Preston Cantrell opened the door after the second knock. He wasn’t sure where his sisters were and could hear the puppies playing in the backyard. Since he was back in Sweetland, lounging in the parlor with a glass of iced tea and the trial transcript his secretary had overnighted to him, he figured it was the least he could do.
What he hadn’t considered was that that simple act would end with an armful of woman falling into him the moment the door was opened: arms flailing, a small gasp escaping her lips, and Preston stumbling backward to keep them both upright. Over his shoulder he spotted Hoover King wobbling up the walkway.
“Sorry ’bout that.” He was talking in between the huffs his hurried steps elicited.
Hoover had to be at least fifty to sixty pounds overweight and yet at six forty-five every night you could find him sitting in either The Silver Spoon or Charlie’s Bar and Grille ready to order whatever dish was highest in fat and/or cholesterol on the menu. Lately, that could be partially due to the fact that his wife, Inez, had been arrested for money laundering and corruption. Hoover, however, based on his almost constant state of inebriation and hometown ties, had been cleared of any charges even though he and Inez were both members of the town council and for the most part acted as a couple. Mayor Fitzgerald and Sherriff Farraway figured it was just simpler to let Hoover continue on his own path to destruction.
Case in point, Hoover’s round head with its balding center was presently dotted with beads of sweat as he began taking the steps that would lead him up to the front door, stumbling over the last two.
“That ol’ clunker’s got a hell of a kickback. Scared the little lady right good,” Hoover finally huffed out, then stopped at the top step to catch his breath.
“I’m sorry,” the female said immediately afterward, pushing herself away from Preston and looking more than a little embarrassed.
“Just wanted to apologize.” Hoover kept right on talking, using the back of an arm, then the palm of his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
“Why don’t you come on inside and get a glass of water, Hoover?” Preston suggested. He was trying not to laugh at the scene before him but Hoover’s car—the old station wagon he drove around town with its rust spots and broken fender, calling it the Sweetland taxi service—was comical. And Preston knew very well the sounds it made, almost like a dying animal coughing up its last meal.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Hoover answered, straightening up as much as his five-foot-one frame could and moving closer to the door.
The female gave a wavering smile and stepped to the side.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you, miss,” Hoover told her and reached for her hand.
Preston really wanted to laugh now because the female clearly didn’t want to touch Hoover’s sweat-riddled palm, but took a deep breath and shook it anyway.
“It’s all right.” She spoke in a soft voice that Preston decided was the epitome of feminine, high and light like a breeze.
“Just go on through to the restaurant. Michelle’s out there,” Preston told him.
When Hoover was gone, Preston was able to return his attention to the person who had been knocking.
“Let’s try this again,” he said, giving her his smoothest smile—the one he and his twin, Parker, shared and the one that had been the cause of more broken hearts in Sweetland than he could remember. “How can I help you?”
Her smile came slowly, like she wasn’t sure if that’s what she should do or not. Preston was more than grateful that she had. The simple act lit up her entire face, her olive complexion brightening, eyes almost smiling as well. Beautiful came to mind, then sort of died in the seconds Preston continued to stare. She was more than beautiful, and that was dangerous.
“My name is Heaven,” was her reply.
Of course. What else would her name be?
“Heaven Montgomery,” she continued. “I’m looking for Preston Cantrell.”
“And you’ve found him,” Preston said, extending his hand happily.
She looked down and back up to him again.
“It’s okay, I’ve known Hoover for years. His germs don’t spread.” Preston laughed and was rewarded by her light chuckle, then the touch of her hand in his. He held on for a couple of seconds too long then censored himself and let her go.
“That’s good to know. I think,” she said, then tried to inconspicuously wipe her hand on her pants.
Jeans, he corrected himself, that fit her slim frame perfectly. Her legs were long and he wanted to see more. She wore a white shirt, baggy, button-up, so he couldn’t really get a good look at her other assets but he was willing to bet they were just as stellar as the rest of her. Hence the name Heaven.
Hence the step-back-and-look-away warning bell sounding in his head.
“You’re here about Coco,” he continued.
She nodded. “Yes. I saw your ad and I think she and I will be a great fit.”
“Come on in and we can talk about that.” Preston spoke as he closed the door because it was almost one hundred degrees outside on this late-June day and they had the air-conditioning running briskly inside the inn.
He watched her walk ahead of him, couldn’t really help himself even though he knew better. That denim did a fantastic job cupping a perfectly round bottom that had his mouth watering. She was one nicely put-together female.
