Lane Driscoll has been having nightmares where she’s chased by a strange man. When she has a threatening run-in with someone who looks just like the man from her dreams, she decides to leave her hometown until she figures out what’s going on. Lane seeks refuge in beautiful Mystic Creek, where she gets a job working at the local perfume shop. Soon after she arrives, a handsome customer seems to think he recognizes Lane, but calls her by the wrong name.
When Jonas Sterling, a local psychologist, encounters his ex-girlfriend, Veneta, in town, he can't believe his eyes. He hasn't seen her for years. Jonas is even more baffled when it turns out the woman is a total stranger to him. There's no way two people could look so similar without being related. Jonas discovers Lane was adopted at the age of three and is now twenty-six years old—the same as the woman he dated.
After initial shock at the idea she could have a twin, something clicks inside Lane—and now she needs to locate her missing sister. A romance blossoms as Jonas agrees to help her. But when the man from Lane's nightmares shows up in her dreams again, Jonas and Lane realize Veneta may be in grave danger, and their search for Lane's sister turns into a heart-pounding race.
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Jonas Sterling dreaded his annual visit to Simply Sensational, Ma Thomas's overcrowded scent shop. Being surrounded by porcelain figurines, expensive bottles of perfume, frou-frou gift items, and every scent of fancy soap known to women made him feel too big for his skin, and the more he worried about knocking something off a shelf, the clumsier he seemed to be. He also disliked the countless mirrors, at least one in every section, so ladies could see how a pair of earrings might look on them or how a different brand of cosmetics could transform their faces. Almost everywhere he turned, he glimpsed his reflection and was reminded that his hair, the color of toasted bread, needed a trim.
But his mom deserved a special present on her birthday, and she always glowed with delight if he coughed up the money for her favorite perfume, Chanel No. 5. Only he couldn't for the life of him remember which kind of Chanel she liked. There were three choices on the shelf, Eau de Parfum Spray, Eau Premiere Spray, and Eau de Toilette Spray. Why did perfume makers have to make shopping so confusing?
Unfortunately for Jonas, Ma Thomas, who surely knew Kate Sterling's perfume preferences, was busy with another customer, and he didn't want to interrupt her. Grandmotherly plump, she was a sweetheart with short blond hair, merry blue eyes, and a charming manner always enhanced by the ready smile that had become her trademark. When someone wandered into her shop, she rolled out the red carpet. Her prices were high compared to those in Crystal Falls, yet she still managed to do a good business, mainly because she made every single customer feel important. When it was Jonas' turn, he, too, would have her undivided attention.
Jonas picked up the larger square bottle with golden liquid in it. It was the shape he remembered, and the perfume was the right color, whereas the premiere, in a similar container, had clearer stuff in it. This has to be the one, he thought. Only he couldn't be certain, and he sure as heck didn't want to get the wrong thing and put his mom to the bother of returning it. He guessed he could just wait. He wasn't busy with clients this afternoon.
Just as Jonas was about to return the spritzing bottle to the shelf, the overhead bell on the front door jangled and a young woman entered the shop. For a moment, Jonas stared at her in astonished disbelief and then he felt as if his whole body went numb. The glass container slipped from his fingers, dived to the floor, and went off like a shrapnel bomb when it struck the tile. At the sound, the young woman turned and fixed her gaze on him, her eyes just as blue and expressive as he remembered. There was no doubt in his mind; it was Veneta Monroe. He hadn't seen her in over six years, not since the night when she'd handed him a Dear John letter to break up with him, but she hadn't changed a bit. Her strawberry blond hair was still cut in a bob. Her eyes, the clear blue of a tropical lagoon, still dominated her heart-shaped face. And, judging by the airy floral dress she wore, her choice of fashion was still vintage Boho.
Startled by her sudden appearance and unable to help himself, Jonas gaped at her, a dozen different thoughts ricocheting inside his mind, none of them pleasant. He'd loved her once-or thought he did at the time. Now he felt nothing but mounting anger. How could she saunter into his hometown, which she'd dissed every chance she got for being nothing more than a spot on the road? "The most boring place in the world," she'd called it. "Nowhere-ville. Off the beaten path."
