By Lizzie Shane
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In this fun small-town romance, a Jane Austen fan struggling to find her modern-day Mr. Darcy gets more than she bargained for when she swears off men and adopts an adorable puppy.
Dr. Charlotte Rodriguez is single—again—and she blames Jane Austen. She made brooding, aloof men sound oh sodreamy. But after years of failing to find her own Mr. Darcy, Charlotte decides it’s time to swear off dating. She’s going to lavish all her love and affection on someone who actually deserves it: her new puppy, Bingley.
And there’s no one better to give her pet advice than her neighbor and coworker George Leneghan. He’s quiet and patient and, best of all, way too sweet to ever be her type. But as their friendly banter turns flirty, the unimaginable happens—Charlotte starts catching feelings.
Just as Charlotte is trying to untangle what it is she truly wants, George announces he’s contemplating a cross-country move. Suddenly, Charlotte wonders if she’s kept her soulmate in the friend zone so long that she’s entirely missed her chance at a happily ever after. Dear Reader, could it be possible she’s had it wrong all this time?
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The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!
—Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
I blame Colin Firth."
Charlotte Jane Rodriguez, MD, PhD, and self-proclaimed total badass, stood in the center of her living room, weaving only slightly from the four shots of tequila she'd downed in the last hour—one for each month she'd dated Jerkface Jeff—and glowered at the stern, brooding face currently occupying her television screen.
It was all Colin Firth's fault.
At the tender—and romantically precocious—age of nine, Charlotte had seen the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice for the first time. Colin Firth had smoldered onto the screen, and Charlotte had fallen hopelessly, irrevocably in love.
Other little girls could keep their Prince Charmings. She was devoted to Mr. Darcy.
Charlotte had always seen herself as the heroine of every story. Her father was very easily imagined as Mr. Bennet, calm and intelligent and kind—and while she only had two sisters rather than four, she still felt a definite kinship with Lizzy. She, too, was from a small town filled with gossip. She, too, was far too clever to be wasted on a Mr. Collins—even if her mother had made the unconscionable blunder of naming her after Charlotte Lucas. And she, too, had a mother who frequently took to her bed—though it was chemo and not the vapors sending her there.
One might argue that Charlotte's feelings for Mr. Darcy bordered on pathological. When examining her fixation, her therapist might point to the fact that the BBC miniseries was the last thing she ever watched with her mother—who was herself a Jane Austen aficionado—and say Charlotte was using her obsession in an attempt to avoid processing the trauma of her mother's death when she was a girl. She might say that Charlotte's lifelong quest to date a Darcy was unrealistic and problematic.
She might be right.
"Don't blame an innocent actor," argued Magda, one of Charlotte's two very-best-friends-in-the-whole-wide-world. She slumped with her legs crossed on the floor, having sunk there after taking four sympathy shots. Magda, sadly, lacked Charlotte's ability to turn alcohol into manic energy. "Blame Darcy," Mags advised. "Or better yet, blame Jane Austen. She created him."
"I'm sorry." Kendall, Charlotte's other very-best-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world, raised a single index finger in dissent. "Jane Austen didn't make you date a series of assholes. You did that all on your own."
Charlotte swung her glare to Kendall, who had an unfortunate tendency to call her out on her bullshit right when she wanted to have a good wallow. "She gave me unrealistic expectations of men."
"You just keep picking the wrong men," Kendall insisted. "Smug assholes aren't all Mr. Darcy under the surface. Sometimes a brooding, self-important dick is just a brooding, self-important dick. You gotta listen when people tell you who they are."
Charlotte narrowed her eyes even more. "So I was supposed to know that Jeff was going to cheat on me on Valentine's Day?"
She hadn't even found out about it until today, over three weeks later, when the idiot had posted about it on Instagram.
It had been quite a day.
Surprise! Your boyfriend of four months has a secret second girlfriend! Surprise! Your boyfriend has a separate Instagram account he's been using to post photos with that other girlfriend for six months!
Which technically made Charlotte the other woman. Which was squicky for all sorts of reasons. She didn't want to think about how long she would have continued dating Jeff if he hadn't forgotten to log out of the account she followed before posting gushy I-love-my-girl stuff with Valentine's photos of the wrong girlfriend.
Who posted Valentine's pictures in March anyway? It was practically St. Patrick's Day.
