Every Little Thing Excerpt

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Every Little Thing Excerpt

Author’s Note

Welcome to book one in my new Butler, Vermont Series! Some of you might be wondering about the change in direction and the new series name. Last year, I decided to part company with the publisher of the Green Mountain Series and to self-publish the rest of what I hope will be a long series. To make things easier behind the scenes, I decided to give the series a new name—the Butler, Vermont Series—but Every Little Thing picks right up where we left off in Ain’t She Sweet with all the characters you’ve come to love from the Green Mountain Series. The only difference readers will notice is the series name and the numbering sequence of the books. I appreciate readers rolling with me as I continue into this next phase of the series.

Because it’s been nearly a year since you read Ain’t She Sweet, I’ve included a prologue taken from that book to set up Grayson and Emma’s romance in Every Little Thing. I hope you’ll enjoy their story and the others I have planned for the remaining Abbott and Coleman siblings.

Thanks for sticking with me through this transition! I hope you love Every Little Thing!

xoxo
Marie

 

Prologue

Grayson Coleman poured three fingers of his uncle’s best scotch and took a seat in the corner, away from the fray of Hunter and Megan’s wedding. The first sip traveled through him like liquid fire, heating him from the inside and giving him something to think about other than the rage that had been resurrected by the decision his cousin Max’s ex-girlfriend, Chloe, made about their baby son.

It had been twenty long years since Grayson’s father walked away from his wife and children, leaving Grayson and his mom to pick up the pieces for the others. He’d loved being the oldest in his family and had wallowed in the privileges that went along with being the eldest. Until he became the man of the family overnight, responsible for his distraught mother and seven younger siblings who were looking to him to make sense of something that still didn’t make sense all these years later.

Here he was now, a man of thirty-six, an accomplished lawyer, and the scene with Chloe and Max in his aunt Molly’s kitchen had taken him back to the long-ago night that marked the official end of his childhood. He could still remember the panic, the despair, the fear, the rage… all of it congealing into a hot knot of anxiety in his gut that he’d carried with him ever since.

How anyone could walk away from their own kid, let alone eight of them, was beyond him. He actively resented Chloe, a woman he barely knew, for what she’d done to her son tonight. For someday, in the not-too-distant future, Caden would find out that his mother had rejected him, and he’d never be the same.

Grayson had never been the same. He took another deep sip of the scotch, letting the searing heat soothe him.

“What’s that stuff?” a little voice next to him asked.

He looked over at the girl with the red curls who’d sat next to him in his quiet corner that wasn’t so quiet anymore. “It’s scotch. You ever had it?”

She wrinkled her adorable nose. “Of course not. I’m a kid. Kids don’t drink scotch. My Pop likes it, though, so that’s how I know what it is.”

“What do you drink?”

“I like apple juice, but Mommy says it has too much sugar, so it’s a special treat.”

“Your mommy is very wise.”

“She’s very pretty, too.” Pointing, the girl said, “That’s her right there.”

He followed her finger to the blonde he’d met the night before, and had to agree that Lucy’s sister, Emma, was indeed gorgeous. Her daughter took after her aunt Lucy with her red hair, green eyes and pale skin, whereas her mom was a willowy blonde with big blue eyes.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Who wants to know?” he asked, amused by the girl’s blatant matchmaking.

“I do.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Simone.”

“That’s a pretty name. Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No! I’m nine. Nine-year-olds don’t have boyfriends. You’re like Colton,” she said of his cousin, who was engaged to Lucy. “He knows nothing about kids.”

Grayson knew more about kids than any childless man his age, but he didn’t share that information with the girl. “What kind of stuff should I know?”

“Well, you should know that nine-year-old girls don’t drink scotch and have boyfriends.”

“I guess you don’t smoke, then, either, do you?”

She dissolved into giggles, and he lost a tiny piece of his heart to her. What a cutie. “No! I don’t smoke. Smoking is gross, and it kills you.”

“That’s exactly right. Stay away from that stuff.”

“What do you want for Christmas this year?” she asked.

God, what a sweet question. What did he want anyway? How about some peace and a whole new life? That’d be a great place to start. “I want a pair of socks. What about you?”

“Socks? Who wants socks for Christmas?”

“I do, and it’s my Christmas list, so you don’t get to make fun of it.”

“That’s true. Sorry.”

He nudged her with his elbow. “I was only kidding. You can make fun of me. Socks are a dumb thing to want for Christmas. What’s on your list?”

“I asked for a new American Girl doll, but they’re kind of expensive. Not sure that’ll happen. But it’s okay if it doesn’t. I always get lots of cool stuff.”

“I’m sure you’re spoiled rotten.”

“Not really. It’s just me and Mommy, so we have to watch our pennies. That’s what she says anyway.”

Grayson wanted to buy her the doll and any other damned thing she wanted to make up for the fact that her father wasn’t in her life. He was drawn out of that thought by the arrival of Emma, who’d come to claim her daughter.

“Are you bothering Grayson?” Emma asked.

“Your name is Grayson?” Simone asked, giggling. “What kind of name is that?”

“Simone!”

“It’s a smart, distinguished name, I’ll have you know.”

Simone covered her mouth, as if that could contain her laughter, and he was utterly beguiled by the glee in her mischievous eyes.

“I’m sorry about her,” Emma said. “The charm school wouldn’t have her, so I’m doing the best I can on my own.”

“I’d say you’re doing a pretty great job,” Grayson said, looking up at her. She had a body that wouldn’t quit and absolutely stunning blue eyes.

“You should ask my mom to dance,” Simone said. “She loves to dance, and she doesn’t get to very often cuz of me.”

“Simone, honestly.”

For Grayson, however, the thought of dancing with Simone’s sexy, embarrassed mother was far better than sitting in the corner drinking scotch alone while old memories resurfaced to prove they could still hurt him all these years later. “That’s about the best idea anyone’s had all day,” Grayson said.

Simone’s expressive eyes widened with joyful pleasure. “Really?”

Grayson stood and extended his hand to Emma, who blushed madly. “Really.”

“Oh, um, you don’t have to,” Emma said haltingly.

“I’d love to. Shall we?”

As she looked up at him and took hold of his hand, Grayson felt like he’d been struck by lightning or gut punched or something equally unpleasant, except there was nothing at all unpleasant about it. In fact, it was the best feeling he’d had in a long, long time.

