Cassidy Monroe slipped into a pair of brown shorts with a large flat tail sewn onto the back, plus a tight brown T-shirt and leggings. Before opening the bedroom door, she put on a pair of fake buck teeth and a headband with little brown ears. She’d been working on this costume for the past week, and she was rather proud of it.
“What do you think?” she asked her best friend, Rachel Malone.
Rachel’s mouth fell open. “When I suggested you dress as a sexy animal for Halloween, that was not what I had in mind. You’re a beaver?”
“Exactly.” Cassie ducked back into her bedroom and came out with a small log. She had scraped some wood off one end so it was pointed. It looked like it had been gnawed by a beaver. “Do you think I should carry this with me?”
Rachel pressed her hand to her forehead. She was dressed as a flapper girl. “Oh my God. There are so many dirty jokes running through my mind. Beaver. Wood. Make it stop.”
“I’d be interested in hearing some of those,” said Cole Sampson, Rachel’s boyfriend. He was lounging on the sofa.
Rachel stuck out her tongue at him and turned back to Cassie. “Lose the log. And the buck teeth.”
Cassie pulled them out with a sigh. “But they make me look more like a beaver.”
“The point is not to look like a beaver. The point is to look as sexy as possible so Johnny can’t take his eyes off you. Buck teeth are not sexy. And carrying a log around all night is just weird. What will you do when he kisses you? Drop it on his foot?”
“Fine, fine. No log.” She put it on the table.
Halloween wasn’t until next Tuesday, but their other best friend, Jenna, and her husband were hosting their Halloween party tonight. Rachel had insisted the party be on a Friday so she and Cole could come down to Georgeville from Ottawa.
“A beaver is an odd choice,” Rachel said. “Why not a bunny rabbit?”
“That’s so unoriginal.”
“Again, the point isn’t to be original.”
Cassie attempted to shake her tail. “It’s very Canadian, eh?”
Rachel snickered. “I guess sexy animal costumes are almost always rabbits or members of the cat family. I’m not used to seeing anything else. A beaver just doesn’t seem sexy.”
“The whole idea of considering any animal ‘sexy’ is a little weird to me.”
“I don’t know. I can see how there’s something kind of hot about a cheetah. It’s quick and sleek. Beavers are pudgy and have funny teeth. Not to say you look pudgy in that costume, but…”
Cassie narrowed her gaze. “What about a bear? Would that have been better? Or a fox?”
“Those aren’t so bad.”
“How about a lobster?” She had briefly considered that idea last week. She’d rejected it not because lobsters weren’t sexy enough, but because it was a more complicated costume than a beaver. “Perhaps a lizard? Or a squid?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Thank you for reminding me that this could be so much worse.”
“A squid is better than an ogre,” Cole muttered from the couch. “I can’t believe I have to wear this tonight.” He picked up the green mask on the coffee table and shoved it over his head. “Tell me again why I’m doing this?”
“Because it’s hilarious,” Rachel said. “You probably don’t even need to wear the mask. With the plaid pants, white shirt, and vest, plus that stunning ogre personality of yours, people will automatically know you’re Shrek.”
“Thank you for that.”
Rachel sauntered over and sat on his lap. “And later tonight, I’ll—”
“Cut it out, lovebirds.” Cassie didn’t need to witness a make-out session. “So, Rachel, is the beaver costume okay without the buck teeth and the log?”
“The ears are cute. The shirt is fine. Just pull it down a little. Maximize your cleavage.”
Cassie complied. “What do you think now?”
Rachel looked her up and down. “I think it’ll do the job just fine.”
Although Rachel had escaped to the city earlier this year, Cassie was perfectly happy in the small town of Georgeville, where she, Rachel, and Jenna had grown up. She knew almost everyone, and she liked her job at the doctor’s office. It was a nice, peaceful existence.
But there was something missing.
Fortunately, she had the perfect solution to that problem—in the form of Johnny Fitzpatrick, the owner of the town’s hardware store. He was five years older, so they hadn’t gone to school together, but she’d gotten to know him in the past few months. They’d started chatting when they saw each other around town, and two weeks ago, she’d gone to the hardware store to buy a toilet plunger—yes, she was the queen of sexiness—and he’d asked her out for coffee afterward.
They’d had a good time at Tim Hortons, the only coffee shop in town, talking about nothing in particular. A little flirting, but so far it hadn’t progressed to anything more.
She hoped that would change tonight.
Not that she was in a big rush to get a serious boyfriend and settle down. She was only twenty-five. But aside from one brief and ill-fated attempt at BDSM, she hadn’t been with a guy for a year.
