“No.” Not anymore she wasn’t. Pippa snatched her boarding pass from the check-in attendant and tugged her baseball cap lower over her eyes. Couldn’t Kim Kardashian help a girl out and release another sex tape or something? Anything to get Pippa away from the social media lynch mob. She kept her head down until she found her gate, and chose the seat farthest away from the other passengers waiting to board the flight to Salt Lake City. Latest copy of Vogue blocking her face, she flipped through the glossy pages.
Peeping over the top of her magazine she slammed straight into the narrowed gaze of a woman three rows over. Shit! Pippa dropped the woman’s gaze and went back to Vivienne Westwood bucking the trend.
Across the airport lounge the woman’s glare beamed into the top of her head like those laser tracking things you saw in spy movies. Pippa buckled under the burn and slouched lower into her seat.
Look at that, Fendi was doing fabulous separates this season. And really, Ralph Lauren, that’s your idea of a plus-size model? Stuff like this made her job so much harder.
Her former job.
Losing her show still clawed at her. Losing? Like she’d left the damn thing at Starbucks as she picked up her morning latte. More like her jackass ex with zero conscience had knocked it out of her hand. Framed, stitched up, wrongfully accused—judged, found guilty, and sentenced to a plethora of public loathing wiping out all the years spent building her career. Burning sense of injustice aside, she was stuck in this thing until it went away.
Angry Woman lurked in her peripheral vision. As sweat slid down her sides, Pippa tucked her elbows in tight and risked another glance.
Under an iron-gray row of rigidly permed bangs, the woman’s mouth puckered up.
Back to Vogue. The knot in her stomach twisted tighter, and she checked her cap. What the hell? A baseball cap and shades always worked for other celebrities. Why not her?
Angry Woman squared her shoulders and huffed.
This could go one of two ways. Either Angry Woman would come over and give her a piece of her mind on behalf of women everywhere, or she’d confine her anger to vicious staring and muttering. Maybe some head shaking. Please don’t let her be a crusader for women. Please, please, please. After two weeks of glares, stares and condemnation, Pippa had gotten the message:
Pippa St. Amor, the woman America loves to hate.
Right now, all she wanted was to sneak home and stay there until someone else topped her scandal. God, didn’t Vogue have anything fresh? She’d make a list. Lists were good. Soothing. Item one, run away from Angry Woman and hide in the bathroom. Item two, get your career back. She moved item two up to first place, where it had been since she left home at eighteen, and gauged the distance between her and the bathroom door. She’d never make it.
Angry Woman lifted her phone and snapped a shot of Pippa.
Damn, she’d forgotten that option; this one by far the worst. God, she hated Twitter. And Facebook. And Instagram, and Snapchat, and whatever-the-hell new social torment site some asshat was thinking up right this minute. The ongoing public derision chipped off bits of her until she felt like an open nerve ending.
A friend huddled next to Angry Woman, long hair that was totally the wrong shade of brown and aged her by ten years at least. If Pippa had her on the show, Long Hair would be wearing a cute, hip cut, a fresh new makeup look, and mile-wide smile with her new sense of self.
The reveals never got old. There was something about a woman finally seeing her own beauty that made all the other crap that went with a television career worth it. Ray had ripped that away from her too.
Pippa was getting it with double barrels now. Lips tight, matching twin spots of outraged color staining their cheeks as they whispered over Angry Woman’s phone. They both wore mom jeans. Up until two weeks ago it had been her mission to deliver moms everywhere from jeans like that. Along with those nasty, out of shape T-shirts they sold in three-packs of meh colors that had no business existing on the color spectrum. Angry and Long Hair were so her demographic. They’d probably seen the original episode live and watched it over and over again on demand or something. Maybe even watching it right this minute on YouTube.
YouTube! She hated YouTube, too.
Why didn’t they call her flight already and get her the hell out of here?
You didn’t sleep with the boss, and especially not in television. For four years. Ray had always been a bit sneaky, but to annihilate her career to boost his own? She hadn’t seen it coming. But you couldn’t rely on a man. How did she not get this by now?
Three minutes until boarding.
Ah, shit, shit, shit, double damned shit in a bucket. So close, two minutes and fifty-five seconds. Smile and look friendly. “Yes.”
Try not to look like you.
“You’re that woman, aren’t you?” Angry Woman narrowed her eyes, and Pippa leaned back in her chair, out of striking range.
“It is you.” Long Hair planted her legs akimbo like a prizefighter. “I watched every single one of your shows. I can’t believe you said those things, and I—”
Two minutes, thirty seconds.
“—should be ashamed of yourself. What you said is a crime against women everywhere. You made that poor woman cry.”
Of course they cried. They were supposed to cry. The shows were edited to make them cry even more, but not the time to point it out.
“Shocking. And cruel. You’re just a . . . a nasty bitch.” Angry Woman got the last word in. She’d been called worse. Recently, too, and it still stung.
A man in the row opposite turned to watch the action. The three teens beside him openly stared and giggled.
