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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 23, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
In this charming installment of the Heart Lake series, a grumpy single dad and a small-town bookseller—who's secretly an advice columnist—find love when they least expect it.
As chaotic as it can be, Rosie Dean loves her unruly life. But between raising twins alone, running her struggling bookshop, and secretly writing a parenting advice column, the single mom can’t think about dating. At least that’s what she tells herself . . . until her high school crush (and his incredible blue eyes) return to Heart Lake for the summer. Even though Evan has grown into a huge grump, he’s still a super sexy one, and soon sparks begin to fly.
Single dad and widower Evan Mills is used to hearing he’s too serious. But with a grieving tween daughter to raise on his own, the graphic designer is just trying to stay strong for her. He hopes a few weeks at the lake will be the fresh start they both need. Evan never anticipated reconnecting with Rosie, or that she could make him feel whole again—if he’d give her the chance. Will one steamy summer with Rosie be long enough to melt Evan’s heart?
Includes the bonus novella, Annie Rains’ Kiss Me in Sweetwater Springs!
The recipe had said five cups of flour, but that was clearly a typo—unless these crisp sugar cookies were really supposed to be soggy dough blobs. Rosie Dean let out a low groan as she dumped her second batch of failed experiments into the garbage bin. She wasn’t generally a bad baker, but these instructions from the PTA moms—or as Rosie referred to them, the pain-in-the-ass moms—had been incredibly specific. They had directed her to contribute wafer-thin sugar cookies in the shape of canoes to match the “summer fun” theme for the end-of-the-year picnic at the twins’ school tomorrow.
Rosie picked up the recipe again and looked over the ingredients, retracing her steps. She’d gone to college. She was a capable woman who ran a business and raised twins on her own. She could make a dang cookie canoe, right?
“Mom!” her eight-year-old daughter, Becca, shouted from the living room. “Zander won’t give me back my special Lego guy!”
She furrowed her brow, glancing up from the sheet she was holding, and tried to refocus. Her twins were always either engrossed in their iPads and pretending the other didn’t exist or arguing with each other over the smallest thing—there was no in-between. “Special? Guy? Huh?”
A loud thud sounded and Rosie tensed for a moment, waiting to hear a scream or a cry or something she’d need to attend to. A high-pitched wail cracked through the air seconds later.
Yup. There it was.
Rosie made it to the living room in less than two seconds, but Becca was already trying to quiet her crying twin brother.
“Zander, shhh. It doesn’t hurt that bad! I barely touched you,” she insisted, trying to push a small Lego character into his hands. “Here, you can have it! Here!”
“Mom!” Zander continued wailing, giant crocodile tears pouring down his cheeks. He was holding his arm close to his chest, as if protecting it. “Mom, Becca pinched me.”
“If you two aren’t able to play nicely with these toys, then I’m going to take them away,” Rosie threatened, giving Becca a stern look and checking Zander’s arm. There was a tiny red mark where he’d been rubbing it, but he otherwise seemed unharmed. “This room needs to be cleaned up anyway. Let’s get a move on. We’ve got to go to the store.”
Becca immediately groaned. “Why do I have to go? I can stay home alone ’cause I’m the responsible twin. Just take Zander.”
Rosie wasn’t having this discussion again, especially when she needed to hurry up and get to Hobbes Grocery Store before closing to get more flour for her third—and please God, final—attempt at those cookie canoes. “Shoes on! In the car in five.”
They bickered behind her as she headed back into the kitchen to grab the list of ingredients, which took a minute to find underneath the mess of flour, empty wrappers, scattered sugar, and God knows what else completely covering her kitchen countertops. Her kitchen was small and quaint, almost like the inside of a cabin with how much wood was everywhere. Wooden walls, counters, floors—the entire thing. She was proud of it, though. Her father and brother had a construction company, so they had helped with a lot of the supplies and the labor in putting this house together many years ago, but she’d been involved every step of the way. She’d paid for the land all on her own after working three jobs to save up her nest egg up until the day she gave birth.
After the kids had gotten old enough for a babysitter, she’d put her efforts into opening her bookstore on Heart Lake Lane—Fact or Fiction. Of course, her grand opening was a year before e-books truly eclipsed the market and became the newest trend while brick-and-mortar bookstores began to take a back seat. She hadn’t been fazed, though. It was a setback, sure, but she knew people still loved the feel and smell of a paperback, and the close-knit community feeling of being in your hometown bookstore.
