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The handle of Autumn’s oversized canvas bag slipped down her arm as she shifted the coffee carrier holding two extra-large insulated coffee cups. That, and the sudden tug at the end of the retractable leash she gripped in her other hand, made her stumble on the brick-lined sidewalk. “Slow down, Cobie, we’re almost there.”
Cobie wasn’t listening. The dog was staring across the street, ears perked up, long tail wagging, a soft whimper reaching Autumn.
“I know, I know. We’re late. But Noah and Baxter won’t leave. I promise—I have his coffee.” Which was why they were running late. The line at Corner Brew and Bakery had been especially long this morning. Then again, it was February first. And February first meant the return of their delectable Valentine’s menu. It had barely been seven when she’d arrived and only three of their world-famous (and if they weren’t, they should be, Autumn was certain of it) strawberry cream-cheese muffins were left in the illuminated glass-front bakery case. There had still been plenty of glazed cherry pastries, vanilla and cinnamon twists with pink and red sugar crystals, berry turnovers, and fresh-baked iced Valentine’s cookies on display. But the muffins were her favorite.
Clearly, she wasn’t the only one. While waiting in line, she’d breathed in the sweet sugar and cinnamon and admired how pretty each and every treat looked and hoped there would be two muffins left by the time it was her turn. Luck had been on her side. She’d added a cookie to share, too. Plus, the required regular coffee.
Carrying their breakfasts was one thing. But she hadn’t taken into account the weight of her bag. This morning, it was overflowing with paint samples, sketchbooks, aprons, and the new line of paintbrushes she couldn’t wait to get her hands on once she opened her art studio that morning. And then there was Cobie. Her beloved rescue Lab mix knew exactly where they were going and preferred setting the pace—which was a brisk trot.
As soon as Mr. Krieger’s ancient truck cruised by—adhering to the strictly enforced thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit—Cobie was pulling them to Town Square Park.
Coffee splashing, bag swinging, Autumn sprinted to keep up.
Noah was waiting, holding the gate to the dog park wide.
“Looks like someone is happy to see me.” Noah winked, taking the coffee carrier and her canvas bag without being asked.
Baxter, all twelve pounds of brown, white, and tan patchwork fur, did a little circle around Cobie before weaving between the larger dog’s legs—his stubby tail going a mile a minute. Cobie stooped and rubbed noses with Baxter, a gentle woof escaping her dark muzzle.
“She’s happy to see him.” Autumn nodded at the two dogs greeting one another enthusiastically. “I mean, I’m sure she’s happy to see you, too.”
“Sure, thanks.” Noah chuckled. “I doubt it.”
“Aw, well I am.” Autumn gave Noah a one-armed hug. “There, better?”
“I guess. You didn’t run around me in a circle, though.”
She nudged him. “Really?” She laughed, stooping to unclip Cobie’s leash and watching the dogs’ ongoing joyful reunion. “You have to admit it, they’re adorable. I mean, look at how happy they are.”
“I’m happy, too. You have coffee.” Noah’s hazel gaze centered on the large Corner Brew and Bakery bag. “And you brought a bag.”
“I did.” She sat on the bench they’d been sharing every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for almost a year now. “It’s February first. Wait, you’ve never had a strawberry cream-cheese muffin a la Arnie. These things have been known to make taste buds explode,” she said in a singsong voice.
“That good, huh?” He sat beside her, rubbing his hands together. “Good. I’m starving.”
“Oh, did you want something? I guess I can share it with you.” She stared into the bag, feigning sadness. “They were almost sold out.”
He shook his head, leaning back against the bench. “No, no. I’m good. Coffee is all I need.” He toasted her with his coffee. “Thanks for this.”
That was Noah. A good guy. All flannel shirts, floppy dark hair, dog-and-coffee-loving good guy. If she had only brought one muffin, he’d have given it to her without hesitation. Because Noah was…Noah. Totally the sort of guy deserving his own yummy-delicious strawberry muffin. Her smile grew.
“What?” he asked, sipping his coffee.
“You honestly think I wouldn’t share with you?” She blew on her coffee. “Or make sure to bring you your very own muffin—so I don’t have to share. I had to arm-wrestle someone for it…but I won.”
Noah’s smile was back, creasing the corners of his eyes and putting a dimple in his right cheek. “My hero.”
