The Angel on the Ladder
A 'Love, Lacey Donovan' bonus scene
Summer tugged my hand, dragging me down the street.
Good uncle that I am, I let myself be dragged. Out of my dozens of nieces and nephews, Summer was my favorite. Right now, Summer was happy. I hadn’t seen those snaggle-teeth in a smile that wide since Christmas morning. Soon she would have braces to straighten her smile and she would be on her way to be a stunning woman like her mother. There would come a day when she might not want to spend time with her uncle, so I savored every snaggletoothed smile she threw my way.
I would do anything to see that kid smile.
Even spend my day off in a musty old bookshop on Main Street in Mossy Oak. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for a bookshop. I’d spent hours wandering the aisles of Hatchard’s in Piccadilly. I’d roamed the dusty floors of Argosy off 1st Avenue on a perfect spring day when everyone in their right mind was enjoying Central Park. Bookshops inspired me. I loved seeing the rows and rows of authors on the shelves.
Unfortunately, I had bad memories of Hyperbole’s Bookshop. The summer I turned thirteen, I’d been behind a shelf with my hand up Jenny McEntyre’s T-shirt when the owner had busted us. He’d kicked us out and called our parents. Mine didn’t care. My mom was in The Hamptons for the summer, and my dad—on his fourth marriage—could hardly be expected to keep count of his myriad of children, stepchildren and soon- to-be born children, much less discipline them.
Jenny’s parents weren’t so understanding. They’d banned her from seeing me, and I never made it to second base with Jenny .
Tainted by my teenage foibles, Hyperbole’s didn’t offer much promise of a good time. Still, I hoped being inside a bookshop would snap me out of my funk. I’d never believed in writer’s block. For seven years, I’d been publishing hit after hit. I’d never had a problem pouring my heart out on the pages. My stories flowed like Niagara Falls.
And then one day they didn’t. Writing my last novel had felt like torture. My editor assured me it was good, but I knew it was crap. A total shitshow. I’d phoned in every word. Relying on tired formulas that had sold in the past, I’d barely hauled the manuscript across the finish line. My publishers had sent out the advanced copies, and I was holding my breath for the negative reviews.
Thank God for pen names! The one bright side was that no one knew I’d been the one to write that sorry excuse for a novel. It had once been my dream to see my name in a bookstore, but now I was glad I wouldn’t.
Summer halted on the street. Her small hand tightened on mine, fingers digging in.
“Look! Isn’t it amazing?”
I’d been so busy feeling sorry for myself that I’d almost walked right past the window display. That would have been a monumental shame, because the display was un-fucking-believ‐ able. Summer had told me about it over the phone, describing every little detail in a high-pitched excited squeal.
“The tails even move!”
And she was right. I felt like I was looking straight at a movie set for the land of Obsidia, home to the Clan of Cat Warriors.
The pink skies and purple mountains had been plucked straight from the pages of the epic series.
I peered into the bookshop behind the display. To my surprise, the store was crowded with shoppers. More displays, just as extravagant as the one in the window, peeked between the aisles.
My heart gave a little stutter. Seeing people enjoy a book‐ store stirred my blood. Writing was a solitary occupation—even more so for me, since only a few people in my life knew I was an author.
I had a demanding job—a career—with my family company. But when I wasn’t working for Vinroot Enterprises, I wrote. I never expected to become a best-selling author. I still couldn’t believe people actually wanted to read my words.
After my last book, maybe no one would want to anymore.
“Come on, Uncle Kit!” Summer jerked my hand, pulling me away from the window.
I opened the door, and we entered the bookshop. When I was thirteen, the shop had been chaotic and disorganized with moldy blue carpet and bright florescent lights. The last twenty years had been kind to Hyperbole’s. It had once smelled of wet dogs and mildew. Now, it smelled like wood polish and vanilla. We walked past an in-house coffee shop, and the scent of rich espresso wafted through the air.
“Coffee,” I said, automatically turning my body toward the café. I’d just flown in from a job in Los Angeles and was still operating on Pacific Time. I shuffled toward the scent of espresso like a zombie.
Summer grabbed my elbow, steering me toward the central staircase. “I want you to meet my friends.”
I forgot about the coffee I so desperately craved. Summer’s smile gave me a better buzz than caffeine. Seeing her happy made me forget my troubles. My shy little bookworm niece didn’t trust people, and it was hard for her to open up enough to make friends.
