Romance

Right Where We Left Us by Jen Devon (Excerpt)

 

CHAPTER ONE Temperance


Dr. Temperance Madigan had slept for only four of the past twenty-eight hours, kept on her feet by stubborn resistance to the limits of human biology and a truly indecent amount of hospital break-room coffee. Even on a normal day, sleep was low on her list of priorities. But today wasn’t a normal day. Today, she was an accomplice to a marriage proposal between two of the people she loved most in the world.

The Brady property was on one of the high points in Vesper Valley, up a gravel lane on a ridge barely wide enough for two cars in either direction. Through the patchwork of trees out her driver’s-side window, the midday sun was a smoky gold shimmer on the lake nestled in the crook of the vale. At the top of the drive, a tall wrought-iron gate sat rusted permanently open, more of a trellis for morning glory and honeysuckle than a barrier to entry.

Passing from the shade of the tree-lined lane onto the main drive of the Brady land always felt a little like emerging into a new world. Temperance had to squint against the flood of sunlight. Under a May-blue sky, rolling lawns of soft grass and clover spread up and away, marked with mow lines as tidy as green corduroy.

The Brady home sat at the center, a medley of architectural styles that reflected its century of different inhabitants. It should have looked strange, with its brick to the west and the stone face to the east, its different-shaped windows and mismatched shingles on the roof of each wing. The composite of varied but equally interesting parts only added to its charm. Like the Brady family itself.

The place was usually alive with activity—a far-off hum of lawn equipment, music through open windows and screen doors. Rowan zipping around in her little utility vehicle or a tractor, and her vineyard crew buzzing like bees in and out of the trellised grapes. Now, it was preternaturally silent. Like the land itself had taken a big breath and held it. Waiting.

At Harry’s request, Temperance drove the gravel access road along the eastern perimeter of the property to avoid being seen from the vineyards or the house. The bumpy road took her past the massive stone bank barn, around the pool and pool house that seemed to be a perpetual source of plumbing problems, and up to where the old Victorian greenhouse sat on the highest point of the land like the center jewel in a crown. Temperance pulled around to the grassy clearing behind the greenhouse and parked her car next to the only other vehicle there. A hulking black pickup with its windows all the way down. Aviator sunglasses hooked over the rearview mirror.

Duncan was here.

Temperance’s belly gave a little thump.

A faded pink bandage was still stuck to a shallow dent on the rear bumper. Temperance had been there that day, when one of the Brady kids let their bike fall too close to the truck. Little Grey had attempted to “make it better” with one of his sister’s Band-Aids.

For almost a month, Duncan Brady had unabashedly driven his big growly pickup all over the valley with Hello Kitty faces stuck to the bumper.

Again, something inside her felt noisy and hot. She ignored it and got out of her car.

Temperance started to sweat the moment she stepped out of the air-conditioned microclimate of her tidy little Corolla. Even though it was only four days into May, temperatures had already climbed into the high eighties. It had been a record wet spring as well, so the humidity was problematic. With the back of her hand, she swiped her damp jaw and nudged her glasses up. A bead of sweat raced down the center of her chest.

She should’ve worn a different bra.

The heavy greenhouse door was half-open. Its hinges groaned when she pushed through. “Harry?”

No answer.

Hesitantly, she said, “Duncan?”

Temperance knew Duncan wasn’t inside the greenhouse even before she called out his name. After nearly twenty years, she was attuned to the man’s presence the same way a songbird knew it was about to storm. He was neurochemically branded into her brain.

God, it was hot.

The blades of an exhaust fan on the far wall rotated too slowly to push any air. It sliced intermittent shadows through the citrusy sunlight that flooded through the glass walls. A dusty cassette-deck radio played an old Guns N’ Roses ballad. Even with a wire coat hanger sticking out of the radio’s top as a makeshift antenna, Linden’s classic rock was the only station that played static-free that deep in the valley. An old refrigerator itself made its own music—an intermittent creak that sounded a lot like the rhythm of particularly athletic sex on a squeaky bedframe.

Temperance checked her phone. No updates from Harry.

Green transcended color here. It was an actual taste in the air. A mood. An entire experience. Rows of heavy tables stood three across and at least ten deep. Every horizontal surface was occupied by photosynthetic things: herbs, baby grapevines, vegetable seedlings, roses in brazen bloom. Dozens of other plants that Temperance didn’t recognize. Some of the plants went vertical, wandering up the iron window frames to drape down from overhead beams.

Signs of Rowan were everywhere. Her old khaki hat hung on a nail near the door. Every other table seemed to have a notebook on it, the pages wrinkled by water stains. Three abandoned coffee mugs were visible just from where Temperance stood at the door—one of them filled to the top with potting soil. There were twice as many pairs of gardening gloves nestled between pots, on stools and benches, and hung from clothespins on a little line strung over a rust-stained sink.

It was organized chaos. This place was an ecosystem of its own, and what looked like utter disarray to Temperance was likely her best friend’s intentional and thoughtful organizational system. It felt like she’d stepped directly into Rowan McKinnon’s big, beautiful brain.

Temperance felt kind of shitty that she had to mess it all up.

There was a limit to how long anyone could plausibly keep Rowan away from her greenhouse, so a lot had to happen here in less than three hours for Harry to pull off his proposal later tonight. He wanted all the seedlings and haphazard flats of ornamental plants and herbs moved, replaced on the tables with potted native plants in full flower. Grapevines and greenery were to be woven throughout, accented with glass lanterns with candles inside.

