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“I’m not looking to replace him,” I said. “He was irreplaceable. I hope that doesn’t make you feel weird.”

“Not at all. People can’t be replaced. Anyone with half a brain knows that.” He took my hand, lacing his fingers with mine. “Especially someone who caught your heart. He had to have been pretty special.”

“He was.”

My awareness returned, and I realized we were parked on the main strip, right outside one of our favorite Italian restaurants. We’d celebrated Jesse’s promotion there, and Trey’s eighth-grade graduation. Big Frank spent his last minutes there, spooning ravioli on everyone’s plate and chomping on his cigar.

“Let’s eat here.”

Sean got out of the car and dashed around to open my door. I took his arm, and we walked into Marinetti’s Chop House. “This one time,” I began, “Jesse mistakenly ordered the squid-ink pasta . . .”

When Sean pulled up to my house, it was dark save for the front porch light. I was used to a dark house—the past two years had me coming home to one more often than not—but in the stillness of late summer, it looked particularly lonely, like an old photograph.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” Sean said.

I paused. Dinner had gone well, but there were stages here, stages I’d long forgotten. And there were choices. Did I go with propriety, or did I chuck the rules into my new compost bin?

Into the bin they went. “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

He smiled to himself, a satisfied grin that told me he’d hoped I’d ask but didn’t expect it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’d like that.”

He got out of the car in a hurry so he could dash over to my side to open the passenger door. He’s nice, I thought. And thoughtful. This is okay.

We walked to my front door, and I thought about how many times I’d done that while married, taking for granted that I would always have Jesse with me or waiting on the other side of the door, a presence I realized I had taken for granted.

I glanced at the man next to me. He was shorter than my husband, sunrise-colored hair instead of Jesse’s dark, rich brown, broad instead of thin, rougher around the edges . . . different. But different was good. Different was necessary. I felt drawn to this man. He was not my husband, and that was fine. He was Sean, and I liked Sean. The rules could disintegrate under a pile of old eggshells.

“Do you think you’ll kiss me tonight?” I asked, my voice loud enough for a nosy neighbor to hear.

He laughed. “Would you like that?”

“Yes.”

“I was hoping you might kiss me.”

“You like a woman who takes charge?” I was flirting. Oh, God, I was flirting.

“I like a woman who knows her own mind.”

Sean stopped at the bottom of my porch. He didn’t reach for me, just smiled. A dare.

I took a breath. Stepped forward.

He still didn’t move.

“Are you going to give me a little something here?” I asked, nerves getting the better of me. “Meet me halfway?”

He grinned. “Nope.”

“Fine.” I stood directly in front of him. I curled one hand over his shoulder to steady myself.

“That’s a good start,” he said.

I leaned forward. I could see his beard had already made a return appearance, the scruff a burnt-orange color. Sean’s lips were full and lush for a man. I licked mine and then slowly pressed them to his. He let me, but he didn’t take charge. He let me lead myself to a place of comfort. His mouth, soft and accessible, didn’t demand, it just accepted.

He was giving me a chance to get myself together. And I needed it. I pulled back, surprised my breath had left me. I could feel the goose bumps rise on my skin, though it must have been ninety degrees.

“Was that okay?” he asked, his features etched with concern.

“Yeah, it was—” A bright orange sticker affixed to the front door grabbed my attention. I had a feeling I knew what it was. “Son of a bitch!”

“What?”

It was stuck at the top like a Post-it note. I tore it down, reading quickly in the glow of the porch light. “It’s a cease and desist command. From the village.”

He ran a hand over his face. “They don’t mess around, but they usually have a pretty sound reason for taking action.”

“It says that using my private residential property as a profit-seeking business is against the bylaws. I have to shut down the garden. How would they know that I intend to sell anything?”

Sean stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “I might have said something about your salsa to Mr. Eckhardt.”

“You didn’t.”

“I kind of did.”

I took the letter in both hands and slowly ripped it in two. “I’m allowed to have a garden. They’re going to have to dig it all up if they want me to stop.” I tore it again and again, until it was reduced to bright orange confetti.

“I don’t know if that’s wise,” Sean said.

“Wisdom hasn’t done all that much for me,” I said before tossing the shredded papers onto Mr. Eckhardt’s pristine lawn.

And then I pulled Sean to me, and kissed him with the force of a woman on a mission.

CHAPTER 25

Excerpt from Petra Polly: Chapter 6—The Personality of a Successful Business

Your company has a personality. Like every living, breathing being, its personality is made up of traits both positive and negative. You must assess these traits objectively—is the company stodgy and rigid? Passionate and creative? Adventurous and impulsive? Once you’ve composed a personality portrait, determine whether it’s working to boost the company. If it isn’t, then it’s time for some reshaping. Reward the positive attributes, and squelch the negative. Remember that bubbly, effervescent, high-energy cheerleader? That’s what you’re shooting for. Minus the hair product and domineering quarterback boyfriend.

“Do you notice that Petra gets a little weirder toward the end of the book?” Rhiannon mused from the floor of the conference room. Convinced her vertebrae were out of alignment, thereby fracturing her train of thought, she’d taken to stretching out on the hard floor with a tennis ball under her lower back.

“The tone shifts,” Byron contributed. “She seems snarkier.”

“I don’t mind it,” Glynnis said, shooting daggers at Byron. Rhiannon and Byron were officially a scandalous office romance. Everyone knew and no one talked about it, though I sensed both Rhiannon and Byron couldn’t wait for the gossip to reach a fervor. Jackie and I refused to give them the satisfaction. Glynnis couldn’t help herself. She seethed.

“I like her better this way,” I said. “She’s got a little something to her.”

Lukas burst into the room, a trick he’d overused. None of us flinched. “Tonight,” he said with a healthy dollop of drama. “To-night is the night!”

None of us was to leave the office until it was time to head over to the bookshop. Instead of dashing home for a quick dinner with Trey, as I’d planned, I would practice my script for when I, lowly ad gal, had an audience with the illustrious Petra Polly.

Lukas would place himself first in line to introduce the company and our plans to turn her into a superstar. Rhiannon and Byron would follow, and I, loitering at the end of the line, would try to seal the deal. Frankly, I was surprised Lukas would trust me with such an important part of the mission, but he seemed to think I could be an authoritative presence.

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