Charmed, Texas, is everything the name implies—quaint, comfortable, and as small-town friendly as they come. And when it comes to romance, there’s no place quite as enchanting . . .
Lanie Barrett didn’t mean to lie. Spinning a story of a joyous marriage to make a dying woman happy is forgivable, isn’t it? Lanie thinks so, especially since her beloved Aunt Ruby would have been heartbroken to know the truth of her niece’s sadly loveless, short-of-sparkling existence. Trouble is, according to the will, Ruby didn’t quite buy Lanie’s tale. And to inherit the only house Lanie ever really considered a home, she’ll have to bring her “husband” back to Charmed for three whole months—or watch Aunt Ruby’s cozy nest go to her weasel cousin, who will sell it to a condo developer.
Nick McKane is out of work, out of luck, and the spitting image of the man Lanie described. He needs money for his daughter’s art school tuition, and Lanie needs a convenient spouse. It’s a match made . . . well, not quite in heaven, but for a temporary arrangement, it couldn’t be better. Except the longer Lanie and Nick spend as husband and wife, the more the connection between them begins to seem real. Maybe this modern fairy tale really could come true . . .
In retrospect, I should have known the day was off. From the wee hours of the morning when I awoke to find Ralph—my neighbor’s ninety-pound Rottweiler—in bed with me and hiking his leg, to waking up the second time on my crappy uncomfortable couch with a hitch in my hip. Then the coffeemaker mishap and realizing I was out of toothpaste. Pretty much, all the markers were there. Aunt Ruby would have thumped me in the head and asked me where my Barrett intuition was.
But I never had her kind of intuition.
And Aunt Ruby wasn’t around to thump me. Not anymore. Not even long distance.
“Ow! Shit!” I yelped as my phone rang, making me sling pancake batter across the kitchen as I burned my finger on the griddle.
I’m coordinated like that.
Cursing my way to the phone, I hit speaker when I saw the name of said neighbor.
“How’s my sweet boy?” she crooned.
I glared at Ralph. “He’s got bladder denial,” I said. “Possibly separation anxiety. Mommy issues.”
“Uh-oh, why?” she asked.
“He marked three pieces of furniture, and me,” I said, hearing her gasp. “While I was in the bed. With him.”
“Ralph was in the bed?” Tilly asked.
“That was the part that caught your attention?”
“Well, I just don’t allow him up there,” she said.
“It wasn’t by invitation,” I said. “I woke up to him staring down at me and then he let it rip.”
I liked my neighbor, Tilly. She was from two apartments down, was sweet, kinda goofy, and was always making new desserts she liked to try out on me. So when she suddenly had to bail for some family emergency with her mom and couldn’t take her dog, I decided to take a page from her book and be a giver. Offer to dog-sit Ralph while she was gone for a few days.
“Oh wow, I’m so sorry, Lanie,” she said.
“Not a problem,” I lied. I’m not really cut out to be a giver. “We’re bonding.”
“How’s he eating?” Tilly asked. “Sometimes he’s shy about eating around other people.”
I glanced over to see Ralph lick pancake batter off the cabinet, then sit back on his haunches and lick himself.
“I think he’s doing all right.”
Tilly sighed on the other end. “Thank you so much for this,” she said. “It takes a load off my mind to know he’s taken care of.”
Something in that sentence or in her voice sounded weird.
“So, how long are you going to be gone again?” I asked.
“Um, well,” she began. “Things are a little complicated, so it may be a little bit.”
A little bit. My weird radar perked up.
“Yeah?” I prompted. “Like—a week? What are we talking?”
“Well, I’ll call you in a couple of days when I know more,” she said. “It’s—you know, my dad is really sick, and family just gets so—”
“Your dad?” I asked. “I thought it was your mom.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “That’s what I meant. Sorry, I’m just a little scattered right now.” She laughed. “I’m buzzing on too much coffee, probably.”
Too much something.
“Hey, remember,” Tilly continued. “When you put him outside to leave for work, talk sweet to him so he doesn’t think it’s a punishment.”
“He peed on me!” I exclaimed. “His fragile ego isn’t my biggest concern right now.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll send you some money to clean your mattress. I actually kind of hoped he’d cheer you up.”
What? “Cheer me up?”
“You’ve been so—I don’t know—forlorn?” she asked. “Since your aunt died, it’s like you lost your energy source.”
Damn, that was freakishly observant of her. Maybe she got the Barrett intuition. She nailed it in one sentence. Aunt Ruby was my energy source. Even from the next state over, the woman that raised me kept me buzzing with her unstoppable magical spirit. When her eyes went, the other senses jumped to the fight. When her life went, it was like someone turned out the lights. All the way to Louisiana.
