"Just a fling," she said...
Tess Peyton wanted to do something fun and reckless and wholly out of character. A steamy weekend with a Scotsman seems like a plan. When her Scotsman turns out to be a good Southern boy, that's a minor deviation. Then one night turns to two, two turns to more, and suddenly she knows she's in way over her head. This is why one should always stick to the plan.
"Bachelor for life," he said...
But that was before all of Mitch Campbell's friends, cousins, and even his little sister started pairing off like someone was building an ark. No wonder he fell, and fell hard, for his "no attachments, no last names" European fling. And just when he's ready to tell the woman of his dreams that he wants to change that arrangement, she disappears, leaving him with no means of tracking her down, and a big ol' hole in his heart.
And then Fate stepped in...
Because, guess what? The guy Tess ran out on in Edinburgh shows up at family dinner. He's her dad's new wife's brother's son. What does that make them? It makes them "on again," according to Mitch and the explosive chemistry between them. Tess feels it too, along with a side of awkward, continued uncertainty, and some kind of stomach virus that seems to bother her most in the mornings...
Release date: October 2, 2018
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 186
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You Were Meant For Me: A Small Town Southern Romance
“Please fasten your seatbelt, Miss Peyton. We’re heading into some turbulence.”
Tess’s French-manicured fingers clenched the arms of the leather seat as the plane shuddered and bucked. Not because she was afraid of flying—her father’s pilot was ex-Air Force and could fly anything—but because the Indian food she’d gotten from that sketchy takeaway on the drive to Heathrow was making a bid to come back up.
You will not throw up. You do not have time for food poisoning.
The evidence of her packed schedule was laid out on the table before her, in all its painstakingly bullet-journaled glory, in the pages of the planner that dictated her life. If it wasn’t in the planner, it simply didn’t happen. Puking her guts up somewhere over Alabama wasn’t in it. Ergo, she would not be sick. End of story. And what Peytons wanted, they usually got if they worked hard enough.
She breathed through the roiling of her stomach and tried to focus on the reports she needed to get through before they landed. Her father would expect an update on the latest London project, and she needed to be on the ball to prove she had not only handled the additional responsibility he’d given her, she’d waded into the shitstorm and made it come up aces. That would be important when she proposed what she really wanted: that he allow her to take a greater role in operations of the home office in Denver.
Not that either of those things was the point of this trip to Mississippi. No, her powerful, successful, brilliant father had moved there to be with his new wife. Tess still couldn’t quite wrap her brain around the fact that her dad had gone to Vegas of all places. Sure, Peyton Consolidated had a hotel on the strip. But absolutely no one expected multi-billionaire Gerald Peyton, III to be married by an Elvis impersonator wearing gold lamé. Video footage had been leaked by a gossip blog and gone viral. Speculation had run rampant. Tess had her own concerns about the haste of the marriage, but during their brief meeting a few months before, when the newlyweds had swung through London on the way home from their Paris honeymoon, she couldn’t deny that Sandy seemed to adore her father, and he was likewise smitten. He was happy. Happier than she’d ever seen him. It wasn’t in her to begrudge him that after the misery of his marriage to her mother.
Hell, she’d envy him if she truly believed a commitment like that was really real and could really last. But she didn’t believe it. Not deep down. Six weeks ago she’d had her own shot at that kind of happiness. She’d been looking for adventure. Romance. A chance to step outside the tower walls and be someone besides Tess Peyton, someone without all the attendant responsibilities that went along with the family name. So she’d gone up to Scotland for the weekend, in search of her own hottie Highlander. Except instead of a kilted Scotsman, she’d found an ex-pat American, with a voice like honeyed whiskey and a mouth made for sin. He’d given her everything she’d wanted—and so much more. One night turned into two, then two turned into four, and before she’d known it, a week had gone by. The best damned week of her life.
