What Not to Were

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A Paris, Texas Romance, Book 2

Dakota Cassidy

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-62517-897-8

Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

So, I hear someone went to see Miss Dottie about a Brazilian wax. Could that someone be you, Calla Allen?” Winnie Yagamawitz asked, taking a big bite of her cupcake, her white teeth sinking deeply into the pink-and-purple swirled frosting.

Calla batted her eyelashes at her friend and fanned herself flirtatiously with her free hand while she used the other to brush Flora Watkins’ hair. “Why, whatever are you implyin,’ Miss Winnifred?” she asked in her best southern accent, knowing full well to what her friend was insinuating.

The intimate consummation of her relationship with Nash Ryder.

The final frontier.

Or as her Grandpa Ezra, all her favorite seniors at Hallow Moon Senior Center, and her iguana Twyla Faye called it, The Jamboree of Genitals.

Flora swatted in the air, her weathered hand reaching for Calla’s fingers. “You know exactly what she means, young lady. She wants to know what every last one of us in this infernal babysitters’ club for Poise Pad wearers wants to know: Are you and that hot young bronco Nash Ryder gonna do it or ain’t ya?”

Winnie chuckled, tucking her infant son, Ben Junior, in the crook of her arm before licking icing from her fingers. “Winner-winner-chicken-dinner! That’s exactly what I’m implyin’, Miss Watkins. No one gets a wax just because—especially if it’s from Miss Dottie, who can’t see two inches in front of her. It’s an ungodly pain we only suffer for men. Men we plan to do the do with.”

Calla’s cheeks went bright red when Flora referred to Nash Ryder. “Shhh, my grandfather’s in the kitchen today!”

As though that made a difference. He’d been campaigning hard for this thing between her and Nash like he was running for office.

On cue, Ezra Allen poked his head out of the swinging double doors leading to the kitchen of her small daycare for the elderly, carrying Twyla Faye, her accidentally adopted iguana slash abandoned familiar, under his arm.

He cackled, his wrinkled face and fluffy white beard making her smile. Well, until he said, “My girl’s gettin’ lucky tonight! Right, Twyla Faye?”

“Gramps!” Calla chastised, leaning over to give her very reluctant pet a scratch on the head.

Twyla Faye slow-blinked and stretched in her grandfather’s arms. “Y’all,” she drawled, slow and easy, her words hissing in a sensuous stream, “are plum batty in this town. Bettin’ on the sexin’ is unseemly. Shame on all you dirty birds.”

Winnie giggle-snorted, wiggling her fingers at Ezra. “Mornin’, Paw-Paw! And Twyla Faye, you hush, Oh Scaly One. As I recall, you were the first one lining up to put ten dollars in the pool.”

Twyla Faye hissed, swishing her tail and lifting her chin. “How can y’all expect me to resist temptation in a town full of heathens? It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah in these parts.”

Hold up. The entire town was betting on whether she and Nash were going to have sex tonight? “The pool?” Calla asked, cocking her head.

Winnie’s eyes twinkled, ignoring Calla’s question. “So I see you’re as excited as the rest of us, Ezra?”

He winked, setting Twyla Faye on the floor, where she scurried off to sit between Calla’s feet. “Just like Christmas and my birthday, Winnie The Pooh. So you make sure you put my name in it like ya promised, you hear? And don’t forget the raffle. Don’t wanna miss a chance to win free beer for a year at Skeeter’s.”

“Me, too!” Clive Stillwater, one of the oldest warlocks in the town of Paris, Texas, chimed from across the room, where he was eyeball-deep in an intense game of chess with Roscoe Brown.

Calla shook a finger at him, planting her hands on her hips with a grin. “No booze. You can’t have beer, Clive, and you know it. What happened the last time you had alcohol?”

He rasped an exaggerated sigh and sat up straight as though he were appalled. “I borrowed a broom. What of it?”

“Now, Clive, it was more than just borrowing a broom, good buddy. You stole Joellen Landry’s broom—a very powerful broom—and ended up in the middle of a cornfield in Oklahoma. You know, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains?”

“I was headed to the casino. The blackjack was callin’. Woulda made it, too, if not for that strong wind comin’ in from the north.”

“No beer forever Clive!” she singsonged, smiling in satisfaction at his resounding grunt.

He didn’t always like the suggestions for a healthier lifestyle Calla insisted they follow while at the center, but he always followed her rules.

Now, down to this business of beer for a year…

Calla sat at one of the dining tables in the rec room across from Winnie and tapped the table with a fingernail, freshly polished just for tonight. “Hellooo? Explain the pool. Beer for a year? Someone wanna fill me in?” She looked down at her feet where Twyla Faye had swiftly settled by her sneakers. Calla gave her a nudge. “Twyla Faye?”

“My lips are sealed.”

“What good are you to me if you don’t do your job as my pet, Twyla Faye? Aren’t you supposed to be my faithful, loyal companion?”

Twyla Faye harrumphed. “I think you have me confused with Lassie, Sugarplum. And as I get to recollectin’, you didn’t even want me as your pet.”

Calla rolled her eyes. “Don’t you play the ‘poor, unwanted me’ game, miss. As I get to recollectin’, Sassy Pants, you didn’t exactly give me a choice. You were just there, under the cabinets back in the kitchen. Next thing I know, you were in the middle of my bed, demanding Egyptian cotton sheets and organic kale.”

Twyla Faye was a familiar—a failure of a familiar, as far as her prior witch was concerned. She’d left the poor thing high and dry when she’d skipped town a month before Calla moved in and took over her grandfather’s building.

As one of the rare werewolves in a town full of witches, Calla had no need for a familiar, but Twyla Faye had followed her home that very night and they’d been together—begrudgingly so, if you listened to TF—ever since.

She was crusty, and difficult, and demanded only the best organic produce Calla could get her hands on, but she’d grown to love her saucy, unfiltered lizard.

Twyla Faye tsked her disapproval with the flick of her tongue. “Oops. My bad. Surprise! You adopted an iguana. And speaking of Egyptian cotton, I’m off to take my mid-morning nap. I need to be well rested for my House of Cards binge-watch. That Kevin Spacey can whip whatever majority he wants outta me, honey.”

With that, she scurried along the floor and through the kitchen, which led to the connecting upstairs apartment Calla shared with her grandfather.

Calla’s eyes went to Winnie, narrowed and suspicious. “So, the pool. Explanations, anyone? Bueller?” Her gaze shot around the sunny rec room, where every one of her seniors was suspiciously otherwise engaged.

Winnie avoided Calla’s eyes and mumbled somewhere in the vicinity of the floor. “Okay, so there might be people betting on whether you and Nash are going to make this relationship official tonight. But! It’s all from a good place.”

“The place called free beer?” She wanted to be mad. She should be mad. But when Winnie said it came from a good place, she meant it. The people of Paris truly cared about her and Nash—and apparently, beer.

