I hope readers are as happy to return to Cottonmouth as I am! You’ll meet Nick and Bobbie from She’s Gotta Be Mine Book 1, and catch up with Brax and Simone from Fool’s Gold Book 2! I loved coming back to Cottonmouth after so long! But just to keep things interesting, I’ve created a whole new set of characters to introduce readers to as well. Here’s a blurb to whet your appetite!
There’s something very special about the house Maggie grew up in. It’s sort of…alive. With a mind of its own.
And it has plans for the people living there now.
All Maggie Halliday has left after the divorce is the family dog and the home her grandmother left to her when she passed away two months ago. Maggie’s got no other choice but to run back to her hometown of Cottonmouth, California, only to discover her high school sweetheart, Cooper Trubek, is living in the house, along with four other boarders for whom Maggie is now responsible. And according to Nana’s will, Maggie can’t kick any of them out.
Unless one of them commits murder.
Still grieving for her grandmother and trying fix up the house that seems to be falling down around her, Maggie’s got more trouble than she can handle. Then things go from bad to worse when Samson the dog starts digging in the basement…
Samson so amused me. I loved writing in his point of view. I think my Star must have been a little bit like Samson, even though they look entirely different. I also fell in love with Principal Owen Sterling, and I think readers might find his story coming sometime in the future, too!
Here’s what The Book Sage had to say about Can’t Forget You!
“I’m used to Jennifer’s erotica (writing as Jasmine Haynes), which I thoroughly enjoy. This one is a humorous romantic mystery, with a few interesting elements thrown in. Do you want to know what a dog is thinking? How about a house that fixes itself and dispenses pages of a journal on an “as needed” basis? Or a romance that is strictly NOT erotic? Can’t Forget You has all of these things. Here’s something you need to know about Jennifer Skully/Jasmine Haynes. She can really write – no matter which genre she chooses.”
You’ll find great reading recommendations over at The Book Sage. I’ve loved every one of the books he’s recommended to me so be sure to check out his blog.
So I have to tell you about a special deal! She’s Gotta Be Mine will be part of a new romance anthology called Love is a Mystery: Six Novels of Love, Laughter, and Lawbreaking. A little mystery, a lot of laughs, and whole lot of romance! The bundle will only be available for 90 days, and we’re offering it for only .99. That’s 1400 pages of Kindle reading! So if you haven’t read She’s Gotta Be Mine yet, here’s the way to do it, plus you’ll get 5 other novels! Here’s a line-up of the fabulous authors.
In FROSTED SHADOW by Nancy Warren, there’s nothing pretty about murder. When a cosmetics sales rep is murdered at the annual convention, only Toni Diamond, a sleuth who understands how to make appearances deceiving, can see into the mind of this killer.
In SHE’S GOTTA BE MINE by Jennifer Skully, what better way to show her ex what he’s missing in the made-over Bobbie Jones than taking up with the local bad boy—who’s also reputed to be a serial killer. That is, until a real murder rocks the little town of Cottonmouth.
In THE HONEYMOON COTTAGE by Barbara Cool Lee, Camilla Stewart finds too late that escaping her past won’t be easy. Because local sheriff’s captain Ryan Knight realizes that Camilla and her son Oliver may be the only people alive who can identify a serial killer… and they are next on his hit list.
In STEAMED by Holly Jacobs, cleaning is murder on the manicure. Quincy Mac is a maid in LA—a maid who’s accidentally cleaned a murder scene. Now she’s a suspect with only one option—find the real murderer before she ends up in jail.
THE ZEN MAN by Colleen Collins is a 21st-century Nick and Nora tale. It’s just another ho-hum Christmas party until a murder lands private eye Rick Levine in the slammer on first-degree murder charges. Released on bond, Rick and his girlfriend Laura have 30 days to find the real killer.
In CAUGHT YOU LOOKING by Shelley Adina, when it comes to love and crime, who’s catching whom? Hot on the trail of a technology thief, PI Duncan Moore thinks he’s found him, but he needs proof. So he asks Mallory Baines if he can do surveillance from her upstairs bedroom—which would be great except her family thinks he’s moved in and wedding bells are imminent!
Okay, one more thing! Then I’ll give you the first chapter of Can’t Forget You!
Now you can Somebody’s Lover, Somebody’s Ex, and Somebody’s Wife together in one bundle! The Jackson Brothers 3-book Bundle is available everywhere: Kindle Kindle UK iBookstoreNookKobo All Romance CoffeeTime
And now, here’s Chapter One!
Can’t Forget You
Cottonmouth Series, Book 3
Copyright 2014 Jennifer Skully
Her ex-husband got the new wife, the new baby, the house, the SUV, and their daughter Evie’s undying devotion.
