After a humiliating breakup, best-selling romance author Teal Benning flees to Promise Lake to complete her current novel, minus paparazzi and flashing cameras. Suffering from writer's block and a broken heart, Teal accepts the offer of help from neighbor, Hunter Miciver.
Hunter longs to be more than the friend who picks up the shattered pieces of Teal's heart, but when Teal finds out his secret, will she see him for the man he is—a man of faith and devotion, a man who would cherish her for the rest of her days—or will she lump him into the same category as all the other men in her life, including her father?
Will Teal recognize when truth whispers her name?
“You can stop screaming now, Kibbles. We’re home.”
Teal Benning downshifted and coasted into the gravel driveway, the wail of country music drowning the cicadas’ chatter coming through the sports car’s open windows. But the tunes did nothing to tame her cat’s occasional ear-piercing screech.
Home? Not technically, but close enough.
She’d grown up in this tiny house tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains around Promise Lake.
For the last five years, home was in Atlanta, where she was Teal Benning, best-selling romance author and pro-basketball superstar Ian Hartsuk’s fiancée.
In Promise Lake, she was just Teal Benning.
Teal sighed and closed the windows. Jerking the keys from the ignition, the silence settled over her and in the darkness, a glint sparkled from her finger, the remnant of her two-year-long relationship. Teal stared at the single diamond and clamped her lips together.
Correction. Ian Hartsuk’s ex-fiancée.
She tugged the ring off and smashed it deep into her laptop bag.
Why hadn’t she flung it at Ian’s head? She would have relished his expression as he watched several thousand dollars sink to the bottom of the hot tub. Wouldn’t that have been priceless? Nah. What was a few thousand to him? She’d figure out what to do with it later.
Teal stepped out on stiff legs, giving the short black dress a yank south and tugging her sweater tighter. She heaved the laptop bag over a shoulder and reached in for Kibbles’s carrier. Dried leaves crunched under high-heeled sandals as she wobbled around to the back of the car in the loose gravel.
The blackness settled around Teal’s throat like a noose. Her eyes burned, but she refused to give in to self-pity. What had she expected? Ian was no different from any other man she knew. Including her father. Cheating and lying, that was the name of their game.
Teal lifted her chin and pushed back her shoulders. All she needed was three months of disconnecting from the world and the constant paparazzi who hounded her in Atlanta. Without anyone traipsing around after her vying for the most obnoxious camera shot, and with Internet service more off than on, she’d forget all about Ian and the looming wedding date. The wedding that wouldn’t happen.
She had three months to pound out the words to the book that had already eluded her for eight weeks. Ninety days to create a heart-racing romance.
With a broken heart.
Teal clenched her jaw.
One look at the eye-popping price tag on the long white dress hanging in her closet in Atlanta would fix the problem of not being able to write. She’d already deposited the advance money.
Teal set the cat carrier and laptop bag on the ground, pressed her fingers against the tense muscles along the back of her neck, rolled her shoulders, and stretched. She reached into the trunk for her suitcase.
“Took you forever and a day to get home, Teal.”
Her head jerked up and banged against the trunk lid, breaking the expensive clip holding her hair in an elaborate twist. Hair fell over her eyes, and she lost her hold on the overstuffed suitcase. It landed with a thud on the cat carrier, the contents spilling out onto the damp ground.
Kibbles screeched and clawed through the opening, and then scampered away to cower in the bushes next to the house.
The voice in the darkness sounded deeper, richer, bolder, than she remembered. But comfortable.
And definitely amused.
“Make yourself useful, Hunter, and give a girl a hand.” She didn’t bother turning around, just knelt down and reached for the undies first. She scooped up the bras next and stuffed them in the suitcase pocket.
Yeah, she’d been angry and hurt. But was that an excuse to fling every stitch of clothing she owned into a suitcase for just a three-month stay? It wasn’t as if her mother didn’t own a washer and dryer. Sheesh!
“I’ll get this, Teal. You get that ferocious tiger of a cat.” Heavy footsteps ground into the gravel, and Hunter Miciver squatted next to her.
“Ha! That ferocious tiger weighs about seven pounds. All meow, no bite. Kibbles isn’t used to being outside. She’ll be lurking somewhere near the front door.” She snatched a stray bra off the ground and dangled it behind her back.
Hunter stuffed the rest of the clothes into the case and glanced at her, waiting, holding the lid open.
She rolled her eyes and crammed the bra into the case.
He closed the suitcase and unfolded to his full height, all six feet of him.
She stood, the top of her head reaching Hunter’s neck.
