Nearest Thing to Heaven (Maverick Junction)

Nearest Thing to Heaven

Lynnette Austin

New York   Boston

 

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To Joyce Henderson

Thank you for being my friend…

Books are seldom written in isolation, and this one was no exception. To Joyce Henderson and Diane O’Key, my longtime critique partners, go many thanks. Their honesty and encouragement have made me a better writer; their friendship has made me a better person.

I’d like to thank Robb and Tracy Goins at the Chunky Gal Stables, located at the base of the Chunky Gal Mountains in western North Carolina, for time spent with the very handsome Beau, who waited patiently while my wonderful—and equally patient—friend Linda Hiner took photos of us for my website.

Childhood memories are precious and lasting. A nod to my aunt Eileen for the incredibly soft, pale blue sheets loved by both Annelise in
Somebody Like You
and Sophie in
Nearest Thing to Heaven
. My mom always bought plain white sheets—very practical. I loved sleepovers at my aunt Eileen’s—for a lot of reasons—but the blue sheets were a huge bonus. So when Annelise went shopping for her new apartment in Maverick Junction, nothing but blue sheets would do! And, yes, I do have my very own soft, blue sheets.

A big shout-out to my editor, Lauren Plude, whose edits always, always improve my books, and to my incredible agent Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency, who has made my dream come true.

Last, but in no way least, all my love to Dave, who feeds me and takes care of me when I get so lost in my characters’ world that I forget to do it for myself. He’s all the best heroes rolled into one.

N
ot fair!”

Forehead pressed against the icy windowpane, Sophie stared out at the gray Chicago skyline. The mere thought of hopping on a plane made her palms damp.

And now this weather.

Sighing, she sipped from her mug of cocoa and fingered the amethyst in her pocket.

Mother Nature, who’d either gotten up on the wrong side of the bed or suffered from a major case of PMS, was throwing herself one monstrous, rip-roaring tantrum. During the course of a single hour, the sun had disappeared and left behind a low, ominous cloud cover. The temperature had dropped almost twenty degrees.

A mix of snow and rain spit against the glass. Even tucked away in her fourth-story apartment, Sophie swore she could hear the slush on the sidewalks contracting and solidifying to ice. Her taxi ride to O’Hare would be a slip-sliding, horn-honking nightmare.

Only mid-November and already the temperature had dipped below freezing. Dirty snow and boot-soaking slush blanketed the sidewalks. Frigid gusts of wind, intent on seek-and-destroy missions, whipped off Lake Michigan and zeroed in on pedestrians unlucky enough to be out and about.

But by tomorrow, none of this would matter. This afternoon, nerves or not, Sophie fully intended to be on a flight headed to Texas, sipping a glass of wine, and eating the last of her carefully hoarded birthday stash of Godiva.

Breathing deeply, she turned her back on the ugly outdoor scene. Enya’s ethereal voice poured from her stereo and relaxed her…until she glanced at the clock. Shoot! Where had the morning gone?

Her suitcase—her still-empty suitcase—lay open, dead-center on her bed.

With this weather, she’d need an extra half-hour to make it to the airport. Checking the time again, she slapped her forehead, upset with herself. She’d procrastinated—again. Now? She had ten minutes. Ten lousy minutes to pack. Adrenaline surged through her. Being on that plane when it took off wasn’t optional. She had a wedding to attend. Thank God it wasn’t hers.

What should she pack for Maverick Junction, Texas? She’d only been there once before. She’d flown in with her aunt and uncle who’d hoped to talk some sense into her cousin. Turned out they didn’t need to. Annelise’s cross-country trip on her Harley had already accomplished that. They’d stayed all of one afternoon.

But that was then, and this was now. In a panic, Sophie studied her closet’s contents, an eccentric mix of vintage pieces and quirky thrift store finds. Last time, like an idiot, she’d taken white silk to wear to a Fourth of July barbecue at the Hardeman ranch.

The memory brought to mind a handsome cowboy whose kid had dumped his cherry soda in her lap…and the way said cowboy had tried to wipe it clean. Whew! Maybe she should stick her head out the window and cool off.

Ty Rawlins. So hot she could almost forget he cowboyed for a living. The man was something else. Yeah, and wasn’t that the truth? How about starting with the fact he had three-year-old triplets? No, they’d turned four in August, hadn’t they? Annelise had mentioned a birthday party.

