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Leda Cox enjoys country living in Heartwood, Virginia, and considers herself an old poet soul living in a small town. When her best friend asks for help reconnecting with the love of his life, Leda must push aside dreams of opening a bakery and focus on the task at hand. Helping August win his true love. After all, her Papa always says that family sticks together. There’s only one problem. August’s true love is engaged.
Now Leda will need her wherewithal to handle her inner romantic around Duncan Whitaker, a smooth-talking insurance salesman with a heart of gold. The more time she spends in his company, the more she can see herself falling for him. In more ways than one. However, when August’s secret comes to light and the negative backlash from the town threatens Leda’s dreams of the future, she’ll have to decide where to draw the line, and whether to trust her head, or her heart.
Will her strong sense of familial duty cut off her budding romance with Duncan? Or is there a real chance for her to have her cake and eat it, too?

Chapter 1

Chapter one

“I have a proposition for you, Leda. Hear me out before you say anything.” From the shadows, August McKenney smiled sweetly—more than sweetly. He had one of those few-and-far-between smiles, each inch sweet and encouraging—a smile only seen on the rare individual.
We’d known each other since my first music festival, the same year I moved from South Carolina into the rural wilderness of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d volunteered as a stage manager—a position I’d never accept again because it wasn’t worth the effort—and helped coordinate the acts so the audience remained peaceful. Nothing like a crowd of restless natives who hadn’t showered for days.
A last-minute cancellation left me in the lurch. Without a backup plan, August and his available band, the Heartwood Harmonics, stepped in to save the day. I’d been out of my mind with joy and agreed to whatever he desired to fill the empty slot and save myself from the frustrated festival attendees.
The sun blazed high overhead, and sweat formed along my spine, dampening my tank top, trickling between my breasts and pooling in uncomfortable places. Summer. I know children loved the free days and lazy nights, but I was much more of a winter gal myself. Even at our high mountain altitude, the hazy humidity settled in. The air became heavy, with each breath a struggle, a weight pressing down on the lungs. It turned me into a couch potato.
I could only imagine how the lower states baked. It was too hot.
But the telephone had chimed and urged me deeper into the country. Along winding two-lane roads with my feet pushing the pedal to the floor. All because August McKenney said we needed to talk in person. More than a friend, he was family. And when family called, you went.
“You listening to me, woman?” August asked. “Earth to Leda!”
Leaning against the shed wall, I fired a grin at him, using a hand to block the sun’s devilish rays. My poor, adorable, single friend who was more like a brother than any I’d ever had. We were two old poet souls living in the same small town.
“I’m here. What’s this proposition about?” I sounded too sweet, too Southern, not enough backbone. The next sentence I tried to rid my tone of its honeyed softness. “I shudder to ask.”
August sent me another slow, lazy smile that moved his freckles, his hands running a fine chisel over the back of a guitar-in-progress. His fingers caressed the wood as one would a lover, with all the tenderness and care of his profession. A luthier. Was there a great demand for such items anymore, in this day and age? There was in this county.
“I’m calling in my favor now, Leda,” he said. “Think what you will, but I need your help.”
Something in his tone voice pulled at my heartstrings. I’d never been able to resist August when he asked for help. Though I couldn’t let him know that.
My response came at a snail’s pace. “I should never have agreed to come out here today. Who knows what kind of god-awful scheme you’ve concocted! You’ll have me running across state lines to fetch you a new tool. Or hauling through the woods for a fallen tree you can’t carry alone.” All this accompanied by a shake of my head.
Though he laughed, there was tension in the sound. Why, I wondered.
“You’re thinking too literal. Who has the pea brain now?”
It was our running joke. I adored teasing him, more often than not because August gave as well as he got. It made for a fun and easy relationship. Unlike the time my grandmother overhead me complaining about a girl at school and made a face. Apparently, according to Grannie Lou, I was unapproachable.
The silence continued a tad too long. I rubbed my slickened forehead. “Too literal? Now I’m scared. Tell me what you have in mind? Before I make myself sick with anticipation.”
“My best friend is moving back into town.” August continued to sand, with no indication toward elaborating right away. He enjoyed the expectation and making me wait.