“Okay, fine. I might as well tell you all of it. There’s chicken wings, too.” Winnie winced, guilt all over her face. “But it’s just a bucket. Not nearly as big as the beer, if you ask me.”

“Well duh. Who in their right mind would pass up a bucket of chicken wings from Skeeter’s?”

Glenda-Jo Ledbetter clucked her tongue from the corner of the room as she peered at her hand of cards. “I passed ’em up.”

Calla beamed a smile at her. “Aw. For me? You’re my favorite witch ever, Glenda-Jo.”

“I didn’t do it for you, Legs. I did it because they give me indigestion. Spent near two hours in the latrine last time I had ’em. Never again,” Glenda Jo said on a grin, to the tune of raucous cackling from the other witches she was playing canasta with.

Winnie redirected Calla’s attention by snapping her fingers. “Forget all that. Get to the part where you tell me why you were at Miss Dottie’s for a wax. It has to be because you’re going to take this relationship to a deeper level.”

Calla raised one eyebrow and grabbed a stack of cloth napkins to fold for the impending lunch hour. “How much ya got riding on it?”

“Twenty bucks,” she confessed, her eyes downcast, but her shoulders shaking with laughter. “Now, the wax. It has meaning. I just know it.”

Calla shrugged and feigned indifference, trying to hide her smile. “Not necessarily true. Sometimes we women wax so we can wear bikinis to prevent people from pointing and laughing, or calling in the Bigfoot enthusiasts even.”

“Because there’s so much ocean here in Paris, Texas, that you have a need for a bikini?” Winnie teased.

“Well now, there’s the community pool. If I showed up looking like the long-lost relative of Sasquatch, the way people talk in this town, the ladies of the Bluebonnet Society would be taking up collections for a case of Bic razors before you could say ‘unsightly hair’.”

Winnie scoffed. “The community pool’s been drier than the Mohave ever since little Rhoda Lipstein was practicing elemental spells and drained it. The lifeguard said there was no reason to refill it since the season was almost over. So try again.”

Okay, so she’d gotten a wax. Guilty as charged. But when she didn’t confirm or deny the state of her wax, Winnie poked her.

“Look here, Calla, we’ve all watched for three solid months while you and our favorite cowboy Nash Ryder have circled each other like a clumsy duo dancing the tango on Dancing with the Stars. We’ve waited. We’ve held our collective breath until we were all blue in the face. In fact, I’m pretty sure Patsy Pinkerton did turn blue in the face at one point. One of my wayward parolee witches even did a mating dance ritual with one hand tied behind her back while she read Shakespearean sonnets on the second night of the full moon at exactly 2:08 a.m. in order to—”

“A Shakespearean mating dance? Did it go something like, ‘How do I bang thee? Let me count the ways’?” Calla was still getting used to how close-knit this community was, how they rallied around when you were down and stuck their witchy noses into everyone’s business with the staunch justification it was for your own good, like it or not.

Winnie threw a hand up and shook her head, strands of her dark hair falling from her ponytail to brush at her jawline. “That’s Browning, and don’t deflect, werewolf.”

Living in a small town full of witches had taken some getting used to as a werewolf. But when her grandfather had decided to give up the building he owned, complete with an enormous four-thousand-square-foot storefront in the center of town, she’d jumped at the chance to return to the place she’d spent so many amazing, if not hotter-than-Hades summers.

Because she’d desperately needed a fresh start. Because the grind of Boston and her job as a personal assistant to the Dark Overlord, aka Reed Redding—famous local talk show host and all around anus-head—had sucked the will to live right out of her. She’d come here for a simpler, quieter life, and she’d gotten it in spades.

In the process, she’d reconnected with Nash Ryder, the mad crush of her teenage dreams. Tall, dark, handsome, sexy, funny, panty-melting warlock Nash—who now owned his family’s ranch just on the outskirts of town.

And a cowboy hat. He owned one of those, too. Oh, that cowboy hat did things to her she couldn’t quite describe.

There weren’t enough adjectives in the land to depict the extent of Nash’s yumminess.

They hadn’t seen each other since her last summer here, when she was eighteen, almost eleven years ago. Yet, the moment she’d seen him again when he’d come in to pick up his ranch hand’s mother for his surprise birthday party, it was as though only eleven seconds had passed rather than over a decade.

Winnie nudged her shoulder with a pink-tipped fingernail. “Hello in there. Deflection. You’re doing it.”

“Me? Deflect? I wasn’t deflecting. I was changing the subject.” Because it was sore. So sore.

Winnie clucked her tongue, brushing her long, dark ponytail over her shoulder before throwing one of Ben’s bibs across it. “Well, maybe that’s how all you fancy Bostonians avoid a straight answer, but here in Paris, we demand the right to stick our busy noses in where they don’t belong, don’t we Mr. Wiffle?”

George Wiffle sucked air between his dentures and dipped his graying head to hide his laughter, folding his hands over his round belly. “A-yup. ’Specially if we’re gonna get some beer.”

Winnie’s eyes twinkled. “Now, we all want to know. Are you finally going to do poor Nash tonight and put us out of our misery?”

Calla toyed with the plastic-lace tablecloth and continued to pretend not to know what Winnie was talking about. “Define ‘we all’?”

Winnie rolled her eyes and tapped the table. “You know damn well who ‘we all’ means, but if you want a list, I can oblige. First, me, every employee at Miss Marjorie’s, including Miss Marjorie, me, BIC aka Greta, me, all of the seniors here at the center, me, Daphne and her husband Fate, not to mention every employee who’s ever worked at the hardware store since 1952, me, the Paris High School marching band, and pretty much anyone else with a pulse—and again, me. We all want to know if tonight’s the big night when you two seal the wookie-wook deal.”

Calla swallowed hard, shaking off the bad she’d left behind in Boston and replacing it with the good she’d found here in Paris—in a town full of witches and warlocks where she was only one of four or five werewolves, including her grandfather.

She was a nervous wreck about tonight. The walking, talking embodiment of neurosis—because, in fact, tonight was the night.

Winnie’s little girl Lola came up behind Calla and asked, in all her six-year-old innocence, “What’s wookie-wook?”

Lola was one of Calla’s favorite visitors to Hallow Moon ever. Before her uncle Ben had married Winnie, Calla had heard she was quite a handful of toddler witch, out of control, but you’d mostly never know it these days.

She pulled Lola to her lap and tweaked her pert nose with a grin. “It might be a new name for one of my super-duper cupcakes, Lola-Falola. Will you be my taste-tester if I make a batch of wookie-wooks?”

The pink in her cheeks heightened, and her sweet smile went wide. “Uh-huh. But I think we better find a new name for ’em. Wookie-wook is stupid.”

“Out of the mouths of one of the most powerful up-and-coming witches in the universe,” Winnie muttered under her breath with a shake of her head.

