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Arbor House Books

Practically Perfect - Ebook (Good Girls Don't Come Last Romcom Series)

Practically Perfect - Ebook (Good Girls Don't Come Last Romcom Series)

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📚Read an Excerpt

Mom’s voice lurches. “What’s wrong?”

“The neighbors next door are blasting their music.”

“Are you talking about the Milsteads?” Mom asks incredulously.

A surprised giggle circles through my throat. “No.” The Milsteads are in their early eighties. They’re the picture of refinement and wouldn’t dream of playing music too loud. “It’s those people in the Airstream trailer,” I fume, flinging my hand in the air. “How am I supposed to run a reputable business with that circus next door?”

“Maybe you should go and talk to them. Kindly explain the situation.”

“Oh, I’ll go and talk to them,” I roar. “But I can’t promise that the conversation will be kind!”

“I’m sure you can work it out,” Mom soothes.

My eyes narrow to slits as I grit my teeth. “You’d better believe I’ll work it out,” I vow. “I’ve gotta let you go. I’m marching over there right now to put a stop to this nonsense.”

“Wait a minute,” Mom inserts. “The reason I called is to tell you that Beau is bringing over a chocolate cream pie. I figure you could use a pick-me-upper.”

It freaks Mom out when I get too skinny. “Thanks,” I clip as I end the call.

A second later, I throw open the front door and stomp next door. The grass in my yard is neatly cut and manicured, but when I cross the threshold to the lot, I’m forced to wade through tall grass and weeds that slap my ankles. What kind of people move to an upscale, historical neighborhood and live like the Beverly Hillbillies? Some people have no couth! What do they think this is?

Eye of the Tiger is the song blaring. I feel like I’m at a rock concert and have to fight the urge to plug my ears.

My eyes survey the scene as I move closer. The plastic swimming pool has an electric blue background with a pattern of colorful fish swimming in all different directions. Ice blue water ripples gently in the pool. A lime green donut float is in the center. I’m sure kids love the fancifulness of the pool, but it sticks out like an eyesore in the yard.

Yard is a loose term. This is more of a field. I still can’t believe they cut down the trees. So much for my privacy!

An acrid bitterness rises in my throat as I ball my fists. I’m sure Viola Norwood is getting great pleasure out of this. My gaze follows the line of the red twine clothesline that’s attached to the side of the silver Airstream and stretches to one of the trees on the edge of the lot. Several t-shirts, men’s shorts, and a pair of jeans flap in the breeze.

I know nothing about motorcycles, but even I can tell that the one parked beside the trailer is expensive. The sight of the motorcycle fans my anger. I could almost sympathize with someone who doesn’t have much money and is forced to live in an Airstream trailer. However, that motorcycle cost a pretty penny … probably more than my car. I guess it’s all about priorities.

I see movement and realize with a jolt that someone is standing on the backside of the pool. No, not standing. A guy wearing boxing gloves is pounding a freestanding punching bag.

I halt in my tracks as my throat goes dry. The guy is shirtless and dripping sweat. I’m mortified at the dart of attraction that shoots through me. His back is well-formed, his muscles rolling smoothly beneath tanned skin. He’s wearing black boxing shorts and Converse tennis shoes. His feet move in a nimble dance as he riddles the bag with powerful punches. I note that his biceps are lean and cut.

Who is he? Captain America? Okay, enough ogling. What am I, sixteen? I don’t care how good this guy looks; he’s wrecking my plans.

This loud music is intolerable! I straighten my shoulders and move toward him with purposeful steps.

“Hello!” I call as I approach, but my voice won’t carry over the music. I glare at the speaker perched behind the screened window before looking back at the guy. Still punching with a vengeance, he doesn’t realize that I’m here.

Enough already! “I’m trying to talk to you,” I mutter as I step up behind him and jab his shoulder. He grunts in surprise and jerks his elbow back. It lands with brute force in the center of my right eye, shooting pain through my face.

