Valentine’s Day Collection: Deal Breaker

Six brand new contemporary romance novellas by Janette Rallison, Heather B. Moore, Jenny Proctor, Annette Lyon, Heather Tullis, and Sarah M. Eden.

Deal Breaker

The last place Colette wants to be stranded is the snowed-in Denver airport, especially when her sister is enduring chemo treatments and needs Colette’s help back home. When Colette runs into another stranded passenger—none other than former college boyfriend Drew—she can’t believe how much he’s changed . . . and hasn’t changed. Drew is still the same amazing guy that Colette was foolish enough to blow off for someone else. By the time she’d realized her mistake all those years ago, Drew’s heart had been too broken to give her a second chance. Now Colette can only hope that she can work her way back into his heart.

 

Chapter One

Colette Bunker’s hopes to fly home that evening were being pounded with every icy snowflake that hit the airport window. Standing inside the warm terminal, she watched another airplane taxi toward her through the swirling snow and wondered how long air traffic control would allow planes to land in this February blizzard. Denver had probably not been the smartest place for her to transfer through today, considering the growing strength of the wind and the storm warning alerts coming through her phone. Was there a chance she would continue home to Kansas City before morning?

The doors closed behind the flight heading to L.A.— the flight she had gotten off of less than an hour ago, and now the plane was heading back there again. She kind of wished she was on it— looking out at the snow surrounding the Denver airport made L.A. seem pretty fantastic. She saw the plane pull out and start taxiing down the runway, and then the other plane that had arrived from Wichita pulled into the gate.

By the time people began streaming through the doors into the terminal, the snow had thickened significantly, so Colette could no longer see the end of the runway. This was not a good sign.

A deep male voice came over the loud speaker: “Attention passengers. Due to the rising storm, all incoming flights are being re-routed. Outgoing flights are being canceled or delayed.  Hopefully we’ll have more information for you soon. Thank you for your patience as we deal with the weather.”

“Perfect. Just what I need.” It had been a long week in L.A.— land of the perfect weather. One would think that being somewhere with clear skies and friendly beaches would have made her time in the city fly by, but Colette had spent the whole time wishing she were home with her sister, Sarah, who was suffering from chemo treatments for breast cancer.

It had been terrible timing to be out of town to train a west coast company’s accounting department, but since the training had been scheduled for six weeks and her schedule was full for the next couple of months, Colette hadn’t been able to get out of it.

She tasted the spearmint gum on her tongue, smelled the baby sitting behind her— apparently someone was due for a diaper change— and heard the chattering of unhappy voices surrounding her. Several people talked about renting a car to finish the drive home, others talked about getting a hotel room. Driving in this storm was definitely not on her to-do list no matter how badly she wanted to be home. The weather might be better once she cleared the valley, but crossing what in good weather was ten hours of open prairie by herself in a storm was not a great idea.

Colette really hoped it didn’t come down to that. Maybe the storm would let up in an hour or two, and she would still be able to find a way out of here. Positive thinking— it was what her sister kept repeating— some shaman of a natural doctor kept telling Sarah that positive thinking was half the battle. Though Colette didn’t really believe it, she was willing to support Sarah in whatever she needed to make the struggle easier.

“Attention passengers: cancellations are showing up on the schedule for flights that are leaving soon. Please contact a service representative for your airline to receive notifications about your flight.”

There was a communal groan from the crowd, and though her flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for over an hour, Colette had the funny feeling that a major delay, at least, was in the plans. She glanced at the people coming off the flight in the next gate over and wondered where that plane was supposed to be going next.

She sent a quick text to Sarah to let her know that she wouldn’t be arriving on schedule and to call when she was up to it. Next, Colette called the shuttle service she had used to let them know that her flight was likely delayed, but that she would let them know when she had specifics on her return. She looked up as the last of the passengers exited the plane, followed by the pilots.

She glanced back down at her phone, then her brain finally processed what she’d seen, and she looked up again at one of the final passengers.