Temperance lifted and lowered her arms like an awkward baby bird in an attempt to circulate air around her body. The waistband of her ancient Levi’s cutoffs was already damp, and she’d barely been there five minutes. And yeah—she definitely should have worn a different bra.

In a complete failure to consider the heat, she’d worn the same kind of underthings she wore every day—approximately three hundred dollars’ worth of high-end lingerie. She’d always favored a minimalist wardrobe with sleek lines and solid colors, but she’d been instantly hooked on the frothy lace and sumptuous fabrics of the sample pieces Frankie had gifted her after she’d modeled for a lingerie designer. From then on, Italian and French intimates became the one indulgence she allowed herself whenever she had a bit of extra money—which had been rare on a medical resident’s salary. It felt private and personal at a time when she gave a near-totality of herself in service to others.

Temperance was deep inside her head weighing the aesthetic virtues of fancy bras against their shortcomings in the management of underboob sweat when the door to the greenhouse banged open behind her. She whirled so fast her braid arced around and smacked her between the eyes.

“Oh my god, where did you come from?” she said.

An enormous cardboard box obscured the upper half of the person carrying it, but she didn’t need to see a face to know who it was. Hands, big. Arms, bigger. Tattoos began at a crisp line at his wrist, each piece connected to the ones beside it to create a colorful, unrelieved mosaic that disappeared into the snug sleeves of his T-shirt. Button-fly jeans with two blown knees hugged thick thighs with the kind of sartorial precision that only came with years of regular wear.

That faded denim knew the body beneath it as well as she did.

Duncan Brady lowered the box with a breathy baritone grunt. “Well, it all started back when Will Brady met Gia Vega in Spain—”

“Where’s Harry?” Temperance flung her braid back over her shoulder and shoved her glasses up her nose.

A lock of his hair arced down, glossy and black as a crow’s eye. He pushed it off his forehead with a quick sweep of his thumb. “Harry is the only person on this planet who can distract Rowan from coming into this greenhouse. Do you want to talk about how he probably accomplishes that?”

Temperance’s cheeks flushed. She lifted a huge bag of potting soil and popped her hip sideways to balance it there. “No.”

Duncan’s mouth twitched. “I didn’t think so.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

The interconnectedness of the people they both loved meant forced proximity was a fact of life. But despite their attempts to exist in a sort of emotional demilitarized zone, they had more than a decade-long record of messy behavior whenever they found themselves alone together like this. Prolonged contact tended to result in verbal battles, hastily discarded clothing, or their tongues in each other’s mouths.

Sometimes all three at the same time.

It was like she had one of those fill-in-the-blank safety compliance signs hung inside her brain. It has been three hundred ninety-five days since we couldn’t manage to keep our panties on while alone with Duncan Brady.

Thirteen months was a new record for them, actually. At least the last few times she’d been smart enough to not let him kiss her. Her mouth seemed to have a direct line to her heart, and the aftermath of being kissed by Duncan Brady was way harder to get over than anything they did with the rest of their bodies. Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman had been onto something.

“I assume Harry’s put them all to work, too, but I don’t have everyone’s social calendar. Colby Everett will be here in about an hour with all the flowers, though.” He lifted the heavy bag of soil away from her with one hand, like it was a five-pound bag of sugar instead of the size of a kindergartner.

Temperance watched him walk to the back of the greenhouse. Even in that worn-out T-shirt and the old denim, Duncan Brady was the kind of gorgeous so audacious he was distracting to be around. When her best friends had met him, Rowan had said he was the hottest person she’d ever seen in real life. Frankie’d said he’d be a dream to photograph, with a face and frame suited for a spread in an edgy fashion editorial. It had been easy for Temperance to imagine—he’d smolder at the camera in some gritty, subversive location, like the parking lot of a run-down motel or a mechanic’s graveyard for vintage cars. It would be nighttime in the shoot, but maybe he’d wear his vintage aviators anyway, looking sulky-hot and intimidating. But there’d be something about the way he carried himself that made you want to figure out the ways he was soft. Once the camera was off, he’d make half the crew laugh and the other half fall in love, because what really made Duncan Brady so damned compelling wasn’t a corporeal thing like the angle of his jaw or a pair of cocoa bedroom eyes. It was in the way his expansive smiles felt like they were for you instead of at you, and how, when you had his attention, it felt like you were the sole object of his mind.

It was the same thing that made him so hard to stay away from, even though he’d repeatedly cracked her heart open like a pistachio.

He caught her looking at him. “You mad again, Madigan? You look like you could suck the yellow off a lemon.”

She shook her head and met his eyes. “I’m good.”

“You here to help, then? Or are you just going to scowl at me?”

“I don’t scowl. This is just my face.”

He breathed out a bland laugh that was the nonverbal equivalent of “Bullshit, but okay.” Without hesitation, he picked up a terra-cotta pot full of rosemary that was as big as her torso. It had to weigh at least a hundred pounds.

“Surprised you’re here today,” he said.

“I’ve been here a lot lately.”

“I noticed.”

“Then why are you surprised?”

“You worked a twelve-hour shift at the hospital last night.” Over by the sink, he set the massive pot down on the ground so gently it didn’t make a sound. Then he picked up a tray of baby trees from an adjacent table. “And you were at the clinic most of the day before.”

“How do you even know that?” Temperance grabbed a flat of basil seedlings and headed to the back of the greenhouse.

“Your sister is married to one of my brothers. One of your best friends is marrying another brother.” There was a rueful slant to his smile as they passed each other. “You come up in conversation.”


Copyright © 2024 by Jen Devon

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