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First Few Pages: Well Matched by Jen Deluca

First Few Pages: Well Matched by Jen Deluca

Single mother April Parker has lived in Willow Creek for twelve years with a wall around her heart. On the verge of being an empty nester, she’s decided to move on from her quaint little town, and asks her friend Mitch for his help with some home improvement projects to get her house ready to sell.

Mitch Malone is known for being the life of every party, but mostly for the attire he wears to the local Renaissance Faire—a kilt (and not much else) that shows off his muscled form to perfection. While he agrees to help April, he needs a favor too: she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner, so that he can avoid the lectures about settling down and having a more “serious” career than high school coach and gym teacher. April reluctantly agrees, but when dinner turns into a weekend trip, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what’s been just for show. But when the weekend ends, so must their fake relationship.

As summer begins, Faire returns to Willow Creek, and April volunteers for the first time. When Mitch’s family shows up unexpectedly, April pretends to be Mitch’s girlfriend again…and it doesn’t feel so fake anymore. Despite their obvious connection, April insists they’ve just been putting on an act. But when there’s the chance for something real, she has to decide whether to change her plans—and open her heart—for the kilt-wearing hunk who might just be the love of her life.


One

The card wasn't addressed to me.

I leaned an elbow on the bar and took a sip of my hard cider. It was happy hour at Jackson's, but I wasn't happy. I wasn't happy at all. And this drink wasn't changing anything. The card still lay there on the bar. It was still addressed to my daughter, Caitlin, and it was still from her father. The man who'd wanted nothing to do with her since the day she was born, or in any of the eighteen years after that. It was hard to believe that even after all this time, his handwriting could strike my heart the way it did. Back in the day, that handwriting had covered pages and pages of love letters. Little notes we'd leave each other on Post-its on the bathroom mirror or near the coffee maker.

Then our birth control had failed, barely a year into our marriage. The marriage itself had failed not long after that. The last time I'd seen Robert's handwriting had been when he'd signed the divorce agreement, terminating his parental rights. Rights that he'd freely, almost eagerly, given up.

Why the hell was he writing to Caitlin now?

Like poking at a bruise, I flipped the card open again.

Caitlin,

I know I haven't been there for you. But I want you to know how very proud of you I am. Graduation from high school is an important milestone in anyone's life. As you move on to greater things, I want you to know that if you ever need anything from me, all you have to do is ask.

With love from your father,

Robert Daugherty

I almost wanted to laugh. If you ever need anything from me . . . How about eighteen years of back child support? That would be a start. He couldn't even stick a lousy twenty-dollar bill in the card.

Our daughter had turned out great, no thanks to him. Caitlin was a smart, funny, respectful young woman and I couldn't be more proud of her. But that had absolutely nothing to do with Robert, who in the end had been little more than a sperm donor. What the hell was he thinking, getting in touch now and trying to do a victory lap as a father? Fuck that. And fuck him.

I stared at his name, wishing my eyes could burn a hole through this cheap card stock. I'd been April Daugherty once, for roughly one and a half of my forty years. And if we'd stayed married, my daughter would have been Caitlin Daugherty instead of Caitlin Parker. I thought, not for the first time, about those two hypothetical Daugherty women, and the life they might have had.

Would Caitlin Daugherty have had an easier time of things? Would April D and Caitlin D have worried a little less about affording college, applied for fewer scholarships and grants? I'd sat up a lot of nights with Caitlin P, our laptops side by side at the dining room table, filling out forms late into the night. At the time it had felt very feminist, very "us against the world," the way most of our lives together had been. But Caitlin Daugherty would have had a provider for a father. Maybe she would have had to fight a little less. Maybe-

"What're you drinking?"

Oh. I glanced up and to my right, squinting at the guy in a gray business suit who'd taken up residence on the barstool next to mine. He didn't look familiar, and Willow Creek, Maryland, was the kind of town where everyone at least looked familiar. He was probably on his way down to DC-he had that Beltway look about him. Salt-and-pepper hair with a nice expensive-looking cut, pale eyes, a decent smile. Of course, one strike against him was that he'd just hit on a strange woman at a bar.

I gave him a friendly-but-not-too-friendly smile. "I'm good, thank you." There. Pleasant enough, but not encouraging.