Kendall had the grace to wince. "Well, no, not that specifically. But you already knew he wasn't worth your time." She met Charlotte's eyes with her usual brand of tough love. "You didn't really like him, did you? Or else you wouldn't be pissed off and blaming Colin Firth. You'd be heartbroken and sobbing." She waved a finger in a circle to encompass Charlotte's righteous irritation. "This is no Warren."
She might have a point. There had definitely been sobbing with Warren. But Charlotte refused to be derailed by Kendall's logic. She tilted her chin up indignantly. "I am perfectly capable of being heartbroken and pissed off at the same time. I contain multitudes."
"Has anyone else noticed the room spinning?" Magda asked from the floor. The four shots had undeniably been a bad idea, since Mags almost never drank, but she'd insisted on throwing them all back in solidarity.
Charlotte might need to change her break-up ritual—or start having shorter relationships—just for Magda's sake. During the Viking funeral for her relationship with Warren, they'd watered down Magda's sympathy shots, but tonight Charlotte hadn't had time to prepare, and they'd all been drinking the hard stuff.
She headed to the open-concept kitchen to grab Mags a glass of water without interrupting her discussion with Kendall. "I'm processing my grief over the death of my relationship. This is how I process."
"Yes, I know. By doing shots, torching everything he ever gave you, and watching Pride and Prejudice. By the way, are you keeping those ruby earrings as your memento mori? Because if not, I want to claim them before they go into the charity pile."
Charlotte paused with Magda's water in her hand, frowning as Kendall's words penetrated, carrying with them a galling realization.
Kendall was right.
This wasn't a ritual to deal with her pain anymore. It was a routine. A habit.
She didn't feel heartbroken.
She didn't feel…anything. Except irritation. And maybe, if she was being completely honest with herself, a tiny little bit of relief.
She'd dated Jerkface Jeff—so dubbed by her sister, Elinor, who had the annoying tendency to be right about Charlotte's boyfriends—for four months. She'd poured all her energy—and Charlotte had a lot of energy—into making the relationship work. She'd accommodated. She'd bent over backward. She'd made excuses and allowances. She'd done what she always did.
But she wasn't sure she'd actually cared.
After Warren, it had been hard to get her hopes up again. Hard to believe the fairy tale she worked so hard to spin for everyone else. She'd thrown herself into the relationship as much as she could, but she had disappointment fatigue when it came to men.
It wasn't Mr. Darcy's fault. It was Warren and Hunter and Landon and Bridger and freaking Jerkface Jeff. It was all the men who weren't worth her time, but whom she kept giving it to, over and over again. Kendall had dubbed them the Darcys, but not one had turned out to be hero material.
"Are you going to give Mags that water?" Kendall asked. "Or just stand there like one of those living statue people until we tip you?"
Charlotte jolted back into action, shoving the water into Magda's hand. Then she took a step back, facing her best friends—and Jennifer Ehle, who was now on-screen—and squaring her shoulders to declare "I'm doing it. I'm swearing off men."
Magda's brows pulled together in a puzzled frown.
Kendall cocked her head. "Is that a yes on the ruby earrings?"
The reminder of the earrings catapulted her into motion, and Charlotte charged down the short hall in her cozy little two-bedroom condo.
She hadn't had time to gather all the things Jerkface Jeff had given her. The Instagram incident had escalated quickly, and they'd been officially broken up less than an hour after his accidental post. She'd texted Magda and Kendall while still angrily messaging with Jeff and her friends had come over right away—which, since Kendall lived a short walk and Magda lived a short drive away, meant Charlotte hadn't had time to do more than change her relationship status online.
She snatched the ruby earrings off the dresser, along with an Hermès scarf and the ugliest heart pendant in the history of heart pendants, which he'd given her as an apology for being busy on Valentine's Day—apparently busy with his real girlfriend.
Charlotte started out of the bedroom—and paused, her gaze catching on the open door to her walk-in closet.
On impulse, she darted into the massive walk-in, which had made her fall in love with the condo in the first place, and snatched a small decorative box off the top shelf. The box was light, just cardboard, but in the shape of an old-fashioned hardback edition of Pride and Prejudice.
She carried it out to the front room, where Kendall and Mags waited.
The memento mori, as Kendall called them, were the solitary items from each of Charlotte's past relationships that she kept tucked away after she'd evicted every other trace of her exes from her life.
