Cover Design: Melanie Harlow @ Clause & Effect
Devon Murphy has been back in Rowan Harbor for three months. He’s taken on a host of new responsibilities, and is in a serious relationship for the first time in his life. He loves the town and its inhabitants, but it’s starting to feel like too much for the former drifter.
Now there’s a storm on the horizon, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to slow down and let him catch his breath. A blizzard is brewing, and three people have gone missing in the woods south of town. Devon needs to find them before time runs out.
This book is the fourth of nine in The Rowan Harbor Cycle, not a standalone. Devon and Wade will return in book seven for their HEA.
“I’m honestly not sure what you did here, honey. You’ve got the same number of stitches, but that cable just isn’t right.” She held it up toward the overhead light and peered at the half-made sock.
He could make a plain row with his eyes closed, but whenever he tried the cable pattern, the result was twisted and gnarled, all sharp edges and wrong angles instead of smooth, intertwined curves.
She set the sock down on the counter and smiled at him. “I have an idea. Why don’t we just change the pattern? Play to your strengths, that’s what I always say.”
Salli, coming up behind her, snorted. “No, you always say face your fears and embrace the steek.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Devon told them, sighing and leaning on the counter. “Am I totally hopeless?”
Annie ruffled his hair. There weren’t many people in town he would accept that from, but Annie Anderson was . . . well, she was about the only one. Maybe Madame Cormier, the venerable witch on the town council, but he doubted the serious, dignified lady would be interested in ruffling his hair.
“You’re fine,” Annie said, and rested her hand on his. “This is all new to you, but you’re learning fast. You’ll get there. It just takes time.”
The intense look she gave him implied she was talking about more than knitting, but Devon wasn’t sure he wanted to ask what she meant.
“It looks kind of cool, even if it’s wrong, like tree roots or vines or something,” Salli observed as she took a bite of the apple she was carrying and leaned across the counter toward Devon. “You’re not staying for knit night, are you?”
That made him frown. “Why not? You guys don’t want me here?”
He’d thought he was getting better at handling the shop’s busiest night of the week. There were always dozens of people, coffee and tea, snacks—heck, sometimes people even brought wine—and at first, the night had been a little overwhelming. Running a shop packed with people was a lot of work, especially when they all wanted to ask questions about merchandise he was still learning himself.
But he was getting the hang of the job, or so he’d believed.
Annie and Salli were looking at him like he was the biggest idiot ever born.
Annie sighed, shook her head, and looked over at Salli. “How much do you want to bet he hasn’t done anything?”
“How much of a sucker do you think I am?” Salli asked with a snort and took another bite of her apple.
“Devon, honey, do you know what day it is?” Annie asked.
Salli picked up his weirdly cabled sock with the hand that wasn’t holding the apple, inspecting the row of stitches. “Wednesday,” she agreed. “Wednesday, February . . .”
He took a second of mental calculation to place the date. It wasn’t as though he had a schedule that forced him to pay close attention to that. So it was Wednesday, February—
“Fourteenth,” he answered. Then he realized what they were getting at. “Oh, come on you guys. Valentine’s Day? As much as I like chocolate, why would I be interested in a candy-industry holiday?”
The two women shared another look before Salli leaned in toward Annie. “Maybe you were wrong about him getting the hang of this.”
Annie shook her head, resolute. “Absolutely not. He just needs time.” She took the sock from Salli and stuffed it into the bag where Devon was keeping it, along with the cake of gray yarn. “And right now, he needs to go upstairs and put on nice clothes.”
They both stared at him.
“But why? I mean, it’s not like Wade and I have anything planned.”
Neither woman said a word.
He sighed and turned to stomp off toward the stairs to his apartment. “Fine, I’ll put on different clothes. But if Wade asks why I’m all dressed up, I’m blaming you two.”
All the way up the stairs, he muttered to himself about interfering friends and small-town gossip. His boyfriend wasn’t into hearts and flowers. Wade was a serious guy, and when he wasn’t being serious, he still wasn’t the romantic type. The lack of romance didn’t bother Devon. He was comfortable with Wade not being over-the-top romantic.
Sure, everyone wanted to know they were valued, but Wade was good at telling Devon that without words or chocolates. It was there in the way his face lit up when he saw Devon at the end of a long day, or his pleased sigh when they woke up spooned together. It was definitely there in the way Wade made them breakfast on Thursday mornings. Wade was enough without some day invented by capitalism to sell heart-themed merchandise.
But if it would please Salli and Annie, he would change clothes. He toed his shoes off as he passed the doorway, then tossed his T-shirt and jeans in the hamper as he passed it. Halfway into the walk-in closet, he turned and stripped off his plain white briefs, adding them to the dirty clothes. If he was going to go to the trouble of dressing up, he might as well put on nice underwear too.
Twenty minutes later, he was examining the results in the mirror. All black except for a dark red button-down, and he just might have found a pair of underwear to match the shirt. His auburn hair was still a mess, but nothing ever fixed that. People always seemed to think it was an intentional mess, so he didn’t worry about it.
