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Delaney Brooks was closing up for the night when Bourbon Falls, Indiana, lost power. After five minutes of waiting with no improvement in sight, she scribbled instructions for her business partner to run their end-of-day reports before Oak Barrel Farms Landscaping reopened in the morning. Chase would understand. Besides, she was due to volunteer at Brooks Books in less than an hour. Though, if the town’s electricity remained out all night, their family bookstore might have to close early as well.
As happy as she was to help there, a rare weeknight off wouldn’t be so bad.
She taped her note for Chase to the inside of the front door and did one last scan of their shop: checkout counter was clean, wooden floors swept, indoor plants on display watered, knickknacks restocked and dusted. Some days, she had to pinch herself, the landscaping company she’d founded with longtime family friend Chase Redding still feeling like a dream come true. She made sure the light switches were all off to conserve electricity whenever it returned, then headed for the door.
It was common for summer storms to roll through northern Indiana, but losing power happened only during the big ones. Judging by the wind howling through the grove of oak trees surrounding her shop, tonight’s was shaping up to be a doozie. She hurried out to her vehicle, grateful for the thick canopy of leaves overhead, and prayed her friends and family were already home and safe from the storm.
Del turned out onto the road leading back into town, rain pelting her windshield faster than her wipers could keep up. Just as she began to wonder if it might be best to turn back, a bolt of lightning struck a tree up ahead, sending an explosion of sparks into the air. Del slammed on her brakes as the tree’s charred remains toppled into the road; she skidded to a stop just shy of the landing zone.
Wow, that was close.
Heart pounding, she scanned the mess of limbs now scattered across the road—a mess that would need to be removed before someone came along and plowed into it. That’s when she noticed the set of headlights approaching from the other direction. Del blared her horn, hoping to alert the other driver before they slammed into the downed tree and then into her. Fortunately, it worked.
Unfortunately, the other vehicle was much smaller and lighter than hers. Brakes locked, it hit a low spot in the road and hydroplaned across a patch of standing water. A streak of white veered off the road, tore through the adjoining yard, and buried itself in the jumble of weeds and long-forgotten shrubs that served as the entryway to their town’s newest and most reclusive resident:
Isaac Manning, aka Harry the Hermit.
Del threw her truck into park and jumped out to drag the debris as best she could to the side of the road. The driving rain did her no favors, quickly soaking her to the bone. Road hazard cleared, she turned her attention to the other vehicle, which had yet to move from its jungle destination. She hurried toward it, casting a quick glance toward the nearby driveway.
So far, no Harry. Thank goodness for small miracles.
Oh, they’d wanted to think the best of the newcomer. Had even tried to think of logical reasons for why he’d ignore repeated attempts to deliver home-baked cookies by Bourbon Falls’ Welcome Wagon. But when he’d come flying out of his garage, headed straight for a Cub Scout troop selling popcorn that second week—wild-eyed, shrieking, and waving a broom over his head—the troop hightailed it out of there. After that, the town collectively rolled up its welcome mat and let the man be. Thankfully, no one had seen hide nor hair of him since.
Del made a beeline past his drive toward the stranded car, not wanting to break the town’s lucky streak. Overgrown landscaping awaited her on its opposite side, a sea of thistles as tall as her vying for space among neglected Knock Out roses. She wove through the mess as best she could, water squishing between her toes every step of the way.
Definitely gonna need to stop at home to change before heading to the bookstore now. She knew no one would complain if stopping home for dry clothes caused her to be a few minutes late. Her aunt Faye owned the store and was always grateful for help, no matter how large or small.
In years past, business at the bookstore was booming and they employed an evening staff. But that was before a big book box store opened in neighboring Warsaw. Now it was up to the family to pitch in if they wanted their mother’s legacy to live on.
Thankfully, so far, everyone still did.
Worries about the bookstore came to a grinding halt as Del drew close enough to recognize the vehicle protruding from the township’s shaggiest arborvitae: a white Pontiac Vibe, her sixteen-year-old niece’s car.
“Brooklyn?” She moved faster now, thistles and bramble tearing at her exposed skin. “Brooklyn, is that you?”
“Aunt Del?” Oh, lord, it was her. What on earth had she been doing driving in the middle of a storm?
“Yes! Are you hurt?”
“I don’t think so.”
Relief washed over her as she ran. “Okay, hang on, I’m almost to you.”