Gasping, my hands go to my eye as I stumble back. I take one step back … two … before my calves collide with the plastic edge of the pool. I shriek as I topple backward and land butt-first in the center of the water. Tears spring to my eyes as I slap the water with the palms of my hands. The donut float is now pressed against the side of the pool. I grab it and fling it across the yard. My throbbing eye hurts, but it takes a backseat to my injured pride. I’m astounded by the indignity of this situation.

“Are you okay?” the guy asks as he comes over to where I am. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you were there.” He pulls off his gloves and holds them in the crook of his elbow. He reaches out to me. “Here, let me help you up.”

“Don’t bother,” I spit as I push his hand away and stand. Words spew from my mouth. “You are a menace! First, you junk up the neighborhood with that awful trailer, and then you blast your music.” My voice goes shrill. “When I come over to try and talk to you about it, you punch me in the eye.”

“I didn’t punch you … exactly.”

🌸Paradise isn’t quite what she thought. But is her unexpected attraction to an unruly, hunky cowboy really the best thing for this divorcée?

Penelope Primrose has worked tirelessly to create her picket-fence bliss. After dreaming of a beautiful home and an idyllic small-town lifestyle, the would-be Southern belle perfected impeccable grooming and manners to land her childhood sweetheart. But her visions of a rapid ascent up the social ladder shatter when she finds her ideal husband with another woman…

Thrown into a divorce-driven spin and desperate to reinvent herself, the plucky Alabamian is totally confused by the chemistry she feels with the motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing, cowboy next door. And though his loud music and gosh-awful Airstream trailer are rubbing her the wrong way, Penelope secretly wonders if maybe it’s time to unleash her own inner rebel.

Will her mad attempts to let her hair down end in disaster… or happily ever after?

Practically Perfect is the sassy second, standalone book in the Good Girls Don't Come Last sweet contemporary romance series. If you like flirty heroines, swoon-worthy hunks, and a dash of dramatic angst, then you’ll adore Jennifer Youngblood’s small-town romp.

Get Practically Perfect to unwind for a dream come true today!

🔥Also available in paperback and audiobook



Read the First Chapter

The Cowboy Takes the Elevator

Normally, I’m a list person and derive a huge amount of satisfaction from crossing off the tasks completed with a heavy swipe of my medium-point Zebra Pen.

Today, however, my to-do list feels tedious and impossibly long. I’m sure it’s just nerves. It’s not every day that a girl gets the chance to win such a prestigious award.

Let me rephrase that … I’m not the only person up for the award, but I feel like my chances are good. I pull into the parking lot of the dry cleaners, my mind running through the checklist for the umpteenth time—pick up dress, have lunch with Tim, stop by the architectural firm to look at plans, get hair and nails done.

My expression sours as my thoughts go back to the architectural firm. The last thing I want to do today is go over plans with Danny Floyd, Tim’s buddy from high school.

It irks me that Tim won’t let the new house idea go. While Tim has his heart set on us building a house in the swanky new subdivision going up by the golf course, I don’t want to move. I love our historic home and neighborhood. The only reason I’m even stopping by the firm is to keep peace in my marriage.

From the time I was a little girl, I dreamed of getting married to Tim Norwood. Now that I am … well, I never anticipated it would be this difficult. Tim has been so distant lately. I wonder if he’s going through some sort of emotional crisis. Whatever’s going on—he refuses to let me in. To make matters worse, he’s super critical of everything that I do.

This morning, he balked at my choice of sheets for our bed. Yesterday, he complained about his eggs being too runny. (I could have pointed out that Tim should be counting his lucky stars that he has a wife willing to go to the trouble of making him breakfast, but I bit my tongue. No sense in making things more tense than they already are.) I’m starting to wonder why Tim even married me.

Getting out of my car, I walk briskly into the dry cleaners to be greeted by a fresh-faced teenage girl with braces. She must be new because I don’t recognize her.

“Hello,” I begin with a brief smile. “I need to pick up a dress for Penelope Norwood.”

The girl is wearing a hair scrunchie around her wrist. She pushes it up higher on her arm before turning to the computer and typing on the keyboard. A second later, she frowns. “Sorry. We don’t have anything for Penelope Norwood.”

