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Writing is easy. Love is hard.
At 4:45 on a Monday afternoon, Gabriella Langdon fiddled with the tiny card on her solid mahogany desk, proof that she'd finally achieved the perfect life. The card was rectangular, the shape of a ticket, and made of costly paper stock. It was lined in a gold scroll and embossed with script lettering you could feel with your fingers, like Braille. Congratulations for making partner! it said. In the break room sat a tiny, perfect, half-eaten cake, chocolate ganache with beautiful icing flowers, decadent and rich, just like Lockham, Stockholm, and Gleason, the senior partners in her law practice (or, as her brother, Rafe, referred to them, Lock 'em, Stock 'em, and Fleece 'em).
"We're so proud of you," Rachel, her stepmom, said from her spot on the forest-green velvet chair in front of her desk. "What an accomplishment."
Funny, but Gabby didn't quite feel it was her accomplishment, despite all the hard work she'd put into law school and the ensuing years. Her father had helped her to land this job. In fact, her dad had helped her to get into law school, desperate as he was to give her some direction. So she'd finally made it, finally proved she had direction and a responsible job, but the victory felt…hollow.
Her nonna, who sat next to Rachel, said, "We're always proud, except she looks worn out, doesn't she, Rachel? Look how pale she is. And thin."
Nonna's comment was accompanied by hand gestures and a big sigh, part of her Italian genetic makeup. Gabby reached up to pinch her cheeks. Pale? How could she be pale? She had her grandmother's nice olive coloring. She was never pale. "I haven't been out in the sun much this summer, Nonna. But now that I'm partner, I'll get some color." She was lying through her teeth. She might never see the light of day again.
"It's already the end of August," Nonna said. "Summer's almost over."
"I think she looks fine," Rachel said. "Maybe she's tired from packing." She turned to Gabby. "I am a little worried about your hours."
She was tired from packing. The downtown Cleveland condo she'd owned with her ex-fiancé had sold, and she'd had to move out ASAP. "I'm just getting established," Gabby said. "I'm sure things will settle down." Another fib. The partners worked just as hard as the associates. Maybe harder. That was just the way it was.
"You've lost your sparkle," Nonna said. Nonna might have early dementia, but she always called 'em like she saw 'em. "You know what your grandfather would say."
"What was that, Nonna?" Her grandfather had died long ago, but Nonna still spoke frequently and affectionately about him.
"He'd say, 'You only have to polish the shoe once to get it to shine.'" Nonna demonstrated the quote with emphatic hand motions. "'After that, you start rubbing off the leather.' Too much work is no good."
Her grandfather had been a kind, practical man with no shortage of sayings. Though Gabby and her siblings tended to suspect he may have made most of them up himself.
Gabby's lackluster state could be attributed to the fact that things in her personal life weren't exactly going great. She'd broken up with her fiancé, Malcolm, a year ago. Her only current prospect was Milo Blumenthal, the managing partner in her practice with the soft middle and the pale, pale skin who brought stinky sandwiches to work and had asked her out twice the previous week.
Plus she was a few months shy of thirty-one, which wasn't old by any means but made her wonder if everything she wanted in life was going to pass her by—love, children, and something she wanted desperately but couldn't even describe: a sense that she was in the right place, doing the right thing with her life. She felt as if she was performing in the expected fashion, and to everyone looking in, she was doing great! Fantastic! So why didn't she feel that way?
"We'll talk more about what's wrong with you at Sunday dinner," Nonna said.
"Can't wait," Gabby said with a forced smile. Sunday dinner was Nonna's solution to everything—it had been a tradition in Gabby's family for generations, and everyone knew attendance wasn't optional. Even when her brother, Rafe, had broken his leg a few years ago, they'd relocated it to his hospital room. No kidding.
Through the glass panel of her office she could see Milo pacing in the hall, glancing at his watch. He tapped on it and mouthed, Time is money.
Gabby glanced at her own watch, gave him a little wave, and smiled sweetly. Her family was more important than Milo's obsessive timekeeping, plus it was after five o'clock and he could stick it.
Nonna stood, lifted a large shoebox from the floor, and placed it on Gabby's desk. "This is why we're here. I want you to look through these for me."
Gabby took the heavy box and shook it. She could hear papers shifting from side to side. "What's in here, Nonna?"
"My fortune," Nonna pronounced.