She finally found the recipe and folded it in half, sliding it into her back pocket. “Everyone better have their shoes on,” she called out in her mom voice that she only used when she was absolutely not playing around.
“I can’t find my flip-flops,” Zander shouted back.
Rosie walked into the main room and surveyed the stack of shoes in a pile by the front door. “Your sneakers are right there. Wear those.”
Zander began to whine. “But I want to wear my flip-flops!”
“It would be better to wear the sneakers, Z,” Becca said to her twin. “You don’t want people seeing your ugly toes.”
“Mom!” Zander immediately turned to her, but Rosie was already walking out the door.
“Car. Now.” She slid into the driver’s seat and pulled down the mirror, checking her reflection. There was a smudge of flour on her cheek and she wiped it off as she watched the twins jostle their way into the car, still somehow arguing the entire time as they battled over putting on their seat belts.
Being a single mother had not been in Rosie’s plans. Heck, raising twins had definitely not been in her plans. But here she was. Single with two kids and absolutely no interest in dating anyone anytime soon. She didn’t need or want a man in her life—she’d proved that by how she’d taken care of her family over the years. Not that she’d had any other option. But, whatever. She’d risen to the challenge. Scratch that. She’d thrived. She’d raised two great kids—most of the time—and had a business, and she owned her own home.
Queen of the castle. Master of the house.
Yet, sometimes, it still felt like her crown was mere centimeters from sliding off her head. And, admittedly, sometimes late at night she thought it might be nice to have someone touch her… crown.
She’d tried dating once when the kids first started school, but that had been an immediate disaster. Dating apps in small towns were truly a nightmare—she’d matched with the stoner from high school that still lived in his mom’s basement, and the owner of the exotic pet store two towns over. When he had promised her a “slithering good time” in a DM, she’d just deleted the entire app from her phone and given up.
There had been one weekend in Chicago a few years ago when she’d gone to visit her best friend, Nola, for a girls-only vacation before her bestie moved back to Heart Lake. That had resulted in way too much alcohol and making out with a stranger in the back of a dark bar—which was probably the last time she’d been with a guy, now that she thought about it. But then again, a battery-operated boyfriend never left socks on the floor or the toilet seat up.
Rosie put the key in the ignition once the kids were both buckled in and started the car. The lights all flashed on and it roared to life for a moment before an alert went off on the dashboard.
Of course. She’d meant to fill up on the way home from work the other day, but it had completely slipped her mind. It seemed she had enough to make it to the Gas and Pass station at the corner of Main and West Street, but she’d be cutting it close to Hobbes Grocery’s closing time.
Her phone rang in its holder and she clicked the answer button before reversing the car out of her driveway.
“Hello?” she answered as she let the call go to speakerphone.
“Rosie?” Davon’s voice blasted through the car and she reached forward to turn the volume down a bit. “It’s completely dead here. No one has come in for hours.”
“Are you serious?” Rosie frowned. Davon was her only employee. He worked part time at Fact or Fiction so that she could make sure she had time with the kids. “How many customers have we had today?”
“One since lunch. Two since opening.” Davon sighed and she could hear him jiggling keys or something like that in the background. “All we sold was a graphic novel to some kid and her grandfather. The earlier customer placed a preorder for that new Colleen Hoover book coming out next month. This is bad.”
“Yeah. Shoot. Yeah, it is really bad.” Her heart sunk as she thought about the rent due at the end of the month to the storefront’s landlord. They’d barely been making enough sales to cover expenses, and the café addition that she’d planned to revitalize business had been put on indefinite hold. Turns out, she needed a costly permit for that, and construction prices had gone through the roof.
So, for now, Rosie’s dreams of expansion needed to remain just that… another sweet dream that hadn’t managed to come to fruition.
“Anyway, so I was wondering,” Davon continued. “I’ve got a date tonight with this really cute guy from Sweet Market. I’d love to close up an hour earlier so I can go get ready. I’ve got to wax—you don’t even want to know the situation happening under these clothes right now. I’m practically a wolverine.”
Her laugh felt hollow in her chest. While she was happy for his social plans, she couldn’t help but worry that next month she’d have to cut his hours in half—or entirely—unless more sales started to come in. “Okay. Yeah, that’s fine. Close up a bit early.”