 

Hours after everyone else had gone to bed on Christmas night, five days after the wedding, Grayson lingered at his aunt Molly’s because he’d yet to run out of things to talk about with the beautiful, shy and funny Emma Mulvaney. They sat in the den on the sofa closest to the fire that he’d kept stoked for hours while they chatted about their lives in Boston and New York, her adorable daughter, her sister’s romance with his cousin and their jobs.

He learned that she worked as the office manager for dentists, and the rest of her life was devoted to Simone. Until recently, his had been devoted to work. That had led to their current conversation about balance and how to find it.

“So what made you decide to make the move now?” she asked.

He’d discovered she was an excellent listener, which made him want to tell her things he normally kept private. Most of the people in this world were accomplished talkers. Few were as good at listening. Emma was a true exception.

“I had this case assigned to me… We have these A-list clients, you know? The ones we pander to, no matter what disgusting thing they might’ve done. The senior partner calls them the ‘gravy’ clients. So this guy, a bigwig in the local business community, beat the shit out of his wife, and it was my job to get him off even though we all knew he did it. He put her in the hospital with broken ribs and a broken jaw—and it wasn’t the first time.”

Emma gasped, and her hand covered her heart. “Dear God.”

“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself defend him when I knew he was guilty. All the money in the world just isn’t worth it. I submitted my resignation, my partners bought me out, and here I am.”

“You did the right thing.”

“This time. There’ve been other times when I successfully defended the scumbags, and I’m not proud of that. But after a while, it gets harder to wash off the scum. It stays with you. I made a lot of money in that job. The kind of money I used to dream about having back when we were scrambling to make ends meet after my dad left. But when I saw the police photos of the injured wife, something in me just said, Enough of this crazy shit. I can’t do it anymore.”

Her hand on his arm was intended to comfort, but it stirred something else he hadn’t experienced in ages—pure desire.

“I’m sure you’ll make a very nice living here, without having to sell your soul to the devil to do it.”

“I hope so. It won’t be the living I was making in Boston, but I worked so much, I didn’t have time to spend half of what I made there. It’ll be okay. Anything is better than what I was doing there.”

“What did your partners say when you told them you were leaving?”

“They tried to talk me out of it. A few said I was making a huge mistake, committing career suicide by moving home to the boonies.” He shrugged. “Nothing they said convinced me to change my mind.”

“Your gut was telling you it was the right move at the right time. I’m a big believer in following my gut.”

“What kind of things has your gut told you to do?”

She thought about that for a second, which gave him time to study her sweet face and cheeks made rosy by the heat of the fire as well as several glasses of chardonnay. “It told me not to marry Simone’s father or allow him to be in her life.”

Grayson immediately sensed from her hesitation that this was not something she talked about often. “How come?”

“He wasn’t always nice to me.”

“Did he… Did he hurt you?”

“Once.”

How was it possible, when he’d only just met her, that he wanted to find the guy and kill him for hurting her even once?

“When I told him it was over between us, he… he didn’t take it well.”

“What happened?”

“It was a long time ago. A lifetime ago.”

“But you’ve never forgotten it.”

She stared into the fire, the sparkle in her eyes dulled by memories. “No, I haven’t.”

Grayson didn’t think before he reached for her, wishing he could take away the pain of someone he barely knew. That was certainly a first. She flinched, ever so slightly, but he saw it and realized the damage ran deep from the one time the man she’d loved hurt her.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I never talk about it,” she said with a shaky laugh. “Are you sure you’re a lawyer and not a shrink?”

“Quite sure,” he said with a chuckle, “although sometimes I think the two professions aren’t all that different.”

Emma took a drink of her wine and continued to stare at the fire. “When I told him we were done, he flipped out. He… He held me down and forced me to…” She blew out a deep breath. “When it was over, I told him to leave or I’d call the police. I said if I ever saw him again, I’d report what he’d done to me.”

“Christ, Emma. You’ve never told anyone that? Not even Lucy?”

Shaking her head, she said, “No one knows how Simone came to be. Except for you now.”

“Emma,” Grayson said on a long exhale. Though he had no right, he drew her in closer to him, needing to hold her.

“My dad was so mad when he found out I was pregnant. He didn’t speak to me for the longest time. I hated that he was so disappointed.”

“Why didn’t you tell him, sweetheart?”

“Because I didn’t want Simone’s life to be colored by how she was conceived. I couldn’t bear that for her. As soon as I knew she was coming, I was in love with her. I didn’t care how she came to be. Somehow I’ve managed to keep those two things very separate in my mind. There’s him and what he did, and then there’s her—perfect in every way and no reflection whatsoever of the man who fathered her. In fact, she’s a perfect reflection of my sister. I love that.” Emma wiped away a tear that had slid down her cheek. “I love that she looks like Lucy. I thank God every day that she doesn’t look like him.” She released another of those shaky laughs. “What is it about you that has me spilling my guts to a total stranger?”

“I’m not a stranger. Not anymore. I’m a friend, and I’m glad you finally told someone. What he did to you, Emma… It was a crime. You know that, right?”

Nodding, she said, “I’ve had counseling, and I’ve come to terms with what happened that night. As much as one ever accepts such things.”

“And he doesn’t know about her?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never seen him again, thank God. I used to be so afraid of him coming back and doing the math… But she looks nothing like him, and she’s always looked young for her age. There would be no reason for him to suspect she’s his.”

If he were thinking like a lawyer, Grayson might have something to say to that. But he was thinking as a man who’d been profoundly moved by a woman for the first time in his thirty-six years. “You’re amazing.”

“Don’t say that. I did what any mother would’ve done to protect her child.”

“At tremendous personal expense.”

“The payoff has been the most wonderful little girl that anyone could hope for. I’ll never regret a thing because I have her.”

“She’s very lucky to have you, too.”

“We’re both lucky. We’ve made a nice life for ourselves, and I never think about this stuff anymore.”

Grayson didn’t know if he totally believed that, but he wasn’t about to question her. “You must be beating the men away with a stick.”

“Right,” she said, laughing. “Between work and homework and dance class and birthday parties and soccer, I’m a regular dating machine.”

“So there’s no one special in your life?”

“Just Simone, my dad, Lucy, Colton and a few very good friends, including Cameron.”

“Do you ever want more for yourself?”