Maggie Halliday got the dog.
“You’re such a good dog. What would I have done without you?” she crooned as she stroked Samson’s snout. Along with his snub pit bull face, stout bulldog body, and Australian shepherd markings, Samson had the sweetest of natures.
Maggie rolled down the windows to let the October breeze waft through the old minivan’s interior. At noon, the air was warm, but it carried the promise of a cooler season. She’d parked beneath a massive oak along a tree-lined lane on the outskirts of Cottonmouth, the hometown she hadn’t visited in twenty years. Less than three hours north of San Francisco, Cottonmouth was a lifetime away.
Across Garden Street sat the weathered Victorian house of her childhood. White shutters had aged to gray, and the roof was minus some shingles, like a faded old lady caught without her dentures. Crab grass, weeds, and gophers had long since choked the lush lawn out of existence. To the left of the front steps, the porch sagged, the support column sinking beneath the overhang’s weight. Its chains broken, the porch swing lay forlorn beneath the dining room window. The paint was peeling, and the dormer windows in the third-floor attic looked as if they’d been sealed shut with time and rot.
A man appeared around the corner of the house, a tool belt at his waist, a stack of two-by-fours balanced on his shoulder. She hadn’t ogled anyone in more years than she could count, but there was something about him. The T-shirt molded to his chest and the jeans hugging his thighs started a flutter low in her belly.
Dumping the wood on the scrubby earth, he went down on one knee to shove what looked like a car jack under the edge of the porch. As he cranked the handle, the sagging support column rose, lifting the overhang. When it was level, he nestled a wooden square between the base of the column and the concrete it rested on. The repair was a stop-gap measure in a slow decline that brought an ache to Maggie’s heart. The house was all she had left of her grandmother.
A black Lexus purred to a stop on the gravel shoulder behind her. Maggie waited for the lawyer to get out of his car. Stacked in the back of the minivan, the detritus of her life obscured most of the view out the back window. Boxes and suitcases filled with clothing, photos, kitchen gadgets, an ancient computer, and other odds and ends were all she’d claimed from her marriage.
The door of the Lexus banged shut. Samson chuffed like a steam engine. He didn’t like loud noises, hated to be yelled at, and was afraid of strangers—at least for the first fifteen minutes. After sniffing feet, pant legs, and various body parts, be they private or otherwise, he was friends for life.
Except for Ray, Maggie’s ex-husband. Samson had cowered before Ray from the moment she and Evie brought the pound dog home. Ray hadn’t even yelled at him yet. Ray Halliday wasn’t an animal person. He said they were too hard to control. Then again, Ray wasn’t a people person either. They were also too hard to control.
Maggie scratched the dog’s ear. “Be a good boy,” she crooned, then climbed out of the van.
Elton Cook was tall, gaunt, and pasty-faced. He’d have made a perfect undertaker. Or a cadaver. Instead, he’d been her grandmother’s lawyer, looking as ancient when Maggie was a child as he did now.
An oak branch scratched the top of his gray hair as he stared at the crabbed lawn, the missing shingles, the sagging porch, and the handyman shoring it up.
“This isn’t possible.” He turned to Maggie, eyes deep and dark in his skeletal face. “Right?”
She guessed what he was driving at. “You didn’t hire the handyman?”
Maggie certainly hadn’t. Her grandmother had died two month ago, leaving Maggie the house and the boarders living inside it. She blinked away the pain at the renewed sense of loss. Officially divorced for six months, a week ago Maggie lacked even a home—the dingy apartment she’d been living in didn’t count. Ray had bought her out of the house, but with the second and third mortgages they’d taken out for remodeling and Evie’s college fund, there hadn’t been much equity to distribute. The trust fund her grandmother had left for maintenance wasn’t going to cover all this. And though she’d gotten money out of the divorce settlement, it wouldn’t last long if she had to spend it on house repairs.
“It didn’t need a handyman a month ago.” Elton Cook whispered, as if the house itself might overhear and fall down as a consequence.
In Maggie’s estimation, it had needed a handyman for a long time. Turning it into a boardinghouse obviously hadn’t earned enough for all the necessary repairs.
“I’m sure my grandmother did the best she could.” A hole opened wide in Maggie’s chest as she thought of all the lost years she’d let build between her grandmother and herself.
“No.” Elton flapped bony fingers. “You don’t understand. She had it painted last year. Then there was the new septic installed nine months ago, and she sodded the entire lawn afterward. There wasn’t a weed in sight when I was out here in the middle of August.” A month and a half ago, two weeks after her grandmother passed on August first.
The handyman hammered at the base of the column, the afternoon sun shining down on his hair in an odd halo effect. In the van, Samson whined. He needed a potty break.
