Series: Sweetbriar Cove #4
Release Date: November 2, 2017
Artist Mackenzie Lane is almost thirty and still single, which, according to her neighbors, pretty much makes her the Spinster of Sweetbriar Cove. She’s sworn off terrible fix-ups, and is looking forward to her solo future of woolly mumus and cats. (Lots of cats). But a chance Halloween rendezvous awakens her reckless spirit, and makes her wonder if love might be in the cards, after all…
Jake Sullivan is back in town for the first time in years, recovering from a career-ending sports injury. He’s dazzled by the mysterious woman he meets by chance – and even more intrigued when he discovers it’s his high-school friend Mackenzie.
Ten years ago, Jake was the first (and only) guy to put a dent in Mackenzie’s invincible heart. She’s determined not to make the same mistake again, but when the pair are forced to team up to plan the annual Starbright Festival, old sparks fly – and new passion runs riot.
Soon, Mackenzie and Jake are risking it all. But will their connection last longer than the first snowfall? And can these old friends start a new chapter for love? Find out in the sizzling, romantic new novel from New York Times bestselling author Melody Grace!
Mackenzie was going undercover for the night. Her wild red curls were hidden under a sleek black wig, and she’d traded her usual funky dresses and knit sweaters for a tight black catsuit, complete with a pair of knee-high platform boots. She paused by the mirror, carefully touching up her smudgy black eyeliner, and felt a thrill at the stranger staring back at her. Usually, she went zany and creative for Halloween, but she’d spied the catsuit in the corner of the thrift store and impulsively grabbed it from the rack. Now, she felt unrecognizable in her disguise: sexy and mysterious, like some foreign agent on a secret mission, out to seduce and destroy.
She grabbed her keys, locked up, then slipped them under a flowerpot by the door. There was no room for a purse with this figure-hugging get-up, and besides, secret agents didn’t carry a battered old tote bag. No, they got by on their wits, charm—and a switchblade hidden in their cleavage.
Mackenzie wouldn’t need any deadly weapons at the town Halloween party, but her cleavage wasn’t too shabby, she decided, thanks to the extra five pounds of ice-cream weight she’d put on over the summer. She set off down the street, an extra swing in her step as she imagined conquering exotic nations and seducing rogue spies, but the illusion lasted all of the five blocks it took her to reach the town square.
“Aww, Mac! You look so cute!” someone called the moment she approached the crowd.
“Great costume, Mac.”
“Mackenzie! Where did you get that belt?”
So much for sexy and mysterious. Mackenzie sighed. This was what she got for living in the same small town most of her life. There was no going incognito here, not when everyone knew everyone else’s business, and half the town had seen her dressed as an Oompa Loompa in the school play.
“Watch out!” A group of pint-sized ghosts charged past, clutching baskets of candy, and Mackenzie was sent spinning.
Mackenzie turned to find her friends Poppy and Cooper arriving, in matching 1920s bootlegger costumes. “Hey guys.”
“You look amazing!” Poppy exclaimed, greeting her with a hug. “I almost didn’t recognize you in that wig.”
“Thinking about a new style?” Cooper teased, flicking the sleek, bobbed hair.
Mackenzie laughed. “Not anytime soon. The last time I tried short hair, it all puffed up into a frizzy ginger halo.”
“I remember,” Cooper grinned from under the brim of his trilby hat. “We called you Orphan Annie for months.”
“Yeah, thanks for that.” Mackenzie gave him a friendly glare. Between the bad hair, hand-knitted sweaters, and smelly home-packed hummus from her hippy parents, high school hadn’t exactly been kind to her.
“Don’t worry, nobody remembers that stuff now.” Poppy linked her arm through Mackenzie’s as they strolled through the busy streets.
“Spoken like a newcomer,” Mackenzie shot back, laughing. “Sweetbriar never forgets.”
“I can’t believe everyone’s costumes,” Poppy continued, deftly changing the subject. They passed another crowd of trick-or-treaters, dressed up in a dazzling array of robot, witch, and Disney outfits. “Back in the city, I just had a couple of neighbor kids come to my door dressed in regular clothes, demanding candy.”
“Haven’t you learned by now?” Mackenzie asked. “We don’t ever miss the chance for a party in this town.”