She shrugged. “I’ve learned to be very satisfied and thankful for what I have.”

“I want to see you again, Emma. I want to spend more time together.” The words were out of his mouth before he decided to say them, because the thought of her getting away, of never seeing her or Simone again except at family events, was unacceptable to him. Here he’d just taken steps to simplify his life, and one night with her had made everything complicated again. And that was fine with him.

“Oh, um, you do?”

“I really do. I haven’t talked to a woman the way I’ve talked to you tonight in, well, ever. I don’t want to stop talking to you, even though I should let you get to bed so you’re not exhausted tomorrow. Something tells me Miss Simone won’t be too forgiving of an exhausted mother.”

“You’re right. She’ll take full advantage. But I’m not quite ready to go to bed just yet.”

“No?”

She shook her head as she returned his gaze, never blinking as they drank each other in. Once again, Grayson acted before thinking, leaning in to kiss her. He was careful not to move too fast or take too much, but he couldn’t let this night end without tasting her. As soon as he processed that first taste, he knew it wasn’t going to be anywhere near enough.

The slight mewling sound that came from her throat made him instantly hard. He drew back to look at her, slightly stunned by his reaction. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted and damp. He dragged his fingertip over her bottom lip.

“You’re beautiful, Emma.”

Her eyes opened slowly, and she took a long look at him, as if trying to gauge his sincerity. He’d never been more sincere.

“How long are you here?” he asked.

She cleared her throat. “Molly invited us to spend the week since Simone is on vacation.”

“Could Lucy watch Simone so I could take you to dinner tomorrow night?”

“I… I think they’d both love that.”

“How about you? Would you love it if Simone went with Lucy so you can go out with me?”

“Yes, Grayson, I believe I’d love that, too.”

 

I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else.

—John Keats

Chapter 1

How was it possible to forget to breathe? Emma was going to pass out if she didn’t remember to breathe. All day, she’d relived the magical few hours in the Abbotts’ den, sitting by the fire sharing confidences with the supremely handsome, sexy and successful Grayson Coleman.

Emma had told him things she’d never told another living soul, even Lucy, her sister and closest confidant. Waiting for the clock to move forward today, Emma had expected to feel regrets, recriminations or something negative for spilling the biggest secret of her life, a nearly ten-year-old secret that involved the most precious person in the world—her daughter, Simone.

Something about the way Grayson had paid such close attention to her, listening to every word she said as if they were the most important words he’d ever heard, had her telling him things she never talked about—and rarely thought about anymore. It had been such a long time ago, and Emma was a big believer in looking ahead rather than back. Nothing good ever came from looking back.

The Abbotts had graciously invited her and Simone to spend the week with them so they could attend Hunter and Megan’s wedding and then have Christmas with Lucy and her fiancé, Colton, in Vermont. And what an incredible visit it had been so far, complete with sledding and snowman building and even a ride for Simone on the back of Lucas Abbott’s snowmobile.

Her daughter would talk about this week for months.

Simone was spending today and tonight with Colton and Lucy at their home on the mountain. She was so excited to have alone time with Auntie Lu and Uncle Colton and their dogs, Sarah and Elmer. When she left with Lucy earlier, Emma heard her asking if they might see Fred the moose, and Lucy said you never knew when he might come by for a visit.

Emma had felt sort of aimless as she whiled away an unusually quiet afternoon at the Abbotts’ lovely restored barn. Her dad had driven home to New York that morning, Lincoln Abbott was in town at a lunch meeting, and his wife, Molly, was at their daughter Hannah’s.

Emma finally settled on the same sofa where she’d sat with Grayson last night and tried to lose herself in a book she’d been enjoying. But her mind kept wandering to silly things—like the way the fire had turned his dark blond hair to a burnished gold, the twinkle in his eyes when he was amused, the furrow of his brow when he was concentrating or listening to her, and how he’d shown just the right amount of empathy and outrage when she told him about how Simone’s father had attacked her at the end of their relationship.

Grayson was now the only other person on earth who knew Simone had come from a violent attack. She hadn’t even told the therapist who’d counseled her afterward about the baby. Perhaps she should regret having shared something so deeply personal with someone she’d only just met, but they’d been wrapped up in a bubble all their own, sharing confidences, and she didn’t regret telling him.

She’d learned how he had been forced to step up for his seven younger siblings when he was sixteen, after their father left, but he spoke of his brothers and sisters only with love and affection. None of the burden he must’ve felt at having so much responsibility at such a young age was apparent in the way he talked about them.

She’d never been as intrigued by a man as she was by him, thus the breathing trouble. And after he asked her to have dinner with him tonight, she’d been left breathless, winded—and nervous. Really, really nervous. She hadn’t been out on a proper date in, well… years. Unless she counted her good friend Troy Kennedy, who’d been her plus one in the city while she served as his. But Troy didn’t count. There’d never been anything other than platonic friendship between them, despite the desire of Lucy and their friend Cameron Abbott to see them together.

It wasn’t happening with Troy, but something had definitely happened last night with Grayson.

Emma touched her fingers to her lips, reliving the soft, sweet kiss he’d given her before suggesting they call it a night. If it’d been up to her, he’d still be here and they’d still be talking—and maybe kissing, too.

She’d been so wrapped up in taking care of Simone, working and handling all the parenting and household duties alone that there hadn’t been anyone serious since her relationship with Simone’s father ended in spectacular—and violent—fashion.

“Don’t think about that,” she whispered. “Not today when you have a handsome guy taking you out for dinner.” Her mind wandered once again to that fleeting kiss and how it had made her yearn for so much more. Another of her deep, dark secrets was one she hadn’t told Grayson. She hadn’t had sex since the night she conceived Simone.

“Ugh.” She dropped her head into her hands, disgusted with herself for hiding behind the cloak of motherhood as an excuse to keep her distance from men. One year had become two, and two became three, and three had become a decade while she was busy raising her daughter, who would be ten in February.

She hadn’t planned to put her own life on hold when she had Simone. It had just worked out that way. A single mother of a young child didn’t spend her evenings out at bars or clubs or any of the other places women her age met men.

After her sister finally accepted that Emma was never going to think of Troy in a romantic way, Lucy had urged her to try online dating. But there was something so inherently frightening about the anonymity of the Internet, especially living as she did in New York City. She had a child to think about, so even if the idea of meeting a guy interested her, online dating did not.

