The Love Shack
Book 3 in the Indiana Summers Series
The Love Shack
Book 3 in the Indiana Summers Series
They’ve been trying to avoid each other.
But this town has other ideas…
When Berkley Carr opened The Love Shack Animal Haven, she thought she’d finally put her past behind her. But sometimes she feels the sting of the scandal from her youth, especially when she keeps crossing paths with her handsome neighbor. So, she keeps her head down and pours all her love into caring for animals.
Lawson Salder moved to Cemetery, Indiana, to escape from the grinding poverty of his childhood. He barely knew Berkley from their old neighborhood, but every time he sees her, the shame and pain come crashing back. He knows she’s got major baggage of her own. They’re better off just avoiding each other.
But that’s downright impossible in a town full of matchmaking busybodies. Then there’s the hard-to-ignore attraction they feel every time they see each other. When the universe is conspiring to bring them together, will Berkley and Lawson let past hurts go and embrace the love they deserve?
Reviews of The Love Shack
The Love Shack
is Book 3 in the Indiana Summers Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
Read An Excerpt
The Love Shack
Carrying a colorful bouquet of flowers and a pastry box, Berkley Carr strolled down the sidewalk with her dog, Hero, taking in the sights, sounds and colors of the eclectic little town where she’d recently relocated. A bright afternoon sun heated her shoulders as she breathed in the unique freshness that she’d never experienced anywhere else.
She’d made the right decision when she’d accepted the new job and, basically, a new life. The notoriety that so often haunted her couldn’t possibly bother her here, not in this quaint rural setting bustling with activity and filled with kindness.
As she waved to the owner of the sweetshop, and then, on the opposite side of the street, a seasonal ice cream parlor, she decided that the full-time residents were…almost too good to be true.
Not perfect, no. How boring would that be? They varied in age and ambition, with vocations that spanned the imagination. Most of the businesses were clustered here on the main street, but others were spread out through the town.
None, however, were near her new home and The Love Shack, the amazing animal shelter she now ran. Privacy, that was what she had. Peaceful, wonderful privacy.
As if he’d read her thoughts, Hero gazed up at her, his tongue lolling out one side of his mouth, and his muscular body moving in time with her long strides. The brindle pit bull–boxer mix loved these walks as much as she did.
Berkley smiled down at him. “It’s nice being a stranger, isn’t it?”
Hero licked his chops and then sniffed the air, either smelling a squirrel in one of the mature trees that provided blessed shade everywhere, or perhaps picking up the scent of barbecue that permeated the air from a not-too-distant restaurant.
A vacationer walked by with two kids in tow, no doubt headed for the large recreational lake. As the girl, who looked to be around six, reached out for Hero, the woman asked with caution, “Is he friendly?”
Berkley stopped. “The friendliest.” With his tail wagging, Hero snuffled against the kid and made her laugh. The girl’s shier brother came forward and gave Hero a hug, then the mom knelt and gave him a few pets, too. As always, the dog loved the attention.
After the woman wished her a good day and corralled her kids along, Berkley resumed her walk.
The vacationers were the easiest for her to deal with because they had only a passing interest in her.
The residents, though, they had reason to want to know more about her. Most of them were caring, involved, determined—with a few quirks thrown in. Several were nosy, others liked to gossip, and of course there were often assumptions.
So far, their assumptions about her hadn’t come anywhere near the truth. No one here knew her history, her infamy.
If she could help it, no one ever would.
She no sooner had that thought than she saw Hero go on the alert. Berkley followed the direction of the dog’s stare and encountered a very fine male behind.
Maybe if the guy hadn’t been leaning into what looked like a in front of a shop, things would have gone differently. But there he was, legs braced with a muscular tush on display in board shorts, his head and part of his shoulders hidden inside the well. She and Hero weren’t the only ones to notice, either. Berkley saw several women taking in the view.
It was her distraction with the other women, as well as the packages she carried, that made her lose hold of the leash when Hero launched forward, already on a mission. She shouted, “Hero, no!” But of course, it was too late.
