Main Waiting On Her
Waiting On HerNatasha Queen
Is hate still hate if it’s built on a lie? Megan Brooks is as mean as she is beautiful. She’s sarcastic and judgmental, but no one else knows she makes elaborate soap in the shed she built in the backyard. Or that she uses people’s horoscopes to close business deals. Nick Brewster is an introvert, a bestselling writer, and a man who’s never quite gotten over Megan Brooks. When he bumps into her after years apart, he jumps at the chance to make her his muse. He should have known nothing with Megan would be easy. She’s irritating and mean but Nick has always known that underneath her smart mouth and prickly exterior, Megan Brooks has a heart of gold. He just needs to make her see it.
Waiting on Her A FRENEMIES TO LOVERS ROMANCE Natasha Queen Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Epilogue Afterword About the Author © Copyright 2019 - All rights reserved. It is not legal to reproduce, duplicate, or transmit any part of this document in either electronic means or in printed format. Recording of this publication is strictly prohibited and any storage of this document is not allowed unless with written permission from the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locations is purely coincidental. Dedication This book is dedicated to my entire team for all their efforts in helping me bring out this quality product. I also dedicate this book to every reader who is reading this now. Thank you for your support. Chapter One Megan Megan Brooks was unlikeable. She was too pretty, too snide, too rich, too… much. Not that anyone would come up to her and tell this to her face. No, the people of Pecan Grove were far too polite to do that. In order to keep up the pretense of being one of the most polite cities in Texas, they chose to whisper it behind her back. The thing was, Megan had never been stupid. Every time she walked into a shop and the conversation went to whispers, she knew what they were talking about. She knew when a woman tugged her husband or boyfriend closer when she walked by. And she knew, after all of these years of wondering, that she probably deserved it. After the disastrous events at the last wedding she attended, Megan took some time to examine her behavior. What she found left her cringing. The man she loved had gone off and married another woman, but Katie, his bride, found it in her heart to invite Megan to the wedding anyway. Even after she did her best to steal him right out from under her nose. On the one hand, it was a magnanimous gesture. Reaching out to make peace with the enemy was a good way to start a new life. On the other, it was also a good way for Katie to rub Megan’s nose in the fact that she’d snagged Max and Megan was left out in the cold. It would have been so much easier if she hated Katie. She couldn’t. Katie was too sweet to hate. Plus she played a mean game of tetherball. After their wedding, Megan went home, stripped off her formal clothes and spent the next two weeks in a funk of chocolate chunk cookies, made to order lattes, sweatpants, and on-demand TV binging. She wasn’t proud of it. Megan Brooks never wallowed. But perhaps the times were changing. Megan stood in line at the newest coffee shop in Pecan Grove. There were only two. The one three streets over served coffee, lattes, and muffins made by one of the older ladies who ran the bingo hall. If you asked them for anything other than those three things, you’d get a blank stare from the cashier and a threatening glare from the owner. This one, however, was more up with the times. Megan perused the large menu through her oversized sunglasses, decided on what she wanted, and immediately bent down to scroll through her cell phone. She had three more days off, plus the weekend, and wanted to try out several new soap recipes before she had to get back into the office. This was her dirty little secret. Or clean, as it were. Megan made soap in the little workshop that sat on the land behind her house and sold it on Etsy. No one knew about this. Not even her mother. Especially not her mother. She’d make that disappointed face she always made when Megan failed to live up to some impossibly high standard and then mumble something unflattering under her breath. It didn’t matter what it was. Unless it made money. A lot of it. Because that’s what her mother loved best. Not Megan. Not life. Money. The frown forming on her face furrowed her brow. She made an effort to smooth it out. No use getting wrinkles over that woman. She’d never change. The line moved a little and Megan shuffled ahead in her cheap flip flops. Normally she wouldn’t get caught dead looking like this in public, but Max’s wedding had shifted something inside of her. She was successful, had more than enough money in the bank, she was attractive, and yet… she didn’t feel fulfilled. Seeing the happiness in her ex’s eyes made her realize she’d never had it. Not truly; not like that. It also made her realize she might be the reason she’d never had it. Megan never looked at a man for the right reasons. She looked for status, career prospects, attractiveness, and how well he’d fit in with her crowd. She never looked at someone for their inside. In the past, it never mattered. Megan’s thumb hovered over a particularly intriguing oatmeal and honey soap. She had a recipe for one back in her workshop, but this one had a cute honeycomb pattern. Marking it as a favorite, she clicked off and looked up to see how much the line had moved. Not much. She stifled a sigh and checked the time on her cell. It wasn’t like she had anywhere she needed to be— a nice change of pace from her usual frenetic lifestyle, but she still wanted to get back to the house. Time off was a luxury and she wanted to soak up every minute of it. Plus, she needed to run to the craft store outside of town and see what kind of silicone patterns they had for the soap. It was a little bit nerdy to get so excited about the possibility of crafting, but it calmed Megan down. The simple pleasures of working with her hands and creating something with the possibility of bringing beauty to others had always called to the more sensitive side of her. Not that she’d ever admit it. She’d rather die than someone she knew see her with her hands in elbow-length gloves and goggles covering half her face. To the town of Pecan Grove, she was an ice princess— one of the more flattering names she’d heard herself called. So an ice princess she would remain. Even if her heart felt like it was finally beginning to thaw. Chapter Two Nick If he didn’t get coffee soon, he was going to cut someone. Nick pushed into the doors of the new coffee shop in town and almost moaned aloud when he saw how long the line was. Instead, he gritted his teeth and got into line behind a young woman trying to wrestle two dark-haired toddlers. He was pretty sure she was losing. Nick checked his cell for the time and winced. He’d gotten a late start this morning. Again. Working from home wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Once again, after a late-night of not doing much except taking notes and then tossing said notes into his fireplace, he ended up staying awake way past his bedtime and forgot to set his alarm clock. Hence, the reason he had not yet had his coffee at this ungodly late hour. His friend, Abigail, stood at the cashier station, a polite smile frozen in place on her pretty mouth. She was destined for bigger things, but so far she hadn’t been able to leave this town behind. Nick could say the same, though with his job he could work anywhere. Writing required just a couple of things: a computer and copious amounts of coffee. With those two things, Nick could be plunking his rear end on a beach somewhere living in his make-believe worlds. Except… Nick didn’t like sand. And right now he was experiencing the worst case of writer’s block he’d ever had. In the past, he’d scoff at someone who claimed to be blocked. Writer’s block wasn’t a real thing, he’d argue. It’s a construct of your own mind. This was probably why Nick didn’t have many writer friends left. Now that he was experiencing it for himself, he felt more than a little chagrined. Perhaps he’d reach out and get into contact with some of those friends and apologize profusely over his arrogant behavior. For the last six weeks, as soon as he opened his laptop it was like his brain would freeze and his fingers would lock up like an arthritic. He’d type a word only to erase it in a fit of pique. The world was lucky coffee was his only vice. Nick wouldn’t be able to stand himself if he became one of those stereotypical cardigan-wearing, whiskey-drinking authors who smoked a pipe and railed against society. Abigail spotted him at the end of the line and gave him a discreet little wave. Her sense of self-preservation prevented her from waving him to the front of the line. If she had, his own sense of it would have prevailed. If he felt like climbing up the walls after going without coffee for a few hours, there was no way he was going to jump in line in a room full of people experiencing the same withdrawal symptoms. He lifted his hand in greeting and smiled at her, though it was forced. It was difficult to be nice to anyone when his head felt like it was going to explode. This told him his fondness for the brew had tipped over from simply liking it, to being addicted. It could be worse. His gaze roamed over the people in the line and he smiled to himself at the sight. There were businessmen, checking their phones and tapping their feet. Moms wearing yoga pants and high ponytails and trying to keep their children in line. Bored college students wearing headphones and blank stares. And yet… there was a woman there who looked vaguely familiar from behind. She was a few people ahead of him. Her long blonde hair was up in a messy bun. Oversized sunglasses took up quite a bit of her face as she frowned down at her phone. Nick took a step in, careful to ensure he wasn’t invading anyone’s personal space and peered over a couple of shoulders to see what she was staring so intently at. Soap. Nick’s brow wrinkled and his lips curled in amusement. The irritated woman was staring at soap. He’d seen odder things than that, for sure, but she didn’t really look like the kind of woman who’d be spending her time in the coffee line frowning at soap. She looked like she had money, even if she wasn’t dressed like it currently. He couldn’t see her entire face, just a portion of her profile. He could tell her lips were full and her cheekbones were high. Even without makeup, she looked young. The woman looked like she might be having a rough day. It seemed to Nick like she was the kind of person who always dressed to the nines and who’d rather be anywhere else than stuck in this line. He knew these things because he made a point of studying everyone. His job was to take those things that made people great and whittle it down into words on paper. Right now, he couldn’t tell what made her great. But something was making her sad. Curious, Nick allowed his gaze to roam over her. She wore loose gray sweats that were too long for her, a soft, unzipped purple hoodie with a white tank top underneath it. Her feet were barely covered by a pair of cheap flip flops and her toes were painted a shocking shade of orange. His gaze lingered on her toes as he wondered about them. Did she wear open-toed heels to work? Was she open about her wild toe color or was this something she did for herself and kept hidden from everyone else? Hidden, he decided and nodded to himself. She didn’t look like the type of woman who’d go crowing about her soap and hippy-dippy toenails. She looked like a woman who worked for a living and wanted people to take her seriously. Inside his head, he was chanting, turn, turn turn. He wanted to see her face. Seeing someone’s face would help him even more. Nick blinked as he realized he was practically burning a hole in the woman’s neck. He straightened and turned his gaze elsewhere. He could feel his cheeks heat and he thanked his lucky stars she hadn’t caught him. His gaze fell on Abigail and she tilted her head at him. One of her eyebrows rose. Nick rolled his eyes and tried to play it off. He wasn’t a creeper, but people did fascinate him. So sue him. The line finally moved up a few more and Nick sighed. He could almost taste the coffee soothing his soul. The woman was almost to the front. Nick pulled out his cellphone and decided to amuse himself by idly scrolling. Heaven forbid any of them talk to each other. Actually, he was glad. He’d rather be anywhere than in a crowd. Those