My heart lurches as I swallow hard enough to jolt the thingy-ma-do that goes up and down in my throat. “Try Penelope Primrose,” I suggest, giving her my maiden name.
I hold my breath as she types that in.

“Sorry. There’s nothing in the computer.”

“That can’t be right. I dropped the dress off two days ago.” I straighten my spine and look her in the eye. “I need it for an event tonight.”

Her brow furrows in consternation. “Did you bring it inside?”

My words come out in a huff, like a cat coughing up a hair ball. “No, I left it in the drop box. I put the dress in the orange cloth bag that was issued by the dry cleaner. It has my name-tag attached.”

“And you’re sure you dropped it off at this dry cleaner? Maybe you took it to Hagerman’s instead.”

“No,” I argue. “I always come here. Maggie Iverson is a friend of mine.”

The girl’s eyes widen. “Let me go to the back to see if I can find it. What color is it?”

“Emerald green. It’s an evening gown.”

She leaves the counter and vanishes through the door directly behind her. Perspiration breaks out over my nose as my head whirls. I need this dress for tonight. I planned everything to the letter—my earrings, shoes, necklace. It’s critical that I have the dress.

The girl returns several minutes later with a pinched expression. “It’s not there.”

My hand goes to my forehead. “This is a disaster! How could you lose a dress?”

She shakes her head back and forth. “I—I don’t know.” She blinks several times as her lower lip trembles.

It’s crazy how quickly my frustration reaches a boiling point. “Are you sure it’s not back there? Maybe you should look again.” My purse is slung over my shoulder. I reach inside it and pull out my phone. “I’ll call Maggie right now.” The girl nods, looking downright petrified.

It goes straight to voicemail. I leave a curt message, telling Maggie what’s going on, and ask her to call me immediately.

“I’m so sorry,” the girl offers. “I just started working here this week.”

“Is there a manager here?”

“Not right now.” She clenches and unclenches her hands.
“Everyone went to lunch. It’s just me.”

“Are you sure you looked in the right place?”

“I looked through the Ns and Ps. I’ll look through all the clothes, going from A to Z. It’ll take me some time. I can call you as soon as I go through everything.”

Pulling my lips together in tight lines, I nod. While I want to keep ranting and raving, I realize that the girl is trying her best to help. “I need the dress for an event tonight,” I reiterate.

“I’ll hurry.”

“Thanks. Do you need my phone number?”

“I’m sure it’s in the system, but it can’t hurt to jot it down.”

She hands me a slip of paper and a pen. I write down my name and cell number. “What’s your name?” I’ll need to let Maggie know which of her employees I spoke with.

“Cassidy,” she says hesitantly like I’ve asked her to donate a kidney.

“Thanks,” I clip as I turn on my heel and walk briskly out the door. I’m due to meet Tim at the restaurant in five minutes. If Cassidy finds the dress, then I’ll swing back by here after I leave the beauty salon. But what if she doesn’t find it? I chew on my inner cheek as I try to come up with an alternative plan. I could wear my black dress. I haven’t tried it on since before I got married. It was a little snug then, and I was several pounds thinner than now. It should work though. It’s not nearly as glamorous as the emerald dress.

What jewelry could I wear with the black dress? An idea instantly takes shape in my mind. The strand of pearls that Tim gave me for my birthday would be a good fit. They’re sensible and practical. Something even my mother-in-law would approve of.

I get back into my car and head to the restaurant. Talk about rotten luck! I’ve been using Maggie’s Dry Cleaners for years and have never had an ounce of trouble. The restaurant is just off Main Street in a busy section of town. All the parking spots in the front are taken. I’m forced to park a street over and walk.

I look for Tim’s Range Rover but don’t see it. It’s five minutes after twelve by the time I make it inside. I spot several people that I recognize sitting within my frame of vision. No sign of Tim. I pull out my phone to see if I’ve missed a call from him. Nothing.

