Still to have its final proofread, but here's chapter one of Jackson and Miranda's story. ;)
The blonde looks at me seductively, her eyes a little glazed.
“Can I have another one?” she asks.
“Do you think you should?” I’m pretty good at working out where my regulars’ limits are, and by the time Belle finishes off her third wine, it’s probably time for her to go home.
“If I have any more, I might have to crash at your place.” She lets out a soft giggle, and it takes everything in me not to roll my eyes.
She’s an attractive woman. But I want something more. I’m done with meaningless hookups.
“My place is out of bounds. I’ll get you a Coke if you want.”
She lets out a sigh. “Yes, please. Molly’s due here soon, isn’t she?”
I nod. “She is.”
Belle smiles. “Good. I’d like to say hello.”
“You’re not joining her?”
She shakes her head. “She invited us, but Claire and I thought we’d leave her to celebrate with her really close friends. I mean, we’re tight, but not like you or Miranda.”
I nod. “I can understand that.”
“We’re invited to the wedding tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to the party afterward. You’re going, right?
I smile. Molly and Brad are two of my favorite people. I’m looking forward to both their wedding and the celebration afterward. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Good. There’s a group of Mollab people coming in too, so I can catch up with some of them. I can’t wait.”
For a moment, I study her closely. I’d never considered that for all her flirting, Belle might just be lonely here. There are only a handful of Molly’s workers in town so far, and they’ve moved a long way to be here.
“I bet you miss them.”
She nods. “I’m not sorry I made the move though. It’s a beautiful town.” Her eyelashes flutter. “And the people are nice.”
“That’s what makes me stay. I love this place.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a new arrival and turn my head to look.
Everyone looks when Molly Beckham walks in.
She’s a bit of a celebrity around these parts. Molly’s probably the most successful person to come out of Nettle Downs, and while a lot of people don’t understand what she does, they know her return could mean the rebirth of the neighborhood.
It’s something we’ve needed for years.
Tomorrow, my old friend marries the love of her life. Tonight, she’s come in for a quiet drink to celebrate.
And she’s glowing.
Brad’s already been and gone. Apparently, they decided not to see one another the night before the wedding. I guess they’ve been through more than enough to go the extra mile to avoid bad luck.
And while Molly shines so bright, my eyes go straight to the brunette with her. The pretty brunette with the long hair and pixie face who could pass as Molly’s sister.
But Molly doesn’t have a sister.
Color me intrigued. She’s quite tall, just as Molly is, and she’s wearing figure-hugging jeans that I have to force myself to look up from.
With a smile, I walk around the bar to greet them.
“Miranda.” A squeal comes from behind me. I turn to see Belle leap off the barstool and run to hug the woman with my friend.
Miranda. Molly’s talked about her before. She’s Molly’s best friend and is an executive in her company. And she’s utterly gorgeous. Especially when she beams at the sight of Belle.
“Jackson.” Molly says from right in front of me, and her whole face is lit up in a smile.
“Molly, your table is waiting for you. I made sure you had plenty of space in case you got more than you planned for.”
“Thank you.” She takes a deep breath. I’ve never seen her so happy in all the time I’ve known her. “You’ll have a drink with us, won’t you?”
“I thought this was a bachelorette kind of thing?”
Molly shakes her head. “It’s just a quiet celebration. And I’d like to have a drink with all my friends. Dean’s coming by.”
I snort. “He’s as bad as you when it comes to a screen in front of his face. He’s seriously coming here to have a drink?”
She laughs, and her friend looks equally amused.
“Oh, Jackson, this is Miranda. Miranda, Jackson Booth.”
Miranda reaches out her hand, and I give it a shake. “Nice to meet you, Miranda. Molly’s told me a lot about you.”
She smiles. “You too. I’ve heard all about this place. Tom sings praises about your burgers.”
“Well, you’re welcome to try one tonight.”
“I’ll be making sure we have plenty of food. And we won’t be drinking too much. The last thing I want is a hangover on my wedding day,” Molly says.
“Come with me and I’ll show you to your table.”
She looks at the bar. It’s not crazy busy, but there are a couple of people waiting. It’ll be another hour before it goes nuts. “Are you sure you have time?”
“You get special treatment. Let’s go.” I turn toward the table. I’ve put them in a corner so they can get a little privacy.
When we reach the table, Molly wraps her arms around my waist. I hold up my hands in surprise before settling them on her shoulders. “Thank you.”