Halloween in Sweetbriar Cove was a big deal. Well, pretty much any festival was a big deal there. Nestled in the crook of Cape Cod, Sweetbriar had built a reputation for its small-town charm—and for going all out with the decorations at the smallest excuse. There were harvest hay-bale mazes, and spring jamborees, and the winter Starbright Festival was the pride of the Cape, drawing thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Tonight, it was the Halloween Hoe-Down, cleverly recycling all those hay bales until they put the Tennessee backwoods to shame. The Town Hall was already lit up, with music and laughter spilling out into the brisk autumn night, and inside, crowds of people were already enjoying the food and dancing: a robot spinning around his zombie bride, while a trio of ghouls harmonized with a harmonica up on stage.
“Ooh, candy apples!” Poppy’s eyes lit up when she saw the buffet along the back wall. “Be right back!” She grabbed Cooper and cut a path towards the baked goods, leaving Mackenzie to adjust her wig. It turned out, sleek and sexy was also itchy as hell.
“There she is.” Debra, the unofficial town events planner, made her way through the crowd. Tonight, the older woman was dressed in flowing robes, with a magician’s wand in hand. “Thanks again for helping out,” Debra said. “The murals look great.”
“Creepy enough for you?” Mackenzie asked. As the resident artist in town, she was always getting recruited to help out with decorations. This time, she’d painted some ghoulish backdrops, complete with cobwebs and tombstones, but Debra had kept insisting on more blood. Now, it looked like a murderous frenzy was splashed over the back wall.
“Just perfect!” Debra declared. She took a step back and looked Mackenzie over, getting a familiar glint in her eye. “You look very nice. I think I saw the Janowitz boy back from Colorado somewhere, dressed as Batman. You know he’s a partner now in that law firm—”
“I know,” Mackenzie cut her off. “You already told me. Twice. And so did Larry at the hardware store, and Franny when I saw her at the market. I’m surprised you didn’t send a newsletter out: alert, eligible bachelor returns!”
Debra gave her a knowing look. “We’re just looking out for you, sweetheart. It’s about time you found someone. What are you now, thirty?”
“Twenty-nine,” Mackenzie corrected, feeling a sting.
“Exactly. You’re not getting any younger.”
She blinked. “Gee, thanks—” But Debra had already steamed away—probably to find that Janowitz boy and corral him into asking Mackenzie on a date. Debra was out of luck. Mackenzie had already had an infamous coffee with Craig Janowitz, back after college, and she definitely wasn’t his type, catsuit or otherwise.
In fact, Mackenzie would bet there wasn’t a single guy between the ages of twenty-five and forty on the Cape that she hadn’t been fixed up with at some point. It was par for the course, for the Spinster of Sweetbriar Cove, as she jokingly called herself, and she knew they only meant well, but all the good intentions in the world wore a little thin when everyone in town was worried you were going to die alone.
Alone, but with cats. Mackenzie had already decided the moment she hit thirty, she was adopting a litter of adorable kittens. If she was going to be a spinster, she may as well go all out: stop shaving her legs and give up on underwired bras, like that poem about getting old and wearing purple.
She was almost looking forward to it.
Mackenzie danced for hours, with everyone from the mayor to her seven-year-old neighbor. The murals were a hit—judging by all the gruesome selfies people were snapping—and something about the costumes let even the most straight-laced residents let their hair (or wigs) down. She was breathless and laughing by the time she wound up doing a clumsy “Thriller” with Cooper, trying to remember the routine from years ago. Then music suddenly switched to a slow song, and there was a tap on her shoulder.
“Mind if I cut in?” Poppy asked with a smile.
“Be my guest.”
Mackenzie stepped away, watching as the dance floor paired off. Poppy and Cooper, Riley and Brooke, Grayson and Summer . . . Looking around, she realized that all her friends had someone with them that night. Even the sworn bachelors among them were cradling their partners closer, gazing at them with pure affection in their eyes.
Mackenzie felt an empty pang.
Suddenly, her wig itched in the heat, and her catsuit was uncomfortably hot. The noise of the crowd felt like it was closing in on her, so she skirted the slow-dancing couples to the exit and slipped outside, letting the door clatter shut behind her as the cold night air hit her lungs.
