Welcome back to Petal, Georgia in this spin-off of the Chase Brothers series by Lauren Dane.
At twenty-eight, Lily Travis never imagined she’d be back living with her mom and dealing with her messed-up little brother. Yet that’s exactly where she finds herself, seven long years after she left Petal, Georgia—and the boy who broke her heart—in the dust. Her first order of business? Getting her ex to help turn her brother’s life around.
If he happens to notice just how much she hasn’t been missing him, all the better.
As a teacher, Nathan Murphy is used to dealing with the unexpected, but nothing prepares him for Lily—looking like a smokin’ hot vintage pinup come to life—strolling through his door and right back into his heart. He always regretted the way things ended between them; this could be his chance to make up for past mistakes.
Lily can’t resist Nathan’s Southern-honey charm, or the way he makes her melt when she’s in his arms. She fell for him once—falling for him again could destroy her. But it could also mean finding love in the last place she ever expected: home
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A Visit to Petal, Part One: Alone Time
All couples need a little alone time. Glimpse what the citizens of Petal are up to in between Once and Again and Lost In You, the next book in the series. Now available at the end of the novel!
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This book is approximately 46,000 words
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Lily wandered through her new home — the apartment above the garage. Hard to fully think of it as home when just two weeks ago it'd been a collection place for unwanted crap her mother refused to get rid of.
She looked at herself in the mirror one last time before heading to the house to grab her brother. She didn't have a suit or anything, but she used what she had. She'd come to realize appearances were indeed important when it came to dealing with authority figures. These were Chris's teachers and his principal, their support would go a long way in helping him get where he needed to be.
Competent. Yes, that was it. She wasn't Chris's mom and she was still relatively young so she wanted to appear competent. Solid. A together, trustworthy adult sibling pitching in to get Chris back on track at school. Lily thought she might have nailed it. Enough to do the job anyway.
And, she thought as she took another look, perhaps it was petty, but she thought she also looked good enough that when she had to deal with Nathan, he'd see what he'd been missing.
Not that she'd put any thought into how he might react when she saw him again after so many years. Or what he felt in general. Much.
Of course the snort of amusement might have ruined that statement.
Taking a deep breath she went down and saw the box she'd told Chris to carry up to her place still sitting next to the car. "Chris! Get over here and take this box."
"I don't see why you didn't just hire someone to do this," he muttered. But he did it, carrying the box upstairs with care to keep those grumbles under his breath.
He came back out quickly and she sent a smirk his way. "Why would I pay someone when I've got a perfectly good fifteen-year-old who can pick things up and move them?"
"Free? Ha! You cost a lot more than free, kid. In any case, you've got to step up your game. Helping out around the house is part of that."
Inside, their mother wandered around watering plants. It was as if there was no problem at all. Or hell, that they were even there really. Lily turned to her brother, stepping between him and their mother to interrupt his attention.
"Get your stuff, I'm taking you to school in fifteen minutes. You can look like a hobo, or you can clean yourself up. Either way you're in my car and we're leaving in fifteen minutes."
"I heard you the first time. I get it. Fifteen minutes." His defiance didn't last long and he broke eye contact, dipping his chin. But he wasn't quite done. "Still don't see why you have to go with me."
"Let's establish up front just how not okay it is to talk to me with an attitude other than yes ma'am. As for your statement that you don't know why I have to go with you. Seems to me, Christopher, that's your problem in a nutshell. Wake your ass up and get yourself together before you end up pulling Slurpees for people for the rest of your life." She looked at her watch. "I'm leaving this driveway in fifteen minutes and you will be in the car. Tick tock." She gently prodded him out of the room and finished the last bit of her own preparation as she gulped down her coffee.
Her mother came into the kitchen and began to clean up the non- existent mess.
"I'm going to take him and then meet with his principal and as many teachers as I can. I should be back by noon or so, but you have my cell number if you need me." Lily checked her bag to be sure she had the folder of information she'd need for that.
"Oh is that today? All right then." Pamela Travis looked troubled for a moment and then smiled.
"Yes. And we can talk about it when I get back, all right?" Lily had actually hoped her mother would come with her to these meetings, but the strong woman Pamela might have been when her children were young had slowly fizzled out until she disappeared completely when Rodger had walked out.
Six months ago, right before the start of the school year, Lily's father up and announced he'd filed for divorce and was in the process of moving in with his new girlfriend. Emphasis on the girl. A twenty-year-old who'd babysat for Chris many times. Chris had called Lily right away, and she'd come to Petal to find her mother a wreck and her brother at loose ends.
Her father was just fine. As if there'd be any doubt he wouldn't be sure of that. The one person in Rodger Travis's life who got his consideration and time was Rodger Travis. This dumb hooker he'd shacked up with hadn't been the first, though she was probably the youngest. He'd left town and had been back exactly once to see his son.
Wasn't like Atlanta was the other side of the earth. No, it was an easy enough commute for him to make at least once a week. Too bad he was so wrapped up in banging a girl barely old enough to have graduated high school.
