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Kissing a strange man wasn’t on Luna Lanza’s to-do list today.
If it had been, perhaps she would have thought twice about getting out of bed this morning—or she would have gotten out of bed faster, depending if the person happened to share the same physical specifications of one Henry Cavill. Yeah, like she’d ever be that lucky.
Not that Luna was looking for kisses. She wasn’t. And even if she were, this kiss certainly wouldn’t have quenched her thirst. Not that she was thirsty. She wasn’t. Even so, it was her first kiss since her breakup with Viggo and returning to her hometown.
The situation surrounding the whole kissing-a-stranger fiasco started when her cousin-in-law, Mia Russo, asked her to be a model for some jewelry images. While Luna was a big fan of selfies and posting to social media, she wasn’t the biggest fan of taking posed promotional images. #FakeSmiles #Boring #Ugh
But the photos were for Lanza Fine Jewelry, a shop owned by Luna and her cousin, Ross, a business inherited from their late grandfather. They each had their assigned roles. Ross designed and created the jewelry. Mia, his wife, took pictures. And Luna, when she wasn’t using her business degree to do the financial side of the jewelry business, would loan various parts of herself like fingers, wrists, earlobes, and neck for these images and—
Well, she didn’t want to get into the whole thing, especially since she was irritable after waking this morning with a fresh batch of cramps. And, without the use of an ax, it was impossible to send individual body parts alone and, therefore, her whole crampy, crabby body was required to meet Mia in Lumsden Park where her cousin-in-law sifted through the contents of her bag, grabbing a camera body and lens.
“Where’s this apartment you’re going to look at?” her cousin asked.
“There’s two. The first one is a cute duplex near Old Town. Then afterward I’ll look at Schnell Ridge Apartments. The second is just a backup. I’m already in love with the duplex,” she said.
Luna’s gaze swept through the park, noticing only a few potential witnesses and, thankfully, most of them were kids. She wore a silky, olive-colored slip dress, because Mia had requested a nice garment with an open neckline that would provide a good canvas backdrop for jewelry displaying. Except Luna wondered if the strappy low-cut bodice with the short hemline was too nice and she was feeling more self-conscious than anything else.
At a nearby picnic table was a young man in a faded gray baseball hat. A finger twisted a tawny-brown strand of hair, which had escaped the bottom of his cap. His shoulders hunched as he read a paperback, too enthralled to notice Luna emoting sexy but sweet while in the midst of crabgrass and discarded burger wrappers.
“There’s no need to move out so quickly,” Mia said, adjusting her glasses. “You know you’re welcome to live with Ross and me for as long as you want. No pressure when you’re looking today. I never had a sister growing up, so you’re the next best thing and I love it. Maybe we can have a scary movie marathon tonight and make gourmet popcorn.” The woman offered a bright smile.
This was exactly the problem. Luna would be living with them, as though she was a spinster aunt crashing in the guest room. That wasn’t much of a consolation prize, especially considering Mia was five months pregnant and they needed the extra space. All Luna wanted, all she’d ever wanted, was a special place of her own.
“Do you want me to go with you?” Mia asked. “I don’t mind. We can give each other a code word, so if you don’t like the place, I can come up with a great excuse to get us out of there. Like maybe I’m having weird contractions or I’ll have an emergency pregnancy craving for a buffalo chicken waffle wrap.” Her eyes drifted upward as if considering this. “The second one might be true. Maybe after apartment hunting we can stop for some lunch. I tried one of those waffle wraps the other day when I was taking photos for that new restaurant downtown, Placerville Waffle Company. Have you tried it? We should totally go there.”
“I haven’t. Maybe another time. I have other errands I need to do.”
Mia shrugged, not at all affected by the rejected offer. After making some adjustments to the camera in her hand, she began posing Luna, arranging the rose gold necklace featuring a delicate pine branch, until she was satisfied and the shutter on the camera clicked away.
“Your hair makes me so jealous. Ross has great hair too. Must be something in the family genes. I’m looking for a new hairdresser. The one I’ve been seeing is not working out and she convinced me to try these bangs. I hate them already.” The point was illustrated further when Mia blew out a breath, feathering the flat bangs in question. “Now I have to grow them out and find a new person. I swear, finding your hairdresser soulmate is even more difficult than finding your actual soulmate.”
“You should see Tessa Lui.” As soon as the name passed Luna’s lips she regretted it, her mouth snapping shut.
Mia flicked through the images, not noticing her sudden unexplained silence. “Is she downtown? If that’s who you see, then I’m definitely in.”
“I’ll text you her information later.” Or conveniently forget. Thoughts about what the hair stylist, also her ex-bestie, might say to Mia, about Luna, put an instant rock in her stomach.