Elton Cook stuck his hand out, straight-armed, a key ring jangling in his fingers even as he eased closer to his Lexus. “I have to go.”
Maggie made a side shuffle to close the distance between them. “You could come in.”
“There isn’t any need.” Mr. Cook took a giant spread-eagled step in the opposite direction.
“Shouldn’t you at least introduce me to the tenants?”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine on your own.” He jingled the keys when she didn’t take them.
“I don’t even remember their names.”
“Hopefully they do.”
Maggie grabbed her grandmother’s keys before he dropped them. Mr. Cook skipped sideways the rest of the way to his car as if he were afraid to turn his back on the house. It might be time to let his son take over the law firm.
“Don’t forget,” he called. “You can’t put them out unless they don’t pay rent or they get arrested and accused of murder.”
“Can’t forget that,” she muttered to the cloud dust he left behind as he peeled out. She’d inherited her grandmother’s house as well as the boarders living there. They could miss six monthly rental payments before she could kick anyone out. Unless they tried to kill her first. She’d have to read the will again; had it said get arrested and accused of murder or was that an either/or?
She tipped her head and gazed across the street. The house and its tenants might actually be worth it if she got the handyman, too.
She was forty, divorced, and it was high time she had some fun, right? Opening the van’s door, she snapped her fingers. Samson hit the ground running. He squatted on the edge of her new yard and christened the dirt for what seemed like a full minute as Maggie crossed the road. Despite being male, Samson was a squatter, not a leg-lifter. Ray said that made him a wuss. Maggie thought it demonstrated he was an individualist.
“Guess your dog didn’t see the sign on the lawn?” The handyman’s voice was deep, the kind of voice you felt vibrating on the inside.
Maggie stared at the crab grass, the weeds, the gopher holes, and the dirt. “We didn’t notice a lawn,” she answered, perfectly serious, not a funny-bone in her body.
He pointed to the marker, a picture of a dog squatting, the universal red not circle over its behind.
“Ah, that’s it. He doesn’t read sign language.”
His lips moved, but he didn’t crack a smile, and Maggie resisted pointing out that it was her nonexistent lawn. After all, he’d fixed the column so the porch no longer sagged. For that, he deserved a thank you. She shaded her eyes from the sun pouring over the roof, opened her mouth to offer it…
And looked up into the face of the man she should have married instead of Ray.
* * * * *
It took Maggie forever to find her voice over the crack in it. “What are you doing here?”
He crossed his arms, staring down at her with something that resembled a smile, but with the sun in her eyes, it could also have been a grimace. “A whole lot of nothing, Maggie.”
God. He recognized her.
Cooper Trubek had been her high school sweetheart. Had been, was, is. It depended on your definition of the word is. He still existed, she still existed, and she’d loved him with all her heart. So Cooper Trubek is her high school sweetheart might be the right way to say it. Despite the intervening twenty-two years, the girl she’d once been had never fallen out of love with the boy. That girl still remembered every precious moment with Cooper from sophomore to senior year.
She could have said all that but, thankfully, what came out was “Samson did number one.”
Cooper glanced at Samson, who sat on his haunches, giving him the mother of all stares.
Up close, Cooper’s dark brown hair was shot through with silver strands, and fine lines etched his eyes. The years had made him better, seasoned, overwhelmingly male, instead of a mere boy of eighteen. Tall, over six feet, he’d perfected a stone-faced demeanor she found daunting. In high school, he’d laughed a lot. Back then, she hadn’t hurt him yet.
His gaze tracked her face, her hair, her eyes, her lips, then down to the tight, low-waisted jeans and snug T-shirt. She wasn’t an eighteen-year-old girl either, and his gaze made her self-conscious, as if he thought she was trying to deny her age. It was just that she’d done all her shopping with Evie who’d always said that Maggie shouldn’t dress like an old lady.
“I live here,” he finally said, without inflection.
Deciding the man wasn’t a threat, Samson rose to his four paws, trotted to Cooper’s side, and sniffed his work boots, then his pant legs. He was heading north when Cooper stuck his hand in the way.
It took that long for Maggie to realize Cooper had answered her original question. “You’re one of Nana’s boarders?”
He nodded. This time, the smile made it to his eyes. “I’m one of your boarders.” Samson circled, and Cooper shoved him away before he sniffed the backside. “I’ve got the attic.”
When Maggie lived in the house, the attic was dusty and dark, one long room with a sloped ceiling, boiling in summer and freezing in winter. How could a person live in the attic? Elton Cook told her Nana had remodeled to make more space for boarders, turning the first-floor rumpus room into a bedroom and adding a shower to the half-bath by the stairs. There were now three full bathrooms. But Mr. Cook hadn’t mentioned the attic.