Gabby exchanged glances with Rachel before taking off the lid and flipping carefully through the top items in the box. Old bank statements, a CD for $5,000, an old life insurance policy for $100,000.
Gabby tended to have a disproportionate number of elderly clients who wanted to get their wills in order, many of whom saved their important documents in shoeboxes just like this one. She wasn't quite sure why she was a magnet for the good, decent people of her town, who needed their wills drawn up but would never be big moneymakers for the firm, much to Milo's chagrin. But she loved chatting with them, or sometimes just listening when they needed someone to talk to.
Something sparkly from the bottom of the box caught her eye, a gold chain with a pendant. But not just any pendant. A trapezoid-shaped piece of white marble with gray veins. Nonna's family was originally from Tuscany, near Cararra, and the pendant certainly looked like it was carved from a piece of Cararra marble.
"That's for you," Nonna said.
"Oh, what is it?" Gabby asked, holding it up to see.
"It's for finding the love of your life."
Gabby narrowed her eyes. She was known among her siblings as the romantic one in the family, but she could never top Nonna's often fantastical romantic leanings. Such as her staunch belief in their town's legend.
The centerpiece of their little town of Angel Falls, Ohio, was a beautiful bronze statue of two angels whose arms and wings joined together to form a big heart. It was stationed at the head of the bridge that was built over the lovely falls the town was named for. Legend had it that any couple who kissed in front of the angels, tossed a coin into the water, and had their picture taken would have true love forever. Tourists came from all over to spend a day in the quaint town, shop the Main Street shops, dine in the cute restaurants, and, of course, get their picture taken.
She didn't really believe the legend; it was more for the tourists anyway. Once she'd tried to get Malcolm to throw a coin in the water to cement their love for all eternity, but he'd laughed at her and said it was too silly.
Good thing, in retrospect.
But this tale…she'd never heard it before from Nonna. Nor had she ever seen this piece of jewelry. And she would know, because Nonna used to let them play dress-up with all her beads and baubles, as she called them.
Gabby fingered the smooth, white surface hooked by a gold cap to the chain. It felt like a worry stone, like someone had fretted on its smooth surface many times with their fingers. "Were you wearing this when you met Grandpa?"
Nonna went quiet, which was unusual. "Your grandfather didn't give that to me." Then, she said, gesturing, "You need to put it on."
Gabby didn't put much credence in the town legend. Nor did she have any reason to believe in even more romantic folklore, but she slipped it on. "Thanks, Nonna. It's beautiful." To Rachel, she shrugged and said, "At this point, I'll try anything."
"Gabriella, you're young," Rachel said. "You're just in a little dry patch right now."
"She's not that young," Nonna said.
Gabby wasn't that young when she was with Malcolm either, but she had still made mistakes. She'd thought she was in love. He was John Stamos handsome and successful, the kind of guy she'd thought would please her high-achieving family. She'd spent a lot of time giving herself pep talks that yes! yes! she could make this work, because she was thirty and hurry, because another guy might not ever come along.
"Gabby just needs a stroke of good luck," Rachel said. "And I've been working on it. Our new minister is handsome, funny, and a great guy. And he's single." Her stepmother literally clapped her hands. "And guess what? I've arranged for you to meet him."
Oh no. "Rach, I appreciate it, but I don't think it's a good idea—"
"You promised to let me have a go at it."
That she had. In a moment of desperation, she'd acquiesced to Rachel's offer to help. Rachel knew so many people as the owner of the high-end antiques store on the main drag, Gabby figured Rachel would have a much better chance of finding someone than she would, holed up in her office night after night.
Thankfully, Nonna interrupted Rachel's matchmaking. "I'm tired, Rachel. Let's go get a cheeseburger before you take me home, what do you say? Gabriella, can you come with us? You can get those awful chicken nuggets you like so much."
"Thanks anyway, Nonna," Gabby said. "I've got some work to finish up."
"Nonna," Rachel said, "I was going to bring you back to our house for dinner tonight. I thought we could throw some chicken on the grill and make a quick pasta salad. Doesn't that sound healthy?"
"Forget the cooking. Let's get a cheeseburger," Nonna said, never one to let healthy food stand in the way of her and a great burger.