It was past time to move on from her last relationship with a man—Blaine, whom she’d spent one glorious, heartbreaking week with the summer before last.
She needed to move on. For her own sanity.
She shook her head and pushed Blaine out of her mind. For the rest of tonight, she would focus on Johnny Fitzpatrick, who was kind and funny and everything a boyfriend should be.
“So what should I do?” she asked Rachel. “Just walk up to him, wiggle my beaver tail, and ask if he wants to make out?”
Rachel laughed. “Try standing close to him. Touch him casually on the shoulder, then later, leave your hand there just a little longer than usual. Discreetly pull down your shirt even more. And maybe drink some alcohol to help you loosen up. Come on, it’s not too hard.”
It just wasn’t something that came naturally to Cassie, unlike Rachel.
Except with Blaine. With him, it had been so easy…
God, she needed to stop thinking about that asshole.
Johnny. He was the guy she wanted.
Blaine Richards flipped on his high beams. He was out of Ottawa now, driving on the back roads that would take him back to Georgeville. To a woman he hadn’t seen in over a year.
He’d been such a damn idiot.
The problem was that he was a very logical person. And falling in love with a woman the instant he set eyes on her made no sense. It was completely illogical, and so he had assumed it wasn’t really love.
He tried to think about it from an evolutionary perspective. There must be some explanation for why humans had developed the ability to fall in love at first sight. Perhaps those people had more sex and thus were more likely to pass on their genes, or…
No, he couldn’t think about evolution right now.
Last night, he’d gone on his third first date in a month with a woman he’d met on an online dating website. Based on her profile and the texts they’d sent each other, Mellie scored an 8.75 on his ranking system, which was over his threshold of eight. So he’d asked her out.
The date had started off fine. He’d taken her to a nice seafood restaurant in the Byward Market, and it hadn’t turned out that she was a fruitarian or allergic to seafood or anything like that. But although she was intelligent and easygoing and pretty—like his previous two dates—there were no sparks.
It was just fine. Nothing more.
Still, he’d kissed her when he drove her home after dinner. Maybe that had been the problem with those other first dates—they’d never gotten around to kissing.
He’d walked Mellie to her door. When he’d leaned in, she’d leaned in, and the instant his lips had met hers, it had been all wrong. She’d tasted pleasant. Unsurprisingly, she’d tasted like the cheesecake they’d split for dessert. And that had been just fine, but…
He’d jerked back, she’d jerked back, and they’d both said, at exactly the same time, “I’m in love with someone else.”
Well, that had been a relief.
So she’d invited him in for tea, and they’d talked about their hopeless love lives. Mellie was in love with a married man, and Blaine was in love with a woman he’d lied to and left more than a year ago because he hadn’t been able to believe they had anything real. But after that unfortunate kiss with Mellie, he was forced to accept the truth. He didn’t want anyone but Cassie. It had been sixteen months since he’d seen her, and he still loved her.
And so now, he was driving to Georgeville. Without a plan. Which was very unlike him. All he knew was that he was going to knock on Cassie’s door and say hello.
She would probably be pissed at him. That was understandable. But surely, with a little talking and apologizing, he could get her to give him another chance. She’d told him that she loved him. She’d wanted to have a relationship with him, even though he lived far away.
However, the unexpected death of his father a few months before he’d met her had devastated him, and he hadn’t been in the right frame of mind to consider it. He’d been too damn logical—and stupid—to believe that what he felt for her was real. He’d assumed he was just clinging to the first woman he’d kissed after that tragedy, and it couldn’t truly be love—his mind was playing tricks on him.
His hands shook on the steering wheel. He tried to calm himself by slowly reciting the geologic time periods. There was something calming about saying “Cambrian” and “Ordovician.” At least, he’d always thought so.
Most people would probably just think he was a nutcase.
A nutcase who had looked at the evidence and now had to conclude that love at first sight was a very real thing, even if it didn’t sound rational.
He flipped off the high beams as he entered Georgeville, the town where he’d somehow found himself last year. Back then, he’d had his tent and sleeping bag in his trunk, and he’d planned to spend a week driving across Ontario—camping, hiking, looking at rocks and trees, calming himself the fuck down after the horrible spring he’d had.
But then he’d stopped at Tim Hortons to get a coffee, and he’d seen her. She’d been buying a chocolate dip donut. Wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt. Nothing fancy, but he’d quite literally stopped breathing for a few seconds.
She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on.
And she was his.
Somehow, he’d just known that.
Some people would probably describe him as cocky.
Okay, more than a few people would definitely describe him as cocky. But that was regarding anything related to science. When it came to women, he wasn’t cocky. He wasn’t a total blubbering idiot, either, but he was no Casanova.