She’d always felt like such a minuscule person in the midst of Ian Hartsuk’s giant friends. But then, they hadn’t turned out to be her friends, had they? Only Ian’s. Including her best friend, Kate.
Some best friend.
Not Hunter. He was a true friend, a lifelong ally. Had he known, Hunter would have warned her about Ian. Hunter couldn’t lie if his life depended on it.
Teal smiled. “Thanks, Hunter. It’s good to see you.”
A cool breeze caressed her face, along with Hunter’s scent. Different than what she remembered. Distinctly masculine with a hint of…she sniffed. Peppermint?
“You’re welcome. I’m glad you’re home. Crazy loud feline, and all.” Hunter closed the trunk lid and turned to face her. Even in the darkness, she made out the sympathy in his expression. Lacking his trademark smile and the crease lines around his eyes, both arms opened wide and reached out for her. “I’m sorry, Teal.”
She lifted her chin.
She. Would. Not. Cry.
Not over a jerk like Ian. And not even for two wasted years.
But Kate? The first friend she’d made in Atlanta?
Teal couldn’t stop the single sob that crawled from the back of her throat. She took a step forward, and Hunter’s arms tightened around her.
She closed her eyes. A hug never felt so warm, so comforting, so…like coming home.
From Hunter Miciver?
Was that because she had known Hunter since elementary school?
Hunter and his sister, Kelli, who lived across the street and were the only other kids in their neighborhood, played together after school every day.
They spent the summers hanging out at the lake and winter weekends skiing, tubing, or snowboarding.
Or was it because he acted like her big brother, too? He never complained about tagging along with her and Kelli on their first few dates. Crushing six teenagers into a car made for four didn’t even bug the guy.
Somewhere along their journey, Hunter had evolved into a friend with open arms, always willing to share a hug when her relationships soured and disintegrated.
Which they always did.
But a dear friend was all Hunter would ever be. Not quite marriage material. Or dating, for that matter.
Not that she was looking, because she was definitely not in the market.
She disengaged herself from his arms with a gentle step back. She didn’t want him to get the wrong idea.
A rush of cool air whispered by.
She shivered and tugged her sweater tighter, rubbing her hands against the thin material covering her upper arms. “How did you know?”
He leaned against the car and crossed his arms. One brow lifted. “Your breakup is plastered all over the Internet, Teal.” He made the quotation symbol with his fingers. “Best-selling romance author suffers heartbreak—”
Sheesh! Was it an unspoken rule that the girlfriend was always the last to know her boyfriend was cheating on her?
“OK, Hunter. I get the message.” Teal sucked in a deep, shaky breath, the crisp mountain air soothing her battered spirit a little. “When did you get in?”
“Just drove into the driveway myself. Followed you in. Didn’t you see me behind you?”
No, she hadn’t. She had been…distracted.
By the image of Ian’s teeth nibbling a trail along some brunette’s neck, his hands blazing a different path. And the click before a camera flashed, the exact moment when she realized who the brunette hair belonged to.
Defeat and weariness weighed heavy against Teal’s shoulders. She sighed and slid a gaze over Hunter, from the baseball cap over his head, past the black leather jacket and the snug-fitting jeans, down to the tennis shoes. “You look great, Hunter. I like the whiskers.”
And the longish, curly hair. Not like his teen, geeky years when he always wore it short. And he had bulked out. He wasn’t so scrawny anymore. Not that she would share that little tidbit with him.
One side of his lips curved at her appraisal, and he hoisted himself away from the car. “Come on. Let’s get your stuff and your screaming cat inside. Maybe I can talk you into throwing on a pot of coffee. That was a long drive.” Hunter grabbed the handle of her suitcase and heaved the laptop bag over a shoulder.
“Coffee?” She scooped up the cat carrier. “It’s after midnight. It’ll have to be decaf, because I don’t plan on staying awake all night.”
He gave his head a little jerk, the smile crinkles around his eyes more obvious. “Decaf? What’s up with that, Teal? You’re not even in your thirties, and you’re drinking decaf?”
She shrugged and slid the key into the front door. He didn’t need to know that she hadn’t slept a full night since…it didn’t matter. “So, what’s it feel like, Hunter? The big three-oh?”
“Just another blessed day in the big scheme of things, Teally.” Hunter, ever the eternal optimist.
She understood a little of that now. Thanks to the military chaplain she’d interviewed for her last book. But lately, questions ping-ponged in her brain, growing more agitated the moment her head hit the pillow at night.