She offered him the bag. “But we are so sharing the cookie.”
“I can work with that. Here’s to Monday.” He toasted her with his coffee again, glancing at his wristwatch as he did so. Noah had a thing for schedules—and sticking to them. All the time.
“I wasn’t that late. We still have, what, fifteen minutes?” She tapped her coffee cup against his. “Enjoy your muffin and coffee. And a very happy February first. One of my favorite months.”
He grinned. “Is it? Let me guess? Chocolate?”
“No, Valentine’s Day. And, more importantly, Cobie’s adoption day,” she argued. “And the chocolate. Plus, the town’s Valentine’s Festival is coming up. Which you know all about.” Noah had a big job—a huge job. That’s why he was back in town. He’d been contracted to restore Kilgore House—the home of the founding family of Crossvine Creek—in time for the dance that rounded out the Valentine’s Festival.
His sigh spoke volumes. So did another quick glance at his watch. He was stressed. She’d be stressed, too, if she were in his shoes. “Thirteen days and counting.”
“I have absolute faith that Kilgore House will be perfect.” The town had gone all out vetting potential contractors with extensive knowledge on restoring historical homes. Noah was not only a Crossvine Creek native, but he’d also had an impressive enough résumé to win the contract.
He nodded and gave her the first muffin, then eyed the second with real appreciation. “Anything big on your agenda?”
Her mind began racing ahead, ticking through her ever-growing laundry list of things to do when Cobie trotted by. Her dog waited for Baxter to scamper alongside her before dropping to the ground and rolling on the grass…and in the dirt.
Autumn huffed. “Apparently, a bath for Cobie.”
She sipped her coffee, laughing when Baxter sat and cocked his head, as if trying to figure out what Cobie was up to. “I know, Baxter. She’s a mess.” And she wouldn’t have her precious fur-baby any other way. “Let’s see. This morning, it’s updating the website with the classes Harley and I are teaching, then I need to restock some art supplies.” She inclined her head toward her overstuffed bag. “Oh. And the brushes, I think I told you about them? Well, I finally have them—”
“Finally?” he asked, one dark brow rising. “I gotta admit, I’m relieved to hear that.”
She nudged him. “Okay, okay. We have a busy day at the art studio—a big class and several private lessons, too. So I’m excited about the brushes—”
“No?” He shook his head, his arched brow rising higher in mock disbelief. “Really?”
“Whatever.” But she giggled. Maybe she had gushed a little too much over the edged horsehair brushes she’d been waiting on for what felt like forever. But she was passionate about her work. If he’d complained, she would have stopped. But, again, he was Noah. And the teasing light of his gaze told her he didn’t really mind her obsessing all that much. “Anyway, after restocking, I have a few private lessons and a big book club party tonight. They’ve been meeting for twelve years, can you imagine? They asked me how much wine they could bring in, so I’m expecting an interesting evening. And we’re painting—wait for it—a still life, with a stack of their favorite books and a bottle of wine. Because the wine is just as important as the books, or so I was informed when they booked the party.”
“Yeah, I’m familiar with that book club.” He glanced her way. “My mom’s in it.”
Autumn’s eyes widened. “Really?” Suddenly, she was really looking forward to tonight.
“She mentioned it last night—she called while she was out buying a yoga mat. She’s starting that this morning. Over there.” He pointed at the gazebo in the center of the park. “She’s excited. About the yoga and tonight.”
“She should be.” Autumn threw a ball for Cobie, who relinquished it to Baxter. “I’m an awesome teacher, after all.”
“I know,” he said.
It was nice, to hear him say it that way. As if it was a fact. “You can’t really say that until you take a class.”
His look of horror was comical. “Pretty sure it would take more than an amazing teacher for me to create art. More like a magician.”
She threw the ball Baxter had dropped at her feet. “So, your mom is doing yoga now. Is she going to try CrossFit, too? That’s a lot—”
“The CrossFit thing wasn’t for her. Neither was the dance aerobics or water volleyball. Now she’s on to yoga.” He shrugged again. “But she’s still taking her cooking classes and performing with her dulcimer—along with knitting scarves for various charities. And now, she’s running around getting things lined up, as well as serving on the Valentine’s Festival planning committee.”
