In Wishful it is. Lexi Morales never imagined her life would turn into the premise for an 1980s teen movie. But when her big high school trauma hit like a ton of bricks, she spent the next decade trying to hide the truth. After years of careful avoidance, she's back in town to care for her injured mother, just in time for the high school reunion she never planned to attend—a reunion that evokes memories she's tried to forget.
Wishful's friendly neighborhood photographer, Zach Warren, has no idea why he and his best friend drifted apart. But from the first, flashbulb moment he sees Lexi all grown up, she's all he can think about—and his thoughts keep straying right out of the friendzone.
Zach's offer of temporary employment while she's in town should be a perfect fit, but acting like she's never thought of him as more than a friend turns out to be harder than Lexi ever expected. All she wants to do is get through this with her secret—and her heart—intact. One thing's for sure: Lexi is NOT going to this prom.
But what if ten years is just the right amount of time for Zach to finally get a clue?
Release date: May 24, 2019
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 121
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Dancing Away With My Heart: A Small Town Southern Romance
The light was perfect. A thin layer of clouds diffused the early evening sun, casting a warm glow over the Wishful town green. All along Main Street, flowers bloomed from carefully-tended planters and trees leafed out in a vibrant chorus of spring. People strolled or sat, enjoying the breezy, upper-sixties temperatures and soaking up sunshine on what was arguably an absolutely perfect spring day. Lexi’s shutter finger twitched, and she wished she’d grabbed her camera when she’d gotten out of the car. She wanted to linger in the golden hour, while everything seemed just a little bit magical. But she was on a mission. Still, she turned her face into the cool caress of the wind and gloried in the sweet scents of azaleas and jasmine.
“Why, Lexi Morales, is that you?”
The delighted drawl snapped Lexi out of her reverie. She blinked at the older woman, who sported a huge, shellacked helmet of hair in an I Love Lucy shade of red. Back when she’d taught tenth-grade English, she’d been known to change it as frequently as other women changed purses. There’d been a pool going on the color of the month. The winner got a whole dozen of their candybar of choice. Lexi had ended up with a lot of Snickers that year.
Mamie Landon beamed, opening her arms and automatically pulling Lexi in for a pillow-soft hug. “How are you, sugar? I didn’t realize you were back in town.”
Knowing there’d be no escaping without at least a short visit, Lexi resigned herself to a delay. “Well, it wasn’t a planned thing. My mom had a fall and broke her ankle.”
One hand went to Mrs. Landon’s ample bosom. “No! I hadn’t heard! Why, I need to bring by a casserole. What happened?”
“She was trying to clean out the gutters and the ladder slipped. She fell right off. Clean break. She’s okay, but I’m here to help out for a few weeks until she gets back on her feet.” And to take care of a myriad of other things around the house that her mom had no business trying to do on her own.
“It’s such a blessin’ that you could get away that long from your job.”
Lexi smiled a little. “My boss is pretty accommodating.”
“What is it you’re doing now?”
“I’m a photographer.” She’d finally been able to afford to sign a lease on studio space in Austin. A lease she wouldn’t be able to pay if she didn’t figure something out for income while her mom recuperated.
“That’s marvelous, darlin’. Seems like almost every memory I have of you from high school, you had a camera in your hands. You and that Warren boy. Used to be thick as thieves.”
The faint smile froze on Lexi’s lips. Yeah, she didn’t really need a reminder of “that Warren boy.” She’d made avoiding him without being rude an art form over the past decade.
“He’s a photographer now, too,” Mrs. Landon continued, oblivious to Lexi’s discomfort. “Runs a studio right here in town. Did you know that?”
“Yes ma’am, I’d heard that. We keep up a little bit on social media.” It was all she’d been able to stomach. But she was back in town for longer than a weekend now. She wouldn’t be able to steer clear of him forever.
A bright flash of color drew her attention to the fountain at the opposite end of the green. A young couple, decked out in formalwear, grinned at each other, posing in front of the post-Civil War monument that had given the town its name. Over the years, people had come from all over to make wishes in its waters. According to Lexi’s mother, the new city planner had capitalized on that colorful history over the past few years in a marketing campaign to increase tourism. Lexi supposed duping the masses with foolish hope was as good a reason to draw people to town as any, but she knew better. The fountain certainly hadn’t granted her wish all those years ago.
Her gaze skimmed from the couple further back, searching out the photographer and hoping it would be some proud parents wanting to capture their kids in all their finery. But it wasn’t parents.
“Oh, there’s Zach now! It’s prom night for the high school, so I figured he’d be out and about somewhere.”
Of course, it was prom tonight. Because this walk down memory lane wouldn’t be complete without that insult to add to her very old injury.