She pushed the door open and flipped on the light switch to the great room. Fur rubbed against her ankles as Kibbles darted inside.
“Wow! Your mom made a few changes,” he whispered.
The previous furnishings of worn recliners and a flea market sofa had been replaced with new leather couches. Dark. Rich. Expensive. Definitely not her mom’s usual decorating touch.
Teal stared, gulped. “Yeah. I guess so. That’s what I get for not making it home in a while.”
“Too long, Teal.”
The sadness in his voice made her look at him.
Some unreadable emotion lingered around his eyes, compressed his lips.
“Maybe, but how would you know? How many times have you been home in the last year?”
His face cracked into a giant grin. “Probably about as many times as you. But Kelli keeps me up-to-date with any changes on the home front.”
Kelli, Hunter’s younger sister, was Teal’s childhood best friend, although mostly online now, since about four hours of driving time separated them. “The rat. I should have known.”
With quiet steps, he disappeared up the stairs, carrying her suitcase to the bedroom her mother still preserved for her.
She set the carrier on the hardwood floor and wandered into the utility room, removing her sweater and hooking it on the rack. She retrieved Kibbles’s food and water dishes and filled them up, then dumped fresh litter into the box her mother kept for her visits.
Teal slipped back into the kitchen, breathing a quiet sigh that her mother hadn’t redecorated in here.
She flipped the coffeemaker switch as sneakers slapped the wood floor behind her.
“At least your old bed is still in the bedroom.” That voice, so deep and intense, did funny things to her insides. Weird.
Or was she just comparing Hunter’s deep tone to Ian’s voice, which seemed rather whiny in comparison? She frowned. She so didn’t want to go there, to be the kind of person who constantly trashed the ex-fiancé.
Water gurgled through the coffeemaker, the precious aroma quickly filling the small kitchen. She grabbed mugs from the cabinet and automatically added sweetener to hers. Hunter liked his coffee black.
“So what’s going on with you, Hunter? How long will you be home?”
“Until the first week of January.”
She glanced over a shoulder, the coffee decanter hovering just above the mugs.
Hunter had taken off his leather jacket and lounged against the counter, arms crossed, his muscled upper torso filling out that black long-sleeved shirt, oh-so-nicely.
What was wrong with her? She blinked and turned her attention back to the decanter, now dribbling coffee on the countertop. “You can take off work that long?”
“Nah, not really. I’ll get some work done from here, including online meetings. But everybody needs a little downtime, Teal.”
Maybe she should have been a graphic arts designer. Granted, she had the flexibility to work from wherever she chose, but deadlines waited for no writer. Didn’t she know it? She had three months. Until February seventeenth.
She finished pouring the coffee and handed him the mug. “Where is home now?”
He cleared his throat, adjusted the ball cap lower over his face and mumbled, “Mostly D.C.”
Teal waited for him to elaborate.
“Teal, you’re home. I wasn’t expecting you until next week sometime.” Teal’s mother breezed into the kitchen. She planted a kiss on Teal’s cheek and gave her a one-armed hug, being careful not to spill Teal’s coffee. She did the same with Hunter. “Good to see you, too, Hunter.”
“I’m sorry to wake you, Ramona.”
Teal didn’t flinch at Hunter’s use of her mother’s first name.
Ramona had reverted to her maiden name after her divorce and despised the title “Mrs.” Everybody called her Ramona. Including Teal, most of the time.
“That’s OK, Hunter. I heard talking, and I just wanted to make sure that it was Teal.” Ramona covered a yawn.
That was odd. Who else would be talking in the kitchen in the middle of the night?
Teal narrowed her eyes and stared at her mother.
A new, colorful robe was knotted around her waist. And Ramona’s long hair? Where was it? She now wore it cut short and angled at the bottom.
Teal’s jaw dropped.
Hunter reached over and propped Teal’s chin up with his thumb, a gentle expression on his face. Pity? Why not? He knew about her breakup and that she never handled changes well.
What a long day. All she wanted was to slink upstairs, curl up in the bed, and bury her head under a pillow. Would she wake up to find this day had been a nightmare?
“Nice haircut, Ramona.” Teal managed to choke out the words.
And it was. Truly. But why would Ramona cut her hair?
“Thanks, honey. It was time to let my long hair go.”
The furniture. A drastic haircut and a brand new, flashy red robe.
What was next? The kitchen? Teal’s bedroom?
“Want some coffee, Ramona? I just made a pot. Decaf.” Teal sank onto the bar stool in front of the island.
“No. I’m headed back to bed. Is everything OK, honey?”
