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Kissing On The Corner Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Nick hadn’t seen Annie since the week after their wedding—six years ago last month.

She’d married him, just as they’d agreed. Had left him a week later, just as they’d agreed. And he’d filed for divorce, just as they’d agreed.

He cleared his throat and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as he practiced aloud a new version of the speech he had been working on for days now. “Annie, our divorce was never finalized. I left the country and never followed up with the lawyer to make sure everything got done.”

She was a practical sort, Annie was. She’d probably offer him a cold lemonade, and they’d have a laugh over how irresponsible he once had been. Then she’d sign the new set of papers he’d brought with him, and he’d kiss her on the cheek when he left. And they’d go back to life the way it had been for the past six years.

Unless, of course, she’d remarried.

He pulled his Range Rover to a stop in front of a big pale-yellow Victorian house, and lifted his sunglasses to squint at the sign in front.

Unless of course, he’d made her a bigamist.

Bailey House Bed & Breakfast. He drew a breath. This was the place, exactly where the old woman at the gas station on the edge of town said he would find it. Small-town Wisconsin at its finest.

He shoved open the car door and stepped out into the late afternoon summer sun. A crumbled fast-food bag and a toothbrush dropped out onto the pavement. He scooped them up and tossed them onto the passenger seat.

Why was he nervous? Annie would still be Annie. Whether she’d married or not, all she had to do was sign the papers and they’d slip back into their lives—no one the wiser. Well, no one but her other husband . . . and the judge who would have to remarry them . . . and a couple of witnesses—

He buried those thoughts and headed across the walk and up the stairs to the wide front porch, noting the paint just beginning to peel on the old wood. There were layers of old buildup underneath, layers that would make this place a nightmare to scrape and paint. Thank God he wasn’t the owner.

He jabbed the doorbell and put a pleasant expression on his face. After a long minute without a response, he pushed the bell again. Maybe he should have called instead.

No, it was bad enough they were still married. It would have been far worse to tell her that over the phone.

Suddenly the door swung inward, and Annie stood before him in cutoffs and a T-shirt. Barefoot. Radiant. Deep blue eyes shining. Tawny blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, a grin on her face as though she were ready to take on the world.

Annie.

He couldn’t remember the Annie he knew, the waitress in the all-night coffee shop, looking so gorgeous.

“Hey, Annie,” he said.

Her eyes widened. Her grin disappeared.

An older woman’s voice floated down the hallway from somewhere behind her. “Tell Vivian I’ll be right out.”

“Get out of here,” Annie said in low voice. “Now.”

What? He took a step toward her. “I know this is a surprise, but I need to talk to you.”

The older woman spoke again, her voice closer, louder, with each word. “Annie, dear, I’ll be back in time to help you flip the mattresses.”

Panic stole over Annie’s face—panic that was instantly replaced by an expression of fierce determination. In one nearly seamless movement, she launched herself out of the doorway and into his arms and began to kiss him like he was the long-lost love of her life.

She pressed herself against him as if willing him to put his arms around her, and for a brief stunned moment, he pulled her close and returned the kiss. Then his brain kicked into gear and he took her by the arms and pushed back a bit.

“What—” he choked out.

“Good heavens!” the older woman screeched as she came through the doorway and spotted Annie in his arms. “He’s here!”

Behind her, a gold-and-black, watermelon-shaped mutt bounded out onto the porch and began to bounce around them, barking incessantly.

Nick tore his gaze from Annie and focused on the diminutive gray-haired old woman; every line in her soft face angled upward from her joyous smile. Almost dancing with excitement, she reached up to tug his head down and kiss his cheek.

And the dog just kept barking as if he’d spotted the bone of his dreams.

“Chester! Quiet! Chester!” Annie shouted.

“I’m Luella!” the old woman cried over the chaos.

“Be quiet!” Annie grabbed hold of the dog’s collar and dragged him toward the door.

