One woman. One case of self-denial. One hunky best friend who wants a lot more.
Watching the man she thought she’d marry tie the knot to someone else spurs small-town waitress, Mandy Mattson, to finally pursue her dreams of opening her own restaurant.
But she can’t do it alone. . .
Mandy’s going to need the help of her sexy, long-time best friend, Frankie Smith. He has everything she needs–and more. She fell for him years ago, but has never allowed their friendship to evolve into something more. After all, he’s “Frankie fall-off-the-tower Smith,” and she has no intention of giving her heart to a dare devil like him. But what happens when Frankie asks Mandy to take the biggest dare of all?
Whiskey & Gumdrops is the first standalone feel good, laugh-out-loud sweet romance in the Blueberry Springs series.
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SNEAK PEEK: CHAPTER 1
Mandy Mattson stood behind an elm, watching the church, her feet turning to pedicured ice blocks as slush seeped through her designer boots. The old teak doors swung open and the bride and groom burst into the spring sunshine, smiling at each other like they were the only ones in the small town of Blueberry Springs.
Mandy turned away to stop the world from spinning, the tree’s rough bark snagging her long, loose hair. Against the wishes of the smart little voice in her head, she peered around the trunk once again, waiting as the couple, Oz and Beth, kissed and waved their goodbyes before piling into the idling limo. Taking several quick steps to the right, Mandy crouched behind a budding bush, seeking better cover, as the car pulled out. The last thing she needed was the town knowing she’d been wedding-stalking her ex.
Was it crazy she’d wanted to see his nuptials herself? To see with her own eyes that he had indeed chosen to spend the rest of his life with her rival? To slide that knife a little deeper into her heart?
She sighed and wiggled her right foot, which was threatening to fall asleep. Decent boyfriend options were waning and, like the men available, she wasn’t getting any younger. Before long, the only ones left would be used and abused models—divorcés—or the late model lemons nobody had wanted in the first place.
She winced as an idea struck her. If everyone worth snapping up was snapped up…did that mean she wasn’t worth claiming? Well, obviously not by the man she’d been with for eight years, and then had hopelessly chased for the past three and a half after he’d set her aside.
That stupid kiss he’d given her two years ago had solidified unrealistically her already high hopes that they’d get back together. She’d followed him around, lit her kitchen on fire—well, that had been an accident—and had tried almost anything and everything to re-spark the connection they’d once had.
It hadn’t worked. He hadn’t come back to her, and she’d failed. Publicly.
Everyone in her small town knew it, too. She could see their pitying looks, hear the conversations that hushed when she walked by.
The idea of test driving another man so she wasn’t alone forever felt like it might finish off what was left of her poor heart. And what if she ended up with a lemon like her parents had, and she got divorced?
What was the point of it all? Of love? Of even trying?
Mandy stood, stretching her tingling leg as the limo swung around for another toot-toot drive-by. She dove behind a different shrub, ignoring the light rustling beside her as she kept an eye on the car. Another rustle-rustle and she glanced over at Mrs. Everett’s cat, Fluffy, who was prancing like she had to pee.
The whole outdoors is yours, kitty.
Wait one second…
She stole a second glance at the cat, noting the wide, white stripe down its back—a stripe Fluffy did not possess.
The skunk aimed its poufy tail straight at Mandy’s caramel leather jacket with the Italian style zipper.
Mandy scrambled backward, the butt of her perfectly worn-in jeans landing in wet, cold slush as the skunk filled the air with its scent, stinging her eyes.
She gagged and choked as she whipped a handful of heavy slush at the skunk, sending it hustling for the protection of a nearby shrub. Between gags she spit out, “You know how much this outfit cost? I’ll never be able to wear it again, you stinky beast!”
She stalked deeper into the square, hiding behind bushes when she could, her stinging eyes streaming. She was going to get fired. Nobody wanted a gag-inducing, smelly waitress delivering their food. She was going to get evicted from her apartment above the flower shop for the same stinky reason. She was going to reek into next week, if not the rest of her life.
