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JESSE HAYWORTH 

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Come fall in love with the Skye family!
Chapter One
(all rights reserved)

“Sign here and here, and initial wherever you see a yellow sticky arrow.” A thick stack of oversize papers came sliding across the glass countertop toward Ashley Webb, obscuring the costume jewelry that glittered in the showcase. When she hesitated, Penny Trueheart, lawyer extraordinaire, said, “Do you need a pen? I brought one with me.”

Fighting an image of her flinging the paperwork in the air and bolting for the shop’s back room—down, brain—Ashley nodded, then shook her head. “Yes, I’ll sign. No, I’ve got my own pen.”

There it was in her hand, bright blue and embossed with: ANOTHER FINE THING ~ the best in vintage couture and thrift shop treasures, Three Ridges, Wyoming. And it was shaking, ever so slightly. Don’t freak. This was what she wanted more than anything else, ever in her life.

It was also a buttload of money. Especially for someone like her.

“This is so exciting! I can’t believe you’re buying the shop!” Henrietta squeezed her arm, then danced away in a swirl of fabric.

Today, Ashley’s sole employee had paired a floaty green sundress with a pair of purple capris and yellow sandals that had big plastic happy faces on them. But, hey, it worked on a woman who wore her long blond hair in dozens of braids and claimed to have been conceived at Woodstock while Jimi Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Penny, on the other hand, wore a blue pantsuit with a starched white shirt, which made her pretty much the anti-Hen. Still, the savvy lawyer had been the perfect go-to for the paperwork when the shop’s founder, Della Fyne, had agreed to split the down payment into two installments that Ashley could sort of, but not really, afford.

If business stayed very, very good.

And she didn’t eat or use any electricity.

Oh, God. What was she thinking?

“Ashley? Are you okay?” Hen’s face came into view, eyes worried beneath a striped headband that might have started life as a sock. “Penny, I don’t think she’s breathing.”

Whooshing air into her lungs—what do you know; Hen was right—Ashley said, “I’m fine.” To prove it, she signed her name on the first line, making herself focus on each letter and not get distracted by the part of her that was going, This is nuts. It’s too much, too soon, too everything. What makes you think you can stick it out this time?

Hen beamed. “Hey, you’re a lefty. Me, too. Did you know we can see better underwater, and we tend to hit puberty faster than righties?” She frowned. “’Course, we also die younger. Oh, and there’s that link to insanity.”

“Exhibit A,” Ashley muttered, and signed next to a yellow arrow sticky.

I, Ashley Webb, do solemnly swear that, having just wiped out my savings for this first payment, I will make the second one in forty-five days. Despite dropping out of college and having never held a job for more than six months before this one—which is on month seven, yay me—I promise that I will be smart and responsible. I will keep up with the regular monthly payments to the bank, insure everything I can think of, do all the paperwork on time, file my taxes, turn over the inventory as fast as possible, make regular buying trips, update the Web site—

Gack.

Turning the page, she initialed next to a sticky. Then another. Her head spun. She was really doing it. She was buying Another Fyne Thing from Della—the whole shoot and shebang, everything from the Armani sunglasses to the thirties-era Zelinka-Matlicks, plus the thousand-square-foot retail space, the warehouse out back, and the five-room apartment upstairs.

“Are you ready for me?” Henrietta buzzed back in, bumping Ashley’s elbow and turning her initials into a scribble.
“Almost.” Ashley dealt with the last few stickies, then handed over the papers. “Okay, witness. Do your thing.”
“Yippee!” Hen went to work with her pen, signing her name with a flourish in vivid purple ink.

Watching the lines appear on page after page, Ashley pressed a hand to her belly and regretted the cinnamon bun she had bought to go along with her coffee, even knowing she shouldn’t spend the money. She could do this. She could. The numbers worked, more or less, and she had been running the shop solo ever since Della moved down to the city to be with Max. Really, all she was doing was taking Della’s name off all the official forms and replacing it with her own. Nothing else was going to change.

