chapter one The shiny, happy couple beamed from Jared's TV screen, hands clutched as they awaited the big reveal. "Are you ready to see your Forever Home?" Power: off. He huffed a sarcastic breath as he dumped potato chips into a plastic bowl. Forever Home. The concept turned his stomach-who wanted a forever home?-but his all-time favorite show, Million-Dollar Properties, was on hiatus. He took notes while he watched that one. As he emptied a pretzel bag into another bowl atop his kitchen table, the clock ticked to eight. People would arrive any minute. The annual Kirkland St. Patrick's Day party was a tradition his mother started years ago, and since she'd passed away, Jared continued it. While she'd cluck her tongue in disappointment if she knew he didn't drape every surface with green tablecloths or hang paper shamrocks from the doorframes the way she had, he liked having people around, so he took on the legacy. His brother, Sam, could be counted on to show up and otherwise not contribute in the least. Jared's home phone rang shrilly as he tossed the empty pretzel bag into the trash, and he plucked the receiver from the wall. Pine Ridge, New York. No cell service, barely any Wi-Fi, and every house with a landline. If you squinted, the whole place looked like 1985. "Hello?" "Jared, it's Phil. Sorry to bug you so late, but my client would like to take another look at the Balsam Lane property tomorrow. Can you swing that?" His heart sunk. He showed Phil two properties yesterday, and the difference in price between the two was a cool half mill. Balsam Lane was cute. He'd done cute. He ate cute for breakfast. Cute didn't warrant popped champagne and desperate calls from rival firms. "Absolutely," Jared said. "Just curious, what did they say about the Silver Lake property?" "It's just too much house for 'em. They loved it, really loved it. But Balsam Lane is more their speed." Damn. Another lead tapped out. "Got it. How's ten a.m.?" "Perfect. We'll meet you at the office." With a heavy hand, Jared replaced the receiver. Silver Lake was his white whale. Selling that property would put him in the top tier of Adirondack Park Realtors and propel him into the next phase of his career, not to mention prove to himself and everyone around him he'd outgrown this tiny town. Until that property sold, he was just another North Country guy hawking vacation homes to midlevel Manhattan jerk-offs. He wanted bigger; he wanted better. He wanted more. The front door burst open with a satisfying crack, yanking him from his reverie, and he jogged into the foyer of his ranch home. His smile dropped along with his excitement when Sam appeared. When Mila's schedule allowed, she usually arrived early to his parties to help him set up. "Hey, man, what's up?" Jared's older brother pushed past him into the house, stomping the snow off his boots and onto the all-weather area rug. "Same shit, different day." "Is this your spread?" Sam's eyes trailed over the meager snacks, and he ran a hand over his full beard. He shook his head disapprovingly. "What'd you want, filet mignon? Shrimp cocktail?" "When you invite people over to get shit-wrecked, you have to at least have sandwiches or something." Sam popped a chip into his mouth. "Mom always had enough food for a football team." "We both know my version of this party couldn't hold a candle to Mom's, no matter what I do," Jared said. "Mila's bringing dessert. Maybe some other stuff from the diner. That should beef it up." "Mila to the rescue." A sly smile stretched across Sam's mouth. "Too bad you can't find a girlfriend who saves your ass like Mila does." Jared's shoulders tightened. A girlfriend like Mila. Who wouldn't want a girlfriend like Mila Bailey? Her drip of an ex-boyfriend, for one. That idiot never really saw her, never understood her weird, wonderful personality. Jared had known all along they were wrong for each other. But what right did a guy have to trash-talk his best friend's dude? The day she'd told Jared she broke up with Marty, his chest lightened as if he'd been wearing a concrete vest for the duration of their relationship. "Speaking of women who are way better than us," Jared said, "where's Sydney?" "She had a book club meeting tonight that ended at seven thirty, so she'll be here soon. She's been so busy with the store lately, I feel like I've hardly seen her. It sucks." Jared grunted a barely audible reply. He'd never been particularly eager to hear the nitty-gritty details of Sam and Syd's disgustingly perfect relationship. "What's that look for?" Sam said. "You love Syd." Jared ran a hand over his face, avoiding Sam's powerful stare. Truth was, Sam and Sydney's relationship made him feel things he wasn't quite ready to confront. After Sam's first girlfriend had broken his heart, Jared looked to Sam as an example of how a woman could ruin a man. The new-and-improved