Book 3 in the Happily Ever Austen series
General Release Date: 10th May 2022
Word Count: 72,300
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
Genres: CONTEMPORARY, EROTIC ROMANCE, RUBENESQUE, SECOND CHANCE
Her heart’s looking for a forever home.
All her life, Madeline Prix’s loved Everett Berry, but she’d be a fool to think he’d ever notice her. She’s nothing more than a big Southern girl with frizzy red hair. No way would the sunshine and perfect Ev look twice at her. To her surprise, fifteen years later, he appears in her city while she’s in the middle of a kitten rescue. Madeline’s dreams are about to come true when Ev asks her on a date until his ex enters the no-longer-rosy picture.
Everett thought he could start his life anew after a messy divorce in a small Southern town. Maddy came into his world like a breath of fresh air, but he finds himself stumbling back into old patterns. Can he ever be good enough for someone as sweet as Madeline Prix?
Madeline must choose between the man she’s loved all her life who keeps breaking her heart and a man who’s only good on paper. Good thing she has her adorable cats and best friend to help her out, because her heart may not be able to survive.
Reader advisory: This book contains mentions of domestic violence, an apartment fire, fist fights, and body image issues including fat-shaming.
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“Come here…” Madeline pleaded to the dash of gray. Freezing sleet bounced against her legs, the December New York weather in no mood to help. Her chest slid on a patch of mud, the sequins popping off as she tried to pull herself deeper into the culvert. It was, on the whole, one of the least pleasant experiences of her life.
The construction crew stood in a half-circle, gawping at the woman who’d belly-flopped onto the mud and cooed into the darkness. Madeline frowned, hating that they had to be staring at her flattened backside as she struggled to reach for the tiny ball of fur crying for its life.
“I’m here to help, I promise,” she tried to assure the little construction stowaway. Blue eyes darted over her. The muddy kitten was scrunched tight against the wire screen. Madeline tried to tip the borrowed flashlight up, but half of it was submerged in the icy mud. Still, she couldn’t see any obvious holes.
With luck, there wouldn’t be a way for the kitten to run deeper into danger.
Eyeing up the tight squeeze, she held her breath and reached farther inside. She extended a steady hand to grapple for the ball of fluff. From the darkness, four claws swiped in a deep line across her flesh. The pain stung like a multitude of bee stings, and Madeline screwed her face up to swallow it. But that also meant she was closer.
“Here, little baby.” Her voice was soft, the long-swallowed Southern accent flaring up like kudzu. Warmth brushed over her fingers, telling her she had reached the kitten’s head. Before it could bite her, Madeline pinched her fingers on the kitten’s scruff and began to tug it out.
Oh, goodness! The shrieks of the baby being pulled into the light were ear-splitting. It screamed as if she were murdering it, but Madeline wouldn’t stop.
Hooking a hand to the outside, she pulled both herself and the kitten free. As she slid out of the culvert, her sweater lifted up, streaking mud across her vast stomach. The chill walloped her entire body, but she shook it off. She had a more important package in her fingers.
Madeline rose by herself, not that she expected anyone to help, and curled the screaming kitten against her breast. There was warmth, safety and impressive cushioning. While the kitten wasn’t too young, four to five weeks, it could almost vanish into her cleavage.
“There you go, little guy,” she whispered to the ball of fluff who had ceased its wailing. The kitten turned up to her, warily watching as she tried to pull off the larger clumps of mud.
“You got it, ma’am?” one of the guys in construction orange asked. She glanced around at the burly men who hadn’t dressed for the cold, their breath spurting out smoke. All stared at the kitten nuzzled in the crook of her muddy arm. Did they want to pet it?
“Yes,” she said while shielding the kitten from more of the drizzle. They had work to do—doubtful anyone wanted to waste their time with her.
“Well, you heard her. Back at it!” the first guy said. With a slow turn, the other men walked away from the tiny dash of excitement. For Madeline, this was normal. She didn’t pluck kittens from culverts every day, but finding them in dumpsters, walking down the middle of highways, buried in garbage bags…that kept her busy.
At the sound of jackhammers roaring up, Madeline stared down at the tiny face she had rescued. It peered at the strange world, uncertain of life outside of the culvert. What am I going to call you?
Her heart stopped dead. No, it can’t be. New York was known for being crammed full of people. Whoever that was had to mean someone else. Of course.
She focused on the kitten, trying to juggle it safely in her arms when the same sweet-tea voice called her name again. “Maddy?”
No one had called her that. Not in years. Not since high school. No one, but…
A ray of sunshine punctured through the dreary gray world. Hair of spun gold swept back and to the side, a square jawline and strong nose, thin but sculpted lips forever in a wide smile—he was the epitome of gorgeous boy-next-door. The one she had pined for during all of high school. The boy she had dreamed of taking her to prom, of giving her a ride in his truck, of asking her to be his girlfriend.
Everett Berry, a man so jaw-dropping it was a wonder bluebirds didn’t perch upon his shoulders, was talking to her. Asking about her. Staring at her in concern because she had fallen stupid.
“He…hey! Everett? What are you…?” Madeline whipped her head around, fearing this might be some prank reality show. Or worse, one where people got together to try to make over a dumpy friend.
