Chapter One

“Are you sure those numbers are correct?” Knox studied the graphs and charts and promises of a bright future in front of him. “These numbers are higher than the Grannies Gone Wild segment two years ago.” He rubbed his forehead and glanced away from the computer screen to find Carissa snuggled into Drew on the old green corduroy couch. They’d become inseparable in such a short time, too short in Knox’s opinion. “Hello? Working here.”

Drew tore his gaze from Carissa for a millisecond. “Who knew that grandmothers playing poker, riding Harleys, and picking up sailors would’ve been such a hit?”

Insta-relationships were dangerous. Especially the type that twisted a man’s insides and made him vow stupid things. Knox had had that once, the can’t-separate-without-feeling-a-pain-in-your-chest kind of obnoxious ache. And he never wanted that again.

He returned his attention to the numbers in front of him. “This is good.” Knox tapped his lips with the eraser of his pencil. “No, amazing. Now we can leave this small town of crazies…” He glanced at Carissa and caught her warning glower, but he ignored it and continued. “I just want to get back to the real world, far away from small-town politics. This is the place where people go to settle down. I’m in my prime.”

Drew sat forward, adjusting the kitten to his other shoulder, and scooted to the edge of the couch. He let Carissa slip from his arms, but as if too much space between them would shred the man, he clutched her hand and held it to his chest.

Poor love-sick sap. Drew probably rescued that ball of fur from the inn chimney to impress Carissa. Now, he’d be stuck caring for the cat for the next ten to twenty years. Long after this relationship failed. If Drew only knew what happened when he couldn’t hold on to her forever.

“You don’t get it. The segment on Carissa’s bakery has gone viral.” Drew glanced at Carissa with the you-are-the-answer-to-everything gaze. “Most of the town’s helping fill the orders, and we still need more staff. This doesn’t just put your show on the map. It’s hit the infamous X over the buried treasure of viewers and patrons. We went from your fledgling career after the scandal of corruption with the car shop to making you a star with baked goods. This is what you’ve always wanted.”

Knox closed the laptop on the antique desk, as if he couldn’t face the numbers for fear they would change if he stared at them too long. He’d worked so hard for so long, pouring every ounce of energy he possessed into this business. Hours upon hours, searching for the perfect show all across the country, and he’d found it in this backwoods, backward, tiny Tennessee town. Who would’ve thunk?

The dead-winter morning wind whistled under the door downstairs. It echoed through the empty old-store space now that the recreation center had completed its repairs and the town elders no longer met there. The building sounded hollow, empty. Like his life.

Self-pity wasn’t a trait he coveted, and it was time to move forward. He’d avoided the feelings for years since returning stateside, but this town… It had forced him to slow down, which meant old memories had a chance to catch up. It was time to let go of the past. This was his opportunity for the right future. “We should ride this wave. Let’s get on a plane to LA and start organizing the next series.”

Carissa cleared her throat, as if announcing she was going to contribute to the conversation even if he didn’t like it. “You still have filming to do here. Besides, I thought you and Jackie were getting close.”

He shrugged. Jackie, the fashionable member of the five Sugar Maple girl band of lifelong friends, had been fun and had helped kill some time while he was here, but that was all. And that’s how she’d wanted it, too. They’d agreed to keep things casual. “We can get a camera crew here in a couple of days. I can film for a week, with highlights of the various town businesses, and then intro into a new series.”

No one spoke with words, but based on Drew’s and Carissa’s side glances and obnoxious nonverbal communication between them, Knox realized he’d missed something. Or he’d chosen not to think about something. He shot up from his chair and paced their small, old apartment-turned-makeshift-office in the center of Sugar Maple purgatory.

After two rounds, he stopped in front of Drew with his arms folded over his chest and his best commanding staredown. “I know you gave your resignation, but I won’t accept it. You can fly back here to see Carissa on weekends. Heck, I’ll pay to fly you here myself, but you can’t abandon ship on me. I need you now more than ever.”

Drew let out a long sigh causing the cat on his shoulder to stretch and meow. “I’m not going back to LA except to settle my affairs. I’ve decided to partner with this town and do my own thing for a while, and you know I have another job lined up that starts in a few weeks. I’ve lived in Knox Brevard’s shadow long enough.” He nauseatingly kissed Carissa’s hand before continuing, as if he couldn’t possibly say another word without connecting with her. Ugh, he had it bad. “That being said, you can’t return to LA right now either.”

A jolt of warning shot through Knox, but there was no way, no how, he’d be sticking around this tiny Tennessee town full of elder crazies and backyard politics. “Not gonna happen. There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind, either.” He collapsed in the rickety desk chair, the back gave way, and he flailed his arms like a baby learning to walk to keep himself upright.

“Do you never talk to our assistant?” Drew shook his head.

“Spit it out,” Knox demanded.

