The second book in the Archer Cove series, A SWEET POSSIBILITY, will release everywhere on August 18. This is Jessie’s story, and she falls for one of her closest friends, Nate. I just love friends-to-lovers stories, so writing this one was great fun.
It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, and here’s Chapter One if you’re the previewing type (I know I am!).
Candy made everything better.
Jessie chewed a piece of milk chocolate almond bark and considered the scene around her. Half the contents of her closet were strewn across the unmade double bed, and an old silver thong sandal had somehow worked its way onto the shade on her bedside lamp. In the rush of selecting the appropriate garment, Jessie had blown through what must have been a full decade of her personal fashion statements: sheath dresses with lace overlay, brightly-patterned skirts, shirtdresses in pastel shades, and even a gingham print A-line number that still had the tags. They reminded her of evenings out, and some of them still smelled like her perfume. A sentimental journey, but as Jessie glanced back at the chaos of her bedroom, a pit formed in her stomach. This was not the sign of an ordered life.
She selected the black dress with the built-in sequined belt. It was that or the Amish-style getup with the enormous floral prints on a navy background, and she simply didn’t own the orthotic footwear to match. She studied herself in the full-length mirror and wondered when she’d seen this dress last. Perhaps in college, when she’d been going through that clubbing phase? More importantly, why on earth did she still own it? She was grateful to the inner pack rat who developed odd attachments to tacky things. She could neutralize it with a yellow cardigan and call it a day.
Perfect for a Sunday baby shower.
She paired the dress with a small black clutch that contained only the essentials: her driver’s license; the credit card that wasn’t maxed; a bottle of nail polish in a shade called “Pink Me Up”; and a nip of raspberry vodka because…God help her. She’d be seeing her family.
The May morning was unseasonably warm, so Jessie straightened her blonde hair but didn’t get too attached to the result. By noon, her hair would be wavy again, giving her a slightly messy look that people might assume she’d intended, given her dress. “Don’t give me that look, Travis,” she warned the silver fox watching her from behind the front door. “I had an appropriate dress. I just can’t zip it.”
Some people inherited items of value from their relatives. Her landlord Nate, for example, had inherited the little blue cottage she was living in. But when Jessie’s Great Aunt Esther died, she’d inherited her taxidermic silver fox. It stood beside the front door, glass eyes patiently staring out at the horizon. She told herself that it was an interest piece and not at all creepy, but she usually hid it when she had company. Prince Travis didn’t bother her, but some people simply didn’t understand.
She gazed at the light blue dress she’d cast aside on her bed. That had been an unpleasant surprise, not being able to squeeze herself into it this morning. Jessie had been working some long hours at Hedda’s Bakery, testing a lot of new chocolate recipes. Tasting was part of the job. She felt around her middle and found a plumpness she hadn’t noticed before. Maybe she’d done a little too much tasting. No time to dwell on it, though. She had only twenty minutes to get to Great Barrington.
The drive was easy, the traffic light at this time on a Sunday morning. Jessie followed the highway along the coast from Archer Cove to Great Barrington, rolling down the windows to enjoy the fresh air. Her first day off in weeks, and she was spending it at her cousin Maggie’s baby shower. She gritted her teeth. At least her cousin Wren would be there.
She arrived at a massive wrought-iron gate flanked by a thick hedge of arbor vitae. Driving through it was a bit like entering some gaping mouth, following the lengthy driveway like sliding down an esophagus. Then the mansion rose in the distance, a gray Georgian estate. She counted six chimneys and four valets. She pulled her old dark blue Civic beside a man in black pants, a white dress shirt, and a black vest. He took Jessie’s valet key and handed her a pink card with a number 43 on it. “And where’s the party?” she asked.
“Which one?” he replied in a bored drawl.
“Maggie Schaeffer’s baby shower.”
He pointed in the direction of the estate and said, “Follow the signs.”
Jessie set off toward the main entrance, and sure enough, in the lobby was a sign with a green arrow that read, “Schaeffer Baby Shower” and pointed to a set of French doors. Green, Jessie supposed, because even though Maggie and Greg knew the gender of the baby, they weren’t telling anyone. For the record, this made shopping close to impossible. Jessie had hit no fewer than three baby stores before ultimately settling on a bottle set in primary colors and a yellow blanket.
