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Darcy Jones Harper is thrilled to have finally shed her reputation as the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The people of Sunshine Valley have to respect her now that she’s the new town judge. But when the bad boy who broke her heart back in high school shows up in her courtroom, she realizes maybe things haven’t changed so much after all . . . because her pulse still races at the sight of him.
Jason Petrie wants to make amends for the mistakes of his youth—starting with the woman he never stopped loving. Darcy may not believe that he really intends to quit the bull riding circuit and stick around this time but Jason vows—with the help of the matchmaking Widows Club—to pull out all the stops to convince her that they both deserve a second chance.
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Writing a book is a journey that begins with the seed of an idea. A writer's goal is to have that idea grow and unfurl along different steps of a trellis with interesting twists and charming flowers. Yes, I'm a gardener. But recently, I moved to a different climate where much of my go-to gardening knowledge has been put to the test. Like my plants this season, this book began with a new-to-me seed. And let me tell you, I was dreaming a little dream, hoping my trellis was strong, my twists were interesting, and my humor would flower in charming, unexpected ways.
Several folks were instrumental in cultivating this story into what it is today. Thanks to my family for patiently listening when I needed a sounding board. I can't count how many times Mr. Curtis muted the television so I could talk through a plot point. Hugs! Thanks to Cari Lynn Webb for reading those holey first drafts and helping to shape the bones of the story. Hugs! Humongous thanks to Alex Logan for helping to give Pearl hope, Darcy heart, and Jason heat. I'm not sure either one of us ever pruned and nurtured a story so much. Hugs!
Thanks to the team at Forever Romance for all their rays of sunshine and excellence, from cover concepts to copyediting to ideas for getting the word out. You make everything look so easy when I know it's not. Thanks to my team members—Pam, Sheri, Nancy, Diane—for providing me with a safe space for gardening…er, writing. When I don't know how to do something, it's awesome that you guys do.
And finally, thanks to my readers—both those who've loyally picked up my different series and those who've just found me because of an awesome cover or intriguing review. I take my promise of providing a little laugh, a little cry, and a little sigh very seriously. Enjoy a walk through my writing garden!
I hate poker."
"Edith." Bitsy Whitlock ground her teeth. She loved poker, and she'd come to Mims Turner's house for precisely that purpose—to play poker with the Sunshine Valley Widows Club board and take her mind off the two-year twitch.
Not the married seven-year itch. This wasn't about straying. This was the two-year marker of widowhood when grief was mostly conquered and the heart came alive again. Bitsy was considering trademarking the term, because the two-year twitch was a thing. A real, distracting, body-temperature-raising phenomenon. She should know. She'd been widowed three times. She could feel the impulse to love coming on like her joints heralding the changing seasons.
But right now, Bitsy felt a cuss word coming on. Not from her exasperation over the twitch but from her annoyance with Edith. "Shiitake mushrooms."
In the chair next to Bitsy's, Edith Archer jerked in her seat as if she'd been administered the paddles of life. "Bitsy, I hate poker," she said again. "Why can't we play Yahtzee? Or rock, paper, scissors?" She pounded her fist into her palm three times. "I'm good at those games."
It was difficult to smile while grinding her back molars, but Bitsy tried because smiling and being pleasant was what she was known for. And in the small town of Sunshine, people expected you to live up to your label.
"We're adults, Edith. We play poker." Clarice sounded just as put out by Edith as Bitsy was, only louder because she'd forgotten her hearing aids again. "We've always played poker. And our winner always decides who in town needs Cupid."
Cupid. Standing in for the cherub was the favorite pastime of the four elderly women making up the Widows Club board. But before Cupid's arrow struck home, someone had to win a pot of pennies to decide who would pick the lucky couple.
"Has anyone else noticed that Jason Petrie hasn't left for the rodeo?" Mims hadn't been dealt a card yet, but she was tipping her hand as to whom she was playing for.
Bitsy ground her molars some more. Jason Petrie? He wasn't even a widower. Although…perhaps Mims was playing for someone she thought Jason should be with…
Jason's longtime girlfriend Darcy had dumped him last spring. Adding to his heartbreak, she'd rebounded into the arms of a much older man, her mentor Judge George Harper, who had also been on the rebound from a relationship with Bitsy's mama. Now George was dead and buried, Darcy was a widow and the town pariah, and Mama was in mourning. Mims wanted to match Darcy to Jason? She'd have to unravel last year's love quadrangle.