I melted in the boiling sun. The interior of his shop offered no respite from the heat. The small studio was filthy on the best of days, the four honey-colored walls crowded with half-finished projects and boxes waiting for shipment. At least outside I had a better chance of catching a breeze. Wind whipped around the side of the shed where he created, bringing with it the sounds of birds, bees, and summer creatures, all at home in the fields and brush.
I cocked my hip and my head in unison. “Your best friend. Okay. Do you need me to throw a welcome home party? I have a killer new dessert recipe I want to try.”
August chuckled, then laughed almost giddily. Sawdust speckled the air with his exhalation. “First of all, my best friend is a she. Her name is Isabel Cook.”
Ah, yes, now I understood the tension and nervous tone. Desperate devotion. How had I not known about this before? “Ooh, how lovely,” I teased.
He took a deep breath before continuing, his face flushing with embarrassment. “Please don’t judge. I need you to distract her fiancé.”
I should have been sitting down. Which wasn’t going to happen unless I, too, wanted my outfit covered in dust and wood chips. Instead I clung to the wall to keep from the exaggerated fall his words invoked. “What? Distract? Fiancé?”
“Distract her fiancé, yes.” Sending me the smallest curve of his former grin, August barreled forward. “I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, but I love her. She can’t marry him.”
I’d known August for years, been his friend for the majority of the time. The only change in him through it all was a deepening of the hollows of his cheeks. A distinctive line furrowing between his eyes. He was still tall and slender, with cornflower-blue eyes and a scattered mop of curly auburn hair.
“You have to be kidding me,” I exclaimed.
“Not at all!” August stopped his sanding.
I saw a flicker of something on his face, the flash of an emotion that if I hadn’t been paying attention I might have missed. This was something I’d never seen in August before: dread. August was a pillar in my life, a steady, dependable friend who never changed. But seeing this new side of him made my blood run cold.
“He doesn’t deserve her,” August continued, “and I know I would make her happier.” He shifted his gaze and locked eyes with me, a split-second in time. Faster than the heartbeat of a mouse and gone just as quickly.
A love story. What woman in her right mind could withstand a potential happily-ever-after? Still…
“Do you think I’m a prostitute or something? I may be single by choice, but I won’t damage my integrity on an easy lay. Like I’ll jump all over a stranger because I owe you a favor? Give me a break. I’ll pass and move on to the next favor. Even for you, this is asking a lot.”
Somewhere along the line I’d grown into the sort of woman who would have intimidated my mama. On normal days, I left the makeup minimal and wore easy-to-clean clothes. A put-together picture my mother would have mistaken straight away for more than she earned in a month. None of it meant I was for sale.
August had the nerve to laugh again. Full-blown guffaws accompanied by a snort at the end. “I didn’t say you should sleep with the guy. I would never ask that of you! I just need him out of the way so I can convince Isabel she feels the same for me as I do for her. If anyone can turn his head, it’s you.”
“This girl must be special,” I grumbled.
“She is.” August stopped to wipe his forehead with the back of his arm. Nostalgia colored his features, taking him into a memory where I couldn’t follow. “You see, she and I made a pact when we were twelve. If neither one of us married by age thirty-four, then we would marry each other.” He mimed pointing to a wristwatch. “I’m running out of days here, Leda. And I’m getting scared I’ll lose her.”
“Why haven’t you told me anything about her before? I thought we were close. I’ve shared my dirty laundry with you.”
“We are close, but I was…embarrassed. I didn’t want you to think of me as some sentimental sap pining after his childhood love. Asking me why I never told her how I felt, or why I didn’t move to California with her…” He let that thought trail off, then picked back up with some urgency. “I’ve made mistakes. But I love Isabel, more than anything in my life.” He sliced his arm through the beams of sunlight. “I would give all of this up in an instant for one day with her. I want to show her I can be the man she needs, instead of whatever fiancé she’s bringing back here.”
I blamed the misty eyes on the cloudless sky. The glare was hell on my vision. That’s what the moisture in my eyes had to be…right? Dammit, I should have remembered sunglasses. I wasn’t that sensitive to romantics, was I? “It’s a beautiful story, August.”
“If I can’t convince her…I don’t know what I’ll do.”
This was it. One of those moments where a miracle happened and two people fell in love until the end of time. Just like in the books. “This is your grand gesture to win her love,” I commented softly, feeling myself melt. It was too perfect. I didn’t even know her, but I wanted it to work for them.
