A Very Merry Carreen Halloween Excerpt

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A Very Merry Carreen Halloween Excerpt

Chapter One

Rourke scrolled through her Pinterest feed so quickly the images on her phone blurred, making her feel slightly dizzy. She pressed her thumb to the screen to freeze the feed—and feasted her eyes on what felt like a-hundred-and-one recipes, each one more intriguing and enticing than the last. Certainly more intriguing and enticing than anything she had managed to come up with lately. Maybe that was why traffic to her blog was down almost a hundred page-views this week compared to last? A surge of panic welled in her chest as she looked over all the perfectly-lit photos of seasoned bread cubes stuffed into plain white ceramic casserole dishes. Just how many different recipes for dressing could there be in the world, she wondered? And here she hadn’t even drafted a single one yet! She needed to get on that. Thanksgiving was only weeks away and it was never too early to start brainstorming ideas for side dishes.

“Hmm,” she murmured, reading from the phone. “Curried Eggplant Dressing? That one sounds…different.” Frantically, she tapped the screen and scanned the blog post that popped open in another tab, wondering if she could come up with anything as exotic, as interesting, as new. She was so engrossed in poring over ingredients and instructions, her thumbnail clamped anxiously between her teeth, that she didn’t hear the door opening behind her—or Dallas coming into the storage room with her—until he spoke three inches from her ear.

“Hey, Mrs. Mackenzie—there you are.”

“Auugh!” Rourke jumped, spinning around so quickly she almost dropped her phone.

Dallas chuckled as he held up his hands. “Aw, I’m sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Oh…hi, honey.” Rourke pressed the phone to her stomach. “That’s okay. I just…I didn’t hear you come in.”

“What are you doing hidden away back here?” He closed the door behind him. “You’re missing the whole party.”

Rourke gulped and brushed a strand of hair back from her eyes. “I, uh…I only stepped away for a minute.” She sounded breathless, she realized, and not only because Dallas had startled her. As so often happened when she saw him, a thrill of excitement had rippled through her, making her heart pound.

And it certainly didn’t slow down any when he came closer and wrapped his strong arms around her. His lips touched hers and she leaned into him, forgetting for the time being, the answer to his question—why she had come in here and what she had been doing. “Mm, you taste good,” she told him, feeling light-headed.

“Likewise,” he murmured.

She opened her mouth wider beneath his, shivering with pleasure as he deepened the kiss. His handsome face, she saw when he pulled back a few moments later, wore a small grin, and his eyes were radiant with love and undisguised passion.

But then his gaze skimmed downward, landing on the device in her hand, and the light in his irises instantly faded.

Instinctively, Rourke tucked the phone behind her back. Her cheeks warmed and a guilty feeling washed over her.

“A minute, huh?” There was humor in Dallas’s question, but it sounded a touch forced. “I’ve been out there looking for you for at least fifteen.”

“Really? Gosh, I’m sorry.” She flashed him a weak smile. “I just came back here to, um…” She looked away, glancing around the tiny storage room until her gaze fell on a pastry box sitting on a shelf. Rourke and Dallas both knew what it contained: pumpkin-spice sugar cookies, cut and iced to look like ghosts, witches, vampires, and werewolves. Rourke had stayed up half the night baking and decorating dozens of each design for the annual Halloween party here at Roy’s. The werewolf had been the most time-consuming pattern to execute—all that fur!—but in the end all the hard work had paid off; the treats were both delicious and adorable, just as she’d envisioned them. She only hoped everyone who ate one tonight would think so, too.

“I just came back here to check on the cookie supply,” she blurted. The claim rang false even to her own ears, and she winced when she heard herself say it.