“So happy to finally meet you. You look just like your picture,” Luella said in a voice still loud and high. “I’ve been the inn’s housekeeper for twenty years. I keep your Annie from overworking herself, what with that little bun in the oven.”

Bun? His heart seemed to slow. Pregnant? Husband?

He shifted his gaze to Annie just as she snatched up the squirming dog and spun around, the desperate expression on her face now a mixture of horror and hope.

Bigamist?

Her eyes locked with his.

“I, ah—” he stammered.

Behind him a car horn blared and he jumped, startled. He turned as the driver slammed on the brakes of her silver Lincoln and skidded to a halt just inches behind his SUV.

“Oh! Vivian’s here!” Annie almost screamed in panicked glee. “You don’t want to be late for Women’s

Club.” She shoved the dog into the house and pulled the door shut before he could escape.

Luella shook her head. “That old lady. Always has to make a grand entrance.”

The blue-haired woman at the wheel laid on the horn once more, and then a third time.

“Oh! She’s in fine form today.” Luella patted him on the arm. “I’ll just have to find out everything later. Just wait until Vivian hears the news.”

She headed down the steps. “I believe this calls for a glass of wine with our supper, don’t you think?”

“Have two,” Annie called. ‘Take your time.”

Luella glanced back at Nick and grinned. “Oh yes, dear. I see what you mean. We’ll make it a long meal.” She’d hardly gotten into the car and closed the door before it sped off, leaving the faint smell of burning rubber in its wake.

“Good God,” Annie muttered. “This is going to be all over town in half an hour.”

“What the hell is going on?”

She sighed and shook her head. “You might as well come in. Want a lemonade?”

At least he’d been right about one thing. “Sure.”

As Annie pushed open the front door, the dog leapt toward them, whining excitedly, tail whipping from side to side as it nuzzled Nick’s legs in greeting.

“Just ignore him, he’ll calm down.” She led the way to a big, bright kitchen filled with the sugary, buttery-rich scent of chocolate chip cookies baking.

“I always have homemade cookies for the guests. I want them to think of Bailey House as home while they’re here.” Annie took a pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator and a couple of tall glasses from a cupboard. “Bake up a fresh batch every couple of days so the cookie jar is always full.”

She handed him a glass of lemonade, slice of lemon floating on the top, and he took a seat at the old oak table in the center of the room. The tall windows facing south opened to the kind of view most people only dreamed of having—a long expanse of lawn sloping gently toward a sandy beach on a lake that looked to be surrounded by pristine forest.

A moment later, Annie set a plate of warm cookies on the table and slid into the chair opposite him. The dog collapsed on the floor beside her, apparently exhausted from expending so much energy the past five minutes.

“I guess I owe you an explanation,” she said.

He waited.

She looked down at her hands, clasped together on the table. “Two years ago I bought this B & B with the money you gave me. Well, first I went to college so I could learn how to run a business. Then I found this place.” Her voice quivered and she reached down to rub the dog’s head. “It’s a great little town . . .”

Enough with the color commentary. What about the bun in the oven? “Annie—are you pregnant?”

Her expression shifted as though the question caught her completely off guard. She looked like she was about to say something and stopped herself, then drew a slow breath and exhaled. Avoiding his eyes, she stared at the ceiling for a long moment before finally bringing her gaze back to rest on him. She bit her lower lip and made a futile gesture with one hand, as though the motion might give him an answer.

He raised an eyebrow.

She nodded.

Shit. “Married?”

“No.”

He let out a breath. At least he hadn’t made her a bigamist. He picked up a cookie. “So where’s the father?”

She locked eyes with him, and he waited. A charged silence seemed to fill the room.

“I’m looking at him,” she finally said.

He jerked his head back to look over his shoulder but no one else was in the room. What was she saying? “What?”

“Everyone thinks I’m married to you—”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute—” He tried to force his brain to catch up with the conversation.

