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Take Me Home

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On sale Jul 09, 2024 | 10 Hours and 28 Minutes | 9780593865040
AN INSTANT USA TODAY BESTSELLER

Road Trip Rules: No bad music. No detours. No falling in love.


Hazel Elliot never looks back. If a door closes, she burns the whole house down. But when she’s invited to her father’s wedding, she’s forced to return to Lockett Prairie, Texas, for the first time since she fled for college.

Ash Campbell has been in love with Hazel since she dated his best friend in high school. Now, Ash and Hazel’s relationship is limited to playful feuding over the best chair in their favorite coffee shop, but his attraction to the prickly girl from home has only grown stronger.

When Ash’s car breaks down just as family obligations pull him home, only one person can get him there on time. But Hazel has a condition: Everything between them must stay the same. And if it doesn’t? She gets the coffee shop. So the frenemies endure bad music, inclement weather, and B&Bs with only one bed—and that’s just the drive across Texas. When they finally arrive, Hazel must face that, in a small town, there’s nowhere to run . . . and maybe, for the first time, she's found a reason to stay.
CHAPTER
One

When Hazel zipped into the parking lot of the Living Room Café, the old clunker with its faded indie-rock bumper stickers and duct-taped license plate frame wasn't there. Which meant, more importantly, the owner of the car wasn't there. A Christmas miracle. With only two hours to finish and submit the final paper of her first semester of graduate school, the last thing Hazel needed standing-or sitting-in her way was Ash Campbell.

She'd hustled to the café directly from proctoring her advisor's Intro to Psychology final, her last chore as Dr. Sheffield's favorite errand girl. Hustled even though she knew that more than likely Ash had already swooped in and taken her study spot. He had an infuriatingly reliable 5:05 arrival time. But she'd hoped anyway. She needed this.

And, damn it, by sheer willpower and a few questionable rolling stops (and apparently some favor from the cosmos because her clock now read 5:07), she'd beat him here. Finally, a small mercy. Hazel marched into the café, head held high, already pulling her laptop from her messenger bag and angling for the back corner.

Except-

She checked out the front window again. No, his car still wasn't in the lot. And yet, there he sat across the café in her chair, monopolizing the only working outlet in the place. Ash's eyes, dark as black coffee, lifted to hers just as a chilly December gust blew the door shut and knocked her forward. She dropped her laptop back into her bag.

"You're here," she accused.

"Rough day?" He gestured vaguely at her with his coffee mug before grinning into a sip.

Yeah, she was wearing an ugly plaid shirt from the back of her closet because she hadn't done laundry in two weeks, her hair was falling from the hasty bun she'd jammed a pencil through when her hair tie broke, and she was practically vibrating from the three coffees she'd already downed this afternoon. So what?

"You missed a button," he said.

She refused to give him the satisfaction of checking her shirt. "I have to finish a paper."

Ash leaned back into the velvety green wingback chair, one ankle propped over the other leg in indulgent leisure. It was a comfortable chair, big enough to sit cross-legged while she worked. But fancy, too. A seat of power, as though every word Hazel wrote while sitting in it deserved to be leather-bound and embossed. If ever she needed that power, she needed it right now.

He looked pointedly at all the unoccupied seats between them, but she didn't follow his gaze. None of the other tables had outlets. None of the other chairs had the green one's magic. They'd had this argument a hundred times. With a huff, she crossed the threshold to the front counter.

"Isn't the semester over?" Ash asked across the café.

"Not for two more hours."

He tsked. "Cutting it pretty close."

"Shut up."

He laughed as she yanked out a stool.

"I put your Swiss Miss abomination on the menu." He nodded at the sign above the counter. In his aggressive, spiky handwriting, the newest addition read, Baby's First Coffee.

One time she'd mixed a hot chocolate packet into her coffee.

"It's basically a mocha," she snapped.

"The tiny marshmallows really elevate things, too."

"I don't have time for this."

The kitchen door swung open, and Cami emerged, her natural curls swept back with her usual sunshine-yellow head wrap. She gave Hazel a bright, "Hey, hon," over a shallow crate of mugs before she began restocking the open shelves with them, the tattoos on her sculpted brown arms flexing.