And that last description was just accurate enough to anger Jonas even more, because nobody accidentally visited Mystic Creek. The town rested deep in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the two-lane highway leading to it a treacherous ribbon of sharp curves with no gas stations, convenience stores, or reliable cell phone service. Not to say tourists didn't visit. They came in droves during the summer to window-shop, patronize the quaint eateries, and see the natural bridge, but they didn't happen upon the town accidentally.
"Oh, my goodness!" Ma Thomas cried out as she advanced on him. "Did it cut you, Jonas?"
Collecting his thoughts and composure with no small amount of effort, Jonas forced his gaze to the shards of glass at his feet. "No, I don't think so." He bent to brush shimmering fragments from the legs of his jeans. "I'm sorry for the mess, and I'll pay for the perfume."
"Don't be a goose," Ma scolded, flapping her hand. "Accidents happen. For me, it's a tax deduction and only a little mess to sweep up, nothing more."
Veneta Monroe. He was certain of it. No two people could look that much alike unless they were identical twins, and he knew for a fact that Veneta had no siblings. And apparently she had no memory, either, because he'd seen no flash of recognition in her eyes when she'd turned to look at him. And that pissed him off even more than her sudden appearance in Mystic Creek. She always had been a master of pretense. He didn't know what he'd ever seen in her or how he could have believed he was in love with her.
After explaining to Ma Thomas that he'd return tomorrow to purchase the perfume, Jonas left the shop, his trajectory to the door forcing him to almost brush elbows with Veneta as he passed her. It gave him no small amount of satisfaction to pretend that he didn't recognize her, either. She'd always been vain, certain that she was the focal point of any crowded room. There was no quicker way to tick Veneta off than to ignore her.
Once outdoors on the sidewalk, Jonas paused to take a deep breath of late September air. Hardy flowers in window boxes still lent color to the brick-fronted shops of East Main Street, overshadowing the splashes of orange and black that always heralded Halloween with the approach of October. Studying the town where he'd grown up and hoped to grow old gave him a sense of place and calmed him. Yes, it had been a shock to see Veneta again, but he had matured a lot since his college days, and he realized now that she'd been wrong for him in so many ways that he'd be hard put to count them all. Whatever had led her to Mystic Creek, it hadn't been him, and he was glad of that. When she had ended their relationship, she'd cited many reasons for her sudden change of heart, but it actually all boiled down to one thing, that he was too tame and boring for her taste. Well, touche, Veneta. You were too wild and unpredictable for me, so we're both better off.
Jonas took another bracing breath and noticed this time that he reeked of perfume. He glanced down and saw that the legs of his trousers were splotched with wetness. Damn. Returning to his apartment hadn't been part of his plan for the afternoon, but now he had no choice but to shower and change clothes. He couldn't have dinner at his parents' house smelling like a French whore.
Palms slick with sweat, Lane rubbed them on the folds of her cotton skirt while waiting for the shop owner, Mary Alice Thomas, to finally have time for her. Please, God, I need this job. After three days of applying for waitressing positions at the many eateries in Mystic Creek, Lane was starting to feel just a bit desperate. Unlike in Maple Leaf, where restaurants and cafes had rapid employee turnover, people in Mystic Creek seemed to value their jobs, making it difficult for a newcomer to get a foot in the door. Lane's parents had given her plenty of cash to make a fresh start, but she had been paying her own way ever since she flunked out of college at twenty years old. It grated on her nerves to use their money when she was perfectly able to earn her own. Ann and Brent Driscoll weren't rich, after all, and Lane suspected that they'd dipped into their retirement funds to finance her escape.
This is insane, she thought as Mary Alice Thomas chatted up another customer. I shouldn't have listened to Dad. Shouldn't have run. What kind of person pulls up stakes and walks away from her whole life? What'll I do if I can't find a job? Now that I've signed a six-month lease on that cottage, I'm obligated to pay the rent. When I can finally go back home, I want to be able to pay my folks back, and I won't be able to do that if I'm forced to spend every dime they gave me.
It seemed to Lane that Mary Alice took forever to handle each transaction. In Maple Leaf, business owners and customers were always in a hurry, far too busy for personal exchanges. To pass the time, Lane wandered up an aisle, stopping to admire a stunning jewelry display, a high-end cosmetic counter, and a fashion scarf rack. At the back of the shop there was what appeared to be a seating area, a small round table flanked by three chairs and a child-size table off in the corner where a shelf sported a collection of storybooks and a toy box overflowed with dolls, trucks, and Lincoln Logs. Lane couldn't help but smile, because she liked the feeling she got from this place-definitely swanky enough to draw in customers and yet also homey and welcoming.