I didn’t say it, people. Okay, she’d said it, but not like that. Editing, people. Creative editing—the scourge and savior of television celebrities worldwide. She could shout it across LAX and it still wouldn’t do any good. Until the next scandal broke and hers was forgotten.
“This is a boarding call . . .”
Thank you, Jesus!
“I’m sorry, that’s my flight.” Pippa creaked a smile and gathered her things. Handbag, phone, iPad, and coat. Her hands shook under the combined weight of several sets of eyes and she nearly dropped her phone.
No cabin baggage, not on this flight. Nope, this flight she’d packed just about everything she owned into the two heaviest suitcases on the planet. Paid extra weight without an argument. Anything to get the hell out of LA and home to Philomene.
Phi would know what to do.
“Shit, Isaac. If the plumber needs quarter-inch pipe, get him quarter-inch pipe.” Matt threw open the door to his truck as he half listened to another lame excuse. He could recite them by heart at this point anyway.
“No, I can’t get the pipe. I’m at Phi’s house now.” He sighed as Isaac went with the predictable. “Yes, again, and I can’t come now. You’re going to have to fix this yourself.”
He slammed his door and keyed off his phone. Smartphones! He missed the days of being able to slam a receiver down. Jabbing your finger at those little icons didn’t have the same release.
When God handed out brains to the Evans clan, he must have realized he was running low for the family allotment and been stingier with the youngest members. Between Isaac and their sister, Jo, there could only be a couple of functioning neurons left. And their performance, like a faulty electrical circuit, flickered in and out.
He grabbed his toolbox from the back of the truck. This had to be the ugliest house in history, as if Hogwarts and the Addams family mansion had a midair collision and vomited up Philomene’s Folly.
His chest swelled with pride as he stared at it. He’d built every ugly, over-the-top, theatrical inch of this heap of stone. He’d bet he was the only man alive who could find real, honest to God, stone gargoyles for downspouts. Not the plaster molding kind. Not for Diva Philomene St. Amor. Nope, she wanted them carved out of stone and mounted across the eaves like the front row of a freak show.
“Hey, Matt,” a kid called from the stables forming one side of the semicircular kitchen yard.
“Hey, yourself.” He couldn’t remember the name of Phi’s latest rescue kid doing time in her kitchen yard. Kitchen yard! In this century. Diva Philomene wanted a kitchen yard, so a kitchen yard she got, along with her stables.
“I want a building to capture the nobility of their Arabian ancestors thundering across the desert.” She’d got it. Heated floors, vaulted ceilings, and pure cedar stalls—now housing every ratty, mismatched, swaybacked nag the local humane society couldn’t house and didn’t want to waste a bullet on. A smile crept onto his face. You had to love the crazy old broad.
He skirted the circular herb garden eating up the center of the kitchen yard. A fountain in the shape of a stone horse trough trickled happily. He’d have to remind her to drain it and blow the pipes before winter. He didn’t want to replace the piping again next spring.
The top half of the kitchen door stood open and he unlatched the bottom half before stepping into the kitchen. The AGA range gave off enough heat to have sweat sliding down his sides before he took two steps. He opened the baize door to the rest of the house and yelled, “Phi!”
He hadn’t even known what a baize door was at nineteen, but the Diva had educated him because she wanted one and it became his headache to get her one.
“Mathieu!” The Frenchifying of his name was all the warming he got before Philomene appeared at the top of her grand, curving walnut staircase. Thirty-two rises, each six feet wide and two feet deep leading from the marble entrance hall to the gallery above.
The soft pink of the sun bled through the stained-glass windows and bathed the old broad in magic. Her purple muumuu made a swishing noise as she descended, hands outstretched, rings glittering in the bejeweled light. “Darling.”
She made his teeth ache. “Hold on to the railing, Phi, before you break your neck.” It had taken a crew of eight men to put that railing in, and nearly killed the carpenter to carve a dragon into every inch of it.
She pressed a kiss on both his cheeks with a waft of the same heavy, musky perfume she’d always worn. She smelled like home. “You came.”
“Of course, I came.” He bent and returned her embrace. “That’s how this works. You call, I drop everything and come.”
A wicked light danced in her grass green eyes, still bright and brilliant beneath the layers and layers of purple goo and glitter. She’d been a knockout in her youth, still had some of that beautiful woman voodoo clinging to her. If you doubted that for an instant, there were eight portraits and four times that many photos in this house to set you right. Or you could just take a look at Pippa—if you could catch a quick glance as she flew through town. He made it his business to grab an eyeful when he could.
“I am overset, Mathieu, darling.” She pressed her hand to her gem-encrusted bosom.
“Of course you are.” The Diva never had a bad day or a problem. Nope, she was overset, dismayed, perturbed, discomposed and on the occasion her dishwasher broke down, discombobulated.
“It is that thing in the kitchen.” She narrowly missed taking his eye out with her talons as she threw her hand at the baize door.
Her kitchen might look like a medieval reenactment, but it was loaded for bear with every toy and time-saving device money could buy—all top of the line. “What thing, Phi?”