“Lori negotiated a sit-down to speak to a producer about you doing a show for television. That’s right, the big move from Internet to television.”

Zaps rapid-fired along his skin as if a thousand tiny explosions detonated.

Carissa kissed Drew on his cheek, retrieved the kitten, and then stood. “I’ll leave you two to discuss the details and take Roxy for a nap.” She sauntered past Knox as if she owned his future—which, based on Drew’s vow to abandon him for a life in Sugar Maple, she did.

The sound of her footsteps and the opening and closing of the front door promised to give Knox five minutes alone with his best friend for the first time in over a week. “Oh my goodness, man. She’s really got her hooks in you.”

“Stop and choose your words carefully.”

Knox held up his hands, knowing Drew was lost in the sea of flipping hair, warm smiles, and soft touches.

Drew grabbed his coat, as if to chase after Carissa before she made it too far away. “You can keep running from life, or you can start living it. If you want to achieve everything that you’ve claimed you’ve wanted, then you need to stay here and film these segments. It’s just a question of how bad you want it.”

The bell over the courthouse rang, as if announcing it was time to move on to his next decision. “I want it, but do I have to sell my soul to the mayor of crazy town to get it?”

Drew tossed a bright-red scarf behind his neck and flipped the end over his shoulder. His face morphed from giddy-schoolgirl to black-ops dark. “Listen, I know you went through something over there. Some of the men told me there was a woman, and—”

“Nothing to talk about. Just ’cause I don’t want to go bake cookies doesn’t mean I’m hiding from anything.”

Drew shook his head. “I’ll see you at dinner in a few hours. We’ll talk more then.”

“As long as it’s about the show. No way you’re head-shrinking me, dude.” Knox shifted in the possessed chair, and it tipped. He grabbed tight to the edge of the desk for balance. “And as long as it’s just the two of us.”

“Whatever you say, Knox.” Drew gave him a backhand wave, but he paused at the top of the stairs. “Remember the car segment?”

“You promised not to speak about that, ever. I’ll never go near a car repair shop again. That’s what landed us in the career-crushing pit we had to claw out of.”

Drew grinned, the kind that told of his plans that were less than honorable. “I’ll see you tonight for dinner. We can talk about everything then. One more thing… The producer is excited about your next segment. Lori says that he’s really into it and is flying here with contract in hand for your show. All you have to do is what you do best: host the next segment he chose.”

“Done. One more segment, and we’re out of this town.”

Drew clopped down the stairs.

“Wait, segment he chose? You mean the fashion segment?” Knox hollered after his once-best-friend-turned-lost-puppy, but he was already wagging his tail to get to the bakery. Dang, that boy was in trouble. Knox needed to come up with something to get Drew to realize a woman’s promise wasn’t fact. More of an intention that might or might not work out.

Images of Alima entering her family home, the trail of silk scarf behind her, pummeled his head. He shot up from the chair, pacing, willing the memories away, but not quick enough. A sharp pain shot through his skull. He doubled over and rubbed his scalp until it subsided. His knees gave way and he surrendered to the floor, where he closed his eyes and waited a few more minutes until the episode passed.

He needed something else to focus on instead of past nightmares. If he had to stay, at least he’d be working with Jacqueline on her fashion. She wanted the fame and recognition more than he did. Hopefully, one more segment would humor whoever this sponsor was, and then he could get out of town.

The sound of steps drew him from his musing, and he realized he was still on the floor. He tried to stand and brush himself off, but his knees weren’t cooperating.

Stella, the sassy member of the Sugar Maple girl band, crested the stairs and eyed him with a raise of a brow. “Looking for a colored contact or doing yuppy yoga?”

He wasn’t sure if it was the personal attack of her words or just having someone enter a room shattering his tether to the past, but the heart palpitations faded and his legs worked again. With his palm to the hard, cold floor, he pushed up and sat on the edge of the couch to allow his legs another minute to strengthen. So much for recovering at super-speed. He’d been out too long. “I assure you, I don’t do yoga and I don’t drink seaweed.”

“Whatever you say.” She shrugged and stood there as if waiting for him to tell her something.

He eyed her oil-stained hands. The odor of old garage filtered to his senses, causing the hair to stand up on the back of his neck. If only he had checked into that car repair company prior to running his segment, he would’ve discovered they were stealing from the elderly, and he wouldn’t have fallen from the top ten Internet show spot into this pool of small town agony. “What dragged you out from under a car and brought you here?”

“I don’t want to be here, but I was ordered by my best friend, the one in some love trance that’s making her think crazy.”

“Can’t disagree with you there.” Knox scrubbed his face, feeling the slight stubble from his dull razor. “That doesn’t explain why you’re here now, though.”

 Stella rolled her eyes, crossed her arms, and huffed. “Because my auto shop is your next segment.”
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