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EXTENDED EXCERPT

“Nelder Grove has more than one hundred mature giant sequoias,” Lex’s friend Zoe explained loudly to the small tour group as they crunched along a narrow trail. “Some of them are estimated to be more than three thousand years old.”

Grayson had been meaning to drive out here with Sophia ever since they’d arrived in Yosemite Flats — it was only a half-hour from town — but things kept coming up. If he’d known the powerful, almost spiritual effect the place would have on him, he would have come the very first day. But then, Lex wouldn’t have been there with them.

Sophia clutched her hand as they trudged ahead of him, his daughter in her signature pink and Lex in jeans and a light sweater, her hair falling loose around her shoulders. The view was no less spectacular than the day he’d met her, but Lex in casual wear was a thousand times more sexy to him than Lex in a skin-tight dress.

When they’d first met, she’d struck him as a typical money-hungry, status-loving LA girl. He’d known too many, and they were easy to spot: the designer clothes, the flashy watch, the luxury car — even if it was “baby’s first Benz” — screamed party girl. Or gold digger. Or socialite wannabe. Of course, the three weren’t mutually exclusive, but after a two-minute conversation in the middle of a Starbucks, his gut had told him she was none of the above, as much as she’d tried to look the part.

Didn’t matter anyway. He hadn’t been lying to the Bubbie Brigade, who also happened to be on today’s tour with them. Work took up far too much of his time, and the little that remained was reserved for Sophia. Sophia, who at that very moment was looking up at Lex like the mother she never knew. He had to cough to get his heart beating again.

“Bull Buck isn’t the tallest of the trees in the grove, but it’s the tallest we’ll see on this tour. It stands at 246 feet tall, has a circumference of 100 feet, and we think it’s about 2700 years old.”

Zoe ushered everyone around a split log fence surrounding an absolutely massive trunk. Once everyone settled into a spot — Sophia on one side of him, Lex on the other — and craned their necks to see the top, only the sounds of the forest could be heard. No one even breathed.

Tiny fingers wriggled into his hand and he squeezed tight. Without thinking, he slipped his other hand into Lex’s. It just felt right. For a brief moment, her hand tensed, then it relaxed and returned his gentle squeeze. Standing there under the magnificent sequoia, he felt small and insignificant and totally at peace with the universe.

“It’s said that those who bring their prayers and deepest wishes to the giants in the forest will have them answered,” Teddy said quietly. All eyes shifted to him. “It’s a place where you can’t feel unhappy. You all feel it, don’t you?”

They all did, every last one of them. Even those with tears in their eyes looked joyful. Grayson certainly felt the same. So grateful, so happy, so lucky.

“If you’ll all follow me to the shuttle, we’ll drop you back at the fair,” Zoe said, barely having to raise her voice to be heard in the tranquil silence. “But if you want to explore the rest of grove more on your own, I believe the Alpine Inn offers a shuttle. Isn’t that right, Lex?”

Zoe grinned at her friend, her eyes dropping to their intertwined fingers. Lex shook off his hand before anyone else could notice and smiled broadly.

“Yes. It leaves our parking lot on Saturdays and Sundays at ten, then returns to pick everyone up at four. No charge for guests, two dollars for anyone else.”

He couldn’t deny that his pride was a little wounded by her brush-off, but it really was for the best. As much as he wanted to raise his daughter in a small town, the gossip mill in Yosemite Flats was cranked up to eleven. And the three primary instigators were standing together, casting sly glances his way and whispering.

Great. If the Bubbies started spreading it around that he and Lex were an item, it could end up hurting Sophia in the long run when Lex eventually went back to her high-rise life in Marina del Rey. As much as he was drawn to ‘small town girl Lex’, ‘lemon-drop Alexandria’ was someone he would never consider pursuing. The trouble was he didn’t know which one she wanted to be. He wondered if she even knew.

He hung back and let the Bubbie Brigade shuffle down the trail, before leaving Big Buck. Hoisting Sophia into his arms, he gave her a wet kiss on the cheek. Six months ago, she would have pushed him away and said, “Gross.” Today, she wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. This was exactly why he moved them to Yosemite Flats.

