Hot in Hellcat Canyon
June 2016
Avon/HarperCollins


A broken truck, a broken career and a breakup heard around world lands superstar John Tennessee McCord in Hellcat Canyon. Legend has it hearts come in two colors there: gold or black. And that you can find whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s love...or trouble. JT McCord may have found both in waitress Britt Langley.

Britt sees right through JT’s hard edge and soft drawl to a person a lot like her: someone in need of comfort and the kind of healing best given hot and quick, with clothes off and the lights out.

Her wit is sharp but her eyes and heart—not to mention the rest of her—are soft, and JT is falling hard. But Britt is hiding a few secrets as dark as the hills, and JT’s past looks set to invade their present. It’s up to the people of Hellcat Canyon to help make sure their future includes a happily ever after.


Preorder here!

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WILD AT WHISKEY CREEK!

Coming November 29th—and you can preorder it today!




 

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Britt burst out her front door, stag-leaped her sagging front step, scattered three deer and that blue jay whose hobby was harassing her cat, and finished yanking her blue camisole down over her head before she hit the ground.

"Don't eat my roses!" She implored the deer over her shoulder. In vain, probably.

She was going to have to run to make it to work on time, and the merciful morning cool was already beginning to give way to merciless summer heat.

A half mile down the dirt road Roy and Willa Boyd's dog Jet exploded off his porch to chase her, yapyapyapping and out of his head with excitement, but then he felt that way about nearly every moving creature. He was the love child of a basset hound and a standard poodle and frankly looked more like a caterpillar than a dog. Britt slowed down a little just to give him hope that he might one day catch up to her on his four-inch legs and bite an ankle. Because everyone needed hope.

He gave up after about a hundred yards, satisfied he'd acquitted himself well in defense of his porch.

Which was her cue to pause and catch her breath.

She tilted her head back and rested her hands on her hips as she gulped in air. A red-tailed hawk was circling lazily above in the empty, dazzling blue sky, looking for breakfast.

Behind her the hills rose up and up in a glorious tangle of every kind of green: pines, redwoods, oaks, manzanita, Indian paintbrush. Off to the east, scattered along the canyon's edge and overlooking the Hellcat River, the windows of the rustic palaces belonging to tech billionaires and other people who had money up the wazoo glinted like diamonds in the rising morning sun.

She got moving again.

A few feet later the tamped dirt road turned into pavement and became the main road into town.

She jogged down the gently winding main street, past long rows of Victorian storefronts faded to muted butter mint shades by weather, time and dust. She held her hand up to her face like a horse blinder when she passed Kayla Benoit's boutique so she wouldn't have to see that white dress in the window. Kayla was opening up and thought she was waving, so she waved gaily back.

The Misty Cat Cavern's looked like a Saloon because it had always been a saloon, and its placement at the end of Main Street was strategic, or so legend had it: inebriated miners who stumbled (or were thrown) out the door only had a short distance to roll right back down to the main gold mining camp. Some of its long, lurid history lingered in the décor and the alleged ghost of a prostitute named Nimble Nellie, shot by a jealous miner. She was the original Hellcat, or so it was said. Britt was grateful she hadn't yet met Nellie. She certainly sympathized with her, though.

She swung around back and jabbed her key into the lock in the back door, and wove her way through the kitchen into the main restaurant.

A row of windows set high in the wall showed the tops of pines and fragments of blue sky. A kindly, dusty, golden, tree-filtered light poured through them early in the morning, but by late afternoon the summer sun was as brutal as an X-ray. A collective howl of torment rose in the cavern if anyone dared crack the blinds then.

The spinning blades of the ceiling fan casually slaughtered flies, which plummeted to the floor and tables below to be swept up or wiped away by bar rags, to be replaced by intrepid new flies slipping in the door with customers. It was the circle of life in the Misty Cat Cavern. Britt pulled all the chairs down and grabbed a soapy rag and pushed a few little carcasses off tables, then grabbed a broom to do a quick sweep, called "Hey Georgio!" when she heard rustling in the back room, and got a grunt in reply.