Through the French doors was a slate patio overlooking an expansive English garden and, in the distance, a cerulean strip of ocean. Jessie stood for a moment to admire the landscaping and to watch a bumblebee climb inside a red tulip. Then her ears were assaulted by a shrill shriek. “There’s Jessie!”
She didn’t know who said it. It didn’t matter. What mattered is that she felt that fake, painful smile spread across her face as she prepared to pretend that she was blissfully happy to be at the baby shower for her third cousin’s wife. Her dad’s cousin, Louise, who was hosting the shower, came over in a flash of beige. The next thing she knew, her face was being mashed against her ample bosom. “Jessie, sweetheart. Don’t you look pretty.”
Louise was a lovely woman with a death-grip hug. Jessie mumbled a “thank you” against the silk of her dress.
“You’re seated at table seven, with your mom and auntie,” Louise said. “You have a lovely time, darling.”
On her way to table seven, she passed Maggie, the mother-to-be, who was sitting at a white wrought-iron table decorated with vases of blue and pink lilacs. She was wearing a bubblegum-pink dress that really should have provided more in the way of shoulder straps and breathability in the middle. Unlike Louise, Maggie was very hands-off in her greeting style and preferred to lightly clasp hands and kiss the air beside both cheeks. It would not have surprised Jessie in the least to know that Maggie believed this to be a more dignified, even Continental form of greeting. “Jessie,” she sighed in her usual affect, “good to see you, as always.”
“You too, Mags. You’re glowing.”
“Ugh!” She tossed one hand into the air. “I’m swollen all over. Look.” She held out one leg and turned it to demonstrate. “It’s not even noon, and I have cankles. Doctor says my blood pressure is through the roof. They may have to put me on bed rest, and at that point you may as well throw me off a cliff. What am I going to do on bed rest?”
Jessie smoothed her honey-colored hair reassuringly. “You look beautiful, Mama. Pregnancy suits you.”
Maggie’s expression took on a wide-eyed look, her blue eyes wild as she leaned in to whisper, “I get so angry sometimes. Is that normal, do you think? I want to smash a chair into the wall.”
There was a lengthy pause as Jessie digested this information. Then she tittered a nervous laugh. “I’m sure you’re not the first. Maybe it’s the blood pressure.”
“Well.” Maggie righted herself again, a bright smile plastered on her face. “Thanks for coming. I hope you have a great time.”
Jessie felt the smile frozen on her face as she walked away. My God, she thought. She’s going to kill us all.
She turned and saw her cousin Wren approaching, carrying a mimosa. Wren looked gorgeous, as always. She’d always been beautiful, with her brown wavy hair, slightly freckled skin, and large, expressive brown eyes, but if it was possible, she’d become even better-looking recently. She was in love, and it suited her. Life wasn’t fair.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” Wren gushed. “I thought you were going to stand us up.” She kissed her on the cheek. “Nice dress. It’s so…fancy. Do you have plans to go out with Quinn afterward?”
“No. The dress I wanted to wear is at the cleaners,” Jessie said. “Anyway, I thought about not coming at all. Then I decided I’d just bring alcohol.”
Wren wrinkled her nose as Jessie opened her clutch. “Don’t even bother with that stuff. The mimosas are flowing freely. This is my second. Here.” She handed the flute to Jessie. “You look like you need it more than I do.”
Jessie accepted the drink gratefully and took a generous gulp. There she was, on her first day off in weeks, standing in her trashy-looking club dress and yellow cardigan at a baby shower, of all places. She’d never been one to fawn over babies and get excited about weddings. She’d spent most of her time since college working at her uncle’s bakery and perfecting her chocolate recipes. Being as busy as she was left her little time to think about settling down.
The large diamond on Wren’s left hand caught the sunlight. Last summer Wren, her quiet, mild-mannered cousin, had fallen in love with Hollywood bad boy and Class-A gorgeous man Jax Cosgrove. They’d bought a vineyard overlooking the ocean, and Jax had proposed in the south of France, on the set of one of his films. Wren’s own screenplay was set to film in Scotland in a few months — her second film. Their life was glamorous and perfect and down-to-earth all at the same time. “How are things with Jax?” Jessie asked, even though she knew the answer.