Honestly, I had this thought. That I’d feel her more after she passed. After all, she’d been the one with all the intuition. A rumor that had wagged tongues in Charmed, Texas my whole young life. Something I’d thought was cool when I was little, spent most of my teenage years denying, and mostly forgot as an adult—living hundreds of miles away. Forgot until I’d go for a visit, anyway. One step inside that old house left little question.
There hadn’t been any intuition my way, however. No feelings. No aromas of baked apples or orange peels. No sudden penchant for raw honey or the color blue or the new ability to sew. No Aunt Ruby.
Well, maybe the honey part, but that was just me. You can’t grow up in a bee-farming community and not become a honey addict.
I was truly alone and on my own. Realizing that at thirty-three was sobering. Realizing Aunt Ruby now knew I’d lied about everything was mortifying. Maybe that’s why she was staying otherwise occupied out there in the afterlife.
Then again, lying was maybe too strong a word. Was there another word? Maybe a whole turn of phrase would be better. Something like coloring the story to make an old woman happy.
Coloring with crayons that turned into shovels.
No one knew the extent of the ridiculous hole I had dug myself into. The one that involved my hometown of Charmed, Texas believing I was married and successful, living with my husband in sunny California and absorbing the good life. Why California? Because it sounded more exciting than Louisiana. And a fantasy-worthy advertising job I submitted an online resume for a year ago was located there. That’s about all the sane thought that went into that.
The tale was spun at first for Aunt Ruby when she got sick, diabetes taking her down quickly, with her eyesight being the first victim. I regaled her on my short visits home with funny stories from my quickie wedding in Vegas (I did go to Vegas with a guy I was sort of seeing), my successful career in advertising (I hadn’t made it past promotional copy), and my hot, doting, super gorgeous husband named Michael who travelled a lot for work and therefore was never with me. You’d think I’d need pictures for that part, right? Even for a mostly blind woman? Yeah. I did.
I showed her pictures of a smoking hot dark and dangerous looking guy I flirted with one night at Caesar’s Palace while my boyfriend was flirting with a waitress. A guy who, incidentally, was named—Michael.
But it made her happy to know I was happy and taken care of, when all that mattered in her entire wacky world was that I find love and be taken care of. That I not end up alone, with my ovaries withering in a dusty desert. Did I know that she would then relay all that information on to every mouthpiece in Charmed? Bragging about how well her Lanie had done? How I’d lived up to the Most-Likely-To-Set-The-World-On-Fire vote I’d received senior year. Including the visuals I’d sent her of me and Michael-the-Smoking-Hottie.
So later on, in Aunt Ruby’s last days, when said boyfriend—a very fair, blond-haired GQ-style guy named Benjamin—wanted to come with me to meet the woman that raised me, and be with me at the sparse little funeral, I couldn’t do that. Not when Lanie Barrett’s husband was dark-haired, tall and blue-collar sexy Michael. Which would have come as somewhat of a surprise to Benjamin.
“I know, Tilly,” I said, pulling my thoughts back to her as Ralph finished up cleaning the cabinets and had come nosing around the counter to find the source. “I probably have been in a funk. Just—nothing’s been the same.”
“Well, and Benjamin,” she said, and I could hear the nod.
Damn, I really needed to stop talking to people so much about my personal life. I forgot I’d told her about my boyfriend.
“Benjamin was a douche,” I said, feeding Ralph a burned pancake. Maybe he’d be less likely to pee on me tonight.
Benjamin was a douche. He called me cute.
He didn’t understand the insult, but it was really the whole disclaimer phrase that went with it that got my goat. The words still echoed in my head.
I’ve always wanted that average, girl-next-door, dependable girlfriend. The one that isn’t too sparkly. Cute but not gorgeous.
I wanted to throw up just thinking about it. Nothing in my entire life had made me feel more mediocre than that. Whether it was true or not, your man shouldn’t be the one to say it. Not that I was looking for undying love. I didn’t do love. But I was certainly looking for unbridled lust with someone who thought me above average.
My phone beeped in my ear, announcing another call, from an unknown number. Unknown to the phone, maybe, but as of late I’d come to recognize it.
“Hey Till,” I said, finger hovering over the button. “The lawyer is calling. I should probably see if there’s any news on the will.”
“Go ahead,” she said. “I’ll call you in a few days and see how my Ralph is doing.”
So, not coming back in a few days.
“Sounds good,” I said, clicking over. “Hey, Carmen.”
“Hey yourself,” she said, her voice friendly but smooth and full of that lawyer professionalism they must inject them with in law school. She warmed it up for an old best friend, but it wasn’t the same tone that used to prank call boys in junior high or howl at the top of her lungs as we sped drunk down Dreary Road senior year.
This Carmen Frost was polished. I saw that at the funeral. Still Carmen, but edited and photo shopped. Even when I met her for drinks afterward and we drove over to the house to reminisce.