Georgio was dragging the cover off the pool table and plugging in the Glenn's prized vintage beer signs, which lent a luridly cheery glow to the murk. When the sheriff was in for lunch Georgio surreptitiously disconnected the the old Hamm's sign, a signal to put a kibosh on any obvious betting. Britt was positive the sheriff wasn't that unobservant. He probably just picked his battles. There were plenty to choose from in Hellcat Canyon.

Georgio hailed from way up in the Hills in the Coyote Creek settlement, which is where any trouble seemed to originate, and he was small and wiry and dark, as if he'd been grown in the shade and in secret. His mother had named him for perfume she'd shoplifted from a Walgreen's back in the 80's. She was in jail, along with nearly his entire family for crimes ranging from petty to grand, and everyone had decided only sheer contrariness was what kept Georgio out of it. He possessed a certain charisma, if you liked your men saturnine and taciturn (two of Britt's favorite words, because they sounded exactly like what they were, and two words Georgio had never uttered in his life). But he was a veritable savant with the grill.

"It's gonna be a hot one," she called, mostly for the pleasure of hearing her voice echo in the place, because she knew Georgio wouldn't honor such obviousness with even a grunt. The acoustics were close to magical thanks to some alchemy involving the height of the ceiling and the aged redwood floors and walls, and it was the reason touring college bands occasionally detoured here as they made their way through to big California cities or up through to Oregon or Nevada. The tiny stage was tucked all the way in the back and flanked the single restroom. There was a small round window up high in the bathroom door, and if a drummer was tall enough, they could gaily wave to anyone sitting on the toilet. Fortunately most drummers never figured this out.

The various locks on the back clunked open and Sherrie at last rushed through the kitchen, her red hair a torch in the soft light. She and her husband Glenn, the owners of the Misty Cat, were, if Britt had to guess, well north of fifty years old, gone soft in some parts, harder in others, their complexions cured identically brown by decades of scorching mountain summers.

"Sorry, hun. Glenn and I got a late start this morning. I ended up in emergency room last night in Black Oak." She held up a splinted wrist. "We were doing mermaid and fisherman and I fell off the bed."

"I'm sor...you were...mer...what?"

Talking to Sherrie was often like taking a stroll along the edge of a cliff-one minute everything was peaceful and easy, even dull, the next you could be hurtling into space, scrambling for a handhold on reality. Sherrie had no filter. Whereas Britt had become someone who filtered nearly everything.

"I dress up as a mermaid and he dresses up like a fisherman, and we pretend the bed is a rock and I'm stranded on it, and then a fisherman comes along to rescue me. But I have to do 'favors'"-she performed air quotes with her good hand-"for him in return."

She said this as matter-of-factly as some people might recite the ingredients for banana bread.

Britt froze, assaulted by questions. Did Glenn wear hip waders? Was a net involved?

Then again, knowing might be worse than not knowing.

"How did you make the tail?" Britt finally whispered. She couldn't help it. Both she and Sherrie loved crafts.

Sherrie leaned in and laid a hand on Britt's arm confidingly. "Listen, hun, there was nothing to it. I cut up an old pair of leggings and sewed them back to—"

The front door swung open, and in came a gust of hot air and a whoosh of that early morning, pine-and-sage-and-crushed leaves perfume of the California foothills.

And a man.

They all went silent.

He was lean and tall-his head brushed the top of the doorframe-and something about his posture made Britt glance at his hips. She wouldn't have been surprised to see a holster slung there, as if they'd all been transported back to the wild west and he was the fastest gun. He had that sort of presence.

He stood in the doorway a moment, adjusting to the cool dark.

"Any chance you folks serving lunch yet?"

His boots echoed on the floor as he slowly stepped forward into the light. Longish dark hair, nearly to his shoulders, pushed back behind his ears. Pale blue chambray shirt open at the throat and rolled to his elbows, worn loose over faded jeans. Something about the way his clothes fit his body told her he hadn't bought any of them at Walmart. His stubble-darkened jaw could have been drawn with a protractor, so precise and severe were its lines. It was a face straight out of a daguerrotype. He had a sort of elemental beauty that smacked her in the solar plexus the way her glimpse Hellcat Canyon had.

"Maybe." Georgio had sized him up as not one of us, and better looking than me, and defaulted to surly.

Britt shot Georgio a quelling look.

