©Erin Nicholas 2021
There were five reasons why just showing up on her hot holiday fling’s doorstep was a bad idea.
Yet, here she was. Six blocks from his house and still driving.
“Reason number one,” she told Bernie, the black and white cat perched on the passenger seat of her car, watching the scenery go by. “I personally hate surprises. So what am I doing surprising someone like this?”
Bernie didn’t know. Or he wasn’t willing to say your mother finally drove you officially over the edge.
Paige appreciated Bernie’s diplomacy.
Fred, the long-haired orange cat, huddled on the floor on the passenger side, absolutely not interested in the scenery outside the car, was not afraid to tell her how he felt about the whole thing, however.
As he’d been doing for the past nearly one thousand miles.
His meow was more of a pitiful wail, however, explaining that this road trip sucked and she was the worst cat mom ever, than a helpful analysis of her thoughts and motives.
“Okay, I could have planned better,” she admitted to the unhappy feline.
Fred’s answering meow was full of blame and a reminder that her “plan” had basically consisted of throwing a few things together—including Bernie and Fred— getting in her car, and heading south.
She hadn’t even plugged Autre, Louisiana into her GPS until she stopped for the night just outside of St. Louis. Autre was well south of Appleby, Iowa and she’d known she had a long way to go before she had to worry too much about specific directions.
So, yeah, the this-is-really-a-bad-idea realizations hadn’t started until she’d passed New Orleans and was on her way to the bayou.
Now those thoughts wouldn’t leave her alone.
“The number two reason this is a bad idea,” she told Bernie (and Fred, though he was talking right over her). “Is that I don’t even know this guy well enough to know how he feels about surprises.”
Bernie looked over at her.
“Right, he might hate them,” she agreed. “I also don’t know if he has a criminal record. Or if there are any unsolved missing persons cases or murders around his general neighborhood. Or if he keeps a chainsaw in his shed.”
Fred agreed, loudly, that showing up on a potential murderer’s front step was a bad idea.
Or maybe he was just telling her that he resented…well, everything about this car trip. Again.
“Okay, that’s not true,” she told both cats. “I’m sure Mitch Landry has a chainsaw in his shed. He can fix anything. Apparently. And I’m guessing sometimes that means he needs a chainsaw.”
“Well, he single-handedly saved the Apple Festival last week,” she argued with the indignant animal. “He heard there was a problem with the electrical wiring in the town square, he headed over to check it out, and the next thing we knew, there were lights and music, and the apple cider and popcorn were nice and hot.”
Fred did not care about apple cider or popcorn.
“And he did tell me that he’s the general fix-it guy for his family’s businesses. So yeah, there’s a ninety-nine percent chance he has a chainsaw,” she told the cats. “And honestly, him being so capable with those big hands and all those muscles…” She looked at Bernie. “I know what you’re thinking. Cutting people up with a chainsaw would take muscles too, and I’m sure you’re right, but I can’t help that him being the superhero to the town, and the idea of him in a toolbelt, is kind of hot.”
Bernie looked back out the window. He, clearly, didn’t share her attraction to blue-collar-works-with-his-hands men.
“Oh, you barely met him,” she told the cat. “You saw him for, what, three minutes when he came to the yoga studio? You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The cats both lived at her yoga studio. Though she did let them into her apartment over the yoga studio at night if they wanted to come snuggle. And sometimes a couple of others came up too. But even she knew letting twenty-three cats hang out in her apartment was a lot.
The rest of the cats stayed downstairs in the yoga studio that doubled as a cat café and adoption center. Fred and Bernie and three other cats were hers and weren’t up for adoption, but most of the time they hung out with the others on the lower level where there was more room to roam.
The cat adoption center saved her, just barely, from being an official crazy cat lady.
In her mind anyway.
“And,” she went on, making her case to Bernie. And Fred if he’d shut the hell up for two minutes. “Mitch was so cute at the festival. He was like a little kid with the snow, and the way he played the games and tried all the apple ciders and cookies and cakes, and the way he chose the biggest caramel apple.”