She cringed even harder when she saw the look on Dallas’s face. It was obvious she hadn’t fooled him. Sure enough, he reached behind her and slipped the phone from her hand. Looking at the screen and then back to her, he blinked but didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

Rourke felt her shoulders sag. “Okay,” she sighed. “The truth is, I got a notification that a bunch of people had re-pinned a recipe from the blog. So I came in here to take a quick look and…well, you know how it is. I got wrapped up scrolling through my feed and the next thing I knew…” You were coming in here to bust me, she finished silently.

Dallas shut off her phone. She half expected him to sigh or groan and remind her that she’d vowed—voluntarily—not to check her social media accounts while they were at the party tonight, but he didn’t. He simply handed back the device, his mouth set into a grim line. She should have known better. He wasn’t the type to scold, although she sometimes wished he was. His hurt silences could induce more guilt than any lecture. And she hated how disappointed he looked.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, and meant it. “I know I’d said I wouldn’t look.”

Dallas smiled faintly, looking more tired than he had before. “Whatever. Which recipe was it, anyway?”

“The Candy Corn and Puffed Rice Tombstones. I guess that makes sense; people are probably looking for quick, last minute ideas for tomorrow.” It was Friday night. Halloween wasn’t until Monday, but she assumed most people would be celebrating the holiday over the weekend.

Dallas nodded, his expression still less-than-joyful.

She slipped the phone into the special pocket she’d sewn into her cheerleading skirt. Drawing closer to him, she slid her hands inside his faux-leather jacket and rested them on his chest. “Are you mad?” she asked, looking up at him through her false eyelashes.

“No.”

She cocked her head doubtfully.

“I’m just a little jealous, I guess,” he admitted, running his hand up her back. “I was hoping to have you all to myself tonight. That I wouldn’t have to share you with your readers and followers for once.”

His words stung, although she wasn’t all that surprised to hear them. He might not have been too vocal about it, but she knew him well enough to know he thought she’d been spending too much time online recently. On the blog. It was why she’d told him she would steer clear of her phone tonight, and why she felt doubly awful now, for having broken the promise. To be fair, though, Dallas had been confusing her lately. He seemed to want two different things at once: for Rourke to spend less time on the blog, but also for it to make more money. As much as she might like to, she couldn’t grant both his desires at the same time. She wished she knew which mattered to him more. Although at the moment, judging by the displeasure clouding his eyes, it definitely seemed to be the former.

“I know,” she said, swallowing. “I really am sorry. And I promise I won’t look at the phone any more tonight, no matter how many notices I get, okay?” When he didn’t say anything, she retrieved the phone from her pocket and held it out to him. “In fact—here. You take this. Hang onto it for me until we get home.”

“Aw, Merry, you don’t have to do that.”

“Please? I’ll feel better.” She pressed the phone against his palm, folding his fingers around it.

He seemed uncertain for a moment, his dark brows gathering. But then she tucked her hands behind her skirt, as though refusing to accept the gadget back, and he assented, slipping her phone into the inside pocket of his jacket, next to his own. “I know I shouldn’t be down on the blog,” he said, glancing away from her. His gaze seemed to be directed at the box of cookies. “Or any work you have to do on it. If it weren’t for your ad revenue, some months we’d probably barely make ends meet. I should just shut up and be grateful.”

She frowned. “What are you talking about? We would make ends meet just fine without the blog.”

“Maybe,” he said, sounding skeptical, “if we ate nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. And if we never went out and had any fun.”

“Or put so much money into our savings and investment accounts,” she added, since that was where a goodly portion of the blog’s earnings actually went. Dallas was determined to stockpile enough money for a down payment on a house as soon as possible, and Rourke was doing her best to help him achieve his goal.

He nodded dully. “My point is, I really don’t want to stand in the way of your success.”

“Our success,” she corrected him. “Rourke’s Fork would be nowhere if it weren’t for all of your hard work behind the scenes. You’re the reason it ever got up off the ground in the first place.”

He turned back to her, his mouth lifting in a cheerless smile. “Yeah, I know. That’s kind of the kicker: knowing that this is all at least partially my fault. Sometimes I worry I created a monster by setting you up with that stupid blog.”