A crashing sound and an oath in the kitchen heralded Glenn's arrival.

"We serve it all day," Britt corrected, as Sherrie slipped into the kitchen to see what her husband had knocked over.

The stranger came closer, tilting his head back to study the menu chalked on the board hanging horizontally behind Georgio. TRY THE GLENNBURGER! The sign always said. EIGHT SECRET INGREDIENTS!

She and Georgio watched him in uncertain silence, as if a bear had wandered in. Weeks could go by before someone they didn't know by at least their first name crossed the threshold of the Misty Cat.

"Can you give me just a hint about the secret ingredients in a Glennburger?"

Georgio mopped beneath his armpit leisurely with a handkerchief. Britt had never seen anyone mop an armpit threateningly before, but it was happening before her eyes.

"Sweat," he finally answered.

The stranger was regarding Georgio with mild but unblinking curiosity that made the hair prickle on the back of Britt's neck. As if nothing anyone did could surprise him, but if they tried, boy would he be ready.

"That's funny," he said. "I was going to guess 'love.'"

It was a masterpiece of irony.

"It has onions," Britt volunteered hurriedly. "Spices. Nothing...bodily."

"Guess it's one of those things where you have to know the Masonic handshake to get the recipe."

It was meant to be a joke, but it fell into the vacuum of Georgio's hostility.

She suspected the stranger anticipated that it would. And didn't care.

Britt shot Georgio another look. She mostly understood his instinct to attempt to drive off interlopers, the way Jet the dog did. Most of the people who lived in Hellcat Canyon liked it the way it was, and strangers were reminders that if things were different elsewhere, they could change here, too.

But unkindness of any kind always got her back up.

Sherrie emerged from the kitchen, Glenn behind her, accurately assessed the situation and the stranger with wide, appreciative eyes, then gave him a little pat, part pity, part motherliness.

"Why don't you have a seat right over here, hun, and we'll get the grill going. Britt will bring you something cold or something hot, whatever you need. If you try the Glennburger, you'll never forget it."

Enveloped in warm, easy Sherrie-ness, he did what he was told and settled himself beneath a window.

Britt was inclined to like people who flung things like 'Masonic handshakes' into jokes. They were few and far between in a small town like Hellcat Canyon, though people here would surprise you. Everyone had their own reason for living here, often very personal or even, like her own, as secret as the ingredients in a Glennburger. When she'd arrived she'd burrowed into the place like a blanket fort, deciding she'd found safety at last.

Though she was smart enough to know that safety was an illusion and that just calling it safety didn't make it so.

He sat down, leaned back with a sigh, and stretched out those long legs as though he'd been walking on them for miles. His boots were dusty and a bit creased, but gorgeous in their simplicity. It looked as though he'd owned them forever and had probably cost more than the land the Misty Cat Cavern sat on.

He plucked up the menu wedged between the napkin holder and the little tabasco bottle and fanned it open.

"What can I get for you?" She said briskly.

"Well, I think I've already had the something cold," he said on a confiding lowered voice to Britt, with a tilt of his head in the direction of Georgio. "And I guess that would make you the something..."

He trailed off again at whatever he saw in her face.

"Well, I've been driving all night, and it feels like lunchtime, so I think I'll have a beer," he said. Sounding amused. "A Sierra Nevada. The Stout."

"Sierra Nevada Stout." She didn't write it down.

"And I'll try the hamburger. Excuse me, the Glennburger. With all of the ingredients, secret and otherwise. Medium rare."

"Do you want cheese?" she asked.

"The cheese isn't secret?"

"No. A bit enigmatic, maybe."

He smiled at that, slowly, with genuine pleasure, and held her gaze a little longer than necessary. His eyes were a startling crystalline blue. She was reminded of of rivers dashed into foam over rocks and just like that, she was just as breathless as if she'd dived into the icy snowmelt runoff of the Hellcat.

She mentally smacked away a surge of want as if it were a fanged predator. That kind of want hadn't breached her defenses in a long, long time.

She steeled her gaze to impassivity.