Lola, a witch in training, was a tiny powerhouse of magic and a direct descendant of the great Baba Yaga, who just happened to be Winnie’s aunt by marriage.

Calla smoothed one of Lola’s long braids and chuckled. “It kinda is a stupid name. I’ll let you think up a new one. How’s that?”

Winnie handed Lola a napkin and pointed to her mouth, indicating she should wipe the crumbs from the corner. “Why don’t you go finish that picture you were drawing with Miss Gertie so Miss Calla has something nice to hang on her kids wall, nugget? And when I’m done we’ll go get Uncle Ben.”

Winnie’s husband Ben was technically Lola’s uncle, left to him to raise after her mother and father were killed in an accident. But you’d never know it by the way the family had blended so beautifully or by the way Winnie and Lola felt about each other.

Winnie was Lola’s mother in every sense of the word, aside from biology.

Lola grinned and hopped off her lap to head back toward the area she’d designated especially for the children in town when they came to visit their relatives. Calla loved nothing more than to see the pictures they colored for the wall or the dinosaurs they built with Legos when she entered the center each morning.

Winnie leaned closer, her raven eyebrow raised. “Now, about that wookie-wook…”

“What’s so special about tonight that would lead you to believe anything is happening between me and Nash other than the usual dates we’ve been going on regularly?”

Winnie giggled, settling little Ben against her shoulder and patting his back. “The Harvest Dance, of course. Duh.”

Calla barked a laugh. This town and their celebrations and their gossip were all part of the reason she’d grown to love Paris so much. “Does the Harvest Dance have some special magic that inspires sealing the wookie-wook deal?”

“It did for Beulah-Mae and Ed Kowalski. They did it right on a bale of hay on the side of the gazebo just outside the VFW hall in the square during the fall festival of 2013, and had their triplets nine months later. Three little witches in training. Two girls and a boy. Just ask Miss Marjorie. She almost saw it. Also, there’s Nester and Rhonda Goodwin. Their seal-the-deal story is still bandied about in hushed whispers to this day, mostly because I’ve heard rumor it was a pretty raucous event, and that happened way back in ’82. Thus, I conclude, the Harvest Dance really is magical. So you tell me?”

Calla laughed again, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Okay, so just between you and me and the Paris High School marching band, BIC, and anyone else who’s interested,” she paused for dramatic effect and drew in a breath, “it’s no one’s business but mine and Nash’s.”

Winnie made a pouty face, her pink-glossed lower lip thrusting forward. “Boo-hiss. How about if I pinky swear not to tell a soul?”

“Oh, for sure if you pinky swear, I’d give up intel that sensitive. Pinky swears are sacred and bound by horrific punishments if broken. Or not.”

Gus Mortimer shambled up to them, stopping to lean down near Winnie, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye, his grin wicked. “You want me to whip up one of them tell-all spells? We’ll have her singin’ like a canary in no time.”

Calla pointed to the air-hockey table. “You, go get your air hockey on with Miss Maisey and mind your P’s and Q’s or you only get one vegetable with dinner tonight, pal, and absolutely no fruit cup,” she teased.

He stuck his tongue out at her, the flaps of his old pilot’s hat bobbing. “You’re the meanest old-geezer babysitter in the land.”

Winnie reached for her hand and grinned when she patted it. “You do know I’m just razzing you, right? That I would never pressure you to tell me if you’re finally going to commit to Nash by making his eyeballs roll to the back of his head unless you really, really, really wanted to share.”

Calla loved Winnie—from the second she’d come into the senior center at the very end of her pregnancy and brought four dozen cupcakes for the seniors. Cupcakes she’d sworn she was going to eat all on her own in an effort to crowd little Ben out of her uterus via cake batter and a rush of sugar.

She loved that, to hear people in town tell it, Winnie had overcome some huge obstacles of her own when she’d first arrived in Paris. But what she loved most about Winnie was that she helped others with their obstacles, too, by continuing the legacy Ben’s sister had begun, running a halfway house for witches who were on parole for magic abuse—the very position Winnie had been in just a little over a year ago.

Calla treasured their almost immediate friendship, but this night with Nash was a touchy subject for her—almost too touchy even for girl talk with Winnie. She’d never confided what happened to anyone, but it would be the first intimate encounter she’d had with a man since…

“Oh, you would too pressure me.” But it wasn’t malicious pressure. It was done in the spirit of girl-bonding, and Calla knew that in her heart.

But still…

“Okay, I would,” Winnie confessed with an impish grin, her beautiful face wreathed in that special glow she always had. “So tell me or I’m going to have to use my magic wand. You don’t want me to break out,” she lowered her voice so the two other customers wouldn’t hear her, “The. Wand. Do you?”

Calla mock shivered, running her hands over her arms. Winnie’s magic wand was legendary here in Paris. To Calla, it looked like a purple sparkle stick, but to hear the people of Paris tout its abilities was to compare it to the Holy Grail.

“No fair. I’m nothing but a lowly werewolf with no magic. But I defy you to out-shed me.”

Winnie giggled, placing Ben in his carrier and securing the seatbelts. “Okay, so you’re not going to tell me. Fine. But I’m here to tell you, I won’t be there for the festivities because Ben’s aunt Yaga needs us in Salem. So we’ll be gone for the entire weekend and I won’t be able to dish. But I’ll make sure Daphne looks out for you.”

Daphne, another witch, who was married to the actual Fate, was fashionable and fabulous and had welcomed her with warmth and friendship. She loved Daphne, but she wasn’t Winnie.

Panic seized her. Winnie wasn’t going to be at the dance. Shit. What if she needed some girl support? What if everything with Nash went horribly wrong and she needed a shoulder to cry on?

What could go wrong, Calla?

You know what could go wrong.

Would it hurt to talk about her deep-seated fears and insecurities with Winnie? Would it hurt to tell her why she’d waited as long as she had to sleep with Nash instead of always avoiding the question?

Mostly it was because she couldn’t bring herself to say the words out loud. Still. After an entire year.

So rather than share the one last intimate detail of her life, the one that had made her leave Boston forever, Calla made something up. “I’m worried about what I’m going to wear. I hear the Harvest Dance is a reason to gussie up. Most of my stuff is still in boxes in Boston.”

At the Dark Overlord’s, in the guesthouse where she’d lived for six solid years while she’d catered to his every outrageous, only-sparkling-water-in-a-bottle, wafer-thin-cucumber-slices-for-the-eyes, one-quarter-cup-of-no-pulp-orange-juice-and-not-a-drop-more whim. Reed still had it all because she couldn’t face him long enough to reclaim it.

The dicknuckle.

Fuck, she hated what a coward she’d turned into that last night as Reed’s assistant. But she was working toward healing her shame one day at a time. And she was almost there.