were the bane of his existence. He could handle this simply because he didn’t have a coffee pot in his house. It seemed a little crazy, but he had to force himself to leave the house sometimes. To help, he refused to purchase a coffee maker. It forced him to go out into public and maintain some semblance of social skills. Also, he loved the way Abigail made his latte. He opened up his notes folder and slowly scrolled through, chuckling at himself and his sometimes late-night ramblings. Nothing in here would make a decent book. Nick had no ideas and he was quickly running out of time. His agent was politely nudging him to send her new material. He had bupkis to show her. Not even two sentences. Just a massive pile in his recycling bin full of writing rubbish. “Can’t you just make it like that?” The sound of a woman’s agitated voice made him look up from his phone. Abigail was staring at the blonde woman like she’d grown another head. “I’m sorry. We don’t have the kind you want.” “But I just want whipped cream on the top. With kosher salt. And a little bit of caramel.” All he could see was the back of her head. Her shoulders were tight with tension. So she liked whipped cream? She didn’t seem like the kind of woman who liked whipped cream. She seemed like a nonfat soy latte, hold the espresso, only foam, make sure it’s sugar-free, kind of woman. Maybe she was pregnant. His mind whirled with the possibilities while he watched Abigail and the woman argue. “We don’t carry kosher salt, ma’am,” Abigail said. Nick knew her well enough to know she was getting annoyed. The blonde made a sound of annoyance in her throat. “Do you have regular salt?” she asked, annoyance shimmering in her voice. Nick’s brow furrowed. Why was her voice familiar? A sigh escaped his friend. “We don’t use salt in our drinks.” “That’s ridiculous,” the woman snapped. “Salt is the spice of the earth.” An amused snort escaped him. The woman looked up at the menu, and he almost groaned out loud. The people in front of him were beginning to fidget. Nick tilted his head up and stared at the ceiling. Today was going to be a long day. Chapter Three Megan She’d finally gotten to the head of the line only to find out they didn’t serve anything how she wanted it. Megan hadn’t bothered to look at the menu before she got to the front of the line because she figured they’d have everything the bigger store in Austin had. She should have known better. This was Pecan Grove after all. The bane of her existence. “There are other coffee shops who have your earth spices if you’d like to try them,” the cashier snapped back. Megan blinked, surprised to be talked back to. She took a closer look at the woman. Her dark hair curled underneath the cap she wore and her dark brown eyes glittered with annoyance. A sigh escaped her. “Abigail,” Megan said. They’d gone to high school together and had never gotten along. Not that they’d ever hung out. They hadn’t. But when they did have to deal with each other it was like putting two snapping turtles in too small of a box. Could she never escape high school in this place? Everywhere she turned, she knew someone. Abigail’s gaze narrowed. “Do I know you?” Megan realized if she admitted who she was, she’d never live it down. If Abigail didn’t recognize her, she must be in terrible shape. “Never mind that. Can you do a hot chocolate with whipped cream and caramel on top?” The noise that escaped Abigail Evans almost made her laugh. She sounded so put out over having to serve her. “Do you see that on the menu?” “You don’t have to be rude,” Megan grumbled. “The only person being rude here is you,” Abigail shot back. She gestured at the line behind her. “These people have been waiting forever and unlike you, they probably know what they want.” Megan knew if she called the manager over, she could get this little jerk fired. The desire to do it burned in her veins, but Megan was trying to be the kinder, gentler version of herself. Also, she should have checked the menu before she got up to the front of the line. As far as she was concerned, they were both in the wrong here. She took a calming breath. "Fine." Megan raised a placating hand. "I-I apologize." More foreign words had never been uttered by her. Abigail blinked at her once. Twice. And then the woman's gaze narrowed. Megan had been pegged. Abigail started to open her mouth, no doubt to berate Megan for being a terrible person (like she hadn't heard that a million times before), but before she could, a deep, male voice from the back called out. "People need to go to work! Can we move this along, please?" Embarrassment erupted along Megan's skin and she could feel her cheeks flame. Abigail smirked. "The man is right. Can we please move this along?" This... barista, if that's what she called herself deserved a stern talking to. Instead, Megan sucked up all the vicious things she wanted to snap at the woman and calmly ordered a hot chocolate. Minus salt. Minus caramel. Two of her very favorite things. "Will that be all?" Abigail asked sweetly as she rang her order up. Megan had to count to ten in her head because she was imagining doing terrible things. "Yes," she said through clenched teeth. "That will be all." She reached into her purse and started counting out the money. When Abigail rattled off the total, she shoved exact change at her. Abigail wordlessly pointed over to the pick-up station like Megan was an idiot. "You can get your plain hot chocolate over there." Megan's mouth twisted into a grimace of a smile. "Thank you, Abigail," she said. Her jaw was locked so hard it was a wonder her teeth didn't crack. She wandered over to the station and stood there waiting, trying to occupy her mind with visions of beautiful soap. It worked for a while, but she couldn't stop seething about Abigail. Megan couldn't believe she allowed herself to be treated like that. It went against everything she stood for. She didn't grow up as one of the most popular people in this town to take abuse every time she went somewhere. And who was Abigail to talk to her that way? She was a barista for crying out loud. And not even at one of the big chains. She was stuck in a podunk town for who knows how long—she abruptly stopped that train of thought. That definitely wasn't in line with who she wanted to be. She shut her eyes for a brief moment and practiced a tactic taught to her by one of her new self-help apps. I banish that thought, Megan thought to herself. She imagined herself wiping away those terrible thoughts and replacing them with something kinder. She didn't believe in that woo-woo self-help psychology stuff, despite her weakness for horoscopes, but even she had to admit that when she refocused her thoughts, she tended to calm down. Her mother took issue with any perceived slight and would ruminate on it for days. After she couldn't stop thinking about Katie and Max, Megan realized that she was doing the same thing and knew she probably learned it from her mother. Your environment was responsible for a lot of your behaviors. It's just Megan never thought about them enough to realize maybe they weren't the best behaviors for herself and the people she wanted to spend time with. Not until recently. Self-awareness was really getting in the way of her free time. She watched as the other barista made several coffees. A slight headache was beginning at the back of her head. All she wanted to do was get out of here and back to the sanctuary of her home. She hadn't planned on running into Abigail, but that was part of the charm and awfulness of Pecan Grove. When you lived in a small town, you never knew who you were going to run into. You also had to get pretty clever when it came to keeping secrets because everyone got into your business. Out of the corner of her eye, Megan registered the line continuing to move. She noted with some wryness that it was moving a lot faster now that she was no longer in it. She turned to look and noticed the lean back of a dark-haired man ordering his coffee. Abigail's cheeks turned a little bit more rosy. Megan's gaze narrowed as she watched the two of them. The man somehow looked familiar to her and his voice… She wondered where she'd heard it before. Megan was just about to bury her nose in her cell phone again when the man turned to walk over to the station where she was. Shock rooted her feet to the floor and her mouth dropped open slightly in surprise. She watched in horror as the man realized it too. His footsteps faltered and hitched until he stopped. "Megan?" the man asked. His eyes were wide with shock. "Megan Brooks?" Megan quickly threw out the kinder, gentler side she was trying to cultivate. Even though her body and mind were screaming at her to run out the door, she couldn't do that because she'd look foolish. And he would know he bothered her. Megan Brooks was unflappable. Unshakeable. All the ables. None of the running. She forced a calm expression on her face and gave the boy of her nightmares one cool nod. "Nick," she said. "How are you?" One side of his lip curled up in amusement but he quickly stifled it. "I'm well. And you?" Her heart was pounding a painful rhythm inside of her chest. The last time she'd spoken to him, she made a massive idiot out of herself. Even after all of these years, she couldn't bear to think about it. "I'm wonderful," she said. "Great," Nick offered. They stood there staring at each other. Megan trying to keep her face blank, Nick, with his look of cool amusement. He'd always been the boy who could see right through her. He never let her get away with much, even when they were younger. The first time Megan was shunned by him had been the last. To be frank, she deserved it. Though she didn't think she deserved it to be a permanent arrangement. She hated to admit that Nick Brewster had grown into his too-large head and the hair that had always looked like Einstein had woken up on the wrong side of the bed. He was taller than she remembered. No surprise there. The last time they'd had any memorable interaction was their sophomore year of high school. He'd still been on the shorter side then. Megan finished growing in her junior year, stopping at an almost tall five-foot-six. Nick was several inches taller than her, but she didn't think he hit six foot tall. His face was perfectly symmetrical. Something few people would notice, but Megan liked everything to be in its proper place. Her pictures had to be hung on the wall at the exact height of the one next to it. There was no room for willy nilly in her life. Nick's face was like a perfect wall of portraits. Neither eye was bigger than the other. No teeth sticking out, all an exact hair of a space from the other. Neither side of his lip was larger than the other. The only thing crooked about him was his smile and it was so adorable it took her breath away every time he gave it to her. But he hadn't given it to her since they were children. Granted, his facial hair and the hair on top of his head could not claim any symmetry whatsoever. It was all over the place. But Megan still found it difficult to resist ruffling her hands through the sandy brown hair on top of his head. The beard gave him sort of a rakish look and normally Megan thought beards should only belong to pirates. He was dressed in a loose-fitting pair of blue jeans and a button-down long-sleeved shirt. He wore dirty Converse on his feet and a few leather bracelets on his left arm. Nick Brewster was everything she scoffed about when she was out at a club. But she'd never scoffed at the man himself. Eventually, after an uncomfortably long time of staring at each other, Nick blinked and shook his head. "Right," he said and moved to stand beside her. He was at a comfortable distance. Not too far. Not too close. And that was the thing about Nick. He knew how much she liked her boundaries and even after all these years, he still respected them. "So what brings you to Pecan Grove?" Nick's question was nonchalant. She threw a sharp look at him. "Excuse me?" Nick's brow furrowed in confusion. "What brings you home?" Megan wasn't sure she was hearing him correctly. "I… never left?" The words were more like a question because surely he hadn't thought she'd moved. He stared at her for a second. "I haven't seen you in ten years, Megan. Of course, you moved." A laugh burst from her. "I can assure you I've done no such thing." She drew herself up to a taller height. "Do you not have a social life?" She winced internally. Sometimes she couldn't help but lash out when someone made her feel inferior. Nick had the grace to look abashed. "Not really," he admitted. "I'm a writer