This Carmen felt different from the childhood best buddy that had slept in many a blanket fort in our living room. Strung of course with Christmas lights in July and blessed with incense from Aunt Ruby. That Carmen was the only person I truly let into my odd little family circle. She never made fun of Aunt Ruby or perpetuated the gossip. Coming from a single mom household where her mother had to work late often, she enjoyed the warm weirdness at our house. It wasn’t uncommon for her to join us to spontaneously have dinner in the backyard under the stars or dress up in homemade togas (sheets) to celebrate Julius Caesar’s birthday.
Returning for the funeral, it broke me, walking into that house for the first time without Aunt Ruby in it. It was full of her. She was in every cushion. Every bookcase. Every oddball knickknack. Her scent was in the curtains that had been recently washed and ironed, as if she’d known the end was near and had someone come clean the house. Couldn’t leave it untidy on her exit to heaven for people to talk.
We sat in Aunt Ruby’s living room and cried a little and told a few nostalgic stories, trying to bring back the old banter, but it was as if Carmen had forgotten how to relax. She was wound up on a spool of bungee rope and someone had tied the ends down. Tight and unable to yield.
Still, we had history. At one time, she was family. Which is why Aunt Ruby hired her to handle her will and estate.
A word that seemed so silly on my tongue, as I would have never associated estate with my aunt or her property. But that was the word Carmen used again and again when we talked. Her estate involved the house and some money (she didn’t elaborate), but it had to be probated and there were complications due to medical bills that had to be paid first.
Which made sense. It had taken almost two months, and I had almost written off hearing anything. Not that I was holding my breath on the money part. I was pretty sure whatever dollars there were would be used up with the medical bills, and that just left the house. I figured that would probably be left to me. I was really her only family after my mom died young. Well, except for some cousins that I barely knew from her brother she rarely talked to, but I couldn’t imagine them keeping up with her enough to even know that she died.
I didn’t know what on earth I’d do with the house. It was old and creaky and probably full of problems—one being it was in Charmed and I was not. But it was home. And it had character and memories and laughter soaked into the walls. Aunt Ruby was there. I felt it. If that was intuition, then okay. I felt it there. But only there.
So I’d probably keep it as a place to get away, and spend the next several months going back and forth on the weekends like I had right after she passed, cleaning out the fridge and things that were crucial. Mentally, I ticked off a list of the work that was about to begin. That was okay. Aunt Ruby was worth it.
“How’s it going over there?” I asked.
“Good, good,” Carmen said. “How’s California?”
“Fine,” I said. “You know. Sunshine and pretty people. All that.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. Where did I get this shit?
“Sounds wonderful,” she said. “It’s been raining and muggy here for three days.”
“Yeah,” I said, just to say something.
“So the will has been probated,” Carmen said. “Everything’s ready to be read. I wanted to see when you’d be able to make it back to Charmed for that?”
“Oh,” I said, slightly surprised. “I have to come in person?”
“For the reading, yes,” she said. “You have to sign some paperwork and so do the other parties.”
“Yes—well, normally I don’t disclose that but you’re you, so…” she said on a chuckle. “The Clarks?” she said, her tone ending in question.
“As in my cousins?” Really?
“I was surprised, too,” she said. “I don’t remember ever even hearing about them.”
“Because I maybe saw them three times in my whole life,” I said. “They live in Denning. Or they did. I don’t think you ever met them.”
“Hmm, okay,” she said, her tone sounding like she was checking off a list. “And you’ll need to bring some things with you.”
“Two, actually,” Carmen said, laughing. “Just like your aunt to make a will reading quirky. But they are easy. Just your marriage certificate—”
Carmen chuckled again, and I was feeling a little something in my throat, too. Probably not of the same variety.
“I know,” she said. “Goofy request, but I see some doozies all the time. Had a client once insist that his dog be present at the reading of the will. He left him almost everything. Knowing Aunt Ruby, there is some cosmic reason.”
Uh-huh. She was messing with me.
I swallowed hard, my mind reeling and already trying to figure out how I could fake a marriage certificate.
“And the second thing?” I managed to push past the lump in my throat.
“Easy peasy,” she said. “Your husband, of course.”
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Sharla Lovelace is the bestselling, award-winning author of sexy small-town love stories. Being a Texas girl through and through, she’s proud to say she lives in Southeast Texas with her retired husband, a tricked-out golf cart, and two crazy dogs. Her novels include The Reason Is You, Before and Ever Since, Just One Day, Don’t Let Go, and Stay with Me.
Sharla writes modern day, quirky love stories with dysfunctional families, love problems, and snarky humor. Because who doesn’t love a love story? Especially one with strong women and drama and baggage and hot men that can’t get enough of them.…
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