“It’s true.”
A warm breeze blew across my cheeks and wound through the chopped strands of hair I wore loose. “You’ve found your person. I’m thrilled for you, but envious.” Braving the dirt and debris, I dragged an empty plastic container from my left, turned it upside-down, and sat with a plop.
“She is my person.” August’s smile cut through the sawdust dotting his face and deepened the dimple in his chin.
Other women in town found him attractive and vied for his attention, without success. I’d heard more than my fair share of oohs and aahs from the leather and chrome-plated beautician chair in my sunroom. More “you’re so lucky to get close to him” than I knew what to do with.
He and I had spoken at length about our single status, always relating it back to finding that one special someone. When I asked him about her, whoever it was who brought the sigh to his lips, he would shovel out a vague, ambiguous answer and swivel the attention back to me. Now I understood.
Despite being a romantic, I remained alone because I needed the tingle—the sure sign I’d found the hunk of my dreams. So far, every man I’d dated churned up nothing but apathy. They may be attractive, or smart, or charismatic, but without the tingle, I didn’t want to waste my time. None of my relationships were substantial enough to be categorized as real romantic relationships, which, I suppose, meant I carried a certain naivete. How could I be of any help to August?
I chewed on my thumbnail and contemplated the dilemma I recognized, although I couldn’t yet tell if it was mine or his.
August forged ahead. “I just need you show him the town while I talk to Isabel. Take him for a hike, or whatever people like to do around here in the summer.”
Admittedly, the beautiful landscape was a huge draw in this part of Virginia. Rolling rivers, and rising hills trying to touch the sky. Forests, fields, farms, and glades made Heartwood a haven for outdoorsy types. It had a mix of openness and sky complete with mountain peaks turned snow-tipped in winter. Those somber hills were full of life.
“And how long will this take? A few days? A week?”
He shrugged, deflating. “I don’t have an answer for you. If Isabel feels the way I do, then days. But she’s a stubborn woman,” he amended. “In the best of ways, mind you.”
It took effort to remove my thumb from my lip, my thinking pose, but I crossed my arms and settled against the rough wooden walls of the shed. “This is a big deal.”
“Trust me, I know, and it’s for true love. Can I count on you to help? I will get down on my knees and beg.” Setting aside the guitar he was working on, August moved into that position. “Leda Cox, I am calling in my favor!” He held his arms aloft, hands clasped in front of him, and stared up at me. Pleading. “From one friend to another, please.”
On any other man the gesture would appear contrived. An obvious ploy. On August it was sincere, simple, and ten times more potent. I stared down into those cornflower-blue eyes and my inner romantic copied his movement. In my mind’s eye, the blasted illusion slipped down to her knees to beg me to assist him no matter the consequences. Love mattered. His happiness mattered.
I groaned, letting my head drop back and closing my eyes.
“Can I take that as a yes?” August dropped his palms to my knees and squeezed. “Please tell me it’s a yes.”
All I had to do was agree and I would get the chance to focus on something else beyond my own inability to move forward in life. Did I take the risk? I couldn’t tell if I was being the romantic here, or just feeling obligated to fulfill my duties to Romance.
Lips pursed, I nodded. “It’s a yes. Anything for family,” I said with a sigh.
“And family sticks together. I’m so glad we met.” A light tap of his knuckles on my chin. A playful gesture. “I’m not sure I tell you often enough. I love ya, kid. You’re my rock.” He took his time rising before dusting off his knees. The sun glinted off the auburn curls sticking to his forehead.
I wondered how he managed to wear jeans on a hot summer day without drowning in a pool of his own sweat. I was ready to die in capris.
“You are too much,” I said. I told myself it was the dust in the air making my throat scratchy and gaze watery. “Please go on. Even though you’re talking about kicking some poor guy to the curb.”
The sandpaper again attacked the guitar until the surface was as smooth as glass. “I can’t think about him in this. I think about Isabel. Her laugh, the color of her cheeks. The way the wind seems to caress her when she walks.”
Yes, it was a beautiful tale. “If you weren’t so good with instruments, I’d call you a poet,” I said, shaking my head. Could I ever find a love to speak of me in such a manner? With such sweet tenderness? “But Isabel obviously loves this man enough to want to marry him.”