Three, four. Made no difference. Anyway you cut it, it still added up to three little boys. And didn’t that cool a gal off faster than any Chicago winter. Yikes. She loved kids. Loved spending time with them. But a mother? She didn’t see herself in that role. Didn’t know if she had enough to give a child.

Toss in the fact that Ty was a widower, to boot. Talk about baggage.
Three
little ones? And a dad who’d lost the woman he loved? She’d have to be insane to jump into that mess.

Insane? Her? No. Behind on her work deadline? Definitely.

And if she didn’t meet it, she’d also find herself behind on her mortgage—and out on her butt on that ice-covered sidewalk.

All that had to wait, though, because this weekend her cousin, her BFF, was tying the knot. Annelise, who’d grown up in the lap of luxury, was marrying a cowboy. An honest to God cowboy. Sophie still couldn’t quite wrap her head around that.

And now she had six minutes. Sophie grabbed clothes and stuffed them willy-nilly into her bag. She opened drawers and pawed through them, pulling out everything she might need and dumping it in her suitcase. She added her iPod to her carry-on along with her pouch of crystals.

Her bedroom looked like a hurricane had roared through. Her fingers itched to set it to rights, but there simply wasn’t time.

Or was leaving it like this tempting fate? Her fingers found the amethyst in her pocket, stroked its smooth surface. No time. She had to go.

Satisfied she’d done all she could, she slung her carry-on over her shoulder, zipped her large suitcase, and, with one last look around, rolled it out to the living room. She had one hand on the doorknob when her phone rang.

Without thought, she answered—and instantly regretted it.

Nathan.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said. “What are you up to?”

Her stomach dropped, and she leaned against the jamb. “Actually, you just caught me. I’m heading out the door as we speak. I’ll be away for a few days.”

“Business?”

“No.”

“Want company?”

A low-grade headache instantly took root. Her neck and shoulder muscles tightened, and she wet her lips. “No, I don’t.”

She hated that he forced her to walk so close to rude.

“Where are you going?”

“Out of town.”

Uncomfortable silence fell between them.

“You won’t even tell me where you’re going?” Petulance seeped into his voice.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “Nathan, we’ve had this talk before.”

“What talk?”

Okay, now he was being deliberately obtuse. “Look, I have a plane to catch.”

“What talk, Sophie?” His voice lost the wheedling tone and took on a harder, demanding quality.

“This isn’t a good time—”

“It’s the perfect time.”

“Okay.” Resolve squared her shoulders. “We decided this wasn’t going to work. That we both needed to move on with our lives. Separately.”


You
decided.”

Her pulse kicked up a notch. She hated confrontation, but she couldn’t give in on this.

“Fine.” Her carry-on slid off her shoulder, and she hitched it back up. “You’re right.
I
decided.”

“I figured by now you’d have changed your mind.”

Oh, boy. This had been hard the first time—and the second and third times. She didn’t want to rehash it. Why couldn’t he simply accept they were done?

Actually, they’d never really started. Nathan Richards. Good-looking, successful, and, at first blush, personable. They’d dated a couple times and had fun. Then he became possessive. Very possessive. He started showing up at her door. At the grocer’s. At the theater.

Truth? He spooked her.

“I haven’t changed my mind. I’m not
going
to change my mind. Good-bye, Nathan.” She hung up and stared at the ceiling. She’d been foolish to get involved with him, but smart to end things.

Her plants. In her hurry, she’d nearly forgotten about them. Dropping her bag to the floor, she moved to the window. Scooping up pots of herbs and lavender, she walked across the hall to her neighbor’s.

Dee was at work, so Sophie set the plants in the hallway outside her door. Rushing back into her apartment, she scrawled a quick note.

Take care of my babies for me, Dee? Thanks so much! You’re a doll!

Love, S.

She propped the card against the pale blue pot of English lavender. Okay. That was taken care of. Her plants wouldn’t wither and die while she played bridesmaid.

The heat kicked on, reminding her to adjust the thermostat before she left. This summer had been a scorcher, and she’d practically lived on Lake Michigan in her little sailboat. But winter had come roaring in early, teeth bared. Only a few weeks into colder weather, and she was tired of it already.

This wedding might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Time and space should cool Nathan’s heels while sunshine and warm weather cured her sudden lack of creativity.

Speaking of…She slid her laptop into its case in the happy event her muse stirred. Even with all the pre-wedding madness, she should be able to sneak in a few minutes of work time.

