Title: Small Town Pretender
Series: Havenbrook #5
Author: Brighton Walsh
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: June 24, 2021
Asher McCoy can win over a crowd with a husky note and a strum of his guitar, but proving to a judge he’s responsible enough to gain custody of his niece and nephew? Not so easy. His big idea—a fake marriage. And who better to play his doting bride than his longtime best friend? He just needs to get her home first…
Natalie Haven couldn’t get away from her suffocating hometown fast enough. For years, she’s fluttered around the globe as a freelance photographer. And if that unconventional job pisses off her daddy? Well, all the better. But when her best friend sends out an SOS, she heads back to the one place she swore she’d never land.
Except a fake marriage means a not-so-fake living arrangement, including only one bed. Nat’s witnessed enough women fall for Asher’s charms, but she refuses to be one of them. Because permanence isn’t in her blood. Not even for him.
Asher McCoy could say without a doubt that this wasn’t what he expected his life to look like. Three days ago, he’d been a twenty-seven-year-old musician making a living from his music and on the verge of his big break. He’d had a meeting scheduled with a record label to discuss signing on with them after a recent video of him at The Bluebird Cafe went viral. His life consisted of late-night gigs, some overzealous fans, and spontaneity.
In the blink of an eye, that had changed.
Now, suddenly, he was a twenty-seven-year-old in charge of two kids under four. His new late-night sessions were now less the acoustic country-rock variety while beautiful girls vied for his attention, and more the lullaby variety, which included wails of frustration instead of screams of delight. Overzealous fans had been swapped for two enamored tiny people, and nap schedules had replaced his spontaneity.
He’d changed more diapers in the past three days than he had the past three years combined. On the plus side, he was getting pretty good at it—he hadn’t been peed on in twenty-four hours.
Somehow, he’d managed to juggle it all since he’d arrived in Havenbrook along with the rising sun, knowing, for the first time, his sister wouldn’t be there to greet him with a hug and a smile. Thankfully, he’d had help from the Havens, his second family. Rory had been a godsend, stepping in and taking charge in her Rory way, exactly how he desperately needed, considering he had no idea what he was doing.
It was late afternoon, and Owen refused to nap. Which meant the only thing his nephew was interested in doing was crying. June, on the other hand, was bouncing off the walls, though that was probably his fault. He was still learning the unspoken rules of child supervision. Namely, being the cool uncle who gave his niece ice cream for lunch had extremely short-lived benefits.
“Let’s play circus, Uncle Asher!” June cried, bouncing from couch cushion to couch cushion before taking a flying leap and hanging from his back like a spider monkey. The move jostled him, and thus jostled Owen in his arms, which only ratcheted up the baby’s cries.
He held Owen tighter, bouncing the little guy in an effort to be soothing. Quite the feat with an acrobatic four-year-old doing everything in her power to turn this house into an actual circus. “Believe me, Junebug, there is nothing I’d rather do than play with you, but your brother isn’t gonna like that much.”
She scrunched up her nose as she leaned over Asher’s shoulder and stared down at her little brother. “It doesn’t sound like he’s gonna like anything.”
Asher smothered a laugh. “You’re not wrong.”
“Take me on a ride, then, like Daddy does!”
Just like it’d done at every mention of his sister or brother-in-law, his heart clenched, an empty ache radiating throughout his chest. And just like at every mention, he did exactly what June asked for. What else could he do?
“Okay, hang on tight.”
She squealed in response to his command, tightening her grip until he was damn near asphyxiated. No one could accuse her of half-assing anything.
As he stood, he kept up Owen’s steady bounce, even with June hanging off his back, her legs hooked around his waist as she squealed in giddy delight. She might actually be the one to blow out his eardrums—and that was saying something, considering the number of shows he’d played.
He cradled Owen with one arm as he spun to June’s symphony of excitement, his forearm braced below her bottom to make sure she didn’t slip down.
“More, Uncle Asher! More!” she demanded.
But if Asher did this anymore, he was going to puke. And, considering June’s lunch, he probably wouldn’t be the only one.