Wren’s expression brightened. “Great,” she beamed. “Wedding plans are going well, and the vineyard is busy. I have your maid of honor dress in the car. You just need to try it on, but it’s custom-made, so it should fit like a glove.”
Right, the wedding was in August, and Wren’s own baby shower was sure to follow. Jessie took another gulp of her mimosa. “How wonderful,” she said, with a glance around the patio. “Where are we sitting?”
Wren nodded over her left shoulder. “Over there. They stuck us way in the back. I think I may take it personally.”
“I’ve found it’s really the only way to take things.”
They were seated at a table with Jessie’s mother, Sadie, Wren’s mother, Aunt Lilliana, their grandma, and their Great Aunt Doris, all of whom stopped talking as they approached. Never a good sign. Jessie’s mom pulled out the chair beside her and patted the seat. “Here, sweetie,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in a few days.” Then added, with a level of concern, “How are you doing?”
“I’m not the one you should be worried about,” Jessie said. “Maggie has high blood pressure and anger problems.”
“She looks like she ate a spare tire,” Auntie Lil said before taking a sip of her iced tea.
“Mom, that’s not nice.” Wren rolled her eyes at Jessie. “She looks adorable.”
A smartly-dressed waiter in a silver vest and a bow tie came by with a pitcher of lemon water and poured glasses for Wren and Jessie. The second he left, Sadie leaned over and said earnestly, “How’s Quinn?”
Jessie gripped the champagne flute. She had been dating Quinn Rogerson for a few months, and things were great. Better than great, because she’d been in love with Quinn since, oh, the first time she saw him in high school. He was handsome and smart, and everything she’d ever wanted in a boyfriend. Sure, Quinn bristled at the term “boyfriend.” He wanted to keep things more open. All Jessie had to do was to be patient and to show him what a catch she was, and she felt she was making some headway there. But every time her mother asked about Quinn, her voice assumed this desperate note that made Jessie wonder if she viewed Quinn as the Last Hope: either they would marry and have babies, or Jessie was destined live out the rest of her life with ten cats and her taxidermic fox.
“Quinn is doing well,” she said. “He’s busy. He’s working toward partnership,” she added, pleased to see Auntie Lil and Grandma nod their heads approvingly. “He’s up in August, so. Fingers crossed.”
“We all want that to happen,” Sadie said gravely. “Partnership will make him a good provider, and men don’t usually think about marriage until then.”
Jessie glanced around the table and saw more serious nodding. “Jeez, Mom. Is it 1950?”
Wren reached for her empty champagne flute. “You look like you’re almost done with your drink. Do you need another one?”
Jessie rubbed at her forehead and closed her eyes. “Yes. Please.”
It’s not like she was one of those women who was afraid to be alone. After all, she’d gotten this far on her own. Did she think she’d maybe like to have children one day? Sure, why not. But it’s not like she was at the point where she actually begrudged other people’s happiness. She could sit at that baby shower in her old, slinky, completely inappropriate black dress, next to her blissfully happy cousin, and celebrate someone else’s joy without even considering her own life. Like, for example, the fact that she had just turned thirty years old. Or the fact that her perfect boyfriend spent more Friday nights working than with her. No, she could totally ignore all of that and just enjoy the unseasonably warm May morning. She wasn’t even bothered by the way her dress was clinging to her back sweat. Life was grand.
Wren came back to the table and set another mimosa in front of her with a sad smile. “Cheers, Jess. It ends at one o’clock.”
“Bottoms up.” Jessie drank half the flute right away and set the glass down again with a small burp. “You’re going to need to keep these coming.”
By the time brunch was over and they were playing games to guess the gender and size of Maggie’s baby, Jessie was feeling pleasantly tipsy.
Maybe it was horrible that she was getting drunk at a baby shower. She could accept that. It was just that every five minutes, one family member or another was strolling over to the table to ask how Wren’s wedding plans were coming along, and then glancing hopefully at Jessie to say something along the lines of, “How about you, honey? Any prospects yet?” As if finding a husband was like panning for gold. When their cousin Melinda walked over — more like sashayed over in her designer clothes and platform heels — Jessie replied that she was taking a break from dating, “just until the rash on my lady parts clears up.”
“People are making conversation,” Sadie said as she selected a Parker House roll from the bread basket. “You can’t fault them for that.”