He didn't take the hint. "No, I mean it." He moved his stool a little closer to mine, not quite in my personal space but close enough. I slipped the card back into the envelope and slid it onto my other side. He peered at my drink. "Whatcha got there, a beer? Probably a light beer, huh? I can go for that." He beckoned at the bartender. I wasn't a person who hung out at bars, but I came here enough that I knew her name was Nikki, and she knew I liked the cider on draft.

"It's not a beer," I said.

He wasn't listening. "Another drink for the lady. Light beer. And I'll have one too." His take-charge voice was grating. Maybe he'd sound commanding in a government building in DC, but in a town like this he sounded like a dick.

Nikki raised her eyebrows at me, and I shook my head, covering the top of my glass with the palm of my hand. "I'm good. But he can have whatever he wants." I probably should have been flattered. Not bad for someone who'd recently hit forty, right? But I was itching to be left alone. I wanted to be back down that rabbit hole with my thoughts, not dodging advances from Mr. Wannabe Lobbyist over here.

Nikki brought his drink and he held it up in my direction, expectant. What the hell. I raised mine too, and we clinked glasses in a half-hearted toast.

"So tell me . . ." He leaned in even closer, and it took everything I had to not lean away. I had my best resting-bitch face on, but this guy wasn't taking the hint. "This can't be your typical Friday night. Hanging out all by yourself in a bar like this?"

Engaging him in conversation was a bad idea, I knew, but he wouldn't go away. "Nothing wrong with a bar like this."

"Well yeah, but surely there's something else you'd rather be doing . . . ?" He raised an eyebrow suggestively, and I pressed my lips together. Jesus Christ, this guy was annoying.

"Hey, April, there you are!" Another voice, deep and masculine, boomed from my left, but this time my irritation melted away. I knew this voice. Everyone in Jackson's knew this voice. Mitch Malone was an institution-not only in the bar, but in the whole town. Beloved of the kids of Willow Creek High, where he taught gym and coached damn near everything, and beloved of most adults with a pulse who enjoyed the sight of him in a kilt every summer at the Willow Creek Renaissance Faire. Mitch was good friends with my younger sister, Emily, so by default he'd become a friend of mine too.

"Mitch. Hey . . ." I'd barely turned my head in his direction before Mitch's arm slid around my waist, tugging me half off the stool and against his side.

"What the hell, babe? You didn't order me a beer yet?" He followed up the question with a kiss that landed somewhere between my cheek and my temple, and I had absolutely no idea which to respond to first: the kiss, or being called "babe." I looked up at Mitch with narrowed eyes, about to give him shit for at least one of those things, when his eyes caught mine and one lid dropped halfway in the ghost of a wink. Ah. Okay. I could play along.

"I didn't know when you were getting here, honey." I punctuated that last word with my hand on his cheek, landing a little harder than was strictly necessary. It wasn't a slap, but it was definitely a warning. Keep your hands where they are, mister. "Your beer could've gotten warm, and I know how much you hate that."

"You're too good to me, you know that?" Mitch's bright blue eyes laughed down into mine, and the curve of his smile felt good against my palm. A dimple even appeared under my thumb and I snatched my hand back, keeping the movement casual. I'd been a breath away from stroking that dimple with the pad of my thumb, and that was getting a little too into character.

"Much better than you deserve. I know." Our smiles to each other were full of manufactured affection, yet it all felt so . . . comfortable. In a way that talking with Mr. Gray Suit hadn't.

Mitch stepped closer to me, fitting his body against mine, then glanced over at Mr. Gray Suit as though he'd just noticed him. "Hey, man. You need something?" His voice was light, but his arm tightened around my waist in a not-so-subtle message to the guy on the other side of me. Back off.

Mr. Gray Suit got the message. "Nope. I was uh . . . yeah. Y'all have a good night." He fumbled for his wallet, then moved down to the end of the bar, where Nikki was waiting to cash him out. She glanced over at us, shaking her head. I could relate. I shook my head a lot when I dealt with Mitch too.

Speaking of . . . now that we were alone, I pulled out of Mitch's embrace. "What was that all about?"

"What?" He picked up my glass, sniffed at it, then put it down with a grimace. "I was helping you out. That guy was practically drooling down your shirt."

