Swap and Smell the Roses, Chapter One

Swap and Smell the Roses by Karen Booth

Chapter One

An illustrated scene in shades of pale blue with a city skyline in the background and a rose covered picket fence in the foreground. The title reads Swap and Smell the Roses.“What the hell, Bailey?” Willow Moore asked the question out loud, even though the only living being within earshot was a very skinny squirrel. Not to mention her best friend, Bailey Briggs, was hours away in Brooklyn at that very moment, now living in Willow’s beloved apartment.

Willow tried again, bending over and poking another slate-colored stone with a stick, only to find a small patch of dirt and zero keys. “The key is under the gray rock by the front door? There are a million gray rocks.”

When she straightened and wiped her hands on her jeans, she noted the flaking toothpaste-green paint of the arched front door and knew one thing for sure: she didn’t want to be there. Like really, really didn’t want to be there, alone on an unfamiliar cobbled walkway in front of a crumbling cottage in the middle of nowhere, Connecticut. She’d been gone from New York City for all of three hours and she already felt like her arm had been chopped off. Where was the noise? The peculiar, sometimes unpleasant smells? Where was the rumble under her feet from the subway? It was quiet here. Too quiet. There was no way she’d survive it for sixty days.

Willow’s phone rang. She frantically dug through her crossbody bag and pulled it out. The caller ID said it was Bailey. “I’m here, but I can’t find the key,” Willow blurted in lieu of hello.

“It’s in my laptop bag. With me. I’m so sorry. I just found it.”

Willow sighed. If it was anyone else, she might go on a tirade, but she could never be angry with Bailey. They’d been through so much in the twelve years since they were randomly matched as roommates, freshman year of college. They were always there for each other. Then again…it had been Bailey’s idea to swap living situations for two months so that Willow could “start thinking straight” while Bailey took a coveted invitation-only screenwriting course. It was all Bailey’s fault that Willow was keyless—and clueless—in Connecticut. “I’m telling you, this is a sign. This is the universe telling me that I shouldn’t be here and I should come back to the city.”

“This is a sign of nothing more than my general lack of organization.”

“Just let me come back to New York while you take your class. It’ll be fun. We can stay up late and drink cheap beer and eat too much pizza, just like the old days.”

“That sounds like a midlife crisis. You’re too young for that. And the last time we hung out, you could barely keep your eyes open past ten.”

“I’m a morning person. So sue me.”

“Will, I love you, but your apartment is tiny, you’re unemployed, and I have to be writing every minute that I’m not taking this class. I’m sorry, but I need solitude to write. That’s the whole reason I chose to live in Connecticut in the first place.”

Solitude. Ugh. Willow hated being alone. She needed people. Human connection. At the very least, to hear the sound of others breathing. “Technically, I could evict you. It’s my name on the lease.”

“But you won’t do that because you know how long I’ve waited for a break like this. Only ten people get to take this class every year. Ten. It’s a freaking miracle that I got picked.”

At least one of them had some glimmer of hope on the horizon. Willow certainly didn’t. Her dreams had evaporated. Into thin air. “I know. And I’m proud of you for trying.”

“Plus, you need some time away from New York. Get some perspective. Figure things out.”

“There’s nothing to figure out. I know what I want. And what I don’t.”

“I really don’t think you do. One bad experience is not a reason to give up on your dream.”

Willow felt ill. As in, someone please pull my hair back because I’m going to yack. That bad experience was painfully fresh in her head, being heckled offstage at the Hi-Life, a club she’d spent three years trying to get booked into. You suck. Go home. Taylor Swift wannabe. Even worse, her brother, Gabe, had witnessed every humiliating, soul-crushing moment. He’d even tried to fight the guys who’d hurled those unkind words. She loved him to the ends of the earth, but Gabe greatly overestimated his ability to throw a right hook and he’d paid for it with one hell of a shiner. She’d never been so thankful for security guards in all her life.

Just thinking about that night made her eyes sting. She was done. She’d dreamed of being a singer/songwriter since she was eight years old. Possibly longer. She’d taken hundreds of piano lessons and practiced guitar until her fingers bled, which felt like such a cliché but was a real thing—those metal strings could rub right through tender skin if you gave them enough of a chance. She’d filled thousands of notebook pages with song lyrics, some terrible, others mediocre, and a few choice lines that sparkled with the slightest hint of brilliance, if she did say so herself. She’d climbed up on stage hundreds of times and put everything she had into sets where the audience only half-heartedly clapped. Sometimes, people talked through every song she played. Others walked away. Like she didn’t even matter.