now. By nature, a lot of us are introverted. I just happen to have an extreme caffeine addiction. Also not uncommon," he muttered. The barista called Megan's name. She rushed up to get her hot chocolate, desperate to get out of the weird conversation. As she brushed past Nick, she gave him a little wave. "I must get going. It was nice to see you again." Nick's knowing gaze let her know he knew she was telling a lie. He was right. She never wanted to see him again as long as she lived, simply because she suspected she'd die of embarrassment. Considering she was walking out of the shop and still alive, she guessed she'd just have to deal with the bone-crushing embarrassment on her own. Chapter Four Nick Nick had always imagined what it would be like to see Megan again. He never thought he'd get the opportunity. Looking back, he should probably be a little embarrassed over the entire thing, especially since he thought she hightailed it out of town after graduation. He knew for a fact she did leave. Apparently, it wasn't permanent. He shook his head and watched her walk out, her head held high and her purse swinging on her arm like she was walking out of Saks Fifth Avenue. Little Megan Brooks with her high and mighty ideals squashed in a podunk town. No one living here was good enough for her. Especially not Nick. He'd known that since the first time she treated him like crap after she finally gained some popularity. At that moment, he'd felt so betrayed by her he wouldn't have cared if he never saw her again. But even when he told her off and saw the hurt in her eyes, he couldn't bring himself to apologize. For years he wanted to bring it up, but every time she was around him, she had at least one nasty comment she couldn't help but mutter. She was still drop-dead gorgeous. If he were being honest, Megan Brooks looked better now than she ever had. The barista called his name a moment later and he took the coffee he ordered. It was too late to catch up with her, but from the way she treated him, she wouldn't want to walk with him anyway. She might be beautiful, even dressed like she'd just rolled out of bed, but she was just as terrible as always. If he kept seeing her around town, he'd do well to remember that. Just as he was walking out, he heard Abigail call his name. He turned around only to see her motioning him to come over. The line had dwindled to nothing and Abigail was busy wiping down the counter. As soon as he was within earshot, she started to grill him with questions about Megan. He and Abigail had gone to school together, but she didn't know any of their history. "I saw you two talking. What did she want?" Abigail was pretty in a less conventional way. Her hat barely covered her springy, dark curls, and she was always ready with a smile. However, she had a mean streak in her. He saw it sometimes when he came in and he saw it today during her interactions with Megan. He hadn't known it was Megan at first, and he tended to sympathize with anyone who had to deal with her, but Abigail was working in a customer service position and she could have done a little better. Nick shrugged. "Nothing. We were just catching up." Abigail’s eyes glittered as she studied him. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Word on the streets is she went after her ex from high school. But what's so juicy is he brought his fiancée. She tried to steal him away!" Her cheeks were red with excitement and her hands fluttered around as she spoke. He wouldn't put much past Megan. She'd done a lot of terrible things in her life. Not criminal… just not very nice. But Nick was one of the few people who knew about Megan's mother. She kept that secret close to her chest. Sometimes when you loved a person as much as Megan loved her mom, you couldn't help but want to please them and sometimes that came out in ways that weren't conducive to having friends or romantic relationships. He kept up with Megan for a little while after high school, but when she left town, his interest dwindled and he discovered a love for writing. Megan was relegated to a tiny box in the back of his mind. She was a thing he brought out of that box only once in a blue moon when melancholy and what-ifs were on his mind. "Maybe she did," Nick said and shrugged. "Katherine and Max are happily married, so it looks like that chapter is shut, isn't it?" he asked. His gaze begged her to drop it, but Abigail was vicious when it came to some people. Megan Brooks was one of them. "I bet she feels terrible that she lost out to Katie Thomas of all people!" Nick's brow furrowed. He was a writer. This gave him some leeway in how he behaved in social situations. First, because he wasn't very good at them. Second, because he'd made quite a bit of money and could afford to act a little bit eccentric when he felt like it. Nick always tried to use this power for good, but Abigail was being a gossipy ninny. He had no love lost for Megan Brooks, but he knew her history, or the parts she felt comfortable telling him, and he didn't think it was fair for someone who didn't really know her to rip her apart. "I think the way we speak about other people reveals important truths about ourselves, don't you agree?" Nick asked. Abigail blinked. He could tell the moment she realized what he was inferring. Her gaze narrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, but Nick interrupted her. "I don't want to hear a word you have to say about it. Megan Brooks' life is none of our business. Gossiping is a sport for children, Abigail. I hope you remember this because if I hear you saying anything terrible about her or anyone else again, I will report you to your supervisor." Nick leaned forward and lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. There were still people in the shop, after all. "Wouldn't it be a shame to lose the only job you've been able to get after your… unfortunate incident in Houston?" Abigail blanched and took a step back from Nick. "How did you know about that?" she whispered. Nick paid attention. To everything. To the most insignificant detail to come across his desk. It wasn't too hard to put two and two together. Abigail left this town six months ago after mooching off her parents for so long they finally kicked her out. She declared she'd been asked to be a nanny to an A-list actor’s children living in Houston. Unfortunately for Abby, that A-list actor and Nick knew each other because he'd just auditioned for a movie based on one of Nick's books. They spoke at least twice a month and met up sporadically. When the actor found out Abigail was from Pecan Grove, he'd called Nick up to ask about her. Thankfully, he didn't feel comfortable with giving a reference for someone he didn't know much about, so he deflected. Five months ago, Abigail came home with her tail between her legs and Nick had called immediately, suspecting something awful must have happened. The friend, through tears of laughter, explained that Abigail had made a very sloppy pass at him and his wife, had stepped into the kitchen and caught her in the act. His wife (a star in her own right) wasn't even mad. Living so long in the lifestyle, and they'd both had it happen before and weren’t surprised when it did. Unbeknownst to Abigail, the wife watched her dig herself in deeper and deeper before she stepped into the kitchen and told her to pack her bags. She'd been blacklisted from every agency in Texas and all the surrounding states. Normally, he would never bring something like that up, but her behavior was vicious and unwarranted, however true it might be. "I don't reveal my sources," Nick said. He took every opportunity he could to say that sort of thing because it made him feel like a gritty reporter doing yeoman's work. Abby's jaw clenched tighter and she snapped the rag down on the counter. "Fine. I won't say another word about her," she said with clipped tones. "I don't want to hear any gossip getting back to me about anyone in this town, do you understand?" Abigail let out a huff of breath. "Fine." Nick saluted her with his coffee cup and turned to go. He could feel Abigail's eyes burning holes in his shirt as he walked away. A smattering of applause followed him out the door of the new shop. He shook his head, but a smile still curved his lips. Nick was no hero, but he couldn’t stand gossip. Funny because Megan Brooks had been a champion at it in high school. She always managed to find the one thing you wanted to hide and exploited in the most public, excruciating way she could. It was diabolical, but you almost had to admire her ability to worm information out of people or find it in the most obscure places. One wrong word said around Megan and you could watch your dreams of being homecoming queen go right up in smoke. Or… any goals really. She ruined more high school reputations than anyone else he’d ever known. Viper had been the nickname Nick called her in his head. A viper was different from a snake in some regards. Of course, a viper was a snake, but it had some defining characteristics other snakes didn’t possess. Mainly, a metric ton of venom and terrifying fangs they used with wild abandon to paralyze their prey. All snakes possessed a sort of sinuous beauty. This was why ancient people believed someone could be hypnotized by snakes, by their writhing and dancing. Nick knew that was merely a way to avoid admitting that it wasn’t hypnosis. It was fear, plain and simple. They were too terrified to run, too scared to save themselves. But vipers? Vipers lived in trees and could drop on your head when you least expected it, plunging their fangs right into your neck and it would be all over before you could blink. Megan was a beautiful viper who scared the living daylights out of people. Just seeing her coming was enough to strike terror into many hearts. He shook his head as he took the first sip of his coffee. She’d never scared him. If more people knew why she was the way she was, he suspected they’d be less scared, too. But Megan had a gift for alienating people. The second someone got too close, she’d do or say something hurtful to push them away. Her beauty was icy, her words a blizzard. He knew beneath it all there was a warm and vibrant heart. He just wasn’t sure she used it anymore. Or if she even knew how to. He smiled again, this time wider because he knew how uncomfortable Megan was when she realized it was him. Their last time seeing each other was super embarrassing. Not for him. For Megan. He remembered the day with crystal clear clarity and he remembered how he regretted what he said to her for years afterward. When he thought about it, that familiar sense of guilt and regret crept up inside of him and stole his breath away. It did serve her right, though. She deserved to be at least a little uncomfortable around him for everything she’d done to him. Nick shivered as he walked down the sidewalk in Pecan Grove’s downtown. He didn’t live too far away, so he liked to get the exercise when he could. He didn’t realize how cold it would be today, though. Pecan Grove was a couple of hours away from Austin. Summers were brutal and winters were normally pretty mild. Today was one of the coldest days he’d experienced living here. Everyone else must have thought so, too, because they were bundled up in scarves and jackets. Nick waved to those who waved to him, but he didn’t stop and chat. Nick wasn’t much of a chatterer. He liked to have discussions, not polite small talk. Trying to talk to people at parties was the equivalent of watching paint dry, so he did his best to avoid both parties and people. Not that he didn’t have any friends. He did. He just chose them very carefully and didn’t allow anyone unfettered access into his life before he got to know them thoroughly. Not that you could ever know anyone completely. As a writer, he delighted in discovering people’s deep, dark secrets. He just didn’t want that spilling over into his own life. A few minutes later, Nick rounded the corner and came to the street he lived on. He loved it. Large pecan trees cast the entire area into the shade and kept the brutal summer temps at bay. Today, those same trees made it several degrees colder. The only annoying thing about it was when the pecans started to drop. More than once he’d almost twisted an ankle over a stray nut. After one put him in an ankle cast, Nick had started paying teenagers to come pick all of them up. Then he donated them all to a pretty neighbor down the street with five children and a deft hand at making pecan pies. The first time he showed up bearing six bags of nuts, the woman’s husband answered