Too Hot to Handle - Tessa Bailey

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Too Hot to Handle is a love story between Jasper and Rita, but it’s also very much a love story among four siblings. Between a mother and her children. It’s a common belief that we need to love ourselves before we can love another—and family can often bully, shove, and argue us into recognizing our true selves in the mirror, whether we like what we see or not. But sometimes all it takes is seeing their reflections, standing at our backs in that same mirror, to realize we’re worthy. I hope you’ll hitch a ride with the Clarksons as they move across the map toward New York, falling in love, changing lives, and resolving their shared history—which has only begun to reveal itself—along the way.

To my grandmother, Violet, for the stories you’ve told our family over the years, thank you. Your timeless grace and class will stay with me forever. I hope I did (and continue to do) the names Belmont, Peggy, and Rita proud, as they belonged to your siblings. Sorry I couldn’t use Violet. I don’t think Poppy would want you in a kissing book.

To my husband, Patrick, and daughter, Mackenzie, for being my foundation, my happiness, the loves of my life, thank you for celebrating my triumphs and comforting me in defeat. I’m sorry that sometimes you are talking directly at my face, I’m nodding, and nothing is going in.

To my editor, Madeleine Colavita at Forever Romance, for wanting this series and believing in this rather tricky concept of writing four complete love stories over the course of one road trip, thank you. I do not take your faith for granted! I can’t wait to take the rest of this journey with you and the Clarksons.

To my agent, Laura Bradford, who never bats an eyelash, thank you for not only helping me make this concept more cohesive, but for helping me find an excellent home for the Clarksons. I’m still coming down from those phone calls.

To Eagle at Aquila Editing, thank you for beta reading this book and giving great notes, as always. Your insight means a lot to me.

To Rebecca Stauber, my high school journalism teacher, thank you for telling me I had some talent, but not enough to pat myself on the back. That was a great lesson, and I’m still holding on to it.

To Jillian Stein for always being the person who says, “Yes! I love this idea! You must write it!” Thank you. Everyone comes to you for encouragement for a reason. It’s always constructive and never forced. You’re truly one of a kind, and I value you so much as a friend.

Prologue

Miriam Clarkson, January 1

If you’re reading this, stop. Unless something bad has happened, in which case, screw it. I’m obviously not there anymore to stop you.

I hope I didn’t make a big deal out of dying. Hope there were no last minute confessions or wistful wishes that I’d seen more sunrises. If I did succumb to those clichés and killed everyone’s vibe, I’m sorry. If I didn’t? Well, bully for me. But I’m succumbing now, in this book, because I’ve had too much bourbon.

Oh, come on. At least pretend to be scandalized.

So, here goes. I love my kids. I love that I didn’t have to say it every day for them to know it. To be comfortable in it. But looking back—hindsight is more like 40/40 when you’re about to croak—I know I only fixed minuscule problems and ignored the mammoth ones. I never cooked family dinners, which is pretty damn ironic when you think about it. I am—or was—a culinary genius, after all.

People make dying wishes and their loved ones carry them out. That’s how it works, right? Well, I don’t wish to put that weight on my kids. But I have no such qualms with a cheap notebook I bought at Rite Aid. So here it is. My. Dying. Wish.

Please be patient and try to remember that I often have—or had, rather—a plan.

When I was eighteen, I spent a year in New York City. On New Year’s Day in 1984, I jumped into the icy waters of the Atlantic with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. I was a guest of a guest of a guest, as eighteen-year-olds trying to make their way in New York often are.

Now here’s where shit gets corny—apologies to my daughter, Rita, who of my four children, will likely find and read this first. See? I paid attention sometimes.

As I was saying.

When I walked back