“Hang on?” Brooklyn asked. “I’m totally stuck—where could I possibly go?”
Ah, teenage sarcasm. Del took it as a good sign and continued through the vegetation.
Del slid to a halt at the unexpected deep voice, on the lookout for a crazy broom-wielding man. “Hello?” she called, squinting into the pouring rain. “Is someone there?”
“Yes. And you’re on private property.”
She turned in the direction of the voice, but still saw no one. Maybe Harry wasn’t ready to come out from hiding yet. Fine by her. “Listen, I’m Delaney Brooks, and my niece—”
“Is also trespassing. Now leave, before I call the police.”
Her gaze swiveled from the voice to Brooklyn’s location. “Buddy, do you not see the car wedged into your landscaping?”
Del was about to tell Mr. Unwelcoming just what she thought of his threat when her gaze landed on a small black box mounted to Harry’s mailbox. He had a security camera now?
On a growl, Del started forward once more, needing to get to Brooklyn to make sure she was all right. Their ridiculous town hermit could go ahead and call the cops for all she cared. At least Earl would be man enough to come out into the elements and help them.
Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea. Who knew what something like this could do to Brooklyn’s driving record.
“Is anyone hurt?” Harry called. “Do you need me to call an ambulance?”
Okay, maybe the guy wasn’t a complete jerk. “I don’t know yet!”
Another fifteen steps or so and she reached Brooklyn’s car. The driver’s side window was down, the car’s interior lit by the glow of a cell phone screen. Del squirmed her way through broken branches to get to her niece and was relieved to find the view devoid of blood.
“Honey, are you sure you’re not hurt?”
Brooklyn lowered her phone in midtext. “I’m fine, but that was Harry, wasn’t it? What if he goes all crazy on us? Or calls the police? Will they take me to juvie? Or take away my car? Aunt Del, I just got this car. I don’t want to have to go back to walking to school!”
“Whoa, slow down there, sweetheart. Everything is going to be all right. What’s important is that you’re not hurt.”
“But Mom will—”
“We’ll worry about your mom and Harry later, okay? First, deep breaths. We can’t think if we’re too busy panicking.”
Brooklyn frowned and took a slightly longer breath. “Fine, now what?”
“Let’s have you put the car in reverse and see if we can’t get you backed out of this mess.”
“I tried that before you got here. The tires spin, but the car doesn’t budge.”
Del sighed. Of course this wasn’t going to be easy.
“You must be stuck on something, let me check. Wait—when did you crack your phone screen?”
“Um”—Brooklyn tucked her phone under one leg—“before…”
“Brooklyn Annette French, do not tell me you were texting and driving.”
“What? The weather alarm went off and I tried to silence it.”
Del shot her a “don’t BS me” look. “We’ll talk about this later. Right now, we need to get you out of Harry’s yard and back on the road. Where were you even going in the middle of this storm, anyway?”
“To the farm. I wanted to make sure the ducklings were okay.”
Del pinched the bridge of her nose. “Next time it’s storming? You call Grandpa and let him give you a phone update instead, okay?”
At Brooklyn’s sullen nod, Delaney ducked under the nearest mangled branch and shimmied her way toward the front bumper. Though she didn’t have a clear view, there didn’t seem to be anything preventing the car from backing up. More likely, the rain-soaked grass wasn’t providing enough traction for the Vibe to escape its evergreen jail.
“I think our best bet is to try to pull you out,” Del said. “Sit tight, I’ll be right back.”
She eased out of the arborvitae and spun to find a man she didn’t recognize exiting a late model SUV, now parked on Manning’s driveway. Surely, that couldn’t be Harry; hermits couldn’t look that appealing. This guy was tall, dark, and handsome…and now soaked to the bone like her. His black V-neck tee and khaki cargo shorts showed off lean limbs and sun-kissed skin. A Yankees ballcap was tugged low over shoulder-length dark hair that curled around his ears, and scruffy facial hair covered his face and neck.
Nope, definitely not someone from around here, she decided as he approached. But who was he? Beneath the cap’s brim, dark eyes were fixed intently on her.
“Well?” he demanded.
Isaac Manning stopped a short distance from the woman he’d seen on his surveillance footage. He was afraid to get closer, but he also needed to know that everyone was okay. Delaney had on a logo polo shirt and jean capris, both now covered in mud and burrs. Short, cropped hair was plastered to her head, which drew his attention to the bright-blue eyes assessing him. He prayed his hat and unshaven face were disguise enough to keep her from recognizing him.