Just as he slowed his spins, the doorbell rang, and he breathed out a sigh of relief. At least now he had an actual excuse to stop. He paused for a couple seconds, just long enough to gain his balance. It seemed it was just long enough, too, for Owen’s cries to start back up, his wails ricocheting off the walls.
June wasn’t bothered by it, however, and just spoke louder so as to be heard over the commotion. “Do it again, Uncle Asher!”
“In a minute. We’ve gotta see who’s at the door.”
Every time the doorbell rang—which, in a town like Havenbrook, following the untimely deaths of two of their younger and beloved residents, meant it was fairly often. The freezer, at least, was stocked with enough casseroles to last them a month—he thought it might finally be Nat. Seeing as she was supposed to arrive yesterday but had been held up in Buenos Aires, he’d given up hope of that after her fifth text to update him on yet another delay.
Nash was on call to pick her up at the Memphis airport whenever she arrived, taking one thing off Asher’s extremely full plate. He’d assumed they’d keep him up-to-date as to her whereabouts.
But when he opened the door, there she stood, her appraising blue eyes roving over him, her full lips tipped up in that way that made her seem like she was perpetually amused. Her hair was the closest to her natural shade that he’d seen in more than five years—dark chestnut on the top, with the ends a bright, vibrant teal.
He couldn’t explain it, but seeing her had everything inside him shifting. Settling. As if he knew that her being there meant everything was going to be okay. After three days of uncertainty and turmoil, it was like a balm to his soul.
Nash’s honk pulled him out of his thoughts. His friend waved from his truck before pulling out of the driveway, and Asher could only manage a chin lift in response since his hands were full of sixty pounds of pissed-off and/or hyper children.
“He’s already late for a meeting, thanks to my delays, but he said he’ll stop by later.” Nat glanced to Owen, who was still screaming, his face a mottled red, and then to June as she clung from Asher’s neck. “Sounds like maybe you need some help.”
“Nat!” June yelled, releasing her grip on Asher to throw her arms wide.
Asher’s muscles tightened as he compensated for June’s lack of leverage, holding her up with his forearm. “Gotta hang on, Junebug, or you’re gonna be flattened on the ground like a real june bug.”
She giggled and threw her arms back around Asher’s neck, though she miscalculated and accidentally thumped Owen in the head. His screams only intensified.
“I’m sorry, Bubbie,” June said over Asher’s shoulder as she peered down at a wailing Owen and rubbed a hand over the baby’s downy soft thatch of hair. “I didn’t mean to, promise!”
Without missing a beat, Nat stepped into the house, dropped her bags next to the front door, and scooped a contrite June off Asher’s back. To him, she said, “You’ve got the screamer.”
“That means you’ve got the one hopped up on sugar.”
Nat only shrugged. “Perfect, then we match. I’ve eaten nothing but chips and peanut M&M’s for three days.”
With that, she tossed June over her shoulder before spinning the little girl around in helicopters. After a few moments, she dropped a giggling June onto the couch and stared down at her, fists propped on her hips. “I have a deal for you. What do you think of that?”
His niece, ever the skeptic, narrowed her eyes. “What kind of deal?”
“Whoever picks up the most before your brother stops cryin’ gets a cupcake from The Sweet Spot. Agree?”
Asher was pretty sure the last thing his niece needed today—or this week, for that matter—was more sugar. But there was no denying that Nat’s tactics worked because June agreed immediately, flying off the couch and dashing around the disastrous living room to get started. The house was strewn with enough toys to fill an entire store, not to mention the dirty dishes he hadn’t been able to get to or the handful of discarded outfits June insisted on tearing through each day. Then there were all the pee-stained shirts of his, as well as Owen’s—the kid hadn’t woken up dry once since Asher had arrived.
Nat may not have been the maternal type, but she was the see-something, do-something type, which was why her immediacy didn’t surprise him. No matter how long they spent apart, it was never weird when they saw each other again. Whether it was after five weeks or five months, they fell right back into the same easy rhythm they had always had between them.
