It was too doggone warm for April in Montana. The sun beat through Cody Matthew’s shirt and the hair at the back of his neck grew moist with sweat. He wiped it away with his shirtsleeve and absorbed the few beads about to run down his forehead as well. Crouching down and picking up the hammer again, he pounded nails into the bottom of the barn wall and wished like hell Uncle Brand had a nail gun. But his uncle wasn’t into newfangled gizmos. He did things the old school way, claiming working hard with the tools God gave him, made a man out of him. Maybe there was some truth to that. Uncle Brand’s life was simple. He was content running a small cattle ranch and living off his pension. Code couldn’t fault him, the old man was happy. And his uncle had put a roof over Code’s head most of his life. The Lucky B was home to him.
Too late, he heard footsteps behind him. Hell, he was losing his touch. He swiveled from his crouched position eyeballing a pair of fancy tan snakeskin boots. His gaze traveled up slowly finding the top of the boots were attached to shapely legs that could give a man a heart attack. He’d know those legs anywhere. “Hello, Hayley.”
“Cody, hi. It’s good to see you. How’d you know it was me?”
Christ. He’d seen all of her movies and reluctantly admitted that Hayley Dawn O’Malley had acting chops, but his knowledge of one of her most valuable assets came firsthand. He remembered the one and only time he’d touched her legs. Back then, he’d vowed he’d never forget the smooth, silken skin under his palms and he never had.
She wore shorts. Black, hip-hugging designer shorts with silver trim that matched her blouse in some intricate pattern. A thin jeweled purse was clutched in her hand. His gaze drifted further up until he made eye contact with green eyes that reminded him of a meadow at sunrise, all bright and fresh and new on a face that was pretty as ever. “Just a hunch. I’d heard you were in town.”
He rose and straightened, coming to stand half a foot taller than her. “Sorry about your grandma, Marie. She was a fine woman.”
Hayley turned to the pasture, trying to hide her pain. And as she moved, coppery lights shimmered under the sun on her long auburn hair. It was wavy and wild as ever. She looked natural, not that blown straight style she wore in her films.
“Thank you. How’s Uncle Brand?”
“Still kickin’ up a fuss. Doing great.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“You here to see him?”
She narrowed her eyes in a long-lashed squint and smiled. “No, silly. I’m here to see you. But I would like to see Brand later on.”
Code grabbed a kerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face and hands. He and Hayley had been friends once, and then things had gotten heated between them, but that was ancient history.
“You look good, Code,” she said. “I haven’t seen you since high school. You didn’t make my grandma’s funeral.”
“I wasn’t living here, or I would’ve come.” He’d come back to Marietta five months ago. And he’d settled into ranch living like spots on a Dalmatian.
“I heard you were living in Texas, after your time in the Army.”
“That’s right.” Two tours in Afghanistan and after he’d been discharged, he and his buddy Victor Feliz opened up Code First, an elite security and protection agency. It was small operation but enough to keep both of them busy full time. The work had been a satisfying way to put his military training to good use.
She nibbled on her lower lip. “Code, is there some place we can go to talk, out of the sun?”
She eyed the barn, but no. He wasn’t taking her into his uncle’s barn. He didn’t want those memories to surface. The last time they went in there…
She had him curious though. What did she have to talk to him about anyway? “Would you like to go into the house?”
“Is Uncle Brand in there?”
“I’d like to speak to you privately.”
“Follow me,” he said, brushing by her and picking up the scent of something exotic. Her perfume lingered in his nostrils as he led her toward a tall shadowy pine. She picked a spot on the sparse grass and planted her butt down. Surprised, he grinned. Hayley always did make his head spin. He’d figured she was too darn privileged and pampered to take a seat on the ground without the benefit of something luxuriously soft under her bottom. Guess he’d been wrong. Really, looking at her now, she did seem far from the willowy, sleek movie star she’d become since leaving Montana some eleven years ago.
“Sit, Code. Don’t be afraid. I won’t bite.”
“I’d sit faster if I thought you would,” he mumbled.
And she chuckled, a bright burst of amusement that he remembered so well.
“I don’t recall you being a flirt,” she said, as he took a seat a few feet from her. “It was sorta what I liked best about you.”