A dry levity colored his comment, but it still smarted. Her blog? Stupid? She faded back a step. “You don’t really mean that…Do you?”

His mouth drooped as he realized he’d hurt her feelings. “Wow, Mer, I’m sorry. Please don’t listen to me. I’m just in a bad mood. And really, really tired.” He slumped against a shelf, the shadows under his eyes seeming to deepen as he ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair. “This hasn’t exactly been the best week for me, you know.”

“I know,” she said. “Work and everything…” A new manager had been hired on at the restaurant where Dallas had been waiting tables for the past year. So far, the transition hadn’t been easy on most of the staff. Though he hadn’t explicitly said so, Rourke suspected Dallas was tempted to quit that job. She wasn’t sure why he didn’t. He had another one that he liked much better, at the same grocery store, Paper or Plastic, where Rourke had worked as a cashier—saving every penny she earned—while they’d been engaged, and despite his claims to the contrary, the Mackenzies really were doing alright financially. They weren’t rich by any stretch, but they were comfortable. Or at least, she was. Dallas, to her dismay, seemed restless lately. Discontented. She worried his unhappiness wasn’t only due to his job, either, or to his perceived lack of spare funds. She worried it had something to do with her, and not only in regard to her Pinterest obsession—although she couldn’t think of what she might have done to rile him. Usually he was so easygoing. All she knew was that throughout the many years they’d been best friends, Dallas had always been open and honest with her about almost everything. She wasn’t used to the silent brooding he’d been doing over the last week or so, and she didn’t like it.

“Is there something else bothering you?” she ventured. “Something I should know about? You know you can tell me anything.”

“Nah.”

“Dal.”

“It’s just a bad mood, like I said.” He attempted a smile. “I’ll try to snap out of it so I don’t ruin the party. C’mon, let’s just go back out there and try to have a good time, okay?”

She didn’t believe him, of course. Even now she could see the anxiety brewing in the depths of his dark blue eyes, hinting at something more profound going on than just a simple bad mood. But she also knew it wouldn’t help anything for her to try and pry it out of him. She’d already asked him what was wrong. He knew she was here if he wanted to talk, the same as she’d always been. Now it was up to him to open up to her when he was ready.

In the meantime, though, she would be satisfied just to see him crack a smile.

“Okay,” she said, “let’s go back out to the party—but, um, not just yet.”

He looked at her with curiosity. “Why? What’s up?”

She smiled and moved in close again, reaching up to brush at the lapels of his motorcycle jacket. “You know, you look really hot in this costume,” she said, because it was true. The jacket looked great on him, hanging just right on his tall, athletic frame, while the tight black t-shirt underneath clung tantalizingly to his torso, showcasing all the hard work he put in every week at the gym. She skimmed the palm of her left hand up over his chest and then down to his abs, marveling at the firmness there but also, more so, at the wedding band shining around her ring finger—and the fact that it meant she could touch Dallas like this anytime she wanted. Because she was his wife.

Rourke had known Dallas since they were both six years old. She’d nursed a crush on him since they’d been old enough for that sort of thing, but she’d never seriously believed anything would come of it. Yet here they were now, married. Ever since they’d first said “I do,”—or really since the first night Dallas had ever kissed her, years ago now—she’d felt as though she were living in a dream. A dream that just got better and better as time went on, and from which she never, ever wanted to wake.

“Really, really…hot,” she repeated, her voice a low, drowsy murmur as she traced a finger down the center of his chest. Then she leaned up and pressed a kiss to his neck.

As she pulled back, Dallas kept his gaze on hers. Gradually his eyebrows lifted and his mouth slanted into a smirk. “Right? I’d always thought I’d make a great Danny Zuko but Grease is one of the few plays I never got to star in at school. Thanks for taking my suggestion and putting these costumes together. I think these might even be better than last year’s Starfleet get-ups.”