His gaze turned quizzical, then faintly amused, then he dropped his eyes casually to the menu again. Which she was happy about, because then she could stare at him unguarded. His shirtsleeves were rolled nearly to his elbows. His forearms were tanned gold and corded and dusted in coppery hair. His fingers were long and elegant but the hands looked well-used; an old pale scar traversed one. A musician, or a carpenter, maybe. A narrow of silver threaded up through his black hair where he'd pushed it behind his ear.

A circlet of tiny, neat black words was tattooed on his wrist: It has been a beautiful fight.

He closed the menu. "I'll have cheddar on it, then. And I have another question."

"Ask away!" she chirped.

He leaned casually back then, arms folded across his chest, and looked up at her for a moment without speaking. Then his mouth quirked wryly, as if to say, "now, we both know chirpiness isn't your real personality."

She gave him her blankly bright waitress face.

"Why is this place called the Misty Cat Cavern?" He said this with great gravity.

His voice was was a visceral pleasure: deep, almost lazy, a bow drawn at leisure across a cello string. She thought she detected something southern in the way he took his time with the vowels. It was a little too easy to imagine how he might sound right after he opened his eyes in the morning, when his sheets were still warm and the sun still just a suggestion of light at the top of Whiplash Peak.

"Well, from what I understand, the previous owner-Earl Holloway?-was falling down drunk when he ordered the sign over the phone about a thirty years ago. Apparently the guy on the other end swore Earl had said 'Misty Cat Cavern' and refused to make him a new one. Earl couldn't afford another sign. He about threw a fit but he hung it. It's the only neon sign on the whole street."

"What did he mean to call it?"

"The Aristocrat Tavern."

The stranger laughed, sounding surprised and genuinely delighted.

What a great laugh. She wanted to dive into that, too.

"I'll be back with your beer," she said, and spun like someone fleeing.

She scribbled his order on a tag and handed it over to Georgio.

"Did you see his sweet little butt?" Sherrie murmured happily, as she smiled warmly at a swelling tide of incoming customers. "It was as neat as two eight balls sitting in his jeans."

Behind her, Glenn, tying on his apron, gave a short laugh and shook his head and sighed. "Sherrie. Eight balls!" Thirty years of marriage and four kids later, Glenn still though Sherrie hung the moon, and she sailed through life on the calm sea of his unconditional admiration. She was still capable of embarrassing him, though.

Georgio was still glowering, his spatula clanging and scraping the grill with more fervor than usual. He sounded like a German Industrial band. He already had a row of customers lined up on stools in front of him, eggs and muffin halves and sausage sizzling away side by side in a geometry he understood. He never got an order wrong.

Britt had indeed seen the stranger's ass. "Eight balls" didn't quite capture it metaphorically, but it was as perfect as anything she'd ever seen. A veritable Faberge egg of an ass, rare and compelling. She could all too easily imagine sliding her hands down over it, but this had more to do with the entirety of him: the denim, the eyes, that barely noticeable silver streak in his hair, that whiff of sandalwood she'd caught, the leanness.

It had been years since thoughts that wanton had sneaked past her ramparts. Most men in town were too polite, or maybe too lazy, to continue attempting to scale the slippery wall of her reserve. Mostly that was okay with her.

She'd learned at a young age how dangerous it could be to see men in terms of their component parts. A man showed you who he was inside pretty quickly if you were willing to pay attention, but even then, sometimes it was too late.

"Last we see of him," Georgio predicted, gesturing with his chin. Which might be his longest sentence of the day.

God, she hoped so.

God, she hoped not.

"I don't know. Glenn's hamburgers really are the best," Britt said. "he may not be able to help himself."

Glenn beamed at her, his magnificent brush of a mustache twitching in pride.

She smiled back. She was reminded that making someone else happy was always the quickest best way to get a little hit of happiness when she needed one.

CHAPTER TWO

Not from here.

He could practically hear everyone drawing that conclusion with a single glance. He'd been born in an even smaller town, if you could even call that collection of shacks stuffed full of poor and bitter people a town, and he'd assessed people in just that way, too. He was an island amidst the customers eddying around him and filling in all the tables while he devoured his hamburger, which was surprisingly as exceptional as advertised.