Hmmm. Nonna wasn't usually insistent, nor did she often favor fast food over homemade. But hey, cheeseburger cravings—or in Gabby's case, chicken nugget cravings—were real, and who was she to question? Rachel stood and offered a hand to Nonna, who took it and hoisted herself carefully from the chair. A little stab of sadness went through Gabby; she could never seem to accept the invariable signs of aging that seemed to be getting more frequent with Nonna.
Gabby held her breath. Rachel was the most health-conscious person she knew. She rarely ate meat, and she jogged and practiced yoga. A cheeseburger probably hadn't passed her lips in years.
"You know, it is a nice evening," Rachel said. "Maybe we should drive through for cheeseburgers and eat them outside on the patio tonight. I'll even open a bottle of wine, what do you say, Rose?"
"That sounds lovely," Nonna said, winking at Gabby. "How about we get French fries too?"
"Sounds perfect," Rachel said seamlessly, her inner horror completely disguised. Another reason Gabby loved Rachel.
"Bye, you two," Gabby said, walking them to her door. "Thanks for coming by."
"Don't forget to charge me for your time," Nonna said. "We can take the money from all my stocks."
Gabby kissed her grandmother on the cheek. At least Nonna had retained her sense of humor through the dementia. "Thanks, Nonnie. I'll send you a bill." No, she wouldn't, but saying that made Nonna happy.
"Want us to pick you up some nuggets for later?" Rachel asked.
"Sorry, can't tonight," Gabby said to Rachel. "But I'll be over to Nonna's later." It was Gabby's turn to keep Nonna company tonight, an arrangement she'd made with her siblings because they were worried about Nonna being alone.
"Okay," Rachel said, kissing her goodbye. "Don't work too hard."
"You sure you can't come?" Nonna asked. "It's dinnertime and you're still working. And you're too skinny."
Gabby knew they were not going to let the dinner thing go. To Nonna, refusing food was a sin of the highest order. "Well, the truth is," Gabby confessed, "I signed up for a creative writing class that's being taught by a big-time author." For courage—in order to learn how to really write instead of all the scribbling she did that seemed like it was going nowhere. "Actually, the first class is tonight." She didn't want to be rude and glance at her watch, but she had a lot to do before she left for class. And it was getting late.
"A writing class," Rachel said, a little hesitantly.
"Another class?" Nonna asked. "Aren't you done with all the classes?"
It was true that Gabby had a handful of different majors in college, and she had tended to take a lot of different hobby-type classes for fun after she graduated from law school to help make her job a little more bearable.
"This one is different, Nonna. I want to learn how to write a book. A big, juicy saga with plenty of drama, true love against the odds, and…kissing." Lots of great kissing. And the hope of finding love, because regardless of what had happened to her, she still believed it was possible, and she would never lose hope.
"I like kissing," Nonna said.
"Is your teacher anyone I know?" Rachel said.
"Caden Marshall. I never knew him, and he left Angel Falls years ago. He's a New York Times bestselling writer."
Rachel frowned. "Paige's son. You know Paige, who owns the book shop, right?…He's a few years older than you. You sure you don't know him?"
"I only know the rumors that went around," Gabby said. She didn't care whether the rumors were true, as long as the man knew how to teach writing.
"He was a nice boy," Rachel said. "For a time, he walked the dogs after I'd broken my leg skiing. But I don't know if success corrupted him. It happens, you know."
"What happened?" Nonna asked.
"He was brilliant," Rachel said. "His first book was a runaway bestseller. But then his wife went to the tabloids and accused him of stealing her ideas. It blew up into a big scandal and his reputation was ruined. The divorce was quite notorious in the papers."
Gabby had remembered his mother being so proud. Paige had lined the front window of her bookshop with copies of his book and created a massive stacked display right near the front door.
"Rumor has it he hasn't written anything since," Rachel said. "And Paige says the ex hardly sees their little daughter."
Paige had quietly defended her son, refusing to take her son's books out of her shop window even though kids had egged her windows and the Ladies Historical Preservation Society had snubbed her.
"Oh, I remember now. His book was very depressing," Nonna said. "I read it in my book club. But he is very good-looking. Dark, handsome, and tortured. Like Heathcliff."
"We don't want Gabby to fall for her professor," Rachel said, sounding a little panicked. "He's riddled with scandal, divorced, and has a child. We want Gabby to make a smart, uncomplicated choice, don't we?" She smiled hopefully.
"Gabby is like me," Nonna said. "Her passions rule her sense sometimes."