"Hold off on your matchmaking suggestions." Clarice's voice grew louder as she shuffled the cards. "Club rules. You can't talk about your matchmaking choices before you win."
"Just because you've always done something doesn't mean you always have to." Edith's fingers drummed on the table. "What are we? A bunch of stuck-in-a-rut old widows?"
"Yes!" Clarice dropped the cards. "Who wants to change their ways at our age?"
"Me." Edith jerked her shoulders back.
Me. Bitsy was surprised she agreed with Edith about anything. But there it was. Bitsy was restless in her widowhood, which was saying something since she was pushing sixty-five. She glanced around the table at the others, who were older and seemed content with their widow status, with hobbies and good works. At Mims, who no longer dyed her hair. At Edith, who'd embraced eye-popping hair colors, currently dark red. At Clarice, who'd let her gray hair grow, braids reaching all the way down to her waist.
Bitsy touched her bobbed blond hair, suddenly painfully aware that she was the only person in the room wearing makeup and heels. Did taking pride in her appearance fuel the twitch? Bitsy rubbed her temples. She should be happy. She was recently retired and had a cozy home. Her mother lived in the separate unit in back. The thermostat was always set on seventy. The television was always tuned to the Food Network. She'd redecorated when she'd given away Wendell's outdated recliner. And yet she'd lain in bed last night unable to sleep, one arm outstretched into the empty expanse of bed. She should be worrying about her mother and instead…
I haven't given up on love.
"I may be a widow, but I'm not dead." Edith was still on her roll, her intense auburn hair as brash as her personality. "Come on, Mims. Support me on this."
Mims, their fearless leader, hesitated.
And in that hesitation, Bitsy knew what she had to do. She adjusted her bright-pink sweater set on her shoulders with fumbling fingers. "You should match me."
The three other widows gaped at her. And then everyone spoke at once.
"You have to win the poker pot to choose who we match," said Clarice, the club secretary and keeper of the rules. She pounded the deck of cards on the table.
"We can't match a board member," said Mims in a tone that brooked no argument. She crossed her arms, signaling an end to the discussion.
"Holy fudge nuggets." As usual, Edith had other ideas. She leaped out of her chair and hugged Bitsy. "Bravo, my friend. Bravo."
And then the room settled into silence.
Bitsy's cheeks felt warm. "I…uh…I should resign as treasurer. And…uh…leave. So you can match me with someone." Despite her halting words, she rose smoothly from her chair and headed for the door with steady steps.
"Are we really going to match her?" Edith whispered, although loud enough for Bitsy to hear in the foyer.
"No," Mims said firmly. "Bitsy is just in a funk. Besides, we always choose young widows. We're going to match Darcy Harper."
This was apparently too much for Clarice, who cried, "But we haven't played one hand of poker!"
All her life, Darcy Jones Harper had had a love-hate relationship with Sunshine's courthouse.
A year ago, she'd been in love with it while she worked inside as a law clerk. But that was before she quit to study for the bar exam. Before she married Judge George Harper. Before he died.
If she'd had her druthers, she'd have preferred never to set foot inside Sunshine's courthouse again. But she'd been invited to attend a meeting to appoint a judge to replace George, and she felt as if she had to show up to honor him and their unorthodox relationship.
"If you marry me, I'll die a happy man," George had told her while seriously ill last spring.
It would have been hard to say no to anyone's last wish, especially someone who had been as kind and generous with his time and influence as George had been to Darcy.
Ronald Galen, the burly court bailiff, bumped Darcy's shoulder as he passed her in the hallway and didn't apologize.
Her father would have used the collision to lift Ronald's wallet, the one peeking from his back pocket. Darcy wasn't that strategic. She tugged the lapels of her suit jacket and imagined the satisfaction she'd get from taking a swing at Ronald with her hobo bag. Not that Judge Harper's widow would ever do such a thing.
Darcy hesitated outside the door to the judge's chambers. Sunshine was a one-judge town. For the past two months, a justice from Denver had filled in once a week—first because George was dying and then four weeks ago because he'd died.