Sure, she’d had the opposite response, too. She’d had applause, adoration, and even a standing ovation once. Those were the moments that kept her going. But it wasn’t enough. Not anymore. She was losing her joy. She was thirty now and her irrational stranglehold on her “dream” had become mentally and physically exhausting.. Something had to give. It was time to pivot. Find an actual career. She couldn’t send the minimum payment on her student loans forever, so it had better be something that could put money in the bank. If she was lucky, whatever she did next would nurture the remaining shreds of her tattered creative soul. “I’ve had enough rejection. I can’t take it anymore. I need to move forward and I can’t do it here. If I’m going to find a real job, I need to be in the city.”

“Think of this as pressing pause. Taking a breath. Don’t run down another path until you’ve had some time to think about it.”

“I don’t know…” Taking breaths and time and pressing pause…it all sounded so bleak. Somewhere off in the distance, thunder rumbled. It would’ve been easy to take it as a bad omen, but Willow found her heart fluttering in anticipation. At least something was happening.

“Look. If you really want to come back, then come back,” Bailey said. “I know you’re making a sacrifice for me and I love you for it. But I’ll give up my spot in the class if you want me to. I just need you to tell me now. They can find someone to take my place before it starts.”

Willow choked back another sigh. Their sixty-day swap wasn’t about her. It was about Bailey. “Don’t listen to me, okay? I’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out.” Somehow. “Is there another key hidden somewhere?”

“Not that I know of. You’re going to have to go find the owner. Reid.” Bailey had previously described said owner as “odd and grumpy,” which conjured images of a haggard troll living under a bridge. “Either that or I can try to rent a car and bring it to you.”

“Don’t do that. That’s a total waste of money.” They were both always scraping to get by. Willow hated that her generation had been made to refer to basic survival as hustling. “I’ll find him. If I don’t, I’ll just smash in a window and let myself in.”

“Do not do that. He will not be happy.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll ring his doorbell a few hundred times before I resort to vandalism.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to find him. I don’t think he goes anywhere. Ever.”

“He sounds more fun every time you talk about him.” Willow took a few steps and peered around back behind the semicharming dwelling that was to be her home for the next sixty days. Ahead, a swoop of green grass led to a long line of raised garden beds. At the farthest reaches of the property was another house. No expert on architecture, Willow was still pretty sure it was a Tudor, with the same creamy-white stucco of the guest cottage, but with thick dark brown trim and battens. “I’d better go find him. I think it might rain.”

“He’s a nice guy, but like I said before, don’t take it personally if he’s gruff. It’s just his vibe.”

Willow considered herself warned. “Good luck with your first day of class tomorrow. Don’t forget the watering schedule.”

“I don’t know how I could. The seven-page dissertation you wrote about the care and keeping of philodendrons was enough to help me understand how much you love your houseplants.”

“I don’t have a pet or kids. They’re my babies, okay?” Just thinking about it made Willow’s chest hurt. How pathetic was that?

“Don’t worry. I will take excellent care of them.”

Willow needed to ward off her separation anxiety. Getting off the phone was probably the first step. “Thanks. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Willow ended the call and stuffed her phone into her bag, then scooted her guitar case and roller bag well under the gabled roof of the front stoop. Not that she actually planned to play her guitar while she was here. She needed a break. Bringing it had been Bailey’s idea.

Willow marched around the cottage, noting the patches of algae on the exterior and the peeling paint on the windowsills. Bailey had lived here for the last seven years, writing screenplays and working at The Tattered Page, a bookstore in town. Willow had lived a similar existence in New York, except she’d had so many jobs her resume was mostly a list of businesses within a twenty-block radius of her apartment.

Willow crossed a postage stamp of a flagstone patio and tried the back door, jiggling the old brass knob, hoping to get in and avoid talking to Mr. Odd and Grumpy. The dead bolt was latched. It was officially time to find the mysterious Reid.