At the Living Room, the default was a for here cup. Mostly thrift-store finds, the mugs were mismatched in size and style. All the tables and chairs were, too, salvaged and given their second (or third or fourth) home. With all its eclectic art, warm lamps, plants, and cozy nooks, it was homey. Not like any home Hazel had ever lived in, but still. It would have been a perfect student coffeehouse, except it was too far from campus to cross most undergrads' radar. Plus, the one espresso machine was in constant disrepair, limiting the menu to drip coffee, teas, sandwiches, chips, and, if you came early enough, the muffin of the day. Several other places offered triple-shot lattes and a dozen types of baked goods until two a.m., like the surrounding bars.

She'd found the café back around midterms on the heels of a breakdown in her tiny apartment, the first cracks beginning to show from the unrelenting demands of her psychology PhD program. When she'd walked into the Living Room, its ambience had soothed her low-grade panic with the comforting smells of coffee, soil, and the old paperbacks crammed into shelves. The smooth, tactile velvet of that big chair. Cami had selected a mug for her that said I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie and remarked, "I've been needing someone for this one." It buoyed her. Hazel had worked here, from that green chair, ever since.

Or tried to.

"Coffee?" Cami asked, pulling Hazel's hard glare from the current occupant of the chair. Wordlessly, Cami connected the dots. "Yeah, sorry, hon. He got here ten minutes ago. Give me your cord."

Ten minutes? She hadn't stood a chance.

Hazel tossed the end of her laptop cord over the counter for Cami to plug in on her side. Her computer was so old, the battery wouldn't last fifteen minutes without a power source, which was why, unlike some people, she didn't have a million other seats to choose from.

"He lives upstairs. Why can't he work up there?" Never mind that in a couple of hours Ash would also step behind the counter for the late shift.

"I need the noise," he said, like there wasn't an entire coffeehouse and old Frank with his crossword between them.

She twisted in her seat. "Play music."

"I need voices. Talking." He was fully engrossed in his laptop screen. It wasn't even plugged in. A new spark of anger ignited in her chest.

"Turn on the TV then. Or a podcast."

"Too distracting."

"It's not like anyone's here right now."

Ash cast a wounded expression toward Frank, who was either ignoring them or didn't have his hearing aid turned up. "He's here. You're here."

"Hey, I am not your ambient noise. I'm here to work. Which would be easier for me to do in that chair with that outlet."

He smirked at his screen. "Keep talking. This is really working for me."

With a growl, Hazel spun back around on her stool, fixing Cami with a wide-eyed expression that said, See what I have to put up with?

Cami raised an equally loaded eyebrow. "I'm not sure if this is a nerd thing, a white people thing, or a straight thing, but it's the strangest flirting I've ever witnessed."

"You," Hazel said, flinging open her laptop, "are dead to me."

But as soon as Cami turned away to pour her coffee, Hazel gave Ash an involuntary once-over. And fine, she could forgive Cami for hoping there was something more to their bickering. Ash was a passably attractive guy who, under different circumstances, might have held her interest. She didn't need to look at him to know this. She didn't need to sample the triple chocolate ice cream in the northside campus dining hall to know she liked it, either, but she did that pretty regularly, too.

Anyway, good looks only went so far. They certainly didn't offset his total inflexibility on the issue of the chair and, thus, the threat he posed to her academic career. Nor how much pleasure he derived from being the constant wrench thrown into her gears. Nor their history, which was a whole other thing.

Any appeal really boiled down to the fact that he had nice hair and dressed well. Probably an old girlfriend deserved the credit for that because Ash hadn't always worn understated floral ties and nerdy-chic gray cardigans that stretched across his shoulders. And his hair hadn't always been so artfully mussed.

Nope, this new look was a big-time glow-up from the moody, apathetic teenager she'd met at Lockett Prairie High School, who'd shaved his head and wore nothing but obscure band T-shirts, jeans, and a faded pair of black high-top Chucks that were held together by duct tape. And a scowl, couldn't forget that. He had been basically the human embodiment of the old, bumper-stickered-to-hell car he still drove.