“It is you!” His smile somehow brightened to new heights, piercing the pressing clouds around them. “You haven’t changed a lick since high school,” he said, his eyes darting from her rounded face to her rounded body.
Madeline tasted the scorn he was too tactful to phrase. Look at you, just as fat as ever. Sure, he never said it. He was far too kind to point out the obvious. But he didn’t have to. She heard it every day, from every person around her, from the world pointing out that she was wrong for being cushioned.
“I’ve, um, gotten older,” she muttered, her cheeks burning as she glared down at her lazy sweatshirt coated in mud. She hadn’t even bothered with jeans, had only thrown on a pair of sweatpants and run out to save the kitten. This was how he had to find her, not dolled up in a fancy dress…
Madeline, when do you ever put on makeup or wear cocktail dresses? Where would you find one that fits? No, it was while she looked like she had taken a swim in the mud on laundry day. Great.
“But you.” She pointed at Everett as if he didn’t know who he was. “You look…” Perfect. “The same, I mean, younger. Um, you look good.”
He laughed at her stumbling, raking a hand through his golden locks. How she wanted to run her fingers through them. They had to be as soft as silk and smell of sunshine on a summer day. Everett opened his mouth, no doubt about to say his goodbyes, when the kitten hidden in her arms mewled.
Madeline raised it up, checking to make certain it was okay, and Everett leaned closer. “Still running out into the rain saving baby animals?”
Her cheeks burned even hotter while she watched the glorious man scratch a nail over the kitten’s tiny head. All Madeline could do was nod along. Yep, rescuing animals. Mostly kittens, as she couldn’t keep dogs in her place. Though, if she did find a lost puppy, she knew who to give it to.
“Weren’t you gonna be a vet?”
“That was the plan,” she said with a shrug. “Then I took a chemistry course and whew, never mind.” God, stop bringing up your past failures! “What about you? You went to college to study some, um, business thing?” A business degree with an emphasis on multinational finance.
Everett’s smile dimmed a touch, his striking green eyes searching around the construction zone. “Yeah, that…didn’t work out the way I hoped. Got into a construction program later and volunteered for the firefighters. Much more my speed, and I don’t have to wear a tie every damn day either.”
She genuinely laughed at his sweet joke, but there was no denying that Everett was built for a suit. The last time she’d seen him in one was graduation when he and his friends had sneaked under the bleachers with a case of beer. They’d had no idea she was even there.
Silence fell between them, just the grinding sound of the city being chunked up and repurposed breaking the air. Should she say something? Ask him how he was doing? If he was with anyone? Visiting the city or staying? If he was single?
“I do website SEO stuff!” Madeline blurted out, panicking as she realized how sad that sounded. “Ads, more or less. Though I keep hoping to finally, er, do rescue animal stuff full-time…” Her entire vocabulary leapt into a cement mixer and solidified into nothing but slack-jawed staring. “What, uh, what brings you to New York?”
Last she knew, he was living back in North Carolina along with a good chunk of their graduating class. If they hadn’t paired up in high school, they did in college at UNC. Madeline felt like she had been the single one to run screaming away as fast as she could with her hot diploma in hand.
“Got a job here working for the city,” Everett said.
“That’s fantastic!” Madeline squealed before pulling it back. “I mean, New York is…I don’t really have to tell you what it is. Big City. People kinda everywhere.”
Everett nodded along with her babbling as if she were coming close to making a lick of sense. From the top of the scaffolding, a voice shouted, “Hey, cat girl! If you’re done, you need to leave!”
“Sorry.” Madeline waved at the man, wincing deeper into her stained sweater. “Sorry,” she repeated to Everett. “I need to get this little one to the vet. You’ve got some deworming in store for you.” The last part she said to the kitten. She doubted Everett had anything but the cleanest of bowels.
Christ, why did you think that?
Waving once more to the construction crew who were far too busy to worry about her, Madeline dashed to the plastic fencing put up to keep the rabble out. Everett walked behind her, watching as she tried to fish out her phone while juggling the kitten.
“How are you planning on moving this little guy?” he asked, getting in one last chance to pet the tiny head. “Because I could take you. Still have my truck. Haven’t gone full city yet.” He laughed while scratching the back of his neck.
“Oh, usually I call this guy. He runs an Uber and lets me bring in cats I find that…” Her lips kept going because internally she was shrieking. Everett Berry wanted to drive her somewhere. Like she was with him. Well, not with him with him—that was impossible. But an honest offer.
Glancing down at the kitten who seemed resigned to its fate, Madeline smiled wide. “Yes. That sounds…perfect.”
A smile that could launch a thousand ships beamed upon her while he gestured down the street. “Then follow me.”
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About the Author
Ellen Mint adores the adorkable heroes who charm with their shy smiles and heroines that pack a punch. She recently won the Top Ten Handmaid’s Challenge on Wattpad where hers was chosen by Margaret Atwood. Her books, Undercover Siren and Fever are available at Amazon as well as a short story in the Lucky Between The Sheets anthology. Married, she lives in Nebraska with her dog named after Granny Weatherwax. Her hobbies include gaming, painting, and halloween prop making. The basement is full of skeletons because they ran out of room in the closets.
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