Lexi’s skin went hot and prickly, and a whole murmuration of starlings performed aerial acrobatics in her stomach. She hadn’t seen him in years. Not really. She could barely see him now at this distance, but she recognized his crouch with a camera lifted to his face. A face that now showed signs of a scruff he hadn’t had when they were in high school. His sun-tipped brown hair was a little long, the way she’d always liked it. He was all dialed in to his subjects, calling out orders for posing, keeping them relaxed and comfortable. He’d always had a gift for that, where she’d had to work for it. She’d always, always preferred shooting any subject that wasn’t people. But she’d gotten over it. Needing to eat was a powerful motivator, and weddings, engagements, and portraits were her bread and butter.
Mrs. Landon took Lexi’s arm and began towing her down the sidewalk toward him, one hand lifted in a wave, despite the fact that his back was to her. Any second now she was going to sing out “Yoo hoo!” and draw his attention.
Lexi dug in her heels. “No, Mrs. Landon, it’s bad form to interrupt a shoot. They’ll lose the light. I’ll catch up with Zach later.”
As she watched, the boy dipped his date back in dramatic fashion. Laughter carried over the green, and Lexi felt a pinch somewhere in the vicinity of her heart. The bite of jealousy was fast and surprisingly vicious.
Oh my God, really? You are a grown-ass woman. Are you really jealous of a couple of seventeen-year-olds?
The unfortunate truth was yes. She hated prom season and all the reminders it brought. While she wasn’t sure how she was going to make ends meet the next several weeks, she’d been thrilled to escape more of the shiny, happy teenagers and their parents, who approached the occasion with nearly as much seriousness as a wedding.
“I’m sure he’ll be just delighted to see you.”
Lexi doubted that. They barely qualified as friends anymore. “I’m sure it’ll be good to catch up later. I’ve got time, after all.” Sucking in a breath to calm her racing pulse, she managed another smile. “Listen, Mrs. Landon, it was so wonderful to see you, but I need to be getting on. Mama sent me into town to pick up mochas and brownies from The Grind.”
“Of course, of course. You tell your mama I said hello now, you hear?”
“Yes ma’am, I will.”
“I’ll bring that casserole by later this week!”
“We surely appreciate it. Thanks again.” Before Mrs. Landon could start in on any other subject, Lexi ducked away and hustled across the green to the coffee shop.
As she stood in line, she managed to get herself under control. It was stupid, really. She’d known she’d see him eventually. Wishful didn’t even have a population of six thousand people. Over the past decade, she’d managed to limit those random encounters, coming home only rarely for weekends and sticking close to the house, rather than out and about. Her mother, God love the woman, had never asked for details about why Lexi no longer wanted to see the boy who’d been her best friend from the first summer before she’d started at Wishful High School, back in ninth grade. Lexi had hoped that time would dull the ache of missing him and the burn of embarrassment she felt every time she thought of him. But it hadn’t. Not yet, anyway. So, she’d have to bite the bullet, take control, and arrange to see him on her terms. After she’d had a chance to get her head screwed on straight.
At the sound of the familiar male voice behind her, she closed her eyes.
* * *
Zach stood just inside the entryway to The Daily Grind. All thoughts of the clients he’d just finished with, and the large Zombie Killer with caramel he needed to fuel the late night of editing ahead, spilled out of his brain. The next few seconds unfolded like a series of still shots, each moment captured clear in his mind as she turned. In each one, she transformed a little bit more from the girl he remembered to the woman before him. The woman he’d barely seen in a decade. Every blink was another shutter click, storing away mental images, cataloging the differences between then and now. She was still petite, but the compact body in his memory had added more than a few curves. The rich, brown waves of her hair were longer now, pulled back in a low tail at her nape.
But it was her. It was Lexi.
Joy burst like a barrage of flash bulbs in his brain. But there was something else there, too. A tightness in his chest he didn’t expect. Like he couldn’t quite catch his breath. An inability to look away from those melted chocolate eyes. Had they always been this deep and piercing? Her lips curved as she smiled that familiar, Lexi smile, and the thing in his chest loosened.
Before he could check himself, he’d closed the distance between them, scooping her into his arms, and lifting her off her feet in a fierce hug. “Damn, it’s so good to see you!”
It took a second to register that she wasn’t hugging him back. Realizing he’d overstepped some boundary they’d never had before, he set her down, finding himself strangely reluctant to release her, as if she’d disappear in a puff of smoke the moment he stopped touching her. Lexi Morales hadn’t been a day-to-day part of his life since they’d graduated high school, but he’d never stopped thinking about her. Never stopped wondering how the hell they’d gone from easy, everyday friends, to the keep-up-on-social-media distance they had now.
As soon as her feet hit the floor, she took a step back, and he noticed that smile he’d missed so much was a little strained around the edges. “Hi, Zach.”
Shit, should he apologize for invading her personal space? Not knowing what else to do, he shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from touching her again. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
Glancing at the line, she edged closer to the counter. “Only just. My mom broke her ankle.”