With Cassie, however, it had been different. They’d seen each other…and twenty minutes later, they’d been having sex on her couch.
And the week he’d planned to spend camping, he’d spent with her instead. Except when she’d been at work, of course…although he’d persuaded her to call in sick once.
Such a wonderful week. The best of his life.
Now it was time to get her back.
Cassie lived in an apartment above a dentist’s office. The entrance was at the back. He parked his car, climbed up the steps, and knocked, his heart hammering. He continued to repeat the geologic time periods in his mind, but he didn’t say them out loud. He didn’t want her to come to the door when he was in the middle of saying “Silurian.”
A minute passed, and there was no answer. He put his ear to the door but couldn’t hear anything inside. No footsteps scampering down the hall. So he knocked again, a little louder this time.
Still no answer.
An awful thought occurred to him. What if she didn’t live here, anymore? It had been well over a year. She could be living somewhere else in Georgeville, or she could have moved out of town.
He had no other way of reaching her. He didn’t know her last name or her phone number. He’d insisted on that because he’d wanted nothing serious, just a week of fun.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
He banged on the door once more. Even though it was quite reasonable that she could have moved, she had to be here. She was his. She had to be here to give him a chance.
Five minutes later, he had to accept that she wasn’t coming to the door. Maybe she did live in this apartment but was out with friends for the night. Perhaps he’d scope out the bar—there was only one bar in town. If she wasn’t there, he could come back and wait by her door for a few hours to see if she returned.
He walked down the stairs with heavy footsteps.
“Can I help you?”
He whipped his head toward the gravelly voice. An older man—a little older than his father would be if he were still alive—stood before him.
“Umm…” Blaine wasn’t interested in telling a stranger that he was trying to get the love of his life back.
“You’re not from around here,” the man said.
“You looking for Cassie? I saw you knocking on her door.”
Blaine couldn’t help but smile at the mention of her name. And the knowledge that this was still where she lived.
“I am. Just in the area and thought I’d surprise her.”
“She’s at a Halloween party tonight. Told me the other day about the costume she was making. I can’t remember what it was, though. My memory’s not as good as it used to be, but—”
“Do you know where this party is?”
“Sorry. Can’t say I do. You should text her on those phones all you young people have. My phone’s attached to the wall, and I pay my bills at the bank. My son laughs at me, and—”
“Thank you for your help.” Blaine jumped into his car before he found himself in the middle of a half-hour conversation.
Of course, he still had a problem. He didn’t know where the party was. But assuming it was in Georgeville, he could probably find it.
He drove up and down the town’s streets, looking for any house with lots of activity. Perhaps there would be loud music and several cars out front.
And perhaps Cassie would be dressed as a sexy bunny rabbit. Or a sexy nurse. Or a sexy French maid.
Honestly, she would look sexy in whatever she was wearing, even if it was a paper bag.
Finally, he found a promising house on Edward Street. There were lots of decorations out front—including an inflatable Grim Reaper—and a fairy and a giant pumpkin were walking up the driveway. It sure looked like a Halloween party.
Well. Time to walk into a party of drunk, costumed strangers and declare his love for a woman he hadn’t seen since last June.
A totally normal Friday night for Blaine Richards.
It was only nine o’clock and the party would last for several more hours, but Cassie was already drunk. On sugar. She’d only had one glass of punch, but Jenna had set out a wide selection of candy on cut-glass serving trays, and Cassie was indulging herself as she waited for Johnny to show up.
“I’m surprised you brought out your nice dishes for this party,” she said to Jenna. Her friend was dressed as a witch.
Jenna shrugged. “I’ve had them for a year, and I hadn’t used them yet. Figured it was time.”
Jenna and her husband, Theo, had run off to Vegas together last fall, and despite the fact that they hadn’t had a “proper” wedding, her family had gotten them a ton of wedding presents.
Cassie plucked a sour candy from a dish. Although it was supposed to be sour, it still had enough sugar to add to her sugar high.
Whatever. It was Halloween. The whole purpose was to eat candy and wear costumes.
Darrell Summers walked up to them. He was wearing a toga. “Hey, Jenna. Great party.”
“Thanks,” Jenna said. “Where’s Biscuit? I thought you were going to bring your dog?”
“Nah. I thought about it, but this is too much excitement for her. Who knows what kind of trouble she would have caused? And did the ancient Greeks have dogs? I’m not sure it would have gone with my costume.”
“Togas were worn by the Romans,” Cassie said. “Not the Greeks.”
He laughed and held up his beer. “I’ll blame my mistake on the booze.”