Hazel didn't trust his reinvention. It was too slick, too whimsical. He still had those dark, overly thick eyebrows and the scar cutting through the wing of one of them. The full, pouty mouth-the better to brood with. He still had the distracting habit of drumming his fingers, cracking his knuckles, incessantly clicking pens. He may have fooled everyone else with his new, charming, easygoing persona, his polished appearance, but Hazel still felt the same friction around him. She knew the real Ash under the costume, and she wasn't interested. Nope. Not at all.

Cami thunked a mug of coffee down on the counter, snapping Hazel back around on the stool. The bold, black brushstroke lettering on the mug said Wifey.

"Cute."

She laughed and fetched the little pitcher of creamer. "Honey, this is my café. My hot takes come with the coffee."

Hazel clicked open her seminar paper. She couldn't afford to even think of Ash right now. She was down to-shit-an hour and forty-nine minutes.

Pointedly, Hazel hefted the enormous stack of articles and notes out of her bag and dropped them with a loud clap onto the counter. Her dramatics immediately bit her in the ass, however, when an ivory invitation fell from the stack. It slid across the counter and over the edge. Hazel's stomach fell right along with it. Casting a suspicious side-eye, Cami picked it up.

Hazel didn't have time for this, either, for its hand-lettered calligraphy or monogrammed sticker. When she'd opened it in her apartment building's mail room a month ago, Hazel had been distracted, hadn't braced herself at all. And then there it was, an honest-to-God, formal invitation. She'd shoved it into her bag and, not as successfully, out of her mind.

"Whose wedding?" Cami asked, a note of pity confirming whatever dour thing Hazel's face was doing.

"My dad's."

Cami leaned in. "Are y'all not close or something?"

"No," she said too quickly. She tried to soften it, adding, "No, nothing like that," because Cami was already mustering protective cool aunt energy on her behalf, imagining some parental hurt Hazel truly hadn't suffered. Her parents were fine. But the wedding was a tomorrow problem, not a today problem. She plucked the envelope from Cami's hand and tucked it back into her bag.

Then came Ash's perfectly ill-timed, chiding voice across the café. "Thought you had to finish a paper."

"Shut up. You don't exist."

She was already scanning through her notes, mentally sweeping everything else off the counter to focus only on what mattered, so she heard his echo of her words-"Ah, right. I don't exist"-but didn't fully register until a minute later that it had been oddly mirthless, almost . . .

Nope, no more distractions. She was at the finish line. After this, everything she'd put off could come for her, but not before she shut the door on this long, grueling semester.


A half hour later, tinny ringing pulled Hazel from her essay, followed by a voice. “This is Ash.”

She un-Quasimodoed herself, straightening her spine and rolling her neck. Her eyes were slow to refocus past the short distance of her screen. Her coffee had gone cold, but Cami was by the door, flirting with a UPS delivery woman, so she reached over the counter to refill her mug herself.

"Ah, shit. Really? Five hundred?" Ash rose from the green chair, squeezing the back of his neck. He met Hazel's gaze then turned away and drummed his fingers on the table. "Four days? I was supposed to go home tomorrow." Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. "No, I get it. Just crappy timing. Go ahead and do the repairs."

Hazel supposed this explained why his car wasn't out front.

He ended his call and hastily packed up his belongings. The evening crowd had filled in around them while Hazel was lost in her paper, and he had to weave his way to the front. As he stalked past her to the door, he grunted, "All yours," as if she'd orchestrated his personal crisis just to lure him out of the chair. Through the big front windows, she tracked his path to the door that led up to his loft.

Hazel surveyed her sprawl-laptop, a stack of articles, highlighters, pens, paper clips, two separate legal pads of notes, a worn APA manual, coffee. She'd practically moved in here, and she was so close to being done. Maybe she'd just finish her paper and then relocate to the chair.

While she debated this, the UPS woman left, and Cami sidled casually back behind the counter, some thought brewing behind her narrowed eyes.

"What?" Hazel asked, wary.

Cami's gaze darted pointedly to Hazel's bag, and she knew instantly what she was referencing: the invitation. "Lockett Prairie," Cami mused. "Small world."

Unease pricked Hazel's skin. She sensed where Cami was going with this. Best to get ahead of it. "I'm not leaving for a few more days."