But the placard next to the door hadn't changed. JUDGE HARPER.
"She's got some nerve."
Town opinion hadn't changed either. A group of clerks walked past. It was impossible to tell who'd spoken.
It didn't matter. All Darcy had to do was attend this last official meeting as George's widow. Then she could leave Sunshine, find a place where she could live without being ostracized, and use her law degree for the good of a more accepting community.
Darcy held her head high as she entered the reception room for the judge's chambers.
Tina Marie gave her a cool perusal from behind her large oak desk. She was a lifelong public servant. She proudly wore an American flag on the neckline of her beige sweater, and her disdain for Darcy on her penciled-in, lowered brows. Next to her, the desk Darcy used to occupy when she'd clerked for George, and been higher in Tina Marie's opinion, sat empty.
Tina Marie leaned over the ancient green intercom, pressed a button, and said, "She's here."
Shoulders back, she marched into George's office.
Darcy's reception from the three men inside was mixed. Her two stepsons, Rupert and Oliver, were in their late fifties. They spared her brief, dismissive looks. A gray-haired gentleman sat behind George's massive walnut desk. He gave her a once-over and what seemed like an approving nod.
"Mrs. Harper, I'm Henrik Hamza from the Judicial Performance Commission here in Colorado." The gray-haired gentleman indicated she should take a seat and waited for her to be settled. "I'm here today to announce who will temporarily replace Judge George Harper."
Darcy silently rehearsed her brief words of congratulations for whichever of George's sons received the appointment.
"You're here because you're the only private-practice attorneys in Sunshine. Obviously, there's a desperate need to temporarily fill the position left vacant by George's passing." Henrik paused and gave them a compassionate glance. "In a situation like this, our commission is tasked with appointing an interim judge until the next election, which is in November. We took George's recommendation into account when we made this weighty decision."
Darcy held her breath. In a moment, one of George's sons would ascend to the judicial throne while the other would know exactly what his father had thought of him. Rupert and Oliver preened, each trying to outrival the other. Both wore expensive wool suits, designer ties, and pointed Italian loafers. Oliver wasn't as polished or as handsome as Rupert, but each sported the slick smile of a confident con artist, as if they came from a branch of the Jones family tree.
"I may as well cut to the chase." Henrik smiled at Darcy. "George recommended that his successor be his wife, Darcy Harper."
Darcy was knocked back in her seat, shocked. George, what have you done?
"No!" Oliver shouted, red-faced. He gripped his silk tie as if he were holding himself back. "It was bad enough that Dad couldn't distinguish between the book and his imagination when it came to sentencing but this…"
"You've got to be kidding me." Rupert was more refined in his reaction, staring down his regal nose at Darcy. "Her? On what grounds?"
Henrik came around the desk and shook Darcy's cold hand. "On the grounds that his sons were more interested in profit than the good of the community."
Darcy almost nodded. George had frequently said, "My boys only practice law because the hourly rate is better than hooking. And I don't mean fish."
"But…but…Darcy's a gold digger!" Oliver yanked his tie like it was a bellpull. "She married our father for his money."
Not true, although George had left everything to Darcy. A fact that still made her uncomfortable.
Oliver wasn't done protesting or tugging that tie. "Dad would still be here if she'd agreed to put him in a home."
Really not true. George hadn't wanted to decline in a hospital when it wouldn't change the final outcome. A fact that had made Rupert and Oliver uncomfortable.
Rupert sneered at her. "She had Dad under her control."
Completely untrue. But no one would believe that if she accepted the appointment. A fact that was going to make the entire town uncomfortable.
"I'm not just going to stand idly by and let her take my seat," Rupert continued to vent.
"I'm sure she won't pass the background check." Oliver eased the grip on his tie.
"She won't." Rupert leaned closer to Darcy, speaking half under his breath. "She's a Jones."
Darcy stiffened, suddenly grateful her juvenile record was sealed.
"I can assure you that Darcy passed her background check with flying colors." Henrik opened the door. "Gentlemen, if you're interested in the position, you may run for the office next fall. Thank you for your time. You're dismissed."
The two Harper men glared at Darcy as they got to their feet.
"This isn't over," Oliver promised.
"Not by a long shot," Rupert agreed just as darkly.
Henrik closed the heavy door after them.