“The water thingy.”
She swept in front him, leading the way into the kitchen like Caesar entering Rome in triumph. “See.” He dodged her hand just in time. “It drips incessantly and disturbs my beauty rest.”
He clenched his teeth together so hard his jaw ached. He ran a construction company big enough to put together four separate crews and she called him for a dripping faucet. “I could have sent one of my men around to fix that. A plumber.”
“But I don’t want one of your men, darling.” She beamed her megawatt smile at him. “I want you.”
There you had it. She wanted him and he came. Why? Because he owed this crazy, demanding, amazing woman everything, and the manipulative witch knew it. He shrugged out of his button-down shirt and pulled his undershirt out of his jeans. He was going to get wet and he’d be damned if he got faucet grunge all over his smart shirt.
Phi took the shirt from him and laid it tenderly over the back of one of her kitchen chairs. “This is a very beautiful shirt, Matt.”
“I’m a busy and important man now, Phi. A man with lots of smart shirts.”
She grinned at him, and stroked the shirt. “I am very proud of you, Matt.”
Damn it all to hell, if that didn’t make him want to stick out his chest like the barnyard rooster strutting across Phi’s kitchen yard. He turned the faucet on and then off again. No drip. “Phi?”
“It’s underneath.” She wiggled her fingers at the cabinet.
He got to his knees and opened the doors. Sure enough, a small puddle of water gathered on the stone flags beneath the down pipe. Good thing Phi had insisted on no bottoms to her kitchen cabinets. It had made it a bitch to get the doors to close without jamming on the stone floor, but right now it meant he wouldn’t be replacing cabinets in his spare time.
“You should be out on a date,” Phi said from behind him.
“If I was out on a date, Phi, I wouldn’t be here fixing your sink.”
“Yes, you would.”
Yeah, he would. He turned off the water to the sink. “Have you got some towels or something?”
She bustled into the attached laundry and reappeared with an armload of fluffy pink towels.
Wheels crunched on the gravel outside the kitchen and Phi dropped the towels on the floor next to him. She tottered over to the window to stare. A huge smile lit her face and she gave off one of those ear-splitting trills that had made her the world’s greatest dramatic soprano. Everyone, from the mailman to a visiting conductor, got the same happy reception.
He leaned closer to get a better look at the pipes beneath the sink. Were those scratch marks on the elbow joint? Neat furrows all lined up like someone had done that on purpose. He crawled into the cabinet and wriggled onto his back. They didn’t make these spaces for men his size.
“Mathieu?” Phi craned down until her face entered his field of vision. Her painted-on eyebrows arched across her parchment-pale face. “I have a visitor.”
“Is that so?” What the hell, he always played along.
“Indeed.” Her grin was evil enough to have him stop his tinkering with the wrench in midair. “I thought you might like to know about this visitor.”
The kitchen door opened. A pair of black heels tapped into view. The sort of shoes a man wanted to see wrapped around his head, and at the end of a set of legs he hadn’t seen since her last trip to Ghost Falls—Christmas for a fly-by visit. His day bloomed into one of those eye-aching blue sky and bright sunlight trips into happy.
Welcome home, Pippa Turner.
Pippa wrapped her arms around her grandmother and held on for dear life. Thank you, God, she was home. She’d made it in one piece. Missing the bits taken off her by the women at the airport, the car rental lady, and a group glare from a bunch of tourists at the baggage carousel of Salt Lake City Airport.
Phi tightened her arms around Pippa, as if she knew. Of course she knew, Phi always knew. The ache inside her chest unraveled and unlocked the tears. Not once in this whole ghastly two weeks had Pippa cried. But the smell of patchouli oil wiggled underneath her defenses and opened the floodgates. Home. Safe.
“Ma petite.” Phi stroked her back in long, soothing strokes. The jewels encrusting her bodice pressed into Pippa’s chest, like they had all through her childhood. “My poor, sweet girl.”
The tears came thicker and faster, gumming up her throat and blocking her nose until they roared out in great gasping sobs.
Phi absorbed it all, like Pippa knew she would. Quiet murmurs and calming pats that eventually calmed the storm enough for her to speak.
“Now.” Phi cupped Pippa’s face between her pampered palms. “You will tell me all the dreadful things that man did to you.”
The relief almost got her crying again, but Pippa dragged in a deep breath. She could tell Phi everything, about Ray, the vapid blond thing he was boning, her meltdown, the lies—all of it. She had a list of every last one. And Phi would believe her. Not like those sharks surrounding her in LA. “Did you see it?”
Phi’s eyes clouded and her mouth dropped. “I did, my love, and it did not look good.”
“I only watched it once, and I haven’t had the guts to watch it since then.” Pippa’s stomach clenched up so tight she thought she might puke. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to watch the footage a second time, and that one blurred nightmare viewing was enough to know it had to be bad. Plus, the angry women mobbing her everywhere she went pretty much gave the game away.
Phi’s droopy mouth confirmed how bad.