Oh. My. That was Drew Beck. Her heart sped up while she studied him, not sure if she believed it. He walked in her direction, though his gaze was definitely elsewhere. He was six-foot-one and as lean as she remembered from college, though his face had softened a little. Had it really been more than a decade since she saw him last? His dirty blond hair was spiked up in front, and his brown eyes tracked across the crowd, passing right over her.

A couple seconds clicked by, and then his gaze moved back to focus on her. He stopped in the middle of the walkway, staring at her.

Emotions raced across Drew’s face: surprise, recognition, confusion, and then it was all wiped away as if he had no more feeling for her than anyone else in the room. Their gazes held and people streamed around him.

Unable to let it end there without at least trying to bridge the huge gap she had caused between them in college, Colette lifted a hand and waved.

That seemed to break him from his frozen state, and he walked up to her. “Hi, Colette. I, wow. You’re the last person I expected to see today.”

Ditto, like a hundred times over. “Yeah. Did you hear about the cancellations?” She didn’t know what to say to him, how to act, so she tried treating him like anyone she might have had a glancing acquaintance with in the past— though it had most definitely been more than that.

“Yes, they told us before we even started to get off the plane.”

“I’ve been here about an hour. I have, or rather I had a three-hour layover. It sounds like it’ll be a lot longer.”

He adjusted the gray carry-on over his shoulder. “Uh, yeah. It could be a while.”

Though it felt like her heart might explode from racing so hard, Colette sucked up her insecurities and asked, “So, since we’re going to be here a while, you want to grab some dinner and catch up?” She needed to ease into a discussion about the past, wondering if he regretted the way things had ended between them as much as she did. Not that she could come right out and ask him that, but she wished she could.

He hesitated, then nodded. “Okay, I could eat.” He waited while she slung her purse across her body and grabbed her carry-on’s handle.

They walked across the mosaic tile art, hooking a left at the enormous sculpture of a railroad track, a map of the earth, and some tall blue things— she had no idea what the sculptures were supposed to represent— to the junction where several terminals met.

“Are you heading on a trip or going home?” Colette asked after a strained moment.

“Heading out. My brother, Keith, is getting married.” Drew shifted to his other foot.

“He’s not in Kansas?” His family had lived in the Wichita area practically since the Mayflower landed in America. She’d liked Keith, though he’d been a scrawny high school kid when she’d last seen him.

“No, he and Stacey are in Oregon. I’m supposed to be his best man.”

“Oh no, that’s awful that you’re stuck here. I hope you can get there in time.”

“Yeah.”

After another strained moment, Colette asked another question, hoping he would thaw enough for a real conversation. “Where are you living?”

“Wichita, I’m teaching high school chemistry. How about you?”

Colette had wondered if he had returned there after school, but hadn’t heard. “You won’t believe it, but I’m living in a little town outside Kansas City.” It was worlds away from Milwaukee where she had grown up.

His surprise melted a little more reserve in his eyes and he leaned in. “Really? What brought you to the sunflower state?”

Relieved that the awkwardness was softening, Colette let her shoulders relax. This was still Drew— she may not know him now, but she had known him once, and he didn’t seem that different from before, at least not on the surface. “Two things— first, Sarah, you remember my sister, right?” When Drew nodded that he did, she continued, ”Her husband, Bill, started working there, and I wanted to be close to her; Bill helped me get hired at his company, which is where I still work six years later.”

“Anything I would have heard of?” They stepped off the escalators and entered the food court. The crowds were thick, since no flights were leaving anytime soon. They looked at the selections— pizza, burgers, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants circled the seating area— there was definitely nothing out of the ordinary. “Tacos?” he asked.

“They’re still the best.” She couldn’t help but remember all of the times they had gone on a late taco run to fuel their studying.

“Another thing that hasn’t changed about you,” Drew said while they worked down the line of restaurants.

When they stopped at the end of the line at Taco Bell, Colette asked, “What else do you think hasn’t changed about me?”

His gaze moved over her features. “I swear you don’t look like ten years have passed. Did you time travel or something?”