Darcy wanted to follow them out and never look back.
Instead, she leaned forward and told Henrik, "There's been a mistake."
* * *
Spring, the herald of the rodeo season. The official beginning of sweat and blood and broken bones.
Former three-time world champion bull rider Jason Petrie had yet to leave Sunshine to join up with the tour. He was spending his first May in his hometown after fourteen years on the rodeo circuit.
"What are you doing here, Jason?" Noah Shaw, owner of Shaw's Bar & Grill, frowned at one of his best customers lately. "It isn't even happy hour."
"Close enough." Instead of sitting at the near-empty bar, Jason slid into a booth with a good view of both the door and the rear section near the pool table. He tipped his straw cowboy hat back. "Good things come to those who wait."
Word around town was that Darcy Jones Harper had a big meeting at the courthouse today. He and Darcy went way back, to middle school. Up until last year, she'd been his. If she was coming out of hibernation from that gated fortress just outside of town, she and her friends would most likely meet up at Shaw's for happy hour.
Jason's cell phone rang just as Noah set a beer in front of him. It was Ken Tadashi, his sports agent. Jason let it roll to voice mail. Almost immediately, a text from Ken arrived. YOU NEED BUZZ OR A BUCKLE. CALL ME. Jason turned his phone over, flexing his scarred leg to rid himself of a sudden, deep ache.
He'd missed most of last year's rodeo season because of a compound fracture in his right leg. He was missing the start of this year's rodeo season partly because of that leg pain but mostly because of Darcy. Things had gotten out of hand between them last spring before a bull busted his femur. She'd seen a corporate buckle bunny kiss him on television after a fantastic bull ride—a smooch he'd been paid for—and instead of waiting to hear his explanation, she'd married old Judge Harper. Jason had been gutted.
He still was. He wasn't returning to the circuit until he won Darcy back, which was hard to do when she'd been hunkering down behind locked gates for the past few weeks.
Three members of the Widows Club board entered Shaw's. The elderly women paused in the entry to take stock.
Uh-oh. Jason recognized the ambitious look in their eyes. The Widows Club ran numerous events throughout the year to benefit good works and charities. In spring, they went on the hunt for volunteers. Jason slouched in his seat and tugged the brim of his cowboy hat lower, not that he expected to escape their notice. There was hardly anyone else in the bar. But he tried to look like he wanted to be alone.
Mims spotted him and headed over. The club president defied the label of grandma in all but appearance. She had white curls like Mrs. Claus but was an avid hunter and fisherwoman. Rumor had it she packed heat in that pink purse of hers. Edith motored behind Mims, short legs working as quickly as her mouth sometimes did. Clarice brought up the rear, slowed by her walking stick. Bitsy, the fourth woman on the board, was nowhere to be seen.
Mims slid into the booth across from Jason, followed by Edith. Clarice hip-checked Jason toward the wall, simultaneously adjusting her embroidered overall straps.
"So, Jason," Mims said solemnly, "we've read your column."
"Column?" For a moment, Jason was at a loss.
"Your advice to Lovesick Lily in the Cowboy Quarterly," Edith clarified briskly. "You told me about it last December."
"Right. Yes." Jason's agent had arranged a few public relations gigs while he was injured, one of which was writing a love advice column. "Hope you liked it."
"It sucked," Clarice said in her outdoor voice. Her ears were unadorned by earrings or hearing aids.
"Truly dreadful," Edith echoed in a much quieter, but still disparaging, tone. "You have no idea what women want."
Jason set his jaw.
"I believe a kinder way to deliver our critique is to say it left much to be desired in terms of valid relationship perspective." Mims produced a copy of the thin magazine from one of her fishing vest's utility pockets. She unfolded it and opened it to the page with his column.
"Thanks?" Jason sucked down some beer and looked toward Noah for a save.
The wily bar owner was making his escape, carrying a tray of glasses toward the kitchen.
"If you take our advice," Edith said, as if Jason should do so without question, "you'll be thanking us before your next column."
"There will be no next column," he said succinctly.
"Jason." Mims stared down at the magazine and tsk-tsked, much as Mrs. Claus might upon reviewing Santa's naughty list. "Telling a woman she should leave a hasty marriage in order to pursue her true love? That's not advice. That's—"
"Wishful thinking," Clarice shouted in his ear. "It's never that easy. Were there kids involved? Did someone in this love triangle have cancer?"