Guilt flared. She'd put her father off for weeks about her travel plans.

She switched tacks. "If you're thinking I should give Ash Campbell a ride across Texas, you haven't been paying attention. We'd kill each other before we reached the hill country."

Cami's look suggested killing each other wasn't the only way it might go, but she raised her palms. "Okay."

They didn't even know if he needed a ride.

Plus, it was an eight-hour drive. He'd probably eat corn nuts or beef jerky or something that would make her gag the whole way.

"We have a bad history specifically with being in cars together," she said.

Cami, who was already turning to welcome a customer, laughed. "I said okay."

But Hazel's mind supplied one final defense, just in case: That party freshman year. The first and last time they'd acknowledged each other in undergrad. She knew he'd let the last four years harden around that night, preserving it like amber, just like she had, because when she'd found her new favorite study spot two months ago and returned the next day to discover Ash already seated in the wingback, claiming it was his regular spot, he'd set his jaw and said entirely too smugly, "There are, like, twenty thousand other places to study." Throwing back her own words from that night.
One of Fangirlish’s Best Romance Books of July

"Ash and Hazel’s main love language is bickering, but there’s a real vulnerability to their relationship. We see them slowly unpack each other’s emotional baggage while doing their best not to stamp out the nascent flame burning between them. This book is like a cup of hot chocolate — it’s sweet and will infuse you with warmth from the inside out." —Washington Post

"[A] phenomenal achievement, with a perfect blend of humor and angst. While most of the book is devoted to growing its main couple’s dynamic, Sweeney gives equal weight to the familial relationships that define them and explores the meaning of truly growing up emotionally. . . Hazel and Ash’s journey to choosing each other makes for a lovely ride. A heartwarming contemporary romance that will keep readers hooked until the last page." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Debut author Sweeney sparkles in this emotionally nuanced contemporary. . . Sweeney skillfully portrays the psyche of a heroine who grew up feeling that no one wanted her and a hero trying to bear all his family’s burdens in the face of his father’s multiple sclerosis. Add in a fun road trip and some deliciously dirty love scenes, and Sweeney’s stirring romance impresses." —Publishers Weekly

"[A] refreshing first novel . . . Readers will be held rapt by these two fully drawn characters who struggle with distinct familial dynamics. . . . Sensitively probe[s] the meaning of love and the many facets of ‘home.’ A feel-good rom-com about 20-somethings with a contentious past who share a ride back to their families in a Texas hometown, sparks flying along the way." —Shelf Awareness

"Sweeney’s strikingly realistic tangle of family dynamics and forced proximity between two believable characters overcoming past presumptions about each other, along with sexy love scenes, make this a must-read." —Library Journal

"Smart, layered and emotionally resonant, Take Me Home is an absolutely perfect love story." —Annabel Monaghan, author of Nora Goes Off Script

"With razor sharp sexual tension and crackling banter, this is the frenemies to lovers book of my dreams." —Christina Lauren, author of The Soulmate Equation

"Funny, angsty, heartwarming—and so satisfying." Abby Jimenez, author of Just For the Summer

"A delightful enemies-to-lovers chock full of zippy banter, sexual tension, and holiday charm. If you love sassy, prickly girls and hot, patient boys, this small town romance is for you!" —Georgia Clark, author of It Had To Be You

"An absolute stunner of a debut! Melanie Sweeney has crafted a novel that is part tension-riddled romance, part family drama, and part self-discovery. . . . This is the kind of book that reaches into your chest and grabs onto your heart."  —Falon Ballard, author of Right on Cue

"Both youthful and mature, both tender and bold, both melancholy and hopeful, Melanie Sweeney's Take Me Home is a gem of a romance. . . . Sweeney is brilliant at infusing her plot and her characters with thoughtful, unique specificity. . . . A book that transported me, moved me . . . and one I won't soon forget." —Kate Clayborn, author of Georgie, All Along

"Take Me Home is like the book version of that Taylor Swift song you play on repeat. Sweet. Sexy. And full of heart." —Trish Doller, author of Float Plan
© Lenora Stein Photography
Melanie Sweeney holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared at Babble.com, as well as in several literary magazines. She is also the author of Take Me Home. View titles by Melanie Sweeney

About

AN INSTANT USA TODAY BESTSELLER

Road Trip Rules: No bad music. No detours. No falling in love.