Autumn had a vague recollection of Noah’s mother from their school days. He was three years ahead of her, so they hadn’t really interacted much then. By the time she’d graduated, he’d left for college and spent the years afterward traveling from place to place—chasing his next restoration dream project. If it hadn’t been for Baxter and Cobie, these coffee mornings probably wouldn’t have ever happened. Thankfully, their canine companions had brought them together and, for almost a year now, she and Noah had been having their dog-park-and-coffee meet-ups—long enough for her to learn a lot about Cynthia Contreras. And to become curious. The woman liked to be busy. Constantly. She was a big-hearted, never-met-a-stranger, free-spirit sort of woman who was constantly looking for something new to occupy her time.
“I can’t wait to meet her.” She paused, seeing the dip in his smile. “What’s wrong?”
He brushed the last crumbs of his muffin from his lap. “I guess I’m worried she’s taking on too much.”
Autumn spun her coffee cup slowly in her hands, considering his words. Noah’s mother was the exact opposite of her father. Where Noah’s mom was always on the go, her dad seemed cemented in his recliner with a new book or crossword puzzle. The idea of her dad getting out and doing something—anything—would make her downright giddy. Still, it did seem like Cynthia Contreras’s to-do list was on the lengthy side. Maybe too long? “If you think she’s taking on too much, you should talk to her, Noah.”
“I tried, believe me.” He shot her a long-suffering look. “She said she was fine and then not-too-politely told me to mind my own business.”
“Well, there you have it.” But she could tell he was still troubled. “So, what are you going to do?”
“Mind my own business, I guess.” He took a sip of coffee and grinned at the dogs. Baxter was tugging on the other end of Cobie’s stick. “My little guy really doesn’t get how big he is.”
Autumn laughed when Baxter pulled the stick away. “He’s fearless and mighty. Look at that.” The pint-sized dog was working overtime to drag the stick—a stick that was bigger than he was—across the yard. Cobie lay there watching, not in the least bit troubled by the loss of her stick.
“He is that.” He smiled, shaking his head as Cobie eventually followed Baxter but made no move to take the stick back. “I blame Cobie. She treats him like the alpha.”
“To her, he is.” Autumn took a bite of her muffin. An explosion of fresh strawberry, moist cake, and creamy goodness. “Oh yum…” She swallowed, moaning. “I always forget just how good these things are.”
“Not sure my taste buds exploded, but it was good.” He patted his stomach, wadding up his muffin wrapper and dropping it back into the bag.
“Don’t forget the cookie.”
He reached inside and pulled out the massive heart-shaped cookie. “Did they have a bigger one?”
“Don’t hate on the cookie—just say thank you.” She shrugged.
“Thank you.” He broke the cookie in half. “Since we’re talking parents, how is your dad?”
“That’s the question. He says he’s okay. For the most part, he acts like he’s okay. But we know better.” She stared at the muffin. “He still hasn’t picked up a paintbrush. And it’s been almost three years since Mom passed.” She glanced at Noah. “Harley and I were thinking of sprucing up his home studio. Maybe that would pique his interest? Hopefully?” Nothing had made her father as happy as painting. Nothing, except their mother. Since her mom was gone, Autumn felt it was more important than ever to get him painting again. But she and her sister, Harley, weren’t sure how to do that—how to spark his creative soul again.
Noah’s hand covered hers, his squeeze reassuring. “He’ll get there.”
“You’re right.” She squeezed back. “I just want him to be happy, you know?”
He nodded. “Parents.”
She couldn’t hold back her smile then. “Right?”
Just then, a large St. Bernard trotted across the park to sniff Baxter and his newly claimed stick. Baxter stiffened, his short tail still and his ears on high alert. Cobie watched, waiting—ready to defend her small buddy. But the St. Bernard changed course and nosed the ball away from Baxter’s collection of toys, adding a playful crouch that had Baxter running in an excited circle before grabbing the ball and running across the fenced space. Cobie and the St. Bernard followed.
Noah laughed. “You two realize he’s a fourth your weight and size, right?” he said to the dogs.
“You realize you’re talking to animals, right?” she asked, taking another bite of her muffin. “Besides, Baxter is the man. Look at him… That confidence. And swagger. He’s one cool canine.”
“Swagger?” Noah asked around a mouthful of cookie. “I don’t know about that. Baxter isn’t all that large—but he is definitely in charge.”
End of Excerpt