She started across the grass, ducking out from under the tree cover surrounding the cottage and entering a yawning expanse with nothing but an open stretch of stormy gray sky above. She walked along rows and rows of garden beds, more than she’d possibly ever seen, which was saying a lot since she’d grown up in a small town in Ohio, where pastimes like gardening were a very big deal. It was the first of June, and the beds were already bursting with baby tomatoes, yards of cucumbers, and splashes of brightly colored peppers. It forced her to take a beat—it might not be completely terrible here. She did like smelling the earthiness of soil and freshly cut grass. She felt the warm dampness of coming rain. Being nowhere might be okay, although she still doubted her ability to be happy here, especially for a full sixty days.

As she got closer to the house, she saw something move. Or more specifically, someone. A man practicing Tai Chi in the shade of a massive oak. She came to a stop. Mostly to catch her breath. Holy hell…he was hot. Apparently, Bailey had chosen to gloss over that particular fact? He was not a troll. Oh, no. Tall and lanky—Willow’s exact brand of catnip—with a chaotic case of cocoa-brown bed head, no shirt, and gray sweats hanging low on his hips. It was more than his spectacular body that kept her entranced. The way he moved mesmerized her—his impossibly long arms sliced and swooped through the air, while strong legs kept him steadily anchored to earth. Willow bit her lower lip. A man who could command such fluid movements…well, she could only imagine that he might be able to extend those talents elsewhere. She shook her head. Don’t even think about it. Her ill-fated music career wasn’t the only jumbled mess she’d created. Her love life had a similar flair.

“Hello?” she called.

No response came. He simply continued with his practice, moving from left to right with his back to her, showing off the deep channel of his spine, the sharp contours of his shoulder blades, and the most heartbreaking dimples near his butt.

“Hello? I’m looking for Reid. Is that you?”

Nothing. Not even an acknowledgment of her presence.

She took several strides closer, then noticed his earbuds. No wonder he wasn’t responding. He was in his own little world. She found it strangely endearing. It wasn’t like there were crowds to avoid in the backyard of this old house. He didn’t need to escape here. For a lot of people, this was the escape. “Hello?” Now she was probably only twenty feet away. She waved her arms wildly, and still he didn’t notice her. This was going to require a more direct approach, so she bustled closer, calling out as loudly as she could. “Hello? Hello?”

She hesitated again, little more than an arm’s length away. How could he be so unaware? Frustrated, she reached out and tapped on his bare shoulder.

He whipped around and yanked out one of his earbuds. “What the?” His dark eyes blazed. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Willow jumped back. “I’m sorry. I’m, uh, Bailey’s friend, Willow,” she stammered, trying to ignore the way his chest rose and fell.

“You scared the crap out of me.”

“I’m sorry. I’m staying here. I can’t get into the cottage.”

His brow wrinkled in dismay. His lips turned to a scowl. “She left a key for you.”

“She accidentally took it with her.” Willow’s heart thundered, a toxic cocktail of embarrassment and adrenaline rushing through her veins. “So you’re Reid?”

“Uh, yeah. Nobody else lives here.”

Gruff? Epically so. Which, to her great annoyance, she didn’t hate. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” She clasped her hands behind her back, reminding herself that she was not going to touch him again.

All he did was glare at her. If his annoyance was a bonfire, she could’ve stuffed her face with s’mores for her entire two-month stay. She narrowed her eyes, as if that might help her figure him out, but that only made her focus on the many features that made him so hot, like the smooth and glistening skin of his chest. Dammit. Her shoulder-tapping finger tingled from the memory of that split second. “I was hoping you could let me into the cottage. Preferably before it starts to rain. Please.”

He grumbled and stalked over to the base of the tree, plucking a T-shirt from the ground. He threaded his arms through the sleeves then tugged the garment over his head. As he covered up, it was like watching a candle being snuffed out.

“Come on.” He started for the cottage, leaving Willow standing there.

She sighed, then started to stumble along behind him, dreading what came next—she was going to turn on the charm. She just knew it. She was going to get chatty and make jokes. She couldn’t stand it when people didn’t like her. And sixty days was entirely too long to live next door to someone who was so clearly not her biggest fan.


Reid Harrel had been promised that Willow Moore would be zero trouble. That he wouldn’t even notice she was there. He should’ve known better. Nothing was ever as easy as advertised.

“There’s another key. I’ll show you.” He stepped up onto the flagstone patio behind the guest cottage and beelined for the kitchen window, reached under one of the shutters, and removed the spare from a tiny hook.

“Dang. I wish Bailey had known about that,” Willow said.