Colette chuckled, flattered. “You have a faulty memory, but I’ll forgive it this time. You might be surprised at some of the things that have changed about me.”

“Oh, are you married with five kids and vacation every winter in Maui?”

“Maui.” She sighed longingly. “Doesn’t that sound heavenly? But, no. No marriage, no kids, no Maui. Maybe this spring I’ll have to make that one happen, though.” If Sarah responded well to her treatments and was able to travel. Maybe Colette could get tickets for the two of them and Bill to enjoy something beautiful after such a hard, miserable winter.

“I’m surprised you haven’t married. What happened between you and Nick?” Drew looked over her shoulder rather than at her face, as if he didn’t want to see her expression when she responded.

Colette pulled a face, kicking herself for that particular decision for at least the thousandth time. “Nick was the biggest dating mistake I ever made.” She stopped short of admitting that she’d realized too late she’d screwed up choosing him over Drew.

“What happened? You were so in love with him once.” There was more than a hint of bitterness in his voice.

She bit her lip for a moment then squared her shoulders. “Look, could we table all of that for a little while?”

Drew nodded. “Maybe that would be best. I’m not sure it would make a difference to hash it out at this point anyway.”

Colette sighed, searched for the conversational thread before she had derailed it, and grasped onto it again. “I’ve dated several people since, three of them seriously. One actually made it all the way to an engagement, but thankfully I came to my senses before too late. So it’s just me.”

“No dogs or cats or anything?” he asked.

“I used to have guppies. Yeah, I know. Laugh all you like, but they were fun. I travel too much now, though.” She actually missed coming home to her fish at night and the sound of the bubbler filling the air while she drifted off to sleep.

Drew kept grinning. “You travel for work?”

“More than I’d like sometimes.”

They reached the front of the line and each ordered and paid, then slid to the side to wait for their tacos. A few minutes later, Drew found two seats at a bar where they could sit to eat.

“So, what is it you do?” Drew asked when they had each eaten part of their dinner.

“Ah, and this is the part you won’t believe. I’m a trainer. I teach classes on how to use my company’s accounting software.”

The taco he’d been about to bite into hung in the air while he stared. “Wait, like standing up in front of a class and teaching them. As in, public speaking? Mind. Blown.”

Colette laughed. It was almost like old times. She had forgotten how much she loved being in Drew’s company.

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Waypoint Excerpt

Dani loves the life she’s built working at the salon, but she craves the belonging of family. When she and Kyle start to get serious, she thinks the full life she wants is in reach. Even personal tragedy doesn’t completely destroy what they are building together.

Kyle has been estranged from his family for years but when his dad is in a serious accident, Kyle returns to the family boat shop to run things while he recuperates. He soon learns, however, that the accident is just one link is a chain of problems from someone who is determined to destroy everything their family has—including Kyle’s life with Dani.

 

Chapter 1

Dani glanced down the dark street in both directions, her eyes pausing on each face on the San Jose street. Though it was well after sundown, young couples strolled down the littered streets. A boy of about three ran past her, a few feet in front of a tired-looking woman who called for him to come back to her. Hardly anyone entered the old theater that specialized in old movies, but she got in line. Though everything had seemed fine, she couldn’t help glancing back over her shoulder before going inside the run-down building. Empty parking lots and dark streets always freaked her out so she jumped at shadows. She touched her shoulder to make sure the wad of tips she’d stashed in her bra after work was still intact and headed for the concession stand.

Armed with her soda and Raisinets, she turned and headed for the seats. The theater was predictably only half full and smelled of popcorn. Dani looked at the room with its old seats and sticky floors—not at all like the plush, shiny theaters popping up all over the city. But then, she wouldn’t have been able to find a showing of classic 1973 Soylent Green if she’d gone to one of those other theaters.

She found a mostly empty row and slid into a seat near the middle. Dani loved to people watch, and took a good look around her at the other theater patrons. Most of them were old enough to be her parents, but there were a number of hipsters sitting in the corner, sipping coffee and projecting an air of culture and self-importance.