“You are the best boss ever!” Davon let out a loud whooping noise and then hung up the phone.
Rosie concentrated on the road as she pulled up to the Gas and Pass station, barely making it to the pump. “Kids, stay in the car. I’ll be right here.”
“Can I get a chocolate bar?” Zander asked, pointing at the convenience store attached to the gas station pumps.
“No,” she replied firmly. If she gave in and bought treats at the gas station once, they would hound her forevermore.
“Look.” Zander pointed. “I think Grandpa already got us one!”
She turned to see her father walking out of the store with his cane in one hand and a giant Hershey bar in the other. Ugh, this town is too small. She gave him a lackluster wave as she put the pump in her gas tank and grabbed her card from her wallet.
“Hey, kiddo!” Her dad ambled over to their car. The twins had already rolled down the back windows and he was handing them both pieces of his chocolate bar. “How are you all doing?”
“Hey, Dad. We’re great. But they are going to bed soon—that’s too much sugar.” She made no moves to stop him though as she slid her card into the pump. The light flashed and the machine let out a low beeping noise.
Rosie groaned. “Shit.”
“Mom said a bad word!” Zander caught her mistake immediately. That kid had selective hearing. Ask him to clean his room and he had no idea what you were saying, but mumble one little curse word and he had supersonic hearing.
“Here.” Her dad waved her aside and put his card into the machine instead. “Let me get it.”
“Stop, you don’t have to do that,” she insisted. “I’m fine. It’s just a mix-up at the bank, I’m sure.”
“Eh, let an old man feel like he can still contribute once in a while,” he replied, shrugging it off.
The machine began pumping gas into her car and Rosie leaned against the side door. “Well, thanks. I appreciate it.”
“How are things going at home?” he asked, sneaking another piece of chocolate to Zander.
“Mom burned all the cookies for the school picnic,” her son revealed with no loyalty whatsoever. “We have to go buy more flour.”
Her dad lifted one brow as he shifted his gaze from his grandkids to his daughter. “You know, Marvel went crazy on baking yesterday and we have at least three dozen extra cookies at home. Why don’t you come grab those?”
“I can’t take your food, too,” she insisted. “You know me, I’m allergic to getting help.”
But he shook his head. “We can’t eat all those cookies. Scratch that, we shouldn’t eat all those cookies. We had a few cocktails yesterday and it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Thomas grinned, and he looked youthful in that moment. Marvel brought that out in him, and she was so glad that the woman had come into her father’s life. After Rosie’s mother had died when she was a teenager, her dad hadn’t been interested in moving on—ever. He still wore his wedding ring to this day.
But last year he’d begun spending more time with the owner of the local pottery studio, Dirty Birds Clay, and the two had been inseparable since. She’d brought a spark back to him that Rosie loved seeing again. “Come take them, because Lord knows my doctor would kill me if I ate that much sugar. He keeps trying to tell me I’m prediabetic, but I told him to come talk to me when I’m past the pre stage.”
“Dad, you cannot blow off your doctor’s advice,” Rosie began, but then immediately stopped. Another argument she wasn’t going to repeat today. As much as it scared her, she was trying to remind herself that her father was his own person and she couldn’t make him do what she wanted. But, oh, how she had tried. “Okay, we’ll take the cookies.” God, she hated how relieved she felt saying the words, like she was a failure. They were just PTA cookies for god’s sake, but the fact of the matter was, Rosie would bend over backward for anyone she cared about. She just didn’t want anyone bending for her. It was just how she was wired.
“I’ll just follow you back to the house.”
“Great!” Her dad clapped his hands. “And while you’re at it, call your brother and Nola. See if they’ll come join us. We can all do dinner.”
“We had dinner earlier—”
“Dessert then,” he insisted. “You know, I think we got a new tub of Neapolitan ice cream that hasn’t been opened. Becca loves the strawberry.”
“Mom, please, can we go?” Becca called out from the back seat. “Zander got so much chocolate! I should get some ice cream.”
She sighed. “Okay, we can go, but only for one hour. And baths and pajamas immediately when we get home—without fighting!”
“We promise!” Zander and Becca sang in unison.
“I’ll see you back at the house,” she said to her dad as he climbed into his old station wagon.
Once the gas pump finished, she replaced it back in the holder and closed up the tank. It was only a five-minute drive back to her father’s house, and the kids barely waited for her to park before they barreled out of the car and ran across their grandfather’s yard.