Charlotte set the box, along with the remnants of her relationship with Jeff, on the coffee table and stared down at them, coming to a long overdue decision.
"I'm getting rid of all of it."
"Really?" Kendall asked, her voice rife with skepticism.
"Even the box," she declared.
"It isn't the box's fault," Magda protested.
"It's tainted by the bad memories," Charlotte insisted. And the good ones.
The good ones were always harder to let go.
Charlotte flipped open the lid, and there they were. Remembrances of boyfriends past.
The silk scarf Bridger had gotten her. Landon's locket. The pearl earrings Hunter had bought her because all the women in his family had them and his future bride needed her own pair—though he'd never proposed, and he'd broken up with her as soon as he realized she wasn't going to quit med school to be his trophy wife. And then there was the diamond tennis bracelet. The one she'd woken up one morning to find fastened to her wrist, with Warren smiling down at her, his stupid Colin Firth–esque brown eyes glinting.
And now Jeff's contributions.
All gifts that had more to do with her exes and who they wanted her to be than they ever did with her. Because none of those men had ever bothered to know her.
She'd tried so hard to make things work, but she was the only one trying. For years she'd worried that she was too needy, too demanding, that she wanted things too much. That she wanted love too much. She'd only ever wanted to be someone's whole world, to be the person that mattered most to them, but she needed to reset those wants.
She tossed Jeff's gifts into the box and snapped it shut, then shoved it across the coffee table toward Kendall.
"Give it all away. I don't want any of it."
Kendall eyed the box. "You don't want me to pawn them? I'm pretty sure the tennis bracelet alone is a mortgage payment. Maybe several. You suffered through dating Warren. You should at least get something out of it."
"Pawn it, give it away, whatever. I need to stop holding on to things. I'm swearing off men."
Charlotte ran through her memories of her relationship and felt foolish for all the times she'd believed Jeff. She should have known. Even Elinor's dog, Dory, who loved everyone, had hated Jerkface Jeff. Dogs always knew.
"I need to get a dog."
As soon as she said the words out loud, the sheer genius of them seeped into her. The absolute rightness.
"A dog?" Magda echoed.
"In lieu of a man?" Kendall drawled sarcastically—but Charlotte wasn't joking.
"Exactly." She bounced a little on the balls of her feet. She loved dogs. She'd always wanted one, but while completing med school hadn't felt like the right time, and then she'd been dating Warren, who never wanted to share her attention with anyone. But now…
"It's time I directed my affection at someone who actually deserves it, someone who will love me back, unconditionally." God, it was brilliant. "I'm getting a puppy."
Her best friends stared at her.
"You know, that isn't a terrible idea," Kendall said after a pause.
"It's genius," Charlotte insisted, her enthusiasm expanding to fill the room. "We should all do it. Swear off men and adopt puppies."
"I don't have any dating prospects to swear off, and okay, yes, I'd love to get a dog, but I'm pretty sure a puppy in my kitchen would be a health code violation," Magda, Pine Hollow's star baker, protested.
Charlotte waved away her concerns. "So you keep him away from the ovens and don't let him lick any of the baked goods."
"Magda doesn't need to swear off men," Kendall argued. "She needs to go wild." Magda glared at Kendall, who shrugged. "Well, you do."
"I can't go wild without the entire town knowing about it. The first time I open the bakery late because I don't make it home in time from my walk of shame, I'll be the star of the Pine Hollow Newsletter for months. My whole family, from my grandmother on down, will hear about it. And, shockingly, not many men want to go wild with me on a schedule that lets me be home in bed by nine so I can start baking at five a.m."
"But dogs like it if you wake up early." Charlotte spread her hands to indicate the perfection of the plan. "Elinor's always complaining about what an early riser Dory is."
"You're really hooked on this dog thing, aren't you?" Kendall eyed her suspiciously, as if trying to see through to the hidden reason behind her determination.
Charlotte made exaggerated pleading eyes at Kendall. "It'll be more fun if we all do it. You said you wanted to get another dog after Darby, and you're always saying dating in a small town is an exercise in futility. Why waste our energy worrying about that nonsense? Come on. Puppies. Everything is better when we do it together," Charlotte coaxed.