“It was Ray.” Her legs collapsed like overcooked green beans and she needed to sit. The heavy kitchen chair screeched across the stone floor as she pulled it out. “He wanted me gone and used the show to make sure it happened.”
“But why?” Phi threw her shoulders back, looking ready to do battle for Odin. It was the same pose she’d been photographed in while singing Wagner in Milan.
For the first time since Christmas, a real smile curled around the corners of Pippa’s mouth. Drama was hardwired into her grandmother. Her mother hated it, and her sister, Laura, did her best to flatten Phi’s flare. Pippa loved it. It warmed her from the inside and gave her that bit of driftwood she desperately needed. When you were with Phi, you had to go with it.
“Ray wanted a younger piece of ass.” Saying it out loud brought the slow simmer up to the boil again. She’d only turned thirty-two three months ago. How much younger ass did Ray want? The answer stuck like a phlegm ball in the back of her throat. Twentysomething and fresh out of journalism college. Probably Debbie Does Dallas U.
“Men.” Phi snorted and thrust her chin out. The Aida angle, a touch of defiance and high enough to catch the glitter of the follow spot. The expression crumpled and Phi glanced down at the floor. “It’s all about sex for them.”
A grunt sounded from under the sink. Pippa’s nape crawled as her brain sorted this new information. “Phi?” She was afraid to ask. “Is there someone here?”
Phi waved a hand toward the sink, looking way too arch to be innocent. “It is just Mathieu.”
“Thanks, Phi.” A deep, dark country-boy rumble from under the sink.
Just Mathieu! An hysterical scream of laughter gathered in Pippa’s throat. Matt Evans wasn’t just anything, and he was under Phi’s sink listening to every word of this.
“Hey, Agrippina,” said the voice from the floor.
Only one person, other than Phi, called her Agrippina and lived to tell the tale. Sonofabitch, and she’d thought her day was done messing with her. “Hey, Meat.”
“Matt is fixing my sink,” Phi said.
Useful information she might have appreciated . . . say . . . five minutes ago. She leaned back and peered around the side of the table. Sure enough, a set of jeaned legs stuck out from the cupboard. His white T-shirt rode up exposing a couple of inches of tanned, smooth stomach. Matt Evans still had a little something-something going on. A too good looking, seriously charming, hot as hell, cocksure son of a bitch. Seriously nice thighs under those jeans.
“Don’t mind me,” he said.
With Phi listening she might have launched into her men and sex theories.
“We need champagne.” Phi leaped to her feet.
“Champagne?” Pippa dragged her eyes away from the sizeable bulge at the top of those thighs. Matt Evans was packing. “I don’t think I’m in much mood for celebrating.”
“Darling.” Phi flung her hands out in front of her. “Never let them see you bleed. Tonight we drink to your homecoming, and poor, single Matt eventually getting a date. Tomorrow we plot our revenge.”
In Phi’s wake the baize door swung shut with a whisper across the stone floor. Tools clinked from under the sink.
“Are you going to come out from under there?” Pippa craned her neck and caught a glimpse of his firm chin, dotted with stubble.
“Is it safe?”
The edge of another weeping storm swept through her. “Probably not.”
“Younger piece of ass, huh?” Matt chuckled softly. Go ahead, rub it in, you smug shit.
“Dateless, huh?” Hard to believe the man who girls ripped one another’s hair out for in high school was dateless.
Matt snorted a laugh. “Damn, it looks like someone cut this pipe.”
Phi! Pippa dropped her head to the table with a thud that reverberated all the way to the back of her aching skull. The timing was too convenient to be believed. Not to mention the super-subtle way she’d worked into the conversation how unattached Matt Evans was.
“If you’re done with the crying thing, could you hand me a wrench?”
Was she done with the crying thing? Tears stung her eyes and made her blink. Nope, she had a few tons of water left to shed.
“Wrench.” A tanned hand emerged from the cupboard and curled his fingers in her direction. Oh no, he didn’t. The last man to crook his fingers at her . . . had been Matt Evans. She hadn’t responded that time, either.
She was done with taking crap. Hello, Mr. Leg Man, here comes trouble, sashaying over the kitchen floor right at you. Matt and his ogling were one of the best parts of coming home to Ghost Falls. Nothing like steady appreciation to lift a girl’s spirits. Matt didn’t do subtlety, either. Hot, naughty twinkle in his eye, small smile playing on his mouth, he’d hand out that sexy attitude in bucketloads. Her heels rang against the stone floor. She parked a four-inch heel right next to his hip, pressing her ankle in to get his attention. She lifted the other over and trapped him between her legs. Her pencil skirt pulled tight across her thighs.
The man between her thighs stilled. He loaded his voice with enough warning to tell her he was onto her. “Agrippina.”
Through the opening where the sink trap had been she caught his eye, twinkle still there, daring her to do her worst. “Meat.”
His eyes widened as he read her intention a split second before she opened the faucet to max. Water gushed out, straight down the downpipe. His body tensed.
Pippa leaped out of the way as he uncoiled from under the sink. Damn that felt good. Absolutely childish but so good. Turns out, Matt knew some very nasty words. She sprang back as he emerged, shaking his head like a big, wet dog.