“Looky here, Thomas!” Marvel was standing on the front porch and gave her a big wave. She was wearing a hot-pink kaftan with some sort of design on it that Rosie couldn’t decipher from the driveway. “You brought some treats home with you!”
Thomas chuckled in a low belly laugh as he climbed out of the station wagon slowly. It took him a few attempts to swing his weight forward to standing, but with the help of his cane and one hand on the doorframe, he pulled himself up. “They are on a cookie mission.”
“Oh, well thank goodness we have some of those,” she teased, ushering the kids inside. “And ice cream, too!”
Rosie approached her father, walking alongside him. She knew better than to offer him help—the man was more stubborn than anyone she’d ever met. Well, save for maybe her brother, Tanner. Still, she worried about him as he got older, and to have him helping her with things like gas at her age just felt like a new low in her life.
“How’s the store going?” Thomas asked. He paused at the bottom of the steps up to the porch and switched his cane to his other hand while he gripped the railing. “Business doing good?”
“Uh,” Rosie faltered, not sure how to answer that without either lying or making him take pity on her and her flailing business. Neither option sounded enjoyable at the moment. “It’s… going.”
He lifted one brow and shot her a look. “When are you going to expand with the café? Bring people in with food and they’ll buy books.”
“Soon.” She suppressed an exhausted sigh. “The permit is basically already filed. Just waiting on admin stuff.” That wasn’t entirely true, but it wasn’t really a lie either. “Maybe I’ll start something before we finish the renovations—like a free snack on weekends or something, to bring people in and get them used to the idea.”
“What about Marvel’s cookies?” Her dad reached the top step and Rosie waited behind him as he switched his cane from one hand to the other again. “You know she loves to bake, and she uses all of Gigi’s old recipes. No doubt people would come in to snag a few of those.”
Gigi was Nola’s grandmother; she’d passed a few years ago but still remained a huge presence in Heart Lake. Her cookies and tea were the stuff of legends, and, somehow, she’d become bosom buddies with Marvel in the later years of her life, despite how different their personalities were. Gigi was everything high society, buttoned up, and Marvel didn’t believe in wearing underthings.
“Books and cookies…” Rosie mulled over the idea as they walked into the foyer. There was something to that. “I mean… it’s not a terrible idea. People would come for her cookies.”
Actually, it was a pretty damn good idea, and she decided to text Davon about it as soon as she got home. She felt an excitement stirring in her stomach, butterflies flickering around as she imagined the store full of people browsing the bookshelves while munching on a complimentary cookie. She wouldn’t need the permit in place for that if the cookies were free. It could be like a test run. It was yet another item to add to her never-ending to-do list, but she’d just have to dig in and find the strength. And who needed sleep anyway?
It’s hard to make a body part insurance company sound sexy, but that’s exactly what Evan Nowak was tasked with as he sat at the makeshift desk in his parents’ guest cottage loft that he’d temporarily turned into an office for the summer. This was certainly one of his more unusual jobs, but the company that he contracted to create marketing resources for seemed to attract a unique clientele. Before this project, he’d never even known that you could get a specific body part insured, and the more research he’d done into it, the more he felt like he didn’t understand this world one bit.
Evan pushed his straight hair out of his eyes, sliding his hands back across his head as he let out a slow breath. Something was off in his color scheme, and he couldn’t seem to find the answer. He was more of a copy guy, but this gig involved some graphic design, and it was slow going. He scratched at the scruff on his jaw, still trying to get used to letting his beard grow out a bit this summer.
Suddenly, something grabbed his arm and pulled him backward away from the computer. “Dad!”
“What?” Evan jolted slightly in surprise and turned to see his nine-year-old daughter, Tess, standing behind him holding up a book. Even seated in the computer chair, he was still significantly taller than she was while standing. He owed his height to his father, Antoni Nowak, who was standing behind her with a big grin on his face. “What’s going on?”
“Do you need to get your hearing checked”? she joked as she shook her head. A necklace of various mismatching beads made a clacking noise around her neck as she moved, and he wondered when she’d crafted that because he couldn’t remember her wearing it before. “I’ve been calling your name for like eighty minutes.”
He smiled sheepishly, knowing she was exaggerating but also feeling a pang of guilt at having not paid attention to her sooner. Being a single father had not been something he’d expected out of life, but when his wife passed away five years ago, he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. “Sorry, kiddo. What did you want to tell me?”