"Nonna, you're the most sensible woman I know," Rachel said. "And Gabby learned a lot from her broken engagement. I know she's going to make a wise choice next time."
Ugh. Gabby loved her family but it was time for them to go. She put her hands up. "Look, I'm not going to fall for my scandalized professor, okay? And I don't care about his past, as long as he can teach me writing."
"Well," Rachel said. "Good luck with the class. It sounds exciting."
"You can tell us all about it on Sunday," Nonna said.
Gabby saw them out, then shut down her computer and tidied up her desk. She fingered the beautiful necklace one more time. Maybe it should upset her that her family was campaigning to find her true love, since clearly they didn't believe she was capable of finding him on her own, but frankly, Gabby didn't mind the help. Her oldest sister, Evie, was married with two adorable kids, and her sister Sara had just married the police chief, Colton Walker, last Christmas and was now blissfully happy. And Rafe…well, Rafe was Rafe, and at twenty-eight, he still wasn't showing any signs of settling down.
When Gabby thought of happiness, of the life of her dreams, other things besides money came to mind. Like sitting on a big, old front porch on a hot summer evening, sipping iced tea and holding hands with someone. Kissing while lying on a blanket and making love under the stars, the piney scent of the woods fresh and clean. Having a love like her grandparents had known, which had endured for decades.
She'd never had an experience like that, a soul mate who made her feel that she was exactly where she should be in her life, with the person she was meant to be with. Where she could slow down enough to enjoy a good book and a cup of tea or knit a friend a baby gift or go for a long, cleansing bike ride through the parks just outside of town.
No, life had gotten too fast. Too busy. Too out of control.
That dream seemed about as far away as New Zealand. Or tucked away in one of the romance novels she sneaked a few pages of every night before she collapsed into bed. Alone.
She turned off her office light and locked the door behind her. On to writing class. And sensible decisions.
Milo had asked Gabby to do one last thing on her way out, and now she was running late to her first class. Great. Just great. She drove around the John Herschel Glenn College campus, circling the parking lot over and over with the acuity of a vulture eyeballing prey, along with six other cars doing the very same thing. Rain clouds were hovering, another reason to park and get into class. Suddenly, right smack in the middle of her present row, a spot opened up.
She accelerated, flicked on her blinker, and was just about to nose her Honda Civic into it when a shiny black F150 truck coming from the opposite direction pulled directly in front of her and scooped up the spot. She hit the brake fast to avoid smacking into the rear bumper of the truck and came to a screeching halt. Her body flew forward toward the windshield and then snapped back, thanks to her shoulder belt.
A few choice words bubbled to her lips, and a certain finger might have begun to twitch of its own accord.
Gabby laid on the horn—one long, satisfying push on the wheel. For about three seconds, she felt all the stress and tension from her day melt into that blaring bleat of sound. Until the driver's door of the pickup opened. She didn't know much about trucks, but judging from the chrome rims, mud flaps, and LED light bar, it was likely driven by some guy who could potentially start a confrontation. One of those I-own-a-big-truck-so-therefore-I-own-the-world types. The sensible thing to do would be to just move on, because now she was going to be late for sure.
The guy exited the truck, leaving the motor idling, and walked with a long-legged stride toward her car. To her surprise, he didn't look like a crazed truck owner at all. Nor was he a college kid but a man, tall and lean, saved from being rangy by good, hard muscle evident in the way his legs filled out his faded, well-worn jeans and in the way his button-down chambray shirt fit over his broad chest. He looked dangerous, all right—dangerously hot.
She made out a dark head of thickly layered hair, worn a little longish over his collar. He looked pissed off, his well-defined brows knit down into a deep V. From the set of his five-o'clock-shadow-lined jaw, she could tell that he was not going to give up without a fight.
His good looks threw her, but not as much as the cartoon character stickers and smattering of tiny fingerprints on the back window behind the driver's seat.
Something about the stickers—or maybe it was the fingerprints—deflated her anger. And her fear. How scary could a man be who probably had a car seat in the back seat of his truck?
Suddenly he was next to her, signaling her with a roll-down-the-window sign.
She hit the automatic lock button, just in case. Maybe he was a maniac. Did he look like a maniac?
Oh no. He looked like sin.
She cracked open the window, but she braced her hands on the wheel, ready to peel out backward or close the window on his fingers if he tried to reach in and strangle her. She'd read about that once.
