Emma Stevens made a fresh start in the small town of Juniper Hills, but she still lives with the guilt of an impossible choice from her past: saving her sister—but leaving her stepbrother behind—in a fire that destroyed their home. The boy next door may have dragged them to safety, but he also caused the fire that devastated her family. She swore she’d never forgive him, so she’s stunned when he shows up on her doorstep.
Jake Rowan has never been able to escape the worst day of his life, when he took the fall for his older brother, who started a tragic fire. Years later, he’s carved out a life as a carpenter, but when he runs into Emma again, he’s reminded of everything he’s lost—and everything he still longs for.
Jake has never forgotten Emma, the dream girl whose life he destroyed. And she’s never stopped thinking about her first crush. As they grow closer—and old secrets are unearthed—will they be able to help each other heal, or will their hearts remain broken and burdened by the past?
“I love that idea! Oh my goodness. See? This is why you have to work on the library remodel.” She shot her two index fingers up in the air quickly. “Before you say no again, I want you to come to a barbecue I’m having for my library coworkers tomorrow. This way you can meet all of us first before you lock in your final answer.”
His lips twitched over seeing Megan with the same 90 percent innocent, 10 percent devious smile that Emma had. “Meaning you’ll be kind enough to feed me while you all gang up on me?”
“Yep.” Her smiled turned sixty-forty. “I won’t take no for an answer. It’ll be out in my backyard tomorrow evening. Ten of us total, including you and Emma.”
Okay, time to get real. Emma may have said she wanted him and her sister to figure out their own 2.0 reunion plans, but as far as he knew, their agreement was still intact. Which meant that even though it was plain un-midwesternly to say no to a barbecue, it was probably safer if he—
“I think a cookout is a great idea, Megan.” Emma smiled. “What can we bring?”
Say what now?
Leave it to Emma to send him back out to the desert again with a toy compass that was really just one of those board game spinners you flick to stay in the game.
“But isn’t it early for a cookout?” Now he was just grasping at straws to get his bearings.
Megan gave him a “nice try” head tilt. “Don’t know about you folks in the city, but here we haven’t had any slush on the ground since mid-March. With the grill and fire pit going, it’ll be the perfect temperature for a nice barbecue in your honor. Everyone’s excited to meet you.”
Wow, she was a persistent one.
Emma the ever so helpful chimed in again, shooting Jake an I-know-your-weakness brow quirk. “If you don’t come, you’ll miss out on Megan’s cooking. FYI, she cooks the way I bake. In fact, the corned beef from that Reuben sandwich you ate is actually her recipe.”
Well, that was a well-aimed blow. Now conflicted as well as hungry again, he stared at her in temple-throbbing silence while another big family stopped by to chat with Megan.
“You should just give in and say you’ll come,” whispered Emma. “Because if I know my sister, and I do, there’s no way she’s backing down.” The smile that softened her eyes as she watched Megan get up and go play yarn toss with the kids was the picture of pride.
“So you want me to take the library job?” Just trying to get clear as mud on this.
“Good gracious, no. I still think it’s a terrible idea. But Megan wants you to take the job. And I’ll always fight to get Megan whatever she wants.”
“Then I’ll call Paul and accept the library job.” Simple as that.
He sighed. Would he never understand this woman on the first try?
“Megan inviting you, or anyone for that matter, to her home for a barbecue is a huge freaking deal. You can’t tell because she’s in semi-lioness mode right now over the library project, but Megan is usually painfully shy thanks to the scars and not being social for years. So you have to come. Or she won’t have a reason to go through with the barbecue.”
Jeez, then of course he was going to go. No question about it. But he was curious . . . “If I say no, would it be safe to assume you’d dog me and make me crazy until I change my mind?”
Her lashes fanned her cheeks as she nodded somberly. “Like a rabid Chihuahua.”
Why did he like the terrifying idea of that so much?
“Oh, just say yes. We can go together.” Her eyes danced even as her freckles pinked up over the brassy edict. Man alive, no one did cute, sexy, and bossy like Emma did.
She leaned in and added in a regretful tone, “Listen, if you’re hesitating because of our agreement, I take it back. I’m sorry.”
His amusement disappeared. He really hated hearing her say those words to him.
“I just mean I shouldn’t have made the stipulation,” she clarified. “Of you turning down the library job. I was out of line.” She brushed another microscopic crumb off the table. “Sometimes I can get a teeny bit overbearing, particularly when it comes to protecting Megan.”
You don’t say? “Hey, if the type A cape fits . . .”
She gave him a sighing head shake. “The struggle is real I tell you.”
Chuckling, he reassured her, “You weren’t out of line. You were being a good sister.”
“A protective sister,” she corrected swiftly.
What a strange thing to argue. It was almost as if she took exception to the compliment. Which was just crazy. But in the spirit of Jake and Emma 2.0, he didn’t pry. For now.
Instead he asked the only question he had left on the matter. “You sure you’re going to be okay with me being in your town for an additional few months after I finish your repairs?”
“I am. Actually . . . I think I’d be more than okay with that.”
Well, hell. He tried not to read more into that.
About the Author
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Violet Duke is a former English professor ecstatic to now be on the other side of the page. She enjoys writing emotion-rich stories with fun, everyday characters and sweet, sexy matchups. Since her acclaimed debut series in 2013, more than a million readers have put Violet’s contemporary romances on the USA Today bestseller list sixteen times, the New York Times bestseller list three times, and the Top 10 charts across the major e-retailers, both in the United States and internationally. Born and raised in Hawaii, Violet continues to live the no-shoes island way with her nutty kids and crazy husband, her most devoted fan. Learn about Violet’s new releases at www.VioletDuke.com.