But her uncharacteristic bid at recklessness, at going off-plan, hadn’t ended with wedding bells. It had just ended. She’d seen to that, hadn’t she? Nowhere in her planner did it spell out 1) Meet the man of your dreams. 2) Fall in love. Therefore, it hadn’t happened. So there was no sense in dwelling on it. No sense remembering the taste of him or the feel of his hand in hers. No sense thinking about how he’d looked, sleeping and sated, the last time she’d seen him. When she found her fingers stroking over the delicate filigree of her necklace—the necklace he’d given her—Tess dropped her hand, shutting down that line of thinking with the same ruthlessness she used to hold back the nausea, and went back to the reports.
By the time she’d white-knuckled her way through half a dozen more pages, the air had smoothed out and so had her stomach.
Jon came over the onboard intercom. “We’re about fifteen minutes out, Miss Peyton. Starting our descent.”
Thank God. It would still take time to get from the county seat of Lawley out to the tiny town of Wishful, but God willing, she could be face down on the glorious bed in the penthouse at The Babylon in another hour, falling into blessed unconsciousness. Right this moment, nothing sounded better than that.
Flagging where she’d left off, Tess made a few more notes on things to follow up on when she called to check in with her team tomorrow morning. Then she gathered up her paperwork, stowing it neatly in the relevant folders and squaring the edges before sliding the pile into her Italian leather briefcase, alongside her favorite fountain pens. The tidy little MacBook went next, and finally her planner in the outside pocket. By the time the jet touched down, she had her game face on, ready for whatever got thrown at her next.
At least until she stepped off the plane.
Her father was waiting on the tarmac wearing jeans and a long-sleeved polo shirt. On a work day. As she descended the short flight of steps, he took off his aviator sunglasses and hooked them into the neck of his shirt, a broad grin lighting his face.
“There’s my baby girl!” He scooped her off her feet, all but squeezing the breath out of her.
“Wait a minute!” Her jet-lagged brain was having trouble shifting to seeing the weekend version of her dad during business hours.
He set her down, frowning. “Problem?”
Tess relinquished the briefcase and threw her arms around him, squeezing back. “That’s better. Hi, Daddy.” She nuzzled her cheek against his shoulder, feeling some of the stress knots relax at the strength of his embrace. She’d cut off a limb before admitting she needed some of his strength right now, but she’d soak it up nonetheless.
“Productive. I’ve got the latest figures on the Piccadilly project and some ideas of how we might cut costs without sacrificing quality.”
He waved that off. “All that can wait.”
Tess blinked. “Okay then.” If he wasn’t going to jump immediately into business mode, neither would she.
“Your bag, Miss Peyton. Good afternoon, sir.”
She worked up a smile. “Thanks, Jon.”
Her father shook the pilot’s hand. “Thanks for delivering my daughter safely.”
“Always a pleasure.”
Tess shouldered the briefcase. “I’ll see you next week.”
The pilot saluted and headed to do the post-flight check of the jet. Her father grabbed her suitcase and led her toward the terminal.
Tess fell into step beside him. “Is Sandy with you?”
“At home putting together a big family dinner in your honor. Everybody’s coming.”
“Who exactly is everybody?” She hoped she didn’t sound as wary as she felt, but the idea of peopling after the long flight wasn’t remotely appealing.
“The whole family. Sandy’s mom, Helen—you’re gonna love her. She’s a spitfire. Not at all like Grandmother Peyton. Both Sandy’s brothers and their wives. Sandy’s son and his wife, and all the cousins and their respective significant others.” Seeing the wince she couldn’t hold back, he laughed. “I know, it’s a lot for us, but I promise, you’ll get used to it. They’re great people, and they can’t wait to meet you.”
Resigned to the fact that face planting was going to have to wait, Tess looped her arm through her father’s. “Then you had better give me the Cliff’s Notes bios of everybody so I can keep them all straight.”
* * *
Mitch Campbell took one look at the coconut cream pie on the diner table and swore. “This is a pie kind of emergency?”
Judd Hamilton laid a protective hand over the clear plastic dome. “Touch this and die. My pregnant wife had a craving, and I am doing my husbandly duty.”
Mitch ignored the twinge he felt at the mental image of Judd and Autumn wrapped in connubial bliss. If anybody deserved happiness, it was those two. He slid into the booth on the opposite side. “Then why am I here?”