She smiled, remembering him taking it all in. They didn’t get a lot of snow in Louisiana. They certainly didn’t have six inches of it hanging out around for days at a time. And watching him at the festival with all the apple foods and crafts, she would have thought they didn’t have apples in Louisiana either.
“I mean, can a guy who lights up at the sight of snow and loves caramel apples hack someone up into little pieces with a chainsaw?”
Fred yowled and she really thought he was saying, “Of course. Why not?”
Paige blew out a breath and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
Her car made an awful grinding noise again as she slowed down for a stop sign. Again. She shook her head.
“That is reason number three this is a bad idea,” she told the cats. “That noise every time I use the brakes is not good and probably means we can’t just turn around and drive back home.”
Fred did not like that idea. Bernie seemed indifferent.
“Reason number four this is a bad idea,” she said, turning onto Cedar Street—Mitch’s street, according to Bud at the gas station on the edge of town. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.”
She’d texted her mom, friends, and two sisters I need a vacation, see you in a few weeks, I’ll call soon.
“And yeah, okay, I could tell them now,” she said when Fred proclaimed that the dumbest of all the things she’d done. Well, next to putting him in a car and driving him a thousand miles away from home. “But I also don’t want a lecture.”
He meowed loudly and she frowned.
“A human lecture.”
But she really should tell someone she was here. Not because she thought Mitch was going to kill her. Just because, well, her mom and her sisters would be worried. Her friends a little too, but less so. Piper and Whitney knew that Mitch had come to town and rocked her world. They might be shocked that she’d chased him all the way to Louisiana, because Paige never chased guys anywhere at all, but they wouldn’t necessarily think it was bad.
Yeah, she’d tell them.
But not her mother. Not yet.
Though her making this impulsive trip would not be number one on Dee Asher’s list of Things Paige Has Done That I Do Not Understand.
“Nope, number one on that list would be me calling off my wedding a week before walking down the aisle,” she told Bernie. “But this trip might be number two.”
Fred meowed. It was a little softer this time. Maybe because the car was moving slower now as she looked for numbers on the houses. But there was no canned tuna to be seen and his favorite pillow was still back in Appleby by his favorite window so that meow was definitely still disgruntled.
“You’re right,” Paige told him. “Refusing to get back together with Garrett when he finally spoke to me again after I broke off the engagement would be number two.”
Garrett was her mother’s best friend’s son. The women had been thrilled that their kids were getting married. Paige hadn’t just broken Garrett’s heart when she called off the wedding. Her mom still wasn’t over it four years later. Neither was Garrett’s mom. Or Paige’s grandmother. Or her aunt. Or… Okay, Paige was maybe the only one in her family who was over her cancelled wedding.
“Turning down Stephen Corbett’s proposal would be number three,” she told the cats. “Turning down Adam’s Lawson’s proposal would be number four. Or maybe four and five.” Adam had proposed twice. “So that puts this trip at probably number five and the cat café-yoga studio at number six on the list of things Mom just does not get about me.”
Fred meowed in response.
That wasn’t true. He was just meowing because he was pissed. He didn’t care at all what Paige was going through. Typical cat.
‘Yep,” she said to Bernie, since he, at least, wasn’t yelling at her. “Dee might put this trip above the cats and yoga, but not above rejecting perfectly nice men with great jobs who would give me a good life.” She even mimicked her mother’s voice when she said the words she’d heard dozens of times.
The white house with the right number on it was the next one. Paige felt her nerves start jumping as she rolled to a stop across the street from the house Bud had described to her.
So this is where Mitch Landry lived.
Her heart kicked against her ribs as she thought about the guy she was here to see. Then she laughed lightly. She wasn’t just here to see him. She wasn’t stopping by for tea. She was hoping to freaking live with him for the next few weeks.
She definitely should have called ahead.
But now that she was finally here, looking at his house, the truck in the driveway, the work boots on the front step, she realized Dee Asher might actually think this was a great idea.
Mitch had spent less than thirty-six hours in Appleby, Iowa but he’d won the town over. He’d saved their big Apple Festival. Single-handedly. He’d also charmed everyone he met. He was good-looking, friendly, able to fix anything, and, seemingly, thought Paige was amazing.