“You think that’s funny, do you?” She did. She totally did, and her grin said so. Strong hands fastened around her hips, whipped her right off her feet, and slammed her into a rock-hard, very wet chest. Her feet dangled a foot off the ground. Water spiked his eyelashes and dripped off the end of his nose. “That was not very nice.”
Her blouse clung to her in a sodden mess as he held her in place. She wriggled to get free, mashing her breasts against him. The damp cloth between them vanished against the blaze of warmth coming off his chest. “You can put me down now.” Damn, her voice got all breathy and girly.
He gave her an evil grin and lowered her to the ground, chest rubbing all the way. It felt so good, her little old toes curled in her kick-ass shoes. The smug shit knew it.
Matt stepped back and she got a good eyeful of him. Matt in his twenties had been hot, hot, hot. Today’s Matt was a supercharged version with hard angles and sinewy muscle. He fisted the back of his T-shirt and dragged it over his head.
Holy shit! Hard ridges marched up his belly from his belt to expand into the hard slabs of his pecs. Those shoulders begged to have her sink her teeth into the muscle. Her mouth dried and her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth.
He raised one dark eyebrow at her. “Well.”
She folded her arms over her see-through blouse. “I see you’ve let yourself go.”
“Liar. You were so checking me out.” He laughed, a flash of white teeth that softened his harsh features.
The sound tugged at something buried deep inside her. It bubbled up under her chest and turned her mouth up at the corners.
The look in his topaz eyes warmed into hot, melty chocolate, and reminded her who was the girl here and who was the boy. God, it must be years since a man had looked at her like that. A look like that could make a girl’s day a whole lot better.
Matt gunned his truck down Headland Drive. Standing in the kitchen flirting with Pippa Turner had made him late. Correction, she called herself Pippa St. Amor now. Damn, the girl got more and more smoking with each year. She’d blown out of town two days after her eighteenth birthday and taken all that heat with her—about the same time he’d decided twenty-two wasn’t too old to ask eighteen out on a date. Like he’d had time to date back then anyway.
Her tears had rocked him. The Pippa he remembered never cried. Not even when she was a freshman and that little prick Declan Sherman tripped her up in the hallway in front of the entire football team. Pippa had gotten up, picked up her books, and calmly kneed Declan in the balls. Declan minced around school for three days after that, and nobody ever messed with Pippa again.
Yet, today in Phi’s kitchen, she’d gone to pieces.
He checked the clock on his console. Damn, late. Late didn’t get the job done, and late meant people waiting for him. Not that Jo had ever managed to get anywhere on time, but that wasn’t the point, as he often told her. He resisted the urge to call and check on Isaac. All his brother had to do was go and see Hank at Builder’s Warehouse and pick up some quarter-inch piping. So why did his gut still burn?
Jo’s teeth-ache orange VW Beetle was parked outside Bella’s. Figured she’d be on time for this. Bella’s was pretty much the only show in town for wedding and prom dresses. He’d come with his sister to choose a prom dress, too, and felt about as useful as he did right now. Bella senior had retired three months ago and left the shop to her granddaughter. Conveniently also named Bella and a classmate of Nate’s.
Maybe he should go and get the quarter- inch pipe and send Isaac dress shopping. He didn’t quite get why Jo didn’t bring Mom with her, but every time he asked, Jo chewed his ear off about how Mom always tried to take over. Always. Women used that word a lot, and he generally took it as a sign to stop listening.
Parked right in front of Bella’s, Bets Schumaker climbed into her car. He waited for her to check her lipstick, finger-comb her hair, and adjust her blouse before she finally got her seatbelt over her and backed out. Slow enough for Matt to hear death breathing in his ear.
Bets smiled and waggled her fingers at him before burning rubber down the road, as if she’d seen the specter of death waiting to take Matt and wanted no part of that. He put five bucks on Bets calling his mom before the day was over.
God, this town! Not even charming enough to make a nostalgic Americana catalog. Of course, the only people who got nostalgic about small towns didn’t spend their lives slowly rusting away in one.
Jo looked up from her phone as he opened the door. Chimes tinkled above his head as he stepped into Bella’s. Just walking in made his balls shrivel. Bella Erikson had a thing for pink and she went wild with it all over her salon—pink and those chandeliers with little dangly crystals on them.
Jo looked about as out of place as he felt, with her heavy biker boots and ragged tee.
Ah hell, she’d added to the tats running down her arms from shoulder to wrist. Not that he had anything against ink, but he would rather it didn’t decorate his baby sister. He could hear Mom’s meltdown already and she wasn’t even here.
Bella bustled over to him with a big, candy-sweet grin on her face. “Matt.”
A tiny blonde, Bella reminded him of a voluptuous Disney fairy with her big blue eyes and perky attitude. Bella always wore the same expression, like he’d handed her a winning lottery ticket just by being here. “So nice to see you again. How is your mother?”