After all, he hadn’t moved halfway across the country and stayed hidden for the past six months to blow it in his first interaction with someone from Bourbon Falls.
Well, first real interaction. That carload of Boy Scouts hadn’t stuck around long enough for him to explain that a bat had just tried to dive-bomb him in his garage. He could only guess the rumors that exchange had caused. Even so, he couldn’t sit inside and do nothing, knowing someone had driven into his yard and could possibly be injured.
Though it’d been pouring when he first exited his vehicle, the rain now slowed to an annoying drizzle. In the improved visibility he could see that, sure enough, a little white sedan was half buried in one of the evergreen behemoths that stood sentry to his rental’s driveway. He looked from the set of glowing taillights to Delaney and tipped his chin toward the car.
“Your niece—is she hurt?”
The tension in her shoulders eased. “Thankfully, no. At least, she insists she isn’t.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Truly, he’d hate for anyone to be hurt. Would hate even more having police and EMS staff arriving and wanting to speak with him. The fewer visitors, the better.
“Yes, a huge relief for sure. Unfortunately, her car’s wedged in there pretty good. It’s gonna take some extra muscle to get her out.”
No surprise there, considering how far into the shrub her car now sat. His gaze shifted from the vehicle to the messy trail stretched out behind it. He had no idea how fast she’d been going, but those deep tire ruts seemed to run a country mile. On the bright side, her path of destruction had also mowed over a good chunk of the thistles on this side of his entryway.
Man, had he known how effective a slide off could be with clearing weeds, Isaac might have tried this himself a few weeks back. Landscaping hadn’t been a priority of his since relocating here. Which, as he stood here now taking it all in, was clearly evident. Would his renter’s insurance cover all of this?
“You didn’t happen to bring a tow strap along, did you?” Delaney asked.
“A tow…strap?” Surely, she had to be kidding.
She started for a huge silver pickup parked by the road, where he assumed she had left her cell phone. But instead of a phone, Delaney started back with, sure enough, a worn, yellow tow strap.
“Shouldn’t we just call a tow truck?” he asked.
She snorted. “Oh, ye of little faith.”
He watched her pass, debating whether or not to insist they call someone; he had zero experience with this sort of thing. Then again, if she knew what she was doing, it would minimize the number of visitors he had tonight. Already, two was more than he was comfortable with.
“All right, Brooklyn,” she said. “Keep it in park until I say otherwise. Got it?”
“Okay, Aunt Del.”
Isaac hurried to join them, not wishing to wound Del’s ego further but also not wanting to look like an indifferent jerk. Without pause, she crawled under the backend of Brooklyn’s car to affix the first end of the strap. As she eased out from under it, Isaac reached to help her up. For a moment, she just stared at his outstretched hand. Had he accidentally offended her a second time?
Just as he began to think she wouldn’t accept the assist, she clasped his hand like they were about to arm wrestle and tried pulling herself up to a standing position. But the grass beneath them was slippery from the rain, and what started as a smooth move ended with her tumbling into his chest.
“Sorry,” Del mumbled, her cheeks flushed.
“No worries,” he mumbled back, holding on until he knew she’d found her footing. “It’s pretty slick out.”
She stalked off on a nod, unraveling the tow strap as she went.
It’s pretty slick out? He dragged a hand down the side of his face. That’s the best I could do?
Not that it really mattered if he sounded lame. Isaac wasn’t here to make friends or grow roots in the community—he was only here until it was safe to move back home. He caught up with her a moment later, taking the tow strap when offered. Then she climbed into the pickup and made a smooth three-point turn, positioning her truck on the side of the road. Nope, definitely not her first rodeo.
“What am I going to tell you to do when I give the signal, B?” she called to Brooklyn as she left the truck to collect the tow strap from Isaac.
“Um…put it in neutral?”
“That’s my girl.” Del gave him a nod. “See? We’ll have her out of there in no time.”
After all, the sooner they were gone, the sooner he could relax. Then it could get back to being just him and his rescue dog Louie up at the house, hiding away from the world. For how much longer, he didn’t know.
Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by a rumble of thunder louder than the last one. Round two of tonight’s storm seemed to be rolling in. Hopefully, they’d be done with all of this before it arrived.