The living a thousand miles away in Louisiana was certainly a checkmark in the “con” column, but Dee wanted Paige married and settled down. She might be willing to overlook the fact that the guy who had finally gotten Paige to put her toothbrush in his bathroom would take her baby girl so far from home.
Paige rolled her eyes. Actually, Dee might appreciate that too. Paige was a huge pain in Dee’s ass.
“Okay, this is it,” she said to the cats. She pivoted to look into the back seat where Calvin, Eddie, and Tiny Tim were sleeping.
Initially the other three had agreed with Fred on her Worst Cat Mom of the Year nomination but they’d given up yelling about it two hundred miles back or so.
It had been a long trip.
Paige turned back to study Mitch’s house. Her heart knocked against her ribs again and she blew out a breath.
He said he’s crazy about you. You were planning to be here in another three weeks for the wedding anyway.
She had agreed to be his plus one for his cousin’s wedding to one of Paige’s friends, Tori.
Tori, Paige’s now ex-veterinarian, was an Iowa girl who had fallen for a Louisiana boy and moved her life to the bayou. Mitch had tagged along with Tori and her fiancé, Josh, last summer on the trip to fetch a bunch of animals Tori couldn’t leave behind. Paige and Mitch had met over the back end of an alpaca when Paige had stopped by to say hello.
There had been instant sparks and Mitch hadn’t needed to sleep on the couch in the den at Tori’s mom’s house that night.
It had been the perfect fling. He’d been hot and funny and charming and had done things to her body that she feared had ruined her for other men. Then he’d been gone the next morning by six a.m. No awkward breakfast conversation, no learning how she liked her coffee, no chance of running into her mother and getting her hopes up about wedding dress shopping.
“Tori wouldn’t be friends with a guy who hacks people up with a chainsaw,” she told Bernie.
Bernie finally meowed in return.
Paige nodded. “You’re right. I definitely wasn’t worried about any murderous tendencies when we were having the hottest sex of my life.”
“Hey, I don’t need your judgement,” she told the cat. “He’s also been texting. So he hasn’t forgotten about me. Or written me off entirely. Hell, he mentioned moving to Iowa to see what this might turn into.”
Her stomach flipped at that. She wasn’t sure if it was a good flip or a bad flip though. When he’d showed up in Appleby two weeks after Christmas, again with Tori and Josh, Paige had been shocked by how happy she was to see him. And how intense their chemistry was the second time around.
Then he’d mentioned that he wouldn’t mind relocating to Iowa and it had freaked her out. She did not want a serious relationship, and a guy leaving his family and job just to “see what could happen” had seemed like a kind-of major commitment.
And now, here she was, about to knock on his door and ask if she could stay for the next three weeks. Or three months.
He was so going to take this the wrong way.
“Reason number five that this is a bad idea,” she told the cats. “Mitch Landry is going to think I want to be his girlfriend.”
Bernie meowed again. So did Calvin. As if they were agreeing with her.
“The way my luck goes, he’ll be proposing by Wednesday,” she told Fred, who had climbed into her lap to look out her window at the house too.
Fred looked up at her and meowed.
“Okay, I won’t turn around and get right back on the road,” she promised. “But I’m warning you now, the second he pulls out a ring, we’re out of here.”
She put Fred on the seat next to Bernie, rolled the windows down part-way, shut the car off, took a deep breath, and got out.
She was here. In spite of the five very convincing reasons this was a bad idea. Not to mention Fred’s general opinion about the whole thing.
She ran a hand through her hair and looked down at the t-shirt and capris she had on. It was January. It had been twelve degrees when she’d left Iowa. Twelve. She was now standing here in a short-sleeve baby blue t-shirt and denim capris. It wasn’t hot. Not at all the steamy weather she associated with Louisiana. But it was in the mid-fifties and for a girl who’d grown up in Iowa, this felt downright balmy right now.
So, good weather in January. There was a good reason for this trip.
It was nice to know there was one.
She started up the front walk.
Please be home. Please be happy to see me. Please don’t let this be worse than the time I almost died choking on sweet corn when Stephen proposed at the town barbecue in front of everyone.