“We can sit right here in the parlor.” Preston touched her elbow, guiding her through the French doors in the living room to the parlor. The room was bathed in bright sunlight that made the pink rosettes on the cream-colored wallpaper stand out and the dark carpet seem a little livelier.
He moved his papers off the high-backed Victorian chair and told her, “Have a seat.”
She did, and he joined her by sitting on a love seat directly across from her.
“So as I was saying, I’d like to adopt Coco. That is, if she likes me,” Heaven said, tucking a heavy dark brown curl behind her ear.
Her fingers were slim, like a piano player’s hands. His younger sister Raine had learned to play the piano when she was ten and had grown really good at it until at seventeen she’d abruptly decided to give it up.
“I’m sure she will,” Preston replied, sitting back in the chair. “Do you have other dogs?” His secretary had sent him a list of questions he should ask Ms. Montgomery, but Preston wasn’t going into his room to dig them up. Instead he figured he’d use what worked best for him in the courtroom, his insight. He watched her every movement and decided she wasn’t entirely comfortable in the body he thought was a brilliant creation. She fidgeted, slowly, methodically, like it was something she’d practiced. But her hands refused to keep still. They moved from the hair behind her ear, to her lap, to rub up and down her thighs; now they were clasped together, fingers drumming slowly against the backs of her hands.
She shook her head, and her hair moved slightly around her pretty face. “No. And I live alone. But I have a spacious apartment and there’s a park right across the street from me. I know Labradors need a lot of exercise and love from their owners. I’m prepared to provide that.”
And yet she’d said it all as if she were making a presentation. Her back had even straightened a bit.
“Do you work?”
She blinked, sat up straighter, unfolded her hands and brushed them down the front of her blouse, then cleared her throat before saying, “Why would you ask me that?”
She sounded defensive, a definite warning sound in Parker’s book. He should have known she was too pretty to be true.
“Having a dog is not cheap. I wouldn’t want you to take Coco and then neglect to feed her because you don’t have money to buy food.”
“I have money,” she told him, lifting her chin a little higher. “Can I see the puppy?”
“How long are you staying in Sweetland?” he asked, ignoring her request. There was more he wanted to know about her before he introduced her to Coco. Things he needed to know that would determine if he would introduce her to Coco.
He didn’t want the dog, had already decided that fact. But that didn’t mean he wanted this woman to have the dog, either. His gaze settled on her again, a lovely, leisurely look once more at this intriguing female. Intriguing because Preston was almost positive this pretty package was just like the ones that used to sit under the six-plus-foot-high and almost equally wide Christmas tree that used to grace the living room each year.
They were wrapped in the most festive holiday paper, a different cartoon character designating which boxes went to which Cantrell sibling. Some were small and some were larger; some rattled when they shook them, others remained deceptively quiet. Then there was always one, wrapped in the shiniest paper with glistening snowflakes or colorful Christmas trees. It never had a name on it so the siblings fought for weeks about who would get to open it on Christmas morning. Finally, when the box was ready to be opened—by each of them, as Gramma had proclaimed—it was a total shock to them all. One year it was a swing and monkey-bar set for the backyard; another, wood planks and cardboard that when summer came along the boys put together and the girls sold lemonade from. Each year they were all intrigued by the beautiful gift and anxiously anticipated the unknown.
That’s what Ms. Heaven Montgomery was to Preston, the beautiful unknown.
* * *
She didn’t like him.
That’s the first impression Heaven had of Mr. Preston Cantrell. His loafers were expensive and his slacks were too long, almost an inch hanging on the floor as he walked. His polo shirt was a nice shade of peach that complemented his honey-gold complexion, but he stood as if he knew he looked good and was just waiting for her to figure it out. He smiled like a player, to which she was deftly immune. And he questioned her like he was the police, by which she was extremely offended.
Not to mention the fact that she was tired of the police questioning her, even though they had good reason to. That he was doing it so he could tell if she was good enough to adopt a puppy was a bit more than she could stand right now. Her heart was just beginning to beat a regular rhythm after that car had come up behind her making all kinds of noise. She’d jumped so high and screamed so loud, She’d thought everyone on the quiet little block had heard her. Apparently not, since it took so long for someone to answer the door at The Silver Spoon.
Now, looking at who had been the one to let her in, Heaven wasn’t surprised. He didn’t look as if he rushed to do anything. Probably didn’t do anything all day long, either, besides sit in this lovely parlor with its old-time feel and drink iced tea.
“I’m financially stable enough to take care of a puppy,” she finally replied to him.
His eyes never left her. He watched her as intently as if she were a suspected burglar.
“They don’t stay puppies. In the short time I’ve had her she’s gained about six pounds. They grow fast, chew on everything, and play nonstop. Are you ready for that?”
