Heartache, TN #1
Harlequin Super Romance #1946
Mass Market Paperback, Large Print
Mack never forgot Nina—not that he didn’t try. Yet between caring for his family and organizing the annual Harvest Fest, he’s overwhelmed and he needs Nina’s help. They can work together without getting swept up in memories and the rush of brand-new passion…right?
The night Mack Finley lost his virginity with Nina Spencer, the kisses had been peach-flavored and the summer night had been hot enough to sear the scent of the orchard into his brain.
Now, he couldn’t set foot in his Tennessee hometown of Heartache without memories of Nina lambasting him from all sides. It didn’t matter if it was late summer when the trees lined the road, heavy with ripe fruit. Or if someone simply mentioned her name. Today, when both things happened at once, Mack’s thoughts took an extended vacation to that teenage summer eight years ago.
“Mack?” His brother’s voice came through Mack’s Bluetooth as he wound through the Tennessee hills to the west of Interstate 65 in his old Eldorado convertible. “Are you still there? Can you hear me?”
Mack raked a hand through his hair as he cruised past the gazebo in the town park that had sheltered every family reunion and major wedding anniversary for as long as he could remember. He went past the ancient hardware store that was still independently run despite numerous attempts by chain stores to move into town.
“Yeah. I’m here.” In the tiny town of Heartache, where he’d grown up. He’d stepped away from his bar business for a few days in order to help his oldest brother, Scott, with the town’s Harvest Festival. It was a tradition their father—a longtime mayor—had resurrected to restore community pride during a tough economic period. After his dad’s death last spring, the town council lobbied hard for the Finley family to spearhead the event to honor their father’s memory. Mack dodged most family commitments, but he couldn’t pass off this one because his brother needed him. Not much else could have brought him back to this town. Heartache. Yep. Town’s name summed it up damn well for him. “But I must have heard you wrong.”
He hoped that was the case as he slowed in front of a stop sign near the sandwich shop that his father had gotten on the historic registry two years ago. The registry had described it as quaint. Looked just as rundown as it always had to Mack.
“You heard right.” Scott’s voice lowered as if he didn’t have a lot of privacy on his end of the call. “Nina Spencer is in town.”
“Hell.” The sucker punch still rattled Mack’s teeth the second time around. He drove by rote memory, his brain too stunned to process anything more than that one simple sentence and the overwhelming scent of peaches.
“I would have called sooner, but I only just found out.”
“Nina never comes back here.” About five years ago he’d stopped trying to make sure she wasn’t around whenever he came to town, as it became clear she avoided Heartache like the plague.
That had suited him fine, especially since he’d been married then. Another woman he did not want to think about, especially not today. His hands tightened on the wheel of the convertible as he coasted past an antiques store that marked the end of the main street.
“And she never came here. She’s over at Mom’s house.”
At their mother’s house?
Which meant Mack had all of a minute to get his head on straight before he faced her again. Damn, this was getting worse by the second.
The house where Mack had grown up sat at the end of a cul-de-sac that had once been his grandfather’s farm. Now, two of Mack’s four siblings had homes on the same street. The lot his father had given to Mack still sat vacant. His ex-wife hadn’t wanted to settle in Heartache any more than he had. That had been one of the few things they’d agreed on in their brief marriage.
“What is Nina doing there?” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he turned the corner past the high school football field where he’d left behind a record or two.
The same field where—underneath those bleachers—an ill-fated party had sent his life and Nina’s into a tailspin. “Beats me. I was working in the garage when I saw her pull into Mom’s driveway with her grandmother. They brought…looks like a homemade pie. Mrs. Spencer still bakes a lot when the peaches are in season.”
Nina Spencer was at his mother’s house. With a peach pie.
“Shit,” Scott muttered finally. “I know you drove a long way, and you did it to help me out. But if you want to turn around—”
“No.” Mack hadn’t just made the trip for the Harvest Fest. He’d made it because his brother’s wife was threatening to walk out, and the guy was dying at the thought of losing her and their teenage daughter. So if his being here could help his brother work on his home life, then nothing—not even Nina standing stark naked in front of him with that peach pie—could chase him off. “I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay and do whatever I can to take some of the pressure off you so you can spend time with your family.”