She hadn’t always been like that. Before the divorce, she’d been a normal kid. Since her father had all but disappeared from her life, Summer had retreated into herself. Summer’s dad needed an ass beating, and I was considering flying out to Atlanta to give him one myself.
I considered myself an even-tempered person. I stayed calm at work, where I had to make difficult decisions at breakneck speed. I never lost my temper. I’d never even been in a fight, but I wouldn’t mind pounding Jeff Carleton into a pulp. My sister. I’d given him a pass on that because I understood there were two sides to every story. And I’d lived with my sister—she was a pain in the ass. But abandoning his child was unforgivable in my eyes.
If Jeff canceled one more scheduled visit because the surf was up in Costa Rica or he’d scored tickets to Kygo in Sweden, I was booking my flight to Atlanta.
“There he is!” Summer tugged my hand.
My shoulders relaxed as I exhaled. The other kid had showed. I’d been worried for nothing. I glanced around for a kid her age, but I didn’t see any. “Where is he?”
I pushed my glasses up higher on my nose and scanned the aisle. The only people in front of us were an employee helping a woman reach a book on a tall shelf and a young mother balancing a toddler on her hip while she juggled her bags.
I turned back to Summer, hoping we weren’t about to have the “Imaginary Friend” talk.
“Thatcher!” Summer called.
The bookstore employee turned to look in our direction. His eyes lit on Summer, and he gave a friendly wave.
Summer’s laugh tinkled. “It’s Summer!” she corrected.
His smile grew, and something about him rang a bell. I never forgot a face. I was still trying to place him as he strode toward us.
“You must be Uncle Kit.” He extended a hand. “I’m Thatcher Hayes.”
I grasped his hand. A working-man’s hands with rough palms. In a flash, I recognized him.
The summer after Jenny, I was fourteen, and I’d come home from my first year and found out my dad had signed me up for baseball camp. I’d been surly the first few days, angry that my dad had pawned me off for the whole summer, but then I’d started to bond with the kids. And there was no hiding my talent. Even though I was one of the smallest on the team and my glasses were an inch thick, I could hit the ball better than anyone. When I pictured my dad’s face on the ball flying toward me, I would rear back my bat and swing with every ounce of angst in my teenage body.
Thatcher had been one of the coaches. I’d spent the summer hero-worshiping the man. He was older now, and lines radiated from around his eyes, but he still had the same warm smile.
“Beckett Vinroot,” I said.
His eyes flickered, and I knew he was trying to place me.
“I played baseball on your team. A long time ago.”
He glanced down at Summer, then back at me. “You’re Peppy’s brother.”
“Yes.” I was surprised to hear him use Pressly’s nickname. Not many people outside the family called her that. My memories of that summer were coming back. It had been my first real taste of being on a team. Of being valued for something besides my brain.
Thatcher looked back at Summer. “You look a lot like your mom.”
Summer scowled. “People usually say I look like my dad.”
I bristled at the mention of Jeff. Summer had placed all the blame of the divorce on her mother. She idolized her absent father.
“You have the same eyes.” Thatcher cleared his throat and focused on me again. “You got tall.”
I was a few inches over six feet, a little taller than him. “I had a late growth spurt.
“Did you play in college?” he asked. “You were pretty good for a shrimp.”
I laughed. I’d been five-foot-four until my junior year in high school when I’d sprouted nearly a foot and was suddenly on the radar for baseball scholarships.
“I ended up playing basketball,” I said.
“I’m here for my free book.” Summer interrupted our walk down memory lane.
“Of course,” Thatcher said. “Is this your first time in the store?” he asked me.
I glanced up the stairs to the loft where thirteen-year-old me had been rounding onto second base. Embarrassment burned my cheeks, and I pushed my glasses back in place. “It’s been a long time.”
Thatcher pulled a stack of cards from his back pocket and peeled one off. “This is good for a free book. All first-time customers get one.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I insist. I’m the owner,” he said. “Take it.”
“You own this place?”
“I told you.” Summer rolled her eyes at me.
I peered down at her, confused. I was still trying to reconcile that my niece’s friend was a grown man, not an elementary school student. She’d told me her friend owned the bookshop, but I thought she’d been kidding, or that it was some new slang that I didn’t know about yet.
“Can I get my book now?” Summer asked.
I put my hand on her head, mussing her hair a little. “Sure.” I took the card from Thatcher and stuck it in my pocket.