Hearing her, the man straightened too quickly and smacked his head on the roof frame of the well. Before he could complain, Hero had him by the seat of his shorts, determinedly tugging him a foot away to “safety,” which made the guy lose his footing on the gravel lot. He fell forward with a barely subdued curse.
Filled with dread, Berkley sprinted forward, dropped her flowers and pastry box, and grabbed for Hero’s leash. “He’s fine, bud. I swear. Hero, drop him.”
Obediently, the dog released his grip on the shorts, then wagged his tail, very proud of himself. And damn, she was pretty proud of him, too. He’d gotten much better at following commands. “Good boy.”
Grumbling, the guy pushed to his feet, dusted off his knees and stared down at her.
Holy crap. I know him.
Lawson Salder, in the flesh. She hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade, and honestly, that wasn’t long enough to suit her. She would have been happy to never again set eyes on anyone from her old neighborhood, her old life—anyone who knew of the god-awful scandal that had overtaken her existence.
Why had no one told her he lived in Cemetery, Indiana?
It wasn’t like anyone in the area wouldn’t know Lawson. The man was testosterone on a stick. A walking ad for sex appeal. Windblown blond hair, light brown eyes, drool-worthy shoulders and a “don’t care” attitude that had drawn admiration from all the girls on their street, as well as many of the guys.
Back then, most had struggled in the run-down town, but Lawson had gone about his business as if he owned it all.
Eight years had not only made him older, but also better-looking, with more of an edge—and damn him, he’d always been edgy enough.
How unfair was that?
His thick brows came together in a severe frown. “Your dog is a menace.”
Since she was holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d recognize her, it took a second to actually comprehend his insult.
Then she got annoyed.
“He was trying to save you. You’re welcome.”
“Save me from what?”
She gestured at the well. “He probably thought you were falling in.”
“When it’s only decorative?”
His continued antagonism had her teeth locking. “Well, I’ll be sure to explain the difference to him.” She turned to Hero, who stared back with his intelligent brown eyes alert. “Sweetheart, the mean man wants you to know that the well isn’t real.”
With a disgruntled huff, Lawson muttered, “I am not mean.” Then to the dog, he said, “You almost ripped my shorts, bud.”
The way they hung loose around his lean hips, it was a wonder Hero hadn’t pulled them right off him—and no, no no no, she did not need that image in her head. Small town, anonymity, fresh start—that was her focus. Not a blast from the past in the form of a hot guy with a gruff attitude.
She inhaled a slow breath and said precisely, “Hero is a rescue dog, and he’s sensitive.”
“Odd, doesn’t seem like I’ve hurt his feelings. You’re the only one who’s pissed off.”
New umbrage filled her lungs and she took an aggressive step toward him. “Don’t curse in front of my dog.” Yup, those ridiculous words actually left her mouth. But now with them out there, she copped an attitude and stood by them.
Lawson let Hero smell his hand, then he stroked the dog’s neck while saying in a gentle, affectionate tone, “Does cursing offend you, Hero? She is pissed off, isn’t she? You see it, don’t you, buddy? I only spoke the truth.”
Of course the dog wagged his tail adoringly, shuffling nearer to Lawson.
“When you say it like that,” Berkley complained, “he doesn’t know you’re still cursing.”
Wearing a smirk, Lawson gave his attention to her. “So you adopted him?”
“I did, yeah, but that’s not what I meant by a rescue dog. Hero rescues people. All the time.”
“Whether they need rescuing or not?”
Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him. Hearing the smile in his tone did something funny to her and she absolutely, positively, could not get drawn in by him. “It’s when they appear to need help.” Suddenly aware of others standing around, attempting to listen in, Berkley decided it was time to go. The last thing she wanted to do was attract attention.
While picking up her flowers, which were a little crushed, and her pastry, which thankfully was unharmed, she asked, “Do I owe you anything?”