He glanced back and his view was butts on stools arrayed before the surly cook, mostly clad in Wranglers. Clearly a popular spot, the Misty Cat. He intercepted a few searching looks-a lingering one from a guy with a badge, to whom he nodded politely, a hard one from a good-looking red-faced blockhead, which he met with utter disinterest-and other kinder, more curious ones. Over the years he'd grown accustomed to every imaginable kind of stare, but no one here seemed to precisely recognize him. These days this was mostly a relief.

He'd learned over the years that some people just needed to classify the whole world as "better than them" or "not as good as them" or "just like me."

He wasn't one of them. He'd simply waited for his first opportunity to get the hell out of Sorry, Tennessee and grabbed it in both hands. He hadn't looked back.

As it turned out, however, you could never quite take the country out of the boy.

A lot had happened since then. A wedding. The army. Triumphs. Failures. A long stretch during which he'd done nothing much but suffer the whipsaws of his ego, drink, philosophize, read, fight and seduce. Every last thing that had ever happened to him had somehow become useful.

And nobody with any sense fucked with him anymore.

While the diner watched him, he watched the waitress. Not overtly. More the way you'd rest tired eyes on something lovely, a bird flitting from tree to tree, maybe.

He tipped big but not obnoxiously big, writing "this is for saying 'enigmatic' " on the bill, and slipped out, daydreaming about her eyes. A clear pale green with tawny flecks floating in them, they made him think of panning for gold in Sierra Nevada rivers. He'd liked her delicate nerviness, the fine shoulder blades exposed by skinny straps of her camisole, the tiny tattoo on one of them he couldn't quite make out because she'd been darting like a hummingbird among the customers. She had streaky gold-brown hair twisted up and fastened up off her neck with a filigree barrette and a soft mouth at odds with that hard expression she'd clearly perfected in order to shut down men. He'd wanted to lay a hand on her arm and say, "shhh, honey. It will all be OK," but he didn't know why and he suspected she'd deck him if he did. He smiled. Wouldn't be the first time a woman had decked him.

But there was a sweet jolt when their eyes met. A kind of recognition. He'd known a lot of women, in nearly every sense of that word. The jolt was pretty rare.

Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business" erupted from his phone. It was his agent's ringtone, though lately he thought the funeral march might be more appropriate.

"And?" was how he answered it.

"They went with someone else for the House of Cards Guest Spot. It was close, though. They told me to tell you that."

JT went silent. Damn.

He had just turned forty. He knew how to take a "no."

He was just too much of a fighter to ever like it.

He knew better than to ask the next question, but that had seldom stopped him from doing anything. "Who'd they go with?"

Don't say Franco Falcone Don't say Franco Falcone Don't say Franco Falcone.

"Franco Falcone."

JT said nothing.

His agent laughed. "It's a testament to your acting skill, JT, that you didn't say a word but I heard "fuck" loud and clear."

"Pardon my language," JT said dryly.

"Ah, shake it off. They loved you and etc. It's not a big deal. Francone doesn't have your chops. He isn't going to head up a cable series, for God's sake, and The Rush is going to be fantastic. And other agently stuff I always say to you. Did I miss anything?"

"I think that about covers it. And yeah. I know The Rush will be great."

"Where are you, by the way?"

"Hellcat Canyon, apparently. Truck started making noises. I got hungry. I stopped."

"Where the hell is Hellcat Canyon? I thought California had two cities. L.A. And San Francisco."

"California Gold Country. Where The Rush will be filmed. Had a few weeks before my schedule starts winding up again and it's more or less on the way to Napa. Though I'd get a sense of the place, maybe find a place to stay. Gorgeous here," he said absently. "Long way from L.A."

He didn't tell Al he'd got in the truck last night and just started driving because waiting on news of Last Call in Purgatory was going to make him crazy and he couldn't stay cooped up in a house. He couldn't remember the last time he'd cared this much about a role.

He didn't ask about it. If there was news, Al would tell him.

"All right, then. If you can't be good, be newsworthy," Al said dryly. "See you at Nicasio's wedding in Napa?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Al." JT was supposed to give a toast there, and for many reasons, he still had no idea what he was going to say.

"You bet, JT.

JT ended the call and was just about to stuff his phone back into his pocket when a text chimed in.

He sighed gustily. He knew exactly who it was from.

Better Luck Next Time, McCord.