Except for tonight. If she could just get past tonight. If Nash turned out to be the man she thought he was…

Why does everything hinge on Nash being anything, Calla? You are who you are, and if he or any other man doesn’t like it, they can shove it up their unworthy, shallow asses! the feminist in her screamed.

But the feminist in her wanted Nash to be a decent guy. Wanted it desperately—because she was falling; falling hard for him and it would never do if he ended up being a bag of dicks.

As Winnie rose, interrupting her troubled thoughts, she smiled at Calla and waved a dismissive hand. “Is that all? A dress? Don’t be silly. I have a million things you can wear. Just borrow something of mine.”

She shook her head. Winnie was pretty tall, but at five-ten, still shorter than Calla was by at least two inches. “I’m too tall to wear anything of yours. My leg alone is as long as your torso.”

She wiggled her perfectly plucked raven eyebrows. “Then whatever you choose will be a little short, and if tonight’s the night, not that I’m pressuring you, short so works. Now, not another word. Kirby should be home by the time you need to get ready and if not, BIC won’t be far behind. She’s our parolee babysitter for the weekend.”

Calla laughed at the nickname Winnie had given Greta. “Why don’t you just call BIC Greta? It’s been a year since she was your parole officer.”

“Because she’ll always be Bitch In Charge to me, and I secretly think she likes it. Anyway, if BIC’s not there, Kirby will let you in, right?” she asked one of Calla’s favorite employees who handled pickups and drop offs for the seniors.

As part of the rehabilitation program for magic abusers that Winnie and her warlock husband Ben ran in a big, rambling Victorian, the women on parole had to work and contribute to society without the use of their magic.

When Kirby had first come to the program, Winnie had encouraged her to apply at Hallow Moon despite her doubts about Kirby’s potential for rehabilitation. But Kirby had proven them all wrong. She’d never once, to Calla’s knowledge anyway, used her magic for ill-gotten means, she was dependable, always on time, and the seniors really liked her, and so did Calla. She’d come to depend on her more than any other employee she had.

Kirby wiped her hands on the towel she was using to dry tables and nodded with a slight smile—but still, a smile. One that had grown brighter in the six months since she’d begun to work for Calla. “You bet, Boss.”

“Perfect. Then it’s settled. Just head over to the house and dig through my closet. Borrow whatever you’d like. And now I have to go, because Baba Yaga waits for no one.”

Calla smiled when she remembered what Winnie had told her about the troubled relationship she’d once shared with Ben’s aunt Yaga—and the time she served in jail with Baba Yaga as her jailor.

“You two have really turned your relationship around, huh? Seems like you’re spending more and more time with her.”

Winnie paused before tucking a light blanket under Ben Junior’s chin, her eyes teary the way they always became when they talked about what she’d gone through just a year or so ago.

“You know, if not for Baba, I wouldn’t have an incredible husband or Benny Junior and my little Lola, and I sure as hell wouldn’t live here in Paris—because let’s face it, it’s hotter than Satan’s balls here. But last year around this time, I wanted to kill her for sending me to this town. This year? I could kiss her for the amazing life I have because she knew better. That’s why the halfway house is so important to me—to Ben. Why it means so much that you’re willing to hire people like Kirby. Happy endings do exist, Calla. Sometimes you just have to let them.”

She knew Winnie suspected something troubled her. It wasn’t the first time she’d hinted at it.

Calla just wasn’t ready to say it out loud yet. She’d replayed it enough in her head for a lifetime.

So she was going to deflect again. “Well, you make sure you say hello to Miracle Worker Baba for me. Also, don’t forget to remind her I want to borrow those neon-pink leg warmers and her Breakfast Club soundtrack. She promised last time she was in.”

Winnie rolled her eyes at Baba’s penchant for everything ’80s. “Do not encourage, Calla. She has a warehouse stacked to the brim with eighties paraphernalia. And I really, really have to run now. Do you have any idea how many suitcases it takes to pack up two children and a husband for one weekend?”

“Can’t you just wiggle your nose or wave The Wand?”

Winnie gasped as though Calla had suggested she give Mount Rushmore boobs—which, if Calla remembered right, she had at one point in her sordid past before she’d come to Paris and reformed. “That you would even suggest such a thing, Calla Allen. We only use our magic when necessary.”

“So that wasn’t you making the carousel horses in the park come to life then?”

“You hush,” she hissed on a laugh. “Ben likes them. They soothe him when he’s cranky, nothing else works. And if you don’t stop teasing me, I’ll sic Icabod on you.”

“You mean your creepy Cabbage Patch doll slash familiar?”

“He is not creepy. Okay, he’s a little creepy. But he’s an amazing familiar, and we’ve been through a lot together. Now, c’mere,” Winnie ordered, pulling her in for a hug, the scent of her jasmine perfume wafting to Calla’s nose. “Have an amazing, unforgettable time tonight and text me all about it tomorrow. You hear me? Don’t leave a juicy second of it out.”

“No juicy tidbits shall go un-texted.” Calla raised her right hand in oath, even though her stomach plummeted with another round of nerves. “Swear it on my next porterhouse.”

Putting her hands on Calla’s shoulders, Winnie gripped them and forced her friend to look at her. “Seriously, Calla. I hope tonight is everything you want it to be, but more importantly, I hope whatever it is that troubles you about this final step, and I know something does, someday you’ll trust me enough to tell me about it. Until then, Denny Parks, incoming—with our frontrunner Cowboy Nash hot on his heels.”

She blew Calla a kiss before gathering up Ben and Lola and threading her way through the tables toward the door, waving and smiling at Nash.

Crap. Calla cringed, but not before she smoothed her apron and fluffed her hair.

Denny and Nash were like Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood in the same room together, duking it out for her affections. Two polar opposites.

One had a deeply rooted sense of manly-man and all the perks that went with that, like integrity and honesty, and the other thought he could purchase whatever manliness he lacked.

Which usually meant she had to be their referee.

She mentally put her whistle to her lips and was preparing her next move in order to avoid conflict when Ezra stuck his head back out of the kitchen doors.

“Man the decks, Gus, my friend!” he bellowed, his white hair sticking up along the sides of his head, his face covered in flour. “Fancy city slicker on the loose!”

Chapter 2

Denny entered first, his smile almost too glossy, his clothes too clean. He was a bit of a douchebag, and a werewolf who didn’t approve of her relationship with Nash, who technically was outside their species. Most weres bristled at the idea of mating with anyone other than their own kind, and Denny was no exception.

Rich and entitled, he’d set his sights on her ten seconds after she’d hit Paris, and no amount of discouragement made it through his thick skull to the spongy matter one called a brain.

The bell on the door of the center jingled as it closed, jarring Calla. Yet, everything melted away when she saw Nash saunter in not far behind Denny.

Dark, roughly hewn, full of thick-corded muscle, Nash winked a fringed green eye and tipped the brim of his Stetson at her as he slid inside, making her heart race and her knees wobble.