“Was I flirting? It’s been so long, I can’t remember.” He’d liked a lot of things about Hayley back then, and had known not to get involved with her. She’d left a string of heartsick boys in her wake, but, in the end, it wasn’t her beauty, free spirit, or sassy mouth that broke him down. Nope. It wasn’t any of that.
“You can’t tell me you’re not attached to anyone? Code Matthews, the football star, the straight A student who was bound for bigger and better things than Marietta had to offer.”
“Let’s just say, I’m not looking for anything but some peace right now. I’m content on the Lucky B.”
She studied him a moment and he could tell her mind was going a zillion miles an hour. “Gotcha.”
“So, you gonna tell me why we’re sitting under this tree, having this conversation?”
Leaning in toward him, her face flooded in emotion and her eyes held unshed tears. “I need your help, Cody,” she whispered fiercely.
It was the last thing he expected. The rising star, winner of an Academy Award right out of the chute, had the world at her feet at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. She’d left Marietta to grab the brass ring, right after he’d fallen for her, and she’d never really looked back. So what in hell could she possibly need from him?
“No, I really do. You’re the only one I can trust. Please hear me out.”
Hell, it was a like a flashback to their teen years. Back in the day, Hayley Dawn had always needed saving in some way or another. They’d been friends first in high school and he’d been a real sucker, falling for her pleas for help. And he’d always come to her rescue. Not because she was pretty, or persuasive or even desperate. No, he’d always been there for her, because above all else, she trusted him. The girl he’d known hid her pain and heartache like a pro to the outside world. She was good at covering up and concealing her true feelings. Except with him. She trusted him enough to open up and show him her vulnerable side. He knew the girl behind the mask. The wild girl, who’d stay out late, get in trouble, and play fast and loose with the rules. And because of her faith in him, he could never refuse Hayley Dawn what she needed. So now, as she faced him with those amazing, clear trusting eyes, he was almost afraid to ask what the heck she needed from him this time.
She pulled a breath into her lungs as if to steady her nerves and the tension on her face all but disappeared. “Thanks. Okay, well, I’m here in Marietta to see to my grandmother’s house. It’s in pretty bad shape and needs a lot of work. Grandma willed it to me, but I don’t think I have the heart to sell it. My mother said she’d close up the house and put it on the market, but I wasn’t about to let that woman touch so much as a lace doily at my grandma’s house.”
She paused to gauge his reaction. She’d never had much of a relationship with either of her parents and that was the crux of her heartache. They’d pretty much abandoned their only daughter to jet set around the globe, leaving her in her grandmother’s care. And her grandmother had taken her in and provided a good home for Hayley. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to do this one special thing for her grandma. Hayley may have given the older woman trouble as a girl, but those two had loved each other fiercely.
“Go on,” he said.
“I’m in between films right now and I…well, I needed a break. I thought I could escape my celebrity and spend a month here. You know, check in on old friends, have easy dinners, go to a Marietta High ball game or two. I really need that. It is baseball season, right?”
He nodded. “So what does any of this have to do with me?”
Her face pinched tight and she reached into her purse. “Yesterday, I found this on my grandmother’s doorstep.”
She handed him a baggie with a note inside, lying next to a wilted black rose. The note read—I’m watching you.
She stared at the note. “I get strange things all the time from fans, but this is different. This sounds like a threat and it got to my grandmother’s home. It’s not a secret I’m here, but it’s also not common knowledge. I’ve kept a low profile and sorta snuck out of L.A.”
“Yet, I knew you were here. It’s a small town. People talk.”
“It feels like a stalker, Code.” She shivered.
“You must have bodyguards, Hayley. Use them.”
“I gave them the month off. I didn’t think I’d need anyone while I was here. I just—” Tears formed in her eyes and she choked up. She was a good actress, but God, he was pretty sure this was the real deal. Hayley was hurting. “It gets tiring, you know. All the attention. No privacy, no peace. When I left town, I never expected my life to be like this.” She used the back of her hand to wipe at her tears. “I just wanted to come home, and be n-normal for just a little while, you know? I’m twenty-eight years old and feeling burnt out.”