Hazel Elliot never looks back. If a door closes, she burns the whole house down. But when she’s invited to her father’s wedding, she’s forced to return to Lockett Prairie, Texas, for the first time since she fled for college.

Ash Campbell has been in love with Hazel since she dated his best friend in high school. Now, Ash and Hazel’s relationship is limited to playful feuding over the best chair in their favorite coffee shop, but his attraction to the prickly girl from home has only grown stronger.

When Ash’s car breaks down just as family obligations pull him home, only one person can get him there on time. But Hazel has a condition: Everything between them must stay the same. And if it doesn’t? She gets the coffee shop. So the frenemies endure bad music, inclement weather, and B&Bs with only one bed—and that’s just the drive across Texas. When they finally arrive, Hazel must face that, in a small town, there’s nowhere to run . . . and maybe, for the first time, she's found a reason to stay.

Excerpt

CHAPTER
One

When Hazel zipped into the parking lot of the Living Room Café, the old clunker with its faded indie-rock bumper stickers and duct-taped license plate frame wasn't there. Which meant, more importantly, the owner of the car wasn't there. A Christmas miracle. With only two hours to finish and submit the final paper of her first semester of graduate school, the last thing Hazel needed standing-or sitting-in her way was Ash Campbell.

She'd hustled to the café directly from proctoring her advisor's Intro to Psychology final, her last chore as Dr. Sheffield's favorite errand girl. Hustled even though she knew that more than likely Ash had already swooped in and taken her study spot. He had an infuriatingly reliable 5:05 arrival time. But she'd hoped anyway. She needed this.

And, damn it, by sheer willpower and a few questionable rolling stops (and apparently some favor from the cosmos because her clock now read 5:07), she'd beat him here. Finally, a small mercy. Hazel marched into the café, head held high, already pulling her laptop from her messenger bag and angling for the back corner.

Except-

She checked out the front window again. No, his car still wasn't in the lot. And yet, there he sat across the café in her chair, monopolizing the only working outlet in the place. Ash's eyes, dark as black coffee, lifted to hers just as a chilly December gust blew the door shut and knocked her forward. She dropped her laptop back into her bag.

"You're here," she accused.

"Rough day?" He gestured vaguely at her with his coffee mug before grinning into a sip.

Yeah, she was wearing an ugly plaid shirt from the back of her closet because she hadn't done laundry in two weeks, her hair was falling from the hasty bun she'd jammed a pencil through when her hair tie broke, and she was practically vibrating from the three coffees she'd already downed this afternoon. So what?

"You missed a button," he said.

She refused to give him the satisfaction of checking her shirt. "I have to finish a paper."

Ash leaned back into the velvety green wingback chair, one ankle propped over the other leg in indulgent leisure. It was a comfortable chair, big enough to sit cross-legged while she worked. But fancy, too. A seat of power, as though every word Hazel wrote while sitting in it deserved to be leather-bound and embossed. If ever she needed that power, she needed it right now.

He looked pointedly at all the unoccupied seats between them, but she didn't follow his gaze. None of the other tables had outlets. None of the other chairs had the green one's magic. They'd had this argument a hundred times. With a huff, she crossed the threshold to the front counter.

"Isn't the semester over?" Ash asked across the café.

"Not for two more hours."

He tsked. "Cutting it pretty close."

"Shut up."

He laughed as she yanked out a stool.

"I put your Swiss Miss abomination on the menu." He nodded at the sign above the counter. In his aggressive, spiky handwriting, the newest addition read, Baby's First Coffee.

One time she'd mixed a hot chocolate packet into her coffee.

"It's basically a mocha," she snapped.

"The tiny marshmallows really elevate things, too."

"I don't have time for this."

The kitchen door swung open, and Cami emerged, her natural curls swept back with her usual sunshine-yellow head wrap. She gave Hazel a bright, "Hey, hon," over a shallow crate of mugs before she began restocking the open shelves with them, the tattoos on her sculpted brown arms flexing.