It couldn’t be worse than that. Right?
She never reacted well to being proposed to. Always because it was a shock and always because no way, thank you very much, no matter what.
But yeah, that time she’d almost inhaled corn kernels into her lungs and the resulting hacking and coughing and watering eyes and smeared mascara had not been pretty.
She coughed lightly now, her lungs giving her a little hey-don’t-freak-out-and-suck-anything-into-us reminder.
Yeah, well, she wasn’t the one who was going to be shocked that she was standing on Mitch’s front porch today.
Okay, okay, she was a little surprised that she was here. That she’d done this. That she’d thought about running away from home and he was the person she ran to. But he’d be shocked to see her too. She was going to just focus on that and not all of the what is it about this guy? that kept swirling through her mind.
She took in the details of the house. It was nice. Simple. Small. White. Well kept. There was a huge tree in the front yard that she thought was likely a magnolia tree. She didn’t have a lot of experience with magnolia trees, of course, but she’d seen a lot of them as she’d scrolled through the results of her What You Need To Know About Louisiana search last night on her laptop in the roadside motel.
She eyed the front of the house. Did she knock on the porch door or did she go onto the porch and knock on the front door? The front door, surely, right?
But when she opened the light screened door to the porch, she felt almost as if she was stepping into a living room.
The porch was adorable. Sure, it belonged to a hot, sexy, alpha male who gave her eye-crossing-toe-curling orgasms. But he had a freaking adorable porch. There was no way around it.
There were potted plants everywhere, hanging from baskets overhead, sitting on shelves and even on the floor. On one end of the porch, that stretched the entire length of the front of the house, was a porch swing long enough to fit two or three adults. It faced the street and would be the perfect place to sit and rock and watch the neighborhood go by.
She glanced around. Of course, not much was going on in this neighborhood. It was very quiet. The houses were set back from the street several yards and there were wide expanses between them. This was far end of town, furthest from the highway and closest to the bayou. The houses were older, the front walks cracked and uneven, the plants and trees very established. There was also an overgrown field that stretched out behind this house and the two to the west. It spread out all the way to the line of trees in the distance.
She couldn’t see or hear it from here but she knew the bayou was on the other side of those trees. Less than a mile from the houses. She hadn’t known which house was Mitch’s but she’d checked out the town of Autre online.
That wasn’t super creepy. Was it? It wasn’t weird that she’d looked the town up since she was moving here. Temporarily, of course, but she was going to be staying for a couple of weeks. Or three. Or for the summer. Which was still several months away.
Okay, when she’d first considered coming to Louisiana for the summer, it had been because she thought that was when Josh and Tori’s wedding would be.
Instead, they were getting married on Mardi Gras. Which was a Tuesday. In February.
Even once she’d heard it was a Mardi Gras wedding, Paige had still assumed it was a few months away. She wasn’t sure why she’d thought of Mardi Gras as a warm weather holiday, but she did. Probably the plethora of naked breasts associated with the celebration.
Anyway, she knew where the bayou was from here. And where the highway was. In case she needed to head back north.
This porch though…she wasn’t in a hurry to go back north suddenly. She didn’t have a porch there. She definitely didn’t have a porch with a hammock in it.
But Mitch did. The hammock was hooked onto the house and onto a post that seemed to have been secured to the floor of the porch specifically for that purpose.
Paige could already imagine lying in that thing on a rainy day with a good book. Or maybe with a hot, laid back, Louisiana boy. Or both. A hot guy and a book? Yes, please, sign her up. Specifically, Mitch Landry and a dirty romance.
Okay, she could knock on this door if that was how she was going to get a couple afternoons in that hammock.
She knocked and waited, holding her breath.
She heard footsteps inside and her stomach swooped.
A second later the door swung open.
And a gorgeous brunette, with streaks of pink in her hair and tattoos that ran the entire length of her left leg and her left arm, opened the door.
Paige knew that the leg tattoo went from ankle to hip because the woman was wearing nothing but a t-shirt. As in, no pants. The shirt was at least three sizes too big for her and covered everything important, but it still left a lot of skin bare.