Without her job at Benny’s Big Burger, the highest tipping restaurant in town, she’d be exactly nothing. She’d officially become a small town nobody waiting for true love to come along and save her from a humiliatingly lonely and meaningless existence.
She would do anything to avoid that. Anything.
She slipped through the quiet downtown at a light jog, unable to outrun her smell, thankful the majority of the town was still at the church. She had about two minutes to make it to safety before the streets filled again, and the ‘closed due to wedding’ signs disappeared from store doors.
Turning onto Plum Street, she headed for the one person who could help her. The one person who had stood by her through the years, and through the ups and downs of pursuing her ex. Frankie.
Everyone believed she’d been leading on her friend ever since he fell off the water tower while painting her name on it all those years ago—and earning himself the nickname Frankie-Fall-Off-The-Tower-Smith—but they had an agreement. They were just friends. And always would be. Nothing more.
She banged on the back door to his ancient, three-room cottage with the cedar shake roof and cracked clapboard siding. Frankie’s dog, Heart, sounded the alarm on the other side of the door. It opened, then quickly slammed shut again.
“Mandy! What!?” Frankie hollered from inside.
She turned the knob and pushed. “Frankie, you’ve gotta help me. Please?”
“Stay out there!” His voice sounded odd, like he was plugging his nose despite being separated from her by a slab of wood.
Teary-eyed, Mandy gave the warped door a shove. The lock clicked into place and the sound of Frankie scrambling on the other side sifted through. She slumped onto the small step.
Now what? The way her eyes stung, she wasn’t sure she’d ever smell like herself—vanilla—again. She couldn’t go home or her apartment would reek for weeks. She couldn’t go to the store to buy skunk-scent cleaning agents: she’d asphyxiate all the poor little old ladies doing their Saturday morning shopping. She needed Frankie to hose her down in the privacy of his fenced backyard.
She moaned, thunking her head against the closed door as she tipped it back. “My brothers will never let me live this down.”
If her older brothers, Devon and Ethan, found out she got sprayed and then caught a whiff of skunk lingering in the town square, they would put two and two together. They would know where she had been and why. In other words, they would mock her patheticness until her dying day.
This would definitely top teenaged Frankie falling off the tower while declaring his crush on her.
The door at her back opened, and she caught herself before tumbling inside. Her friend was in a pair of old sweats and a ripped T-shirt he usually reserved for renovating his small home. He carried an former drywall mud pail and a large shopping bag, his jaw set with determination.
“Follow me.” He pointed to the garage out back where he rebuilt muscle cars.
Mandy followed him at a distance, watching how he moved, his movements efficient and with purpose. His dark hair brushed his collar as a breeze played with it, and the slight hitch in his gait hinted at the pins and rod that had been put in his leg after his fall off the tower.
Pausing at the garage door, Frankie grinned and clipped a clothespin over his nose. He shoved open the door and drew her inside. “Let’s see what we can do about your new outdoorsy perfume.”
Mandy looked in Frankie’s bucket of supplies as she passed him the doorway. She held up a small bottle of juice he used to mix with cheap beer when his next paycheck was still a week away. “Clamato?”
He shrugged, the clothespin sliding off his nose. His eyes began to water from her scent, although he acted as if it didn’t bother him.
“You’re supposed to bathe in tomato juice or peroxide, and that’s the best I have.”
Mandy looked at it hopelessly. Her voice wobbled as she said, trying for humor, “I’m going to smell like clams.”
“You can pretend you took a trip to the sea.” He gave her a wink and set down the pail, uncapping the tomato juice. He poured it in, barely covering the surface of the pail’s bottom. They both peered at it doubtfully. Frankie tapped the upturned bottle. “I think we’re going to need about eighty of these.”
They looked at each other and started to laugh. Near tears, Mandy plunked herself on the cold concrete floor amid the oil stains and fine layer of grit. She leaned against the lime green 1969 Dodge Challenger Frankie was currently rebuilding for a client in the city.
Frankie crouched in front of her with a washcloth dripping tomato juice. “Come here.” Gently, he tipped her face up, dabbing her forehead. “We’ll need to wash your hair and probably burn your clothes.”