Sam, who stared at Sydney as if she had the answers to all his questions, threw Jared's long-held relationship beliefs into disarray. "Sure," Jared said. "Syd's great. I just . . . I dunno. You trust her?" "Of course." Sam leveled his gaze. "I'm gonna ask her to marry me." "The hell you are." Sam's eyes popped open, and his chin pulled back in the most overt display of shock Jared had ever seen from his generally subdued brother. Jared surprised even himself with his reaction. "I mean," Jared said, "so soon? You guys have only been dating a year." "Does this seriously surprise you? I'm not even sure why we waited this long." Jared huffed out a breath. Of course Sam would marry Sydney. No one who'd spent more than three minutes with them would object. He was happy for his brother, but Jared's gut hollered at him like a little kid who needed attention. "Marriage is . . ." Terrifying. Idiotic. Bad business. A life sentence. "Forever." "Yeah." Sam laughed. "Spending forever with Sydney sounds pretty great, actually." Jared coughed over a sarcastic laugh. "Okay." Sam raised his eyebrows. "What's the deal, dude?" "Nothing." A wry smile hung on his lips. "No, come on," Sam said. "Enlighten me with your extensive knowledge of marriage and how it works." Jared took a beat. How to phrase this to a guy who had just admitted he wanted to shackle himself to someone for life? "I just don't get it, I guess. Have you ever seen two happily married people?" "Sure," Sam said. "What about Jorie and Matt?" "They've been married one year, and he only popped the question because she got pregnant. Try again." Sam shrugged, returning his gaze to the middling food spread. "I don't care about anybody else. I don't care why other people's marriages have succeeded or failed. I care about her. And I know I can trust her." Jared's skin prickled with discomfort. "I bet Dad thought he could trust Mom." The sound of Sam's deep, measured breath filled the quiet space. "You want to get into that conversation right now? You want to dive into how little you actually know about Mom and Dad's marriage?" Jared knew plenty. He knew they both had their flaws. He knew they both stayed in a tense marriage despite not seeming to enjoy each other's company whatsoever. He knew his mother had a lightness in her step the day after his father died that Jared had never seen before. Sam's stony face dared his brother to continue. Before Jared could get another word out, the doorbell rang, as if signaling the end of the grudge match. "Thank God," Jared said. "This isn't over," Sam called after him. "You're gonna be my best man whether you like it or not." Jared pressed his lips together, tamping down the threatening grin. Whether you like it or not. Groom: professor of love and undying devotion? No thanks. Best man: planner of bachelor parties and composer of killer speeches? Yeah, buddy. By eight fifteen, Jared's modest home swelled with rowdy twenty- and thirtysomethings looking to celebrate. Handles of Jameson and buckets of Guinness covered the kitchen countertops, and some heaven-sent partygoer had brought a giant tray of taco dip that disappeared within minutes. Jared scanned the open space again, but still no Mila. She worked until seven on Saturdays, but maybe she had to stay late. Her boss always suckered her in to refilling one last coffee, stocking one last bakery case, or ringing up one last check. She never said no. Even when she should. As Jared cracked open his second beer of the night, the front door opened and Mila breezed in, balancing a covered pie dish in one hand. Her wild, dark curly hair danced around her freckled cheeks as the frigid, early-spring wind blew in behind her. She grinned, and her wide-set cat eyes all but disappeared in the brightness emanating from her face. He felt instantly lighter just having her in the room. Mila squeezed Sydney in a one-armed hug before slipping out of her coat. Syd loved Mila, demanding her friendship after she saw Mila carrying a copy of Beverly Jenkins's Destiny's Embrace. With arms wrapped around her pie plate, Mila caught Jared's eye from across the room. Her lips pressed into a timid smile, and he swallowed down the same twinge of awkwardness he'd experienced every day since their almost-kiss five years ago. She'd been his best friend for as long as he could remember. Being around her was as easy as being around his brother, but with the added joy of a woman's perspective on everything, from books and movies to relationships and his job. She was fun and smart, and her place in his life was secure. Until that day at the lake. Where had those curves come from? How long had she had that electric pink bikini? She'd pulled herself out of the lake and onto the boat-taut, lean muscles glistening in the sunlight, rivulets of water streaming down her flat stomach to collect at her bikini bottom. His whole world