I plant a kiss on the top of her head. “You’re always welcome. I’m so excited for you and Brad.”
“I really can’t believe it’s finally happening.”
She digs her fingernails into my back. “I wish Lane was here.”
“So do I, darlin’. So do I.”
I meet Miranda’s gaze. She’s tearing up, and I’m sure that when Molly lets go of me, her friend won’t be the only one crying.
“I bet anything she knows, Molly. She’d be happy for you two,” I say.
Molly nods and lifts her head. “I know. I miss her so much.”
“We all do.” I raise my thumb to her face and wipe away a stray teardrop. “How about I get the four of us a drink to start and we’ll have a toast to Lane.”
Molly smiles. “I like that idea.” She lets go of me and turns to Miranda. “What do you want to drink?”
Miranda smiles. “Gin and lemonade, thanks.”
“What happened to tequila? Isn’t that your drink of choice?” Molly laughs.
Miranda screws up her nose. Damn it. She’s so cute when she does that, and I hold in a sigh.
“I haven’t touched it since the night my brother got engaged. I’ve never been so sick.”
“Tequila will do that to you,” I say.
She nods. Our gazes lock and I find myself lost in those blue eyes of hers. Her lips curl into a smile, and if I considered myself a romantic, I’d think she’d already stolen my heart.
“Just my usual, please,” Molly says.
I drag my eyes from Miranda, to Molly’s expectant face. Get it together. “Corona it is. I’ve put someone else in charge of the bar tonight so I can have a drink with you. I had one with Brad earlier, and after this, I’m not drinking anything else in case you need a ride home.”
Molly beams. “That’s so sweet.”
“Well, someone has to make sure you don’t turn into a pumpkin.”
She laughs. “I really appreciate it. But I still won’t be drinking much because I’d like to get married without a hangover.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I grin.
“I think that’s why she invited me along. To keep an eye on her,” Miranda says.
Molly’s mouth falls open in mock horror. “I invited you because I love you and you’re my maid of honor.”
“Hold that thought and we can toast to that when we’ve got our drinks,” I say, meeting Miranda’s gaze again. Hopefully, when a few more people arrive and distract Molly, I can get to know Miranda better. She’s Molly’s right-hand woman. Surely she’s moving here at some point.
“Come and join us at the table, Belle,” Molly says.
“Are you sure?”
She nods. “The more, the merrier.”
Argh. This could complicate things.
But this is Molly’s event, so I turn and walk to the bar. Kayley’s manning it tonight. She was my first employee and works her ass off, so I like rewarding her with extra responsibility if I can.
My future plans include opening another bar, and I want her to be in charge. Nights like this are an opportunity to see what she’s made of.
From the bar, I look back at the table. Molly’s talking to Belle while Miranda takes in the scenery. She flicks her hair back as she meets my gaze and smiles, looking down at the table. It’s all kinds of hot.
I grab two Corona bottles from the chiller, open them up, and slide a slice of lime into them.
“What are you doing?” Kayley asks. I’m not sure she appreciates what an event this is for Molly and Brad and their friends. She’s a good five years younger than I am, and never knew Molly when she lived here.
“Getting some drinks for Molly’s table.”
“Are those going on the tab?”
I cock an eyebrow. “No. They’re courtesy of me. And one for me.”
Her hands go straight to her hips. “You told me everything had to be accounted for.”
“Yeah. Put these through at no charge. They’re for my little celebration.”
As I pour the gin and lemonade, and the Coke for Belle, Kayley huffs, but I know her heart’s in the right place. She doesn’t know my plans to expand yet—no one does. Molly making the decision to move her company to our small town helped kick me into action.
“I appreciate you looking out for me, darlin’. If the orders come from Molly and people at her table, they go on the tab.”
She nods. “At least something is.”
I bite down a smile as she walks away, then I pick up the drinks and walk toward the table.
There’s not a person I don’t know in Nettle Downs, and this bar is usually one of the first places any newcomers check out. It’s been a while since someone’s caught my eye.
Miranda looks up, flicking her hair over her shoulder before reaching for the drink I extend to her.
“Thanks, Jackson.” Her voice is soft and sweet.
Molly takes the other, and I sit opposite them.
“So, you’ll be at the wedding tomorrow?” Miranda asks.
I nod. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. The chance to see these two walk down the aisle? It was on my never-gonna-happen list, so I have to see it for myself.”
Molly reaches across the table and slaps my hand. “Hey.”
I shrug. “It’s true.”