Rourke grinned, relieved to see his expression lighten. “No problem,” she told him. “Although I’ll admit I’m still surprised you wanted me to wear this.”

He looked her up and down. “What’s so surprising about it? Sandra Dee’s sexy.”

Her mouth twitched to one side. “Big blonde hair and Spandex pants Sandra Dee, maybe. Isn’t she the version guys get all hot and bothered over?”

“Not me.” Dallas’s fingers skimmed over her dark ponytail, gently tugging. “You know I prefer brunettes.” Then he adjusted the Peter Pan collar of her form-fitting Rydell High sweater. The anxiety in his eyes had been replaced by a hungry look. He licked his lips. “And I’ve always had a thing for sweet and innocent Sandra. You know, that whole ponytail and bobby socks thing—it just does something for me.”

Rourke shook her head in mock-disapproval. “You’re weird,” she told him.

“Am I?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Yeah, but you love me anyway, right?” He flashed a sexy grin.

She felt her face grow warm and her knees go rubbery in response. To steady herself she wound her arms around his neck. “You are ‘The One That I Want,’” she admitted, and rose up on her toes to kiss him.

Their clinch was interrupted by the creak of the storage room door opening again, and the clearing of a masculine throat.

Rourke turned and saw a tall, handsome man with rust-colored hair standing in the doorway. She backed away from Dallas. “Oh, hi, Mr. M,” she said. “I mean, Jake.” No matter how often her former teacher—and co-owner of Roy’s—had reminded her it was okay to call him by his first name now that she was no longer his student, it still rarely came naturally to her.

“Hey,” Jake said, lifting his chin. His wife, Veronica, appeared beside him, and the older couple stood close together, watching the younger one with open curiosity. As usual, Jake looked deceptively stern while Veronica smiled pleasantly.

“Oh, hey, guys,” Dallas chimed in. “Sorry we hijacked your make-out spot; we were, uh, just leaving.”

Veronica’s dark eyes grew, her smile faltering. “Our what-?” she laughed.

Rourke swatted Dallas’s shoulder.

“For your information,” Jake said, moving further into the room, “we were not coming in here to make out.” Turning to his wife he said, “Sheesh, to hear people talk sometimes, you’d think we’re incapable of keeping our hands off one another.”

Veronica smirked. “I know. As if.” Even as she said it, she reached over and not-so-surreptitiously patted her husband on the backside. Rourke bit her lip to keep from laughing. “We were just coming to pick up some more cookies,” Veronica continued, looking at Rourke. “People out there seem to be gobbling them up faster than I can restock the display.”

“Really?” Rourke experienced a swell of pride, and her gaze went to the pastry box. “That’s awesome.”

Veronica nodded, lifting the box and flipping open the lid. “Yep, and I’ve been sure that every person who takes one also gets a Rourke’s Fork business card—and an earful of my opinion that it’s the best food blog on the entire ‘net.”

“Aw, thank you so much, Veronica.” As Rourke stepped closer to the older woman, she saw there were only a dozen cookies left in the box. “Although maybe I should have brought more, if you’re about to run out…”

“No, no, this is perfect. It’s always best to leave your customers wanting more, isn’t it?”

“I guess you’re right.” Rourke sounded uncertain.

Jake cleared his throat again. “Is it just me or is it starting to feel a little crowded in here?”

Again, Rourke struggled not to laugh. If the storage room was crowded it could mostly be attributed to Jake himself. His towering, leanly muscular frame took up most of the space.

“Like I said, we were just on our way out.” Dallas took Rourke’s hand, leading her toward the door. As they edged past Veronica, he said, “Hey, did I tell you how much I like your Morticia costume, Mrs. M? It’s smoking.”

Veronica blushed, her olive complexion darkening. She lowered her lashes demurely as she smoothed the skirt of her long, black dress. “Thank you, sweetie. You guys look so cute, too. Couples’ costumes have always been my favorites.”