Mason Donovan has a secret he’s spent years overcoming: dyslexia. Through school, he was viewed as the proverbial kid with all brawn and no brain. He wanted nothing more than to be included with the other guys in his high school classes and to have a date with Josie Parker. His longing leads to a reckless escapade at Willow Lake and the death of an innocent child.
Josie Parker loves reading so much that she decides to open a bookstore/café. Among the pages, she finds relief from a childhood marred by the remorse that she never quite measured up to her mother's expectations. Business is booming, so when she needs an expansion to the facilities she calls the best builder in the South: Mason Donovan. She doesn’t expect him to return to Willow Lake so quickly, or to look so good.
Is it possible for a bookworm and a builder to find love and healing among the romance shelves?
“There’s just not enough room in here, Ali.” Josie Parker dropped a carton of books on the floor and straightened with a sigh as she blew a wisp of cropped sable hair from her eyes. Not one sliver of the tile she’d polished to a gleaming shine the night before peeked from beneath boxes stacked three-high. “I feel like an elephant in a teacup. I’ll never find space to display all this week’s inventory.”
“That’s not exactly a bad problem to have, is it?” Ali Hawkins jostled her son Rory on one hip as she sipped a double-shot espresso. Her blonde hair, tugged into a sleek ponytail, shimmered beneath the shop lights as Rory worked a tiny thumb into his mouth and began to suckle. “Maybe it’s time to expand Posts and Pages. You’ve talked about growing the bookstore for more than a year now.”
“I know.” Josie nudged another unopened carton that lay scattered among an army strewn across the cluttered floor. She lifted wire-rimmed reading glasses from her nose and propped them on her head. “And I’ve burrowed away more than enough savings over the past few years, since I opened this place. I just need a builder who’s willing to take on the job. Last I checked, Willow Lake has slim pickings in that department.”
“True…unless you want to hire John Larder’s cousin and pay double for half of the work—shoddy to boot.” Ali frowned. “He seems to have a huge corner of the market—not surprising since John’s on the town council now and oversees construction permits inside Willow Lake’s city limits.”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to throw my hard-earned cash into a money pit just to appease John Larder—or his overbearing cousin.” Stewart Simms had been coming around Posts and Pages a little too often lately, dropping hints about how he’d find a way to cut her a design and construction deal if she’d only “work with him.” Josie shivered. She’d rather have her eye teeth yanked out with pliers than spend one hour alone in Stewart’s presence. “I’ll just have to decrease stock—or get rid of the coffee bar.”
“Bite your tongue.” Ali shuddered and clutched the espresso cup to her chest. “And disappoint all your loyal customers—like me?”
“Do you have any other ideas?”
“Who says the builder has to come from Willow Lake? Perhaps there’s a way to circumvent Stewart Simms. Look there.” Ali motioned toward a stack of Homes Today magazines piled high on the coffee bar. “I think I may have found the perfect solution to your problem.”
Josie glanced in the direction Ali pointed and gasped as her gaze captured the glossy image on the magazine’s cover. Her breath whooshed out as her belly fluttered. “Oh, my.”
“Oh my, is right.” Ali chuckled, nestling Rory to her side as she navigated a path through the littered floor. “Mason Donovan has made his mark in the world.”
“Mason Donovan…” Josie bent to retrieve a copy of the magazine. Her pulse raced as she drank in the image of him clad in faded Levi’s and a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled to expose sinuous muscles along his forearms. A hardhat and scuffed work boots only served to improve his rugged good looks, and the tool belt slung low along his hips kicked her pulse into next week. “Is that really him?”
“In the flesh…well, sort of.” Ali laughed. “Kind of takes you back in time, doesn’t it?”
“I can’t believe…” Josie flipped through the pages, quickly scanning a generous article strategically placed at the core of the magazine. “It says he’s working out of Atlanta.”
“Not too far from here…not too far at all.” Ali winked, her laughing green eyes full of mischief. “You know, Josie, he always had a thing for you.”
“He did not. We were just…sort of friends.” Josie shrugged, though the very idea sent a flush of warmth through her belly. She’d longed for more with Mason—had dreamed of it on starlit nights while she lounged in bed, watching light from the moon cascade across the sky through her bedroom window. But she was gawky—a nerdy bookworm, all elbows and knees in glasses and braces—and Mason was strong and agile and so…completely masculine that she was convinced he’d never given her a second look for anything other than her brain. So much for dreaming. “Besides, that was more than a decade ago. We were kids.”
“I saw the way he cast sideward glances at you during English class. There’s no mistaking those kinds of looks.”
“Well, he never acted on it.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “If he felt anything at all, it was nothing more than some school-boy crush—and a desire to make a passing grade in English—that’s surely long-forgotten.”