Grayson could have stayed there all day like that, but the click of a phone’s camera caught his attention. Lex smiled and showed him the sweet photo, complete with the tree in the background. She pulled the phone back and gazed at the screen for a moment before clicking it off and shoving it in her back pocket.

Lucky phone.

“So how’s the build coming along?” she asked him as they trailed the rest of the group.

He set Sophia down and she sprinted ahead to walk with the Bubbies. “Pretty good. The landscapers started this week. We’re still having trouble with this one permit, but I’m sure we’ll get it figured out.”

Tassie James at the clerk’s office had found another reason to delay the parking lot permit. The clock was ticking and the stress of it was eating at him. He refused to ask his father to use his influence to push the permit through. This was Grayson’s baby, from start to finish. Asking for help was tantamount to failure, at least in Richard Conrad’s mind.

“How about you? Any progress on the finances?” he asked, focusing on the loose strand of blonde hair that Lex kept blowing out of her eyes.

“I have to admit, I’d rather take care of Sophia than try to make sense of it all, but I’m seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Then why do you look so worried?”

“Because I think that light is an oncoming train. Pretty sure we’re going to have to take out a second mortgage on the inn for some major repairs and upgrades. That’s going to be a hole I’m not sure how fast Mom will be able to dig out of once The Eyrie opens.”

“Lex, you have to know that I don’t see us as competitors.”

“Nice,” she snorted, shooting him an amused look.

“No, I mean there’s room for both of us in Yosemite Flats. Your inn will appeal to those wanting a more rustic, historic experience. After a couple of months of the marketing campaign I have planned, you’ll be booked solid for six months, I’d bet my life on it.”

“That’s not a bet you should make, because if you’re wrong, I’ll hunt you down and kill you myself.”

Her smile said she was teasing, but the glint in her eyes sent a shiver down his spine.

“Brrr, did the temperature just drop thirty degrees?”

There was nothing quite like Lex’s laugh. It wasn’t overly loud, but it had…girth. It sounded slightly perverted, even in his own head, but he couldn’t think of a better word for it. It spread far and wide, wrapping anyone within earshot in its warm embrace. Sometimes when he came home at night, he’d stand just out of sight and listen to Sophia and Lex giggling. It never failed to ease the tension that had built throughout the day.

Her laugh cut off abruptly, replaced with a yelp of surprise. In a replay of their first encounter, Grayson lunged forward and caught Lex as she tripped, pulling her tight against him before she could fall.

He’d been here before, but this time, the world around them lost all focus. The only thing he could see were her blue eyes staring up at him, searching his face. And her cheeks turning a delicious shade of pink, her lips parting ever so slightly.

His heart thundered in his chest, and he could feel hers pounding just as hard. The idea of kissing — and let’s be honest, a whole lot more — never strayed far from his thoughts, but he’d never acted on them. Partly because she was Sophia’s nanny and he didn’t want to be ‘that guy,’ and partly because he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to stop once he started.

Now with Lex cradled in his arms, he couldn’t remember any of that. To make matters worse — or better — instead of trying to regain her footing, Lex slowly snaked her arms around his neck and let her lips tick up into the slightest of smiles. That was all the invitation he needed.

Lowering his head, he let his lips brush against hers lightly. Her eyes dropped closed and she sighed against his mouth, driving him to distraction. His instinct was to crush his mouth to hers, to claim it as his, but teasing her tasted so much sweeter.

Hovering just above her lips, he breathed in her scent, the one that never seemed to leave him, no matter how far apart they were. He searched every inch of her face, a face he’d already memorized and saw clearly in his memory and dreams. His gaze settled on her mouth again. When she whispered his name, he could no longer deny himself.

He held his breath and closed his eyes, ready to take a step that would change things between them forever, when a familiar sound filtered through the pounding of their beating hearts.

“Daddy! Lex! Hurry up, you slow pokes!”