Denny strode toward her, his steps confident, his expensive soft-leather shoes a hushed whisper on the floor. “Mornin’, Calla-Lilly,” he drawled.

She hated that he knew her middle name and used it as if it was some sort of intimacy between them.

“Morning, Denny! Kirby’s got your aunt all ready for pickup. Gotta run!” she called out, scooting around him and heading directly toward Nash.

She grabbed his wide hand and pulled him back out the glass front door into the never-ending heat of the day, dragging him down the sidewalk until they were at the corner of the row of buildings, before her feisty seniors could get their hands on him.

Ducking under the awning of the drugstore, she wrapped her arms around his neck and burrowed against him. “Thank you for saving me,” she said on a happy sigh.

He smiled that warm, delicious smile that made the grooves in his cheeks deepen. “Was that old coot Lenny chasing you around the shuffleboard court again? He’s a crafty one.”

“Hah! No. Lenny’s the least of my problems. Though he did ask for conjugal visits with Hester-Lynne.”

Pulling her tight against him, he said, “You don’t have conjugal visits. It’s a recreational center, not a prison.”

She shook her head on a chuckle. “Exactly what I told Lenny. But I think sometimes he feels like coming to Hallow Moon is like a prison sentence—which breaks my heart. Oh, sure, he hides behind all that sexual innuendo and Casanova charm, but no longer having powers as sharp as he once did is really hard on him.”

“You want me to beat him up after school?”

She poked his chest playfully. “Who are you kidding here? Lenny could totally take you. And I meant thank you for saving me from Denny.”

Nash chuckled, his voice low when he pulled her in even tighter. “You know, wouldn’t it just be easier to tell Denny you’re my woman and he’d better keep his hands off of you or I’ll rip them off?”

Calla shivered at his possessive words, despite the oppressive heat. “No limb-ripping. And your woman, huh?”

“Yep. Mine,” he murmured against her ear, nipping at it. “You took the girlfriend oath when I gave you my class ring. There’s no backing out now.”

“That wasn’t your class ring, it was the tab on a can of Pepsi.” One of the sweetest, most romantic gestures she’d ever shared with a man over some grilled hotdogs and beans he’d made for her all by himself on an open fire, bar none.

Her heart still skipped a beat when she remembered how he’d looked across that campfire, his eyes glowing, his skin bronzed from working his ranch.

“Is that disdain I hear in your voice for my heartfelt symbol of commitment? You crush me to my very soul, Calla Allen.”

“I would never.” She held up the gold chain where she’d attached the can’s tab and grinned. “See? Always right next to my heart.” Calla patted her hand over her left breast then snatched it away just as quickly.

But Nash trailed a finger along her collarbone and down the line of her pink tank top. “Then no limb-ripping. Today’s Denny’s lucky day.”

She melted against Nash, reveling in the way her body absorbed his muscles, the way she felt every line of his abs, and delighted in his thighs pressed to hers. She let her lips graze his before asking, “So what time tonight?”

“What’s tonight again?” he teased, skimming her mouth with his tongue, creating ripples of hot need deep in her belly.

She tweaked his shoulder and giggled despite her nerves. “The chance for you to finally get laid.” The chance for you to prove you’re everything you claim you are.

Nash was being tested and he didn’t even know it. And it was totally unfair, but she’d been too insecure for full disclosure up to this point.

It had taken a little while for her to trust him, and now that she was almost there—so close she could almost taste it—Calla hoped she was able to go all the way.

Tonight was the night when she’d share her ugly secret with him. Something deeply personal—something she had to be sure he’d be okay with.

His head dipped low, hiding their faces with his black Stetson. He rubbed her nose with his, the length of his dark hair rustling over the collar of his black shirt. “Oh, yeah. Totally forgot about that. How remiss of me,” he teased, jutting his hips at her to reveal the rigid line of his shaft.

Calla snickered then sobered. “But we have to talk first.”

He mocked a sigh. “Lord, woman, are we going to have the ‘I’m a werewolf, you’re a warlock, some people won’t be happy about us dating’ talk again? Because I told you, I damn well don’t care what anyone wants but us.”

“I don’t either.” Her pack usually had strict rules about mating. But not for her. In fact, if she brought home an elephant and told them she was going to make little werephalants, they wouldn’t care.

Because she was deemed inferior.

His smoldering green eyes held concern. “Then what else is there, honey? I thought we’d talked everything out when we decided to wait on the whoopee and chose to really get to know each other first?”

They’d both agreed after meeting up again, they were at the stages in their lives where they wanted commitment, a future with someone, families, and they were willing to really get to the core of one another before they took the final leap to a deeper, physical connection.

But that wasn’t the only reason she’d wanted to wait.

Letting her hands fall, Calla grabbed his from their place on her waist, her eyes serious when she gazed into his. “Can you just trust me and wait until tonight?”

Nash smiled down at her, the grooves on either side of his mouth deepening. “Of course I trust you, and you do know, I’ve waited eleven years for this. There’s nothing you can tell me that will make me change my mind about tonight. Not even if you’re a serial killer.”

Nothing…

She hoped that was the truth, but she couldn’t bring herself to answer. Instead she said with a smile, “So tonight? Eight o’clock?”

Nash pulled her back in tight again, whispering his mouth over the side of her neck. “You’d better put your two-steppin’ shoes on.”

“You can two-step? Shut the front door.”

“Oh, the things I can do, Miss Calla. Just you wait and see, Beautiful.” He dropped a gentle kiss on her lips, a kiss that never failed to make her knees buttery soft, before giving her bottom a playful swat. “Eight o’clock sharp. I’m off to grab what I hope will be my last cold shower. See you tonight, pretty lady,” he rumbled deep and sexy before he strode off toward his truck, his low-slung jeans doing maddening things to her insides.

Tonight.

Three months of dating, and talking into the wee hours of the morning, and making out without passing first base, and laughing, and getting to know one another all over again had been so many things. Exhilarating, frustrating…but mostly they’d been blissful, and the slow simmer of their romance was all coming to fruition, and one thing was very clear to her.

She wanted Nash Ryder—forever.

Calla just hoped he’d want the same thing once tonight was all said and done.

* * * *

Nash removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow, using it to shield his eyes from the glaringly hot sun when he heard a car pull up along the dirt road leading to the stables.

Denny Parks threw his long legs from his expensive Mercedes, slamming the ice-blue door shut and striding toward Nash, kicking up dust clouds with his pricey shoes.

Fuck.

Denny was slick and reeked of city dwelling. He was better off in Dallas or Houston, where there was plenty of concrete and glass to hide behind while he bought and sold failing companies.

What the hell he wanted from Nash was a mystery. Other than Calla, Nash had nothing a guy like Denny wanted unless it was an ass-stompin’.

“Nash,” he drawled when he approached, starkly out of place in pressed pants and a silk shirt that clung to his thin frame in the heavy humidity.