“Are you sure?”
Actually, he’d rather walk through fire. But family came first.
“I’m…yeah. I’m sure.” Mack squeezed the sides of his temples and willed away thoughts of peach-flavored kisses.
He’d always known they’d see each other again. For that matter, it was probably long overdue, if only to sweep the past under the rug and forget about it. Move. The Hell. On.
“Thanks for the heads-up, Scott. I’ll be there in a minute.“ Disconnecting the call and now two streets away from his mom’s house, he steeled himself for the sight of Nina.
No matter the nightmarish way that he’d parted with her, he regretted that she wouldn’t have a minute to prepare herself, too. Damn it, he should have asked Scott to somehow give her a heads-up that Mack was on the way. Because he had the feeling this meeting wasn’t going to be any easier for her than it was for him.
But by that time, he was already pulling up to the old farmhouse. Switching off the ignition.
He listened to his engine tick, tick softly in the still summer air, his gaze landing on the old blue Ford pickup in front of him that had been an antique even when Nina had driven it during their senior year. Nina’s grandmother must have stored it in one of the barns at her place all these years. He’d changed the oil on that truck. Watched drive-in movies from a musty sleeping bag in the bed of it.
He shoved open the car door and stalked up the gravel driveway lined by old sheds that hadn’t held farm equipment in twenty years. Luce—his father’s black lab—wagged her tail in greeting and sniffed his pocket. Seeing no treat in her future, she didn’t bother walking him to the door, retreating to a shady spot under a massive red oak.
The farmhouse needed a coat of paint and new shutters, something his father hadn’t let Mack do while he’d been alive. Stubborn to a fault, the old man had liked to do things himself even when the effort had exhausted him. Maybe Mack would be able to accomplish more than just helping with the Harvest Fest while he was in town. He could use the distraction of painting if Nina was going to be nearby.
Then, without warning, he heard her voice from around the side of the house. What would she be doing back there?
His step faltered. Nina had a laugh he could have picked out from a thousand other women’s. Low and throaty, like she’d just confided a wicked secret. The sound drifted around the corner and out to the front of the deep wraparound porch just as he hit the painted wooden steps.
The screen door creaked on its hinge as the two Spencer women emerged from the old enclosure near the side door. Mack had a nanosecond to see Nina before she spotted him, and he drank in the sight.
Dark blue jeans hugged lean curves and a thin, silvery belt wrapped around a slim waist. A simple black T-shirt and a long chain around her neck with a heart pendant both looked like things she would have worn eight years ago.
Her shoulder-length blond hair was a shade darker and she had styled it sleek and straight. From her profile, he could tell she still had the same broad grin and moody gray eyes. She hadn’t aged a day. Then their gazes collided. Her gasp was audible. Sharp. And about as warm and welcoming as a woman who had just seen a ghost.
“Nina.” His voice caught on her name even though he tried to smile through it. “Welcome back.”
When a woman dreams of running into an old flame—the one who took her virginity then really and truly shredded her heart—she imagined looking like a million bucks, not something the cat coughed up.
Nina couldn’t have been any more humbled to come back to Heartache now, her career in ruins, while Mack Finley cruised up in a vintage Cadillac convertible and looking good enough to eat. There’d been a time when she’d confided all her secret ambitions of success in New York City to the tall, incredibly well-sculpted man standing in front of her.
How ironic that he’d found plenty of success a stone’s throw away in Nashville with a country-music bar, while she was crawling back home to debate the merits of declaring bankruptcy for her cupcake bakery.
From his light brown hair and square jaw to the rogue dimple in one cheek, he was a hot guy by anyone’s standard. And no matter how long she spent outside of Tennessee, Nina was still particularly vulnerable to a man who knew how to wear a pair ofjeans—present company undoubtedly included if she allowed her eyes to venture any farther south than his shoulders.
Awkward silence stretched.
“Hi.” Her heart hammered a crazy rhythm in her chest, which pissed her off considering the way things had ended between them. “Thank you. Nice to see you, too. We were just leaving as your mother doesn’t appear to be home.”
A social nicety to say as much; Nina was certain Mack’s mom was hiding behind a curtain of that big farmhouse and glaring down at her even now. Mrs. Finley had bipolar disorder, a disease that made her unpredictable. She’d made it clear eight years ago that everything that had gone wrong in Mack’s life was Nina’s fault, and he’d be better off—they’d all be better off—if she left town.