Darrell’s toga was made out of a bedsheet and exposed one of his pecs. The guy had a great body. That was undeniable, even though Cassie had never had any interest in him. But she could totally understand why he was popular with the women in town.
“I didn’t know you had a dog,” she said.
“You know Katherine Windham, the old lady who died last month? I offered to take her dog since her sons weren’t interested.”
“Didn’t she have a tiny white maltipoo that always wore a pink hair bow?”
“Yes. Biscuit is a very manly dog.”
Cassie laughed at the idea of Darrell, tall and muscled, owning a dog like that.
“I refuse to put a bow on her,” he said. “That’s too much for me. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with the name Biscuit, which I think is a terrible name for a dog.”
“Aw,” Jenna said. “It’s cute.”
“I tried calling her ‘Buster’ for a while, hoping it would be okay because it sounds similar. But she refused to answer to it. So Biscuit it is. She’s great, though. And not just because women go crazy over her.”
Well, Cassie doubted Darrell needed help with the ladies.
Rachel walked over, towing Cole behind her. “Good to see you,” she said to Darrell, giving him a quick hug.
“Cole looks much less pleased to see me,” Darrell said.
“He’s not happy to see anyone. I just dragged him out of the corner, where he’d been eating black licorice and scowling for the better part of an hour.”
“Too many damn people,” Cole muttered. “I just want to go back to my swamp.” He took off his ogre mask. “Am I doing a good job of staying in character?”
“Yeah, you’re doing great, sweetie,” Rachel said. “Not that this requires much acting for you. Plus there’s no law that says you need to act like your Halloween costume. Otherwise Cassie would be crawling around and gnawing on wood, which might be a problem. Wouldn’t want her to destroy all of Jenna’s furniture.”
Cassie chuckled and glanced around the living room. There were about twenty-five people at the party so far, and a crap-load of candy and booze. But the one person she wanted to see had yet to make an appearance.
“Still no sign of Johnny?” Rachel said. “Are you sure he’s coming?”
“He promised he’d be here.”
“Speak of the devil…” Jenna nodded toward the front door, and Cassie turned.
And there he was.
Her heart didn’t speed up when she saw him. In fact, she wrinkled her nose. Because Johnny was wearing a costume that was decidedly less sexy than a beaver. Or a devil.
He was dressed as Big Bird.
She couldn’t help but cringe.
Not that she had anything against big yellow birds. But when you had a crush on a guy, you kind of hoped he showed up to a Halloween party wearing something hot. A toga would have been preferable. Hell, even an ogre would have been better.
Rachel snickered. “We’ll leave you to it.”
Cassie stuffed another sour candy in her mouth and headed over to Johnny, wiggling her hips a little.
“You look great,” he said, smiling at her. “What are you—a mouse?”
She spun around to show him her tail.
“Ah. You’re a beaver. Yes.”
They looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, and her mind wandered back to the quasi-date they’d had at Tim Hortons. It had been pleasant, but there’d been a few uncomfortable silences then, too.
And then, because she couldn’t help herself, she remembered the day she’d met Blaine at Tim Hortons, the way he’d—
Focus, Cassie. You’re over Blaine.
Perhaps she hadn’t had enough to drink.
“Us beavers really like our punch,” she said. “It’s very…punchy. Want to get some with me? It’s in the kitchen.”
“Absolutely.” Johnny placed his hand on her lower back, just above her tail, and guided her toward the kitchen.
“Did you have trouble finding the place?”
Of course not. That was an idiotic question. Georgeville was so small, it was impossible to get lost. And Johnny had lived here his whole life. What was wrong with her today?
He was touching her, though. That was good, wasn’t it?
There was a crowd of people jostling around the punch bowl, and she and Johnny were pushed closer together. The length of his body pressed against hers. She didn’t feel anything, but that was okay. It might just take time to get that spark. And given all the padding in the Big Bird costume, it wasn’t surprising that she felt nothing. Right?
Or maybe you don’t belong together…
She pushed aside the irritating voice in her head. Johnny was the guy she wanted. He was nice and steady, and he wasn’t the sort who would leave her after a week.
He handed her a cup of punch before pouring one for himself. Then he took her hand and led her to the side of the refrigerator.
“How was the hardware store today?” she asked. “Sell any toilet plungers?”
He smiled at her. “Not today. But I did sell several wrenches.”
He continued to talk about wrenches for five minutes, which she couldn’t say she found terribly interesting. So she took the time to discreetly—or perhaps not so discreetly—pull down her shirt to show off her cleavage, then placed her hand on his shoulder. There was no heat emanating through the bright yellow feathers of his costume.