She wore jeans and an oversized hoodie—her standard airplane uniform—and he knew from experience she was dying for a shower. While she loved traveling and seeing the world, she didn’t love airplanes or being stuffed like sardines with a bunch of random people she didn’t know, breathing in recycled air.
“Quit starin’ at me, creep,” Nat said as she bent to pick up a discarded sippy cup, not even bothering to look over her shoulder.
He huffed out a laugh at the exact moment a particularly sharp wail sounded from Owen. Asher adjusted Owen into a different position, lifting him upright and propping the baby’s butt on Asher’s forearm. Owen stared at him, as if Asher were the one responsible for all of this, his bottom lip quivering as he rubbed an angry fist into his eyes.
“I know, buddy.” Asher rubbed Owen’s back as he walked them toward the little boy’s room and away from the peals of laughter from June and Nat. “Now that Nat’s here to take care of your sister, maybe I can finally get you to sleep.”
Somehow, beyond all hope, Owen actually did fall asleep—on top of Asher while he rocked him in the chair in his room, which meant Asher fell asleep, too. He woke up to Owen’s hands slapping happily on his cheeks and his nephew’s face pressed so close he was blurry.
Owen babbled around a drool-filled smile, his mood a complete one-eighty from when they’d stepped foot into his bedroom who knew how long ago.
Asher pulled out his phone and glanced at the time. Shit, he’d been in here for two hours while Nat had been on Sugar Satan duty. What a welcome. Hey, thanks for coming, but I’m gonna crash. So, do you mind handling, well, everything?
“Up we go,” Asher said. “We should probably get you—” Before he could complete the sentence, a wet sensation registered across his torso, and he held Owen out at arm’s length. The kid was soaking wet, which meant so was Asher.
He exhaled a sigh. “I don’t understand how one tiny thing can produce so much pee.”
Owen’s happy babbles continued, even as Asher got him wiped down and changed into a fresh diaper and clothes. He hadn’t yet figured out how to manage taking a shower while both kids were awake, so that meant he’d handled previous pee explosions by simply changing shirts and continuing to smell like urine until he could shower after bedtime. Now that Nat was here, hopefully she could watch them for five minutes so he could get cleaned up.
He strode into the living room with Owen, careful to hold him so he didn’t rest on the wet patch of Asher’s shirt. Nat and June sat on the floor, an explosion of coloring books and crayons spread out in front of them.
“Uncle Asher, we’re doin’ a contest! You get to pick the winner.”
“Sounds like fun. But before I do that, I was hopin’ I could jump in the shower.” He set Owen down, and the baby crawled for his large bin of toys in the corner.
Nat glanced back at him, eyebrow raised at the wet spot on his shirt. “Problems?”
“Kid pees like a racehorse.” He held his arms open toward her. “You want a hug?”
Nat scrunched her nose. “Maybe after you shower. I love you, but not quite get-myself-wet-with-someone-else’s-urine love. I can probably handle them both for five minutes. Any longer than that, and you’re temptin’ fate.”
“You’re a godsend. I’ll hurry.” He strolled toward the spare bedroom—he hadn’t been able to bring himself to even open his sister and brother-in-law’s door, let alone step inside—and reached back to yank the neck of his shirt, pulling the damp fabric over his head. He tossed it in the overflowing basket of dirty laundry he needed to wash and headed straight for the bathroom.
After the fastest shower of his life, he strode back into the living room wearing fresh clothes to find his niece and nephew set up in front of the TV. June sat at the coffee table while Owen was perched in his high chair, snacks spread out for them as the Backyardigans played on the screen.
“You’re magic,” he said as he dropped into a chair at the dining room table, assuring he still had eyes on the kids.
“Rory’s magic—I called her to get some tips. And then I slipped them a little bourbon to calm them down. No big.” Nat shrugged, her lips tipped up at the corners.
But then the smile dropped from her face, and she walked straight for him, pulling him up and out of his seat to wrap her arms around his waist. It was so reminiscent of when he’d rushed back about six months ago while her daddy was in open heart surgery—both times, they hadn’t had the privacy the moments demanded, but they made do.