“I thought the same thing about Ryder, and look where that got us.” Ali dipped her head to kiss Rory’s dark crown, his hair a mirror image of his daddy’s. “This precious little guy.”
“He’s beautiful.” Josie smoothed a hand over Rory’s soft cheek, her heart quickening. Ali had everything Josie longed for—a husband who adored her, a sweet baby, and a business that boomed despite the economic dive. She tamped down a bite of envy, sighing as she mentally scolded herself. Ali had certainly seen her share of hard times before finding her way to happiness with Ryder. “You’ve sure been blessed.”
“I have.” Ali nodded. “And blessings are waiting in the wings for you, as well. You just have to be willing to accept them.”
“But it’s winter, and this recent cold snap is more frigid than the inside of a deep freeze.” Josie motioned to the boulevard beyond the front display window. Willow branches danced in a stiff breeze beneath clouds ripe with snow. They’d most likely have at least a dusting of the white stuff by dinnertime. “Nobody starts a building project in the dead of winter.”
“Then Mason ought to be smack dab in the middle of his slow season. All the better to get him here to help you plan.” Ali smiled. “In a few months, Willow Lake will be crawling with tourists, and you’ll want to be ready for the boon. Besides, the almanac is predicting an early spring once February blows in—perfect weather for construction.”
“Well, February is only a week away.” Josie toed a small pallet of magazines with her boot, easing it against the wall. “I guess I could give Mason a call and ask for his help. Or, at the least, request some suggestions on how to rein in the chaos around here. Business is really starting to suffer when customers can’t even squeeze between the shelves.”
“I agree. Posts and Pages has morphed from a cozy little bookstore/coffee shop into a full-blown battleground. If you don’t captain this ship, it’s going to be swept into a tidal wave. You really have to strategize and come up with a plan for expansion—and soon, Jo. From the looks of that article, Mason has plenty of experience to help with that.”
“You’re right. I’ll give it a shot. I guess the worst Mason can say is no.” Josie smoothed a hand through Rory’s downy hair as he cooed, his
“Oh, he’ll remember you.” Ali handed her the cordless phone from the counter. “Trust me on this. Call him. I dare you.”
“Dare me? Good grief! What are we…in high school again?” Josie tucked a lock of hair behind one ear and then swept her fingers whimsically over the phone’s buttons. “You really think I should do this? Really?”
“I do…unless you want to line John Larder’s—and his cousin’s—pockets with wads of your hard-earned cash.” Ali took the magazine from Josie and handed her Rory in exchange. She sidestepped cartons to refill her coffee cup with fresh brew from a polished silver urn on the counter. One sip had her smacking her lips. “Ahh…this coffee is the best in Willow Lake—in all of East Tennessee. And, you offer the largest selection of books and up-to-date periodicals. But you’re bursting at the seams here. You need something more—fast.”
“I can’t stand the thought of Stewart Simms—or anyone related to Larder—getting their hands on my shop. I’ve worked too hard—sacrificed too much. But, to ask Mason…I never imagined.” Josie’s pulse jolted as she reached for another copy of Homes Today. She drank in Mason’s dark-chocolate eyes and the slight, lopsided grin that had made her pulse race on more than one occasion when he’d walked her way during their high school years. “He hasn’t changed a bit…”
“At least on the outside. But I think you have your answer.” Ali drained her cup, took Rory
“His requests are a bit strange, but with a little tweaking, I know we can make them work.” Julian Penland, Mason’s assistant, crossed the room to glance at the plans Mason was working on. He stopped short, scratched his blond head and grimaced. “Or…not.”
“Not in this decade.” Mason reached for a foam cup, gagged when a hit of cold, bitter-black sludge that passed for coffee ran down his throat. “Ugh. Don’t tell me we forgot to buy creamer again.”
“You forgot to buy the creamer.” Julian took the cup, filled it with fresh brew from a carafe on the bookshelf and handed it back to Mason. “You’ve been moving too fast, for too long, Mace. You need a break before you break.”
“I don’t have time for a break.”
“You won’t have a choice if you end up stroking out.”
Mason sipped, sighed, and rubbed the scruff of beard across his jaw. He’d forgotten to shave—again. “Well, Jules, I’m going to let this project simmer for a while.” Mason sipped again, hoping for a different result, and coughed as the acidic flavor burned down his throat. His gaze drifted to the street beyond his office window where a morning rush-hour crowd scurried like ants on an apple pie. An overcast sky hung low, blanketing the pavement in a grayish chill that was sure to dump a deluge of rain before the lunch hour kicked into full gear. Mason sighed. What he wouldn’t give for just one good snowfall. The thought took him back to Willow Lake and its plethora of sloped hills that were perfect for sledding. How many hours had he spent racing Ryder, Hunter, and Brody on the off days that school was canceled? And the snowball wars…
“What would you like me to do?” Jules studied him with a gaze that pierced.