“Denny. What brings you to this neck of the woods? You lookin’ to earn some extra cash getting your hands dirty while you muck some stables?”

Denny postured, puffing his chest out in his attempt to be a man. “I’m looking to warn you.”

Nash stood up straighter, topping Denny by at least two inches. “Warn me? What could a guy like you warn me about, Parks? Falling stock prices? Corporate takeovers? Wait. I know. Shoes that cost more than most people make in a month and are way too shiny?”

Calla.”

Nash’s eyes narrowed and his chin lifted. There it was, all out on the table. Denny seemed to think because he was a were, he had some unspoken right to Calla. The hell. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, pal.”

But Denny stiffened, his angular jaw going tight. “She belongs with her own kind, Ryder.”

Nash barked a laugh, yanking his leather gloves off and shoving them in his back pocket. “You mean you?”

Denny took a step backward as Nash moved in closer. “I do.”

He scratched his head as if he was the very moron Denny thought he was. “Funny, but I thought it was up to Calla to decide who she wanted to be with. How’d you get a say in it?”

“I’m just telling you the kind of trouble it could bring her with our Council if she chooses to disobey pack law.”

Nash froze. He’d heard about the kind of shit Calla could get if the Council disapproved of their relationship, but she didn’t seem bothered by it when he’d brought it up.

It wasn’t like different species didn’t couple up, but they didn’t do it without a lot of grief. Werewolves were particularly picky about pack purity and breeding and any number of qualifiers in mating—very unlike witches and warlocks.

“Well then, I guess we’ll deal with that when the time comes.” And it would come. He wanted Calla more than he’d ever wanted any other woman, and he’d take on whatever Council he had to in order to make it happen.

No slick prick like Denny Parks was going to prevent it either.

“I could lodge a complaint with the Council myself.”

Nash tightened a fist at his side to keep from ripping Denny’s face off. He didn’t much like being threatened. “You could. I’m sure that’ll have Calla running straight into your underdeveloped arms.”

Denny’s face went red, and it wasn’t from the heat. “I’m just throwing it out there, for your own sake as well as Calla’s.”

Nash put his Stetson back on his head and leaned into Denny, summoning all of his “bless your heart” charm his mother had instilled in him since he was a toddler. “Why don’t you hop back into your purty car before I let Bitty out of the pasture.”

“Bitty?”

“My bull. Hates the color blue. Damned funniest thing, too. Don’t most bulls hate the color red, Den? But not Bitty. He hates blue. I’d sure hate to see your fancy car all crumpled up like a tin can,” he warned low and deep.

Denny backed away, pulling his key fob from his pocket and beeping his car door open. As he slid inside, he shot one last parting warning. “Better be careful, Ryder. Your magic can’t save Calla if the Council takes her to task.”

Nash turned his back to the roar of Denny’s engine and grit his teeth as he strode up the dirt drive to the stables to water the horses.

He’d waited a long time for tonight. He’d had more cold showers than a prison inmate in order to stick to his and Calla’s deal—because he’d wanted her to know he didn’t just want to fool around.

He was damn well in love with her. All of her, and whatever it was she needed to talk about was something that left him puzzled. Maybe it was a deeper conversation about the Council and the repercussions they could suffer?

But that didn’t sit right with him. Every once in a while, when Calla was watching TV with him or she was working in her center’s kitchen, whipping up those melt-in-your-mouth cupcakes, and she didn’t know he was watching, she had an almost haunted look in her beautiful blue eyes.

He wanted to crush that haunted look. Stamp it out as surely as he’d stomp out a campfire, and replace whatever she was sad about with only happiness.

Ever since she’d come back to town, when he’d seen her lugging boxes up the stairs to the apartment she lived in with her grandfather above the senior center, her dark hair falling around her shoulders, the glisten of sweat on her forehead, her curvy bottom swaying and her firm breasts encased in frilly lace top, he’d known.

She’d just turned eighteen when she’d left Paris for the last time that summer, and he was five years older. Though, even then, Nash had wanted her. But she was too young, and her life needed living before she made serious choices.

So he’d never told her about all those feelings she evoked in him as they shared inner tubes in the creek and snuck bottles of beer from his father’s fridge.

But tonight he would. He’d tell her before they made love for the first time. He’d tell her afterward, too.

And he wasn’t going to let her Council or a needle-dick like Denny screw that up.

Chapter 3

BIC popped open the cheerfully colored stained-glass door to Winnie’s house, letting the scent of lavender and blissfully cool air flow out. “Calla! Winnie said you’d be dropping by. C’mon in.” She motioned with a chubby hand for Calla to enter, her other hand gripping the beloved whistle hanging securely around her neck; the one she used to keep the children in line at Miss Marjorie’s Preschool for the Magically Inclined.

Calla smiled at her, pulling one of her signature pink-and-purple swirled boxes from behind her back as she set Twyla Faye on the floor. “Good to see you, Greta. I brought a little something for you.”

Greta’s stern, round face lit up. “You’re killin’ me with these Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch cupcakes, kiddo. Can’t wear all those fancy clothes Winnie talked me into buying if I keep eating them.”

Calla headed to the long kitchen table, where several of the witches residing at the house were busy making dinner, and propped the box top open. “But they make you smile, and I love seeing you happy, because I never want to make you and that whistle angry.”

“You love seeing the competition for your hottie Nash Ryder blown outta the water while I get fatter eating these things, is what you love,” she groused with a chuckle before biting into the peanut butter cupcakes and sighing. “I’m letting you have him out of the kindness of my heart because, honey, I’ve seen him stacking bales of hay without a shirt. Consider yourself lucky I don’t take you out in your sleep. But your cupcakes fill the hole of my empty longing.”

Calla laughed, preening at the look on Greta’s face as she took another bite of her cupcake.

She loved to bake for her seniors. Baking for others brought her not just great pleasure, but peace. There was a very strict order to baking, every ingredient had to be measured exactly, and when she’d worked for Reed, whose life was chaotic and noisy, baking had helped her find a modicum of control.

It had begun as a hobby, until guests attending many of the dinner parties Reed hosted had convinced her that her grandmother Lettie’s recipes were something special.

They became standards that all of Reed’s important friends insisted upon when he hosted a gathering.

Food was a universal language everyone spoke. How could anyone stay mad when you offered them a whimsical cupcake? It was her secret weapon with even the crankiest of seniors who, in some cases, resented having someone babysitting them during the day while their families worked.

“I see you brought Twyla Faye? Should I warn Icabod?” Greta asked, preparing to put her infamous whistle to her lips.

Twyla Faye had a bit of a crush on Winnie’s familiar Icabod—who was, of all things, a Cabbage Patch doll from her childhood—which made everything very weird. If TF had hair, she’d twirl it whenever the subject of Icabod came up.