"And you hate doing things alone, I know. But I don't have time for a puppy right now any more than I have time for a relationship," Kendall reminded her. "My job never lets up."
"That's precisely why you need a dog!" Charlotte waved her hands in a gesture to say obviously. "Something to distract you from all that. And the ski season's almost over. You'll have a break."
Kendall shook her head. "My dad wants to expand the summer business—he's trying to get a bunch of conferences and events to book the resort during the off-season, which means all the staffing headaches of the ski season, only year-round." Kendall had been working at her family's ski resort ever since her athletic career suddenly ended—and her voice always had that pinch of stress when she talked about her job. She needed something in her life that just made her happy, and Kendall had always loved dogs.
She needed this.
They all did.
"We're making a pact," Charlotte declared. "Right now. A Puppy Pact. No more wasting time on men who don't deserve it. No more throwing our feelings at guys who take them and give nothing back." She met Magda's eyes first, knowing exactly who Mags would be picturing when she said those words.
A grim determination settled on Magda's face as she nodded. "Okay."
Charlotte turned her gaze to Kendall. "No more putting ourselves last. No more killing ourselves for thankless jobs. We only give our love to adorable puppies who are pure and perfect and deserve our devotion. And one another," she amended, then added, "and our families."
"Forever?" Kendall asked dubiously. "That sounds very…celibate."
"Fine. For…" Charlotte waved a hand, pulling a number out of the air. "Six months. A man detox. No more dating jerks."
Kendall arched an eyebrow. "Does it count as dating if it's just a convenient booty call?"
"I don't even have that," Magda muttered.
"No more feeding the jerks," Charlotte insisted. She thrust out her hand, and Magda dropped her hand on top of it. "We are too good for them, and we respect ourselves too much to waste another second on them."
"Do we though?" Kendall asked.
Charlotte narrowed her eyes—and Kendall caved, slapping her hand onto the pile.
"Fine, yes. No more jerks."
"Only puppies," Charlotte declared triumphantly. "Trust me. This is exactly what we need."
Where the heart is really attached, I know very well how little one can be pleased with the attention of any body else.
—Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Well? How did it go?"
George juggled his phone as he unlocked his front door, marveling at his sister's eerily perfect timing. "How did you know I was home? Your psychic powers are uncanny."
The lock released and he bent to greet Duke, who was waiting, as always, two inches inside the door, wriggling with euphoria at his return. "Hey, buddy." He stroked the Bernese mountain dog's silky head until Duke went to fetch his current favorite oinking pig toy for George to admire.
"I still have your Ring password from that time you went camping and wanted me to be able to keep an eye on things from afar," Beks answered blithely—as if that wasn't deeply stalkerish. His closest sister—both in age and affection—went on cheerfully, "Though I'm not sure what you wanted me to do if you got robbed. I'm three thousand miles away."
"Twenty-one hundred," George corrected absently. He didn't need it to sound any farther than it was. He already felt like he was in a bubble on the other side of the world.
Moving to Pine Hollow, Vermont, had seemed like such a good idea eighteen months ago. A fresh start. Full of possibilities. But now…
"So how was the date?"
"The same way they all are," George muttered, the phone held away from his face as he stripped off his jacket and hung it up.
"What was that?" Beks demanded.
George sighed, putting the phone back to his ear. "It was fine."
They were always fine. And never anything more.
"Well, crud," Beks said, understanding perfectly. "No sparks?"
"Oh, there were sparks." He toed off his shoes. "I'm pretty sure that after she told me she hoped we could be friends she went back to get the bartender's phone number."
Beks groaned. "Okay, that's not ideal."
"It's just frustrating," he said. "I thought things would be different here. Small town. Get to know people face-to-face. Build connections organically over time. No more apps where everyone is looking for insta-love in five profile pics or less. But now I'm still on the apps, only with a smaller population base." He opened the patio door to let Duke out to pee, since the Berner had been cooped up for hours while George drove halfway across the state for his date. "I'm literally running out of options."
"Literally?" Beks challenged. She had strong feelings about people misusing that word.
"I got a message the other day that my app didn't have anyone left to show me. I didn't know it was possible to get that message until I moved to Vermont."
He propped a shoulder against the doorjamb, keeping an eye on the white patch of Duke's fur in the darkness as he sniffed for the perfect spot. Usually George took him to the greenspace behind the complex, but it was thirty-eight degrees and raining—Duke would have to make do with the swath of grass in front of the patio tonight.