Wow. Was she in over her head? Had the Hollywood scene and stardom already gotten to her? She was, after all, a small town girl who’d made it big straight away. The new life she barreled into wasn’t easy and she worked hard. She had a string of movies, and God only knew what else was expected of her. Something tugged at Code’s heart, that old familiar protective instinct that had caused him nothing but trouble. But he couldn’t afford that now. Things were different. He wasn’t the same old Cody Matthews who’d tear down buildings for her. “Hayley, show this to the sheriff. He’ll know what to do.”
“But…Cody, I was hoping you would help me. You have the background, the military training. I want to hire you for the time I’m here. I don’t trust too many people, but I know I can trust you.”
“I’m not in the bodyguard business anymore. I’m not equipped to handle this.” It was an out and out lie.
He knew the protocol. He knew how to handle this. But he was through protecting people, through having people put their lives in his hands. He couldn’t go back. Especially not with Hayley. They had brief history, but history nonetheless, and that was never a good idea. He couldn’t cave, not now. Not when he still wasn’t finished punishing himself for the pain he’d caused. Failure wasn’t in his DNA, yet he had failed in the worst possible way and he still wasn’t over the shock and loss.
Hayley gestured to the ranch with arms outstretched. “You’re doing mindless work here, Cody. Ranching isn’t for you.”
That was exactly why he liked it. He didn’t have to think, to plan, to worry about every step he took, every strategy he developed to keep his clients safe. “I say it is.”
“You won’t help me?”
He shook his head. “I can’t do it, Hayley. Trust me, you don’t want my help. That note could be a prank. Most likely it is, but you shouldn’t take it lightly. See the sheriff. Hire someone if you have to. Have them check out the house. Now, I’ve got to get back to work.” He rose and offered his hand to help her up.
The second his fingers covered hers, a spark jolted him right back to high school. He stood just inches away and old feelings weighed in like a load of bricks. A moment passed between them and he tried not to let her sparkling eyes sway his decision.
“I always felt safe when I was with you,” she said quietly.
He closed his eyes. “That was a long time ago. Things are different now. I’ve gotta go. Maybe I’ll see you around. Goodbye, Hayley.”
He pivoted and walked off, leaving her standing under the tree with a defeated look on her face. It gnawed at his gut, but he didn’t stop walking. For her sake and for his, he kept on going but he could feel the burn of her gaze at his back.
The man he once was would never turn away a woman in trouble. He’d bet not too many men refused a request made by beautiful, sexy Hayley Dawn O’Malley. Once upon a time, he’d been one of them.
Yet there was no doubt in his mind.
She was better off without him.
Code walked into the empty Marietta High football stadium shoulder to shoulder with his one-time teammates, Nick Palotay, Gavin Clark, and Colt Ewing. They’d been tight once—all four of them—the offensive line of the Marietta Grizzlies. It was like old home week in Marietta with Hayley back in town, too. Since he’d seen her three days ago, she hadn’t been far from his mind. Charismatic, Hayley had that extra something that didn’t go unnoticed and maybe that was why most of the girls in school envied her. She had looks, talent, and an outgoing personality. Most of the boys dropped to their knees when she was around. She’d rebuked a few, dated many, and, because she was the talk of the school, she’d garnered a tarnished reputation that would’ve downed most girls. Not Hayley. She rolled with the punches.
As they marched past the fifty yard line, Gavin spoke up. “Hey, this is where Palotay fumbled the ball and lost us the homecoming game.”
Everyone but Nick grinned. “You’re losing your mind, Clark. Everyone knows dropping Code’s pass in the red zone lost us that game. We would’ve scored if not for that.”
“Maybe if the pass was catchable, I would’ve grabbed it,” Gavin said.
“That spiral was dead on, and you know it,” Code said in his own defense, unable to wipe the smile from his face. His football days had been the best. And the friendships that remained had lasted far beyond high school graduation.
“Yeah, and Ewing didn’t help, running for minus yards that night.”
“Maybe if I’d had some help from the offensive line.” Colt nudged back.
All four of them sealed their traps when Kenneth Downey stepped onto the field on the one yard line. Their coach, retired now, stood arm in arm with his wife. Helen Downey had never missed a game. She’d been the ultimate football coach’s wife, showing up with homemade snacks for the team after a brutal practice, cheering the team on during the game, and being a staunch and ready supporter of her husband, even when the chips were down. It was no surprise Helen was here today.
Once they reached the Downeys in front of the goal post, Coach D walked up to shake their hands, one by one. “Thanks for coming, boys. M-means a lot.” The coach cleared his throat, trying to keep from choking up.
Helen didn’t stand on ceremony. She had a smile and an awaiting hug for all of them. When her arms came around Code’s shoulders, suddenly he was transported back in time to those Friday nights when nothing in the world mattered but the game. And the sweet, familiar scent of vanilla wafted in the air, reminding him of Mrs. D’s delicious sugar cookies.
“You boys are making my day,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for stopping your lives, some of you coming from miles away, to help us with the auction.”
“Helen’s right. There are no words that can express how deeply touched we are that all of you have agreed to do this,” the coach added.
“I think I can speak for all the men here.” Code said. “We’re happy to help out.” Not a one of them was thrilled about being auctioned off to the highest female bidder in the upcoming bachelor auction, but they’d come here in good faith for a cause near and dear to their coach’s heart. They’d never refuse Helen or Coach Downey a favor, especially one so important.
“We all remember Troy,” Code rasped. He couldn’t temper the roughness in his voice. The poor kid didn’t deserve to die. The coach’s grandson was the sixteen-year-old star running back for the Grizzlies. He’d been barreling toward the goal line, a touchdown in sight, when a tackle gone bad caused him internal injuries and trauma to his head. A snowstorm had just set in as Troy lay unconscious on the field and severe weather conditions blocked the roads for EMS. Troy had been airlifted to a hospital outside of Marietta. Those extra minutes had been critical to his survival. During the longer, treacherous flight to Bozeman, young Troy lost his life. “He was only five or six when we played for you, Coach. But we remember the little guy being our ball boy, bringing us water, helping out his granddad whenever he could on the field. He loved the game.”
“He did. That boy was our light. Helen and I are still grieving for him and we always will. But we’re both finding some peace with our ongoing efforts to raise funds for a rooftop helipad to be built at Marietta Hospital. If we’d had one a year and a half ago, maybe our grandson would still be alive today. Maybe those vital minutes would’ve made a difference. And if one patient, whether young or old, can be saved by our efforts, then it will give Helen and me some solace.” He wrapped his arm around Helen’s trim waist and both smiled sadly. “And perhaps some closure.”
Fittingly, everyone stood still in a moment of silence.
Helen stepped forward. “What better way to cap our fundraising to get this helipad built, than with Ken’s veteran team of players? All handsome boys, I might add.” Helen’s warm eyes touched on each of them. “The ladies of Marietta are very lucky. We’re so close to our monetary goals that I’m sure the Marietta Bachelor Auction will put us over the top.”
“That’s the goal boys,” Coach said. “And I have faith that you’ll all bring it home.”
“My sis, Rowan has offered to help the night of the auction,” Nick said. “She’ll be behind the scenes at Grey’s Saloon and kick us into shape. Her words, not mine.”
“That’s wonderful, Nick,” Helen said. “And I’ve convinced the coach to call the auction.”
Coach nodded. “Yeah, Helen’s certain I can do the job justice. I don’t know…we’ll see.”
Helen touched his shoulder gently. “You’ll rise to the occasion, Kenny. We have the entire community behind us.”
“If anyone can do it, it’s you, Coach D,” Colt said.
“We’ll do our best, Coach.” Gavin assured him. “We’ve put our heads together and have come up with some pretty nice dates for the winners.”
Code’s plan was pretty simple. Offer a weekend date of the winner’s choice. Uncle Brand had finagled the widow Benedict to bid on Code. Violet was worth a small fortune and had always been a staunch supporter of the Grizzlies. Uncle Brand said all Code would have to do was give the older lady a nice dinner and talk up some football with her. She wouldn’t expect much in return for a generous donation. Code liked the sound of that. The last thing he needed right now was a female complication in his life. He didn’t date or have a spare thought for pleasing a woman anymore. He’d been married to his job until things went south.
And he liked the spunky widow. Back in the day, Violet Benedict would wait outside the locker room with her grandniece Mindy Sue before the games to give him a high five and wish him luck. Mindy Sue was the apple of her aunt’s eye, a girl that Code had taken under his wing and protected from the mean girls and bullies in school. Mindy was mentally slow, and probably shouldn’t have been mainstreamed into Marietta High, but when Code was around, nobody messed with her and Violet had always appreciated that.
Secretly, Code always thought Violet was keen on Uncle Brand. But as sweet as the woman was, his uncle wasn’t having any of it. Which was a damn shame. His uncle was too set in his ways to contend with a female in his life anymore.
“Well, then. It’s settled. Do you boys have any questions?” Coach asked.
“No, sir,” Code replied. He glanced at his friends and gained their nods of agreement. “I think we’ve got it covered. We’ll be at Grey’s Saloon tomorrow night, right on time.”
“I can’t thank you enough for doing this in Troy’s memory and for all of Marietta.” On an afterthought, the coach added, “It’s great seeing you boys on this field again. Gosh, those were exciting days.”
Code had to agree. And once they’d said goodbye to their coach and walked off the field, he turned to his friends in the parking lot. “I don’t know about you all, but I could use a drink.”
“I’m buying,” Gavin said.
“Well, if you’re buying, then I’m in,” Colt said.
Nick grinned. “Then what are we waiting for?”
And the four one-time Grizzlies climbed into Code’s SUV and he drove off.
Just like old times.
The big house at the edge of town was cold and lonely without Grandma Marie. Hayley had never lived here alone. Grandma was always in the house cooking like mad, creating meals off the top of her head. God forbid, she would use a cookbook. But her grandmother’s meals always turned out top-notch. Heck, Hayley had had meals cooked by a chef that didn’t compare to her grandmother’s. She missed her and felt guilty for leading too busy a life to visit her more often. There was always something pressing that needed her attention, always a movie or an interview or a magazine spread that kept her away from Marietta. Now, it was too late.
She walked into her grandmother’s bedroom and the scent of roses filled her nostrils. Breathing in the flowery fragrance soothed her spirit a little and reminded her of her youth, when Grandma Marie would come into her bedroom to check on her at night.
“I’m okay, Grandma. Go back to sleep,” she’d say.
Her grandmother was probably the only person on earth who cared about her. She was her rock, the one woman she could count on to truly love her. Sadness swept through her heart. Wouldn’t all of the movie-going public be surprised to learn that young, talented Hayley Dawn O’Malley, felt unloved and unwanted, most of her life. Except for Grandma Marie.
As she opened the closet door, bittersweet memories rushed in. Her grandmother’s housecoats were still hanging up, the ones she’d practically lived in daily. If they went out in public, Hayley made her put on a dress and Marie would complain all the way to town. Hayley smiled at the memory. Marie O’Malley was a frugal woman, who didn’t want much, just a home to live in, a garden to plant, a meal to cook, and she was happy. Unlike Hayley, who was always searching for something…more.
Something she had yet to find.
Something that not even fame and fortune could deliver.
The bedroom window rattled and Hayley jumped. “Oh!”
This house was creakier than she’d remembered. She was still spooked over that note left on her doorstep the other day. And still quite surprised that Cody Matthews refused to give her the time of day. She’d thought she could count on him for his support.
Over the years, she’d thought about him more and more often. He wasn’t the one who got away. He was the one she’d thrown away and now he didn’t want to have any part of her.
Funny, how things turned out. Of all the men she’d dated, of all the guys landing at her feet, the one guy who’d stuck in her mind all these years had been Cody. And his reaction to seeing her again had fallen flat. It wasn’t at all what she’d expected.
She gave her grandmother’s belongings one last glance and then closed the closet door. She wasn’t ready yet to rid the house of grandma’s things. She had time to sort through everything and make decisions. Today, she wasn’t going to think about that.
Someone knocked at the front door.
She stilled, held her breath as she glanced at her watch. Gosh, where had the time gone? It was time for a visit with her friend. She bounded out of the room and down the stairs.
The door creaked as she opened it. “Rowan! Hi.”
“Hayley, it’s good to see you!”
They embraced, hugging tight for a few seconds.
It felt so good to see a familiar face. “I’m glad you came. I can really use the company.”
“I know, I heard it in your voice when we spoke on the phone. Closing up your grandmother’s house has got to be hard. I know how much she meant to you.”
Hayley sighed. How good it felt to have Rowan here. “It’s harder than I thought it would be. Come in. We’ll have some coffee or tea, or would you rather have a cold drink?”
“Thanks, sounds perfect. Soda is fine.”
Hayley led Rowan into the kitchen. “Have a seat. I’ll get it.”
Rowan sat down at Grandma’s long, narrow maple wood table and waited while Hayley poured root beer into two, tall glasses. “You’re the only other person I know who loves root beer as much as I do.”
“Remember when we’d share a root beer float once a week after journalism class? We were quite the big spenders.”
“Yeah, of course I remember.” Rowan was the only female friend Hayley had at the time. Both were outgoing and a bit on the wild side. Hayley and Rowan had hit it off instantly in high school. “I’ve been meaning to call you, Ro. I’m sorry I didn’t thank you properly for helping me with my grandmother’s funeral. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
“You thanked me.”
“But not enough. It meant a lot to me to see a friendly face. Most of my grandmother’s friends are gone, and some of the people who showed up, only wanted to…” She chewed on her lower lip. She didn’t want to come off unkind or self-absorbed. But since her fame, people in general treated her differently now.
“To see you? I totally get that. You’re a huge star, but most people truly did show up to pay their respects to your grandmother.”
“Well, you were there for me, Rowan. You helped me make the funeral arrangements in a quick hurry. I had to dash off right after the service and I didn’t say the things I wanted to say to you. I appreciated what you did for me more than you can imagine.”
“You gave your grandmother a loving send off, Hayley.”
“I hope so.” Goose bumps ran up and down her arms. “It’s weird, you know. Not having her here. It doesn’t seem right. And the house is sorta spooky without her.”
“It’s old and has a personality of its own. But it was your home for years.”
“I know, it’s just different now.” She shrugged and didn’t want to put a damper on Rowan’s visit. “So, how’s it going at the Copper Mountain Courier? Do you love reporting?”
“Yep, I do. It’s great. I cover the sports beat and hope to branch out into other areas as I polish up my skills.”
“I bet you’re good at it.”
“I hope so. I really love what I do.”
“And look at you, Hayley. I still can’t get over what an amazing career you have.”
Hayley had to stop and think about the choices she’d made. She had a film career now, something she seemed destined for, but with it came an enormous burden. No privacy, for one, and never really knowing who her friends were. Being home meant not having to face another PR meeting, or interview, or press junket. Being home was what she needed right now to unwind and revitalize. She’d been going at breakneck speed for too long. But she wasn’t going to complain to Rowan or anyone else. It was the life she’d pursued and with her success came some drawbacks, but no one ever wanted to hear about that. The perception was that her life had to be perfect. Why wouldn’t it be? “Yeah, things are going pretty well, but I’m still happy to have some time home. It’s a little break.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.”
They sipped root beer and then Hayley put out a plate of cookies. “Oatmeal chocolate chip?”
“I think I will.” Rowan grabbed one and sank her teeth in. “Oh, these are so yummy.”
“I made them this morning. I used to help my grandmother bake after school. I remembered the recipe. She never wrote anything down.”
“I remember that.” Rowan took another bite of her cookie. “You’ve done her proud.”
She chuckled. “So, what are you doing tonight?” Rowan asked. “Have any big plans?”
“Me? Nothing much. Want to have dinner together? My treat, or we can stay in and I’ll cook.”
“Actually, I have a better idea. I think you’ll like it. Grey’s Saloon is holding the Marietta Bachelor Auction tonight. Every female under the age of seventy is going and then some. I’m going to be helping the guys put themselves together before they go out onto the chopping block. It’s big news all over town, I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it.”
“I haven’t been out much since I’ve been here.”
“Well, I’d love for you to come. It’s a fundraiser for a worthy cause. My brother Nick is one of the bachelors. And you know most of the other guys, too. They all played for the Marietta Grizzlies. Coach D’s boys.”
“Coach D’s team?” Hayley’s heart began to race. It couldn’t be. “Oh yeah, who else?”
“Gavin Clark, Colt Ewing, and Code Matthews.”
Cody was going to be auctioned off? Hayley couldn’t keep her eyes from bugging out. She took a giant gulp of air.
“It should be fun, Hayley. We can meet up and have a few drinks together tonight.”
“Oh, I’d love that,” she replied, her mind clicking away as she nodded her head.
There was no way in heaven she’d miss this event.
Not when a second chance with Cody Matthews was staring her in the face.
End of Excerpt