As Del attached the tow strap to her truck and double-checked the work, Isaac rubbed his palm, wishing it would stop tingling after taking her hand. Had it been a spark of attraction, or was it because he hadn’t had physical contact with another person in months? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t enough to shake him off his goals. Neither were those long legs, perfect butt—yes, he’d watched as she’d climbed in and out of that behemoth truck—and ocean-blue eyes. He was here to lie low while the dumpster fire out east ran out of fuel, nothing more.
Isaac grinned at the contrast between Del’s confident voice and her niece’s nervous one. For the briefest of moments, it brought back fond memories of childhood and time spent with his favorite uncle. He glanced toward the house. Frank would have loved this place. That project junkie would have called it a gem in the rough and volunteered to help make it shine again, even if it was just a rental.
His gaze shifted once more to the yard, grimacing again at the long stretch of ruts that ran from Brooklyn’s car to the road. They were fixable enough, but the huge tree/bush thing that had half swallowed the sedan looked done for, which meant calling someone out to cut it down before it fell and blocked his drive. Or worse, fell on him or someone else.
Maybe he should call Will in the morning and see what he wanted done with the yard. It was his rental, after all. Though, Isaac would need to skim over the part about interacting with Delaney and her niece. No sense in making Will all paranoid again. He’d flipped out enough after learning of Isaac’s weekly late-night grocery runs in the next town over—something he refused to give up.
Del’s truck inched forward, and the tow strap slowly went taut. It felt weird, being a bystander to it all, but the look of concentration in Del’s reflection told him she’d done this before. Her engine revved steadily louder until the little Pontiac was tugged free from the evergreen mess, limbs creaking and snapping around it as the car slowly made its escape. Relief shone on Brooklyn’s face after the truck pulled her car off his lawn and back onto the road. Brooklyn’s cheeks reddened as he approached to make sure she was truly all right.
“I am so sorry about your yard. And the big bush thing.” She got out of her car to get a better look. “Maybe we can straighten it with some stakes in the ground or something?”
“And then what?” Del called, untethering their vehicles. “Wait for the next storm to blow it over?”
She approached and pulled her niece into a tight hug, silencing any retort from the teen. Brooklyn hugged her back, the two clearly very close. Now that he could see her better, aside from the longer hair and abundance of freckles, and her being far drier than the rest of them, the family resemblance between Brooklyn and her aunt was striking.
A bright bolt of lightning forked in the not-so-far distance, its booming thunderclap reminding them the night’s storms weren’t quite done.
“Sorry, kiddo, but stakes aren’t going to fix this. That arborvitae needs to come down before it falls on anyone. Plus, you’ve got some major ruts to fill in for Mr. Manning.”
Funny, he didn’t remember telling her his name. “Please, just call me Isaac. And don’t worry about the ruts. I’ll take care of all this.”
Well, hopefully his insurance company would be taking care of it all. He’d find out soon enough. Del, however, frowned.
“Absolutely not. Brooklyn made a mess of this place, and Brooklyn’s gonna help—”
Guitar strumming interrupted her, and Del pulled a cell phone from her back pocket.
“Sorry, Faye, I’m running a bit late. I’ll—what?” She grimaced. “Okay, we’ll be right there.”
Del disconnected and met his gaze. “I’m afraid we’re going to need to work out the details another time. Our bookstore’s roof just sprang a leak.”
Had she just said their…bookstore?
Brooklyn’s eyes widened. “It didn’t.”
“It did.” She hitched a thumb to their vehicles. “The ducklings will have to wait. You’re coming with me.”
Isaac felt a swell of relief. They were leaving. “That’s fine, you two go handle the roof thing and I’ll just call my insurance company tomor—”
“No!” the girls cried in unison.
Del stepped closer, a pleading look in her bright-blue eyes. “Please don’t call this in. If insurance gets involved, things might get messy for Brooklyn. And expensive.” She ran a hand over her wet hair. “Look, I can cut the arborvitae down on my lunch hour tomorrow. Okay?”
“But what about the rest of my yard?”
“I promise, we’ll make it right. Just…give us a little time.”
As much as he hated to think how much attention his mess of a yard would attract, Isaac hated the idea of having to deal with insurance adjusters or worried business partners far more. Hopefully, this Delaney woman would be good to her word. He’d give her a day, no more. After that, he made no promises.
“Fine. You’ve got until tomorrow evening. And good luck with the leak.”
End of Excerpt