I scoffed. "I had it handled. I don't need your help."

"You don't have to." Mitch shrugged. "Needing and wanting are two different things, you know. You can want something and not need it."

"Fine." I tilted my head back, finishing off my cider. "Maybe I don't want it either."

Mitch looked up at me through his lashes, and for a split second I forgot to breathe. Damn. Was this what women saw when he really turned his attention to them? I didn't think of Mitch in that way. I mean, sure the man was gorgeous. Well over six feet tall, his physique spoke of lots of quality time spent with a squat rack, and combined with his golden-blond hair and stunningly blue eyes, he looked like someone who had hit the genetic lottery. He had a smile you wanted to bask in, and a jawline you wanted to run a hand down to see if it felt as sharp as it looked.

Something must have shown on my face, because his expression shifted. He lifted an eyebrow, and this was nothing like when Mr. Gray Suit did it a few minutes ago. I caught my bottom lip between my teeth, worrying the skin, and Mitch's eyes darkened.

"Liar," was all he said, but his voice had a roughness to it that I'd never heard before. The air between us was charged with electricity, and for the space of a few heartbeats I couldn't breathe. Worse, I didn't want to. I bit down on my bottom lip harder so I didn't do anything stupid. Like bite down on his bottom lip.

Then I forced out a laugh, breaking the spell. "Okay, whatever." I picked up my glass, and dammit, it was empty. I put it down again.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" Mitch leaned an elbow on the bar. "You're not a drink-alone-at-the-bar kind of person."

"How do you know what kind of person I am?" But he just looked at me with his eyebrows raised, and I had to admit he was right. I wasn't that kind of person. I put my hand over the card and, after a deep breath, slid it across the bar in his direction. He flipped it open, his face darkening as he read.

"Her father?" He closed the card and handed it back to me. "I didn't realize he was in the picture."

"He's not." I stuck the card in my purse; I'd had enough of Robert for one night.

"But he wants to be, huh?" Mitch gave me a questioning look. "What does Caitlin think about it?"

"I don't know," I said wearily. "She's still deciding. That's one reason she showed me the card. I think she wants my input." He nodded, and I hated the pity in his eyes. I didn't want pity. "Let me get you that beer." I leaned over the bar, catching Nikki's attention to order a beer for him and a second cider for me. "The least I can do for helping me get rid of that creep."

Mitch accepted the beer with a thoughtful look. "You know, if you really want to pay me back, I know a way you can help me out."

"Oh yeah?" I picked up my cider. That first, icy cold sip was always the best. "How's that?"

He didn't meet my eyes. "Be my girlfriend."

I sputtered through my sip of cider. "Be your what?" I waited for his serious expression to break, for him to give me a grin and turn the whole thing into some kind of innuendo.

But instead he grabbed one of the menus on the bar. "Let's get some food. Want a pizza or something? My treat."

My immediate instinct was to say no. I'd been out for an hour or so now, and I was already starting to itch to be home. I'd had enough peopling for one night. But there was something about Mitch that made me want to stay. He didn't seem quite like himself, and I didn't want to leave him on his own.

"Sure," I said. "As long as you leave off the pineapple."

Mitch snorted. "Like I'd do that to a perfectly good pizza."

I smiled and leaned over his shoulder to look at the menu in his hand instead of getting my own. We agreed on one with a lot of meat on it and moved with our drinks to a booth. We sat in silence for a little bit while I waited for Mitch to elaborate on this whole "girlfriend" thing, but he didn't seem inclined to.

"So . . ." I said.

"So . . ." He took a pull off his beer, then cleared his throat. "How's . . . how's your leg?"

"My leg?" That was quite a subject change. My car accident was three years ago-not ancient history, but long enough that it wasn't constantly on my mind. My leg had been all but shattered then. Now it ached a little when it was about to rain. "Fine," I finally said. "I mean, I pretty much had to give up running, but it's fine. So why do you need me to be your girlfriend?" May as well be the one to rip off the Band-Aid, if Mitch wasn't going to do it.

He chuckled around another sip of beer. "I phrased that wrong."

"So you don't want me to be your girlfriend."


Excerpted from Well Matched by Jen DeLuca. Copyright © 2021 by Jen DeLuca. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.





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