It wasn't really a surprise then, that in the wake of all this upset, her sweet little brother had started messing up big time. Things quickly got out of control. Cutting school. Bad grades and even, two weeks before, a trip to jail when he'd been busted drinking in the abandoned barn out on Summit Farm. Stupid.
Over drinks, at two in the morning, her mother had finally confessed the depth of the problem and her inability to handle Chris.
Lily had found out a number of things that night. First that her mother had turned increasingly to the numb reality of an entire bottle of wine with her anti-anxiety medication. Second, that her father wasn't interested in the mess he'd turned his wife into or the devastation his abandonment had brought to his son's life. When Lily had spoken to him, he'd helpfully suggested Lily take out a loan to send Chris to military school. Their older sister, Nancy, was an opportunistic, lazy bitch and would prove no help either. Which, to be fair, she knew before that night.
Getting Chris back on track had fallen to Lily, even though she'd escaped Petal years ago and hoped not to look back.
She had to look back now.
Speaking of Chris ... She looked at her watch. "Let's go!" She headed down the hall where she found him on his bed with a handheld video game system and his headphones on.
"You're not my mother," he said sullenly.
"No, I'm not. I'm your sister and I'm here because of the wreck you're making of your life. I love you and I'm here to put a stop to it. So. You can get up on your own and walk out, or I swear to you, Chris, I will show up in every single one of your classes and sit next to you to be sure you're there. Moreover, I will drag you by the back of the neck from one place to the next. I am not having it. Your little vacation from reality is over. Get. Your. Butt. In. The. Car. Now."
Grumbling, he still got a move on at last and headed toward the door. She took his book bag and gave it a look. "Take this with you. I want you to know I will be checking your work so don't forget to bring it home each night. We'll be sure you have all the supplies you need and all that jazz."
She laughed, pushing him with a guiding hand on his shoulder through the house and toward the driveway.
He raised a hand at their mother. "Bye, Mom!"
Her mother came into the room and kissed Chris's cheek. He blushed and hugged her back. He was a good kid; she knew that. He'd lost his way and now she'd help him find it again.
"Love you both."
* * *
She parked in the lot, noting that it looked pretty much the same as it had a decade before when she'd attended Petal High. The same mix of cars from shiny new to beater in the parking lot. The same kids hanging out and laughing before school started.
"Chris, I'm meeting with your principal right now, and she and I are going to talk about how we can work with you to get you passing this year, all right?"
He tried to look away, but she wouldn't let him. She took his shoulder and turned him to face her. "You can't do this anymore. Playtime is over. You're going to fail if you don't take care of your business. And that's not acceptable. If it was all you were capable of that would be one thing, but you're a smart kid. Don't blow it."
"If I have to hear all these lectures, I'd rather go to class."
She laughed and whacked him upside the head. "Whatever it takes, monkey-boy, whatever it takes. I'll see you after school. Right out here." She pointed to the parent pick-up lane.
"Until my car gets back from the shop, Mom's letting me use hers. No need to pick me up."
This one she and her mother had only reached agreement on the day before when they'd gotten word Chris had cut fourth period again. One of the many reasons her mother had agreed to let Lily be in charge was her own seeming inability to give Chris hard consequences. Though Lily was beginning to think a big part of that had to do with the pills, but she hoped that would end soon too. In either case, there was a new sheriff in town and this was going to end one way or another. Starting with the removal of privileges like a car — a car Lily didn't think he'd done anything to earn to start with.
"Boy, did you hit your head? Who drove you in? I did. How is it you'll get Mom's car? Pay attention. Anyway, only boys who go to school and pass get cars their mothers pay for. Until you get your grades back above failing, you're not driving anything."
His eyes widened and his mouth hardened. He looked an awful lot like his sister Nancy right about then and that scared her enough to stay hard and on task with him.
"That's my car. You can't do that."
"Chris, you're missing the point. I can. I will. You've pushed Mom around long enough. Go to class or I'll escort you there myself." She kept it quiet, but made sure to keep eye contact with him.
She shrugged and stepped back. "See you at two thirty." Before he said another word, she moved past him and toward the administration offices.
"Lily Travis for Principal Bunton, please." She held on to her folder with all the letters, notifications, emails and other things the school had sent over the last semester.
Living with her mother and raising a fifteen-year-old boy with a ferocious sense of entitlement. Just what she thought her life would be like at twenty-eight.
* * *
Nathan Murphy had been grading a test when the knock on his door startled him. A warning that he wasn't seeing any students just then died on his lips when he looked up and saw ... her standing there.
Long, shiny black hair, perfect bangs framed large brown eyes outlined with black liner. The deep-red lipstick on her lips should have looked overdone against her pale skin, but it was the entire package that worked. She was as sexy as she appeared wholesome. Speechless, he took her in from the tips of the ballet flats she wore, up legs as long as a summer day, up the nip at her waist where the red and white gingham blouse had been belted. Bangle bracelets at her wrists. She was an ad for the updated, way sexier 1950s. It was all-American but in that pinup sort of way. Vintage sexy and he really wanted some more.
