Denver Hershal has been aware of Misty since she showed up in town three years ago. Aware, and interested. But he doesn't have time for more than running his bar, tinkering with his vintage motorcycle, and riding herd on his pup--or so he tells himself. No matter how much his heart races whenever he's near her. Besides, why would a beautiful, modern-day flower child want anything to do with a rough-around-the-edges bar owner?
When his bartender cooks up a matchmaking scheme to put Denver in Misty's orbit, he's surprised at how much he has in common with her--including their mutual tendency to want to leave the past in the past and keep it private. But what will happen when Misty's private past is revealed, and clashes painfully with the things Denver's tried to put behind him?
*A shorter version of this story was previously published as ONCE UPON A WEDDING. It has been expanded into a full novella.
Release date: February 14, 2020
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 111
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Til There Was You: A Small Town Opposites Attract Romance
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this insanity.” Cayla Black bitched into her white wine spritzer. Denver knew it was the only drink the active, single mom ever ordered, and she was looking at it like she wished it were something stronger.
“Are you backing out?” Kennedy Reynolds’ voice held a rare note of panic. His best bartender wasn’t prone to panic, and Denver paused in the noisy task of racking glassware before the dinner rush to listen in more closely.
“Oh, I can do it. I didn’t say I couldn’t do it,” Cayla insisted, as though the suggestion that she couldn’t mocked her event planner pride. “You just need to be fully aware that your race to the altar is giving me wrinkles. You see this line right here?” She pointed to some nonexistent blemish on her forehead. “I got that convincing Jolene Lowrey to make her prize-winning red velvet cake for your wedding. You’re just lucky she has as much fondness for Xander’s extremely fine backside as you do.”
Kennedy snickered and wiped down the already clean bar. “Your sacrifice is duly noted, but I object to ‘race to the altar’. We’ve been waiting for years. We just didn’t know we were waiting.”
“Oh, that’s…sort of lovely.” Cayla’s face went soft for a moment, then her brows came back down. “Do not get me sidetracked,” she warned, flipping open the bulging planner at her elbow.
Not for the first time since Kennedy had announced her engagement to Xander Kincaid—interim sheriff of Stone County—Denver wondered if there was a bun in the oven. He’d heard the pair had been hot and heavy in high school, but Kennedy had taken off after that, stayed away for a decade, and only resurfaced in Eden’s Ridge a few months ago. Xander had just proposed a couple weeks back, and it seemed Kennedy was hell bound and determined to be married next month. What was the hurry, unless there was an oops on the way that they wanted to legitimize before the official election for sheriff in November?
Even as the question crossed his mind, one of his waitresses asked it for him. “Seriously, girl, what’s the rush? Did the golden boy knock you up?”
Trish Morgan didn’t have a subtle bone in her body and was always all up in everybody’s business. But the customers seemed to like her—the men for the T and A and the women for whatever gossip she served up alongside their dinners.
More than used to Trish’s less-than-subtle attempts at ferreting out the latest dirt, Kennedy rolled her eyes. “No, we just don’t want to waste any more time apart.”
“I ought to hate your guts on principle for nabbing one of the Ridge’s most eligible bachelors, but it’s hard to do that when you look so damned happy.”
“Thanks. I think.” As Trish sauntered off to finish refilling ketchup bottles, Kennedy turned back to her conversation with her wedding planner. As talk shifted to bridesmaids dresses—oh hell, were those fabric swatches on his bar?—Denver flipped the channel of the nearest flatscreen to ESPN and turned up the volume a bit. Hopefully coverage of the College World Series would help offset the estrogen.
Kennedy did look happy. That hadn’t been the case when Denver had hired her a few months back, after her mom’s unexpected death in a car accident. Carving out a new niche in Eden’s Ridge and within her family had gone a long way toward banishing the shadows from her eyes. But fixing things with Xander seemed to have done the rest. Love conquered all, and all that shit. Denver legitimately liked her—had, right from the start, and he liked seeing her happy. He just hoped her happiness and impending nuptials weren’t going to lose him a great bartender.
“—in with Misty Pennebaker.”
The name had Denver’s attention sharpening like a dog on point. Of course Misty would do the flowers. Even Denver knew she was the only florist in town. He’d taken note of Misty and her flowers every day on his drive to work for the last three years. Hard not to take notice of a woman who looked like she did—sort of neo-hippie flower child, with a smile that could light up Main Street.
But he’d never actually talked to her.