Teal stiffened. She hadn’t had a chance to break the ugly news. But that conversation would not take place tonight. Teal forced her lips into a smile. “Sure. Why?”
Her mother studied Teal’s short black party dress. “Well, for one reason, when we spoke on the phone last, you said you were coming home next week.”
Hunter’s brows arched.
Next week. Yes, well, that was before the hot tub incident with Ian and Kate tonight. She sucked in a deep breath and tugged her dress down. She felt naked, exposed, vulnerable.
Hunter stepped so close she caught that whiff of peppermint again. He looped an arm around her shoulders.
She glanced up, surprised at the tenderness shining from his warm eyes.
“Isn’t it wonderful that Teal could work out her schedule to come home early for the holidays? It’s been far too long since we’ve had a chance to hang out. Maybe we can find time to hit the slopes sometime next month.”
Her hero, stepping in to save the day.
Or rather, to shore up the emotional dam that threatened to break. She managed to send a smile of gratitude and caught his wink.
His stomach growled.
All three of them laughed.
Hunter dropped his arm to pat his belly. “Quiet down there.”
“Hunter, I think you’d better feed that hungry bear hiding inside you. I’m sure I have something in this kitchen that you and Teal can scrounge up.” Ramona looked from one to the other, something akin to suspicion mingling with her smile. “All right, then, I’m off to bed. See you in the morning, Teal. Good night, Hunter.”
Well, that conversation was postponed, thanks to Hunter.
Missing the warmth of Hunter’s arm, Teal shivered and rubbed her arms. Why hadn’t she changed into jeans for the trip here? “Sleep well, Mom. See you in a few hours.”
“Good night, Ramona,” Hunter added.
Her mother padded from the room.
Hunter leaned back against the counter, sipping coffee. He’d changed. Grown and filled out. But he was still the same childhood buddy.
“Did I tell you it’s good to see you?”
“I missed you, too, Teal.”
“I didn’t say that,” she sputtered, swatting him on the upper arm. Her hand met firm, lean muscle. Stunned, she blinked. A couple times.
“It was implied.” Satisfaction gleamed from his roasted-coffee-colored eyes and curved one side of his lips.
“Would you like something to eat, Hunter? Ramona always has eggs and cereal in the house.”
Hunter pulled a cell phone from his jeans pocket and studied it. His eyes widened, and then his lips thinned. He scrubbed his beard. “I’m sorry, Teal, but I’ve got to run. Um…a client needs something. Will you be OK?”
A client? In the middle of the night?
“If one more person asks if I’ll be OK—”
“Hey. Don’t shoot me. Just checking. You just went through a rough experience, and I haven’t seen you in awhile.” He mashed the phone back in his pocket, drained his coffee, and then pushed away from the counter. He rinsed out the cup, eyeing her over his shoulder. “You up for a run in the morning?”
Teal glanced at the kitchen clock. Two a.m. Now that she was away from the public eye, she might be able to catch a few hours of good sleep. “Hunter, I don’t know what world you live in, but it is morning now.”
That familiar coaxing smile appeared, the one he always used to cajole her into cooperating with his plans. He slid an appreciative glance over her bare legs. “You may be just a tad out of shape, Teal, but you’re not too far gone from our track days. What? Are you afraid I’ll show you up?”
“Out of shape! Show me up?” She snorted and stood up. “Right. Like that’s going to happen.”
“OK, then. How about seven-thirty?”
She didn’t usually work until Saturday afternoons, anyway. And it was just a run, not an all-day event.
“Only if you promise to throw in breakfast, too.” She groaned. How had she let him talk her into this?
One dark brow arched, and he flashed a wicked grin. How did he do it? This cheeriness. At two in the morning.
She wanted to growl.
“It’s a deal, Teally. With at least a gallon of coffee, too. I’ll meet you here.”
“Awful smug, aren’t you? We’ll see if you’re singing the same tune after you’re eating my dust.” She mumbled as she flipped the coffeemaker off and followed Hunter to the front door, her gaze drawn to his bulky shoulders and wide, strong back.
Hunter must be on some workout regimen.
“G’night, Hunter. Sweet dreams.”
He glanced over a shoulder, his eyes suddenly dark and unreadable. “Night, Teally. See you in a few hours.”
She closed the door behind him. She was glad Hunter was home. Maybe they could spend some time together, revisit their teen hangouts like the ski slope and the lake.
February seventeenth. Burn that date into your brain, Teal.
She had three months to finish this book.
She couldn’t afford to let Hunter be a distraction.