the door and didn’t seem to buy his proposition. When he finally convinced the man of his earnestness, he’d opened the door and let him in. The wife stood in the kitchen, pregnant at the time with her fifth and final kid, and gasped when she saw the bounty Nick had brought her. He’d given her all of them asking only for one single pie for himself. The husband thought he was nuts. The wife thought he was adorable. Nick thought he was probably a combination of the two, though perhaps more nuts than adorable. So that was their arrangement now, but the woman always made him two pies and she sent him enough bourbon pralines to send him into a diabetic coma. The rest, she sold at the farmer’s markets on the weekend. He adored both of them and jotted down notes about their relationship for a future book. A sweet and eloquent homemaker and a gruff construction worker. He didn’t know what made the two of them work. He just knew that they did. The pecans were almost ripe so he pulled out his cell phone and made a note to hire the kids again. He dodged a few that had already fallen and trudged up the driveway to the old historical house he bought with his first book advance. It was white and of average size. Plenty of room for a single man who probably didn’t have a prayer of finding a woman who thought he was normal enough to marry. There was a massive wrap-around porch and he’d stuck two rocking chairs on the front of it. Only one of them was ever used. He’d sit outside when the weather was tolerable and try to think himself out of plot corners he’d written himself into. Nine times out of ten it worked. These days, though, he didn’t even have corners to work out of. He had nothing. Just notebooks filled with random scribbles that so far, had not yet produced his next bestseller. That was the trouble with doing one thing really well. People expected you to keep doing it well. Nick sighed and unlocked the front door, careful to keep his coffee balanced so it wouldn’t spill. When he made it inside, he set the cup down on the table right by the door and slid out of his converse without untying them. He grabbed his cup and headed straight into his office in an effort to try to put some words on paper. Not that he’d be able to, but Nick decided he could be an optimist for one day at least. Chapter Five Megan Of all the people to run into, it had to be Nick Brewster. Of course, it did. The universe had been screwing with her for months now. Why not put the boy she’d humiliated herself in front of in her path again? “Thanks, universe,” Megan muttered as she started her car and headed out of the parking lot. The hot chocolate she’d finally gotten was rapidly cooling in the cupholder. It wasn’t that good and Megan had really wanted salt and caramel. Or salted caramel. Either one. Instead, she’d gotten a lot of hassle and barely any whipped cream. Color tinged Megan’s cheeks as she thought about the man she’d just run into. Once upon a time, they meant something to each other. Once upon a time, he’d been the most important thing in her life. Megan knew whose fault it was. Whose fault it always was. It was hers, plain and simple. She’d gotten a taste of popularity, felt the high it provided, and promptly dumped Nick Brewster. As if that weren’t unforgivable enough, she made it worse by insulting him every time she’d seen him after that. It was like some demon had gotten inside of her. She wanted to belittle everyone. If everyone felt even a tenth of the helplessness she did in her own life, then she’d done her job. It was only recently that she admitted maybe that was why people hated her so much. She had a way of picking at people’s vulnerabilities and worrying them like a dog did to a bone. She pulled the hot chocolate to her mouth and promptly grimaced as soon as it touched her lips. Cocoa was gross when it was cold. Megan drove through the town square, itching to get away from it. This town didn’t hold a lot of good memories for her, but she stayed because her mother was here. Looking back, it would have been a lot wiser to move out as soon as she could. Her mother hadn’t done much for her other than fill her with doubt and an inferiority complex she tried to cover up with insults. Megan blew out a breath. She hated psychoanalyzing herself and yet, she couldn’t seem to stop doing it. After that mess with Max and Katie, she realized she was on a path that if she kept on, she would never be able to get off of. Megan pulled into the parking lot of the craft store and walked in. She loved the way it smelled during the fall, even the terrible fake cinnamon fragrance made her happy. Megan took a basket and slowly went down each aisle, examining everything and letting her imagination run wild. She was here for the honeycomb pattern but grabbed some bubble wrap just in case she couldn’t find anything. She bet she could use the wrap to make it look like a honeycomb in a pinch, plus she could pop it later on. Megan wasn’t a complete monster. Even she could see the allure of unpopped bubble wrap. Just as she was about to leave the floral design aisle, she noticed massive sugar pine cones on sale and paused. When she was a kid, she went on a road trip with her parents. It was one of the few good memories she had of the both of them. They wandered into a shop in a small town in the Smoky mountains and a woman there was selling massive pine cones as fire starters. She dipped them in a thin layer of wax to help them to burn longer. Megan had been fascinated with them so her father bought her one and allowed her to toss it into the campfire when they’d gone back to the RV. Megan picked up one of the cones and held it up. They were in great shape and could probably hold a lot of wax. With her brain working overtime with thoughts of what she could do with them, she ended up loading her basket up and cleaning the store out of their whole stock of them. She made a mental note to jump online to her soap supplier to see if they sold soy wax. A few minutes later, Megan was in the checkout line. They didn’t have any of the patterns she was looking for, but the bubble wrap would work okay. She kept the receipt and tucked it into a small pocket on the inside of her purse where she kept all her soap and craft receipts for tax purposes. She’d never sold anything other than soap, but she’d been wanting to branch out a little. Once she was done, she loaded everything up in her compact SUV and drove home. She sighed as soon as she stepped out of her vehicle and her feet hit the ground. Her house was in the forested area of Pecan Grove and well away from the prying eyes of the townspeople. This was how she wanted it and she fought ferociously to keep her privacy. She rarely trimmed the trees around her house unless they began to present a danger of falling, and she’d built an eight-foot privacy fence in her backyard. The closest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away, but she soaped in the backyard and didn’t want someone to wander up and see what she was doing. She knew it was overkill but couldn’t help herself. After going for so long without privacy, she hoarded it like a dragon these days. Even her mom hadn’t been able to sneak up on her, and she’d tried. Multiple times. Megan grinned as she thought about it. She’d installed the squeakiest hinge on the gate and ensured she kept her house locked at all times. The most important thing she’d done was not give her mother a key. Of course, this had started a massive argument, but this was one of the few things Megan held firm on. This was her home and she deserved to manage it the way she saw fit. Plus, her mother would rob her blind if she was left to her own devices inside of Megan’s home. She wouldn’t call it robbing, of course. Megan’s mother never thought of taking something that didn’t belong to her as robbing. She considered it to be due to her. After all, she had kept Megan alive all these years, hadn’t she? Her mother had impossibly low standards when it came to interpreting the law, and after a few run-ins with her over things that didn’t belong to her, Megan had put her foot down. She scanned the yard and the small dirt road behind her to make sure she was alone. When she was satisfied, she began to unload her purchases. In just a few minutes, she was in her kitchen and rummaging through her pantry for the ingredients to make another hot chocolate. Caramel was a beast to make, but she was craving it like no one’s business. She had the day off, so why not? Thirty minutes later, Megan was sprawled on her couch idly flipping through television channels and sipping an outrageously sized cup of salted caramel hot chocolate. The house smelled divine and Megan was finally happy. She would have been truly content if thoughts of Nick didn’t kept intruding into her brain at the most inopportune times. Megan would have to be more careful to avoid him in the future. And honestly, he’d been here the entire time and they’d never run into each other before, so how difficult would it be? If that was the coffee shop he frequented, she didn’t mind at all not going there anymore. Especially if it meant not having to see Abigail again. She was a terror. Megan gripped her mug with both hands and sipped on the drink. Her mind wandered away from Nick and to all the wonderful things she could do in her shed with the new fragrances she’d gotten in the mail a couple of days ago. Megan thought in the past about approaching people in Pecan Grove to sell her soaps, but every time she thought she was brave enough, she chickened out. People didn’t like her here and she couldn’t bear the thought of them turning her down, not because her soap wasn’t good (because it was divine), but because they didn’t want to work with her. She was an adult now. She couldn't use the excuse of being a teenager anymore. Her words would continue coming back to haunt her. Megan was sure of it, more than she’d been sure of anything in her life. She knew that even things from her teenage years would come back to haunt her. Because they had. Today with Nick Brewster she’d wanted to blurt out an apology fifteen years overdue. But doing so would make her look like an idiot. She tried to justify it by thinking maybe Nick had forgotten all about what happened between them, but from the look on his face—his quiet amusement at her discomfort, she knew he hadn’t forgotten. Any of it. But especially the part she really wanted him to. Megan had never been all that lucky. Chapter Six Nick Nick’s phone rang, interrupting another hour’s writing dry spell. Zero words had made it from pen to paper and Nick was staring at the page blankly when his cell called from his pocket. He reached in and without checking the caller ID held it up to his ear. "Brewster," he barked into the receiver. "For such a mild-mannered writer, you answer the phone like a drill sergeant," the voice on the other end said. A smile crept onto Nick's face. "Charlie. Hey man." He hadn't heard from his friend in weeks and he was starting to worry about him. Charlie had been his best friend since college and he'd moved to Pecan Grove only to leave it within six months when the travel bug hit him. Nick maintained his house or at least the portions he could, and Charlie hired other people to take care of the rest. He hadn't seen his friend in over a year, but they tried to chat at least twice a month. "How's my favorite writer?" Charlie sounded like he was standing outside. Or in a wind tunnel. Nick could never guess. "Not doing much writing, I'm afraid," Nick admitted. "I'm sitting in the office staring at a piece of paper and so far nothing has happened." Charlie chuckled over the line. "I think it's going to take a little more effort than staring." "Enough about me. Tell me, what majestic place are you in now? China? Belize? Transylvania?" There was a pause before Charlie spoke. "I'm actually here in the States. Headed back to Texas." "Really?" Nick's brow furrowed. "Everything okay?" "Dad's sick," Charlie admitted. "Mom left me a voicemail a few days ago and I just got it. I hopped the first plane I could catch back." "I'm so sorry to hear that. Anything I can do?" Charlie's parents lived in the next town over. He'd met them a couple of times and knew they were good people. "If you can make sure the house is ready for me." A huff of air escaped his friend. "I hate to ask this, but if you can find someone local there and set up a cleaning service for me I'd appreciate it. Just a one-time deep clean. The place is probably a little musty from disuse." "No problem," Nick said and scribbled a reminder down. "When are you due in?" "A