"Somebody always has cancer," Edith said gravely.
"You need all the facts." Mims stared at him levelly.
"All I had was a letter from a fan," Jason said in a voice some might call weak.
Actually, there had been no letter. Whatever numb-nut had come up with the idea of Jason Petrie doling out love advice should be fired. No woman in her right mind would come to him for love advice. He and his agent had cultivated his Casanova image for marketing purposes too well. He'd had to write a letter to himself, and in doing so, he'd drawn on a situation he was all too familiar with—his girlfriend dumping him for another man and rushing into marriage.
"You received a letter?" Clarice was incredulous. "That's odd. Who writes letters anymore? Folks your age write IMs, PMs, and DMs. They watch vlogs and tubers. Heck, I watch vlogs and tubers. Where have you been hiding?"
"Technology has never been my strong suit." He couldn't even figure out how to email on his phone. "Can I help you with something?" Volunteering for whatever activity they were recruiting for would bring this painful interlude to an end.
"Next time you want to give love advice, come to us first." Mims pushed the magazine aside. "Now for the reason we're here. I know we can count on you for the Date Night Auction." She wasn't asking.
"Just keep your advice column on the down-low," Edith said sotto voce. "Opinions like that make you seem like less of a catch."
This was too much. Jason planted his boot heels flat on the floor as if he were about to stand and walk away, a fruitless effort since he was trapped against the wall. "Ladies, I'll have you know I was instrumental in bringing Kevin and Mary Margaret together." The mayor and kindergarten teacher were getting married this summer.
The three elderly women burst out laughing.
Edith tapped her chest. "That was us."
Clarice clucked her tongue. "Completely."
"Didn't see you dancing in the club the night Kevin proposed." Mims rested their case by slapping her palms on the table.
Were they right? They couldn't be. But since Kevin wasn't here to defend him, Jason didn't argue.
"Not that we hang our hats on our matchmaking success stories." Mims leaned forward conspiratorially, lowering her voice. "We don't get belt buckles for every wedding bell rung."
"But we do keep track." Edith waggled her brows.
At which Clarice scoffed and shook her head. "Club business isn't any of his business."
Jason rolled his eyes. Everyone knew the widows loved to give Cupid a helping hand, and not always a subtle one.
"Regardless…" Thankfully, Mims prodded Edith from the booth. "You might want to wear one of those prize belt buckles of yours for the Date Night Auction. Your name always attracts a lot of donations."
"We'll work on drumming up bidders for you," Clarice said in that overly loud voice of hers. She used her walking stick to get to her feet.
"Work on?" Jason snorted like a hard-to-ride bull. He was a catch, dang it. They wouldn't need to drum up anything.
"Wendy Adams is always a generous bidder," Mims said sagely.
Wendy Adams? The quiet elementary school secretary?
"Darcy always bids on me," he mumbled through clenched teeth. That's what he and Darcy did. They had each other's backs.
"Oh." Mims stopped sliding out of the booth. "We don't encourage our widows to bid until they're at least six months into their widowhood."
"That's a rule." Leaning on her walking stick, Clarice frowned at him. "Although a one-year widow-versary is preferable."
"Rules?" Edith said in a quiet, rebellious voice, catching Jason's gaze and winking. "I've found most Widows Club rules to be more like guidelines."
There's been a mistake," Darcy said again.
This wasn't why I married George.
Some people in town already thought that she'd married George for his money. Now they'd think that she'd married him to get the judgeship too.
"It's no mistake, my dear." Henrik's smile tried to reassure. "This is what George thought was right."
Darcy shook her head. Since she was twelve, George had taken an active role in her life, from helping to find Darcy foster homes after sending her parents to jail to coaching her to wins in debate class to helping her pass the bar last December. George had been more than a mentor, and she'd have done anything for him, including care for him during the last year of his life. But this?
- "A small town brought to life with wit and charm."—SheilaRoberts, New York Times bestselling author
- "You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll want to visit again soon!"—BrendaNovak, New York Times bestselling author
—The Genre Minx on Can't Hurry Love
—Kirkus Reviews on Can't Hurry Love
- On Sale
- Feb 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 352 pages