Grayson Coleman interested her.

George and Ringo jumped up from their dog beds by the fire and bolted for the kitchen. Emma heard Molly talking to the dogs, who barked happily at the return of their loved one. Molly came to find Emma a few minutes later.

“Hi there.”

“Hey. How’s Hannah?”

“Feeling ungainly, but that’s pregnancy for you.”

“I remember that stage. I could’ve been one of the hot-air balloons in the Thanksgiving parade.”

Molly laughed and threw some wood on the fire before taking a seat in an easy chair. She put her feet up on the ottoman. The woman was a dynamo. She’d given birth to ten children, but you’d never know it to look at her slender frame and unlined face. The only sign of her age was the mane of gorgeous gray hair that she wore mostly in a braid, but even that did nothing to detract from her otherwise youthful appearance.

“I love the day after Christmas. Back when the kids were little, I used to take to my bed for the entire day, and one of Linc’s gifts to me was handling child care while I lolled about, being lazy.”

“That’s a brilliant idea.”

“I thought so, too, and the best part? Linc bowed down to me, every year, after one day alone with the hellions.”

Emma laughed at the picture she painted of ten unruly kids running roughshod over their dear old dad.

“Christmas is one heck of a production for the moms,” Molly said. “Still is, and my kids are all grown. But I do love having the whole family here—the noise, the presents, the bickering, the chaos. And I love today when they all go home and leave me to my wallowing.”

“Sorry to intrude on your peace and quiet.”

“Oh please! You’re no trouble at all, and Linc and I are in love with Simone. We want you to come back every year.”

“That’d be lovely. Christmas in Vermont is my new favorite thing.”

“I’m so happy to hear that. Look at this big empty barn we’re rattling around in. We’ve got plenty of room, and we’d love to have you.”

“Simone would never speak to me again if I didn’t say we’d love to.”

“Then it’s settled. Please think of our home as your home, Emma. You and Simone and your dad are family to us now that Lucy and Colton are engaged. There’ll never be a time when you won’t be welcome here.”

“That’s so nice of you. Thank you.”

“Linc and I are going to our favorite Italian place in St. Johnsbury tonight if you’d like to come along.”

“Oh, um…” She and Grayson hadn’t spoken about what, if anything, they would tell other people about their plans for the evening. Would he not want her to tell his aunt they were going out? She made a split-second decision. “Thanks for the invite, but I’m going to stick around here tonight and take advantage of my night off.”

“I don’t blame you at all. There’s a huge tub in our room that you’re welcome to if you’d like to take a bath.”

“That sounds great.”

“Go ahead. Indulge. I’m going to sit right here and have a little nap until Linc gets home. Enjoy.”

“You, too.”

“Oh, I will.”

As she went upstairs, Emma decided she wanted to be Molly Abbott when she grew up. What an amazing woman—and mother. Her kids were all great people, even the mischievous identical twins, Lucas and Landon, who’d flirted shamelessly with Emma at Will and Hunter’s weddings until Colton told them to back off or deal with him—and his ax. They were adorable and hilarious, but far too young for her. Their attention, however, had not been unwelcome. It had served as a reminder that despite how she felt sometimes, she was still only twenty-nine, not sixty.

Molly had handled a wedding in her living room five days before Christmas and a mob scene for the holiday with nothing but grace and humor and mad skill that had left Emma dazzled. It was official. Emma had a full-fledged girl crush on the woman, and being invited back for next year was the second-best thing to happen this week.

 

By the time Grayson drove to his aunt’s house to pick up Emma, he’d already had a full day. His cousin Ella had taken him to see the apartment she’d recently vacated, and he’d immediately snapped it up, along with the bed and sofa she’d given him. She was moving in with her fiancé, Gavin, and didn’t need either item. Grayson was happy to check three things off his to-do list. She’d even suggested turning over her landline number to him. He hadn’t had a landline in Boston in years, but in Butler, Vermont, the place where cell service was nonexistent, it was a necessity.

Even though he’d been busy apartment hunting, shoveling snow and doing odd jobs around his mother’s house, Grayson had kept a close eye on the clock, which seemed to move in reverse today.

Emma.

His first thought that morning had been of her, of the secrets they’d shared, the stories they’d told and the spark that had burned so brightly between them. That spark had him more intrigued than he’d ever been by a woman. Sure, he’d heard about the spark and had even seen it happen to some of his cousins and friends, but it had never happened to him, until Emma.

And Simone… For it was not possible to consider one without the other. He already knew Emma well enough to understand that there would be no such thing as a relationship that included only her. For a guy who’d never had the urge for a family because he’d already helped to raise his younger siblings, it surprised him to realize he was glad the adorable, smart, funny, sweet, respectful Simone was part of the package.

Pulling up to the big red barn his aunt and uncle called home, Grayson cut the engine in his Audi SUV but left the headlights on so he could get to the door without falling on the ice. His uncle’s Range Rover was gone, so they must’ve been out for their usual Friday night dinner. He was secretly glad that he wouldn’t encounter his beloved aunt and uncle when he picked up Emma.

Grayson was nervous enough without adding a family inquisition to the agenda for the evening—and it would be an inquisition with his uncle Linc involved. Serving as a surrogate dad to the fatherless Colemans, Linc was always interested in whatever they were up to. Normally, Grayson welcomed his uncle’s interest. Tonight, he was grateful for a little privacy. The light over the back door helped to guide him as he made his way, carefully, to the door.

He let himself in and greeted George and Ringo, who gave him a thorough sniffing before allowing him to proceed into the mudroom, as if to say, He’s one of us. This had been his second home growing up, and he felt every bit at home here as he did at his own mother’s house.

“Hello?”

“Hi there,” Emma called from upstairs. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Take your time.” As Grayson leaned against the counter in his aunt’s tidy kitchen, he thought about his last first date, his good mood souring at the memories of his ex-girlfriend, Heather. He’d been so blown away by her beauty and captivated by her charm as well as the best sex of his life that he hadn’t realized she was actually a stone-cold bitch until he’d already been completely sucked into her web. Extricating himself had been nasty, and he hadn’t been with anyone in the year since he ended it with her.

Hearing Emma’s footsteps on the stairs, he shook off those memories to put himself in the right frame of mind to spend this evening with her. It was high time he got back to the land of the living after the debacle with Heather.