few weeks. I have to clear up some stuff with the office and then I plan to head down to Pecan Grove." "I'll make sure everything is ready. Call me if you need anything else." "Thanks, brother," Charlie said. "I don't know how long I'll be back for. It just… depends." Guilt hit Nick in the solar plexus. They were all getting older but that meant their parents were too. "I understand. When you're ready to stop by, I'll be here." "I'll see you soon," Charlie said before he clicked off the phone. Nick jotted a quick note on the yellow pad he kept by the computer to remind him about setting up the cleaning service. He had some time to play with before he called, but he didn’t want to forget. Charlie rarely asked for anything and during his call, he sounded off a little. Something was going on with his friend. Something more than just his dad being sick, if he had to guess. When he hung up, he leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling, his thoughts a whirlwind. What a strange day. Running into Megan and now hearing Charlie would be home. It felt like things were changing. Maybe not in a good way. After two more hours of writing absolutely nothing, Nick put his shoes back on and left the house. He didn't have much in the way of groceries, so he decided to hit up a restaurant first and go to the grocery store the next morning. Pecan Grove didn't have a lot in the way of fine cuisine, but it did have some good mom and pop places. He stopped into Dot's, a staple in the town. The outside of the place wasn't much to look at. It was a flat building with a blinking neon sign and a large parking lot. But when you went inside, the floors were shiny, the tables clean, and the smell of their latest homemade pie lingered in the air. He tried not to eat out too often, but when he did, he usually went to Dot's. The namesake greeted him as soon as he stepped inside. She was a tall woman with broad shoulders and a boisterous laugh. She usually wore an electric blue eyeshadow and a bow in her hair. Today was no different. "Come on in, honey," she said in a voice that sounded like it had never met a cigarette it didn't like. The thing was, he knew Dot didn't smoke. She was just gifted with a low raspy tone so when she laughed it made her sound like a cackling witch. No one who heard that laugh could resist laughing in response. Nick followed her and let her lead him over to one of the smaller booths. She plopped a menu in front of him and brought him back a glass of water. "The usual?" she asked. Nick glanced down at the specials. "You have trout today?" "Sure do," Dot said. "We hired a new chef. A guy named Antonio." She rolled her eyes. "He's full of himself, but that boy could cook rocks and make them seem like a delicacy. So whatever we have on special, it's probably delicious. I wouldn't know." She patted her large belly. "I'm trying to watch my girlish figure, you know." Nick couldn't help but laugh. "I completely understand. I might skip the trout tonight, but I'll try the Chicken Oscar. What kind of pie do you have?" Dot's face lit up. She was especially proud of her pie. They served a different one each day and once a year they held a town-wide pie contest where a large cash prize was given to a new pie invention. "Apple, darling," she said. "It's about that time and you know I can't resist the apples when they come in from the next town over." Nick nodded. "I'll have a slice then." Dot jotted it down and gave him an appraising look. When she didn't walk off and put his order in, Nick tilted his head. "Something else, Dot?" She pursed her bright red lips. "I heard you had a run-in today with Megan Brooks." Nick wanted to groan. This town. Everyone knew everything. "I wouldn't call it a run-in," he protested. "That isn't what I heard." Dot looked around to see who else was listening. Not that it would matter. In this town, it was like there was a central hub for eavesdroppers. Within ten minutes, their conversation would be disseminated to the Sunday potluck group and from there it would find the ears of every interested party in town. "Listen," Dot said. "That Megan is not a nice girl." She peered down at him, her watery blue eyes staring into his. "She about ruined that Max boy and she's never nice when she comes in here. If you're thinking about dating that woman, I'd encourage you to look elsewhere. There's plenty of eligible women in this town." Nick gaped up at Dot. He'd been coming here for years. Their exchanges were always pleasant and she'd never tried to get into his business. Not to his knowledge at least. So this unwarranted examination into his dating life was, in Nick's opinion, a little bit irksome. He blinked a few times and tried to gather up what he was going to say and think about it for a second before it flowed out of him in an unhinged stream of consciousness. He'd settled back in Pecan Grove after college because it was quiet here. And pretty. He never had to worry about anyone getting into his business because he was quiet and private. He didn't date anyone and didn't give anyone the details of his life. Dot was delving in where few dared to tread because Nick didn't take kindly to people getting into his business. He examined and tossed out numerous comments before he finally settled on a polite but borderline cold smile. "I'll take that under advisement," he said before he snapped his menu closed and handed it up to her. Dot's smile fell and a frown appeared on her face. She wasn't sure if she'd been shunned or not and she couldn't ask him because he'd given her such a nice response. "Thank you, Dot. I can't wait for the pie," Nick said as Dot took the menu from him. Nonplussed, all she could do was nod and turn away. This town. Normally he handled all the good-natured gossip by holding his tongue. It wasn't his place to get involved. But when people started talking about Megan… it just got under his skin. He didn't know why, either. Maybe it was because there was a lot more to her than met the eye. Or there used to be. Who knew how she'd changed over the years? She was a holy terror in high school, so it was possible she was even worse now. Just like that, Nick sat up straighter as an idea formed in his head. A terrible one. One that would probably backfire on him in an epic and massive way, but if it worked… oh, if it worked, he could be on top of his game again. Was there a heart underneath all those overpriced clothes and expensive tanning lotions? Did Megan care about other people or was she so twisted up in herself that she couldn't see straight? Nick loved complex people. In fact, that was what sent his last novel careening up the charts in a reckless slide to hit number one. He wrote about them. Nick liked to pick apart his characters’ motivations. He liked to make people human. With all of the flaws that come from being one. And wasn't Megan Brooks one of the most flawed people he'd ever known? He sat back against the booth and let out a long breath. It was a horrible idea. He'd have to be in close quarters with Megan for weeks to pull it off. And who even said she would let him tag along? He could see her right now reacting to his proposition. Megan was possibly even more private than he was. This thing with Dot bothered him. Nick knew Megan wasn’t the most popular person in this town. Well, technically she was very popular. She was gorgeous, well-off, and knew a ton of influential people. But those kinds of people weren’t the ride or die crew he had. If something happened to Megan or she needed help, those people would desert her in a heartbeat. Nick knew Megan enough to know she would never, ever call anyone out over how they treated her. Possibly because she'd treated them worse first, but still. Megan never said a word to anyone who didn't speak to her first. Or at least she didn't used to. He needed a flawed, tough heroine for his next book. Who better to inspire him than Megan Brooks? Dot sat his food down, not as gently as she usually did. Not surprising. She was a staple in this town, just like her restaurant and he'd all but reprimanded her for speaking ill about Megan. If he wasn't careful, he'd get banned from the place. Nick smiled at Dot and thanked her. She harrumphed and left his table without even asking if he needed more water. He did. With a sigh, he stood up and walked over to the bar. Another waitress saw him and offered up a sympathetic look. She waited for Dot to disappear behind the kitchen doors and headed over to give him a refill. "Don't feel bad. No one can say a cross word to Dot and get away with it." Her voice lowered. "Even if she deserves it." She handed his glass back and gave him a friendly smile. "Maybe especially if she deserves it." "Thanks," he said. "I just don't like gossiping about people." A sunny smile appeared on the pretty waitress’s face. "Well then, darling. You're living in the wrong town now, aren't you?" A rueful expression crossed his face. "Guess I am." She turned around and Nick went back to his table. He shouldn't feel so compelled to stick up for her, but he couldn't seem to help himself. She didn't have the kind of family he did. Granted, his family was sometimes not all that it was cracked up to be, but they loved each other. Sometimes that was more important than all the other craziness that came with it. He sat back down and looked at his chicken. It was burned on the edges. A laugh escaped him, but he picked up his fork anyway and started to eat. Even burned, it wasn't half bad, but maybe he'd find another place to eat to give Dot some time to cool her heels. After he paid the check and left a smaller than normal tip for Dot, he headed back home. There was a new spring in his step. He had a feeling Megan was somehow the key to getting his writing mojo back. There wasn't much better for a writer than real-life inspiration. If he could get to know the real Megan again, he thought he might be able to craft a memorable character. Even if it was only slightly based on her. Megan, no matter where or when, was always memorable. Once he got back into his office, he pulled his notepad closer and began to jot some questions down for her. He also jotted down his justification for his asking something this intrusive. Nick was the kind of person who wanted to know things. He wanted to know how things worked and he wanted to know the inner workings of peoples’ minds. Knowing someone's motivation could go a long way toward getting to know them. He'd known Megan since she was a child, but they hadn't talked in years. When they had talked, it was usually either Megan saying something snarky to him or… well, the alternative which was even worse. He hadn't thought about that night in any detail, though it did sneak up on him from time to time, for a while. But every time he did, the memory was vivid and painful. Nick tossed his pen down and shoved his fingers through his hair as the memories flooded back to him. It was their junior year. He and Megan hadn't had a real conversation in probably three years. She stopped coming over, stopped confiding in him, stopped everything other than the occasional insult thrown his way. But he knew she still cared about him. He could see it in the way her eyes looked every time she said something nasty to him. Like she couldn't help herself and had to do it to cement her place as the most popular girl in school. There was always an apology there, even if she could never utter the words herself. She wore a pink halter top. Not hot pink, more like a pastel cotton candy. White shorts, the shorter the better to show off her perfectly tanned and toned legs. Flip flops. Her only nod to her carefree days. After she stopped talking to him, she usually wore glittery sandals or wedges, the better to show off how well she took care of her body. But that night she wore flip flops, showing off her bright orange toenails. Normally Nick would not be caught dead at a high school party. But he heard Megan was going to be there and he heard Max was about to break up with her. It wasn't his proudest moment, showing up when she was sure to be humiliated. At least for a little while. She and Max were as constant as the tides. They pulled away from each other, only to meet up again each night. It was maddening. For one night, though, he would see her vulnerable. In the past, he had seen her that way because she trusted him with her insecurities. He never saw it coming—her breaking away from him. It just happened. One day she was there, the next she was gone. One day she was pretty and blonde, with a blush of freckles across her nose. The next she was