“Aw, you’re really the best. I’m so happy you’re back in town again and I know Ross loves it too.” Her face was so warm and sincere, Luna considered changing her mind about forgetting to send Tessa’s information. Perhaps Mia wouldn’t mention where the recommendation had come from and, therefore, her opinion about Luna wouldn’t be at risk of changing.
Her cousin’s smile turned into a frown as she studied the images on the camera’s LCD screen. “I wish we could make this a couple photo.”
“Since I’m the only one here, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Mia tapped a finger against her chin. “Unless we could get someone else.”
“I hope you’re not thinking Ross because that would be gross and weird—”
“What about that guy over there?”
Luna’s gaze followed Mia’s pointed finger of destiny, which led to the man at the picnic table in the baseball cap. She hated this plan already, because she didn’t like strange men getting involved in her daily activities, nor did she believe in destiny. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“What? He’s cute and seems nice. I just want a few shots. It’s not a big deal.”
Luna opened her mouth to protest further because this whole thing was already awkward and humiliating enough, but Mia was on a new mission, making her way toward the man. As a distraction, Luna considered shouting, Let’s get buffalo chicken waffle wraps! or If you don’t stop at this moment, Mia Russo, you can forget about Tessa and you’ll be stuck with horrible bangs forever. Threats and bribery were all Luna had at the moment.
At the picnic table, her cousin cautiously approached, and the man jerked from his intense book-reading focus with surprise. They were too far away for Luna to understand the conversation, and she stood in place, with her hand on a hip, trying to decipher the interaction through charade skills.
First, Mia swept a hand to her camera, then to Luna, and, lastly, to her pregnant belly. Really, Mia? What did being pregnant have anything to do with anything? She doubted the woman would ever go so far as to say, Hey, see this camera? If you don’t take a picture with my depressingly dumped cousin over there, my demon baby will come for your blood while you sleep. Unlike Luna, Mia didn’t have to resort to threats. Plus, her cousin-in-law was too charming and sunny to ever be carrying a demon baby. The kid was an innocent pawn in Mia’s plan, and was currently Luna’s favorite baby in the world, demon or not.
Mia was more likely to convince someone by saying something sweet, and then she’d flash her solitary dimple. The dimple was the closer when it came to sealing the deal. Luna was convinced the dimple was the root of all Mia’s power.
Regardless of what was said to the man, it worked, like a charm. No surprise there. Both of them approached her spot in the park. Luna was doubtful about the whole couple photo idea, especially considering it was being thrown together with whatever random park man Mia could persuade into her scheme, cute or not.
From what she could see, he was nearly the complete opposite from Viggo. Her ex-boyfriend was extremely tall, with the body of a linebacker, dark hair, and the bluest eyes ever imagined. Luna didn’t believe in love at first sight but wasn’t someone like Viggo exactly the type of man she was supposed to fall in love with?
If Viggo was Dolce & Gabbana, the man walking toward her was second-hand Levi’s. He was a white guy with brown hair and most definitely wasn’t six feet tall. She would guess five feet eight inches at the most with a slighter build than her ex. Both the baseball hat and army-style jacket he wore were weathered at the edges. Unlike her ex though, he had an approachable, easygoing vibe about him, which was probably the reason her cousin had chosen him.
“I’m Mia, by the way,” her cousin said to him.
“Sam.” His voice, while deep, was unassuming. There was a barely perceptible hitch in his step. “I think we went to the same school.”
Mia brightened. “Oh yeah? Sorry, I don’t have the best memory when it comes to that kind of thing. Do you know my husband, Ross?”
“Manasse? Yeah, we weren’t friends but we had a few classes together.” Sam’s hat overshadowed most of his face. His exact features were still somewhat of an enigma at this point, except for a jawline covered with a scruff of facial hair.
Since he went to school with Ross and Mia that put him only a few years older than Luna, who was twenty-five. She felt forgotten at this impromptu class reunion, which did a great job of exacerbating her PMS.
“Oh, this is Lulu,” Mia said. “She’s Ross’s younger cousin.”
Luna almost chipped a tooth, grinding her jaw. She still hadn’t broken Ross from his habit of using the childhood nickname but, even worse, Mia sometimes did as well. She couldn’t very well shout, Luna! without appearing childish, and it’s not as though it mattered since she’d never see this guy again. Instead, she offered a tight smile.
“So, yeah, as I was saying,” Mia continued in an extra cheerful tone of voice to cover the lull in conversation, “we just need a few photos of you standing next to Lulu, looking at her like you’re her boyfriend or whatever. I won’t take too much of your time.” The dimple closer made its appearance.
“Okay,” Sam replied but he didn’t move.
The whole thing was weird, and without thinking Luna blurted, “Are you sure about this, Mia? Look at how he’s dressed compared to me. He looks like—” The rest of her sentence dropped off a cliff when she realized she was about to voice her inside thoughts, ones Mia would, no doubt, consider mean. These days, she was trying her best to keep most of her brutally honest opinions locked inside her head.