Emma came into the room, and Grayson could only stare at how lovely she looked in a simple black turtleneck sweater that she’d paired with sexy jeans and boots. Her hair was down around her shoulders, and she’d done something to her big blue eyes with makeup that made them stand out. “You said casual, right?”

“I did, and you look great.”

“So do you,” she said with a shy smile.

He liked that she was shy, that she hadn’t dated in years, that nothing about her was fake or fabricated. And he really liked when the spark of attraction from last night flared between them once again, still vibrant and vivid after they’d both had a day to reconsider. He hadn’t changed his mind, and judging from the way she looked at him, she hadn’t either.

“I should leave a note for Molly so she doesn’t worry,” Emma said. “I didn’t know what to say to her about my plans for tonight, so I didn’t say anything.”

“You could’ve told her where you were going.”

“I didn’t know if you’d want me to.”

“One thing you’ll quickly learn about this family—and this town—is there’re very few secrets.”

Emma smiled and dashed off a quick note to Molly, leaving it on the counter where his aunt was sure to see it.

Over her shoulder, he saw that she’d written, Went to get dinner with Grayson. See you in the morning. Emma.

“You’re planning on an all-nighter?” he asked.

“What?” He hated that she looked and sounded stricken by his comment. “No, of course not. I was just assuming they’ll be asleep when we get home.”

“I was teasing, Emma. Sorry.”

She laughed. “Wow, call me out of practice. I missed that completely.”

He chuckled at her adorable befuddlement, also loving that she was out of practice when it came to men and dating. What a breath of fresh air she was. In the mudroom, he held her coat and waited for her to zip up and put on gloves. “Ready?” he asked, extending his hand to her.

She took hold of his hand. “Ready.”

He led her out into the night, excited to spend time with her, to simply be with her.

 

Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.

—Mother Teresa

Chapter 2

As they pulled out of Lincoln and Molly’s driveway, it began to snow, going from a light dusting to a steady snowfall in the few minutes it took to warm up the car.

“I’d hoped that the snow predicted for tonight wouldn’t materialize,” Grayson said.

“It’s so pretty here,” Emma said. “In the city, it’s a mess. But here, there’s something magical about it.”

“It may be magical, but it’s also a menace. If it’s going to come down hard, I don’t think we ought to go too far. How do you feel about pizza?”

“I love pizza.”

“I’d planned to do better than that tonight, but I assume you prefer safety to five-star cuisine.”

“You assume correctly.” Emma looked out the window, bending her head so she could see Butler Mountain in the distance. “Do you think Simone will be okay on the mountain in a snowstorm?”

“She’ll be totally fine. Colton has been living up there for years. Snow is nothing new to him.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“I bet she’s having a blast.”

“She probably is. She loves it here. Way more than she loves the city.”

“What’s not to love about Butler? We have everything you could ever need, including brick-oven pizza.” Ten minutes after they left Molly and Linc’s, Grayson pulled into the parking lot at Kingdom Pizza and killed the engine. “Wait for me. It’s slippery. I don’t want you to fall.” He got out and went around to open the door and offered a hand to help her out.

“Thank you,” she said with the shy smile that made his heart flutter.

Gorgeous and sweet and so incredibly strong… He’d thought all day about the things she’d told him last night. Her courage humbled him and made him want to be the best thing to ever happen to her and her daughter. But that might be putting the sleigh before the horse on a first date. Dial it down a notch, he told himself as he held the door to the pizza place to let her go in ahead of him.

Much to his dismay, he immediately spotted his cousins Hannah and Will sitting at a table with their spouses, Nolan and Cameron. They waved them over.

“Hey,” Will said. “Want to join us?”

No, he didn’t want to, but he also didn’t want to be rude to his cousins. Grayson glanced at Emma, who shrugged. “Sure,” he said.

“Wait,” Hannah said. “Are you guys on a date?”

“Something like that,” Grayson said, wondering if he’d missed the time-travel train back to high school.

“We take back our offer to sit with us, then,” Hannah said. “Go over there and get your own table. Leave us alone.”

Emma laughed at Hannah’s trademark bossiness.

With an exasperated smile for his cousins, Grayson took hold of Emma’s arm. “Nice to see you, too.” He guided her to a table on the other side of the dining room, held the chair for her and then recalled how Heather had hated when he did things like that for her. “I can get my own damned chair,” she would say.

Seated across from Emma, he wondered how she felt about a man holding her chair. “Sorry about my cousin.”

“I think she’s funny.”

“Pregnancy has made her extra bossy, and she was already pretty bossy to begin with.”

“When is she due?”

“February or March, I think.”

A waitress stopped by the table with menus and offered to take their drink order. Grayson asked for a beer, and Emma ordered a glass of white wine.

“Lucy told me about Hannah and how she lost her first husband in Iraq.”

“One of the roughest things our family ever went through. We all grew up together. Caleb Guthrie was one of us.”

“I’m sorry you lost him the way you did.”

“Thanks. I was so glad to hear she’d started seeing Nolan. They’re good together.” He leaned in closer to her and lowered his voice. “Tell me the truth. Is she looking over here?”

Emma shifted her gaze to the right and then back to him. “They all are.”

“For God’s sake. This town… I’d forgotten how ridiculous it can be here. That was never an issue in Boston. I could blend into the masses.”

“Welcome home,” she said with a smile, raising her wineglass in a toast to him.

He returned her smile and touched his bottle to her glass. “It’s not all bad.”

“No?”

“Definitely not.” He loved the way her cheeks flushed to a light pink and how she lowered her eyes when embarrassed. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you today.”

She looked up at him. “Me, too. Last night was very special to me.”

“I haven’t talked like that to anyone in years.”

“Same here. I told you things…” Her eyes dropped again.

He reached across the table for her hand, not caring in the least who might be watching. “I will never tell anyone what you told me. I swear. No matter what.”

“Thank you,” she said, releasing a deep breath. “I wasn’t really worried that you would, but…”

“Someone else knows now, and that makes you feel vulnerable.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“I keep secrets for a living, sweetheart. You don’t need to be worried about that, and I’d never do anything to cause harm to your adorable daughter.”

“That means a lot to me. Thank you.”

The waitress approached the table, ready to take their order.

Grayson reluctantly released Emma’s hand and asked for a few minutes so she could look at a menu he knew by heart after growing up in Butler.