She checked her classic Stuhrling Original women’s watch—which she’d picked up at a jeweler’s liquidation sale for a steal—and noticed there were still a few minutes to go before the opening credits started.

A man with the most impossibly perfect brown hair slid into her row and looked at her. “Are these seats taken?”

When she shook her head, he sat a couple of seats down. She couldn’t help but allow her eyes to linger over the tall, brown-eyed man. He was in his mid-twenties, wore a button-down white shirt like he’d come from a board room—though if he’d been wearing a tie earlier, it had been removed, and the two top shirt buttons were undone. He tossed popcorn kernels into his mouth, and a huge soda and a large box of Raisinets sat beside him. She shifted her own box of Raisinets to the side and took a sip of her diet soda, facing front again. At least he had good taste in movie snacks.

Dani wiggled her feet, enjoying the way they tingled, grateful to be off of them after a ten-hour shift of cutting and coloring hair. Her Doc. Marten ankle boots were insanely comfortable, but her feet could only be expected to take so much abuse.

“Been on your feet long?” the man beside her asked.

She glanced over, a little embarrassed he’d noticed the move. “Yeah. I have one of those jobs.” She flicked her eyes over him. He had a cleft in his chin, something she found strangely appealing, though she’d never felt that way about the feature on other guys. “You look like a salesman or junior executive.”

“Guilty as charged—I’m a salesman.”

“I hate to say this, but you look a tad out of place here.” Despite the wide range of audience members, he stood out in a crowd. But maybe it wasn’t entirely due to his clothing.

His eyebrows lifted. “You’re one to talk.” His eyes skimmed over her, undoubtedly taking in her short, curly blond hair, fresh manicure, and abundant costume jewelry. “I have a hard time believing you went begging for something to do tonight, so you came here out of desperation and loneliness.”

She laughed, despite the fact she usually didn’t speak with strange men when she went to the movies alone. “I had other options; I preferred to come here tonight.”

“What did you tell all the guys who asked you out?” he asked, his manner flirtatious. His voice became high-pitched like he mimicked her, “‘Sorry, Arnold, I’m going to an exclusive showing!’?”

Dani couldn’t help but laugh, even as she shook her head. “It was the girls at work I had to fib to. They think I’m curled up in a pair of sweats with a bowl of ice cream and a sappy old movie like Steel Magnolias.”

“I see. You’re one of those closet geeks. That’s okay, I promise I won’t let your secret out.” He winked.

Dani smiled back at him and was disappointed when the lights went down and the show started. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, but he settled into his seat to watch the movie. As the opening credits rolled, she couldn’t decide if she was more disappointed to have the conversation interrupted, or glad he wasn’t going to presume and move closer.

She turned her attention back to the screen, chiding herself for letting her mind wander, and prepared to be entertained.

Throughout the movie Dani was well aware the man laughed in all the right places—not that the movie was intended to be funny, but they found the same corny lines hilarious.

When the lights rose again, she tucked the half-empty box of Raisinets into her purse and rose, glad she’d come. She hadn’t been in the mood for a chick flick, and this had been both entertaining and intellectually stimulating.

The man stood as well, jamming all of his garbage into the otherwise-empty popcorn bucket. He glanced over at her. “How did you like it?”

“It was great, as always. It’s definitely more impressive on the big screen.”

“Agreed.” He hesitated for a moment. “Look, I never do this—really, I don’t—but would you like to go next door and get some ice cream or a soda or something? Then at least part of what you told your coworkers will be true.”

Normally she would have said no, but he was cute and entirely non-creepy, so she agreed. After all, it was next door—it wasn’t like she’d be getting into a stranger’s car. The street would be full of theater-goers exiting the building.

She followed him outside and they strolled down the sidewalk.

He played with the ripped ticket stub in his hands. “My name is Kade, by the way.”

“Danica, but I go by Dani.”

“I like that. Pretty. It fits you.”

Her smile was her only response to the compliment. “So, Kade, what kind of salesman are you?”

“Boats. I work for Silveridge Boats.” He dipped his hands into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet, extracting a business card.