"I am so sorry, dear!" Mary Alice said from behind Lane, causing her to give a startled jerk. "Mabel is such a doll, and since her heart attack, I don't see her all that much anymore. When I do, it's such a treat, so I visit with her as much as I can."
Lane ran her gaze over the older woman's pantsuit, a stylish and businesslike ensemble in a shade of blue that matched her twinkling eyes. "Please, don't apologize. I'm in public service myself and understand the importance of good PR."
Mary Alice chuckled, a musical little laugh that made Lane feel warm and welcome. "Public relations, you say? Well, yes, I suppose one might call it that, but in truth, Mabel is a dear friend. Without her support, I don't know how I would have survived when my husband died." She frowned slightly. "But enough about that. I've kept you waiting far too long. How may I help you?"
Lane's mouth went dry. She'd rehearsed what she would say, but now that the moment was upon her, she couldn't remember a single word of her little speech. "I, um-well, I'm looking for a job, and I, um, saw the Help Wanted sign in your window, so I just thought I'd drop by and check it out."
"Oh!" Mary Alice chuckled again. "I'd forgotten all about it. Yes, yes, I am looking to hire someone. Have you any experience with perfume and cosmetics?"
Lane stifled a defeated sigh. "No, I'm afraid not. I'm a great waitress, but there are no job openings available." She glanced around and shrugged. "I wouldn't think that selling stuff like this would be all that different than waiting tables, though. It's all about pleasing the customers. Isn't it?"
Mary Alice smiled. "To a large degree, yes. But there's a bit more to it than that. For instance, what perfume would you recommend if a lady tells you she prefers something flowery and light? Or something sultry and suggestive?" Her wrinkled cheek dimpled. "It takes a knowledge of different perfume brands to direct a customer to a scent that may appeal to her."
Lane felt her shoulders slump. "You're so right. I'm sorry for bothering you. I thought maybe this might work for me."
Mary Alice folded her arms. "As it happens, I'm looking for a bit more than just an employee. I'm over seventy now and tire easily. Ready to slow down; you know? So I'm hoping to find someone interested in managing this place, perhaps even buy in eventually and become a partner." She gave Lane another measuring look. "I can't fancy myself retiring. Not entirely. Coming here each morning and visiting with my customers gives me a reason for being, if that makes any sense. But, like it or not, I'm getting too old for all the physical work." She waved a hand at all the shelving behind her. "Dusting alone is an endless job, and much of it requires me to climb a tall ladder. Needless to say, my balance isn't what it used to be."
Just thinking of this nice older lady falling from a ladder made Lane's heart trip. "You shouldn't be dusting anything up high, Ms. Thomas."
Mary Alice's eyes widened. "Please, darling, just call me Ma. I know it's a silly nickname. Makes me sound like a mother figure for the entire town, but it actually came from the initials of my first and middle name, M and A. Being in business, I got tired of using my full name in my signature, so I shortened it to M.A. Thomas, and way back when, somebody started calling me Ma. Now almost everyone does. It's much faster to say."
Lane nodded. "Well, Ma, thank you for your time."
The older woman touched Lane's arm. "Don't hurry off. Let's talk over a cup of coffee or tea. Shall we? When I asked what you know about scents, I wasn't implying that it takes a degree in aromachology to do this job well. With time and a lot of sniffing, almost anyone can learn the ropes." She went to a small corner shelf where a black Keurig held court on the top shelf. "Coffee for me, but what would you like? I keep a nice selection of teas, too."
"Coffee will be lovely," Lane replied. "French roast if you've got it. Anything black if you don't."
Ma filled the air with her delightful laugh again. "Take a seat, dear. I'll join you in a moment."
Lane lowered herself onto a chair. "Having a play area was a brilliant idea. If the children are entertained, the moms can shop in peace."
"Yes, and in our little town, a smart business owner realizes that little people will one day be big people who may become regular customers. Some of my teenage regulars now were once toddlers who played in that corner."
Minutes later, Mary Alice joined Lane at the table and placed at its center a tray laden with filled coffee mugs, packets of sugar and creamer, and a plate of delicious-looking pastry.