Franco must have fist-pumped when he thought of that. It was a brilliantly horrible thing to say for lot of reasons. JT almost laughed.

He did what he always did whenever Franco sent him a text about anything:

He sent back a photo of one of his Emmy's.

It made Franco nuts.

It was just one of the things JT had that Franco claimed JT had stolen from him.

Franco was wrong on every count, of course. But it wasn't as though JT was entirely innocent.

He finally put his phone away.

He got a few feet closer to his truck and paused to crouched to scratch a black and white cat drowsing in front of a florist's shop.

It arched and stretched to greet him, then ecstatically rotated its head so he could reach under its chin.

A little girl, nine, ten years old, peachy-skinned, hair bound in two ruthlessly symmetrical strawberry blonde braids, pushed open the door of the shop and paused to stare at him.

"Isn't my cat soft? His name is Peace and Love."

"Peace and Love, huh? Why Peace and Love?"

"Because he has a paisley on his side."

"So he does." JT scratched the black paisley shape.

"And my Grandma is kind of a hippie and she wishes my mama was one, too. She thinks my mama needs to loosen up."

"What's a hippie?" he asked gravely and wholly mischievously.

"Oh, you know, they have long hair and their houses smell good. It's the sense."

"The...incense?"

"Yeah! It's nice!"

He laughed. Peace and Love the cat rolled over shamelessly so he could scratch the white bib on his chest.

He looked up at the girl an then past her. He'd parked his truck down the street across from what appeared to be a palm reader, judging from the huge painted hand swinging from two chains over the sidewalk. He was worried about that godawful sound it was making. He had a hunch about what it was, because he'd fixed it before. He could have bought fifteen trucks just like it, if he wanted. Instead, he'd fixed nearly everything on that truck twice.

Suddenly the little girl's eyes went huge, her jaw dropped, and he watched her face go brilliant with astonished elation.

JT knew exactly what was going to happen next.

"WOOOoow," she exhaled.

Damn.

And then she threw her head back.

"MOOOOOOM!" She screamed.

FOOF! The cat shot straight up in the air, every hair erect, and it disappeared in a blur of scrambling legs, like a cartoon. JT staggered backward, blinking, his eardrums shriveling.

The little girl began pogoing excitedly all around him, her pigtails flapping. "MOM MOM MOM MOM OH MY GOSH MOM YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHO'S PETTING PEACE AND LOVE MOM HURRY COME SEE!"

Hurry? Now that was funny. As if he'd bolt, or evaporate in this heat if her mother didn't get there fast enough.

A woman hurtled out of the shop, the bells on the door jangling frantically.

"For the love of God, Annalise, what on-"

She stopped short.

He straightened slowly to his entire height, as unthreateningly as possible, as if he'd been caught in the act of something.

Which he had, in a way. He'd been caught in the act of being himself.

The woman's dark red hair was bundled up on her head in a big ponytail, and he could see where her daughter got her eyes. Same color, same shape, and they got big and round and awestruck in just the same way when she saw him.

She spoke wonderingly. "Good Heavens. Is it really you? Mr. John Tennessee McCord? What brings you to our little town?"

He liked the "Mr". Women who were about to get hysterical didn't often add a "Mr."

"About to start filming a new series about the California Gold Rush on location nearby. Called The Rush. Thought I'd get a sense of the place. Pretty town, Hellcat Canyon. Just ate the best burger of my life at the Misty Cat."

He knew that would be all over town in a heartbeat.

She glowed. "My parents own that place. Glen and Sherrie Harwood. I'm Eden Harwood."

Ah, small towns. "You should be proud."

She tore her eyes from him briefly.

"Hush, you, I know you're excited, Annalise, but you're being very rude. Apologize to Mr. McCord for screaming. He has ears, just like you do, and you're going to deafen him. And stop pointing. I can see him."

"Enthusiasm is good for my career, Ma'am." His ears were still ringing. He resisted an impulse to twist a finger in one to see whether the eardrum was intact.

"I'm sorry for screaming, Mr. McCord." said young Annalise.

"What?" he teased, cupping his ear.

Mother and daughter laughed. Albeit a little giddily.