“Just wait. Liam’s on his way.”
“Fine.” Mitch folded his hands loosely on the table and dug up a smile for the little brunette waitress who sidled up to take his order. The smile took way more effort than it should have. “Hey Hannah, can I get a cup of coffee and a slice of—what else do we have today in the pie department?”
“Apple, chocolate icebox, and Judd here got the last coconut cream.”
“Apple is a classic for a reason.”
“Warm and a la mode?”
“Is there any other way to eat apple pie?” Dimly, Mitch was aware of the flirtatious grin Hannah shot his way, but he couldn’t summon the energy to reply in kind.
“You got it.”
As she walked toward the counter, he realized Judd was staring at him. “What?”
“You didn’t flirt with her.”
“So?” He didn’t feel like flirting. That wasn’t a crime.
Frowning, Judd shook his head.
“What are we really meeting about? Is this about the design for the nursery? Because I think Liam will kill you if you change it again. You, not Autumn, because we all like your wife.”
“He’s right,” Liam announced, squeezing into the booth beside Mitch. “Your ass I have no problem beating.”
“Not the nursery either,” Judd said. “It’s nearly finished, and she cried buckets over it.”
Mitch braced himself. “Good cry or bad cry?”
“Good cry. I think. The preggo hormones make it hard to tell sometimes. Right now, she and Mom are putting their heads together on how to create a girly Star Wars-themed room.”
“Now I might cry. That’s beautiful, man.” Liam mimed wiping a tear. “You married a helluva woman.”
“Yes, yes, I did.”
“Looking forward to joining your ranks.” Liam relaxed back against the booth, the picture of contentment. “Though I’m starting to think you had the right idea proposing and marrying the girl on the same day. It seems a helluva lot less complicated than planning a wedding.”
“I thought your mom and Riley were taking care of all of that,” Judd said.
“They are. But I’m expected to have opinions on shit.”
Hannah came back with Mitch’s pie and coffee and took Liam’s order, interrupting the wedding discussion and distracting them from the fact that Mitch had stopped contributing to the conversation.
What could he say? I wish I could follow you both over that cliff? I want what you have? I thought I had it, but it slipped through my fingers? None of that was what they expected of him. He was the flirt. The unrepentant lover of women. As all of his friends and cousins had fallen into their forevers, he’d looked on with an increasing sense of bemusement. He’d never be felled so easily.
And yet he had. Hard and fast and irrevocably.
“Afternoon gentlemen.” Mama Pearl Buckley, the much-beloved, opinionated heart of Dinner Belles, slid Liam’s milkshake onto the table. Her gaze skated over to Mitch’s, those dark eyes assessing. After a moment, she nodded to herself, as if confirming something, and Mitch realized she knew. Not the who or the how, but she knew at long last he’d toppled. She’d predicted it right here two years ago, hadn’t she?
One of these days, Mitch Campbell, you gonna find yourself one that ruins you for all others, and we all gonna enjoy the show.
Except they didn’t get the show because the curtain had already fallen. A week’s performance. No reprisals.
Because he’d been the dumbass who’d taken one look at Anna on that tiny pub stage in Edinburgh, singing “Dancing Queen” for all she was worth, and slid right over the edge. When she’d proposed a no strings, no last names affair, he’d agreed without question. She’d dazzled him, plain and simple. Neither of them had planned on more than one night. Neither of them had planned anything. And it had been the freest, most unapologetically himself he’d ever been. By the end of a week, he’d known to the marrow of his bones that he wanted more than just her last name. He wanted everything. But when he woke, intent on convincing her that they were so much more than a simple vacation fling, she’d been gone. His anonymous Anna had disappeared into the ether, as if she’d never been. Except for the indelible mark on his fractured heart.
Judd narrowed his eyes. “Dude, are you humming…ABBA?”
Aw hell, he’d been humming “Dancing Queen” under his breath.
“Is that what that is? I’ve had an ear worm for days.” It was the only lie that might allow him to save face.
Liam angled toward him. “Okay, let’s get down to it.”