He settled his weight on one leg and waded through her usual hi-how-are-ya ritual. Bella stuck to it with a sort of religious reverence. One by one she would go through each member of the family and ask. Wherever and whenever they met up. It was a little annoying, but kindly meant. It actually seemed as if she cared, because she certainly listened closely enough to the answer. Thank God, there weren’t as many Evans kids as the Barrowses. Nine of them, at last count, and it looked like Mrs. Barrows had number ten beneath the hood.
“And Nate?” Bella went a little pinker around the cheeks at the mention of his middle brother. Nate had his pick of women, was knee-deep in them with his position as sheriff. It didn’t hurt that he was the family pretty boy, either.
“Actually, he sends his regards.” It was wrong on so many levels, but he could never resist. Nate would find himself facing one of Bella’s pink casserole dishes before the end of the day. Honey sweet as she was, Bella needed to hang up her apron, for the safety of stomach linings everywhere.
“He’s good.” Telling Bella that Isaac was still thick as pig shit wouldn’t go down well. Actually, Isaac was far from dumb. Isaac was . . . apathetic. It was as close as he could get to his youngest brother’s issue.
Bella’s face creased in a concerned frown. “Have you heard from Eric?”
“Nope, not lately.”
“I have.” Jo unfolded from a pink, round couch thing. All legs and arms, tall for a girl and graceful. Not that you would notice with the whole gothic grunge thing she had going on.
“You’ve heard from Eric?” The world must be heading straight into the sun.
Jo shrugged. “He called me this morning. He’s coming home for the wedding.”
“Really?” Matt stared at Jo, waiting for her to tell him he was being punked. “We’re talking about the same Eric here? Our brother, Eric. About my height, darker hair, a whole helluva lot uglier.”
A smile lit Jo’s face, and Bella giggled her twinkly, fairy laugh.
Damn, his sister was pretty when she smiled. She didn’t do it enough. Not even when her dickwad fiancé was around. A girl ought to smile a lot around the guy she was about to marry. Okay, he wasn’t a woman and most of the time barely understood what they were jawing about, but it seemed to him brides smiled a lot. They got this sort of glow thing. Jo didn’t glow. She seemed . . . resigned. Grim, even. He’d tried talking to her, but she stonewalled him the entire way. He was her brother, for God’s sake. How much help did she expect from her single brother who had barely enough sensitivity to walk into a dress shop without wanting to run for his life?
Maybe he should try and get Mom to see if she could figure out what was going on with Jo.
Phenomenally stupid idea. So stupid it made the skin of his nape crawl. His mother and Jo in the same room, unsupervised, and talking about feelings? Sweet Jesus!
“Okay.” He smacked a grin onto his face. Jo was getting married. Happiest day of her life and all that. She deserved somebody here looking enthusiastic and he was all she had. Poor kid. “Let’s get you a dress. How do we do this?”
Bella giggled and slapped him on the arm. “Jo has already picked out her favorites. All you have to do is sit over there and tell her what you think.”
His gut went ice cold. Puke your lunch up cold. Tell her what you think. Oh God, no. He might be a caveman but even he knew better than that. “Great.”
He let Bella shove him into a baby armchair with gold tassels all around the fringe. His knees ended up somewhere around his ears. If anyone asked him if their ass looked fat, he was out of here.
“You were late.” Jo raised her eyebrow at him. Her piercing caught the light and winked. “So, I went ahead and made a selection.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I was fixing Phi’s sink. And Pippa is home.”
Jo and Bella swung to look at him, like he’d whipped his dick out or something.
“What?” they both yelled at once.
“Pippa. Her granddaughter. The one who does that TV show. She’s home.”
Bella sucked in a deep breath and her normally pink cheeks went an even deeper shade. “I can’t believe she would dare show her face here after what she did.”
Okay, a picture was forming here. Pippa’s tears, some of the things she’d said, and now this reaction from Bella. Bella saved butterflies and put bows on puppies. Bella did not look like she was inches away from grabbing up her tar and feathers and running a trollop out of town.
“Where else could she go?” Jo shrugged.
Bella bristled a bit more before settling down like a hen to roost. “Still, what she did was awful.”
“What did she do?”
With twin looks of exasperation, they both swung his way again.
“You don’t know?” Jo rolled her eyes. “Where do you live? Under a rock or something?”
“I’ve been working, Jo.” The same thing he’d been doing every day of his life since he took over the business at nineteen.
“Here.” Jo fiddled around with her phone and handed it to him. “It’s had over two million views on YouTube. The thing went viral about five minutes after they yanked the TV show off the air.”
Matt eyed the small screen in front of him. He wasn’t so sure he wanted to see this.
“Oh, yes.” Bella breathed out on an ecstatic little whisper and took the tasseled armchair next to him. “They stopped the show right in the middle and went to commercial break. And when they came back, all they showed was old reruns.”
“What did she do?” Nothing could be worse than his imagination. Sick bastard that he was, he wouldn’t be totally opposed to a Pippa strip show. Him and two million other horny bastards. The idea suddenly lost its appeal.