blonder, tanner, no imperfections visible on her perfectly made-up face. He blinked and she was a totally different girl. No longer his friend. No longer anyone's friend, he suspected. He nursed a beer that night as he sat alone on the couch. A couple of girls tried to talk to him, but he was uninterested. He made polite small talk but once they noticed his lack of interest, they would roll their eyes and try to find the next boy to flirt with. Nick watched Megan when he was sure she wouldn't notice. She tossed her hair a lot more. She smiled and nodded and allowed people to fawn over her. Nick's stomach roiled with acid as he watched her. What happened to that sweet girl he once knew? He got tired of watching her and felt sick to his stomach because of the reason he was there, so he went upstairs a little while later. He didn't want to leave early and hear flack from his friends, but he didn't want to be down there anymore. Nick found an unused bedroom, clean, empty, and with a television. He sneaked into the room and clicked the door shut behind him, grabbing a book from the shelf by the door before he settled himself onto the couch shoved into the corner. Less than twenty minutes later, the door burst open and Megan rushed into the room. She shut and locked the door behind her and turned to face him. Her eyes were bright with tears, shiny and hard from the effort not to let them flow. "Let me guess," Nick said. "Max broke up with you again?" She flinched like he slapped her in the face and he remembered that look every time he thought about that night. He could have said a hundred things to her. He could have supported her. But no, he wanted her to hurt her the way she'd hurt him. So he brought up the boy who always broke her heart. Megan smoothed her hair down, a nervous gesture not many people knew about. Nick knew because Nick used to know everything about her. "No," she said and they both knew she was lying. She stood with her back to the door for a moment. Nick sat frozen on the couch, his book forgotten in his hand. Something felt different between them. There was a sense of desperation from her. As if she'd sought him out because she knew he was the only one who really valued her. It was sad and for a split second, Nick thought about allowing her to do it. They both knew what she was going to do. The thought came and went and with it a slight sense of disgust. He respected Megan more than that. He respected himself more. He waited until she'd crossed the room and kneeled on the floor in front of him, her hands on his knees and her eyes on his. He could lean forward and claim her lips like he'd been wanting to do since they were in the eighth grade. But then he'd be like every other boy in the school trying to get her to date them. He wanted her to want him because she wanted him. Not because she was trying to prove a point. Or, in this case, trying to make Max jealous. She was using him. Once again, they both knew it. He looked into her brilliant blue eyes and shook his head. Her eyes widened and then narrowed. Her fingers tightened on his knees and she started to lean forward, no doubt to kiss him. "No," he said. Megan reared back as if he'd slapped her. "No?" she hissed. He repeated himself and was proud of how steady his voice was. If Megan could read his thoughts, she'd never let him live it down. He wanted nothing more than for her to lean in and kiss him. But he didn't want it like this. Looking back, even though he was only sixteen, it was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. It was the right thing, though, and that's what mattered. He could have allowed her to do it. He would have even enjoyed it. Maybe she would have too. But it would have been wrong. He'd spent the last ten years imagining what that kiss would have been like. Nick scrubbed his hands over his face and groaned. He couldn't enter into any agreement with Megan while wanting to kiss her. That was asking for trouble. Nick didn't have much of an ego, but he still had some. Megan, self-crowned queen of Pecan Grove, would shred it to pieces. Chapter Seven Megan She was not mentally prepared to be at work today. Thoughts of soap and Nick Brewster rolled around in her head like a sack of marbles. She was having trouble concentrating on anything. Normally, she went into work with her mind like a steel trap, ready to catch everything. Today it was more like a sieve. The only thing that wouldn't fall out was Nick. She tossed her pencil down and stood up from her desk. Megan stretched for a moment and looked outside. She worked in a larger town than Pecan Grove, but it didn't have quite the charm her hometown did. If she could eradicate the gossipers, she'd be inclined to spend more time there. When she worked, she stayed in an apartment she owned just a few blocks from her office. It was a nice place but didn't have quite the comfort of home. She frowned as she watched the traffic outside. Maybe she should find another place here. It honestly was a pain driving back and forth, but it was more difficult to find property here. More than likely she wouldn't be able to have a shed in the back because she wouldn't be able to find a yard large enough. Working from home was frowned upon, though she could probably get away with it if she pushed hard enough. She handled all of the major clients for the office and was well compensated for it. The vast majority of her meetings took place out of the office and she had a flexible schedule. Megan tapped her chin as she thought about it. On one hand, she wouldn't have to get up so early in the morning. On the other, she'd be able to step out to her shed and do all the crafting she wanted after she got off of work. The more she thought about it, the fewer cons there were. She wouldn’t have to drive back home on Friday evenings. There would be no more toting clothes and toiletries back and forth. Megan tapped on the glass and turned back to her desk. Right now she had enough money in the bank to last her for at least two years if she were careful. With the extra cash she made selling soap, she might be able to stretch it to three years. She was nothing if not meticulous with her saving and spending. She liked having designer things, but she shopped around for them carefully. Plus she made them last once she bought them. She was a whiz with a capsule wardrobe and could recycle anything in her closet to wear the same week, usually with no one the wiser. She sat back down in her ergonomic chair and slid her shoes off. Placing her feet on the acupressure machine under her desk, she nudged the on the switch with the side of her foot and groaned as the machine pushed into pressure points on her feet. She was single and had no one to rub her feet. This was where technology took over. Moments later, her phone rang. She frowned down at it, not recognizing the number. Few people had her direct line. Most people trying to get ahold of her had to go through her secretary. Hesitant, she picked it up. “Megan Brooks,” she said, her voice as cool and polite as she could make it. “Megan, this is Nick.” The voice that had haunted her dreams came over the line and she sucked in a surprised breath. “Brewster?” Megan asked dumbly. “I hope so,” said Nick. “Errm. Okay. How can I help you?” “That’s actually the perfect question,” he said. “But first, how are you?” Megan wanted to ask if he wanted to know how was she now or how was she as soon as she saw him again. Both answers were not great. “I’m fine,” she answered. “And you?” “I’m hanging in there,” he said. There was an awkward pause over the line. Megan itched to break it, but he was the one who called her so he could sweat it out for a bit. Then she remembered how much he hated small talk. An evil grin appeared on her face. “So, how long have you been back in Pecan Grove?” she asked. “I only left for college. I got a job when I came back and my parents helped me with a down payment for the house I’m in now.” "That's wonderful," Megan said cheerily as she quickly thought about the next awkward small talk question she could ask. "So, did you hear that they're thinking about putting up a new Kroger in that lot where the old hardware store used to be?" She held in her snicker as she waited for Nick to respond. "Errr, no. I hadn't heard that." Nick huffed out a breath of annoyance. "Oh, that's a shame. Well, maybe it will be one of those super Krogers. I hope they expand the wine aisle. Or maybe add in a larger deli. You can never have too much Black Forest Ham." "Megan." "Oh! Did you hear that we're in for a potentially troublesome tropical storm season?" Megan had to press her lips together to keep from laughing. "A—what?" Nick said. "Megan, we're close to Austin. The last thing we need to worry about is a tropical storm." "I mean as in the state. Our state. Loyalty shouldn't just be to your town, Nick." He snorted in amusement. "I know what you're doing." "Doing?" Megan said, her voice dripping with innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm just making conversation." The sigh that escaped him was full of aggravation. "Fine. You want to know why I'm calling?" "That would be nice," Megan said. She was having so much fun messing with him she couldn't bring herself to be mean. "I have a… favor to ask you." Her hand tightened around the receiver. "Oh? A favor. From me. Color me intrigued." She had no idea what this could be about. "You aren't going to like it." A laugh escaped her. "Then why are you asking?" Nick blew out a breath. She could hear his hesitation over the line. What in the world could he think of asking her that made him hesitate so much? There weren't many things that could shock her. Growing up in a small town with a mother like Wendy Brooks had almost made her immune to shock. Anticipation was making her a little breathless. Why in the world would Nick Brewster reach out to her all of these years later unless he needed something? "Well?" she asked. Chapter Eight Nick Here went nothing. "I'd like to shadow you for a few weeks." Silence filled the line until finally, "Excuse me?" "Shadow," he repeated. "As in, I'd like to follow you around for a few weeks." "And why would that be?" She didn't sound angry, more perplexed. This was good. He could deal with perplexed. "I'm writing a new book and I need to come up with a good female heroine." He thought that might sound good to her ego. "You want to use me as inspiration?" She still didn't sound angry, but she was moving from perplexed to annoyed. "Yes," he said. "I'd like to write a complicated, strong heroine. Someone who isn't afraid to stand her ground and say what needs to be said." "I'm not even sure what to say. I think you want me to be flattered, but that isn't really how I'm feeling. Especially when you use words like complicated." Nick blinked. "Complicated isn't a bad thing." "Oh?" Megan asked. "Are you dating a complicated woman?" she snapped. "Or have you broken up with a woman for being too complicated? No one wants to know someone complicated. There's much more to me than that." "Whoah, Megan. That isn't what I meant. Complicated can also mean deep. My characters are like onions. Multilayered and deep. And so are you. That's all I meant." Nick rubbed the space between his brow. "For how long?" she snapped. "A minimum of two weeks." "And you'd be at my office?" She still didn't sound pleased. "And your home," he clarified. "My home?" she echoed."Why do you need to be there?" "Because people are different at home than they are at work. You won't have to take any time off and I can compensate you for your time." She rolled her eyes. "You probably won't want to compensate me if I have to take time off. You probably can't afford it." At that comment, a wide grin spread over his face. Megan Brooks, the woman who considered herself in the know on just about everything had no idea who he was or the kind of money he was making. "You're probably right," he said. "How about I pay for food and miscellaneous items?" "I haven't agreed," Megan said. "Of course not. But before you decide, I also need you to know you'll have to be at my house as well.” Megan blustered. "Why? I have no desire to go to your house." His grin didn't fade. He loved how prickly she was. "People are also different when they're in social situations." Silence fell on her end and he grew concerned. He knew exactly how much Megan loved social situations. "So I have to be put into social situations with you. What are you going to do for me?" "What do you want?" His voice was wary. "I have numerous social obligations over the next few weeks. If you agree to go to