“They’re not making conversation. They’re being nosy,” Jessie said. “And how come they can’t ask me about my business? Am I only defined by my reproductive capabilities?”
She halted her speech when they heard applause and turned to see that the father-to-be, Greg, had entered the patio. He was tall, blond, and self-assured as he gave a charming smile and a wave to the flock of female friends and relatives celebrating his wife. Jessie tilted her head as she studied him, struggling to keep her eyes open. She felt so sleepy. “I never realized how attractive Greg was,” she murmured.
“He’s your cousin,” Wren whispered. “And he’s married. With a baby on the way.”
“Whatever. Third cousin, anyway.” She took another gulp of her drink.
“It’s weird all the same.”
Jessie tapped her glass with her fingernail. “Wren? I’m empty.”
Wren patiently moved the glass out of reach. “I think you’ve had enough. You’re not driving, by the way.”
“I’ll sober up in time,” Jessie said, but didn’t object when Wren lifted her keys from her clutch. “The valet has my car key. You’re just locking me out of my house. Oh, fine. You want me to get a ride?” She sighed and took out her cell phone to text Quinn for a ride. “There. All set.”
“Good,” Wren said.
“Oh look. It’s time for presents.” Aunt Doris groaned and sat back in her chair.
“Does this make you regret not having children?” Sadie asked. Doris had never married, though rumor had it she’d received several proposals.
She sputtered her lips. “That’s like asking someone if they regret not being whipped.”
“Some people like being whipped,” Jessie said matter-of-factly and reached for Wren’s mimosa, figuring what was the harm? She wasn’t driving. Wren slapped her hand away. “It’s a big thing. Spankings.”
“For children?” Auntie Lil asked.
“No, Mom,” Wren said. “She means kink. You know, handcuffs and chains.”
Auntie Lil’s cheeks turned pink and she sat rigidly in her chair, her eyes fixed on Maggie and Greg, who were pulling baby shampoo out of a small bag and gasping, “Thank you.” “I’ve seen that brand before,” Auntie Lil said. “Is that organic?”
“They’re overselling the gratitude,” Jessie muttered.
“Don’t change the subject,” Doris said. “This shower was just getting interesting.”
They sat in virtual silence — aside from the obligatory oohs’ and ahhs — as Maggie opened her gifts. A handmade baby quilt. Too many yellow and green onesies to count. A baby monitor with a built-in video camera. Knickknacks that Jessie didn’t see the point of. The sun was blaring by then, and she was sweltering in the shade of the umbrella. Even if her other dresses didn’t fit, Jessie regretted not wearing something more breathable.
After they’d opened a veritable mountain of baby gifts, Maggie rose and gave a polite and nearly heartwarming speech thanking everyone for their generosity. Then Louise announced that Maggie and Greg should go cut their shower cake, and Jessie mumbled, “At least there’s dessert. That quiche didn’t sit well with me.”
They cut the cake together, their hands overlapping on the knife, and the crowd sighed in approval. Then Greg ran his finger along the side of the knife to gather a clump of frosting, which he then dotted on Maggie’s nose.
That’s about the time all hell broke loose.
Maggie’s face turned a deep red. “Do you think that’s funny? To put frosting on my face at my baby shower?”
A bewildered Greg looked at his wife, terror creeping across his handsome features. “I don’t — it was a joke. I didn’t mean –”
“Like hell you didn’t!” Maggie grabbed a fistful of cake and mashed it into his face. “How do you like it?”
Louise hurled herself between them, but Maggie simply leaned back and gave her a solid punch to the jaw. Pandemonium ensued, as a herd of women in pastel brunch attire swarmed the situation.
“Leave me alone! Back off!” Maggie was taking clumps of cake and hurling them, baseball-style, at anyone who came near.
“Oh.” Jessie sat back in her chair, suddenly feeling more awake. “Oh, this is good.”
“We should intervene or something,” Auntie Lil said, taking a sip of her iced tea. “I mean, someone should stop this.”
“And how do you think we should do that?” Sadie said as a lump of cake splattered only inches from her seat.
“Turn a garden hose on her,” Grandma replied. “They must have a garden hose.”
“Please don’t,” Jessie sighed. “This is amazing. I wish I’d brought popcorn.”