“Be right back,” the waitress said.

“What do you suggest?”

“Their thin-crust pizza is the best I’ve had anywhere.”

“That sounds good to me. You want to split one and maybe a salad, too?”

“Perfect.”

They settled on pepperoni and green peppers for toppings and placed the order when the waitress returned.

“What did you do today?” he asked.

“I had a very lazy day. Simone was content to play with her new doll, and I was able to relax and read until Lucy and Colton came to pick her up.”

“She got the doll she wanted?”

“She got a doll she’s happy with, even if it wasn’t the ridiculously expensive one she wanted. How about you? What did you do?”

“I lucked into a place to live thanks to my cousin Ella, who’s moving in with her fiancé, Gavin. I’m glad to get that taken care of. I can’t live with my mother indefinitely.”

“I’m sure she enjoys having you around.”

“She enjoys it a little too much. I have a honey-do list that could choke a horse.”

Emma laughed at the face he made. “Awww, that’s sweet.”

“What would be sweet is if my brother Noah, the contractor, who lives down the street from her, would install the new bookcase in her office and stock up her firewood. But, no, he’s too busy. Good old Grayson will take care of it because he always does.” He paused and then looked at her, immediately regretting the rant. “Sorry. I don’t mean to sound bitter. Of course, I’m happy to help my mom with anything she needs.”

“You just wish the others would pitch in.”

“Something like that.”

Emma’s phone rang, and she excused herself to check her phone. “That’s odd. I thought I couldn’t get calls here.”

“We’re right on the line on this side of town to pick up cell towers in St. Johnsbury.”

“It’s from a New York number, but I don’t know who it is. Hello?”

Grayson watched as her face lit up with joy that only added to her stunning beauty.

“Hi, honey. Wait, say that again?” Emma laughed, and the warm, rich sound washed over him. “Auntie Lu is very sneaky.” This was said with a smile that lit up her pretty blue eyes. “Yes, you can keep it, but there will be rules. She told you I’d say that, didn’t she?” Emma laughed again. “Are you guys having fun?”

Grayson could hear Simone’s excited chatter but couldn’t make out what she was saying.

“I’m fine,” Emma said. “Yes, I miss you terribly. I’ll see you tomorrow. Sleep tight, and be good for Lucy and Colton. Love you, too.”

“Big news from the mountain?” Grayson asked when she ended the call.

“Huge news. Lucy and Colton got her a cell phone so she and Lucy can FaceTime every night.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Simone is so excited. She’s been bugging me for a phone for ages. Auntie Lu to the rescue.”

The waitress delivered their salad and pizza, along with another round of drinks.

Grayson served them both slices of pizza and took a bite of his. So good. No pizza he’d tried anywhere could compete with this. “Did you know about the phone?”

Emma nodded. “Lucy talked to me about it beforehand, and even though I still feel she’s too young, most of her friends already have them. Like I said to Simone, there’ll be rules.”

“Block the Internet for a couple more years. That’s key.”

“Oh, don’t worry. Lucy already did that.”

“Another thing I heard my colleagues in Boston talk about is making her think she has a limit on texts, like two-fifty a month or something reasonable like that.”

“Even though she has unlimited texting?”

“Yeah, because then she learns to control herself and work within her limits.”

“That’s a great idea.”

“I had a work friend whose teenage daughter sent a hundred thousand texts in a month—before he realized they should’ve gotten unlimited texting. That cost something like two thousand bucks. Talk about a shocker.”

“Yikes. Can you imagine sending a hundred thousand texts in one month?”

“The dad said she had to be texting every second of her day, even when she was in the shower, to get to that total.”

“That’s funny—but not funny, too. This pizza is amazing, by the way.”

“I’m glad you like it. It’s my favorite.”

“I can see why.”

Grayson glanced out the window to a total whiteout. “Damn, look at the snow.”

“Wow, it’s really coming down.”

“Should we take the rest to go?”

“Probably,” she said with visible reluctance.

Grayson was glad to know she was in no rush to end their date either.

Hannah, Nolan, Cameron and Will stopped by to say good-bye as they headed out.

“Drive carefully, you guys,” Grayson said.

“Do you still remember how to drive in this crap, city boy?” Will asked, grinning at his cousin.

Grayson flipped him off.

The four of them went out the door laughing.

“Don’t listen to him,” Grayson said. “I’ll get you home safely.”

“I never doubted you for a minute.”

Pleased by her faith in him, he paid their check and held her coat, watching as she scooped up her blonde hair and let it fall in silky waves down her back. He had to resist the urge to run his fingers through it—at least for now. Then she pulled a knit cap from her pocket and plopped it on her head. When she turned to smile at him, he felt like he’d been sucker-punched. She was gorgeous, sweet, funny, sexy as all hell—and she lived six hours from him.

That last one had him sagging under the weight of the impossibility of this situation.

She pulled on mittens that matched the hat. “Are you okay?”

Grayson zipped his coat and picked up the pizza box. “I’m good. Ready?”

“Let’s do it.”

 

What should’ve been a ten-minute ride from town to Molly and Linc’s took close to thirty. Emma held on tight to her seat the entire way as they crept through a white wall of snow. “How do you even know where you’re going?”

“I know these roads as well as I know anything.”

The SUV fishtailed, and Emma gasped.

He reached for her hand.

She tried to shake him off. “You need that to drive.”

“I don’t want you to be afraid.”

“I’m okay.”

“We’ve got four-wheel drive, so we’re totally fine. I promise.”

Emma clung to his hand and assurances until she saw the mailbox that was a miniature replica of the red barn the Abbotts called home. She released a deep sigh of relief.

Grayson pulled up next to his uncle’s Range Rover and cut the engine. “That was all kinds of fun.”

“You were great. Calm and cool under pressure.”

“Let me walk you in.”

“Maybe you should just stay here tonight rather than driving anymore.”

“Are you inviting me?” he asked in a teasing tone.

Heat flooded her entire body at the thought of spending the night with him. Thankfully, he couldn’t see that in the dark. “Your aunt would surely agree that you’d be safer here than on the roads in this.”

“If I stay, would that mean I’d get more time with you?”

“Only if you want more time with me.”

“I want it.”

“That’s good, because so do I. So you’ll stay?”

“I’ll stay.”

You can’t blame gravity for people falling in love.