At the Living Room, the default was a for here cup. Mostly thrift-store finds, the mugs were mismatched in size and style. All the tables and chairs were, too, salvaged and given their second (or third or fourth) home. With all its eclectic art, warm lamps, plants, and cozy nooks, it was homey. Not like any home Hazel had ever lived in, but still. It would have been a perfect student coffeehouse, except it was too far from campus to cross most undergrads' radar. Plus, the one espresso machine was in constant disrepair, limiting the menu to drip coffee, teas, sandwiches, chips, and, if you came early enough, the muffin of the day. Several other places offered triple-shot lattes and a dozen types of baked goods until two a.m., like the surrounding bars.

She'd found the café back around midterms on the heels of a breakdown in her tiny apartment, the first cracks beginning to show from the unrelenting demands of her psychology PhD program. When she'd walked into the Living Room, its ambience had soothed her low-grade panic with the comforting smells of coffee, soil, and the old paperbacks crammed into shelves. The smooth, tactile velvet of that big chair. Cami had selected a mug for her that said I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie and remarked, "I've been needing someone for this one." It buoyed her. Hazel had worked here, from that green chair, ever since.

Or tried to.

"Coffee?" Cami asked, pulling Hazel's hard glare from the current occupant of the chair. Wordlessly, Cami connected the dots. "Yeah, sorry, hon. He got here ten minutes ago. Give me your cord."

Ten minutes? She hadn't stood a chance.

Hazel tossed the end of her laptop cord over the counter for Cami to plug in on her side. Her computer was so old, the battery wouldn't last fifteen minutes without a power source, which was why, unlike some people, she didn't have a million other seats to choose from.

"He lives upstairs. Why can't he work up there?" Never mind that in a couple of hours Ash would also step behind the counter for the late shift.

"I need the noise," he said, like there wasn't an entire coffeehouse and old Frank with his crossword between them.

She twisted in her seat. "Play music."

"I need voices. Talking." He was fully engrossed in his laptop screen. It wasn't even plugged in. A new spark of anger ignited in her chest.

"Turn on the TV then. Or a podcast."

"Too distracting."

"It's not like anyone's here right now."

Ash cast a wounded expression toward Frank, who was either ignoring them or didn't have his hearing aid turned up. "He's here. You're here."

"Hey, I am not your ambient noise. I'm here to work. Which would be easier for me to do in that chair with that outlet."

He smirked at his screen. "Keep talking. This is really working for me."

With a growl, Hazel spun back around on her stool, fixing Cami with a wide-eyed expression that said, See what I have to put up with?

Cami raised an equally loaded eyebrow. "I'm not sure if this is a nerd thing, a white people thing, or a straight thing, but it's the strangest flirting I've ever witnessed."

"You," Hazel said, flinging open her laptop, "are dead to me."

But as soon as Cami turned away to pour her coffee, Hazel gave Ash an involuntary once-over. And fine, she could forgive Cami for hoping there was something more to their bickering. Ash was a passably attractive guy who, under different circumstances, might have held her interest. She didn't need to look at him to know this. She didn't need to sample the triple chocolate ice cream in the northside campus dining hall to know she liked it, either, but she did that pretty regularly, too.

Anyway, good looks only went so far. They certainly didn't offset his total inflexibility on the issue of the chair and, thus, the threat he posed to her academic career. Nor how much pleasure he derived from being the constant wrench thrown into her gears. Nor their history, which was a whole other thing.

Any appeal really boiled down to the fact that he had nice hair and dressed well. Probably an old girlfriend deserved the credit for that because Ash hadn't always worn understated floral ties and nerdy-chic gray cardigans that stretched across his shoulders. And his hair hadn't always been so artfully mussed.

Nope, this new look was a big-time glow-up from the moody, apathetic teenager she'd met at Lockett Prairie High School, who'd shaved his head and wore nothing but obscure band T-shirts, jeans, and a faded pair of black high-top Chucks that were held together by duct tape. And a scowl, couldn't forget that. He had been basically the human embodiment of the old, bumper-stickered-to-hell car he still drove.