She took a deep breath, and then another. It was late now, and the town square was dark, lamplights casting a warm glow over the still of the empty streets. Mackenzie could hear the music still echoing from the party, but instead of rejoining the crowds, she strolled slowly across the square, past the closed up storefront of her little gallery, and towards the green.
The wind whisked around her, sharp, and Mackenzie smiled. She loved winter on the Cape. They were famous for their summers—a parade of beach days, lobster rolls, and ticker tape fluttering in red, white, and blue—but Mackenzie preferred the blaze of fall colors and that first taste of snow. Already, she’d pulled the heavy blankets down from her wardrobe, and traded her denim cut-offs for thick wooly tights, and she had her snow boots waiting by the door, ready to crunch through the pristine snowfall the first morning it arrived.
Maybe this year, she’d do another set of snowflake ceramics. The tourists for the Starbright Festival had loved them last time around, and she could play around with different glazes to get that perfect wintery luster on the bowls and delicate tea cups . . .
Mackenzie climbed the stairs to the gazebo, still lost in thoughts of winter ahead; she didn’t even notice somebody else was already sitting on the narrow bench until she knocked into a pair of outstretched boots. “Sorry,” she exclaimed, stumbling hard on her stacked heels.
A pair of hands caught her waist, and then Mackenzie found herself pressed up against the solid planes of a muscular body.
“I’ve got you,” the stranger said, moving out of the shadows. And suddenly, Mackenzie was gazing up into a pair of stormy blue eyes she would have sworn she’d never see again.
Her heart froze, right there in her chest.
It couldn’t be . . .
But it was.
She blinked, disbelieving, but the mirage didn’t shift. Sure, he had ten years on the gangly teenage boy she used to know: dark stubble on his jaw, and a weary look on that gorgeous face, but she couldn’t have forgotten him, even if she tried.
Jake Sullivan. Her best friend, once upon a time. The first boy she’d ever loved. The only man to ever put a dent in Mackenzie’s invincible heart.
And he was looking at her like they’d never met.
* * *
Jake carefully placed the mysterious vixen back on solid ground. He’d been ready to snap at whoever stumbled in, interrupting his moment of solitude. Then he felt the soft curves pressed against him, and caught a glimpse of a heart-stopping face framed with inky black hair. Suddenly, he didn’t mind the company.
“Thanks.” The woman sounded breathless. “It’s these boots, they’re a hazard.”
“Not your usual style?” he asked, amused.
She laughed, a bright, warm burst of sound that filled the dark space and immediately put him at ease. “Umm, no. Can you imagine hiking through the woods in these things?”
He took in the wicked boots. “Good point.”
He could imagine her doing plenty of other things in them though. Clothing-optional things . . .
He shook his head, wondering for a moment if he’d wandered into some fantasy life. Then he remembered: it was Halloween. He’d been driving all day to make it back to the Cape, but it figured Sweetbriar would go all out when it came to the holiday.
“Let me guess, you’re on a secret mission?” he asked.
“Well, if I told you that, it wouldn’t be a secret now, would it?” The woman gave him an impish grin, and Jake chuckled.
“Unless you need a partner in crime. I could be useful.”
“Sure. I’m great at ordering takeout food and picking a good movie on Netflix.”
She laughed. “Those are pretty important skills.”
“They wouldn’t see us coming,” Jake agreed, smiling now.
The woman was looking at him carefully, almost like she wanted to say something, and Jake braced himself for the usual blink of recognition, and then the excited questions. He was used to it by now, after a career in the NFL—and the accident, which was splashed across ESPN for weeks.
But this woman wasn’t a sports fan, or maybe she just didn’t expect to see Jake Sullivan, star linebacker, moping in the dark of a small-town gazebo, because her expression smoothed out, and that playful smile returned.
“You’re not in costume,” she noted. “You better watch out, or someone will fine you for not having enough town spirit.”
“Some things never change. I grew up here,” he explained. “I’m just back for a visit. And who says I don’t have a costume? The best spies blend into a crowd.”
“Whoops. I’m not exactly blending in in this, am I?” She looked down, and Jake couldn’t help but follow her eyeline back to the skin-tight black bodysuit.
Damn. Incognito she wasn’t. Hell, she could stop traffic at twenty paces.
He snapped his eyes up. “That’s OK. You can stun the enemy into submission, while I sneak in unseen.”