Dani recognized the manufacturer logo and turned the card to the light to see his full name. “Kade Frame. Why boats?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I grew up in a boat shop and couldn’t quite drag myself away from them, though I admit I preferred selling boats to consumers more than selling them to retailers, which is what I’m doing now.” They reached the diner and he held the door open for her, andthen followed behind. The diner’s décor was decades more recent than the theater’s had been, though the orange tables put it a solid twenty years behind the times. They picked a window booth and a waitress brought them menus.

“I’m going to have a late dinner, I’d be happy to buy if you’d like more than ice cream,” he offered.

“No, a sundae is plenty for me.” She looked at the menu and ordered a hot fudge, with extra fudge. Might as well go for broke as long as she was being bad, she figured.

When the waitress left, Kade turned back to Dani. “So what kind of job keeps you on your feet all day?” He lifted a palm to stop her from answering. “No wait, let me guess.” He put his hand on his chin and pulled a face like he was in deep thought. “High fashion? Retail?”

She laughed. “Nope, I’m a cosmetologist. I do hair all day—and I’m technically self-employed, so I suppose that means I’m a business woman.”

“A point so many people seem to miss.” He unrolled the paper napkin from around his silverware. “Do you ever get sick of hair?”

“Do you ever get sick of boats?” she countered.

A grin flashed across his mouth. “No, but I do get sick of people sometimes.”

Dani laughed. “You don’t know the half of it until you’ve cut hair for a living. It’s a good thing I love what I do, or I’d’ve given up years ago. I have this client who is never happy, no matter what I do, but she refuses to use anyone else.”

“At least you’ve found a productive way to counter that—I mean Soylent Green of course.” His eyes twinkled at her.

“If you’re advocating cannibalism as a way to combat client irritations, I know someone who can help you get through your emotional problems.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever get desperate, but I was referring to watching the show, rather than a means of disposing of the body.”

His food and her ice cream arrived and they dove into a discussion about the movie, dissecting the plot and metaphors. The conversation segued into other movies and how they compared. They both had a soft spot for The Black Hole, which she’d seen at the same theater a few weeks earlier.

By the time he finished his food and she scraped the bottom of her ice cream dish, an hour had passed, and she didn’t want to go anywhere. They lingered over drinks and chatted.

Eventually she checked her watch and sighed. “I’m having a great time, but I ought to get going. I have an early start tomorrow doing hair for a client’s bridal pictures.”

Kade pulled out his wallet and threw some bills on the table, a generous tip, Dani noticed. Too few customers tipped well.

“Let me walk you to your car,” he said as he stood.

“Okay.” After an hour of talking with him, she felt comfortable with him. Dani took her purse and accompanied him out of the restaurant.

“You know, I almost went home tonight, grabbed a soda, and ordered in Chinese to watch a basketball game.” He sent her a sidelong glance. “I’m glad I didn’t.”

“Me too.” She couldn’t help but ask, “So, did you DVR the game?”

“Of course.”

“Who are you rooting for?” she asked, hoping he wasn’t a fan of the wrong side.

“The Kings, who are, unfortunately, not having an amazing season.”

She couldn’t agree more. “The coach needs to bench Shipley. I don’t know how he ever made the NBA.”

His smile grew and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. “You follow basketball, too?”

She shrugged. “It comes in handy to know a little about a lot of subjects.” She shook her head and decided to come clean. No need to hide the truth—he wasn’t Ronnie. “Actually I’ve always loved to watch basketball. The Kings were my dad’s favorite team when I was growing up, so I got plenty of exposure. I still take in a game now and then.”

Dani was surprised to find she wasn’t nervous in his presence, even in the dark parking lot. It had been a while since she had been so trusting of someone she had just met. They arrived at her car and stood staring at each other. There was no reason to linger, but she was reluctant to go. How could she feel so connected to him after such a short period of time? And despite his paying for her ice cream, he hadn’t even tried to hold her hand. Did he like her, or was he glad their time together was over? “I’m glad I met you tonight,” she said.