“He’s right, Molly. If you’d told me a year ago that you would have upped and moved across the country to be back here, I’d have never believed you.” Miranda grins. “I could barely get you on a plane. You were surgically attached to your computer.”
Molly nods. “My life certainly took a twist.” Her eyes grow sad, and I don’t need to ask to know she’s thinking about Lane again.
“It really did. Now you’re a bride-to-be, and a mom.”
Her eyes widen. “I’m not. Lane’s . . .”
“Don’t you dare. Gracie loves you. And you’ll be all hers tomorrow. Although, I think it’s just the legal aspect because she claimed you when you arrived in town.”
Molly laughs. “You’re right.”
“Any more babies on the horizon?” I ask.
I don’t miss Miranda’s sharp look.
“Isn’t that a personal question?” Molly asks.
I shrug. “I’m just looking forward to being Uncle Jackson—babysitter extraordinaire.”
That brings a grin to Miranda’s face. She has the cutest dimples.
“What do you think, Miranda? Auntie Miranda has a ring to it too.” I grin.
She laughs. “You’re going to get me into trouble.”
“A chance would be a fine thing.”
Molly cocks an eyebrow at that, and Miranda’s cheeks flush pink. I don’t miss Belle staring at me.
“If there’s one thing you’re good at, it’s flirting.” Molly grins. Her gaze rises over my head. “Bridget’s here.”
Bridget hooks her arms around my neck and rests her chin on the top of my head. “Hi. Jackson, are you getting me a beer?”
“No, go and ask Kayley for one.” I raise my face as she straightens up. “I’m drinking mine with these lovely ladies.”
“Oh, aren’t we honored tonight?”
She’s her usual sassy self, and I shake my head as she walks away.
“That’s Bridget?” Miranda asks. “Tom’s Bridget?”
Molly nods. “Sure is. I think you’ll like her.”
“She’s really pretty. I’m so glad Tom found someone. He seems happy.”
“Those two are ridiculously in love. It’s sickening.” I take another drink of beer and look back to see Miranda’s eyes on me again. I’m pretty good at reading people, and I think she’s interested, but I might have to test that theory later.
“What’s sickening?” Bridget takes a seat beside me.
“You and Tom. Nauseatingly happy.”
She grins. I love this woman. In a purely platonic way. Maybe she can keep Belle busy while I focus on Miranda.
“Now we have to find someone for you.” Bridget teases me.
I shrug and take another sip of beer.
“Oh, don’t. You sound like Miranda’s family. They have this pre-occupation with everyone being paired up and married,” Molly says. “But you just gotta wait for the right someone. Am I right, Miranda?”
I shift my gaze to Miranda again. She meets mine and then looks down at her beer. “Yes. And I’d rather not think about that lot.”
“Miranda gets to be a bridesmaid twice with her youngest sister getting married soon.” Molly smiles at Miranda.
“Don’t remind me.”
“Are they that bad?” I laugh.
“I love them, but they’re a bit much. I have three sisters and a brother, three nephews and a niece. The house will be chaotic.” She shrugs and takes a sip of beer. “I’ll just be glad when it’s all over.”
“Sounds like it.” I shoot her a smile, and her cheeks go pink.
“Anyway, we’re here to celebrate tomorrow, so to Molly and Brad.” Bridget holds up her bottle, and we all clink them together.
“To Molly and Brad,” we all say in unison.
“Who’s doing your catering tomorrow, Moll? I was heartbroken not to be asked,” I say.
“I got outside caterers in so all the people I love can be there as guests. You know you’ll get plenty more business out of me.” Molly pokes her tongue out at me.
“I know. I’m teasing.” I hold up my bottle, and she clinks hers against mine again. “I’m just glad I got an invite. It’s gotta be pretty exclusive.”
She laughs. “It’s not a huge wedding, so I guess so. I was happy to go to the registry office, but Brad wanted me to have the full experience, and I’m not sorry. Tomorrow will be amazing.”
“It sure will.” I bite down anything else I might have had to say. A long time ago, I had a crush on Molly, and while I was as confused as everyone else about her dumping Brad all those years ago, I’d toyed with the idea of going after her to see if she could be interested in me.
That would have been a bad idea.
I shift my gaze back to Miranda. She’s chatting to Bridget, and is so animated and full of life. I like the thought of someone uncomplicated in my life. Miranda’s never been part of my social circle, and she’s not ever been entangled with any of my friends.
Maybe I like her.