Maggie snapped her fingers, and Samson slumped in the dirt, laying his snout on his paws. “I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t expect you to”—his voice roughened, the first sign of emotion slipping—“since Cecelia never called you in the entire five years I’ve been here.”
And not for twelve years before that. Did Cooper think Maggie had deserted Nana the way she’d deserted him?
“I should have called her,” she admitted, the guilt like a lump of raw cookie dough in her stomach, the kind of thing you thought you could handle until it expanded. How much had her grandmother told Cooper about Ray and Evie? Short for Evangeline. Long ago she’d chosen the name for the little girl she and Cooper would one day have. She’d dreamed so many things that had never come to pass.
If she wasn’t careful, she’d become maudlin, something she’d tried hard not to do since the divorce. “What happened to the lawn?” And the swing, the porch, the paint? “Mr. Cook said the grass was just replaced.”
Cooper stared at the house, the brown of his eyes deepening. “It got sad.”
“The house got sad?”
“When Cecelia died.” He swept an arm across the expanse of dirt, and Maggie realized the elusive sentiment in his gaze was grief. He’d had a soft spot for Nana, bringing her a treat when he arrived, meringues or flowers or a cookbook. And he’d left her with a goodnight kiss on the cheek. “First week,” he said, “the grass died, second week the weeds and gophers took over.”
Her grandmother’s house had always been…special. The scents of baking cookies and fried chicken lingered long after the kitchen should have aired out. If Maggie wanted a breeze on a summer’s night, she’d find a window open she was sure she’d closed. When she climbed out her second-floor window to meet the most beautiful boy in the world, the trellis suddenly reached right up to her sill. As if the house shared her feelings for Cooper. When she’d let him move to L.A. on his own following high school, the trellis vines grew thorns.
Over the years she’d been absent, Maggie decided she’d imagined all the strange things about the house.
“Maybe the septic’s failing again.” It could have contaminated the dirt and killed the grass.
Cooper went on. “Then the swing fell down, the porch sagged, the paint flaked, and the shingles fell off.” He kicked up one side of his mouth. “I don’t think that’s the septic.”
Her grandmother had loved the swing on a warm night, swaying, sipping homemade lemonade as they discussed the day. The torment when Timmy Tipton sent Maggie a love note only to have their fourth grade teacher intercept it and read it aloud. The tragic loss of Jimmy Howell when he was killed in the sixth grade as he crossed the big highway east of town. Susan Foster getting pregnant at fifteen. What Maggie should wear to the junior prom with Cooper.
All the memories, the years, the times she thought of calling Nana but never did. All the regrets and guilt. “I thought you were some big screenwriter in Hollywood,” she said, a catch in her voice.
His head bent to Samson, Cooper merely raised his eyes to meet his gaze. “You know I never sold a screenplay.”
She hadn’t known. For years, she’d searched movie credits for his name. When Cooper left to make his Hollywood dreams come true, she was supposed to go with him. Fear got the better of her, and she’d allowed him to board that train alone, deserting him with nothing but a note she’d sent via a friend. At eighteen, it had seemed the best way to let him down. Today, she saw it for the coward’s way out that it was.
After that there was college, Ray, then Evie. And now this, back at the house she’d started in as if she were George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. What would her life have been like if she hadn’t thrown away Cooper’s love?
“I’m sorry you didn’t make a movie.” What else could she say? She’d chosen security over a frighteningly uncertain future with Cooper. Two years later, when she’d gotten pregnant, Ray had represented her safety net. She’d chosen what she thought was security, even against her grandmother’s wishes and advice.
She’d lost it all when Ray no longer had a use for her. Even Evie didn’t need her after she went off to college.
She sounded disgustingly poor-poor-pitiful-me, but she’d made her own choices. “Thanks for fixing the porch.”
“Cecelia used to give me money off the rent for doing her odd jobs.” He turned, bounded up the porch steps, then threw over his shoulder, “I don’t expect the same thing from you.”
The message, she assumed, was that he didn’t want anything from her. He disappeared into the bowels of her grandmother’s house, the screen door banging shut behind him. One of the hinges dropped off, the screws pinging on the porch.
She’d deserted him, hurt him, hadn’t talked to him, or written him. She’d owed him more than a note. Yet she’d walked away and never looked back. Just as Ray had done to her over a year ago, the day after they’d settled Evie in her first-year college dorm room in San Luis Obispo. So Maggie knew how Cooper felt.
She shoved the house keys in her jeans pocket, snapped her fingers, and whistled. People didn’t like being snapped at, but to dogs, it was a sound, a command, and if they obeyed, they knew they’d get a treat. Samson followed her back across the lane to the minivan, and she carried the first of her boxes into her grandmother’s house. Her house now.
They say you can’t go home again; Maggie had no choice but to try.