The words poured out of her. “I didn’t plan for it to happen—I didn’t. It just . . . happened. I’ve been meaning to put an end to it, really I have, but—oh, now that you’re here, they’re going to know I’m a fraud. They’re going to know you’re not the father. They’re going to think I lied on purpose.” She let out a groan. “Actually I did lie on purpose, but I didn’t intend it to go this far. It just . . . got out of hand.”

She heaved a sigh and flopped back into her chair. “Everyone in town is going to think I’m just another fake taking advantage of their trust—”

“Hold it! You’re not making any sense. How did I get into this story? What about the real father? Isn’t he interested at all?”

“Interested?” She shook her head. “He doesn’t even know.”

“That’s your first mistake! With all due respect, don’t you think it might help if you told him?”

“Sperm donor.”

“Huh?”

“Artificial insemination.”

“Oh.” Ohh. He found his brain empty again. How was he supposed to respond to an announcement like that? Good for you, I see it worked? Shit, I’m relieved that some guy wasn’t sleeping with you and left you hanging like this? What the hell, why would you get yourself artificially inseminated, anyway?

“So you did this on purpose.” A bit witless, but at least he said something.

“No.”

His eyes widened.

She snorted. “Well, of course I got pregnant on purpose. How else do you think one gets artificially inseminated?”

“No need to get testy. I’m not the one who lied about who the father was.”

“I didn’t lie about the father.”

He frowned. Why did it feel like he was just seconds away from being sucked into a whirlpool?

“I lied about being married. So, naturally, everyone just assumed who the father was.”

“Oh, well then it’s all okay,” he said sarcastically.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen like this. I was researching Bed & Breakfasts so I would know how to run one when I finally bought a place. I came here to visit because it was called Bailey House, and it was in Bedford.” She gave a sheepish grin. “You know, kind of like the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. While I was here, there was this college kid who was doing yard work for the summer who kept asking me out. It was just easier to say I was married. Besides, I thought I’d be gone after a week.”

The timer sounded and she jumped up to slide a tray of cookies from the oven. “But then I got to talking with the owner. She and her husband wanted to retire. They wanted to sell. They hadn’t put up a For Sale sign because they were being really picky about who they’d sell to.”

“You’re losing me.”

Annie turned to face him. “They raised their family here. They loved this place and wanted to pass it on to someone who would love it as much as they did. Someone who would raise a family here. Someone who was married.”

She scooped hot cookies off the baking sheet with a spatula, her words coming faster. “And there I was, enamored of the place, and married—or so everyone thought because I’d said I was. And then, somehow, suddenly, I was buying the place from them and staying on. I figured I would eventually say you and I had gotten divorced, but I couldn’t do it too soon or everyone would be suspicious.”

She looked him straight in the eye. “You know what I mean?”

“Not really.” He took a large swallow of lemonade and had the fleeting thought that by the end of this story he was going to wish he had something stronger to drink.

“Didn’t anyone ever wonder where your husband was?” Nick couldn’t keep the incredulity out of his voice. “And—how did you explain the pregnancy?”

Annie shook her head. “You’re a top-secret military guy. The only way we ever got to see each other was if I met you at military bases around the world. So every now and then I took a trip. That’s when I got pregnant.” She put both hands on the counter. “I didn’t see any hope for love, or marriage, in my life. So I decided to quit hanging my hopes on some guy I hadn’t even met and go for it alone.”

“Annie! This is no little white lie—you’ve created a whole other world. Didn’t your parents teach you not to lie?”

“I don’t need a lecture, thank you, Mr. Not-So-Pure-Yourself.”

She picked up what looked like a miniature ice cream scoop and began to attack the bowl of cookie dough, scooping and dropping neatly rounded balls of dough onto the baking sheet. After sliding the tray into the oven, she took the chair opposite him again.

“It was never supposed to go this far.” She gave him a pointed look. “And you were never supposed to show up. What are you doing here, anyway? Don’t tell me you just decided to drop by so we could rehash old times, because I might kill you.”

“We’re still married.”

“In the eyes of everyone in town, yes.”

“No, Annie, I mean we’re still married. The attorney never filed the divorce papers.”