Her grandmother, though, had been perplexed when Mack’s mom hadn’t answered the door, and they’d ended up leaving the pie inside the screen porch.
“Oh, good gracious, Mack Finley, let me look at you,” Nina’s grandmother exclaimed, her fingers digging into Nina’s arm for support as she inched forward across the wide plank floor with the help of a cane in deference to her bad knee.
“Careful,” Nina warned, her arm going around Gram’s waist as her priorities shifted to what really mattered—her eighty-four-year-old grandmother’s health. The only thing that could have dragged her back to Heartache.
Daisy Spencer had given Nina a home and a family even before her parents’ bitter divorce sent them to opposite coasts to get away from each other. And away from the burden of parenting. As a child, Nina had been dropped off at her grandmother’s house for longer and longer stretches until her parents just never returned. She owed her Gram more than she could ever repay.
“How are you, Mrs. Spencer?” Mack smiled before he reached down to carefully wrap his arms around her grandmother’s shoulders for a gentle hug. “It’s great to see you.”
The mayor’s son had inherited his father’s charm. Nina met his golden-flecked dark gaze over her grandmother’s shoulder, her body trapped close to his for that brief moment. She caught a hint of his aftershave and her thoughts caught on an old memory of whisker burn on her cheeks after a date at the drive-in.
“You’ve been too much of a stranger these last few years,” Gram chided him, shaking a manicured pink fingernail in his direction while Nina tried to pull herself together.
“But I’m home now,“ Mack assured her grandmother, keeping a hand beneath Gram’s elbow in a way that put his fingers in close proximity to Nina’s where she held her grandmother’s waist. “I figured I should give Scott a hand with the Harvest Fest, so I’ll be sticking around for a couple of weeks.”
Nina stumbled. Her gaze shot to his over her grandmother’s head, but Mack was already talking about hay rides and the Harvest Dance as he helped her grandmother down the porch steps. Collecting herself, Nina matched her step to theirs along the front walkway, but realized that Mack was doing the majority of the work where Gram was concerned.
Had he honestly just said he was in town for two weeks? Right when her cupcake shop had failed and her business partner was up to her ears in scandal? Nina had never thought Mack was the type to gloat. Then again, they’d ended on bitter terms.
“I can manage from here,” Nina interrupted as the Finleys’ old black lab walked with them toward Nina’s pickup truck. “Thanks for the help, Mack, but we’ll be fine.”
Her heart beat hard in her chest. Indignation and wounded pride were stupid things to feel toward a guy who’d dumped her eight years ago. Apparently, coming home brought out her childish side.
“Actually.” Gram cleared her throat. “I have my own ride and I’ll be fine.” She freed her elbow from where Mack had held it and waved at a silver sedan just cruising up the street. In her pink track suit with a big silk daisy pinned to the collar, she was tough to miss.
“A ride where?” Nina squinted into the sunlight. “Gram, I came home to take care of you—”
“But I’m in very good hands,” Gram protested as the car slowed to a stop behind Nina’s truck. “Scott’s daughter, Ally, works at the hairdresser and I need a little color touch-up.” She cupped a handful of white curls and winked at Mack. “A girl is never too old to want to look her best.”
“That’s Ally?” Nina waved at the young woman behind the wheel of the car, trying to reconcile the sad-eyed teen with the wild-child nine-year-old she remembered from when she’d dated Mack. She used to babysit the girl regularly.
Ally held up a hand in the barest excuse for a wave, but her expression remained sullen.
“She picks me up once a month for my salon day,” Gram explained as she shuffled toward the car, favoring one knee. “This time, I texted her to let her know I’d be right around the corner from her house.”
Nina watched Mack help her grandmother move toward the car as he exchanged a few words with his niece and made sure that Luce didn’t trip up the older woman. Had Gram suspected Mack would be here today? Was that the reason for this hasty exit that would leave her alone with Mack?
Nina started digging for her keys to be sure she could make a fast departure of her own.
“Call me if you need a ride home, Gram.” She backed toward her truck once Mack had Gram comfortably settled in the car.