If she planned to catch that flight, there was no more time to fuss. Sophie turned off the lights, locked her door, and headed for the elevator. Unconsciously, her hand slipped into her pocket to touch the amethyst again.

As she let herself out of the building, she glanced cautiously up and down the street. She wouldn’t have put it past Nathan to have called from right here on her doorstep.

Not a soul in sight.

S
crunched between Chatty Cathy and the Hulk, Sophie mentally kicked herself for turning down Annelise’s offer of a first-class ticket. This was worse than awful. She couldn’t even reach her candy stash.

The chocolate in her bag became an obsession.

She wriggled a hand free and undid her lap belt. Scooting forward in her seat, she dipped into the carry-on between her feet. When her fingers touched the Godiva box, she sighed. Popping a piece in her mouth, she closed her eyes, savoring the rich, dark chocolate. She sent a mental smoke signal to the chatterbox beside her, begging her to take the hint. Amazingly enough, she did.

The taste of chocolate lingering on her tongue, she put in her earbuds and switched on Enya. Nice. Sophie willed herself, body part by body part, to relax. To ignore the bumps as the plane hit little pockets of turbulence.

Her thoughts turned to her cousin’s trek from Boston to Texas. Not only had Annelise located her missing great-aunt, she’d found true love…and saved her grandfather’s life.

Never in a million years would Sophie have the guts to do that. But then, Annelise always had been the more adventurous one.

*  *  *

Sophie stepped from the skyway into the sunny concourse. There stood her cousin. All that gorgeous, long, dark hair and that tall, willowy body. Elegant even in jeans and a cotton T-shirt, Annelise waved at her from behind the roped-off area. Sophie waved back. Would she ever get used to seeing her cousin dressed so casually? Beside her, an arm snug around her waist, stood the reason for that change. The handsome cowboy she was marrying.

The instant Sophie passed the cordoned-off section, Annelise broke free and ran to meet her, wrapping her in a hug. “Oh, my gosh, I’m so happy to see you!”

“And I’m happier than you can imagine to be here.” Sophie hugged her back. “Do I still have slush on my shoes?” She picked up one foot and examined the sole.

They laughed and turned as Cash Hardeman joined them. He dropped a kiss on Sophie’s cheek, then slid the bag from her shoulder onto his. “How was your flight? Annie said you’re a nervous flier.”

“Nervous?” Sophie rolled her eyes. “You don’t want to know. To top it off, I had the seatmates from hell. After I finished my Godiva cache, I fell asleep in self-defense.”

Her cousin’s brows rose. “That wouldn’t have happened in first class.”

When Sophie opened her mouth, Annelise threw up her hands. “Just saying.”

Sophie shoulder-bumped her.

Annelise squealed in delight. “I’m getting married, Sophie!”

“This weekend!” Laughing, Sophie turned to Cash. “How are you doing? Holding up okay?”

Her cousin’s fiancé shook his head. “Eloping would have been a hell of a lot easier.”

“Bite your tongue,” Annelise said.

He gave her a peck on the cheek.

Annelise brought her up to speed on the wedding as they walked to baggage. Sophie trailed along beside her, gawking at the men they passed, wondering if she’d dropped into some alternate universe. They sure did grow their guys big here in Texas.

She definitely wasn’t in Windy City anymore. Practically everybody in the airport sported Stetsons and boots—men, women, and children. Oversized belt buckles seemed to be requisite.

“Your mom here yet?”

“No, she and Dad arrive Friday, so we’ll have some catch-up time before they descend on us. How about a pajama party tomorrow night?”

“Am I invited?” Cash grinned. “I love pajama parties.”

“I’ll bet you do.” Sophie raised a brow.

Annelise jabbed him with her elbow. “Behave yourself.”

“Always.” Then, without breaking stride, he said, “Guess I’ll be forced to get the guys together for a poker game.”

“Guess you might.”

Once they’d collected her luggage and were safely ensconced in the SUV, Cash asked, “How are things in Chicago?”

“Cold and wet.” She shivered. “Have I thanked the two of you for choosing November for your wedding? It made for a perfect escape—from everything.”

When Annelise frowned at her, Sophie shrugged. “I needed a break. You provided one.”

Annelise’s eyes narrowed. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“No, I—”

Cash met Sophie’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “It’s useless. You might as well spill it.”

“Nothing to spill.” She didn’t intend to dampen her cousin’s happiness with worries about Nathan. She was making a mountain out of a molehill, anyway. A thousand miles of separation would do the trick just fine.