Mandy fought tears. She’d worked two weeks worth of extra shifts to buy this outfit. It was one of her favorites, and it always made her feel good when her confidence was flagging. She’d miss this ensemble more than she’d care to admit.
She let out a loud sigh, supposing it was divine retribution for dressing up in her best to be ready with her arms outstretched in case her ex was unable to say, “I do.”
“I’m sorry, Miss M,” Frankie said, his voice tender.
She tried to nod and burst into tears. How could she be so pathetic? Why couldn’t she be that confident, independent woman everyone seemed to think she was?
Frankie rubbed her back. “You went to watch despite your promise not to, didn’t you?”
She nodded again, crying harder. He drew her into his arms and held her close. He smoothed her hair. “Why do you do this to yourself, Miss M?”
She tried to push him away, but he hugged her even tighter. Through a throat thick with tears, she said, “I’ll make you stink.”
She felt a rush of emotion for her best friend and slipped from his grip, swiping at her wet cheeks.
Frankie handed her a towel from the shopping bag. “You can use this to cover yourself as you bathe. I’m going to zip out and get more juice. I threw an outfit in there for you to change into once you’re clean.”
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
He paused, his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll say that Heart got after a skunk.”
Mandy gave him a grateful smile and turned the red-soaked cloth over in her hands, eyes welling with gratitude. “Thanks.”
He returned her smile, and she felt a whoosh in her gut. He was always so good to her, and half the time she felt as though she didn’t deserve him. Sure, she was a good friend, too, but sometimes she wondered why he put up with her chasing another man when he’d made it clear over the years that he was willing to pick up where their first—and only—date had left off. Even though it had ended in the emergency room.
Frankie stepped closer, a look in his eyes that made her tense. “Why can’t you see it?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“See what?” she asked cautiously.
He came closer again. “That you could have anything you wanted.”
Mandy stood and crossed her arms. They’d had this conversation before, and she knew exactly where he was going with it. “Frankie, what you want and what you need are two different things.”
“We’re talking about you. And you’ve got to start giving yourself some credit.” He cupped her chin and leaned closer, full of intensity. “You are so much more than you know.”
“Frankie,” she said, a raw edge to her voice that sounded a lot like longing. She tipped her head down, unable to look at him, breaking his gentle grip on her chin. She tried to ignore the way his proximity was making the blood rushing through her body go extra tingly.
She swallowed hard and looked up. “Anyone would be lucky to have you. You’re a catch. You know that.”
He crouched beside her and she discovered she couldn’t seem to look away. “The same could be said about you,” he whispered.
He shot her that goofy, crooked grin that always made her want to comply with whatever kooky idea he had.
More than once she’d found herself racing across the nearby alpine meadow track in her 4×4, trying to outdo one of his muscle cars after he’d shot that grin in her direction. He knew it was her weakness.
He slowly leaned in and, when she hesitated to move away, he placed his lips gently over hers. He gave her a deep kiss that awakened parts of her that had been dormant for a very long time.
It felt good. Too good.
She broke the kiss and stood up. With shaking legs she moved to the other side of the car. The Charger sat between them, its cold frame protecting her from the mistake she was so very tempted to make. Frankie placed his hands on the hood and stared at her with a familiar determination she knew would win out against her own if given the chance.
She panicked. Panicked like her truck had lost its brakes on Bear’s Pass. Except there was no runaway lane to save her before she went flying over the edge and let herself fall for the one man who really, truly mattered in her life.
He knew she’d felt the power of that kiss.
Her voice crept up a few octaves as she said, “I can’t do this with you, Frankie. I can’t. I can’t ruin this. I depend on our friendship. And I…” I’m not good enough for you. I’m not strong enough. If I lose you there’ll be nothing left of me.
“We’re not done here, Miss M.” There was that same look of determination again. “I’ll be kissing you again.” He tapped the Charger’s shiny surface. “And again. And again. So brace yourself.” He turned on his heel and strode out, slamming the door in his wake.
END OF SNEAK PEEK!
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