“Get on the phone and tell O’Leary I’ll get back with him in a few weeks. Then run out and buy some creamer—and a stash of decent coffee. The least this office can have is some palatable java.”
Jules ignored the latter comments. “Mr. O’Leary’s leaving the states for a cruise—a world cruise—in just a few days.” He settled into a chair across from Mason and twined his fingers, propping them beneath his bearded chin. “He’ll be gone a full three months.”
“Perfect. Delay this project if you can. Tell him I’ll meet with him when he returns. Maybe by then we can find a way—a legal and practical way—around his outrageous requests.”
“Whatever you say, boss. I’ll get on the horn to him right away.”
Mason scratched his head as his gaze settled on the most recent edition of Homes Today magazine, which Jules had framed and hung on Mason’s office wall. Since the feature article had debuted, every yahoo on the East Coast had come out of the woodwork to hound him about projects they’d been dreaming of for years. He’d been headlined as “Construction’s Crusader…Merging Innovation with Tradition” giving readers the impression that he was some kind of miracle worker when it came to lumber and nails. Years of experience and a passion for all things architectural had made Mason good…even great. But, he was no miracle worker. He’d made his share of mistakes…fought his own set of bad memories and failures along the trail to this sudden and completely unexpected bout of notoriety.
Josie Parker could attest to that. She was his greatest failure…with a capital F. He’d had a huge thing for her in high school…a crush that ate at him like seven-year locusts on a crop of winter wheat. But she was level-headed and tame, with that pretty, freckle-dusted nose of hers always tucked deep into a book. He’d longed to tug her glasses from those alluring, almond-shaped blue eyes and kiss her breathless. But she’d never given him the time of day— aside from the hours she tutored him through Junior Lit. and English Composition their senior year. During those sessions she was all business…except for one delicious moment in time that he’d long-since banished from his mind.
Don’t go there, Mace. Don’t even think about it.
The sudden flashback caused his nerve-endings to sizzle and pop. Mason reminded himself if it weren’t for Josie’s help, he’d have failed the class. And he’d have never gained the confidence he needed to make it through college and an apprenticeship at one of the most prestigious companies in North America before branching out to start his own construction firm. The framed certificates on his office wall were a testament to all he’d accomplished over the past decade. So, in part, he owed his success to her. Why had he ever let down his guard and kissed her?
The memory made his jaw twitch and his cheeks flare. Despite the fact that he and Josie had spent hours together each week, they didn’t even exist in the same universe. What was he thinking to imagine their relationship could ever be anything more than an easy, casual friendship? How could the cutest bookworm in Willow Lake fall for someone like him—a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who struggled with dyslexia? You’re not a kid anymore. And you’ve bulldozed a tunnel to the other side of that disability—it no longer defines you. Mason lifted his coffee cup as the office phone shrilled. He grabbed the receiver with his free hand and greeted the caller with a gruff, curt, “Donovan Construction.”
“Mason…is that you?” The lilting female voice was vaguely familiar.
“Yes, this is Mason Donovan.” He tilted the cup to his mouth and tossed back what remained of the coffee with a grimace.
“Great…good…” A slight pause followed, then only the sound of a light violin melody floating over the line.
“Hello?” Had she put him on hold? He picked up the carpenter’s pencil once more and tapped the lead against an appointment blotter that blanketed his cluttered desk. “Are you there?”
A heavy sigh and then an anemic, “Yes, um...”
“Who is this?‛ His temper flaring, Mason crushed the cup, tossed it into an already-overflowing trash can beside his desk and leaned back in the chair, propping his feet firmly on his cluttered desk. He wasn’t in the mood for games. If this was another nutcase chasing a pipe-dream—
“This is Josie.”
“Parker?” He sputtered and nearly toppled back from the chair. The pencil slipped from his hand. “Josie Parker?”
The line went silent once more, except for the light sound of her drawing a breath. Mason pictured Josie draped in cut-off shorts and a peach-colored T-shirt on a beach towel along sun-kissed grass at the shores of Willow Lake, dark hair skimming eyes the color of a clear summer sky as she devoured a dog-eared paperback. He wondered if she still had the tiny butterfly tattoo, penned as a dare on her eighteenth birthday, flitting delicately across the inside of one sleek ankle.
“I know it’s been a long time, but,”—her voice was low, breathy, as she continued—“I need you, Mason. Can you come home to Willow Lake?”
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