“My dad was her original landlord. I guess he never told her about it.”

He turned and dared to look at Willow. She nodded slowly, her head tilted ever so slightly to the side, making her thick fringe of blond bangs drape across her forehead and highlight her pale blue eyes. She was… Well, it was hard to not stare. Something about her silently insisted, look at me. She was beautiful, but in a broken sort of way.

“I heard about your dad,” she said. “Bailey told me. I’m so sorry. She really liked him a lot. She said he was wonderful.”

“He was.”

“She said he was a chef, too. Was he the reason you became one?”

He was ready to hand her the key and get the hell out of there. That was his usual reaction any time someone struck up a conversation about his father, and now she’d had to go and add in the topic of the profession he’d left behind. What was next? Was she going to ask him about his worst breakup? His most embarrassing moment? “I’m not a chef. Not anymore.”

“Oh. Then what are you doing?”

Good God, how he despised that question. “Existing.”

“Gotcha. Sorry I asked.” She smiled softly and turned back to survey the garden. It only gave him the opportunity to eye her up and down. In curve-hugging jeans, a black tank top and Converse low-tops, she read as casual and carefree, qualities Reid did not possess. “You’ve obviously been gardening. Your crops look amazing. I’d love to help out while I’m here. I’m kind of a plant nerd. And I like to stay busy.”

“I don’t need any help. I’ve got it under control. I have a system.”

She turned back to him. “Okay, then. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize for everything, okay? People quit their jobs. People don’t need your help. People die. It’s just the way the world works.”

Her perfect eyebrows arched into two waning moons. “You’re up to your eyeballs in pleasant thoughts, aren’t you?”

He shrugged. “I’m a realist. Not everyone can handle it.”

“I can get real. In fact, I think I just did.”

Not knowing what to say, he instead grunted. This was getting messier at every step. All the more reason to keep it short and make a quick exit. He unlocked the back door, then drove his shoulder into it, anticipating the sticking point at the upper corner. It swung open and he stepped back. “There you go.” He handed her the key. “Use this for now. I’ll get it from you at some point and make a copy.”

“I don’t get a tour?”

“It’s a cottage. Pretty self-explanatory. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom.”

“Bailey mentioned your family has owned this property for nearly thirty years, right? I guess I figured you might want to show me around. Since there’s so much history.”

He supposed she had a point, although he wasn’t happy about it. “Fine.”

He led the way, Willow trailing behind him. Once they were inside, he closed the door behind her, leaving him with enough of a whiff to stop him dead in his tracks. He would’ve pegged her as a flowery girl, but her fragrance was a blur of evocative scents—woodsy like cedar and summery like rain. That coupled with the overwhelming sense of nostalgia he felt whenever he stepped into the cottage had him even more unsteady than he’d been outside. This was where his parents had lived when they were newly married. It had been Reid’s home until he was six years old.

“Kitchen is cute.” Willow ran her hand along the old Formica countertops, then stepped to the white enamel sink. A vision of his mom flashed in his head. Willow peered out through the window that overlooked the yard, gardens, and even had a glimpse of the main house. “I love the view. I can stand here and do dishes and spy on you while you do Tai Chi.”

He fought so hard against the smile that wanted to spread across his face. He wasn’t going to give in to it. No way. “Please don’t.”

She turned and rolled her eyes, then stepped over to the original Frigidaire, peeking inside. “I’m kidding. I’m not a creeper. Well, not much of one.”

“As long as you don’t sneak up on me again, I’m good. In fact, I’m guessing I’ll live several years longer.”

She closed the fridge. “People die. That’s the way the world works, right?”

He appreciated her cheekiness a bit too much. So did his dick. It had already been keenly aware of her presence, but now that she was throwing his own words back at him, it was really sitting up and taking notice. I like her. She’s feisty, it said. “Right.”

She laughed quietly, seeming quite amused with herself. “I know you think I apologize too much, but I am sorry about that. I should’ve known better than to tap you on the shoulder when you were off in your own little world.”

Some people might’ve taken issue with her suggesting he was a daydreamer, but she wasn’t wrong. He craved the escape. “It’s okay. It’s not entirely your fault, anyway. I get very into it. I can’t meditate. It’s too quiet. So I do that instead.”

Willow reached out and lightly swatted his forearm. “Oh, my God. So it’s not just me. I can’t meditate, either. My brain kicks into overdrive. It’s like it’s actively trying to not calm down.”