Instead of slipping his sneakers back on, he decided on a pair of black boots. They weren’t much nicer, but he didn’t own a truly fancy pair of shoes. He hadn’t ever had the money for that.
He glanced over to the window to check the sky, not even sure why he’d bothered. It was the same as it had been for almost two weeks: gray and threatening. It felt ominous, but he’d never spent a February in Rowan Harbor before, so maybe it was normal. No one else seemed bothered, so he was trying to keep his concern to himself.
He didn’t want to be the guy who went around asking, “Cold enough for you?”
When he got back down to the shop, Salli and Annie were still standing at the counter, and they turned to examine him. Annie twirled her finger to indicate that he should turn around. Confirming the fact that Annie was a creature of pure magic, Devon complied without complaint.
No, he didn’t think she’d magically forced him to turn around. He just hated the idea of disappointing her, so he did what she wanted.
“It’s passable,” Salli said, her tone grudging, as though she thought he could have done much better.
Annie walked over and patted him on the shoulder. “I think you look very nice, dear. I don’t know why your hair won’t lie flat, but I suppose that’s the way people like it.”
He shrugged but didn’t answer.
“Jeez, look like you’re headed for your own execution, why don’t you?” Salli asked. “It’s Valentine’s Day. It’s not like he’s going to take you out for fried grasshoppers or something.”
Devon scrunched up his nose. “Do they serve that?”
Salli shrugged but then nodded. “Somewhere, no doubt. I mean, it’s all protein, right? But nowhere in Rowan Harbor that I know of.”
“You’ll make the boy nervous, Salli,” Annie told her, waving her off. “I’m sure Wade knows his taste well enough to feed him. And if I remember correctly, Wade’s quite the cook.”
He looked between the two of them and shook his head. “I’d promise not to say I told you so, but I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself.” Sometimes it would be convenient to lie, he thought. It was a recurring theme in his wishes, but there were worse things than being known for telling the truth.
The two of them ignored the admission of impending rudeness and fussed over his hair for a minute.
“That’s even worse,” Annie said with a sigh, stepping back.
Salli gave a sharp nod. “Perfect.”
He was about to open his mouth to once again tell them that they were crazy, but the electronic bell over the door jingled, and they all turned to look.
It was Wade, looking windblown and gorgeous. He was wearing date clothes too, a white button-down and pinstripe trousers. That wasn’t so shocking; Wade dressed up when he intended to go out for dinner.
But . . .
In one hand, Wade held a long-stemmed red rose. In the other was a picnic basket.
Part of Devon wanted to groan. Salli and Annie had been right, and how did they know Wade better than him? Never mind the fact that they had spent decades around the man and he hadn’t; weren’t he and Wade supposed to be some sort of fated soul mates? How had he not seen this coming a mile off?
It wasn’t too hard to admit, if only to himself, that most of him thought it was adorable and endearing. Wade had made a picnic.
“It’s February, Wade,” he said. “It’s going to snow.”
Everyone in earshot groaned, including a lady sitting halfway across the shop who had been engrossed in her knitting. She pushed her project into her bag and stood. “I guess I’d better get to the grocery store and pick up some essentials in case it gets bad.”
Salli leaned back against the counter. “Should we cancel knit night?”
“Please,” Devon said with a roll of his eyes. “People would show up for knit night if there were an earthquake currently happening. Worst comes to worst and you can’t get home, you can sleep on the bordello sofa. It’s comfy.”
Annie quirked an eyebrow. “Bordello sofa?”
Normally Devon didn’t explain the sofa, but the exchange with Annie reminded him that she was older than his grandmother. Bordello wasn’t a word he used in conversation with his elders, and his cheeks heated at having to explain. “That was what Mom called it. I’m sure it was never—”
Annie waved him off. “I get it. Now, since you shouldn’t be going out, you two should go sit on your bordello sofa and eat the lovely meal I’m sure Wade has made for you. Shoo, off you go.”
Wade gave him a shy smile and held up the basket. “A picnic in your apartment okay?”
Devon couldn’t say no. Not because he didn’t want to disappoint Wade—he couldn’t even lie to spare Wade’s feelings—but he found that, surprisingly enough, he kind of wanted to eat a picnic in his apartment.
He was glad he’d changed clothes. Salli winked at him as they headed toward the stairs, and even though he knew she was going to give him hell later, he was grateful to have her as a friend.
“Everything okay?” Wade asked, his voice tinged with a nervousness that Devon wasn’t used to hearing from him.
He looped his arm through Wade’s. “Yeah, I think so. Unexpected, maybe, but just fine.”
Sam wrote her first fantasy epic with her best friend when she was ten. Like almost any epic fiction written by a ten year old, it was awful. She likes to think she’s improved since then, if only because she has better handwriting now.
If she’s not writing, she’s almost certainly either reading or lost down a wikipedia rabbit hole while pretending to research for a novel.
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