—Albert Einstein

Chapter 3

Realizing their date wasn’t over yet had Emma’s heart doing gymnastics. She felt breathless and overheated even though the icy air leached into the car now that the engine was off.

“Wait for me,” he said as he got out and came around for her.

He carried the pizza box and kept an arm around her as they walked toward the light over the back door that had been left on for Emma.

They stepped into the mudroom, shook the snow off their coats and hung them on hooks that bore the names of Grayson’s cousins. She followed him into the kitchen, where he stashed the pizza in the fridge and helped himself to one of his uncle’s beers. “Want one?”

“Sure, why not? I can sleep in tomorrow for the first time in ten years.”

He laughed and twisted the caps off, handing one bottle to her. “I need to call my mom like the good boy I am and tell her not to expect me.” Grayson used the landline in the kitchen to make the call. “Yes, Mother,” he said, rolling his eyes at Emma. “I thought you might agree it’s better if I stay put. You’ve got enough firewood to get you through tonight and tomorrow. Call Noah if you need anything. All right. I will.” He put down the phone. “There. My duty is done.”

Seeing no sign of Molly and Linc, Emma said, “Let’s go in the den.” Back to the place where they had connected so completely the night before, she thought, looking forward to more time alone with him.

He followed her, lit the fire that had been laid in the hearth and then turned off the lamp so the only light was from the fire and the twinkling white lights on the Christmas tree. Outside, the wind howled and the snow pinged against the window. “Is it okay to say I’m sort of glad it snowed tonight?” he asked.

“Why’s that?”

“Because if it hadn’t, I’d still be wishing I could do this.” He raised his arm, inviting her to move closer.

Emma smiled at him and leaned into him so he could put his arm around her. “This is nice,” she said, resting her head on his chest.

He ran his fingers through her hair. “It certainly is.”

Emma closed her eyes and tried to lose herself in the romantic moment while not thinking about the many reasons it was a supremely bad idea to get involved with a man who lived so far from her. Cameron and Lucy did it, she thought, and made it work. But they hadn’t had a child to think about. Simone made everything more complicated for her, not that she minded. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for her child, and that included stopping herself from getting too involved with a man she couldn’t have.

That didn’t mean, however, that she couldn’t enjoy the time they had together this week.

“What’re you thinking about?” he asked.

“Too many things.”

“Care to share?”

She lifted her head from his chest so she could see his face. “I’m thinking about how much I enjoy being with you and how sorry I am that you live so far from me.”

He raised his hand to caress her cheek. “Your thoughts are amazingly similar to mine.”

“Maybe it would be better if… if we didn’t.”

“Is that what you want?”

She shook her head.

He gazed into her eyes for a long moment, seeming to commit her features to memory. Then he shifted his gaze to her lips in the seconds before he kissed her.

The moment his lips connected with hers, she stopped worrying about the many reasons this was a bad idea and lost herself in a kiss that made her forget everything other than how incredible it felt to be held and kissed by a smart, sexy, handsome man.

Kisses that had been sweet and tentative the night before were hotter now, sexier, more desperate.

Emma had never been kissed the way Grayson kissed her, as if he wanted to devour her, and oh dear God, she wanted to be devoured by him. A libido that had been dormant for ten years roared back to life with an intensity that made her shiver from wanting him so desperately.

He seemed to want her just as badly, judging from the way he kissed her and how he drew her closer to him, until they were stretched out on the sofa, arms and legs entwined, lips joined and his erection hard against her belly.

Emma had to remind herself where they were and what could and couldn’t happen here. Worries about getting caught had her withdrawing, reluctantly, from the kiss.

“What?” he whispered gruffly.

“I’m trying to remember where we are.”

“I can’t remember my own name right now.”

She laughed softly, and then sighed when his lips moved to her neck as his hand dipped under her sweater. The heat of his palm on her back seared her skin, making her want so much more. She moved against him, hoping he’d touch her everywhere, regardless of where they were and who might catch them.

Groaning softly, he took the hint, moving his hand from back to front and up to cup her breast through her bra.

Emma was glad she’d worn one of the few truly sexy bras she owned.

His thumb slid back and forth over her nipple, setting off a firestorm inside her.

She went on her own exploration, sliding her hand under his sweater.

He gasped from the feel of her skin against his and captured her lips in another heated kiss. His tongue rubbed against hers as their bodies rocked together. Then he pinched her bare nipple between his fingers, and Emma nearly launched off the sofa. She broke the kiss and took a deep breath. “Grayson…”

“Hmm?”

“We have to stop. We can’t do this here.”

He made an inarticulate noise. “Let’s go to your room.”

“This is your aunt’s house. We can’t.”

“They won’t know, and they wouldn’t care.”

Emma was so incredibly tempted. “I care. I’m their guest, and it doesn’t feel right to…”

“Shag their nephew in the guest room?”

She laughed at his bluntly spoken words. “Yes, that.”

He sighed, deeply, then adjusted her bra to cover her breast and removed his hand from under her sweater. “For the record, I’m withdrawing under protest.”

“Duly noted,” she said, smiling as she kissed him.

“Tomorrow, I could show you my new apartment if you’d like to see it.”

His meaning wasn’t lost on her. “I’ll have to see what’s going on with Simone.”

He rested his forehead on hers and took another deep breath. “I haven’t felt like this in… well… ever.”

Touched by his confession, Emma ran her hand over his back. “Neither have I.”

He raised his head to look down at her. “How’d this happen?”

“I believe you put your arm around me, and next thing I knew, here we were.”

“I don’t mean just this.” He kissed her to make his point. “I mean how did this happen? All of it.”

“It’s your fault for being so easy to talk to.”

“No, that’s your fault,” he said, smiling.

“I should probably go upstairs.”

“Not yet,” he whispered, kissing her again.

“Grayson…”

“Ten more minutes.”

Could she handle ten more minutes of the kind of pleasure she’d never experienced before? “Okay.”

 

Grayson woke to whispered voices in the kitchen and a warm, sweet body tucked in close to him under a blanket he vaguely remembered pulling over them in the middle of the night.

His aunt and uncle were up, and Emma was asleep in his arms, which was no big deal to him, but it would be to her. He kissed her awake.

Her eyes fluttered open, and a sweet smile curved her lips when she saw him there. Then she realized where they were, and the smile disappeared. “I…”

“Shhh. They’re up. Go on upstairs, and I’ll be back to get you at noon.”