tilted. In a single, heart-stopping moment, his best friend quietly vacated and some smoking-hot, supercool chick who made his groin tingle had taken her place. He'd wanted to kiss her. Asked to walk her home, even. But the way she'd looked at him-like he'd asked her to hop in his car and ride shotgun to Pluto-had turned his confidence to dust underfoot. He'd stumbled through some lame excuse about protecting her from a burglar loose in Pine Ridge, and when her face twisted even further into disbelief, he'd jumped in his car and raced home in shame. For the past five years, that insatiable sense of longing plagued him. Every time she walked into a room, his chest tightened and his ears burned. Five years of wondering why he hadn't gone through with it. Five years of shifted feelings and distracted thoughts. Five years of freaking exhaustion. He circled the room, greeting the crowd of guests, before landing in the kitchen in search of another drink. Mila and her best friend, Nicole, listened as Sydney filled them in on that evening's book club event. "One of these days," Sydney said, "we'll do a midnight book club meeting or something, and you'll be able to come." "I would love that," Mila said. "Can't believe it's been more than a year since you started and I still haven't been." With Mila's work schedule, her attendance at social events was as common as an eclipse. At least she'd managed to come tonight. Maybe she'd pulled a special favor. Would she do that for him? Jared cleared his throat, snapping himself back into bro mode, and pointed at a ketchup stain splattered across the front of Mila's white T-shirt. "Hey, when I asked you to bring diner leftovers, I didn't mean you should wear them." "Why do you always have to be such a jerk?" Nicole said, shoving an expertly twisted braid over her shoulder and narrowing her dark brown eyes. Mila's best female friend had never understood their relationship. She treated Mila like a lame duck, a less fortunate friend who always needed her hand held. Mila was no damsel in distress, and she didn't need anyone in her life putting her in that box. "It's called 'negging,'" Sydney said. "Little boys do it when they shove girls on the playground." Mila's lips curled into a grin, and one dark eyebrow twitched at him, sending him a tiny signal. Nobody gets us. "Well, it's the twenty-first freaking century," Nicole said. "How about just being kind to the women you like instead of pushing them off the swing set like some kind of Neanderthal?" "Hey, what kind of pie did you bring?" Jared said, redirecting the conversation. Nicole was the friend you wanted as your darts partner, the one always down for one last drink at the end of the night, and the one everybody went to for advice. But when it came to Mila, she could be as protective as a mother bird over her nest. "It's a grasshopper pie with chocolate cookie crust," Mila said. "Not very original, but I didn't have tons of time today." "Even your classics are knockouts," Nicole said. "You should make that one for the bake-off." Mila's eyes widened at her best friend, her lips tightening as she clutched her beer bottle. "Bake-off?" Jared asked. "Oh shit," Nicole muttered. "Sorry, Lee Lee." "Are you finally entering the Spring Bake-Off?" Jared asked. He'd given up suggesting she enter a long time ago. She hated being in the spotlight, hated any situation where she'd have to put her talents on display. Give the girl a couple of shots and a microphone and she'd bust out all the bad Celine Dion impressions nobody asked for. But when it came to the true genius in her nimble fingers, she didn't want any credit. "I haven't decided yet," Mila said, sipping her beer and effectively blocking her face from view. "She's entering," Nicole said. "Go on. Tell them." Mila rubbed her lips together, her glittery eyes dancing around the small group. She cleared her throat and said, "Before my great-aunt died, she paid the entry fee. She also set up accounts for me at the grocery store and the hardware store so that I can buy everything I need to test recipes. Every penny of the two thousand dollars she'd saved up before she died has been allocated. For this. Apparently she'd always wanted me to enter the contest, too, and she knew I never would on my own." Warmth touched Jared's chest. He'd always liked Aunt Georgie, even if she was the meanest lady in town. Cashiers at the grocery store saw her coming, and suddenly everybody needed their cigarette break. She had her own pew at church because when Aunt Georgie shared the peace, she left bruises. But she'd always served Jared the best piece of chicken at Bailey family dinners, and her sharp tongue made for some fantastic stories. He saw bits of that fire in Mila when she thought nobody was looking. Excerpted from Sweet Love by Lauren Accardo All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.