“Were you ready when you bought her?” she asked. “Is that why you’re giving her up?”
He didn’t look at all ruffled by her question. She’d hoped he would be, and wanted to shrug off the mild disappointment but didn’t bother.
“I inherited her when my grandmother died a little more than a month ago.”
“Oh,” she snapped quietly, feeling like an idiot for challenging him in the first place. Especially after catching the quick pained expression on his face as he’d said those words. Of course, he’d rebounded fast and was now back to looking like a smug cover model. One she could see clearly as the centerfold with his sculpted abs, powerful thighs, and a seductive look that made women weak in the knees—other women, certainly not her.
“Look,” she continued, trying desperately to hold back her exasperation. “I know I’ll be good to her. I’m not an angry person. I rarely yell and I spend more time daydreaming or itching to get outside than I probably should. That makes me a perfect candidate for Coco because at this point in my life there’s nothing that would come before her welfare.”
At this point in Heaven’s life there was nothing at all.
“You want to see those noisy dogs?” A gorgeous female with long raven-black hair pulled into a ponytail that swung elegantly down her back entered the parlor and picked up Preston’s glass to take a sip. “I’ll take you out back even though I’m sure you can hear them all the way in here.”
Preston looked like he wanted to say something but lifted his hands as if to tell Heaven to go right ahead and follow this other woman out of the room.
“Mmmm. She works my nerves but I swear that woman makes the best iced tea,” the female said, putting the glass down and smacking her lips like she wanted more. Unfortunately she’d emptied the glass.
Heaven stood and extended her hand. “I’m Heaven Montgomery and I’m interested in adopting Coco.”
“Oh,” the woman said, looking from Heaven to Preston and back to Heaven again. “So I guess Preston should show you Coco since she was assigned to him. Let me know if you’re looking for another puppy. For now I’m stuck with Micah but I’m sure he can be convinced to follow someone else around all day, biting off pieces of their shoes only to go to some godforsaken place to poop it all out again.”
She sighed and with a dramatic roll of her eyes finally took Heaven’s hand for a light shake.
“I’m Savannah, by the way.”
“Savannah is my youngest sister,” Preston told her as he stood to join in this new conversation. One he didn’t look too pleased about, either. “Each of my five siblings inherited a puppy. Michelle, the illustrious cook here at The Silver Spoon, was lucky enough to inherit a mother–pup combination.”
“Yeah, my grandmother’s idea of a cruel joke,” Savannah told Heaven. “And you’d better not let her hear you calling her a cook. She’s liable to slap you with a spatula or something.”
Heaven almost grinned at the exchange. How long had she hoped for a little brother or sister? And how many times had Opaline told her that was never going to happen? Staring at these two, she assumed they’d come from two exceptionally gorgeous people, who had raised them in a loving environment. Something else Opaline had denied Heaven.
“I can go out back. Is it through this way?” she asked, because the pang of jealousy poking at her was threatening to get worse.
“I’ll take you out back to meet Coco,” Preston announced. “You,” he added, pointing to Savannah, “can get me another glass of iced tea.”
Savannah frowned, which did nothing to mar her exceptionally pretty features. And Preston scowled, which, again, did nothing to mar his overtly handsome features. It should have been a sin, really, for both of them to have been blessed so abundantly in the looks department.
“It was nice meeting you,” Heaven said honestly, admonishing herself for judging them solely on their appearance. She knew better than that, knew that things weren’t always what they seemed. She was walking proof of that mantra.
“Likewise. And good luck,” Savannah bid Heaven with a salute of her hand just before she picked up a magazine from an end table and plopped down onto the love seat. Not in any hurry to get Preston his glass of iced tea or, it seemed, to do anything else.
This time Heaven did smile because the frown on Preston’s face was genuine, marked only by the obvious affection he had for his younger sister. In that instant Heaven thought maybe he wasn’t so smug and arrogant as she’d originally thought.
Then he turned that heated brown-eyed gaze on her. He smiled, his lips parting slowly to show off gleaming white teeth. Thick eyebrows arched slightly in a you-know-you-like-it gesture, and heat rushed to her cheeks.
“This way, my dear,” he said his voice as smooth and debonair as a Hollywood actor. Probably as fake and practiced as one, too.
“Thank you,” she snapped, turning away from him quickly, refusing to think of him as handsome or sexy or cleverly enticing or anything other than a man selling a puppy, ever again.
Copyright © 2013 by Lacey Baker
Excerpt from Summer’s Moon copyright © 2013 by Lacey Baker