Which was a total lie, but at least it kept her breakfast where it belonged. And as Hen finished witnessing the last few pages, Ashley managed to resist the urge to swat the pen cup off the counter and shout, “Wait! Stop! I changed my mind!”

“Okay, Ashley.” Penny made two neat piles with the contracts. “Moment of truth.”

“The checks.” They lay on the countertop, looking up at her with their fat round zeros, like little eyes. Lots of them.
She didn’t know which was scarier, the one from the bank with all the digits, thanks to the thirty-year commercial loan she had gotten by the skin of her teeth, and then only because it was a local bank . . . or the one she had written off her own account at the same bank, wiping out her meager savings plus the overdraft, and including a cash advance from her credit card.

You’re nuts. You know that, right? Utterly mental. The most expensive thing she’d ever bought prior to this was—what, a drum set for Kenny? New tires, maybe? She was still driving Bugsy, the pimped-out VW Beetle her mom and Jack had given her as a high school graduation present, all smiles because she was headed off to art school, the future bright.

Just do it. You can make it work this time. Pressing her fingers onto the checks, she trapped them against the cool glass of the display case. Then she slid them across to Penny. “Here you go.”

And, just like that, she was the new owner of a vintage shop smack in the middle of downtown Three Ridges, Wyoming.
*
“You did WHAT?” Wyatt loomed over Ashley, seeming to momentarily forget that he was holding his eleven-month-old daughter in the crook of his arm. “Are you out of your MIND?”

Little Abby let out a startled “Awoooo!” that reverberated off the rough-hewn log walls and overstuffed couches of the sitting-room-slash-reception-area in the main house at Mustang Ridge—aka the gorgeous dude ranch Ashley’s brother had married into last fall, and where Ashley had lasted six weeks as an employee before deciding that working there wasn’t nearly as fun as being a guest.

Thank God there had been a HELP WANTED sign in the window of Another Fyne Thing. Though Wyatt probably didn’t see it that way now.

He gave the baby a bounce, rearranged his face to a fatuous smile, and sweetened his tone to say, “Sorry, sweetie. Auntie Ashley started it.” With his hat off and his dark, russet-streaked hair standing up in agitated spikes, he looked like an irate porcupine.

A very large irate porcupine.

Ashley just folded her arms. “You’re the one doing the yelling.” Though she was pretty sure she was the only one capable of hitting her big brother’s bellow button.

“What did you expect?” he demanded, halfway losing hold of his baby-soothing voice, so he sounded like an irritated cartoon character. “Of all the harebrained, irresponsible—”

“Annd, that’s my cue.” Krista stepped in and scooped Abby out of Wyatt’s arms. “Come on, kiddo. We’re going to go find somewhere else to be.” Propping the baby on her hip, the pretty, fresh-faced blonde kissed Wyatt’s cheek, shot Ashley an encouraging finger wiggle, and whisked down the hallway leading to the kitchen.

“But—” Wyatt took a half step after them, then stopped himself with a muttered curse and took a couple of deep breaths. By the time he’d turned back to Ashley, he looked less like a furious porcupine, and more like a concerned patriarch of a porcupine.

Which was worse, really. She could deal with his bluster, but his disappointment always got to her. There was too much history there.

“I can do this,” she insisted. “It’s a fantastic opportunity. And aren’t you the one who was always telling me I needed to find something I love, something I’m good at? Well, this is it.” From the first moment she had stepped through the shop door into the bright, chaotic interior and heard the jingle of the little bell overhead, she had been in love.
“I was talking about you going back to school and getting a degree,” he grated. “You know, giving yourself a shot at a real future? Sound familiar?”

As usual, he didn’t even try to understand where she was coming from. “Seems to me you went right back to cowboying after college.” Sure, he was famous now—in a few high-dollar art circles, anyway—for the Wild West–themed sculptures he made from recycled farm equipment. But those successes hadn’t come out of any classroom.

“We’re talking about you, not me. And I’ve gotten plenty of use out of my degree. You would, too, if you’d just give it a try.”

“Too late. I’ve already signed on the dotted lines. All of ’em.”