Zach frowned. How had he not heard about that? He tried to keep up with Mama Morales since Lexi was more than a few hours away in Texas. “That’s awful. Is she okay?”
“Yeah. But she can’t manage on her own right now, so I’m here for a few weeks to help out.” There was a flash of…something in her eyes before they shuttered.
Zach realized he’d seen that before, when she’d started to retreat at the end of high school. He hadn’t known what to do with that back then. She’d never hidden what she was thinking or feeling before. It had always been one of the things he’d loved about her. He knew exactly where he stood with her. When she’d started pulling away, he’d thought it was a phase. She’d always been an intensely private person, so when she’d put up boundaries, he’d respected them instead of demanding she tell him what was going on. He’d thought she’d snap out of it. She hadn’t. High school had ended, they’d gone to different schools, and somehow…they’d never found their way back to the friends they used to be. He’d been able to keep up with her on social media. Maybe that had made him feel like they were still closer than they actually were because he was painfully aware that he couldn’t read her right now.
He didn’t know where this standoffishness was coming from. Okay, maybe she hadn’t responded the way he wanted when he’d reached out online. They’d both been busy with their respective lives. It happened. But maybe it was more than that. Did she have something going on that he ought to be concerned about? As far as he was concerned, they were still friends. If she needed support for something, he wanted to be there for her.
The line moved, and they took another step toward the register. “Is everything all right with you being here that long?”
The question seemed to take her aback. “What?”
“It’s just, you seem less than thrilled about it.”
Two spots of color bloomed in her cheeks. “It’s not that. I love my mom. It’s just a long time to be away from my life in Austin.”
“And does that life include a significant other?” He hadn’t seen her post anything about a guy on social media, but she didn’t post about a lot of things.
Lexi snorted and sounded more like herself. “Like I have time for a boyfriend while I’m getting my business off the ground.”
Zach felt an absurd sense of relief at the news. Why should it matter if she had a boyfriend or not? It wasn’t like a guy would take her away from him. Life had done that already. And things had never been anything more than platonic between them.
“So it’s work you’re missing?” This was probably safer territory. They’d always been able to connect over photography.
“Well, it’s hard to book jobs not knowing exactly when she’ll be healed enough for me to get back.”
He’d been lucky in his business. Byron Bridges had retired the year Zach graduated from college. Coming home to take over his studio had been a no-brainer. There’d been a built-in client-base, and as the only professional photographer in town, he tended to stay busy year-round. So busy, he didn’t have time to pursue his other interests. But maybe, since Fate had sent Lexi back his way, he’d get a little reprieve. And maybe he could help her out along the way.
“Work with me while you’re here.” The words were out before he could think them through, but he wouldn’t have taken them back. He missed working shoulder-to-shoulder with her in a dark room or on digital proofs. No one understood the lure of being behind the camera the way she did.
Those melted chocolate eyes blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Since Byron retired, I’m the only gig in town, so I’ve got more business than I can handle. There’s a waiting list, and there have been some jobs I’ve had to turn down because of time constraints. I know it’s not growing your client list for Austin, but it’d surely keep some income flowing while you’re here.”
Why did she look so stunned at the offer? They were friends. Or damn it, they used to be. He wanted that back. Spending actual time together would give him the chance to reestablish their friendship in a way he couldn’t online. He’d known he’d missed her, but he hadn’t realized how much until he’d seen her again. He needed her to say yes to this.
“Your clients want to book you. Your skills. Your style.”
“They want good pictures,” he corrected. “Most aren’t that fussy about who takes them, and you’re every bit as good as I am. It’d be great to have someone to refer them to that isn’t an hour or more away. You brought your gear, didn’t you?”
The look of vague insult almost made him smile. “Of course I did.”
“Then it’s a win-win for us both.” Please, say yes.
She fidgeted, and he was sure she was trying to come up with some excuse. “Well, if you truly don’t mind and don’t think they’d mind, I’d certainly appreciate some referrals.”
Zach held in his whoop of relief. “Of course I don’t mind. What are friends for? I’d love to get to really catch up while you’re here. It’s been ages.”
Again that…something flashed across her face, but she stepped up to the counter to place her order. By the time she’d finished chatting easily with the barista and paid, he’d already mentally rearranged things in his studio to accommodate another photographer and started a list of ways to remind her of all the reasons they’d been friends in the first place.
Grabbing the paper bag and tray of coffees, she turned toward him, smiling again. “I’d love to catch up while I’m here. But later. I promised Mom brownies and a mocha, and I already ran into Mrs. Landon on the green, so I’ve taken longer than I meant to.”
Squashing the disappointment that they couldn’t start that catching up now, he pasted on his own smile. “Of course. Give your mom my best. And come on by the studio tomorrow. I’ll give you the grand tour. It’ll be nice to share it.”
“Looking forward to it.” She lifted the bag in a sort of wave and headed out the door.
As he watched her go, Zach couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was running. With luck, he’d eventually suss out why.
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