"You could always move back to Denver," Beks reminded him, a singsong lilt to the familiar refrain. "I never understood why you ran away to Vermont when I'm here and I'm awesome."
"I didn't run away. I just needed a change."
He'd been treading water in Denver, stuck in a series of relationships that never seemed to go anywhere. Then, two summers ago, his girlfriend had dumped him, and he'd decided to take the romantic hiking vacation through New Hampshire and Vermont they'd planned on his own. He'd tripped across the Pine Hollow Fourth of July celebration and fallen in love with the charming little town.
It had seemed like the kind of place where people took time for one another, where there was more of an emphasis on community than convenience. Long after he left, he'd found himself daydreaming about the kind of life he could build there.
When he'd gotten home, he'd looked up job listings in Pine Hollow on a whim. The ad he'd found for a physical therapist seemed like a sign. A chance to change one crucial variable in the ongoing experiment that was his love life.
"That's the definition of insanity, right?" he said. "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?"
"You'll get different results," Beks assured him. "You just haven't found the right person yet."
George made a noncommittal noise. As he waited for Duke, his gaze drifted across the courtyard of the complex to a certain third-floor balcony in the building opposite his. Lights shone through the curtains.
Charlotte was awake.
"This isn't about the hot doctor, is it?" Beks asked, reading his mind as she had the awkward tendency to do.
He should have known his sisters would never let it go once they realized he had a crush on Charlotte.
He'd been fascinated by his neighbor and coworker since the day they met, when she'd read him the riot act after he mistakenly assumed the physician RODRIGUEZ, CHARL on a chart was a Charles. Her rant about internalized misogyny had reminded him so much of his sisters he hadn't been able to stop smiling, which had only made her rant more.
He'd been calling her Charles ever since. Which now made her roll her eyes and smile.
But they were just friends.
"She's unavailable," he reminded his sister, putting in his earbud to free his hands to dry off the wet dog as Duke came back to the door.
"I didn't ask if she was suddenly single," Beks said dryly. "I asked if she was the reason you were feeling so frustrated about your dating prospects. I don't want you wasting your time pining for her."
"Not pining," George assured his sister as he crossed to the kitchen to fill a glass of wine from the box on the counter.
Even if she hadn't been dating someone else, Charlotte had made it clear that she wasn't interested in anything romantic. She'd even tried to set him up with her sister. And her best friend.
"I just worry that you're giving off friend-zone vibes to everyone else because you're fixated on this unattainable woman in some kind of romantic defense mechanism," Beks said.
"Are you reading relationship psychology books again?" George settled onto the couch, and Duke immediately flopped on his feet, pinning him in place.
"Fine, don't listen to me. This wasn't why I called anyway. Have you talked to Dave lately?"
"Not since last week." His best friend Dave, who was married to one of Beks's best friends, had moved to Western Australia a few years ago, and it had made keeping in touch more of a challenge. Spurred by the mention of Dave, George eyed the bass guitar he never remembered to practice.
"I just got off the phone with Sophie," Beks said. "They're thinking of moving back."
George froze in the act of reaching for the bass. "Back to the States?"
"She's applying for a job in Denver, and if she gets it, they'll come home. I just thought, you know, you could too. Move home."
The word resonated surprisingly sharply.
Beks jokingly badgered him to move back all the time, but this wasn't the usual teasing—and George found himself actually considering it. His lease was up in six months. The two-year contract he'd originally signed at the Summerland Estates retirement community also expired at the beginning of September. He didn't have any long-term commitments. There was nothing really keeping him here.
When he'd moved to Vermont, he'd thought he'd be settled by now. He liked his job—but he hadn't magically found the sense of community he'd imagined, and he was starting to miss the things he'd left behind. His family. That feeling of home. Being able to be there for them. Three of his four sisters were still in the Denver area.
It was funny, but one of the things he was realizing he missed most was being needed by someone.
He'd loved Pine Hollow from the day he arrived—but he still felt like an outsider half of the time. He wasn't really a part of things here. After a year and a half, he was still the new guy.
- “Entertaining subplots add zest to this sweet tale. Thoroughly saturated with Austen allusions, this cute contemporary is sure to charm.”—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Oct 24, 2023
- Page Count
- 368 pages