“Hey, you,” the hostess says warmly as she strolls up. Tall and bone-thin with a smattering of freckles over her nose, she has curly hair that’s dyed Raggedy-Ann red. Hoop earrings the size of baseballs dangle from her ears. She’s wearing blue eye shadow and bright-red lipstick. Ida is loud, outspoken, and super proud of her jumbo-sized set of fake boobs, which were a gift from her boyfriend, Brick—a truck driver.

“Hey, Ida. How’ve ya been?” I ask in the way of greeting. Ida’s a few years older than me. While the two of us have never run in the same circles, Comfort is a small enough town that we know each other well.

“Busier than a one-armed paper hanger.” Her light sky-blue eyes twinkle as she steps closer. “I hear tonight’s the big night,” she chimes in a juicy tone.

“What do you mean?” I ask innocently.

A large smile fills her face. “Don’t play coy with me, sugar. I read all about The Comfort Woman of the Year Award in Nellie Kinsey’s blog. You’re one of the top contenders.” She lowers her voice. “I hope you get it instead of Collette.” A look of distaste crosses her features. “That twit has a high opinion of herself. Brick went into the bank the other day to apply for a loan for a new semi-truck cab. She wouldn’t even give him the time of day. Collette thought she was gonna get her claws into poor Gavin. Good thing Albany came back from New York when she did and got back together with Gavin. Those two are a match made in heaven.” Her features go softer than a wad of gooey chewing gum left on the sidewalk as she smiles.

“Yes, they are,” I wholeheartedly agree. “It’s great to have Albany back. I’ve never seen her so happy.”

“Kind of like you and Tim.”

“Yeah,” I say automatically. Albany and Gavin are nothing like Tim and me. A person would have to be struck blind not to see the sparks sizzling between Albany and Gavin. He looks at her like she’s the best thing since buttered biscuits, whereas Tim looks at me like I’m a loaf of moldy bread from the day-old bakery.

I’m still scratching my head and wondering where Tim and I went wrong. Apprehension clutches my stomach in a hard fist. I want to have a good relationship with Tim, but I don’t know how to fix us. I glance around. Where in the heck is Tim? He knows how crazy busy today is for me. I don’t have time to spend all day waiting around for him to come lallygagging in.

“How many?” Ida asks as she reaches for the menus.

“Two. Tim should be here any minute.”

“Right this way,” Ida says as she sashays to a table and places down the menus. “Good to see you, honey. I’ll send Tim over when he gets here.”

“Thanks.” I call Tim, but it goes to voicemail. I leave him a text, asking where he is. I get an instant text message back from Tim, saying that he won’t be able to make lunch because a patient came in with a chipped front tooth.

Irritation simmers in my chest. I tamp it down, telling myself that I need to be more understanding about Tim’s demanding work schedule. He and his dad run the only dental office in town. Tim’s dad Bart feels like he paid his dues in starting the practice, and now it’s up to Tim to do the bulk of the work.

I squelch the urge to reply to the text with something catty and instead tell Tim I’m sorry that he’s missing lunch and hope all goes well with the procedure. I end the message with Love you and add a heart emoji.

I wait for him to respond, but he doesn’t. A feeling of glumness settles over me. I don’t like this funky tension between Tim and me. We need to strengthen our relationship, spend more time together so we can remember why we fell in love in the first place. Tim and I have been together for so long that it was a given that we would eventually get married. We need to rekindle the sparks. I suppose it’ll have to start with me because Tim doesn’t seem to be concerned in the least that there’s something amiss in our marriage.

A middle-aged server approaches. Her fleshy face flashes with recognition as she smiles. “Hiya, Pen.”

“Hey, Rose.”

She points to the empty seat across from me. “Are we waiting for one more?”

“No,” I sigh. “I thought Tim was joining me, but he got held up at the office.”

The corners of her mouth droop. “I’m sorry, sugar.”

I wave a hand. “No worries. It would have been a quick lunch anyway.”

Her eyes zing with innuendo. “Because of the award ceremony?”

“I take it you’ve been reading Nellie’s blog?” I ask dryly.

She gives me a sheepish grin. “I might’ve taken a peek at it.”