He engulfed her in his arms, dropping his head so he could bury his nose into the crook of her neck. He inhaled deeply, taking her scent into him and relaxing for the first time in days. She smelled like stale air from the plane and sunscreen and just a hint of clove. Home. She smelled like home.
“I’m sorry, Ash. I’m so sorry.” She exhaled her soft words straight into his chest, but he heard them all the same.
His throat tightened, his eyes going damp, his nose tingling with the onset of tears. He hadn’t cried since he’d arrived. His focus had been on June and Owen. On the arrangements. But Nat wasn’t going to accept that. While he was there for everyone else, she was there for him.
“Thank you for comin’,” he said, pulling back to stare down at her.
“Don’t be an idiot. Of course I came.”
“Well, it is Havenbrook, so I wondered if you would.”
Nat pulled away with one final squeeze and dropped into the chair perpendicular to him, propping her chin on her fist as she rested her elbow on the table. “I didn’t come for Havenbrook. I came for you. Besides, I’ve already been here for an hour, and I’m not crawlin’ out of my skin yet. I think that might be progress.”
“Definitely. I don’t even see a rash or anything,” Asher said, lowering himself into the chair.
“So, now that we’ve got the two hellions wrangled—temporarily, obviously,” Nat said, darting her eyes to where June and Owen were still mesmerized by the show on TV. “What else needs to be done? What can I help with?”
Asher scrubbed a hand across his jaw, thick with the start of a beard since he hadn’t even thought about shaving since he’d been here. “The funeral’s tomorrow. And then I’ve got an appointment with Cole Donovan, Aubrey’s lawyer, on Thursday to go over their will.” He swallowed down the lump of emotion that rose in his throat, the now-familiar ache in his chest expanding. “I know this isn’t your favorite place, but do you think you can stick it out for a few days?”
“I could probably be bribed,” she said wryly with an eye roll. “I’m here. However long you need.”
Now she was just lying—she put on a good show, but Nat in Havenbrook was like a cat in a bath. He made a mental note to pick up several family sized bags of peanut M&M’s—her favorite—the next time he was at the store to make good on that bribe. “Thank you,” he said, all teasing gone from his tone. “I’m not sure what the hell’s gonna happen, but—”
Nat waved her hand, dismissing the rest of his words. “Ash. It’s fine. I’m here as long as you need me. I’ll stay here with you guys, and that way, you’re not outnumbered by the tiny mutant people.”
Asher cracked a smile and glanced over at his niece and nephew. June had stood from her previous perch on the floor and was now jumping in time to the theme song, her arms flailing out to her sides as Owen mimicked her movements, the two of them laughing. His and Nat’s quiet, talking time was soon going to come to an end. In fact, he’d bet money that they had less than five minutes before someone demanded their attention. He may only have been here for a couple days, but he’d already learned private time was a scarce commodity.
“At some point in the very near future, you’re probably gonna wish you didn’t say that.”
“Probably,” she agreed with a nod.
“There is one little problem,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over Owen’s squeals as June belted out the lyrics to the theme song.
“I’m gonna need earplugs?”
“There is that. But… Well, I don’t feel right about usin’ Aubrey and Nathan’s room.”
“Which means we’re sharin’ a room, and there’s obviously only one bed. Think you can keep your hands off me?”
Nat raised an eyebrow, her lips curved up. “Who says I’m gonna share?”
Pact with a Heartbreaker (Book 3)
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USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Brighton Walsh spent a decade as a professional photographer before taking her storytelling in a different direction and reconnecting with her first love—writing. She likes her books how she likes her tea—steamy and satisfying—and adores strong-willed heroines and the protective heroes who fall head over heels for them. Brighton lives in the Midwest with her real life hero of a husband, her two kids—one who’s already taller than her and one who’s catching up too fast—and her dog who thinks she’s a queen. Her boy-filled house is the setting for dirty socks galore, frequent dance parties (okay, so it’s mostly her, by herself, while her children look on in horror), and more laughter than she thought possible.