The other two people waited, as if expecting Luna to finish her sentence. When she didn’t, Sam said, “I look like what?” His expression was neutral but she swore there was an amused glint in his eye as if his question was a dare.
Unfortunately for him, Luna always took a dare, regardless of whether it was a good or bad idea. Spoiler alert. It was usually bad. “You look like you’re about to meet someone from Craigslist in an abandoned parking lot in order to sell some illegal turtles or something.”
Mia gasped. “Lulu!”
Confirmed. Bad idea.
He barked a small laugh as though surprised, her comment giving him permission to give her an up-and-down perusal in return. She was finally being seen but now the judgment was clearly on the other foot. Not that Luna didn’t deserve it. She most definitely did.
“Yes?” she asked, daring him in return.
He blinked. “Nothing.”
Well…that was disappointing. In truth, he didn’t have to say anything because she could guess his opinion about her outfit. She looked like the third-in-charge at a bachelorette party, the one who’s secretly jealous of the bride and making out with a stranger after getting too tipsy. This was one more reason she regretted unearthing this dress from the recesses of her closet, because she wasn’t that girl—not anymore.
“What are you wearing underneath? I-I mean under the jacket.” Mia asked, getting somewhat flustered.
Sam revealed a simple black T-shirt, and Mia declared it fine enough for the photos. As much as Luna wanted to continue voicing her disapproval, it’d be all lies. The guy had great arms and he’d chosen a shirt that fit him well. Dammit. Her reluctance in participating in this couple photo plan was already eroding.
“I look nice,” Luna said as if to refute his earlier unspoken judgment, sweeping her long, wavy locks across the front of one shoulder.
“Yeah, you look nice.” His tone implied she only looked the part and wasn’t nice at all. Ha! Perhaps the guy had some bite after all. Her interest shifted back to intrigue. Also, Luna wasn’t about to argue because she may be a lot of things, but she would never claim to be nice. That adjective was reserved for people like Mia.
Before she could reply, her cousin stepped between them with an “excuse me” and removed his hat, unleashing a mass of wavy, light brown hair. His brows were a shade darker; his left eyebrow was bisected with a scar. And he had the sharpest cheekbones she’d ever seen. God, maybe the finger of destiny was on to something.
She nearly jumped when her cousin-in-law took one of those solid arms of his and posed it around her waist like both of them were bendable dolls. His gaze, no longer shadowed by his hat, lifted to hers and she was hit by the color of warm bourbon making up his irises. Her breath hitched in her chest as she felt his hand flexing where it was fixed on the small of her back.
In the background, Mia clicked the shutter button on her camera but Luna hardly noticed, finding herself fixated by the man beside her. “I’m not always a brat, you know,” she murmured. Who knows why it was important for her to tell him this. And, truth be told, she wasn’t a brat as much as she was prone to mischief but these two things sometimes looked the same.
His gaze remained fixed on her, starting at her eyes before traveling lower on her face. “Well, we all have to sleep sometime.”
His response was dry but was exactly the kind that appealed to her—
Nope. This would not do at all. Luna needed to keep a distance, and since a physical one wasn’t possible at the moment, an emotional one would have to do. She sighed and flatly said, “I knew I should have stayed in bed today.”
“I knew I should have held out for more than free coffee.”
Ah, so that’s what was promised to Sam in exchange for his cooperation. Mia’s best friend, Natalie, co-owned Pony Expresso, which was the coffee shop next to the jewelry store, and therefore Mia got free drinks all the time. Luna wanted to laugh and she had no idea why. Maybe it was the ridiculousness of the whole situation. “Sucker,” she said, giving him a slight hip check.
His reaction to this additional physical contact was releasing a soft grunt. This delighted her, and she considered doing it again.
Luna’s focus snapped to Mia, whom she’d forgotten about. “What?”
“I just asked if you could focus in this direction.” The woman pointed to the ground near her. “And smile. Sam, you can just keep your head turned to her. Yes. Beautiful. Love it.” The camera shutter clicked away. “Sam, turn to me and, Lu, look at him now. Perfect.”
Luna tried to refocus and remember this was just a quick photo shoot and wasn’t anything else… Sam’s profile was nice. His nose was strong and straight, even better than Viggo’s. A person only had to get past twenty pounds of hair and an old baseball hat to see it, like uncovering a weathered chest and being completely unaware of what treasures might be inside.
“Lu, maybe you can do a quick…”
“What?” Luna asked.
Her cousin-in-law poked her cheek with a finger, giving herself an additional dimple. “Last pic, I swear.”
She rolled her eyes. Mia was impossible. Except, while she should hate everything about this, there was a part of her that didn’t hate it at all.
As she leaned toward the man, her mouth puckered in preparation to plant a fake kiss on his cheek, Sam said, “Huh?” while rotating his head.
And, because she had the worst luck in the world, their lips met.
End of Excerpt