those with me, I'll agree to your social situations, whatever they may be." She paused. "As long as it doesn't require me getting messy. Messy is open-ended and I retain the right to decide what constitutes messy." He thought about it. Nick hated parties like he hated flying cockroaches. Everyone hated those buggers. Parties felt like getting hit in the face with a thousand of them. But he needed her. He had a feeling about this. She was complicated enough to serve as a basis for his next main character. But he needed to study her. Megan knew it as well, and she was smart enough to twist this to her advantage. When he thought about having to go to social events with her, with anyone really, he got itchy under the collar. Nick was a slave to the muse, though, and knew if he wanted this, he was going to have to offer something in return. He'd never known Megan to be magnanimous. Not even when she was young. "I won't put you into any physically messy situations." He made sure to phrase it that way because he planned on making her go to dinner with his family and those were always messy in the metaphorical sense. "I'm not sure what that means, but I don't like it," Megan muttered. "If you agree on a minimum of two-three weeks, I'll agree to go to whatever work or social events you have." You could have heard a pin drop. He'd finally managed to surprise Megan Brooks. The world must have stopped turning. "You will?" she asked, stark disbelief in her voice. He nodded even though she couldn't see it. "I will. I can guarantee you I won't like it, but I will." "Hmm. You must really need this," she mused. He did, but he wasn't going to admit to her he'd been suffering from writer's block a lot longer than he was comfortable with. Nothing in his life right now was giving him inspiration. He'd tried walking, exercising, yoga… you name it, Nick had probably tried it. He'd even gotten on YouTube and tried those weird ASMR videos to see if he could relax enough for inspiration to flow through. Nada. He was as blocked as a highway during road construction. "I need to start working on my next book if that's what you mean," he said. "So when can we start?" "You want to start now?" He chuckled as he imagined the look on her face. "If we could, yes." He heard the sound of pages flipping. "You—are you using a desk calendar?" "Yes," she snapped. "Why?" "Because it's the year 2019," Nick said. "That's why." He thought it was adorable. And surprising. She probably had the world's most expensive cell phone and yet, she was using a paper planner. "I don't like to rely on electronics," she admitted, though she sounded mulish about it. "I like to have a hard copy of everything." "Are you planning on getting raided by the government?" A startled laugh broke from her. "Jerk," she said, but it wasn't unkind. "I add it in my phone too, but I carry a small calendar inside of my purse. It also doubles as a backup. I never forget an appointment." "I'd hope not with that dinosaur system." Nick laughed as he heard her try not to chuckle over the line. He realized in just this short conversation how much he'd missed her. Megan had always been a little crabby and short-tempered. He always thought of her like that old neighbor who shakes their cane at you and yells to get off their lawn. She hadn't been unkind, just a little blunt. That all came later. He'd never found out why, but he suspected it had something to do with her mother. It always had something to do with her. "I'd rather not start this week," Megan said. "I just had an idea and I'd like to ruminate on it some more before I add something like you into the mix. Plus, I have to get clearance from my boss. So right now, I can't guarantee anything at all. More than likely he'd be okay with it, but I still have to ask. And remember, you agreed to go to my social functions, Nick. If you back out of this, there will be hell to pay." "I won't back out. You better not back out either." He knew she wouldn't. Megan loved a challenge and that's how she would see it. Even if things got weird, she'd see it through. He'd never seen her give up on anything. "I won't. I do reserve the right to complain about it, though." "After 5 p.m., I'll hear your complaints. But rust me, I'm wonderful. You won't have any complaints." Before he could laugh at her ridiculous statement, she'd hung up the phone. That went… better than he expected. He wasn't sure what to expect when he called her, but he wouldn't have been surprised if she'd yelled at him. That hadn't happened and she agreed more readily than he would have expected. After, of course, she'd browbeat him into accepting social invites. That was going to be terrible. He could already tell. Any party he had to go to would be terrible, even if it ended up being wonderful, simply because he hated parties. There were very few times in his life he could honestly say he'd gone somewhere there were a ton of people and ended up having a good time. Most often, he'd find a corner on a couch and sit there playing on his phone. Or find the dog and hang out with it. Once he'd even hung out with one of the host's little brothers playing Xbox in their game room. That, he considered borderline fun. It could have crossed the territory into actual fun if he'd had a better game. Nick finally stood up from his office chair and stretched. He hadn't gotten a single thing done today, but he still felt a sense of accomplishment. There were a few days to kill before he kicked things off with Megan. His house needed to be cleaned, since she'd be over here before he knew it and he needed to do laundry. Nick never dirtied a lot of clothes because he worked from home and usually dressed for comfort. The problem was that he procrastinated on laundry so long he was eventually faced with the dilemma of buying new clothes or actually loading the washing machine. He could afford to hire someone, but the thought of someone folding his underwear weirded him out on a cellular level. He could also afford to hire a cleaning service, but he didn't like his privacy violated. His hometown left him alone for the most part, but he was still a well-known novelist and he kept stuff around his home he wouldn't want anyone to know about. There was nothing dark in his past, not really, but the thought of someone digging around in his stuff didn’t feel comfortable to him. He’d rather be messy than allow a stranger to be in here moving everything around. It was getting late, but he was single. He could afford to stay up a little later and clean. There was no one around waiting on him to do anything. Except for his publisher. But they could wait. Chapter Nine Megan Today was the day. She still couldn't believe she agreed to this. Being in close proximity to Nick for weeks seemed like an insane idea. They hadn't exchanged any meaningful conversation in a decade and the last time they saw each other, Megan had acted like a complete fool. She had no idea why Nick thought this was a good idea. He was a writer, though. Maybe all of them were insane. Her GPS told her the directions to his house in a robotic voice and as she pulled onto his street, she couldn't help but be impressed. Huge pecan trees lined the streets and crunched under her tires as she slowly drove down it. When the GPS told her she arrived, she looked out her window and was stunned. His house looked like something out of a historical novel. Not quite Gone With the Wind, but not too shabby either. It was large and white but had an old-fashioned charm to it that she hadn't seen replicated in quite some time. There was a large wrap-around porch with two rocking chairs in the front and healthy potted plants scattered around it. She couldn't help but be charmed by the nostalgia of it and thought that maybe she hadn’t known Nick as well as she thought. Megan pulled into the driveway and turned off the vehicle. Her hands white-knuckled the steering wheel and she steadied her breathing. The last thing she could afford was to show her nerves to him. She'd never live it down. Megan could have honked to get him out to the car, but her curiosity got the better of her. She slid out of the car and jogged up to the front steps. His door was deep burnished mahogany with only a small peephole that was so high she knew he would only be able to see the top of her head. She wasn't too short, but Nick had a lot of height on her. Megan itched to press the doorbell, but she also wanted to knock so she did and winced because the wood was so solid it hurt her knuckles. For good measure, she reached over and rang the doorbell, too. He opened it in less than thirty seconds. She was surprised by how happy she was to see him and her heart plummeted to her feet first. But then she noticed what he was wearing and all those warm fuzzies went up in smoke. Her eyes drifted down to his t-shirt, then to the slightly too-large faded blue jeans, and down to the Vans sneakers on his feet. But it was the t-shirt more than anything else he was wearing that made her see red. It was black, faded, and said Polytheism—why have just one imaginary friend? He wore a pair of black-rimmed glasses that should have dimmed the emerald of his eyes, but they only served to highlight them. They glittered with amusement as he watched the myriad of emotions play over her face. "You can't wear that shirt," she blurted. Nick looked down at the offending shirt. "Why not?" Because it's offensive. Because it's terrible. Because it shows off arm muscles she didn't know he possessed and it was making her mouth water. "Because it's unprofessional," she said. "I work in an office with a dress code." Megan glowered at him, but Nick appeared to be unimpressed. "I don't," he said and held the door open for her. She stepped in, brushing past him and discreetly inhaling the scent of his pine cologne. Or something with pine in it. She wasn't sure if it was cologne or if he'd been outdoors this morning. Either way, he smelled yummy. "You don't what?" she asked. "Work there," he quipped. She stepped aside and let him lead her through the house. She tried not to gawk like an impressed teen, but there was a lot to gawk about. The house itself was decorated tastefully. Megan wasn't sure what to expect when she'd walked in. A bachelor pad was her first thought, but this was nothing like that. It was obvious from the dark woods and the bold furniture that a man lived here. What made it seem like a home were the books scattered across the living room coffee table and the massive bookshelf behind it. There was a robe slung over the back of one of the armchairs and a pair of flannel slippers on the floor beside it. A cup of coffee still steamed on the kitchen bar. The house was painted in a light dove gray, but the kitchen was painted a complementary pale green. If she had to name the color, she would have chosen seafoam. Megan looked up only to see exposed wooden beams in the ceilings, stained a dark mahogany. She didn't recognize the artwork on the walls, but she liked the paintings all the same. One had an image of a lonely boat tossed in stormy waters. Another was a picture of the back of a woman, watching a man walk away, highlighted by dozens of street lights. Both were melancholy and thought-provoking. Just like the man in front of her. "You have a beautiful home," she said. Megan shrugged off her coat but kept it in her arms because they'd need to leave in a few minutes to make it on time. "Thanks." He walked into the kitchen and picked up a coffee pod. "I just bought this machine yesterday. I'm not sure why it took me so long. Want a cup?" Megan peered at the pod, relieved when it wasn't flavored. She loved coffee, but she could not abide by all the weird flavors of coffee the world had. She'd never had a vanilla or hazelnut flavored coffee that tasted like either of those flavors. "I'd love one," she said and took a seat at one of the stools placed around his counter. The kitchen was relatively small for the size of the house, but Nick looked right at home. His cabinets were painted antique white with a dark stain highlighting the edges and corners. It gave them an aged look, and Megan wondered where he'd gotten it done. A smile played over her mouth as she watched Nick pop the pod in the coffee machine. His movements were slow and methodical as if he was just now learning how to use it. Perhaps he was. It was expensive to go out and grab a coffee every day. Maybe he'd finally realized that or he'd been scarred by running into her there and decided to take his drinks at home now. When the machine finished running, Nick looked over his shoulder. "Cream or