Nellie is a quiet, mousey woman with stringy brown hair and coke-bottle glasses. She graduated high school a year after me. I barely noticed her in school because she hardly said two words. She hides behind her computer and dishes out gossip about the town. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Nellie in public. She’s probably afraid to come out from under her rock for fear that people would ride her out on a rail. Considering all the dirt Nellie drudges up on people, I’m sure she has more than a few enemies.

I have no idea who’s feeding Nellie her information, but it must be someone who’s well connected. While I believe in the importance of free speech, I don’t appreciate the animosity that Nellie’s blog causes. She routinely calls people out on the carpet for various infractions and never hesitates to share personal and often embarrassing tidbits about people’s lives. A couple of years back, several members of the Chamber of Commerce tried to go after Nellie and get her blog shut down, but they were unsuccessful.

“I hope you win, honey. You deserve it. You do a lot of good in our little town.”

“Thank you,” I utter, touched by Rose’s words. I’ve poured my time and energy into my charitable work. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Rose wets her thumb with her tongue and flips a page of her pad. “What’ll ya have?”

Not bothering to look at the menu, I call out my favorite, “The turkey, avocado, and bacon sandwich on sourdough bread.”

“You want fries with that?”

Yes! my mind answers. A big mound of cheesy fries! The rational side of my brain takes over, reminding me that I’m trying to eat healthier. “What’s your soup of the day?”

“Vegetable beef.”

“I’ll have that.”

“What do you want to drink?”


“Okey-dokey, I’ll be right back with that.”

A couple of minutes later, she returns with an empty clear plastic glass and a pitcher of ice water. She fills my glass and then traipses off. I feel eyes on me and notice Mildred and Patsy, members of The Lake Pines Women’s Club, watching me. They wave and smile when they realize I’ve caught them staring. I smile back and wave.

The upside of living in a small town is that everybody cares about their neighbors. The downside is that everybody knows every teensy detail about your business. You can’t so much as sneeze in Comfort without the whole town knowing about it. They’ll tell you what type of tissue you used and the color of your snot. Ew. Did I really just think of the word snot? Where is my brain today?

Rose brings me my food as I dive in. The sandwich is divine—just what the doctor ordered. The bacon is crisp, the avocado soft, and the turkey tender. I don’t want to think about how many calories were added with the thick layers of mayo slathered over the toasted bread. At least the vegetable soup is healthy and low calorie.

I’m almost done with my meal when Rose returns to refill my glass of water. She starts pouring when I sense, more than hear, a rustle go through the restaurant. I spot Ida first, leading a man to a table. Not just any man but a walking billboard of masculinity—a Matthew McConaughey meets Clint Eastwood type. Before my brain has time to process what’s happening, my breath hitches. I take a snapshot of his leather cowboy hat, denim shirt, faded jeans, and boots.

Then it happens. His eyes meet mine, sending an electrical charge through my veins. My mouth seems to have a mind of its own as a smile wobbles over my lips. The guy grins, crinkling the edges around his eyes as he nods and tips his hat. I hear a giggle and realize that it came from Rose. She’s ogling the cowboy.

“Hubba hubba,” she drawls in a sultry tone. “Talk about a tall drink of water. Mmm, mmm, mmm.”

Speaking of water. An instant later, I feel cold liquid on my lap. I gasp as I jump, my hands going into the air.

“Oops,” Rose says as she turns the water pitcher upright. “Sorry about that.” She gives me a mea culpa look.

My lap is soaked. I reach for my napkin and use it to blot up the water. Ida leads the guy on past us. The people sitting nearby stare at me like I’m on exhibit at the zoo.

“I’ll get more napkins.” Rose scampers away. She returns with a thick stack of them. “I’m so sorry,” she says again, offering a rueful grin. “I guess I got a little carried away by that eye candy.” She fans her face. “He certainly got this ticker pumping.” She laughs. “I can’t remember the last time I got so twitter-pated.”

You and me both.