That was his experience as well, but he didn’t need to connect with her on another level. He wanted to keep his distance. She wouldn’t be here long, and she was already upsetting the natural order of his life, where he kept to himself and left everyone else alone. “I’ll show you the rest of the house. Then I’ll get out of your hair.”

Willow followed as he headed for the living room, opening the small utility closet on the way out of the kitchen. “Laundry?”

“It’s a small machine. Don’t overload it.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Reid wanted to laugh. She had this way of catching him off guard. “Here’s the living room. Not much to see. A sofa, chair, and a TV.”

“Perfect. It’s all I need.” She stepped ahead and poked her head into the room to their right. “Bedroom?”

He remained in place, imagining his feet were glued to the floor. There was no way he was going in there. Not with her. That room was tiny. It was basically all bed. One misstep and someone would fall on it, and then where would he be? In deep trouble, that’s where. “Yep. Bath is attached.”

Just then, a sudden roar engulfed the room with white noise from above. They both raised their sights to the ceiling.

“Whoa. Is that rain?” Willow asked.

“It’s really coming down.” The raindrops hammered the roof. Louder and louder. His pulse picked up. He needed to leave. He couldn’t be cooped up in the house with her because of the weather.

“Oh, crap. My stuff. It’s still outside.” Willow scrambled for the front door and flipped the latch, then rushed out onto the landing. She jerked a black guitar case inside. “Wait. Where’s my suitcase? It was right here.”

Reid hurried to help. Out on the stoop, the rain was coming down in sheets all around them, but he quickly spotted the problem. Her bag had rolled down the front walkway and was lodged in the holly bushes. “I’ll get it.” He stepped past her.

Willow grabbed his T-shirt. “Wait. You’ll get soaked.”

He turned and looked at her hand grasping the soft fabric. For a fleeting second he wanted her to push him up against the cottage door, rip his shirt from his body, and kiss him into oblivion while Mother Nature unleashed her fury. Bolts of lightning and claps of thunder. Willow could take away his misery for a few moments. He was reasonably sure of that. The trouble was, it always came back.

“No. I’ll do it.” He broke free of her hold and flew down the cobbled path as he was pelted with fat, warm raindrops. He grabbed the handle of her roller bag and raced for the front door.

Willow rescued her bag from him and whisked it inside. “Thank you so much. Come in. Please. Dry off,” she pled.

A tiny part of him wanted to step back across that threshold more than anything. The rest of him, the pragmatic part, knew what logically came next—he’d need to shed his wet clothes. Common sense would dictate he get into the shower—let the warm water roll over his shoulders, down his belly and back, bring his body to life, all while he was keenly aware that beautiful, intriguing Willow was in the next room. When he was done, he’d have to walk through her bedroom, clutching a towel around his waist, all while his dick reminded him that a rainy afternoon was the perfect time to get lost in a woman he hardly knew.

“No. No. It’s okay. I’ll just track a bunch of water inside. It’ll be a big mess. The hardwood floors are old. They really shouldn’t get wet. I’ll just head home.”

She reached for him again. “Are you sure? I feel bad.”

He froze. What was it with Willow and touching? She did it all the damn time. It was really starting to grate on his nerves. He’d had a perfectly acceptable, quiet existence before she arrived. Now she was stirring up far too many sensations. “I’m sure.”

She let go of him. “Okay. Be safe. Don’t get too wet.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Thanks for your help.”

“Just try to stay out of trouble, okay?” He wasn’t even sure why he’d said it, and he didn’t offer more. He didn’t say that he’d be happy to be of help any time. Or that she should let him make her dinner sometime. Instead, he turned and jogged away in the rain. As soon as he was sure he was out of her sight line, he tore off, around to the back of the cottage. The rain was coming down so fast he could hardly see, but he knew the way, down the grassy slope and past the garden beds. He traveled as fast as his feet would carry him. It wasn’t that he was worried about getting wet. He was already doused. He was trying to get away. Away from Willow. Away from any chance of getting close.

Swap and Smell the Roses will be released on May 21, 2024. It’s available to preorder HERE. If you’re interested in a signed, personalized copy of the paperback, including an exclusive book-themed sticker set (designed by me!) and a bookmark, please consider preordering from my hometown indie bookstore, Flyleaf Books

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