She held up a graphic novel with a pinkish-orange cover and two animated characters standing close together. “Look what Grandpa got for me! There is a cool bookstore on Main Street that has literally everything—we have to go back. This one is The Prince and the Dressmaker—my friends at camp said this is one of their favorites!”
Evan frowned as he took the graphic novel from her and looked it over. He scanned the description on the back but wasn’t blown away. Honestly, it looked like fluff, and he wanted to make sure that he was pushing Tess to reach her full potential. “What about the real books I got you? Are those still in your backpack?”
She scuffed the tip of her sneaker against the carpet as she looked down. “Yeah. I’m going to read them, but I want to read this, too.”
He’d spent a lot of time preparing her summer curriculum, and he’d found an entire list of “100 Books Your Child Needs to Be Reading” on a teacher’s website that had all the classics. He’d bought her Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables to get started. Just because she was out of school for the summer didn’t mean he was going to let her fall behind her peers. He had a responsibility to help her excel now that he was the only parent here to do so, and he did his best to take it seriously, even though sometimes it all felt so… empty. “Tess, you’ve got to read those first. Then maybe you can read the fluffy stuff like this.”
Antoni cleared his throat. “She likes it. All her friends are reading it.”
He shot his dad a long look. Since when does that have anything to do with anything?
Evan bit the inside of his cheek to hold back the retort. But seriously, it stung in a strange part of him, hearing his dad singing such a different tune now. When Evan was a kid and falling behind in grade-level reading, his father had gone so far as to ban reading material with pictures altogether. All his beloved Marvel and Garfield comics were put out with the trash.
But had it helped him?
He might not read for fun these days, but he’d passed his English classes. And so would Tess.
“Yeah, probably because it’s mostly pictures,” Evan handed the graphic novel back to Tess. “I want to see at least five chapters of one of the real books finished by Friday.”
“Dad, this is a real book,” Tess protested, and the frown on her face seemed to get deeper by the second. “It’s got pictures, but there’s a lot of words and plot, too.”
“Tess.” Evan shot his daughter a serious look, his brows raised. “Five chapters by Friday.”
She seemed to wilt in front of him, and his father put a hand on her shoulder.
“Come on, Tessy,” he said to his granddaughter. “Let’s go pick out one of the other books and then we can get started on this one after.”
She nodded and followed him out of the room while Evan felt like someone had just punched him square in the stomach. The way her smile sank into a frown was almost identical to his late wife Layla’s mannerisms sometimes. The similarities between them had always been intense, but with Layla now gone, it was hard to see pieces of her on Tess’s face.
Even harder when it showed up in moments where he knew he’d let her down.
“Hey, Tess?” Evan called out, walking quickly to the doorway to catch her before she got too far away. She was at the end of the hallway and turned back to look at him. “What about some fishing this afternoon? Weather is good.”
She shrugged, holding the book tighter to her chest. “Sure. Can we eat what we catch for dinner?”
Evan felt a surge of pride at what felt like her never-ending talents. “Of course. Grandma loves to cook up some fish.”
“I’ll tell Grandma,” his dad said, seemingly grateful that things had smoothed over.
Evan tried not to notice that his father was moving a bit slower these days, his hair pure white at this point, but still thick as ever. He’d mellowed from the man who’d played an outsize role in his childhood. The stern guy who’d been raised by Polish immigrants and had the drive to succeed. Who believed that Evan needed to buckle down and make something of himself to honor the sacrifices of those who’d come before.
Now his dad hunched slightly as he walked and there was a quietness to him that seemed deeper than just his introverted personality. Hell, the entire family was introverted, and they weren’t big talkers. They communicated about the important things like scheduling and chores, but if he wanted to vent about work or talk about heartbreak, he had learned long ago to push those feelings down and just try to let it go. He was pretty sure his father had been doing the same his whole life. “Go on now. I’ll hold the book for you while you go catch us dinner.”
“Thanks, Grandpa!” Tess handed him her novel and practically skipped down the hallway back to Evan. “Dad, I got a new lure I want to try.”
“I remember,” he replied, as he followed her out the back door to the shed. “I’m the one who got it for you.”
“Oh, yeah!” She laughed as she pulled open the wooden shed doors and immediately got to work grabbing their fishing poles and a bucket of worms that were stored there.
- On Sale
- May 23, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages