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“What is that awful noise?” Mona Perez pushed her hair away from her face and hit at her pink satin pillow. She checked the dainty Victorian clock on the nightstand and squinted through the thick hair that fell back over her eyes.
Six a.m. on a Saturday. Something inhuman grinded and roared outside her apartment over the Falling Leaves Boutique. Blossom, Texas, was usually quiet this time of morning, but that roaring and chopping and grinding sounded as if a giant alligator had come out of the river like a Texas-sized Godzilla.
Pushing back the salmon-colored floral comforter, she grabbed her baby-blue cashmere robe and trudged to the windows overlooking the woods surrounding Falling Blossoms Inn’s carriage house. Now the Falling Leaves Boutique. She designed wedding gowns and had a full inventory of women’s fashions, which she showcased in the boutique. Mona fancied this quiet, peaceful life as compared to when she’d been in New York, running through Mood Fabrics while she’d tried to get through design school, running for the subway while she’d tried to get back to the dorm-like apartment where she lived with three other girls. Always running. She could never be sure she’d been running toward something or away from everything.
But, right now, she stood and listened, wishing for the peace that would let her rest.
She’d have to open up shop in a few hours—but first, to find out what was happening in her usually quiet sanctuary. The roaring monster groaned and thrashed, the sound of cracking trees and shifting gears grating on her tired nerve endings.
Pulling back the vanilla-colored sheers to open the plantation shutters, Mona yawned and peered out into what had once been a vast open lot full of old oaks, wild honeysuckle, wisteria, and a natural underbrush. Located near the vast Falling Blossoms property where her friend Sarina Gabriel Dunmore now owned and operated the historic inn, this little thicket had always been Mona’s place of refuge. She loved walking along the worn trail the locals had carved over the years. It followed Blossoms Springs, a lovely tributary from the nearby Guadalupe River and a popular tourist attraction for tubing.
But on this November morning, that beastly noise had probably woken up everyone staying at the inn this weekend.
A winter sun shot out over the woods, and then she saw the big yellow machine that had woken her from a deep sleep. A bulldozer, a digging-and-tearing-down machine that worked back and forth like a dragon stomping across the now-broken and torn trees and heavy, trampled brush.
Then it hit her. “They’re clearing away my woods.”
Grabbing her phone, Mona was about to text Sarina and her other friend, Kayla Burton, who owned and managed the Falling Waters Café on the other side of the property. Soon to be Kayla Burton Collins, since she was engaged to fellow chef Holt Collins. Trying to ignore the stab of jealousy regarding their upcoming Christmas wedding, Mona needed to vent to her friends, even if it was still early.
The one day she’d decided to sleep in after working late finishing a wedding gown, that brutally loud monster had woken her. When the dozer lifted a big tree limb and dropped it like a toothpick against the brush, her building shook.
Forgetting the text, she shouted, “That’s it! I’m going out there.”
Dressing in warm leggings, boots, and a leather jacket, Mona ran a brush through her hair and rushed down the back stairs to the private courtyard pergola behind her boutique. Prancing across the path that tourists and locals alike used as a walking trail, she stared up at the annoying machine and finally saw a human operating it with all the intensity of an invading general. The man wore a big wool cap and a heavy khaki work jacket and seemed oblivious to the horrid chaos he’d created.
Mona stomped in front of the menacing machine with big metal teeth and held up a hand.
The man looked up then stopped the machine. The world went silent, and she breathed a sigh of relief. But that relief ended when the driver took off his wool cap and hopped down onto the ground he’d destroyed.
“Mona Lisa Perez,” he said with a lopsided grin. “We meet again.”
Mona silently groaned and gritted her teeth. “Ryne Kilpatrick. I should have known it was you. So this is the land you said you’d bought?”
They’d met at Sarina and Drake’s fall wedding in September. He’d flirted with her across the aisle during the ceremony while they’d both stood as attendants with their friends. Then he’d danced with her at the reception, and something had changed inside Mona’s jaded system. She’d watched Sarina get married to the man of her dreams and then watched Kayla battle it out with Holt until they’d fallen in love. For a brief moment, she thought she might find that kind of happiness in her own life.
But then she’d gotten her head on straight again.
Not that he’d done anything wrong, but Ryne only reminded her of why she’d given up on dating. Too much testosterone and way too much to handle. Mona didn’t have time for a high-maintenance relationship.
And this one had to be trouble on a bulldozer.
Just because he looked too good for words didn’t make him any more charming in her eyes. Especially right now, when she was cold and without caffeine.
He was hot and he was a bad boy. That had shouted at her the minute he’d pulled up at the rehearsal dinner late and riding a Harley. With rich brown shaggy hair and cobalt-blue eyes, the man probably had a woman on every construction site.
Telling herself she wouldn’t be his next conquest, she glanced around. “Is this where the Victorian- and Tudor-style cabins are being built? The ones Drake designed?”
Ryne shook his head and gave her a sideways glance that made all the curly, rowdy hair fall around his ears. “Nope.”
Bad to the bone, and now a bone of contention all wrapped up in a woodsman-of-the-world package. And a bit tight-lipped.
“My land,” he said while he lifted his arms wide. “Looks like we’re gonna be neighbors.”
Mona blinked and wished for coffee. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m going to build my own home right here in these beautiful woods. We can visit back and forth.”
Mona wanted to wake up from this bad dream. “I’m going to put up a tall fence.”
He folded his arms across his broad chest and gave her a lazy grin, his voice turning husky. “I’ll build you a gate to my place.”
“This can’t be happening,” Mona mumbled loud enough that he had to hear her. “I need to rewind and stay asleep.”
“Look, I promise I won’t bother you,” he finally said. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
“You’re loud. You woke me up. How can I not notice you’re here?” Glaring at the construction contraption, she added, “I don’t want a new neighbor.”
He slapped his hat against his nicely worn jeans and studied her face. “You’re in a mood.” Giving her a thorough once-over, he added, “Not a morning person?”
Mona slapped her hand against her leggings in a mimic. “You woke me up on a Saturday morning, and now you’re destroying my peaceful woods. I have a right to be angry.”
“Angry? This land has been sitting undeveloped for a long time. You should be glad your quaint little town is growing.”
“I don’t handle change very well,” she admitted. “Especially at six in the morning.”
“Okay, I’m sorry I woke you up. But I’m on a tight deadline and I now own five acres of these woods. You might have to accept that and make your peace with it.”
Five acres. That meant his property would expand all the way into town and beyond. When Dunmore Development had bought up a lot of property in Blossom, she’d never dreamed this would be part of the package. Drake had helped Sarina save the estate property and renovate it, but he’d obviously cut a deal with one of his friends in this particular parcel.
Why did it have to be this friend? Why did Ryne Kilpatrick get under her usually tough skin?
She couldn’t change this situation. Drake had mentioned buying lots all near the inn. She’d never imagined any of the new homes would be close to her place of business and her cozy apartment over the shop. Why did he have to put his cabin here? Every time he’d crank that motorcycle, she’d watch him riding off into the sunset. That should bring her some comfort at least. But…instead, the image of him riding away would make her sad. She’d like to ride off into her own sunset one day.
She didn’t understand why she felt such a push-pull with the man, other than he was easy on the eye, a tall drink of water, and all those other clichés that described his type.
Stereotypical was so not her style. But then, when it came to men, Mona wasn’t sure what exactly her style was. A few bad experiences had made her standards go way too high.
Plus, she didn’t have the energy someone like Ryne would take.
Shrugging, she said, “I have to go. I have clients coming at ten.”
Ryne lifted his hand toward the café located on the other side of the big house. “Let me buy you a cup of coffee to put you in a better mood.”
“You’d put me in a better mood if you’d go away.”
“Can’t do that,” he said, moving around the machine to stand near her, the scent of earth mixed with a soapy clean tickling her nostrils. “I’m clearing the land before the Thanksgiving holiday kicks in and I start building December first.”
“What? Building during Christmas? What about the other cabins? Can’t you work on those first?”
“No, those will be about a hundred yards past the café, and Drake’s still ironing out the details on the grid. Development will begin first of the year.” He gave her a full-on flirt of a smile. “This will be my cabin. Mine and mine alone, so I want to get a head start. Should be done by February or March. I’m moving to Blossom as soon as I get it built so I can help with the construction of the Tudors and Victorians. Plus the more rustic cabins farther into the property. That will happen next year, and I’ll be involved in helping with the construction. So, yes, I’m going to be your neighbor for a long, long time.”
Mona ran a hand through her dark brown hair and gave him a glaring frown. “I’m having a nightmare.”
“Or you could be dreaming a little dream about me?”
“Your ego is showing.”
“Your grumpy is showing.”
“I’m not bringing you a welcome basket.”
He held a hand to his chest. “I’m hurt. Is that any way to treat your neighbor?” How did he manage to make every word seems so intimate?
“I can think of other ways that involve picket lines and tying myself to that monster in protest.”
“You really don’t want me here?” he asked, real disappointment in his eyes.
“I don’t want anyone here,” she retorted, her heart tripping her up. She did notice the wounded gaze and yes, her heart did a little tug of guilt. “These are my woods. Quiet and full of birds and squirrels and armadillos and butterflies. And here you come with this reptilian thing, destroying it like a conquering invader.”
“I am a conquering invader,” he said, his grin going into the high-watt zone. He moved too close to her personal space and nailed her with a cobalt stare. “Maybe I came for you.”
Mona swallowed a sudden need to touch his hair and frolic in the woods with him, then snorted to hide the heat rising up her neck. “You sure do have a lot of pick-up lines.”
Shaking his head, he said, “You have no idea.” Then he dropped the flirting act. “I have to get back to work. But that offer for coffee still stands.”
“I have to go get ready for my day,” she retorted, her anger dissipating. “And find some earplugs.”
He laughed again. “I’m sorry. Necessary part of my work.”
She nodded, her head down, as she turned and called over her shoulder, “Welcome to the neighborhood, I think.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Then he called out, “You know, any woman who puts the words armadillo and butterfly in the same sentence is a woman I’d like to get to know.”
“Ha, you are an armadillo.” Then she added in Spanish, “Excavación en la tierra.” Digger of the earth—that was him.
“And I think you are a butterfly. Mariposa.”
Great. The man could speak Spanish. Was nothing sacred anymore?
Mona gave him one last glance and did her best walk—spine lifted, chin up, and sass coming out of her pores. But her heart would not cooperate with the cool, mysterious routine she liked to pull off when she wasn’t sure about things. Fake it until you make it. That had always been her mother’s mantra.
Mona’s heart, on the other hand, had a mantra of its own—shake, rattle, and roll. Because this man was trouble with a roaring blast.
She could hear him chuckling before he chugged the monster back to life and started grinding and stomping again. But, secretly, she couldn’t stop her smile. At least she’d have someone to take out her frustrations on. He’d give as good as he got.
Whoa. Why did that make her think of long walks and more flirting?
“The world as I know it is over,” Mona texted to her friends once she was back underneath the cover of jasmine leaves surrounding the pergola.
She wasn’t sure how she felt about the sexiest man alive living next door to her.
But her heart did a shift again, as if it had been knocked off its foundation by a giant wrecking ball named Ryne.
End of Excerpt