Bella leaned forward and put one slim hand on his knee. “She destroyed that woman.”
“He’s never seen the show.” Jo gave Bella a look that poured scorn on his unworthy head. “Well, you know it’s like a makeover show.”
“No.” Sue him. He didn’t watch television. He worked, he read, and he tried to get laid often enough not to get cobwebs between his dick and his balls.
“Okay, well, it’s a makeover show. They find some woman—”
“Nominated by her family.” Bella squeezed, her grip strong for such a tiny woman.
“Anyway,” Jo said. “So, Pippa will feature this woman, take her shopping, get her hair and makeup done, and by the end of the show she’s looking great.”
“A bit like Pimp My Ride?”
Jo swelled indignantly before she caught on with a bark of laughter. “So, the last show, the one they yanked, Pippa had this woman called Annie on.”
“Alice,” Bella said.
“Right, Alice. But they called her Allie.”
“That’s right.” Bella smacked her palms together in delight. “I remember because I was thinking that normally they call an Allison Allie, but in this case she was Alice and they called her Allie.”
His ass might end up grafted to a pink velveteen chair at this rate. “So, Allie has her makeover?”
“Yes.” Jo swung right back on track. “And it was going so well.”
“I loved what they did to her hair.” Bella leaned forward, her eyes sparkling. “She had all this gray—”
“And then what happened?” He only had one life to live and he’d already tossed a fair amount of it away waiting for Bets to back out of her parking space.
Jo leaned toward him. “The woman—”
“Allie.” Bella nodded.
“Allie is saying to Pippa how her life is such a mess, and how is a pair of shoes going to fix all that. And Pippa goes nuts.”
Bella’s eyes went wide enough for him to see into the back of her brain. “Completely lost her marbles.”
“I mean, loses her shit.” Jo made a bobblehead. “And starts telling Allie about how she needs to get her life in order, and how ugly she is—”
Bella snatched the phone out of his hand and pressed the play icon on the video. “Here, watch it.”
They must be having him on. Pippa did not lose her shit, not ever. Just ask Declan. He dropped his gaze to Jo’s phone.
Pippa appeared onscreen looking that sort of effortless gorgeous that made him want to ruffle her up and get her hot and sweaty. All that red hair, so sleek and contained, begging his hands to grab fistfuls of it. Why the hell hadn’t he watched this show? Pippa smoked from the screen, wearing some dress that wrapped under her breasts and around her waist. She had the sort of body that he would bet she tried to diet skinnier, but from his perspective her curves were perfect.
He tuned in to the words coming out of her full, red mouth. “You’re right, a pair of shoes can’t change your life, or a pretty dress or even new makeup. Nothing you put on can really change you. You’re fat, ugly, unwanted, and not worth loving, a dress is not going to make any difference. But for now, put the dress on, wear the pretty shoes and see if they help you find something you can love about yourself.”
Bella sucked in a harsh breath, as if she heard it for the first time.
Matt sat there. He hit the replay button and watched again as her beautiful face with that bad girl mouth said those things. And he didn’t believe it. Not for one second. “Pippa never said that.”
Jo stared at him as if he’d lost his grip. “Hello, Matt. It’s right there in front of you.”
“I know.” He handed her phone back to her. “I heard it, but I know Pippa. I’ve known her since Eric dated her sister and I would put my cock on a block she never said that.”
Bella leaned forward and patted his thigh. “Perhaps because you like her so much, you find it difficult to believe. But she was always a bit stuck up.”
He lifted Bella’s hand and put it on the arm of her chair. “Sure, she was stuck up, full of attitude, and totally out of place in a town like this, but she was never mean.”
“Fame changes people.” Bella did a creepy big eyes thing.
Not Pippa. Not only did she have Phi to help her keep it real, Pippa had always been the same—a ball-busting, sexy-as-hell force of nature. Bella and Jo looked set to keep ripping into Pippa, and he needed to chew this one over. Alone.
“Let’s see your dress,” he said.
“But—” Bella creased her forehead into a frown and glanced at Jo.
He folded his arms over his chest and dropped his chin to his chest. Man signal for not-gonna-go-there.
Jo raised her eyebrows and breathed, “Oh-kay.”
Four dresses and about eighty years later, he made his escape.
Three things bugged him as he drove away from Bella’s. First, and God knows how he’d done it, but Isaac had managed to buy the wrong pipe and the plumber had left site, with promises to return tomorrow. Which, Isaac the dumb fuck, had believed. The plumber wouldn’t have even tried that shit had Matt been around. But Isaac, he liked to smile at the world and was happy enough if it smiled back at him. On Matt’s dime.
Which brought him round to Jo and the dress he’d paid for. What he knew about fashion you could write on the head of a nail, but that dress was UGLY. He’d said the right things, even managed to have Bella beaming at him in approval. But that dress . . .
He stopped at the new traffic light on Eighth.
It had no shape. It hung straight down from her shoulders like a frilly feed sack. Not that he noticed, because he was her brother and that was just wrong, but Jo had curves in the right places.