Summer grabbed my hand and tugged me down the aisle. We weaved around shoppers toward the outskirts of the store where the staircase led to the scene of my teenage crimes.
Summer stopped again and pointed toward the ceiling. “There’s my other friend.”
I lifted my gaze, hoping my niece was talking about a real kid this time, not another grown man or an angel in the sky.
Bookshelves lined the wall all the way up to the loft. Rolling library ladders placed at regular intervals provided access to the higher shelves. A woman balanced halfway up the ladder, leaning for a book just out of reach. She wore fitted jeans that showed off her very fine ass and an employee T-shirt that had been hacked by scissors. The sleeves were gone, and a long row of shredded cotton fringe swung at the hem.
Ink decorated her exposed skin. A delicate branch of blooming flowers twined up one arm. The other arm was covered with more ink. More colors. More delicate designs.
A halo of golden curls cascaded down her back. Sun streamed in from the loft windows as if its destiny was to sparkle in her hair. My breath caught. My eyes widened. I’d never seen a sight more beautiful than her hair glittering in the sun.
She reached for a book just out of reach, and my heart leaped into my throat. I bolted forward a step, struck by the irra‐ tional urge to be there if she fell. To catch her.
She grabbed the book and placed it in a bag that crossed her body from shoulder to hip, then reached again.
Her shirt rode up her midriff. My heart seized. The swatch of bare skin revealed by the sway of fringe had me mesmerized. There wasn’t a drop of ink on her lower back, and I wanted to discover the rest of her skin. I imagined pushing the hem of her shirt higher, discovering every delicious inch.
“Be careful up there, Miss Lacey!” Summer cried.
At the sound of her name, she looked down from the ladder. My heart stopped.
This woman had been blessed with every single genetic advantage known to womankind. Her huge cornflower-blue eyes slanted up in the corners, making her look a bit mischievous. Her mouth was wide and luscious, smiling even when she was surprised. It was a mouth that could kiss and tell someone exactly where to go if they needed directions.
She smiled at Summer, and I don’t know what happened. My heart seized. All the air left my lungs. Every thought in my head vacated the premises as I drank her in. She started down the ladder, and my eyes strayed from her hair to her ass. I stared at her shapely ass in the fitted jeans until she reached the ground. She was a tiny package of perfection, barely coming up to my shoulders. Her waist was small enough for me to wrap my hands around. But it was her hair I was dying to touch. Soft and springing, those curls looked like ribbons of gold silk.
She laughed, and my chest tightened. I was undeniably enchanted. She handed a book to Summer, and I cast around for something—anything to say. “Isn’t she a little young for Brontë?”
She blinked up at me. One eyebrow arched above piercing blue eyes. She said something, but I could only watch her mouth move. My heart thundered too loud in my ears to hear what she said. My eyes roamed down to her T-shirt, where the letters of the bookshop strained over her generous breasts. When I looked back up at her face, our eyes collided and I felt a bolt of lightning race down my spine.
Inspiration, that fickle thing perching on the outskirts of my imagination for months, swooped in carrying a fresh idea. What if I wrote about an enchanting angel descending from above to avenge innocent victims? No... what if that avenger wasn’t an angel but a mere mortal so captivating she was impossible to ignore? My blood heated as the hum of inspiration surged through my veins. I needed pen and paper. I needed to create. Now.
“Are those real tattoos?” Summer asked.
“Summer.” I snapped out her name, my voice harsher than I’d intended. My skin tingled as adrenaline raced through me.
“Sorry,” Summer muttered.
The angel handled the awkward moment with grace, reassuring my niece with a kindly touch. Something about her voice was familiar... Summer had called out her name. Lacey. I never forgot a face. I never forgot a name.
Realization dawned, and I had to keep my jaw from drop‐ ping. This divine woman was Lacey Donovan, the dog walker. I hadn’t been wearing my glasses the first time I met her. Their lenses fogged up when I lifted, so I didn’t wear them. I hadn’t seen more than her blurry outline when she’d busted into my office with her shrill admonishment about Aslan. Now that I’d seen her, I wouldn’t be able to get her off my mind. She had sliced through the haze of my writer’s block, and now my ideas tumbled like Niagara Falls. I had to have more of this angel. I wanted her body. I needed her soul.
I fell under her spell, vowing to do everything in my power to make her mine.