Then she realized he’d stopped talking. Crap. Had he asked her a question? Did he expect her to say something intelligent about wrenches or hammers?
Well, now seemed as good a time as any for a first kiss. She pushed up the beak on his Big Bird costume, leaned forward, and brushed her lips over his.
As soon as his lips met hers, it felt all wrong.
But she kept kissing him anyway.
This was the guy she wanted.
Really, he was.
Blaine knocked on the door. A witch and a flapper girl answered. Behind them, two ghosts walked by with red Solo cups, and Minnie Mouse danced with a man in a bedsheet toga. The bass was pumping, and the lights were turned down low.
It reminded him of the parties he’d gone to back in university.
“Who are you?” asked the witch. “You weren’t invited.”
“No.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I…um…I’m looking for Cassie. Is she here?”
“What’s your name?”
The witch and the flapper girl exchanged a look. Not a nice one.
“Blaine.” The flapper girl looked him up and down. “I thought you lived on the other side of the country.”
Yes, that’s what he’d told Cassie. He’d said he was just in the area for a few weeks, that he lived across the country, and nothing lasting could happen between them.
These must be her friends.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “Could I please just talk to her?”
The flapper girl shook her head. “We know exactly what you did to her.”
But the witch reluctantly nodded. “You were an ass. But Cassie should decide what she wants to do with you. Not us.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said the flapper girl, not sounding too happy about it. “We’ll let you in, but if she wants you out, you’re gone.”
“Thank you.” He stepped inside, but she blocked his path.
“It’s a Halloween party. You need to wear a costume.”
This was a complication he hadn’t expected. Was there anything in his car he could use? He had a hard hat, a safety vest, and steel-toed boots. It wouldn’t really feel like a costume, given he had to wear such things on site for work sometimes, but he could say he was a construction worker.
“You know who he looks like?” said the witch to the flapper girl. “That guy who plays Sherlock Holmes. What’s his name?”
“Benedict Cumberbatch,” supplied the flapper girl. “You think so? I don’t see it.”
“Theo has a winter hat that sort of looks like the Sherlock Holmes hat, and we should have a magnifying glass around here somewhere. What do you think, Blaine? Sherlock Holmes? You good at solving mysteries?”
“Look,” he said. “I just want to see Cassie.”
“And we’ll let you,” said the witch. “Once you’re in costume.”
“I’ll go out to my car and come back dressed as a construction worker.”
“No. Too boring.”
“I dunno,” said the flapper girl. “Construction workers are kind of hot, don’t you think? But I see what you’re saying. It’s not the most exciting costume.”
He curled his hands into fists. He didn’t have time for this nonsense, but he didn’t want to piss off Cassie’s friends any more than he already had.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” He started to turn, but the witch put a hand on his arm.
“I have a better idea than Sherlock Holmes. Just wait here.” She scurried up the stairs.
He stayed in the front hall, unsure what to say to the flapper girl. He didn’t have much experience with social situations like this one.
“What did you say?” asked the flapper girl.
Oh, crap. She was right. He’d been muttering the geologic time periods under his breath again. But he didn’t want to admit that.
“If you hurt her again, I’ll set my ogre on you,” she said. “Trust me, you don’t want to mess with him.”
“I won’t hurt her. I screwed up last time. I know I was an ass.”
“At least you’re willing to admit it.”
The witch bounded down the stairs and handed him a mask and a navy cape. The mask was black, with a very long and pointy nose.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Honestly, I have no idea. Theo’s aunt bought it in Italy and gave it to him for his birthday, for reasons that are not clear to me. But I think it works perfectly for a villain. That’s what you’ll be dressed as. A villain.”
“Okay…” Was it too late to say he’d prefer Sherlock Holmes?
He put on the cape and tied the mask behind his head.
“Do you think we should make him a cardboard sword?” the witch asked the flapper girl. “A villain should have a weapon of some sort, don’t you think?”
He’d had enough of this. He pushed his way past the two women and stalked around the main floor looking for Cassie. She wasn’t in the living room, although he found a cowboy making out with a tiger on top of the coffee table.
He turned away and moved to the dining room, where he found lots of candy and a cooler full of beer.
But still no Cassie.
So he went into the kitchen, and he stopped in his tracks when he saw her pressed against the refrigerator, a large yellow bird dipping its head and kissing her.
This couldn’t be happening.
But it had been more than a year. It shouldn’t be surprising she’d found a boyfriend in that time.
However, as he looked at Cassie and Big Bird making out against the refrigerator, he had a feeling this wasn’t her boyfriend. The kiss looked decidedly awkward. The guy was all wrong for her. That much was obvious.
So Blaine pushed Big Bird out of the way and took his place.