"We often watch repeats in the afternoon of your show, Mr. McCord. That's how Annalise knows you."

It was how nearly everybody knew him, if they did. Repeats of a show that lasted seven outrageously popular years and had ended a decade ago but lived on in quite a few markets at various times of day. He thought he looked quite a bit different now, but then again. When millions of people had stared at you week after week for quite a few years anonymity was kind of out of the question. His eyes, anyone would tell him, were unmistakable. An indie band out of Minneapolis had even scored a minor hit with "Eyes like Tennessee."

"Say the thing you always said on TV, Mr. McCord. Will you please please pleeeeease?" Annalise folded her hands and implored him.

"Sorry, sweetie, I'll get in trouble from my bosses for saying that word outside the television." He winked.

He invented new reasons not to say "that thing" every time he was asked.

He would die happy if he never had to say that word again. For so many reasons.

Annalise was apparently satisfied with this explanation. Kids always related to getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing.

"Would it be rude to trouble you for an autograph?" her mother asked. "It's just that we enjoy your show so much. We'll hang it on the wall in the shop."

"No trouble at all. That is, if I can trouble you for the name of a mechanic, and maybe the name of a local hotel. My truck made some ominous noises on the way and I don't think it'll be smart to drive it."

"Ominous. O-M-I-N-O-U-S," Annalise said triumphantly.

"Wow!" He held out his fist and Annalise bumped it enthusiastically with her own little fist. "Impressive!"

"Impressive. I-m-p-r-"-

"That's enough spelling for now, Annalise." But her mother was glowing. "Um, Ernie Di Giulio is probably your best bet for a mechanic. He's way out on Kilburn Road, but the bus goes right by his garage and service station." The woman squinted and pointed down the street; near the swinging palm of a palm reader was a pretty little bench and a pole with a sign on it, which was clearly the bus stop. "And the Angel's Nest is the only bed and breakfast in town. It's actually just a block away from Ernie's, straight up the hill from it."

The hill she meant was apparent; the street wound up and up into the mountains, entirely green, except for, if he squinted he could make out the rectangle of a white highway billboard. A guy was clambering over it in preparation of changing its message. Heaven forbid the a moment should pass without advertising.

"I don't suppose this town has a taxi service?"

He was pretty sure he knew the answer. He was just curious about what she'd say.

"Of course we do!" she said. "But I think he's taking Mrs. Gordimer to the grocery store right now. There's a sale on chicken thighs. She doesn't have a car and she just got her social security check."

This was pretty much the answer he'd expected. He smiled. "Guess I timed it wrong."

"I don't know if they're full up at the Angel's Nest, but I'm afraid that's your only option right in town. If you intend to stay a while."

He followed the direction of her pointing finger, still aimed toward the hills, but his eye was drawn up and beyond it, up past the the canyon woolly and dark with pines and redwoods and oaks and manzanita and other California trees he intended to learn the names of, and several rugged peaks. He knew, he could almost smell, the way country boys could, that all of that was threaded through with the Hellcat River and creeks and streams.

He could imagine hidden swimming holes and magical clearings and vistas that were nearly impossible to hike to but were worth it, because when you stood there to watch the sunset it was better than church.

A broken truck, a pair of beautiful green eyes and a waitress who used the word "enigmatic"-JT had he'd never needed much of a rationalization to check out a gut feeling about a beautiful woman, but it was all starting to feel a little portentous to him.

A man, even a man like him, could probably still get lost up there in the hills of Hellcat Canyon.

"I just might just stay a while, at that," he told Eden Harwood.

****

When JT reached the bus stop, a pair of women sporting with the sleek, glossy tresses of the freshly blow-dried were waiting there and chattering in Spanish. Across the street a sign featuring a single, huge flirty eye fringed in luxurious sparkly gold eyelashes swung on chains. The Truth and Beauty must be a beauty salon.

They went abruptly silent when he appeared and turned big admiring, wary eyes on him.

He knew that expression well. It translated roughly to, "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

He offered them an unthreatening "I'm not a vagrant" smile and stood at a polite distance.

"Cuánto es la tarifa de autobús?" He asked.

Thanks to movie tours and the army and all the various foreign versions of Blood Brothers, he'd picked up a number of langauages hodge podge, and he'd wrestled a few of those into fluency during his downtime.