He didn’t reply.
Unable to help herself, she glanced at him—and yup, she got snagged. Oh, the power of those eyes…
His gaze searched hers. “You look familiar.”
Hoping to slide past any memories, she said fast, “I run The Love Shack, the new animal shelter. We opened late spring, so you’ve probably seen me around.” She hesitated. “Your shorts are okay?”
“They’re old, so no worries.” He continued to study her. “Wait a minute.”
“Nope. Gotta roll.” Arms loaded with her packages and the leash firmly in hand, she got Hero moving, but she was a second too late.
The way he said her name, with equal parts recognition and disbelief, made her want to bolt. To simply walk away—from him and the town and the promise of a new start. She could keep going as if the ugly memories of her younger days had never happened. Then this awkward, stomach-churning moment wouldn’t exist.
And the man now staring intently at her would have no interest in her at all.
But she had a shelter full of animals relying on her. Her cat was probably getting up to no good. The people in the town had welcomed her.
And she’d already decided this place was home.
A breeze blew over her face, reminding her of the scents of summer she’d appreciated minutes ago. Someone laughed. A child raced past.
Life went on all around her. Her life would go on, too.
Repressing the burn of humiliation that tried to shrivel her, she stiffened her spine and managed to make her lips lift in the semblance of a smile. “Yes, that’s me.” And now he’d bring up the past, the scorn, the disgrace. He’d have questions, because everyone always had questions once they knew who she was.
Frowning in what looked like concern, he stepped closer.
For a second there, she was the old Berkley, downtrodden and ashamed, and she retreated a step. Damn it. To cover that reaction, she planted her feet and stared up at him.
He stalled—and then his expression cleared and he gave her a carefully neutral look. “The wishing well will be finished by the end of the week. It was a great idea.”
Her clenched muscles went slack, proving she’d been braced for the worst. Grateful that he’d let their association go and hoping to avoid the mention of it again, Berkley peered at the well as if she’d never seen one before. Her thoughts scrambled, but he’d given her an out, and by God, she’d take it. “An idea for…what?”
“Betty didn’t tell you?”
Awed that he sounded merely friendly, his recognition hidden, she breathed a little easier. “Betty Cemetery? She’s always up to something. I lose track of her shenanigans.” The town matriarch—and a descendant of the town founder, which was how Cemetery, Indiana, got its name—seemed to get busier with age. At eighty-seven, she should have been slowing down, and instead she’d found renewed purpose in the hometown she loved.
“Agreed. It amazes me everything she does.”
“All good things,” Berkley said in defense of the elder. She’d heard enough whispers to know that some considered Betty a bully, a powerful woman who used her prestige to coerce others into her way of thinking.
And maybe she did.
But to Berkley, she’d been nothing but amazing. A lover of pets. A generous benefactor to the shelter. Accepting and encouraging. She owed Betty for this new start.
“Many good things,” Lawson countered. “But not all.” He gave her a brief, teasing smile. “The wishing well directly assists the shelter, though, so I assumed you knew all about it. See, the plan is for people to toss in change, make a wish, take a photo if they want, and then the money will be collected monthly for the shelter.”
“Huh.” Great idea. “Betty didn’t tell me anything about it, but The Love Shack can always use the funds.” Edging closer to the well, which made Hero whine, she peeked inside.
“Unique name for the place.”
She shot him a warning glance. “Betty chose it.”
Without asking, Lawson took the leash from her, and said to the dog, “Come here, bud.” He patted the top of the well wall. “Come on, now. It’s okay.” Cautiously, Hero obeyed, peeking in and darting back, then, after realizing what he’d seen, peeking in again. “Damn, you really are a smart one, aren’t you?”
“You’re cursing again.”
Rolling his eyes, he said, “You’ll survive.” He patted Hero. “His coloring is unusual.”
“Gorgeous, right? He’s a brindle pit bull–boxer mix. Supersmart, overall well-behaved—”
“But he has that thing about rescuing.”