Paige could only assume it was a man’s shirt. As in Mitch’s. The man who lived here. Who would have t-shirts here.
Paige’s swoopy stomach knotted and the breath she’d been holding came whooshing out.
This kind of…hurt.
“Hi,” the woman said, looking at Paige with a combination of surprise and curiosity. “Can I help you?”
“Um…yes, if you can tell me this is not Mitch Landry’s house.”
That would be good. Sure, it looked exactly as Bud had described it, but maybe there were two white houses with big trees in the front and a screened in front porch. None of those things were particularly unique.
The woman smiled. “No, this is Mitch’s place.”
“Dammit,” Paige muttered.
“You okay?” the woman asked.
“I mean… maybe. I could be. If you told me you’re his sister.”
Though that would mean the woman was lying to her.
She and Mitch had been texting for nearly six months between his two visits to Appleby and they’d shared about their families. Mitch was a from a big, loud family that all lived within about ten square miles of one another. But he was an only child to a single dad. He had lots of cousins and aunts and uncles, but no siblings.
The woman leaned into the doorjamb. “Not his sister,” she said with a knowing smile.
Paige nodded. “Yeah, I figured.”
Paige nodded again, but then paused. “Oh.”
The woman smiled. “Yeah.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Kennedy.”
Paige took it. “Paige.”
Kennedy’s eyes widened and her hand tightened on Paige’s. “Iowa Paige?”
Paige felt her brows arch. “He told you about me?”
“He told Chase and Owen who told Sawyer who told Juliet who told me,” Kennedy said. She tugged on Paige’s hand. “Come on in. I can’t even tell you how awesome it is that I get to meet you first.” She pulled Paige into the house. “I mean, I do get to meet you first right? You haven’t seen anyone else? Because I haven’t gotten any texts or calls.”
Paige had no choice but to follow the chatty woman through the living room. “Um, just Bud, at the gas station.”
Kennedy nodded. “Good. Okay. I mean, he’ll tell someone. Or call the bar. But I get to meet you first.” She gave Paige a grin. “That’s very good.”
“Oh. I…” Paige had no idea what to say.
Kennedy had thrown a lot of names at her. Chase she recognized. He and Mitch were good friends. The others she had heard of but she wasn’t sure who they all were exactly and how, or if, they were even all related. As far as she could tell, everyone became a part of the Landry family once they spent about five minutes with them.
Ah, and that would be reason number six that this is a bad idea.
She had her own big, meddlesome family. She was trying to get away from them and have some space. Why had she come to Louisiana where she knew that Mitch’s family would be up in her business too?
Because you have a thing for that hot Louisiana boy and when you thought of escaping and hiding out somewhere for a few weeks you immediately thought of him and how nice it would be to let him take care of you the way he says he wants to.
Temporarily, of course. She didn’t need taken care of in the long-term.
She’d never actually been on her own. She’d lived in the same town that her entire family had lived in all their lives. She knew everyone in Appleby. There wasn’t a single thing she could need that her family and hometown couldn’t and wouldn’t provide.
Except peace. And solitude. And independence.
That’s what she wanted. That’s what she was looking for.
But in the short term while she made a plan for all of that independent solitude? Yeah, hanging out with Mitch would be nice.
No one could blame her. The guy was good with his mouth. When he was doing delicious dirty things with it and when he was using it to sweet talk her or charm her entire hometown.
And he knew the score. She’d told him about her plethora of proposals and he’d seen her family in action. He knew where she stood on relationships and overly involved families.
A short term get away with a little friends-with-benefits on the side with Mitch had sounded perfect.
But now one of Mitch’s relatives was already pulling her through his house and into his kitchen.
“He did not tell us you were coming today,” Kennedy said, nudging Paige into a chair at the kitchen table and crossing to the fridge. She pulled out a pitcher of what looked like iced tea and then went to a cupboard.
She stretched for a higher shelf and Paige was relieved to see the edge of a pair of denim shorts peek out from under the bottom of the big t-shirt she wore.
“We were working on the otter enclosure today and the board I was standing on shifted and I ended up on my ass in the water.” Kennedy laughed. “Came in here to wash and dry my stuff and clean up. He’s still down there.”