When she’d first showed up in Eden’s Ridge, he’d been focused on getting Elvira’s solidly in the black, after buying the bar from Len Draper, when the old man had up and decided to retire to Florida. No time for a woman then, and anyway, he hadn’t been sure a free spirit like her would stick. But she had stuck, proving that there was more to the pretty brunette than her posies or colorful wardrobe.
And yet he’d done nothing about it.
“Even though it’s short notice, she’s agreed to meet us here to discuss the options,” Cayla was saying.
Denver carefully, methodically stacked the empty trays. Misty was coming here?
She’d been in Elvira’s before. Everybody in the Ridge had, at some point or other, for lunch or dinner. But, as a rule, she didn’t drink. Since he seldom left his sanctum behind the bar, he’d never had the chance to casually chat her up. Not that he was a casual chat up kind of guy. He could’ve stopped into her shop on Main Street, but what reason did someone like him have to go in to a place called Moonbeams and Sweet Dreams? There was nobody he wanted to send flowers to or buy a gift for. He had no family. And while he’d made friends in the Ridge, none of them were the kind who’d merit the sort of thoughtful, artsy stuff Misty carried in her shop.
Thanks to the small-town grapevine, he knew she was single, but surprisingly little else was known about her. In a place that valued gossip as highly as gold, that was intriguing all by itself. Since Denver habitually kept to himself too, and he understood valuing privacy, he hadn’t tried to find out more. So, he’d just been admiring her from afar all this time, as if she were one of the wild, rare flowers she sold.
Denver hauled the empty plastic trays back into the kitchen, then shoved back through the swinging door to check the syrup levels on the drink fountain. And there she was, framed in the front entrance as the door swung slowly closed behind her. She was wearing one of those bright, flower child dresses that skimmed just below the knees of her very fine legs. The slanting rays of the evening sun teased out traces of red in the dark walnut strands of her hair, spotlighting the trademark crown of flowers she wore. It should have looked ridiculous on a grown woman, but Denver found it unaccountably appealing—a fact which he’d take to his grave and beat anybody for suggesting. She just seemed comfortable in herself, quirks and all. He admired the hell out of that.
He jolted, realizing from the look on Kennedy’s face that she’d been talking to him for more than a second.
“I’m gonna take my break to sort some wedding stuff, okay?”
Ignoring Kennedy’s knowing smirk, and the fact that Misty wasn’t even looking in his direction at all, he jerked his shoulders. “Yeah, fine,” he told her, as he turned to the first patron of the after work crowd. “What can I get you?"
* * *
Misty Pennebaker slipped into Elvira’s Tavern, pitifully grateful her work day was at an end. Well, there’d be more work with this wedding consult, but that would be fun and for friends. Not that they were friends just yet, but Kennedy bought flowers twice a week for the inn she ran with her sisters, and Misty had hopes they would get there.
She hesitated in the doorway, waiting for her eyes to adjust. She scanned the bar, looking for Cayla and Kennedy, and looked away quickly when she caught Denver Hershal watching her. Even while she avoided it, his gaze had an almost physical weight as it pinned her where she stood. Her skin heated from more than the early June sun, which made no sense at all because he wasn’t even smiling. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him smile.
The man had presence, and he made her uneasy. Not that she felt threatened by him, despite the tattoos she could see peeking out from beneath his shirtsleeves. He’d never said more than two words to her in the three years she’d been in Eden’s Ridge, and she hadn’t really done more than nod at him, as was small town custom. Once you were here for a year or so, you knew nearly everyone on some level. But there was something closed about Denver, just one of the things that set him apart from others she had met in the Ridge. He seemed to want to be left alone. Whatever his secrets—and nobody seemed to know what they were, at least not that she’d heard—he had a right to keep them.
Misty saw no reason to push or pry. She understood walling yourself off. Hadn’t she done the same? Oh, she’d made friends. She’d made a point of it, as she’d opened her business, gotten to know the various artists and artisans in the area. But there was a very clear line between Now and Life Before The Ridge.
Finally spotting her friends in a booth across the way, Misty broke her temporary paralysis and crossed to join them.
“You are just in time,” Cayla crowed. “I’ve got ideas!”
Misty grinned at her enthusiasm. “Kennedy, did you realize you were going to be a guinea pig when you agreed to this?”
Kennedy shrugged. “I needed a wedding planner. Cayla needed someone to practice her event planning skills on to kick off her new business. Seems like win-win to me.”