It turned out that the garden hose was not necessary after all, and once the staff intervened, Maggie calmed herself enough to stop throwing cake. A moment or two passed. Then, all at once, she glanced around at her guests, who were covered in cake and frosting, and burst into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Silence followed. A long, awkward silence. Louise stumbled to the center of the patio, a glass of iced tea pressed against the left side of her jaw. “I think that’s all, everyone. Thank you for coming.”
Then she started sobbing, too, and Greg stood there looking like he didn’t know who to comfort first. This only made Maggie cry harder, and she stood alone with her frosting-covered hands over her face, her pink dress smeared with cake innards and — strawberries? Yes, strawberries. It was a fruit cake. Just as well it was ruined.
Later on, Jessie told herself that she hadn’t had a choice. Everyone was just sitting and staring at Maggie and Greg and Louise, and people were crying, and the guests were coated in frosting and who knew what else. The waitstaff was rushing to clean up broken ceramics and glass on the patio. Maggie had punched her mother-in-law on the jaw, for God’s sake. Someone had to do something, and Jessie fortunately had liquid courage running through her veins, which dulled any inclination for second thoughts.
“Ahem.” She clinked the side of her water glass with her fork and rose. “Could I have everyone’s attention, please?”
“Saint Michael on a pony. What are you doing, Jess?” Sadie hid her face behind a napkin.
“Attention, please.” Slowly eyes turned, and that’s when Jessie realized she had no idea what to say. “Right. I, uh…let’s end this thing on a good note, okay? Because aside from a little blip in the last ten minutes, this was a lovely baby shower. To the extent these things can be enjoyable at all.”
She felt every pair of eyes on her as she spoke — more like, as she fumbled to grasp the thoughts randomly firing through her mind. And every set of eyes was looking at her like she was the troublemaker. Except for Wren, who was nodding at every word with rapt attention. “Hear, hear,” Wren said. “This was a great shower. Historic.”
“Memorable,” Jessie agreed. “And that’s because Maggie and Greg are special people. Mags, you’re this ridiculously talented photographer. You’ve traveled all over the world, and your work has been displayed in magazines and museums, right? Museums, people. Galleries. She’s passionate, and she’s an artist, and I know she’s so excited about this baby. I for one am looking forward to seeing how she photographs the little…person.” She took a sip of her water and continued. “I’m not going to talk about the cake incident, because you know what? People handle pregnancy differently, and she –” She pointed to Maggie. “She’s an angry preggo, and I’m afraid she’ll break my face if I do that. Am I right, Mags? You don’t need to answer, I already know it’s true. It’s not your fault. It’s like your cankles. You can blame it all on the little parasite in your uterus.”
“Tread lightly,” Sadie said through a frozen smile, but Jessie continued, undeterred.
“Anyway, you’re great, Mags. I love you. We all love you, even when you’re pregnant. And we love that little bun in your oven, whatever it is. Greg, you’re great, too, but maybe next time don’t put frosting on your pregnant wife’s face. And Louise, this was a beautiful shower that no one is going to forget. The best part is that most of us get to wear our dessert home.” She raised her water glass. “Cheers.”
Silence. At first Jessie thought that she’d really gone and done it now, and she was watching Maggie’s face to see whether she was going to hurl that platter of cookies in her direction, but Maggie broke into a big smile. Then she grabbed her impressive stomach and started laughing. Greg’s shoulders relaxed and he started laughing, too, and pretty soon the tension on the patio dissolved as they all caught on. Jessie chuckled too, even though she wasn’t sure what the joke was.
Still, the party was clearly over, and they pushed in their chairs, helped clean up the cake, and made their way out of the garden. Maggie gave Jessie a real kiss on the cheek this time — a greasy one that made her wipe her face. “Jess,” she giggled. “How much did you drink?”
She glanced around. “Is it that obvious?”
“A little bit. I hope you’re not driving.”
“No way. I promise. You take care of yourself.”
She headed inside and took a quick glance around the lobby. There, on the far end by the entry doors, was Quinn. He was consumed by something on his cell phone, and he stared down at the screen, not noticing that she was approaching. Jessie smiled to herself. He really was so handsome. She had dreamed of dating him in high school, when he was captain of the varsity football team. Sometimes she had to pinch herself. This was her life. “Hey, stranger,” she cooed. “You got my text.”