“Oh, should we call him?” Paige asked.
“Hell no. Not before I have a chance to grill you,” Kennedy said. She looked at Paige over her shoulder. “I mean, get to know you.”
That sly grin did not say that there was going to be anything quite as polite as “getting to know each other” going on. Kennedy wanted to get some dirt.
Or maybe give it.
She brought two glasses to the table. “Peach sweet tea,” she said, setting one down in front of Paige. “I’ll happily buy you a beer when we get to Ellie’s but I have to wait for my bra to dry. And I want to be the first to hear all about Iowa.”
Kennedy plopped into the chair perpendicular to Paige’s and tucked a foot up under her butt.
“Ellie’s?” Paige asked.
“Our grandma’s bar,” Kennedy said, taking a drink of her tea.
Right, his grandma owned a bar. Paige knew that.
“You’ll meet everyone at dinner,” Kennedy said. “Unless they hear you’re in town or see your car and end up here before that.”
“Everyone has dinner together?”
“Most nights,” Kennedy said with a nod.
“How many people is ‘everyone’?” she asked with trepidation.
Kennedy tipped her head and appeared to be counting in her head. “It varies a little but fifteen, maybe twenty.”
Paige barely kept from groaning. This was so not going to be a laid-back, relaxed get-away. She’d pictured a little cabin on the bayou, out in the trees, crickets and frogs singing at night while she sat on the front porch with…okay, the sweet tea fit that little daydream. And that porch swing.
The hammock though…that was next level.
A big noisy family that was all too curious about her and Mitch and what it meant that she’d driven all this way out of the blue to be with him was not.
“You know, I’m more of a grilled-cheese-all-by-myself-for-dinner girl,” Paige said.
Kennedy laughed. “Okay.”
“Is it?” Paige asked skeptically.
“Sure it is,” Kenney said with a nod. “As long as you’re good with not having any of that while you’re in Autre.”
Paige sighed. That’s what she’d figured. “You don’t have cheese down here?”
“’Course we do. What do you think we put on our chili cheese fries?”
“So then your family just doesn’t believe in people being alone? Ever?”
“Not my family, not most of the people who live in Autre, not most of the Cajuns I know from anywhere.”
Paige thought about how far she could get if she got in her car and started driving again right now. She’d have to stop for the night again, but she could put Autre pretty far in her rearview before that. She could head back to Iowa. Or she could head to Colorado, which was her plan for six months from now. Or she could just drive and see where she ended up.
But her car was making a really bad noise…
“I can’t believe Mitch thought he was goin’ to keep you bein’ here a secret,” Kennedy said.
“Oh. Um.” Paige lifted her glass for a sip.
She tasted the sweet, peach flavored tea and…sighed. But this time with pleasure. Damn, that was good. She took a bigger drink before setting the glass down again. “He doesn’t know I’m here. I wasn’t supposed to show up for another three weeks.”
Kennedy’s brow lifted. “Is that right?”
“Yeah. I…was coming for Josh and Tori’s wedding but…I decided to come early.”
“I see.” Kennedy lifted her glass again.
“It’s not like that.”
“Like what you’re thinking,” Paige said, taking another drink and wishing for some peach schnapps to add to her glass.
“What do you think I’m thinking?” Kennedy asked.
“I think you think that I’m either a crazy stalker or I’m madly in love with Mitch.”
Kennedy nodded. “If the spectrum is crazy stalker to madly in love, which end are you closer to?”
Paige set her glass down and regarded Kennedy. She didn’t know this woman. If she was madly in love with Mitch and was planning a future with him, she might think that she should try to make Kennedy like her.
“I’m just here for the hot sex, the otters, and the wedding cake. Someone else’s wedding cake.”
Kennedy’s grin was quick and bright. “That is—”
She was cut off by the sound of heavy footsteps thudding across the back porch Paige had seen through the window in the door on the other side of the kitchen.
Her heart thudded just like those footsteps.
The door opened and then there was a pause.
“This is going to be sooo good,” Kennedy said, lifting her tea glass again.