“So, a question, Annelise. What did you do with all your business suits now that you’re about to become a rancher’s wife?”

“I donated a ton of them to Dress for Success.”

“Way to go.” She looked down at herself, at the cargo pants paired with a filmy top layered over a long-sleeve T-shirt. “I seriously doubt they’d want anything I own.”

Her cousin grinned. “You have your own sense of style, Sophie. It’s you. It’s a little…different, that’s all.”

Sophie snorted. “You’re so full of it. I dress like a street person most of the time—as my mother is quick to point out.”

“You dress the way you want to.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You hungry?” Cash asked. “We’re gonna meet the gang for dinner tonight, but my guess is you didn’t get lunch on the plane.”

“Good save, Cash. I think you’ll do just fine in this family,” Sophie said. “How long till we’re in Maverick Junction?”

“Couple hours.”

“In that case I need a cup of tea.”

“Got it.”

Spotting a Starbucks, he eased the Escalade into the turn lane.

After he parked, he opened his door but stayed behind the wheel as she and Annelise climbed out and started toward the store.

“Aren’t you coming?” Sophie called back to him.

He nodded. “I was sitting wondering at my good luck. Here I am with two of the most beautiful women on the planet, and, in a few days, one of them is going to be my wife.”

“Oh, cuz, you really hit the jackpot, didn’t you?”

Annelise winked.

Sophie threaded her arm through her cousin’s as they walked into the store. Would she ever be so lucky? Why couldn’t Nathan be more like Cash, someone she could spend a lifetime with?

When it came right down to it, she doubted she’d ever find her soul mate. Some people were simply meant to be alone. And she was seriously afraid she was one of those.

She liked things neat and tidy. Liked order. Liked to be in control when it came right down to it.

*  *  *

They talked nonstop from Austin to Maverick Junction, and the trip flew by. Cash pulled into Annelise’s drive, and Sophie studied the simple two-story white frame house her cousin called home. Thought of the multi-million-dollar estate she’d lived in back in Boston. Glancing at Annelise’s face, she saw the glow there and knew the pundits were right. Money didn’t buy happiness.

“Let me reintroduce you to Dottie, then take you upstairs and get you settled,” Annelise said.

Cash moved to the back of the vehicle and unloaded the luggage. “I’ll take these up to the apartment, Annie.”

“Okay. We’ll just be a minute.” She turned to Sophie. “Do you mind spending tonight alone here?”

Sophie bit back a chuckle. “And where might you be going?”

“I should have said something sooner. I’m sorry, Soph.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You’d look a lot sorrier without that cat-ate-the-canary grin.”

Annelise’s smile grew.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m a big girl. I’m actually allowed to stay all by myself in Chicago.” She shook her head. “And, truthfully, if I had to make a choice between spending the night with my cousin or a cowboy who looked that good in his jeans…Well, not much to think about there.”

“I can’t get enough of him, Sophie. He’s like a drug in my system. I love him.”

“Oh, Annelise. I’m so, so happy for you.” She caught her cousin’s hand in her own and gave it a quick squeeze.

“Brawley will pick you up for dinner tonight. He’s in town for the wedding. You met him at the barbecue.”

“The easygoing veterinarian who’s so gorgeous you just want to lap him up?”

“That would be Brawley.”

By this time, Dottie, Annelise’s grandmotherly landlady, had spotted them and come out the door wiping her hands on a dish towel. Rhinestoned pink glasses dangled from a chain around her neck.

“Welcome to Maverick Junction, honey.” Dottie gave her a quick hug, her charm bracelet jingling. “The Weather Channel said a storm was moving in up north. Hoped you’d make it out of Chicago okay.”

Sophie nodded. “Twenty degrees and getting really nasty when I escaped.”

“Good for you. And who knows? Maybe you’ll follow Annelise’s lead and decide to stay put here in Maverick Junction, too.”

Sophie barely controlled a shiver. She remembered the cows with those long, pointed horns, the smells around the barn. No. She wouldn’t be staying. She didn’t belong here. The place gave her the willies. She’d come for Annelise’s wedding. Period.

After vows were recited and rings exchanged, she, city girl through and through, would return to Chicago with its delis and boutiques, its museums and theaters. Civilization. Where the only animals she’d risk coming face-to-face with would be dogs on their owners’ leashes. Where she could hail a cab to take her where she wanted to go.

Where nothing but the buildings was supersized.

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