Hazel didn't trust his reinvention. It was too slick, too whimsical. He still had those dark, overly thick eyebrows and the scar cutting through the wing of one of them. The full, pouty mouth-the better to brood with. He still had the distracting habit of drumming his fingers, cracking his knuckles, incessantly clicking pens. He may have fooled everyone else with his new, charming, easygoing persona, his polished appearance, but Hazel still felt the same friction around him. She knew the real Ash under the costume, and she wasn't interested. Nope. Not at all.

Cami thunked a mug of coffee down on the counter, snapping Hazel back around on the stool. The bold, black brushstroke lettering on the mug said Wifey.

"Cute."

She laughed and fetched the little pitcher of creamer. "Honey, this is my café. My hot takes come with the coffee."

Hazel clicked open her seminar paper. She couldn't afford to even think of Ash right now. She was down to-shit-an hour and forty-nine minutes.

Pointedly, Hazel hefted the enormous stack of articles and notes out of her bag and dropped them with a loud clap onto the counter. Her dramatics immediately bit her in the ass, however, when an ivory invitation fell from the stack. It slid across the counter and over the edge. Hazel's stomach fell right along with it. Casting a suspicious side-eye, Cami picked it up.

Hazel didn't have time for this, either, for its hand-lettered calligraphy or monogrammed sticker. When she'd opened it in her apartment building's mail room a month ago, Hazel had been distracted, hadn't braced herself at all. And then there it was, an honest-to-God, formal invitation. She'd shoved it into her bag and, not as successfully, out of her mind.

"Whose wedding?" Cami asked, a note of pity confirming whatever dour thing Hazel's face was doing.

"My dad's."

Cami leaned in. "Are y'all not close or something?"

"No," she said too quickly. She tried to soften it, adding, "No, nothing like that," because Cami was already mustering protective cool aunt energy on her behalf, imagining some parental hurt Hazel truly hadn't suffered. Her parents were fine. But the wedding was a tomorrow problem, not a today problem. She plucked the envelope from Cami's hand and tucked it back into her bag.

Then came Ash's perfectly ill-timed, chiding voice across the café. "Thought you had to finish a paper."

"Shut up. You don't exist."

She was already scanning through her notes, mentally sweeping everything else off the counter to focus only on what mattered, so she heard his echo of her words-"Ah, right. I don't exist"-but didn't fully register until a minute later that it had been oddly mirthless, almost . . .

Nope, no more distractions. She was at the finish line. After this, everything she'd put off could come for her, but not before she shut the door on this long, grueling semester.


A half hour later, tinny ringing pulled Hazel from her essay, followed by a voice. “This is Ash.”

She un-Quasimodoed herself, straightening her spine and rolling her neck. Her eyes were slow to refocus past the short distance of her screen. Her coffee had gone cold, but Cami was by the door, flirting with a UPS delivery woman, so she reached over the counter to refill her mug herself.

"Ah, shit. Really? Five hundred?" Ash rose from the green chair, squeezing the back of his neck. He met Hazel's gaze then turned away and drummed his fingers on the table. "Four days? I was supposed to go home tomorrow." Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. "No, I get it. Just crappy timing. Go ahead and do the repairs."

Hazel supposed this explained why his car wasn't out front.

He ended his call and hastily packed up his belongings. The evening crowd had filled in around them while Hazel was lost in her paper, and he had to weave his way to the front. As he stalked past her to the door, he grunted, "All yours," as if she'd orchestrated his personal crisis just to lure him out of the chair. Through the big front windows, she tracked his path to the door that led up to his loft.

Hazel surveyed her sprawl-laptop, a stack of articles, highlighters, pens, paper clips, two separate legal pads of notes, a worn APA manual, coffee. She'd practically moved in here, and she was so close to being done. Maybe she'd just finish her paper and then relocate to the chair.

While she debated this, the UPS woman left, and Cami sidled casually back behind the counter, some thought brewing behind her narrowed eyes.

"What?" Hazel asked, wary.

Cami's gaze darted pointedly to Hazel's bag, and she knew instantly what she was referencing: the invitation. "Lockett Prairie," Cami mused. "Small world."

Unease pricked Hazel's skin. She sensed where Cami was going with this. Best to get ahead of it. "I'm not leaving for a few more days."

Guilt flared. She'd put her father off for weeks about her travel plans.