The tension in her neck loosened. Talking about animals always put her at ease. “He was a companion to a senior who was wheelchair bound, so he’d already gained a tendency to help. When his owner passed away, Hero was lost.”
“Lost?” Lawson asked softly.
Emotion thickened her throat. She understood being lost, and that was why she’d fallen so madly in love with Hero. “Shelter life was hard on him. He was so obviously sad and alone, even with the other animals around him. I figured out that he needed a purpose, but after two tries at finding his forever home, he was brought back.”
“He wanted to rescue someone.”
Despite herself, the corner of her mouth lifted. “Yeah, and he gave it his all. Over and over again.”
Lawson knelt to stroke the dog, giving him a little extra affection, and Hero ate it up.
Funny, how that made her feel, to see badass Lawson Salder being so tender with the dog. “Hero needed someone who understood him.” And she’d badly needed a friend. “So we’re family now.”
Lawson looked up at her, and wow, it froze her to the spot. “You’re not going to cry, are you?”
Of all the… “Of course not! Why would you think that?”
His gaze assessed her. “I think you have a very soft heart when it comes to this good boy.”
“I love him, but I won’t cry about it.” Not here and not now. In the past, before Hero—and maybe a few times since adopting him—tears had gotten the better of her. It always made her feel worse. Stuffy-headed and weary. Weak.
To change the subject yet again, Berkley asked, “How will you get the money from the well?” The structure wasn’t deep, maybe three or four feet, but the interior of the well was like a funnel, so any change dropped in would roll into a center hole.
Lawson stood again, all six-feet-plus of him as he contemplated the well while still idly stroking Hero’s ears. “Once I finish and turn on the water, it’ll be a fountain, with the water circulating.” After a silly, furtive look around, he leaned in close and whispered, “There’s a secret door built in the base. I use a key to unlock it, withdraw a basket and collect the change.”
“Ingenious.” This time, since he wasn’t in the process of remembering her and the mortifying shame of her past, his nearness didn’t bother her. Not much, anyway. “And this was Betty’s idea?”
“We came up with the plan together.” He lifted his hand to the tidy shop front behind him, where numerous T-shirts, sweatshirts, spirit wear, backpacks and more could be seen through a spotlessly clean window. “It seemed like good business marketing, so I offered to build it in front of my place. You know, get people here taking pics, hanging around, and maybe they’ll see something they like. Betty was able to push the idea through with the town council because the money collected will be put to good use.”
“It’s a great idea, really.”
He eyed the well. “When I finish with it, it’ll be a beauty. We’ll add a Cemetery, Indiana town sign on one side of it, so people have a great reason to pose there. Dropping in money will be optional, but obviously suggested.”
“You’re like a marketing guru.” Of all the things she’d known about him, the art of subtle promotion didn’t seem to fit. A bouncer at a bar, sure. Coach for a football team, probably. But custom printing? “Do you own the shop alone or do you have partners?”
She didn’t exactly mean to be nosy, but the words slipped out.
“Not married. You?”
God, no. She would never marry. Even thinking it caused her to take a step back.
Sorry that she’d brought it up, she shook her head. “No. It’s just me—well, and several wonderful volunteers who’ll help at the shelter. Right now there aren’t that many animals to deal with, but we’re taking some overflow from other shelters, so I’ll be getting a few new dogs and cats soon.”
“You’ve been settled here for a while now?”
“Still new,” she said. “The shelter was just completed in the spring, and then I needed to get moved in. You?”
“I’ve been here since last summer. I was renting for a while, but just bought a house.”
So he was here to stay.
And she was here to stay.
Where, then, did that leave them? With her trying to avoid him, most likely.
* * *
Watching as Berkley made a hasty escape, Lawson felt a dozen things, none of them expected. Overall, he tended to avoid any reminders from the “old neighborhood.” Once he’d gotten out of there, he’d put the place to rest. Buried it and stuck a tombstone on the grave—at least in his mind. That plan hadn’t always gone as he’d hoped because sometimes the past crept in, bringing unpleasant reminders of a time he wished he could forget.