Rose is pushing fifty with two grown boys. I wouldn’t think she would even notice another man other than her husband, much less gawk at one. Then again, who am I to judge? The water in my lap is secondary to the horror I feel over the bolt of attraction that ricocheted through me when I saw the cowboy. I don’t remember ever looking at another man—other than Tim—and feeling so much as a blip of attraction. Maybe it was some fluke thing that was brought on by my frustration over my lackluster marriage. That must be it. Come rain or shine, I’ll be loyal to Tim Norwood ‘til the day I die. That’s the vow I made at marriage, and I intend to hold to it.

“Hon, your lunch is on me,” Rose assures me.


She shakes her head. “It ought to be against the law for a man to look like that. He’s gorgeous, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t notice,” I lie, keeping my voice nonchalant. In my defense, the guy was handsome in a raw masculine way. I’m sure it was some primal reaction that nearly every woman would feel when seeing a man like that.

Her eyes pop open wide. “Your hubby’s a nice-looking guy.” She tips her head, perching her hand on her hip. “I mean, Tim’s a bit too pretty and pampered for my taste, but I can see how you wouldn’t have a reason to look at anyone else.” She clicks her tongue. “But that cowboy could cause a convent of nuns to rethink their stance on celibacy.”

A chortle rises in my throat. “You certainly have a way with words.”

“He must be from out of town. I wonder if he’s just passing through.”

“Probably.” I blot up as much water as I can. Still, it looks like I’ve wet my pants. I’ll have to go home and change before going to the architectural firm. Luckily, my house is less than a quarter-mile away. “I should get going.”
Rose nods. “Good luck tonight.”

“Thanks.” At the rate I’m going, I’ll need all the luck I can get.

After changing pants, I pull the black dress out of my closet and look it over. I suppose it’ll have to do if the dry cleaner can’t find my green dress. Please, find the dress! my mind shouts.

I don’t know what Tim hopes to accomplish by setting me up an appointment with Danny Floyd. I have no intention of building some cookie-cutter house on the golf course. I have half a mind to call and cancel the appointment. Even as the thought runs through my mind, I head out the side door of the kitchen and go to the garage. I’ll meet with the stupid architect to pacify Tim.

I’m walking into the building when my phone rings. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Norwood?” a young girl begins.


“This is Cassidy at the dry cleaner.”

My heart picks up its pace. “Yes?”

“I didn’t find your dress. My manager looked for it too. I’m so sorry,” she stammers. “I wonder if it accidentally got put in with someone else’s clothes.”

My head begins to twirl faster than a ballerina. “If that happened, then why didn’t the person bring it back?”

“I—I’m not sure. Maggie is on vacation in Florida. I left her a message. As soon as I hear back from her, I’ll let you know. I’m sure the dry cleaner will reimburse you for the cost of the dress.”

I’m so furious that I can hardly see straight. “That doesn’t help me one iota for tonight,” I spew. The dress was a four-hundred-dollar splurge. Maggie won’t be happy about having to fork over that much cash, but she’s a fair person, so I know she’ll do it. I still can’t believe my dress just disappeared.

“I’m really sorry.” She pauses long enough for me to wonder if she hung up. “I wish there was something else I could do to help,” she adds.

“Thanks,” I snip as I end the call. My brain races to plan B. I guess I’m wearing the black dress, after all. I’ve got a pair of black platform heels that will go with it. I won’t look as stunning as I would have in the green dress, but it’ll work. Yikes! I just hope it’ll fit.

I march into the architectural firm and stop in my tracks. The place is under siege with construction workers. One of the guys notices me. “Hey there,” he says as his eyes flicker over me in open appreciation. “What can I do ya for?” he drawls with a large grin.

The older man beside him gives him a shove. “Cut it out, Stew.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Always the Casanova. How may I help you, ma’am?” he asks respectfully.

“I’m here to see Danny Floyd.”

“He moved his offices up to the second floor during the renovation.” He points. “Take a right, go down that hall, and you’ll run smack dab into the elevator.”

“Thanks,” I nod as I go that direction, ignoring the other guy’s leering. Maybe you should take a picture so it’ll last longer, my brain chimes. I grin inwardly at the oft repeated saying. I’m sure Albany would’ve just said it out loud to the moron, but I’m not that bold.