“Get me to go where?”

“You’ll see.” He kissed her again and released her, patting her ass as she got up from the sofa.

Emma looked over her shoulder and caught him checking her out as she left the room to sneak up the stairs like a naughty teenager trying to avoid her parents.

He fell back against the sofa, missing her already, and she’d only just left him. A few minutes later, he got up, ran his fingers through his hair and put on his shoes. Then he went into the kitchen to face the music with his aunt and uncle.

“Morning,” Molly said from her perch at the stove where she was standing watch over a pan of eggs. “Coffee?”

“I wouldn’t say no to that.”

She poured him a cup. “Cream is in the fridge. Sugar is on the table.”

“Thanks. Hope you don’t mind me crashing on your sofa. The snow was pretty intense.”

“Of course we don’t mind,” Molly said. “Our home is your home. You know that.”

“And I appreciate it.”

“So,” Linc said, holding his newspaper to the side so he could see Grayson, “did you and Emma have a nice time last night?”

“We did.” Avoiding his uncle’s obvious curiosity, Grayson stirred cream into his coffee. “Our evening was cut short by the snow, but we had fun. We saw Hannah, Nolan, Will and Cameron at Kingdom Pizza.” Ten minutes later, he heard footsteps on the stairs, and his heart raced, knowing it would be Emma coming down to join them.

“Morning,” she said, hair damp from the shower and lips swollen from kissing him.

The sight of her made him hard as a rock. His reaction to her was unprecedented. He’d wanted other women, but not the way he wanted her, and he’d known her only a few days. It didn’t make sense to him. How could they have gone from perfect strangers to this level of desperate need in the scope of a couple of evenings? Albeit amazing, monumental evenings.

“Morning, honey,” Molly said. “Did you sleep well?”

Grayson noticed that Emma went out of her way not to look at him. “Like a rock.”

He found her choice of words comical in light of his condition.

“Morning,” she said to him as she slid into the chair next to his, bringing a cup of coffee and a cloud of fragrance with her.

He wanted to lean in closer to fully experience her scent as much as her soft skin and swollen lips. “Morning.”

“How much snow did we get?” Emma asked.

“Only about fourteen inches,” Linc said.

Emma’s eyes went wide. “Seriously?

“Welcome to Vermont, sweetheart,” Grayson said, amused by her reaction.

She glanced at him, and he took note of the flush in her cheeks. “That would shut down New York City for two days.”

“Just a dusting to us,” Linc said.

“How many such dustings do you get in an average winter?” Emma asked.

“We lose count,” Molly said.

“Wow.” Emma glanced out the big sliding glass door that led to the deck and yard. “It sure is pretty.”

“Yes, it is,” Grayson said, looking at her, not the snow.

When she realized his meaning, she smiled and brought her coffee to her lips. Even the way she drank her coffee was sexy to him.

The house phone rang, and Molly took the call. “Emma? It’s for you. A little girl calling from the mountain.”

Emma jumped up and went to take the call from her daughter. “Hey, how’s it going?”

Grayson once again noticed the way her face lit up when she spoke to her child, and her joy touched him profoundly. He caught his uncle watching him. “What?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“I… um…”

Linc snorted. “It’s like that, is it?”

“Might be.”

“Proceed with caution, my boy,” Linc said in a low tone intended for Grayson’s ears only. “She’s not a woman you trifle with.”

“I know that,” Grayson said, mildly insulted that his uncle thought he needed to be told.

“No offense intended.”

“I know that, too,” he said with a sigh.

“She’s special, and so is that little girl of hers.”

“Yes, they are.”

“Okay, baby,” Emma said into the phone. “Have a great time, and be good for Colton and Lucy.” She hung up the phone. “Apparently, Uncle Colton has offered to teach Simone how to ski today.”

Grayson knew a moment of pure elation at realizing Emma was free to hang out with him. If she wanted to, that was.

“She couldn’t get a better teacher,” Molly said. “Except for Will maybe. But Colton is a fantastic skier.”

“I certainly can’t compete with her fun aunt and uncle,” Emma said.

“She’s in a new place with new things to try,” Molly said.

“She’s not going to want to go home,” Emma said. “It’s way more fun here than it is there.” She turned her potent gaze Grayson’s way as she said that, and his heart skipped a beat.

“What’re you doing today?” he asked as casually as possible.

“I have no idea. I’ve been ditched by my kid, so I’m at loose ends.”

“You can help me move into my new place, if you want.”

“Um, sure, I can do that.”

“Great.”

They ate breakfast with Molly and Lincoln, and then went outside to dig out the cars, which took well over an hour. Thankfully, Linc had a snowblower for the long driveway. He took care of that while Emma and Grayson focused on the cars.

“This is hard work,” she said.

“Vermont in the winter isn’t for sissies.”

“Are you calling me a sissy?”

“Would I do that?”

“I think you would.”

Grayson was heaving a heavy load of snow to the pile they’d created next to the driveway when something cold and wet hit him square in the face. She did not! Her squeal of laughter indicated that she had.

“This is war.” He threw down his shovel and ran around his uncle’s Land Rover, nearly falling on his ass when he slid on icy snow.

Seeing him coming, she took off screaming, heading away from the house down the driveway.

Grayson caught up to her, hooked his arm around her waist and hoisted her right off her feet.

She screamed with laughter as they landed in a snowbank. Her face was red from the cold, and their breath formed clouds around them.

He kissed her right there in the snow, mindless of his uncle a few hundred yards from them or Ringo and George frolicking in the snow nearby. The whole world could’ve been watching, for all he cared. He kissed her until he felt her surrender—and then he smashed a handful of snow in her face.

She sputtered and smacked at his arm and shoulder. “That was a dirty trick!”

“You started it.”

Raising her arm as if to put it around him, she stuffed a handful of snow down the back of his neck.

“Holy shit!” He jumped up and shook the snow out of his clothes while she lost it laughing.

“Hey, you two,” Linc called. “No playing until the work is done.”

“It’s him.” Emma pointed a gloved thumb at Grayson. “He started it.”

Glowering at her even as he delighted in her playfulness, he said, “You’ll pay for that later.”

“Promises, promises.”

The comment, the look she gave him and the meaning in her words made him hard—again. Had shoveling snow ever been so fun?

 

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