They beamed at him like indulgent aunts. They looked like sisters in town for a day of beauty, maybe. "One dollar fifty," one of them told him.

"Gracias."

They picked up their conversation again. "Oh! Louisa!" One of them grabbed her friend's arm and turned her. "Look, Look! mi actriz favorita! Ella es muy hermosa!" She pointed at the advertisement on the bus bench.

The day someone said "Look at that that beautiful woman" in any language and he didn't look was the day JT was in his coffin.

So he looked.

A famous actress was ecstatically clutching a new handbag with both hands and her knees were bent in what looked like the beginnings of a jump for joy. "Spring into savings with Macy's!"

Oh. Hell..

He could have told them he'd heard that woman fart in her sleep and he'd held while she sobbed over losing a part she wanted, and that she'd ducked when she'd hurled a shoe at him during their first big fight but she'd still managed to wing his cheekbone. And millions of other little things, because JT was a guy who paid attention. Including the very last words she'd said to him. Which were "don't wait up."

Which had been a warning, but he hadn't known it at the time.

"Mi película favorita is 'Better Luck Next Time'!"


He knew that she'd hated the script for Better Luck Next Time, but it was the movie that turned her from star into MegaStar.

Or to put it another way, into someone who had struggled to get a mention in any sort of press, let alone People, who suffered torments he'd soothed her out of when some other actress got a mention, to someone so ubiquitous she was practically like the weather. Someone he couldn't even avoid here in Hellcat Canyon. A town she would definitely consider beneath her notice.

He turned his back coldly on the advertisement and stared straight down the street as if the sheer force of will could urge the bus along faster.

The bus didn't come.

And he imagined he could feel Rebecca Corday's eyes on his back.

Look at you, JT, with your broken truck and your broken career. You should just get a Bentley, for God's sake. Now you're going to have to walk. Nobody who's anybody walks in Los Angeles.

Oh, Rebecca, he thought. You never did really get me.

He decided he was going to walk the rest of the way the Angel's Nest, and like it



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A STARRED Review from Booklist:

"Everyone’s life has a before-and-after marker, and for Britt Langley that moment occurs when J. T. McCord arrives in Hellcat Canyon. Of course, everyone in the small town with a television set or subscription to People magazine knows exactly who John Tennessee McCord is ever since the hit television show, Blood Brothers, made him a celebrity more than a decade ago. Set to star in a new series about the California gold rush, J. T. is driving around the Sierra Nevada area when his beloved old truck gives up the ghost in Hellcat Canyon. The minute J. T. meets Britt at the Misty Cat Cavern, where she works as waitress, he realizes she is something special. Now with all the sparks of attraction flying back and forth between them, things are about to get really hot in Hellcat Canyon for both J. T. and Britt. A star herself in the historical-romance world, Long (The Legend of Lyon Redmond, 2015) makes a flawless transition into contemporary romance with a wonderfully sweet yet also intensely sexy love story that brilliantly showcases her deliciously sharp sense of humor and rare gift for creating realistically quirky, wonderfully engaging characters."—John Charles


A STARRED Review from Publishers Weekly:

"Bestseller Long, known for her historical Pennyroyal Green series, has a brilliant, quirky style that gives her first contemporary a delightful gleam. Her clever phrases make her small-town setting and characters seem fresh and new. Locals are charmingly astonished when star actor John Tennessee McCord’s broken truck lands him in the small town of Hellcat Canyon, Calif. J.T. is swiftly smitten by waitress Britt Langley when she uses the word enigmatic in conversation over his lunch order. Having escaped a disastrous marriage, Britt protects her heart with an “invisible force field” that can’t quite hold off J.T.’s genuineness, intelligence, and charm. J.T. is a hero who puts Britt’s needs over his own, and Britt finds she understands J.T.’s deepest yet unacknowledged desire. The entire town roots for their romance, which is endangered more by Britt’s fears and some realistic, understandable miscommunications than by the possible return of J.T.’s former girlfriend, a fellow star whose posters plaster the town. This laugh-out-loud treat is warmly emotional and richly satisfying."

 


 

 



You can preorder now if the spirit moves you!

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