Quickly, I go down the hall, my sandals clopping noisily with each step. The walls are covered in plastic, and the flooring has been removed. I know enough about construction to realize that I’m walking on the sub-floor. I punch the elevator and wait. It takes forever for the doors to finally open. I step inside and am about to press the button to close the doors when someone steps into the elevator with me.

My breath freezes a hard ball in my throat. It’s the cowboy!

“It’s you,” he says with a boyish grin that sends my traitorous heart skittering. “From the restaurant,” he adds when I don’t say anything.

He has a dimple in his left cheek. His voice is melodic with a twang. All I can think is that I thought the cowboy was good-looking from a distance. Up close, he’s breathtaking. Rose was right. It should be against the law for a man to look this good. It’s not just his looks that draw me in. This guy has more than just looks. He oozes virility. His features are rugged—his nose a fraction too large, his chin a bit too sharp. But somehow, it all works. Oh, it more than works. He’s a freaking work of art.

“Which floor?”

The doors close behind him, leaving us alone in this impossibly small metal box. I try to block the guy out and think of Tim. I’m not the kind of woman who gawks at other guys. I’m as loyal as the day is long. My stupid hormones are going nuts. Tim and I really need to work through our problems pronto so I can get myself straightened out. I want to run as far away from this cowboy as I can get. I don’t like how unsettled he makes me feel.

A quirky grin quivers on his lips as his lively eyes light with a sparkle of mirth. “You okay?”

“Of course,” I snip. “What kind of a question is that?” I feel a sliver of control returning. That’s the ticket. I’ll just act peeved, and then it’ll squelch the attraction.

Amusement touches his features, and he starts speaking like I’m slow to understand. “We’re on an elevator. I assume you’re going to one of the other floors.” He points up.

Heat flushes over my face. “Two,” I blurt.

“Well, whaddya know. Same as me.” He reaches over and pushes the button. His arm comes dangerously close to mine in the process. I notice the definition of his forearm and the sprinkle of white hairs on his tanned skin. My throat goes dryer than a drought-ravaged cornfield as I swallow.
It occurs to me that he’s standing too close for comfort. He’s still wearing the cowboy hat. His sandy hair is long enough that it curls on his neck.

“That’s strange.”

“What?” I fire back.

“We’re not moving.”

“We’re not?” I hadn’t noticed. I’m losing it! Agh! Maybe I should’ve just stayed in bed this morning. Everything is going disastrously wrong.

He presses the button again. This time, the elevator jerks slightly like it’s disgruntled from being roused out of a nap. A few seconds later, it starts moving up at a snail’s pace.

The cowboy smiles again, sending all thoughts flying straight out of my head. “Do you have a name?”

“Of course I have a name,” I retort. I blink when I realize he’s waiting for me to tell him my name. It spills out of my lips. “Penelope.”

“Memphis. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I mumble.

The elevator passes the second floor and picks up speed, going clear up to the fourth.

“Whoa!” he bellows. “This thing is whacked.”

The doors open to sheets of plastic hanging from the ceiling. It’s another construction zone. He presses two again, but nothing happens. The doors remain open. My stomach lurches. Are we gonna get stuck? Please, no! I pray. I don’t want to be around the cowboy a second longer than necessary. He’s unearthing disturbing things about myself that I wasn’t aware of.

Finally, the doors close and my shoulders sag in relief. We go down as slowly as we came up. The elevator pauses on three, but the doors don’t open. Come on, I silently urge.

A crooked grin slides over his lips. “This thing doesn’t like us very much.”

I grunt in partial amusement. “No, it doesn’t.”

Just before we reach the second floor, the elevator lurches, dropping my stomach to my feet. I lose my balance and am about to fall back, but strong arms catch me.

“Easy,” he drawls. “I’ve got ya.”