“Yeah, let’s.” The sooner they finished with whatever this was, the sooner Mitch could get the hell out of here and go…try to find something that would distract him from his misery. Which was becoming increasingly hard to do given he was surrounded by enough new couples to people Noah’s freaking ark. Maybe he should think about getting a dog.
“This is an intervention,” Judd announced.
“You have not been yourself since you got back from that conference in Paris,” Liam added.
Mitch stared at them. “Seriously? This is about me?”
“We’re worried about you, man. You’re not flirting, not dating, and you skipped poker night.” Judd pronounced it like an indictment.
“I had work.” They didn’t need to know that the plans he was working up were for him and not a client.
“What’s going on with you?” Liam asked.
He wasn’t telling them about Anna. If he did, it would get back to his large and very nosy family, and there’d be no end to the questions. Not to mention he had no intention of explaining why he’d thought a no strings, no last names affair was a good idea. He could just see his mama shaking her head and tsking, “I raised you better.” Yeah, that was not a conversation he wanted to be having. Especially not as gossip moved faster than the speed of light in Wishful, and he was expected at a family dinner in a couple of hours.
But Anna was only part of his funk.
“Excuse me for being less than my usual charming self when I get home from a trip to find out my sister was kidnapped. And that everyone—everyone—kept it from me.” He still hadn’t gotten past that. He’d known somebody was harassing Miranda before he’d left. But she’d insisted it wasn’t a big deal, and she was romantically involved with the chief of police. Ethan had given his word nothing would happen to her. So he’d taken the trip. And while Mitch had been abroad, having that life-changing affair, his baby sister had been kidnapped and beaten. Finding out that happened, that he hadn’t been home to protect her…it messed with his head.
“The whole thing was over in four hours. There was nothing you could’ve done,” Judd assured him. Not for the first time. As he’d been in on the takedown, he was in a position to know. Not that it made a whit of difference to Mitch.
“And when I called home to say I was extending my trip? Nobody thought I should be read in about the fact that Miranda was in the hospital.” He didn’t have to manufacture the bitterness in his voice.
“Because the guy who put her there was already dead, and she wanted the chance to heal a bit,” Judd continued, as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world. “You know she hates it when you hover. The rest of your family was doing enough of that.”
Mitch stabbed up a bite of pie hard enough to send the slice halfway off its plate. “I should have been here.”
“What is it you think you could’ve done that Ethan didn’t already do?” Liam asked. “Do you blame him for what happened to her?”
“No.” Mitch wasn’t arrogant enough to believe that if he’d been home his sister never would have been taken in the first place or that she’d have been found any faster. Ethan had taken a bullet for her. It was hard to think that while they’d both been suffering, he’d been with Anna. Cheerfully oblivious.
“Then what is your deal?” Judd demanded.
If they’d told him, if he’d come home on his normal schedule, he never would have met Anna, and he wouldn’t have this damned crater in his heart. Because the Bard was a hundred percent wrong. Loving and losing sucked ass.
“I don’t appreciate being cut out.” How could she have just left?
“Are you seriously going to be a drama queen about this? Because the decision wasn’t about you,” Judd said.
Not talking about Anna. Pull your head out of your ass.
“I know. Intellectually, I get that. But all of you were here, you went through it, and you processed it. I’m just still working my way through all of that. I’m her brother. I’ve spent my whole life protecting her. I can’t just shake it off.” The sense of failure was too great.
Liam nudged him with an elbow. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I know that, too. I’ll get past it.” And he knew he would get past the complicated snarl of emotional shit with his sister, at least. “I’m just…not feeling like any of the things I cared about before matter anymore, and I don’t want to just go through the motions.”
His friends were silent for a long moment, watching him. Mitch wondered what they saw. Did they really buy that this was all about Miranda?
Judd blew out a breath. “Okay then. Take the time.”
“We’re here if you need us.”
A little of the pressure to perform, to rise to expectations, slid off Mitch’s shoulders. He let the corner of his mouth curve. “Are we done with the touchy feely shit now? Because I really just want to finish my pie.”
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