“Sounds like a plan.” She smiled, and Jake wondered what her story was. Definitely another out-of-towner like him, maybe visiting friends for the party. She couldn’t have been a local. If they had women like this in Sweetbriar Cove, he would have found a reason to come back years ago, instead of flying his parents out to meet him wherever he’d been under contract around the country.
“So what about you?” the woman continued. “What would you be, if you could pretend to be anyone for a night?”
Jake felt the question ricochet straight to his heart.
God, if he could have anything, be anyone, he would pick himself—six months ago. Back when he had the world at his feet. Fame, money, women, a team he would have taken a bullet for, the chance to walk out on that field every Friday night and do what he loved best. He was living his dream, everything he’d spent his whole life training for, right up until the opposition linebacker smashed through the rest of his life.
But that wasn’t a story for this mysterious siren. He swallowed back the pain and bitterness, and forced another easy smile. “I don’t know. You’ve probably got the right idea. James Bond, I guess,” he added. “Maybe then you’d meet your match.”
“Is that right?” She arched an eyebrow, flirtatious. “You think you could handle me?”
He grinned. “You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who could be handled,” he quipped back. “But I’m sure I could give it a try.”
Their eyes met, electric, and Jake could have sworn there was something familiar about her playful stare. But he would have remembered if they’d met before.
A woman like this, you didn’t forget.
The moment stretched, and he couldn’t look away. For a moment, he could only hear his heartbeat, suddenly booming like thunder in his ears. They were alone in the dark shadows of the gazebo, and suddenly—inexplicably—he wondered how her lips would taste.
Would she kiss the way she laughed: warm and unbridled? Or were those gold-flecked eyes of hers hiding a wild, sensuous streak?
Then the woman glanced down, her cheeks flushing. “I should get back . . .” she said quickly, gesturing back to the Town Hall.
Jake knew he should let her get back to the party, and whatever lucky man she had waiting, but something stopped him from moving aside.
He didn’t want to sit alone in the dark any longer, counting all the ways his life had blown apart.
He didn’t want to face the fact that after ten years away, telling himself he was bigger and better than this small town, he was right back where he’d started, all over again.
He wanted to forget it all, just for a moment. Pretend that she really was some mysterious vixen, and that he was a man who had all the answers.
Before he could stop himself, he closed the distance between them and reached to push a strand of that sleek dark hair off her cheek. Her eyes flashed with surprise, but she didn’t step away. She paused a moment, blinking up at him, and then her gaze dropped to his mouth.
Her lips parted. Her head tilted, moving in, and it was all the invitation he needed to slide his hands around her waist, pull her against his body, and kiss her, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
And it was. His mouth found hers, and just like that he knew: kissing her was as easy as breathing, and necessary as air.
Jake tugged her closer, feeling those curves pressed against him all over again. But now, he took his time—slipping his hands around her waist and feeling her melt against him, molded perfectly, like she was made to fit. Her lips parted, inviting, so he slid his tongue deeper to taste her: warm and sweet, with a whiskey kick that took him by surprise.
He should have known there was more to her than meets the eye.
The woman kissed him back, passionate and unleashed, and God, he could have lost himself in her arms. For the first time in months, everything just melted away, and he felt whole again: exactly where he was supposed to be. It was like walking out on the field, making that perfect spiral pass to the twenty-yard line with the wind behind him and the crowd cheering his name. A moment of sunshine, pure and bright cutting through the stormy shadows—
She suddenly pulled away. Jake was still caught up in the rush, and how rightshe felt against him, but the dark-haired woman was shaking her head in disbelief. “What are you doing?” she said, almost to herself.
“Wait—” Jake reached for her again, needing just another moment of sweet escape, but she was already backing away.
“This isn’t me,” she blurted, “it’s the costume. And the boots. I told you, these are dangerous boots.”
And then, before he could say another word, she turned and fled, racing down the gazebo steps and out into the night.
Jake sat down with a thump, his heart still pounding in his chest.
What just happened?
He took a breath, and slowly the world shifted back into focus: the streetlights calm on the fringe of the square, empty streets, and the distant call of music. Everything was exactly as it should be, just another night in Sweetbriar Cove. There was nothing to show his world had just been tipped upside down by a mysterious, intoxicating stranger.
And he didn’t even know her name.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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