It flashes through my brain that he’s holding me in his arms. He’s strong with chiseled muscles. Good grief, is he real or some figment of my overactive imagination? My heart is pounding profusely. Our gazes lock. I notice that his eyes are green, rimmed in gold. His eyes seem to hold a perpetual sparkle like they’ve captured bits of the sun.

The door opens with a jerk. I look over, and all I can see is Cynthia Bea standing by the elevator and holding a stack of files. Her eyes are bigger than two full moons.

No! Not Cynthia Bea. Of all the people in Comfort, why did it have to be her? The two of us have been on the outs ever since tenth grade when Cynthia Bea set her sights on Tim. He chose me, and Cynthia Bea has disliked me ever since. Never mind that Cynthia is married with two kids. She still holds a grudge.

It dings through my brain that the cowboy is still holding me. I’m sure I look as guilty as sin. Great! Just what I need. Cynthia Bea has a mouth the size of Texas. If you wanna get the word out about something in Comfort, then tell Cynthia Bea. Tongues are sure to be wagging about this.

He searches my face. “You alright?”

I nod. “Thanks,” I say weakly, trying to steady my knees, which are knocking together.

He releases me. “The elevator is acting up,” he explains to Cynthia Bea.

My mouth starts moving a mile a minute as we step off the elevator. “The thing nearly fell. He caught me.”

A sly grin moves over Cynthia Bea’s lips. “Is that what he did?”

“Yes,” I exclaim as I turn to the cowboy. “Tell her!” I don’t know why I’m bothering to explain myself to Cynthia Bea. She’s going to twist everything around regardless of what I say.

“I just did,” he replies with a low chuckle. “Ladies. It has been a pleasure. If you’ll excuse me.” With that, he tips his hat and strides past us with fluid, graceful steps.

“W—who in the heck is that?” Cynthia Bea asks, her eyes sparking with enough interest to light ten bonfires.

In one regard, Cynthia Bea and I are cut from the same cloth. While we don’t like one another, we adhere to the unwritten Southern code of being civil, especially in public.

“Some guy from out of town. We just happened to ride up together in the elevator.”

“Uh, huh.” She drags out the words in a nasally chant that reeks of insinuation. “Does Tim know about him?”

“What’s there to know?” I harrumph. “He’s a stranger that I met in the elevator. He kept me from falling and getting hurt. End of story.” The innuendo in Cynthia Bea’s eyes churns my gut.

“Lucky you,” she chimes.

I arch my eyebrow. “The situation was purely innocent.”

“So you say,” she drawls.

I change the subject with a grumpy, “Where’s Danny’s office?”

She points in the opposite direction that the cowboy went. “Down that hall. Second door on the right.” She gives me a speculative look. “A little birdie told me that you might be getting an award tonight,” she coos. “Congratulations.” Her smile doesn’t quite reach her cold eyes.

“I haven’t won anything yet,” I assert, stating the obvious.

“Oh, sugar. You have,” she laughs. “You won an elevator ride with the cowboy.”

Southern code or not, I’ve had just about enough of Cynthia Bea Gossett. I paste on a frigid smile. My voice is light as a feather and lethal as a snake. “Some people need to get their minds out of the gutter.”

She rocks back in surprise, but before I can take pleasure in the victory, she comes back swinging. Her voice is equally light and musing. “And some people need to realize that when they build that glass castle on the hill, people are bound to throw stones at it.”

I look her in the eye. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Her face turns bright red as she tightens her hold on the files. She looks like she’s about to say something else, but Danny interrupts with a hearty hello as he steps up and pumps my hand. “Thanks for coming in.” A smile fills his thin face. “You’re gonna love what I have to show you,” he promises.

Poor Danny is about to get a major letdown. I’ll be as diplomatic as I possibly can. Cynthia Bea shoots me a malevolent glare before stalking off.

Danny motions. “Come on into my office.”

I allow myself to be led in that direction, lamenting over how this day has not gone remotely as I planned. I can only hope that things will start to look up. I need to be on my game tonight. And I need a win, especially now that the entire town knows I’m up for the award.

If Nellie Kinsey were here, I’d give her a piece of my mind.

Blast Nellie and her stupid, idiotic blog!

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