“Nah. I say we surprise him with his love muffin. Besides, Twyla Faye promised to keep her scales to herself like all good lizards should, didn’t you?”

She slow blinked up at them as though she had no idea what they were talking about. “I’m only here to consult on Calla’s dress hunt, and I resent any implication otherwise.”

Greta chuckled, peering down at the lizard. “Is that a promise? Because the last time you said that, you tried to put a love spell on Ic, and we all remember how that ended, don’t we?”

Twyla Faye sighed, a long, raspy sound. “Oh, y’all stop bein’ so dramatic. It passed, didn’t it? No gnomes were psychologically damaged in the making of that spell.”

Greta bent down and looked Twyla Faye in the eye. “Only after Winnie broke the spell, you crazy, lust-mongering amphibian. It was the only way to pry Icabod off that garden gnome in the backyard. He proposed marriage to it, Twyla Faye.”

Yet another reason—among many botched spells and their resulting mayhem—why her iguana just wasn’t cut out to be a familiar.

Twyla Faye didn’t twitch when she said, “Garden gnomes get lonely, too.”

“I’ll use the whistle,” Greta threatened, her eyes amused.

Calla stooped to pick up the lizard, stroking her back. “You’re a cruel taskmaster, Greta. But I’ll personally vouch for Twyla Faye. If she misbehaves, I give you permission to bring her in for show and tell to the kids at Miss Marjorie’s, and I’ll even let little Percival Gibbons take her home overnight.”

Twyla Faye gasped, but Calla pressed a finger to her jaw to quiet her. “So I’m just going to head up to Winnie’s closet, okay?”

But Greta held up a pudgy finger. “Um, no. You didn’t think stuffing my face full of these incredible cupcakes and distracting me with your scaly, back-talking familiar was going to keep me from grilling you, did you? They don’t call me BIC for nothin’.”

Calla made a comical pouty face, jutting out her lower lip. “But I brought cupcakes.”

“To grease my wheels, no doubt.”

“So not true. I just wanted to see your pretty face alight with joy at the prospect of sugar and multi-colored sprinkles.”

“Winnifred said you’d deflect, but I just want you to know before you go digging around in that closet of hers to find something fancy for the dance, Nash would be nuts about you if you wore a burlap sack and Crocs. I hope you know that.”

Tears stung her eyes, but she bit the inside of her cheek and forced a smile. “Do you think burlap’s my color?”

“I think everything’s your color. I’d beat the pretty out of you but you werewolves have sharp teeth. Now, in all seriousness, you and Nash have a good time tonight. And if you need to talk, old Greta’s always here.”

Clearly, she wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding her emotions if even Greta was offering an ear. Maybe Winnie had told her about her own suspicions regarding Calla? She and Greta were pretty close.

But it didn’t matter. After the cold, callous world of Boston, where everything centered around the egotistical Reed, if Winnie had confided in her ex-parole officer, it was just plain nice to have someone care enough about her to get upset on her behalf.

She threw an arm around Greta’s stout neck and squeezed it to keep those damn teardrops from falling, but her heart contracted with a sharp tug.

The people of Paris had adopted her and made her their own just like they had her grandfather. “Thanks, BIC. You’re really the best.”

Greta wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, yeah. Also, I have a Bennie riding on tonight. Don’t screw this up.”

Calla let her head fall back on her shoulders when she laughed. “Even you’re in the pool?”

Greta batted her away, but not before pinching her cheeks. “Beer for a year’s no damn joke. Now go on and get girlied up. I have parolees to keep in line.”

With a sniffle, Calla set Twyla Faye back on the floor and flew up the stairs, almost running right into Kirby.

The witch held out her hands to slow Calla down, her pretty face, with its evenly spaced features and clear skin, alight with a warm smile. As the sun began to fade in the big windows behind her, it highlighted her auburn hair. “So tonight’s the big night, huh?”

Calla rolled her eyes. “Don’t you start, too, Kirby Fisher,” she teased. “I’m going to a dance, not an orgy.”

Kirby stared at her for a minute, one that felt unusually long, before she said, “I think you were smart not to rush into anything. Really knowing someone takes time. If you muddy the waters with sex, it clouds your judgment.”

Hah. No truer words.

“Right?” Finally someone who was on her side. Calla hooked her arm though Kirby’s and took her down the wide hall to Winnie’s bedroom. “You’d think this was a NASCAR race, for hell’s sake.”

Kirby’s head bobbed up and down. “Even though I’m not allowed to drink on parole, I have to admit, I was still pretty disappointed I couldn’t enter the raffle.”

“There are chicken wings, too,” Calla added with a snicker she couldn’t stop. Even though it was horrifying that people were betting on whether she and Nash had chosen tonight to be their night, it was still pretty funny.

Kirby stopped her mid-step, her eyes wide. “Shut up! Chicken wings? OMG. I love Skeeters’ chicken wings! I need to buy some raffle tickets before tonight,” she teased.

Calla pretended an irritated sigh and shook her head. “No more talk of brews and barn animals. Now, help me pick out something to wear that’ll make Nash drool buckets.”

As they entered Winnie’s bedroom, Calla spied Icabod sitting on her friend’s enormous bed. His plastic round eyes stared blankly at the far wall, his stuffed body rigid; he certainly came off as creepy. But in fact, when Winnie waved her magic wand, giving him the ability to speak to someone aside from her, he was quite intelligent.

When Winnie had found out about Twyla Faye, she’d helped Calla adjust to her adopted talking iguana.

It had taken some getting used to, all this witch magic and talking Cabbage Patch dolls and sometimes talking animals here in Paris. But nowadays, it was no big deal when Nash made his bull Bitty voice his thoughts, or when Icabod sat with them while they all had a cup of tea with Winnie outside in the back beside her amazing gardens.

Calla reached over and chucked him under the chin just as Twyla Faye settled near her feet. “Hey, Ic! How’s things?”

“Calla! Good to see you.” He paused then asked, “Wait. Do I smell lizard? Aw, hell no! Did you bring that crazy excuse of a purse with you? Because I’m warning you, werewolf, if she makes one wrong move, just one, and I end up on top of another garden gnome in a humiliating pose straight out of the pages of the Kama Sutra—at a tea party, no less—I’ll turn that nutbag into something that eats iguanas for dinner!”

Yeah. That had been bad.

Calla winced, remembering how the old order of witches from the Bluebonnet Society had found Icabod riding that poor lifeless gnome as though it were a wild mustang he was trying to break.

“Aw, c’mon, Icabod. Can’t we let bygones be bygones? She apologized. Didn’t you, Twyla Faye?”

“I’m sorry, were ya’ll speakin’ to me—the purse?” she drawled, lifting her little head and giving them her tail.

“You listen up, you three-eyed, spastic wonder! Give me one little reason, and I’m going all Snapped on you!”