sugar?" "Cream, please. No sugar." She tapped her fingernails on his countertop. "You still can't wear that shirt, you know." He stirred the cream inside the steaming mug and handed it over to her. "And here I thought my coffee distraction skills were stellar." "We have a strict dress code," Megan said again. "And I don't have one." He looked down at himself and raised his arms at the shoulder level. "This is my work attire most days." Megan's gaze narrowed. "Haven't you ever heard of dressing for the role you want in life?" Nick barked out a laugh and dropped his arms. "I have the role I want." She wasn't sure what he meant by that. "You're happy where you are?" Nick's eyes glittered from behind his glasses. "As happy as I have any right to be." What was he not telling her? Megan hadn't been diligent about keeping tabs on Nick after their high school disaster. She knew a little bit about his life afterward. Megan wasn't completely immune to nosiness, but she had no idea what kind of books he wrote or whether he was actually published. She made a mental note to cast aside her stalking policies once she made it through the day. "Still," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You don't have any slacks? Or even if you don't have slacks, do you have some nicer shoes and maybe a blazer?" Nick leaned down and rested his elbows on the counter. He put his face in his hands and stared at her. "You seem like a smart girl, but let me know if I need to dumb this down any further. This is what I'm wearing. If you don't like it, tough cookies." Megan gaped at him like a fish. "Who says tough cookies?" she spat, unsure of what else to say. She couldn't believe he'd just told her no. "I do." Nick shrugged and stood. He slid another mug under the machine and made himself a cup of coffee. "Can't you see the way I'm dressed? That's what my office expects." "From you," Nick retorted. Megan wanted to pick up her mug and chuck it at his stupid head. "From everyone," she groaned. "You're going to embarrass yourself," Megan said and shrugged. "Don't say I didn't warn you." Nick smiled to himself and it looked like he had a secret she wasn't privy to. "What?" she barked. "Why are you smiling?" One of Nick's shoulders lifted and fell. "No reason. It's just fun to get you riled up." "You're lucky I'm a lady," Megan muttered. "Am I?" Nick questioned. He turned back to her. His handsome face took her breath away. She remembered all the edges of it and every expression he made. She hated that she hadn't gotten to look at his face at all over the past ten years. As soon as the thought popped into her mind, the pain hit her in the solar plexus and she swallowed all the words down that threatened to burble from her lips. She would not let Nick Brewster get the best of her. No man got the best of Megan Brooks. She'd swallow down this misplaced tenderness she felt for him and get through the next few weeks with her dignity intact. There was a reason she had the reputation she did and even though some of it might be undeserved, Megan had always kept one thing close to her chest. She never exposed it, never let it get in the way of her decision making, and certainly never softened toward the man who'd been privy to one of her most embarrassing moments. She guarded her heart like a Valkyrie guarded a warrior's soul. Fiercely and with no prisoners. In response to his question, Megan made her face carefully blank and her words chilly. "You are. Now please go change your shirt." No man had ever disobeyed Megan when she made her voice the temperature of the Arctic Tundra. Until freaking Nick Brewster. He looked down at the offending garment and grinned. "You got a problem with worshipping more than one person?" Megan blinked. "No," she said and sighed. "I have a problem with t-shirts that look like they've spent more time in front of an Xbox than inside a washing machine." Nick's grin grew even wider. "We're going to have so much fun, you and I." "So does this mean you're going to change your shirt?" Nick tipped his mug to her and grinned. "Not a chance, doll." Chapter Ten Nick Riling up Megan Brooks was proving to be more fun than he'd had in ages. They rode to work silently. He'd reached over to turn on the radio only to be rewarded with a frosty glare from the Ice Queen. "Let me guess. You don't like music either? Did they do something to you inside of the pod you came from? Expose you to terrible music? Force feed you ice cream?" She shut her eyes for a brief moment and Nick hid the grin that wanted to form on his face. "Or was this more psychological warfare you learned at the summer camps you went to?" "Shut. Up." The top of Megan's cheekbones glowed a deep red and he could see her jaw tensing. Nick felt guilty and chastised himself for picking at her too much. She probably wasn't used to it. There was a reason the town feared her. She could pick anyone apart in less than ten seconds. Except for Nick. He was a writer and there basically wasn't a terrible thing on the planet someone could say to him that he hadn't heard before. Nick tried hard not to listen to the criticism surrounding his work, but it was difficult to tune out sometimes. Plus, he knew Megan. Granted, he knew her better when they were kids, but he also knew at least a bit about why she was the way she was. It all came down to security. Or at least, this was his favorite theory. If you constantly put yourself out of your comfort zone, you risked your security. If you did things outside of the box, you risked that security. Megan was so far inside of her box, she needed a miner's cap and a pickax to get out of it. Maybe he could help her. He slid his gaze over to her and noticed her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. So he was getting to her. This was good. As long as she didn't punch him. That was bad. He wanted to needle her just to the edge. Maybe get her to open up to him. It was all well and good to shadow her at work, but if he never got underneath that icy exterior, even a little bit, all of this research was for naught. The best characters were the most complex. Nick had a feeling Megan was like a spider web. Beautiful, prickly, vulnerable to structural damage, and adept at catching their prey. Fortunately for him, Nick was no prey, nor did he have any desire to be. He was there to poke at her just enough to get a look underneath Megan's icy exterior. This could be the most interesting challenge he'd ever had. When he needed to study people before, he would show up at the coffee shop and watch for hours. If he was writing about someone in a city, he'd head to Austin. Now that was a place worthy of people watching. He'd never met someone like Megan, though. Not when they were in school and not now. She was an enigma wrapped in an iceberg, encased in concrete and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. He reached over for the radio again and she smacked his hand. "No," she said. "What kind of music do you like?" he asked. "I don't want to listen to music," she snapped. Nick was a man with a tough skin. He had four siblings, three of them brothers, and they'd done everything in the book to him because he was the youngest. Not much fazed him. Not even her. "That isn't what I asked," he said gently. Her gaze flicked over to him even though the frown on her face was thunderous. "This town doesn't have a station I like," she muttered. "I usually stream music through my phone." "What kind of music?" Nick pried. She still hadn't answered his question. It was like she suspected any information freely given could be used against her in some way. "Indie folk," she said. "Country rock like The Pistol Annies. Some popular stuff, but I don't like most of it." Nick waited for her to ask him the same question. He knew it would tick her off because she didn't want to participate in this thing between them even though he knew it fascinated her. "And you?" Her tone sounded like she'd rather chew rocks than get to know him. "Same for the most part." She glanced at him sharply like he was lying to her. "I like The Lumineers, Amos Lee, Ray LaMontagne. The Pistol Annies are good, too. I like the Dixie Chicks." "They got a bum rap," Megan said. "Careful," Nick teased. "Some people in Texas would view that as sacrilege." An amused chuckle escaped her. "They're too talented to not be played on the radio." "I don't disagree. I heard they're coming out with a new record." Nick dropped his hand from the radio and rested it on his knee. He glanced over at her. Megan's frown disappeared and her face seemed… softer somehow. Kinder than normal. "They are," she said. "I can't wait. I don't know if they'll tour in Texas again, but I'd love to see them." "Me too," Nick admitted. It would be too bold to see if they could go together. She'd spook like a nervous cat. "If I see any tour dates come up, I'll send them to you." She sent a startled glance his way before she looked back at the road. "Seriously?" "Of course," Nick said. He'd look as soon as he got home. "Thank you," she said softly. His heart ached at the feeling in those words. The world had not been kind to Megan Brooks, probably because she had not been kind to it. "My pleasure," he said through the lump in his throat. He fell silent and knew Megan would as well. She could be an extrovert if she put her mind to it, and all through high school she had been. He knew the real her and knew she'd rather be holed up doing something creative than spending her time with people who didn't care about her. How had she gotten so far away from who she really was? But more importantly, was there a way to get her back on the road to herself? Nick didn't know the answers to these questions and chastised himself for throwing himself in too deep. They hadn't even been together for an hour and he was already psychoanalyzing everything she did. Maybe she liked the way she was. It certainly seemed that way. Maybe she was only here because Nick was basing a character on her. It was a fine way to boost her ego. He slid his gaze over her one more time. She wore a maroon shirt today and a knee-length skirt. Her feet were encased in nude heels that looked like they'd give her bunions one day. She wore her hair down today and softly curled at the end. Her makeup, as always, was pristine, but not as vivid as normal. Her lips were unpainted and she had no eyeshadow on. She looked more stunning today than he'd ever seen her. Besides in the coffee shop. She looked vulnerable that day and he'd been blessed to see it. Megan rarely let her guard down enough to go outside with a messy bun. It was like the world had imploded or something. He didn't question it. Everyone was allowed to have a bad day, even the implacable woman sitting next to him. The world rarely understood people like her. They judged her for her backbone and her steel when they should be admiring her for it. Twenty minutes later, Megan turned into the parking lot of a tall steel and chrome building. There had to be twenty floors. The parking lot was still mostly empty which told Nick two things. Either Megan was an overachiever and had gotten here a lot earlier than everyone else, or there was something going on to keep people out of the office. He suspected the former. The Megan he knew was an overachiever. She turned off the car, unbuckled her seat belt, and swung her long legs out of the car. Nick tried not to watch, but Megan had always had great legs. Ten years later, they’d only improved. He got out of the car and shut the door behind him. Peering up at the building, he asked, “What floor are you on?” “Twelfth,” she answered and led him inside. The interior of her work building wasn’t much to talk about. It looked like every other building he’d been in. Tan carpet, a registration desk, generic paintings on the wall. He followed her to the elevator and it was only after the doors shut behind them that he spoke. “Are you nervous about this?” he asked. Megan squeezed her eyes shut as if she was having to count to ten. “Why would I be nervous?” she asked. “I can only imagine you’ve never taken anyone into your workplace before. Are you worried about it?” She shook her head. “Should I be nervous? Are you planning to do something that will get me fired?” There was no rancor in her tone for once, but he sensed she was already annoyed with him. Their camaraderie in the car had fizzled out, leaving the Megan the town of Pecan Grove loved to hate standing in front of him. The look she gave him was imperious. She crossed her arms against her chest and raised one of her perfectly groomed eyebrows. He held his hands up in surrender.