And the glow thing, just not there. Jo had faced her reflection in the mirror with all the enthusiasm of a girl doing the football team’s laundry after a three-week road trip.
Thirdly, Pippa Turner bugged him, and he didn’t give a crap she called herself St. Amor now. To him, Pippa Turner was Pippa Turner with the wild red hair and big green eyes. She’d started off being a pain-in-the-ass kid at family get-togethers, and ended up blossoming into a tall, cool drink of water that made his blood thicken.
Now she was back in town, and the thought made him tingle. Small towns didn’t offer a lot in the way of romantic vistas, or even straight-up sex. He’d learned to take his urges three hours away to a bigger town. Four Evans brothers, all still single and hunting—Ghost Falls did not have the range they needed. But Pippa Turner . . .
The thing with the TV show chafed like a badly fitting boot. He made a hard left onto St. Amor Crescent, his tires screeching their protest on the blacktop. If you had a question, you asked. Straight up. No bullshit and this wondering and picking at a thing in your mind—who the hell had time for that? He pulled around the house into the kitchen yard, dodging the flock of chickens Phi kept because she liked the sound of them.
The top half of the door was open and he peered over into the kitchen.
Pippa was cooking something. At least, that’s what he thought she was doing because she’d changed into a pair of jeans and her ass was in the general vicinity of the oven.
“Matt?” She turned and gave his happy eyeballs another feast. Her top draped over the generous curve of her breasts. “Did you come about the leak?”
“What leak?” He dragged his gaze up to her face. He liked it when she didn’t wear a lot of makeup. Liked the starburst of freckles across her nose.
“My room.” She motioned up the stairs, elegant, effortless. “It seems there’s a bit of a leak.”
“No.” He certainly wasn’t here about the leak. He’d told Phi to get the roof checked months ago. “I’ll come round on the weekend and repair it.”
“Okay then. So what are you doing here?” Direct and to the point, that was Pippa and she deserved a little of the same back.
“Jo showed me the thing.”
“Your sister?” Her pale brow creased in a frown. Summer or winter, Pippa’s skin stayed the same rich cream that didn’t tan. It made him think how pale that skin he couldn’t see would be. “What thing—oh.”
She folded her arms over her breasts and dropped her head. Then, she turned back to her cooking.
“Did you say it?”
She shrugged and stirred the pot in front of her. “You saw the clip, so I must have.”
Okay, he knew an evasive maneuver when he saw one, and he spent enough time with Mom and Jo to read a girl in flat-out defense. He unlatched the bottom half of the door and stepped into the kitchen. “Yeah, I saw it, but I know you and I don’t think it’s true.”
“Really.” At least he’d surprised a short laugh out of her. “And why’s that?”
She took the pot off the burner and turned to look at him. Legs braced, arms crossed, and ready to fight. It was that red hair of hers, gave her a hair-trigger temper that taunted him to light the fuse. “It’s not like you to be mean.”
“I could have changed.”
Now she was pissing him off. “So, you’re telling me you said that shit?”
Her shoulders slumped and the fight bled out of her. “No, I just wondered why you cared.”
Again, honesty was the only way he knew to break tough ground, and he had a feeling Pippa could be all kinds of rocky and unpredictable. “It didn’t sound like something you’d say.”
Her eyes widened, big, green, and beautiful. “And you know me so well?”
“Better than a load of people on the Internet.”
“You’re so full of yourself.” Her top lip curled back from her teeth.
Some days, he’d give her that, but not now. “No, I’m not, I just don’t do well with bullshit.”
“Fair enough.” She looked down at her feet and then up again. “I said it, but not the way it looked on the clip. They edited enough together to make it look pretty damning.”
“Why didn’t you tell people that?”
“I did. I released a press statement, but people believe what they want and the more noise I make, the longer this will go on.”
That plain sucked, and he believed her. Fame might change some people, but those people maybe had a little asshole hiding inside them all along. Not Pippa, though, which meant she wasn’t a total bitch. His dating calendar looked a little more cheerful. “Why did they do that? Whoever did the editing?”
She sighed and her face got that sad look. The same one Jo’s wore in the dress shop. “That’s a story for another time.”
“Like on a date?”
Her head whipped back up and he got a small smile out of her. Made his chest glow like Iron Man.
“Are you asking?”
“Are you saying yes?”
She crinkled her nose up at him. “No. I’m not dating.”
“Ever?” He moved to stand right in front of her, forcing her to look up if she wanted to maintain eye contact.
Her wide mouth almost smiled. “Not dating for now.”
Matt could back off and let it go. Be a nice guy and let her deal with the shit on her plate. Except, he’d been backing off for so many years now, it was flat-out pathetic. She was single, he was single, and okay the timing could do with some tinkering, but YOLO. “What if one friend asked another out on an . . . excursion?”
She pressed her lips together but he caught the smile gaining ground in the twinkle in her eyes. Cocking her hip, she stuck her chin out at him, all smoking attitude and classy girl put-down. “You’ll have to ask first.”
And he grinned like a schoolkid. She had that effect on him. “Good to know.”