His work around the world had been productive, and he’d learned a lot, but it had shown him more tragedy and despair.
He was here now in Cemetery, with a business he loved, one that also made him proud and gave him independence. It was a happy place, nearly devoid of crime, where the people pulled together, and the overall atmosphere was fun and optimistic. A perfect balm to his past. A way to put down roots and move forward, leaving all the darkness behind him. Repeatedly, he told himself that it didn’t matter where he’d started, only where he ended up.
Overall, he was content.
Or at least, he had been. At the moment, as Berkley rounded a bend and disappeared from sight, a subtle uneasiness stirred inside him. Recognizing him had unsettled her.
Had unsettled him, too.
Way back, when they’d both been trapped in the ugly circumstances of poverty, neglect and the unending threat of danger, he hadn’t known her that well. He’d been twenty to her seventeen, old enough to feel sympathy but too determined on his own course to get involved.
She’d changed up her look a lot. Gone was the plain, quiet girl in clothes that didn’t fit, dull hair and a gaze that was never direct. The corner of his mouth hitched as he considered the way she’d given him hell.
For cursing in front of her dog.
A dog that had managed to catch the seat of his shorts without biting him, or even causing a pinch. Clever mutt.
Clever woman, too. With her bleached hair and hot-pink tips, eye makeup that accentuated the blue of her irises, and multiple earrings in only one ear, Berkley Carr was a standout. The point, though, seemed to be that few who knew her as an awkward teen accused of stealing a local celebrity’s husband would recognize her now. The transformation made him curious. Her new confidence deserved applause, but he doubted she wanted any.
His thoughts circled around to fate. What were the odds of two young people escaping one of the worst neighborhoods in Kentucky, only to land in the same small town in Indiana? Slim, he assumed, yet here they were.
Wondering about the shelter she ran and where exactly she lived, he turned—and drew up short at the sight of a mannequin, sightlessly staring right at him, positioned near the well. His entire body tensed.
Kathleen, they called her, as if she was a beloved member of Cemetery. He’d seen her all over town, posed in different scenarios like a celebrity mascot. It was some truly twisted shit.
Almost everything about the town appealed him—except Kathleen.
Damn, but mannequins gave him the creeps.
A few women standing nearby laughed, no doubt over his dumbstruck expression. Dredging up a smile, he turned to them. “One of you guilty of putting that thing in my way?”
“Don’t call her a thing,” the tallest woman said with a giggle. “You’ll hurt Kathleen’s feelings.”
Flirting? He couldn’t tell for sure, and didn’t want to find out. “Fiberglass doesn’t have feelings.”
Another woman pressed forward between the others, dark hair softly framing her face, her slate-gray eyes understanding. “She takes a little getting used to, right?” Holding out a delicate hand, she said, “I’m Lark Penny, a new stylist at the salon.”
“Lawson Salder.” Her sudden appearance and introduction saved him from more conversation with the others. And since this woman seemed reasonable, he appealed to her before releasing her hand. “Hopefully you’re here for an order.” His low voice wouldn’t carry. “I’d rather escape this situation if possible.”
In an equally soft whisper, she asked, “Would that situation be your fan club, or Kathleen?”
With a big grin, she said louder, “Mr. Salder, I believe you have freshly printed smocks for us.” She gestured to the shop. “I hate to interrupt, but I’m in a bit of a rush. Would you mind?”
“Not at all.” Impressed with how quickly she’d adapted, he walked around Kathleen, avoiding the dummy’s dead stare, and picked up his tools on the way in. When he opened his door, a bell chimed.
William, his part-time help, glanced up from his seat behind the counter. “Got the well done already?”
“Not yet. I’ll finish it up tomorrow.” Then they’d only need to add the sign, which a local artist was creating as part of her contribution to support the shelter. He did love how the town pulled together to assist one another. To Lark, he said, “Give me just a second to find your order.”