Misty had to agree. A local girl who’d come home to Eden’s Ridge after a nasty divorce, Cayla was starting over. Misty knew all about that, and she was all over doing whatever she could to support Cayla’s new enterprise.
Over a plate of nachos, they talked budgets and timelines, before finally turning to flower options for the venue—the barn on the family property, behind the inn.
“It’s going to be a country wedding, but not redneck,” Cayla said. “Tasteful.”
“I think Xander was ready to ask me to marry him all over again, when I told him he didn’t have to wear a tux.”
“You are, without a doubt, the most laid back bride I have ever worked with,” Misty said.
Kennedy shrugged, her green eyes dreamy. “I’m just happy to finally be with my Xander.”
Propping her chin on one fist, Cayla sighed. “They’re disgustingly happy. Join me in my moment of envy.”
Misty laughed. “I’m not looking for a man.”
“Well, neither am I. I’d like to be more rid of the old one than I am. But damn, I’d love to be that kind of happy.”
“Fine,” Misty conceded. “Maybe I’d change my mind if I had a guy who looked at me the way Xander looks at Kennedy.”
Kennedy squirmed a little. “This is a wedding planning meeting, is it not?”
“Yes, yes, back to work,” Cayla said, diving back into her planner and coming out with photos of the barn’s interior. “Now, I think we can use some kind of fabric swags or drapes to hide the less attractive sections of the barn, like the hay loft where y’all have stuff stored. And we’ll use the crap out of some white twinkle lights and some of that pretty outdoor lighting like you see on restaurant patios sometimes.”
“That sounds good,” Misty agreed. “And of course, I can use floral arrangements to direct people’s attention down the aisle and toward whatever you deem is the front. But it might be nice to have a focal point since there’s no real altar. Something to give it some pizzazz.”
Kennedy looked intrigued. “Like what?”
“An arbor maybe. Something I can twine with flowers and ribbon. It could be done up really pretty and in your colors.”
Cayla clapped her hands once, pressing her lips together in an obvious effort to hold in a squee.
Misty smiled. “I recognize your lightbulb moment. What are you thinking?”
Instead of answering, Cayla waved her hand. “Denver! Come here a sec.”
What the hell? Are we ordering more drinks?
Denver left the sanctity of the bar and strode over, his long legs eating up the distance. “Yeah?”
“How much do you love Kennedy?”
He didn’t even blink. “Enough not to complain that her break’s run over for wedding planning.” It wasn’t said in a teasing tone, just matter-of-fact.
But Cayla wasn’t put off in the least. “How ’bout enough to build something for the wedding?”
Build something? He’s a bartender.
Denver frowned, his brows drawing down over cool gray eyes. “Like what?”
“An arbor. Something Misty can train some flowers around and on. I’ve seen your woodworking. It’s totally in your wheelhouse.” Cayla gestured to the bar. “He carved all that himself.”
Collectively, they all shifted to look at the bar, with its subtly beautiful pattern carved into the side panels. Misty hadn’t ever really noticed it before because there was usually a crowd of people blocking it. She wanted to get up, get a closer look, but Denver shifted his gaze to her, pinning her in place.
“You want me to build an arbor?”
Something about the way the question was directed at her—or maybe it was just his intense focus—made Misty feel somehow like his target. She pointed at Cayla. “I want someone to build an arbor. She’s the one throwing you under the bus.”
Cayla clasped her hands in prayer position and gave him The Face—an adult version of the one her four-year-old regularly employed. “Please, Denver. For me? For Kennedy? For love?”
He winced. “If I do it, will you stop with all the gushy shit?”
Cayla crossed her heart with one finger.
Face set in lines of resignation, he sighed and looked at the bride to be. “Fine. What exactly do you want?”
Kennedy held up her hands. “Don’t look at me. It’s Misty’s concept.”
Cayla shook her head in mock disappointment. “I swear, you’d get married in blue jeans if not for me. Anyway, you are the least fussy bride on Earth. So here’s the date we need it by,” she scribbled something on a sheet of paper and shoved it across the table at him, “and what we’re thinking we can spend on it. Let me know if that doesn’t work. You and Misty get together to sort out the details of what she needs and what you can actually put together in that amount of time.”
Misty started to protest because Cayla was totally railroading him, but those gray eyes flicked to her again.
“Fine. Dinner crowd’s coming in right now, but I can talk tomorrow. Swing by your shop?”
This big, burly, bull of a man in her pretty little shop? “Uh…okay.”
He nodded to himself like something had been decided and walked away, leaving Misty wondering what the hell just happened.
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