He seemed to note the fact that her car had stopped inches from his, then assessed her with hazel eyes that were an intriguing mix of green, brown, and blue, surrounded by little crinkly lines that placed him solidly in his early thirties. "I'm sorry for taking your spot," he said, "but I'm late for my first day of class." Then he flashed an overly bright smile just imperfect enough to be human. "Surely a nice woman like you would give a guy a break?" He met her gaze head-on with those beautiful eyes.
She frowned and tapped her fingers on the wheel. Clearly this was a guy who was trying to charm his way out of conflict. And judging by his looks, it had probably worked for him many times before. He probably had a reputation for stealing hearts as well as parking spaces. "I'm late for class too."
"I really need it—probably more than you do." He smiled again—an utterly false smile that did not reach those fascinating eyes of his. Uh-oh. Not only was he flirting with her, he was also being arrogant. Strikes One and Two.
She rolled her eyes. "Pu-lease. Don't think you can stun me with your good looks." Except she did feel stunned. He was gorgeous.
He glanced around nervously. "Look, ma'am," he said, "I'm not flirting with you. I just really need this space right now."
"Ma'am? Exactly how old do you think I am?" Ma'am, everyone knew, meant at least forty. She wasn't forty! She wasn't even thirty-one yet.
"I apologize again for taking the spot, but I really have to go." Before she could say Hey, hold up a second, buddy, he was walking away, raising his hand in a backward wave as he jogged to his truck.
She couldn't help watching him walk to his vehicle. His stride—graceful, purposeful—was hard to take her eyes off of. Not to mention he had the kind of narrow man butt that filled out those comfy old Levis just right.
Oh, what was wrong with her? She was doing womankind a disservice, noticing the smoking-hot body of this man who was clearly an asshat.
For no apparent reason, he glanced back and caught her staring at him. His frown resonated across the parking lot, as deep and foreboding as the impending night.
Caught ass watching! As if that weren't bad enough, he got in his truck, threw it in gear, and plowed the rest of the way into the spot, without a glance backward.
While she sat there drooling at his behind.
And as if Mother Nature were having a laugh at her expense, the skies opened and it began to pour.
Gabby barely noticed in light of the rudeness. The gall. And shame on her for drooling over his butt. Shaking her head, she threw her own car into drive and moved on through the full-to-the-brim lot.
Maybe what everyone said was true, that she really did have terrible judgment in men. And jobs. And everything else. And how had she allowed herself to get sidetracked from her goal of getting to class on time by a great butt? Well, no matter. She'd never see him—or it, for that matter—again.
* * *
Caden Marshall's reputation was as fragile as a house of cards. Being late for his first class would be the tiny flick of a finger that would topple it before he'd even begun his job as a professor at the tiny liberal arts college in Angel Falls, Ohio. Funny, but he'd imagined that if he'd ever returned to a college to teach, it would be with bright, eager MFA students, not a night class composed mainly of adults who were dabbling in creative writing for fun.
But as the saying went, beggars couldn't be choosers. He needed job security. Tenure. He wanted to live a responsible life with a decent job and provide well for himself and his almost-four-year-old daughter, Ava. Which was why he'd jumped when a job at the local college in his hometown had opened up.
Ava had started a new day care this week. She was exhausted after her long day and was crying up a storm when his mom had come to babysit, reminding him that he was the one responsible for uprooting his daughter. He'd tried to console her, but when he left, she was still crying, each hiccupping eh-eh-eh ripping his heart out a little further.
Two doors down from his classroom in the administration building with the brick clock tower, Cade stuffed the windbreaker he'd used to cover his head from the rain back into his book bag, raked back his damp hair, and made sure his shirt was tucked in. The standard institutional clock on the gray wall read 6:59. He'd made it, thank God, but he felt guilty about his aggressive parking lot behavior. He wasn't usually an a-hole, but he'd supposed the high stakes involved with doing this job well had made him one. He vowed to do better—which seemed like his mantra these days. Falling short of everything but trying really hard not to.
- "Emotional, heartwarming romance you can't put down."—Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author on Then There Was You
- "Liasson will make you laugh and melt your heart in this can't miss read."—Marina Adair, #1 bestselling author of Summer in Napa on Then There Was You
- On Sale
- Jan 29, 2019
- Page Count
- 496 pages