As he went to the back room, he heard Lark introduce herself. William was a great kid, mature for a nineteen-year-old, but given how Lark looked—like an ad for feminine sweetness—he wasn’t surprised that William croaked a little in his reply. Pretty women with big smiles and engaging attitudes could be kryptonite to many young men.
After he found the package, he stepped back out and noticed that William’s color was high, his expression a little glazed while Lark continued to talk to him.
Tempering his grin, Lawson said, “Here you go.” At the counter, he set down the package and pulled out one of the smocks so she could inspect it. “What do you think?”
“Ohhh, love them. They’ll be a big hit, I’m sure.” She ran her fingertips over the stylized logo on the front center pocket. “The gold on black looks amazing. Was that your idea?”
Over the years, he’d found he had a good eye for color, first in painting houses, then in customized printing. “I guided the decision a little, but I also have plenty of samples around to show customers how things will look.”
While refolding the smock, she sent him another smile. “I’m fairly new here, but so far I’m really impressed with how pretty everything is. The whole town seems to take a lot of pride in presentation.”
William said, “Probably not Dad’s hardware store.” He grinned. “Hard to pretty up tools.”
“Your dad is Daniel?”
Obviously, William wasn’t expecting her to know that. “Yeah. I’m his youngest son.”
“I had to go by there to get a few things for my apartment, plus I’m trying to familiarize myself with the people who live here. I plan to stay, you know. I think so far I’ve visited half the shops in the town proper. Your dad was super nice, and the store was so organized. Tools might not be pretty, but he had some great displays.”
“Er…thanks. I’ll tell him you said so.”
“I already did.” She turned back to Lawson. “I should get going, but it was terrific to meet you.”
As he walked her to the door, he said, “Thanks for the rescue. I appreciate it.”
After glancing out the door, she faced him and leaned a little closer. “If no one is looking, want me to move Kathleen?”
The genuineness of her offer took him by surprise. She didn’t tease him about it, didn’t even question him. If he wasn’t committed to staying uninvolved, he’d be tempted to see if Lark, with her friendly manner and easy smiles, was interested in more. “It’s fine. Harmless fun.”
“Ah, so it was more the fan club than the mannequin.” With a sage nod of understanding, she said, “No worries. I totally get it. A guy like you probably draws a lot of attention.”
“A guy like me?” No one had referred to him that way in years, and his shoulders automatically stiffened.
Dark, slim brows lifted. “Big, good-looking.” The brows tweaked together. “Rugged, too, I guess. That’s all I meant. This is a vacation town, after all, and there are always hordes of women hanging around. Pretty sure those were vacationers teasing you before I interrupted. I mean, they’ve been in bikinis all day. Do the locals do that?”
His mouth twitched. “Not that I’ve seen.” But then, he hadn’t even noticed that the woman taunting him with Kathleen was in a bathing suit.
Leaning back on the door frame, Lark confided, “I had two women come in to have their hair styled, and they were both wearing bikinis.”
“I take it that’s not usual?”
She snorted. “One of the other stylists told me that with our walk-in policy, it happens a lot during the summer.” She fluffed her own hair. “Guess if you get windblown on the beach, but a date works out, it’s quickest just to drop in.”
Lawson wondered if Berkley got her hair done in the local beauty shop. For some reason, he doubted it. She seemed like the type to do her own hair—if that was even possible with the intricacy of her color choices.
Straightening again, Lark said “Here” and handed the order back to him, then took her purse off her shoulder, opened it and peered inside. She rummaged around a moment and produced a card. “This is me. If you ever want to stop in, I do guys’ hair, too.”
“Suggesting I need a little work?” He took the card and then pocketed it.
“Not really.” Still wearing a smile, she took back the package and opened the door. “The natural look suits you.”
As he said his goodbyes to Lark, he found himself wondering about Berkley again. Did she think his look worked?
And damn it, since when did he even have a “look”?