Calla clapped her hands then put a finger over Icabod’s unmoving lips. “Okay, all familiars are hereby ordered to play nicely. Twyla Faye? Off to your appropriate corner.” She gave her a scoot with her hand, sending the lizard to the far end of Winnie’s big bedroom. “Now, no more arguing. I’m here to find a dress. Behave. Both of you.”

Icabod cackled. “So I heard. Around these parts, they say you need that dress for the big coital hootenanny with Nash tonight.”

Calla flopped on the edge of the bed, blowing her hair out of her face. “Who in this town doesn’t know about tonight?”

“Not a soul. Well, maybe old Mrs. Corwin, but only by default because she’s deaf. Though, she did enter the beer-for-a-year raffle. I mean, because—beer.”

She eyed him with suspicion, still unclear about whether he could actually see her. “Did you enter the raffle, too, Ic?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t drink or eat. But hand to the goddesses, if I could, you can bet your sweet, sweet backend I would.”

A glance at the bedside alarm clock told her she needed to get moving, but instead she lingered, her thoughts torn about her choice to wait and tell Nash tonight instead of before they ever made it to the bedroom.

“Nervous?” Icabod asked.

She leaned in and whispered, “Between you and me?”

“Like I’m going somewhere fast in this condition?”

Calla laughed, pulling at the frayed hole in the thigh of her jeans. “I feel like a coon cornered in a crawl space.”

“Wanna talk about why?”

To a Cabbage Patch doll? “Nope.”

Icabod clucked his unseen tongue. “I know what you’re thinking, Calla. Oh, that Ic, he’s just a Cabbage Patch doll, or creepy doll, as I recall overhearing you say once or twice. But my advice is sound. Just ask Winnie.”

She shook off her nerves and smiled at him in apology. “I’m sorry, Ic. I judged before I knew you. Can you ever forgive me?”

Icabod sighed. “Of course, and I get it. A talking doll is pretty Chuckie-ish.”

“And I don’t doubt your advice is sound. Not for a second. Winnie tells me all the time how sage you are. But there’s really nothing to talk about. It’s just first-time jitters, nothing more. Promise.”

Liar…

“Okey-doke. Then I’ll just sit here with my mouth closed. Pun intended. But you make sure that wingnut lizard stays in her corner, or I’m opening a kiosk at the mall featuring her as some belts.”

Twyla Faye made a sniffing noise, but Calla gave her the eye, effectively quieting her again.

Peering into the big walk-in closet where Kirby was sifting through Winnie’s dresses, she decided it was now or never. “Find anything good in there, Kirby?” she asked, sliding off the bed to make her way across the floor.

Kirby poked her head out and held up a black, slinky dress with a swirly skirt and tight, sequined bodice. “This is really pretty. It would look amazing against your fair skin and dark hair.”

Calla took it from her and held it up against her frame. The bodice would no doubt be too tight. “It’s very pretty. Just not me. Mind if I squeeze in there and take a peek around?”

Kirby slipped past her and motioned her in.

Winnie’s closet was amazing. There were endless shelves of shoes, scarves, and purses. She had a dress in every color of the rainbow, and clearly she didn’t mind wearing something revealing.

But Calla pushed hangers around and sighed. Nothing was catching her eye. Nothing that made her think “the one”.

Kirby leaned against the doorframe, her eyes following Calla. “Have I ever told you how grateful I am to you? For…for not judging me? For letting me work at the senior center?”

Calla nodded and smiled. “You have, and really, there’s no need to thank me. We’ve all made mistakes. You’re a very valuable employee and an awesome guinea pig. Who else would try my bacon-and-vanilla-flavored cupcakes without batting an eye but you?”

But Kirby’s eyes became even more intense when she grabbed Calla’s hand and held it tight. “Are we friends?”

She cocked her head, confused. Where was this coming from? “I’d like to think we are, Kirby. Is something bothering you? Do you want to talk?”

Kirby was a quiet soul who’d had a troubled past. Winnie was big on disclosure, and while she didn’t break confidentiality about her parolee’s crimes, she did give you some emotional background information on them on the off chance you needed to deal with a situation.

But according to Winnie, Kirby was as nonviolent as a newborn kitten, and after she’d been imprisoned back in Salem, a model inmate.

But then Kirby smiled, sweet and full of sunshine. “Nah. I’m fine. Just feeling maudlin and missing home, I guess.” And then her attention turned to the far corner of Winnie’s closet. “Ohh! What about that one?”

Calla’s eyes swung toward the direction of Kirby’s finger. “Pink?”

“Well, it is your favorite color, isn’t it? You did paint an entire physical therapy room pink. Seems like a good choice to me.”

“True that,” she said, reaching for the hanger and slipping the dress from it. She wandered out into the bedroom where Winnie had a full-length mirror and held it up. It was a wraparound with a tie-belt, simple and without any fancy adornments. Definitely not the slinkiest dress her friend owned, but something about the way the fabric swished at her knees made her consider it as a candidate.

“Try it on,” Kirby encouraged, pointing to the interior of the closet.

“Did you find one, Calla?” Icabod asked.

She closed the closet door, kicked off her sandals, and then shrugged out of her jeans. “We’ll see.”

As she pulled off her tank top, she let it drop to the floor and closed her eyes. Breathe, Calla. Just breathe.

She readjusted her bra, pulling the dress over her head, loving the slink of the material down along her hips. She gave one last glance to the neckline and kept her fingers crossed. Sexy, but not desperate and not too revealing.

Popping the closet door open, she headed for the mirror again, stopping a couple of feet away from it.

Both Kirby and Icabod let out appreciative whistles. “Nice,” Kirby murmured.

“Yeah, definitely your color, Calla. You look amazing,” Icabod said.

“You’ll have all the boys in the yard wantin’ that milkshake,” Twyla Faye said with approval.

“Ya think?” She smoothed her hands over her waist, pivoting on her toes. The dress fell to just below her knee, accentuating her long calves. The belt, tied at the side, made her waist appear much smaller than it really was, despite her two-mile jogs every morning. It hugged her breasts without exposing them as a suggestion rather than a blatant statement.

She felt…sexy. Provocative. Confident. All things she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I think this is it,” she mumbled, more to herself than anyone else.

Kirby came up behind her and squeezed her shoulders, giving her the warmest smile Calla had seen to date. “You look beautiful, Calla. Really beautiful.”

Calla patted her hand. She’d needed to hear that. Sucking in a deep breath, she grinned, not nearly as nervous as she’d been. There was an ember of anticipation in the pit of her stomach and the longer she looked at her image in the mirror, the hotter that ember began to glow.

“You think Nash will like it?”

Kirby scoffed and planted her hands on her hips. “He’d be a damn fool not to.”

“Then this is the one,” she said, her excitement growing, her belly battling a band of butterflies.

Nash Ryder better prepare to have his socks rocked right off his feet.

End of Extended Sample

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