She switched tacks. "If you're thinking I should give Ash Campbell a ride across Texas, you haven't been paying attention. We'd kill each other before we reached the hill country."

Cami's look suggested killing each other wasn't the only way it might go, but she raised her palms. "Okay."

They didn't even know if he needed a ride.

Plus, it was an eight-hour drive. He'd probably eat corn nuts or beef jerky or something that would make her gag the whole way.

"We have a bad history specifically with being in cars together," she said.

Cami, who was already turning to welcome a customer, laughed. "I said okay."

But Hazel's mind supplied one final defense, just in case: That party freshman year. The first and last time they'd acknowledged each other in undergrad. She knew he'd let the last four years harden around that night, preserving it like amber, just like she had, because when she'd found her new favorite study spot two months ago and returned the next day to discover Ash already seated in the wingback, claiming it was his regular spot, he'd set his jaw and said entirely too smugly, "There are, like, twenty thousand other places to study." Throwing back her own words from that night.

Reviews

One of Fangirlish’s Best Romance Books of July

"Ash and Hazel’s main love language is bickering, but there’s a real vulnerability to their relationship. We see them slowly unpack each other’s emotional baggage while doing their best not to stamp out the nascent flame burning between them. This book is like a cup of hot chocolate — it’s sweet and will infuse you with warmth from the inside out." —Washington Post

"[A] phenomenal achievement, with a perfect blend of humor and angst. While most of the book is devoted to growing its main couple’s dynamic, Sweeney gives equal weight to the familial relationships that define them and explores the meaning of truly growing up emotionally. . . Hazel and Ash’s journey to choosing each other makes for a lovely ride. A heartwarming contemporary romance that will keep readers hooked until the last page." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Debut author Sweeney sparkles in this emotionally nuanced contemporary. . . Sweeney skillfully portrays the psyche of a heroine who grew up feeling that no one wanted her and a hero trying to bear all his family’s burdens in the face of his father’s multiple sclerosis. Add in a fun road trip and some deliciously dirty love scenes, and Sweeney’s stirring romance impresses." —Publishers Weekly

"[A] refreshing first novel . . . Readers will be held rapt by these two fully drawn characters who struggle with distinct familial dynamics. . . . Sensitively probe[s] the meaning of love and the many facets of ‘home.’ A feel-good rom-com about 20-somethings with a contentious past who share a ride back to their families in a Texas hometown, sparks flying along the way." —Shelf Awareness

"Sweeney’s strikingly realistic tangle of family dynamics and forced proximity between two believable characters overcoming past presumptions about each other, along with sexy love scenes, make this a must-read." —Library Journal

"Smart, layered and emotionally resonant, Take Me Home is an absolutely perfect love story." —Annabel Monaghan, author of Nora Goes Off Script

"With razor sharp sexual tension and crackling banter, this is the frenemies to lovers book of my dreams." —Christina Lauren, author of The Soulmate Equation

"Funny, angsty, heartwarming—and so satisfying." Abby Jimenez, author of Just For the Summer

"A delightful enemies-to-lovers chock full of zippy banter, sexual tension, and holiday charm. If you love sassy, prickly girls and hot, patient boys, this small town romance is for you!" —Georgia Clark, author of It Had To Be You

"An absolute stunner of a debut! Melanie Sweeney has crafted a novel that is part tension-riddled romance, part family drama, and part self-discovery. . . . This is the kind of book that reaches into your chest and grabs onto your heart."  —Falon Ballard, author of Right on Cue

"Both youthful and mature, both tender and bold, both melancholy and hopeful, Melanie Sweeney's Take Me Home is a gem of a romance. . . . Sweeney is brilliant at infusing her plot and her characters with thoughtful, unique specificity. . . . A book that transported me, moved me . . . and one I won't soon forget." —Kate Clayborn, author of Georgie, All Along

"Take Me Home is like the book version of that Taylor Swift song you play on repeat. Sweet. Sexy. And full of heart." —Trish Doller, author of Float Plan

Author

© Lenora Stein Photography
Melanie Sweeney holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared at Babble.com, as well as in several literary magazines. She is also the author of Take Me Home. View titles by Melanie Sweeney