And he'd seen her naked more times than he could remember. Which was a lie. He remembered every single time he'd been with Lily Travis naked.
"Um." He cleared his throat and loosened his tie. "Lily?" She'd not been this va-va-voom when they'd been in school. This was a woman who had a point of view. She'd grown up. This woman appeared to fully own the depth of her sexuality in a way she'd only begun to realize when they'd been together before. This personal style suited her very well.
She straightened and took a deep breath. The buttons at her cleavage did their work — barely — as her breasts thrust forward, stretching the material. His cock must have felt sympathy and that was why it stretched the material at his lap.
He searched for his words as he took her in. "Lily?"
She stepped into his classroom, and he couldn't seem to think of anything else to say as he watched the woman he'd once loved walk toward his desk. She still moved as if music played in her head.
His sister Beth was close to Lily so he knew she had been around more to deal with her little brother. But it hadn't prepared him for the punch to the gut at the sight of her.
"Mr. Murphy." She nodded once, all business. "I'm here about Chris. Do you have a few moments?"
"Chris?" He wondered if she wore stockings with garter belts and corsets. And then of course he had to imagine her dressed like that, because ... well, why not?
She sighed. "Chris Travis? Tenth grader? Hair too long? Surly? Problems with authority in all forms? He's failing your English class." She put the academic warning letter on his desk.
Oh yes, that. "I can't really talk with you about this. I'm sorry. Your mother needs to do it. Or your father."
She pulled out yet another piece of paper to hand his way. "This is the paper that establishes my guardianship of my brother. My parents have signed all the appropriate paperwork. It's all in order."
Reading through the paperwork to be sure everything was in order, he looked back to Lily. "All right then. I have about twenty minutes before my next class. Sit down and we can talk."
She did and he tried to pretend she was just another parent. And failed.
Her scent teased the air between them. Sultry and sexy. Like her voice. Full-on velvet, a throaty sort of purr that had always sent his brain, and other parts of his body, into overdrive. Still did.
Focus. "He's failing my class. He's here, at best, two days a week. Hasn't turned in an assignment in about six weeks. Even before that his work was sloppy and erratic."
Her shoulders slumped just a little, but he had to hand it to her, she straightened quickly enough. She took some notes, her little black glasses perched on her nose. Her nails were glossy red. The same red he'd be willing to bet she had on her toes.
She broke into his musings with a sigh. "So give me your honest opinion. Is this salvageable? Can he make this up or not?"
"He has to come to class, Lily. His absenteeism is the biggest problem. If he's not here when I cover the material, how can he learn it? He's just not here. The assignments he does finish tell me he gets what he's here for, though it's nearly impossible to give him full credit because I can't read the work. His writing is atrocious. He can do better."
"He'll be here. Every. Day."
Nathan didn't express his doubt in the statement. She seemed pretty driven to make it true, but trying to get a fifteen-year-old boy to do what he didn't want to do was a lot harder than she probably thought.
"Gonna take more than a phone call from another city to get that done." Why he poked at her he didn't know. But the flash in her gaze thrilled him.
She narrowed her eyes at him and sniffed as if he wasn't worth slapping. "Really? Oh gee, my plan has been foiled already." She sent him a raised brow and he barely held back a laugh. "I moved back to Petal. I'm living with my mother and Chris. I'm bringing him to school in the morning and picking him up in the afternoons. I'm here for the long haul. I want Chris to succeed, and I'm here to see how I can do that with the help of his teachers."
Oh. Well, then. This was something he'd have to do very carefully, but if she was back, he'd have the chance to make things up to her. See if maybe they could see what dating would be like as adults instead of kids in college. Not if she had someone though. Her ring finger was bare, which was a good sign.
"Must have sucked to move away from your life in Macon." The moment he finished speaking he wished he could have sounded a little more natural and a little less forced casual.
* * *
Lily tapped her pen and neatly avoided his statement. Did he think she would just pretend nothing had ever happened between them? She was prepared to do that, but only if she never actually had contact with him. Which given her current circumstance would prove difficult.
This was the first time she'd spoken to him since that night. Nausea roiled through her belly as she remembered walking into the living room at a party he'd been at and found him kissing another woman.
Remembering that and the way she'd felt afterward was enough to get rid of that damned tingle he gave her and a reminder that he was a tool.
While she gave him her best look of total disdain, she noted he'd grown even more handsome than he'd been before. Not just handsome, but that sort of gorgeous a Southern girl like herself was absolutely helpless against. Hell, any woman anywhere.
Nathan Murphy was all Southern honey. He had that slow, sexy delivery. His voice had the right amount of smoke, always the hint of a smile. That sound that'd been, and most likely still was, a magnet to underpants all across Georgia. He moved that way too, took his time to look around. Always late but he was so charming he got away with it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Once and Again"
Copyright © 2019 Lauren Dane.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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