Besides, she was allergic to school. Her brain was too quick, too flighty. Too ready to get distracted when things stopped being fun and started feeling like work. That was why Another Fyne Thing was perfect for her—the stock was always changing and the customers were a fascinating blend of locals and tourists. And as of today she could mix things up even more—the advertising, the sales, the window displays, all of it. Nothing at Another Fyne Thing would ever be boring again, now that she owned it.

Ohmigosh. She owned it.

Even though she and Hen had thrown an impromptu celebration after finishing the paperwork, inviting everyone up and down Main Street to stop by for cookies, coffee, and ten percent off, there was still a frisson of shock at the thought.

She. Owned. The. Store.

It was impossible. Incredible. Wonderful. Terrifying.

“Are you even listening to me?”

She blinked at Wyatt. “What?”

“You can’t afford this,” he said between gritted teeth. “What if you miss one of the payments? You’ll lose what you’ve already put into it, and destroy what little credit you’ve managed to scrape together since you left the Douchebag Drummer.”

Her chin went up. “I’ll make the payments.” She didn’t want to talk about Kenny. She could only say You were right and I was wrong so many times.

Yes, her ex had been a douchebag, and, yes, she had followed the family tradition—the female half, anyway—by staying way too long in a relationship that was going nowhere but downhill. That was over and done with, though, and just because she had made a whopper of a mistake in her choice of men didn’t mean buying the store was a terrible idea, too.

That was her story, and she was sticking to it.

Scrub went Wyatt’s hand through his hair. “You’re getting in way over your head. You don’t have the first clue how to run a business.”

“Della is going to help me. Not to mention Krista, Jenny, and the others.” The friends she had fallen into—married into, really—when she’d crossed the line into Wyoming with zero to her name but Bugsy, some clothes, and her boxes of art supplies.

He scowled. “What happened to starting small? I thought you were going to stay at the shop until Della sold it, then come back to work here while you got an online storefront up and running.”

That had been his plan, not hers. “I changed my mind.”

“Change it back.”

“No.” It was a single word, a complete sentence. But it was one of the hardest things she had ever said to him.

“Ashley.” He sighed as some of the fight drained out of him. “Be—”

“Happy for myself?” she interrupted before he could say reasonable or logical or any of those other words he was so fond of. “I am. And I hope you will be, too, eventually. In the meantime, what would you say to making me a few mannequins? It’d be killer to have some F. Wyatt Webb originals in my window.”

“I’d say you’re pushing it.” But his scowl lacked the punch it had carried before. “Have you told Mom what you’re up to?”

“I’ll call her in a day or so. I wanted to tell you first.” And when it came to talking to their mother on the phone, she needed a dark, quiet room. Wine and chocolate would be good, too. She stepped in, gave him a hug, and said, “Love you, bro. Even when you treat me like I’m still ten years old.”

“Back then, I could take away your allowance.”

“Now the bank can do it for you.”

He winced. “Don’t say that. Don’t even think it.” A pause. “On second thought, do think it. Maybe knowing that you’re just a couple of missed payments away from having it all yanked away will help keep you on track.”

“I’ll keep myself on track, thank you very much.” And, yeah, the whole bank think gave her a definite twinge. Hiding that behind a saucy smile—flirting was one thing that had always come naturally, even with Wyatt—she patted his cheek, near where she had kissed. “I’m leaving before you decide to scare more babies.”

“Going back to the store?”

“That’s the idea.” It was closed to customers, but there was plenty to do. And it was all hers! Well, hers and the bank’s.

“Change of plans,” Krista announced, appearing in the doorway carrying Abby, who was armed with a fat chocolate chip cookie and back to her usual smiling self. Popping the baby in Wyatt’s arms, she said, “You’re on kidlet duty, because Ashley and I are going out. I already called the others, and they’re going to meet us at the Rope Burn.”

He cradled the baby, looking offended. “Hang on there. Abby and I aren’t invited?”

“Nope.” Krista hooked an arm through Ashley’s and urged her toward the door. “Sorry, cowboy. Girls only. We’re going to celebrate Ashley’s big news!”