the fence into his yard,
she told him she was a massage therapist at The Delaford Resort and Spa just
outside of town near Crystal Lake, but that she freelanced on the side, treating
a select few, long-term clients at the house. She’d made no mention of a
boyfriend, and he hadn’t particularly wanted to know.
But all of a sudden, he very much wanted to know.
Yet with his brain once again firing on all
cylinders, he frowned and shook his head at this sudden need to know, then
decided to re-name it...Simple Curiosity. Yeah, that’s all it was. It wasn’t
as if her boyfriend status really mattered--especially as he was moving in two
Kevin nudged him in the ribs. “Hey, there’s a
coffee shop. I’m going to go order a caffeine I.V. drip. Once I’m revived,
I’ll meet in the candy store. That’ll give you some time to chat with your
neighbor you don’t, um, like.”
Man, was there anything more annoying than a
smirking younger brother? “I never said I didn’t like her.”
“Oh. Right. You said you didn’t want
“Oh, yeah, that’s totally obvious. Anybody could
see that. Really.” After treating Daniel to one of those annoying younger
brother chuckles, Kevin made his way toward the coffee shop.
Daniel stood on the sidewalk for several seconds,
reorganizing his thoughts that the sight of Carlie Pratt had scattered,
splattered and fried. What the hell was wrong with him? Clearly he, too,
suffered from caffeine deprivation for the mere sight of her to knock him
sideways like that. And why the hell was he still standing out here?
Sinfully Sweet had been his destination. He had every reason to go
into that store. And if he just happened to strike up a conversation with her,
well, that was only the neighborly thing to do, right?
And as much as he might not like it or want to,
he was feeling downright neighborly.
Pulling in a bracing breath, he rolled his
shoulders, then walked purposefully toward Sinfully Sweet’s glass door.