He looked up then and smiled. “Hey, Jess.” He ran his gaze over her figure. “Why are you dressed like that?”
She stopped and looked down. “It’s a baby shower.”
Quinn tucked his phone into his back pocket and sighed. “You got drunk at a baby shower.”
“I had a few mimosas. It’s my first day off in weeks, and I think I’m feeling it more because I’m slightly dehydrated, and –”
“It’s okay. No harm done. Look, I have to get to work,” he said. “It’s an emergency.”
“An emergency? I thought we were going to spend some time together today.” She crossed her arms, feeling pouty. “You’re a lawyer. You don’t work triage.”
“I don’t make fun of your pastries, Jess.” He leaned over and kissed her chastely on the forehead. “I’m sorry, hon. We have that dinner party later, remember? You should go home and…sober up.”
“Funny. I’m not that bad off.” Not so bad that she didn’t know a blow-off when she heard it. “So, fine. Let’s get going.”
He avoided her gaze and turned back to his cell phone. “Actually, Nate’s bringing you home. I came with him. Someone had to drive your car.” Quinn glanced over his shoulder. “Here he is.”
On cue, Nate Lancaster walked through the doorway, his sandy brown hair looking just slightly messy. He was broad-shouldered and lean, with a strong jawline and deep-set green eyes. He walked in like he owned the place, trailing confidence. Jessie tried not to make a face. If Quinn saw that, he’d be upset, because he and Nate were best buds. Jessie liked Nate, too. They’d always been close, and he was the one who’d introduced her to Quinn. Nate was easy to like — except when he saw an opportunity to tease her. Then he was merciless.
She braced herself.
Nate looked Jessie up and down, making no effort to hide his appraisal. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Ugh.” She turned back to Quinn and prepared one last plea. “What if Nate drives my car and I get a ride with you?”
“That doesn’t make sense, babe. I promise I’ll see you later, all right? The dinner is very important.”
Of course it was, she thought. Because it was related to work, and work was very important to Quinn. She pressed her lips together but didn’t say anything more. “I’ll be ready at six.”
“Wren gave me your keys,” Nate said brightly, spinning her keyring on his finger. “Looks like I get to drive Old Cobalt.”
Jessie shot him her best drop-dead stare. “My car isn’t that old. And you don’t get to make fun of it.”
“I’m not making fun. I like antiques.”
“All right, kids,” Quinn said. “You run along. The adults have to get to work.” He leaned over and gave Jessie a kiss on the cheek. “Be nice to my friend.”
“Me?” She gasped, and pointed to Nate. “He’s the one who called my car an antique!”
“I’m leaving. I’ll pick you up at six.”
Quinn’s black BMW convertible was double-parked at the entrance, so he gave a quick wave before climbing inside and speeding away. Jessie watched the dust rising behind his car for several moments before she heard Nate clear his throat beside her. She started. “What?”
He gestured to the man in the vest waiting expectantly. “Do you have a valet ticket?”
“Oh,” she blinked. “Sorry.”
She opened her clutch to search for it, and Nate chuckled. “Did you pack that vodka for the baby shower? Or is that left over from church?”
Jessie’s cheeks grew warm, but she lifted her ticket and handed it to the valet, all business. “Not your concern.”
“Uh huh.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rolled back on his heels, clearly delighted with his discovery. “That’s what I thought. Tell me the truth: that’s a novice habit you’re wearing, isn’t it? I can tell by the sequined belt. Does Quinn know you’re taking a vow of chastity?”
It was fair punishment, she supposed. Get drunk at a baby shower, suffer a ride home with Nate at his finest. But just then she was starting to feel dizzy, and between his comments and the glare off the Civic as the valet pulled it up…She closed her eyes. “Just…can I have some quiet? Just for a few minutes?”
“You’re the boss,” Nate said as he opened the passenger-side door and slipped a few bills into the valet’s hand. “Your chariot awaits, madame.”
“Gosh, Nate. And to think you had nothing better to do this morning.”
“Lucky for you, sunshine.”
He shut her door as she took a seat, narrowly missing her ankle. Jessie leaned her head back against the headrest and stared out the window. She would never touch a mimosa again.