“I know. It was like a punch to the gut when I heard about her engagement.”
“If she finds out you want to stop her wedding, she is going to kill you. I’ll say goodbye to you now so there’s no messy scene later.” Two fingers went to my forehead in a solute. A small joke to lighten the mood in the studio.
August bit the inside of his cheek. “Your opinion is not necessary.”
I scoffed. “Don’t you want to listen to reason?”
“I’m in too deep. I’ll never have another opportunity if she goes through with this marriage. Then she’ll always see me as her…friend.” His frenzied motions slowed and he stared off into space. “Instead of a man who would devote his time and energy to ensure her happiness.”
Oh yes. My inner romantic clutched her heart and fell to the floor in a faint over the unrequited passion.
If he continued to speak, I would have to leave to blot my face. I shifted my position at the knot of wood digging into my back. “I hope it works for you. I do. But you want the unattainable. A happy ending.”
He shot me a look from under a mass of hair. “Aren’t we all looking for one?”
“I’m not sure whether you’re crazy or sweet.”
“A bit of both, if we’re being honest.” August rubbed a kink out of his neck.
There was nothing else to say, so I rose. Stretched a single arm out into the afternoon light and felt the heat against my skin. I stared longingly out at the fields surrounding the farmhouse. Every inch of the fifty-acre spread belonged to August. “When is this wonderful woman moving back home?”
August spared a check at his calendar. “Do you see the circled day?”
Tomorrow. “Yup.”
“Our fifteen-year high school reunion,” he told me. “She’ll be here by then.”
I quirked a brow. “You have a fifteen-year high school reunion?”
“It’s a Heartwood thing. You wouldn’t understand because you moved here after graduation.”
“I can be happy for small things,” I answered, flicking a curlicue of wood from my thigh. “Otherwise I’d be stuck going to a fifteen-year reunion. I didn’t even make it to my own for ten.”
“It’s not terrible. I get to catch up with the guys and eat free food. Two of my favorite f-words. This year will be extra special because Isabel is coming home. I know she was gone for a bit, but it was five years of torture for me.”
“Why’s that?” I couldn’t help but ask.
August growled. “I told her about a cheating boyfriend and she refused to speak to me. Packed up her stuff and moved to the west coast.”
“So now I get to sit on the sideline and watch you put the moves on your childhood love. You make me sick, McKenney.”
He didn’t pause in his furious smoothing yet still managed to study me. “You don’t have a problem playing my woman friend for, like, the next month?” he joked.
“I’m already your woman friend.”
“How else am I going to explain you being around?”
“If you’re trying to convince Isabel of your availability, having a girlfriend around, even a pretend one, seems like the worst plan,” I stated, considering him. Not bad looking by any means, but not my type. August didn’t have enough meat on his bones for my liking. He was too lanky, too pretty, not rough enough around the edges.
“Trust me on this. I need you.”
“I’m not sleeping with you either.”
He held his hands up in front of him. “I’m not asking for sexual favors. I just need you to be there. Deal?”
I scratched the side of my head. “As I said before. Yes.”
“I’m happy to hear you say it, Leda. You’re a heck of a lady.”
He’d caught me in a weak moment. “Sure, weasel your way through my defenses, McKenney.”
August considered the choice of chisel before moving on with his creation. “You out of here?”
Stretching, I said, “I have a few appointments this afternoon that I can’t reschedule. Some of us have to work for a living.”
“You’ll be able to live your passion soon. Trust me.”
The advice came matter-of-factly, the offhand comment most people make when they were only half-listening to a conversation.
“Your optimism is enlightening, it’s true.” I crossed the distance between us and leaned in for our obligatory hug. The unforced kind few pull off, an easy affirmation of affection. “Take care of yourself, okay? I don’t want to have to scrape you off the sidewalk once this fiancé gets a hold of you. We’re in this together.”
August gave me a single, sweaty squeeze before releasing. “I’m glad I can count on you, sweetie.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved him off. “I hope you remember this the next time I need my oven cleaned, because I don’t do the scrubbing.”
“I would for you, sure,” he promised.
I flashed him a wink over my shoulder as I walked to the car. “You better believe it.”
The moment he turned, I crossed my fingers and hoped agreeing to August’s favor wouldn’t spell doom.

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Brea Viragh

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