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Grayson & Emma

He came home to get his bearings and found his forever.

Grayson Coleman has just moved home to Butler, Vermont after spending years working for a high-powered law firm in Boston. He’s looking for a simpler, less stressful existence in the sleepy little mountain town where he grew up with his siblings and Abbott cousins. Once the holidays are over, he plans to hang out a shingle and open a new general law practice. After helping to raise his seven younger siblings, the last thing on Grayson’s mind is a family of his own.

Emma Mulvaney is enjoying a break from her reality as a busy single mother in New York City while she and her adorable daughter, Simone, spend the holidays in Vermont with Emma’s sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s future in-laws, the Abbotts. After meeting Abbott cousin Grayson Coleman and talking to him for hours, Emma is nervous and excited to have dinner alone with him after sharing her deepest, most personal secrets with him. 

Will that first night be the start of something new for the jaded lawyer and the selfless single mom or will a holiday week flirtation turn into something much bigger than either of them ever expected?

Come back to Butler, Vermont for more of the charming Abbott family, their matchmaking father and grandfather and of course, Fred the Moose.

The indie-published Butler, Vermont Series is a continuation of Marie’s Green Mountain Series with all the things you loved best about that series—Fred the Moose, the boisterous Abbott family, the beautiful Vermont mountain landscape and the sexy romances that set your heart to racing. Catch up with the series by checking out the Green Mountain Series and then come along on the next phase of the story with the all new Butler, Vermont Series!

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Every Little Thing

(The Butler Vermont Series, Book 1)

By Marie Force

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.”

 Chapter 1

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

—John Keats

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.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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