“Me too.” He set a hand on her side view mirror. “Would you think me pushy if I asked if I could call you sometime?”

Though caution was usually her motto, she agreed. But instead of rattling off her cell number, she produced one of her own business cards. Before he could take it, she pulled it back, a smile teasing her lips. “Wait, are you actually going to call me, or are you one of those guys who likes to collect phone numbers and toy with women’s emotions?”

That brought out another of his deep chuckles. “Don’t worry, you’ll hear from me.” He accepted the card, then stepped back, giving her room to turn and unlock her car door without feeling like he hovered over her shoulder.

She slid inside and locked the door, then rolled the window down a few inches. “I excited for your call.” The move felt so forward and flirty, despite the mildness of her statement that she could feel her heart pounding. Though she had mastered the art of light flirting—it came in handy when she had a guy in her chair at the salon—she rarely dated and normally would never have joined him for a post-movie snack. Something drew her to him, though, and she couldn’t say no.

He smiled and waved as she pulled away. Dani glanced back at him through her rearview mirror before she pulled out of the parking lot. He climbed into a green sedan only a couple of rows over from where she had parked.

That night before she went to bed, hating she had become so jaded, but wanting confirmation anyway, she opened her laptop. A reverse phone lookup on the number on his business card showed it really did go to the company he mentioned. Further search on the company’s website listed Kade’s name as one of the company reps, and even included a picture.

Not that Ronnie had lied about who he was—but her ex-boyfriend had lied about practically everything else, and she wouldn’t be so gullible again.

Secure that Kade was at least not lying about his identity, she prepared for bed.

***

“Thanks Mr. Wheeler, and I hope you enjoy your new rod and reel,” the man said as he waved the customer out the boat shop door. Looking around, he voided the purchase of the three-hundred-dollar deep-sea fishing equipment, and pocketed the cash Mr. Wheeler had paid with.

Jeff came in, his graying hair thinning on top and his eyes tired. “How’s it going? Did he buy the equipment?” He’d walked by when Mr. Wheeler had just arrived, so he’d known what the customer wanted.

“He’s going to think it over. You know he’ll be back though. He always is.” The man grinned at Jeff, hoping he didn’t notice the expensive gear missing for a few days. Jeff wasn’t nearly as detail oriented as he should be, but the clerk wasn’t about to say it. He had a pretty good deal here, and the extra cash came in very handy.

“We’re setting up a new boat in the show room. Come give us a hand.”

“Sure thing, Jeff.” Smiling, he followed him into the back. This was too easy.

***

Kade made himself wait until Monday to call Dani—Danica Andreason, her business card said. She had mentioned her appointment for Saturday morning, but he didn’t want to betray his eagerness to see her again by calling only hours after they met—then kicked himself all day Sunday for waiting. It had been a long time since a woman had intrigued him so much. He took a deep breath to brace himself and finally dialed her salon at eleven. He got a voicemail message stating they were closed on Sunday and Monday. He groaned and wished again that he’d called on Saturday like he’d wanted to do.

On Tuesday, he had better luck.

A perky voice answered, quoting the salon’s name.

“Hi, is Dani available?”

“She’s with a client right now. Do you need an appointment?”

He considered giving an excuse and calling her back later, but didn’t want to have to psych himself up for the call again—especially if she might be busy with another hair cut or something. “No, but could you leave her a message for me?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

He left his name and cell phone number, then hung up and tried to focus on his work while he waited. Despite his excitement about the newest boat specs, which had just come across his desk, focusing wasn’t easy.

He must have checked the clock every five minutes for the next two hours. Finally his phone rang with the salon’s number on it. “Hello?”

“Kade, it’s Dani. You called?”

“Yes. I hope you had a good weekend.” Lame, can’t you do better than that?

“I did. I caught up on all of those things around the house that never seem to get done.”

“Me too.” He leaned back in his chair and tapped a pen on the top of his desk, nerves shooting through him. “Hey, I wondered if you’d like to get some dinner tonight. Maybe we could swing by a Chinese place I know. Talk movies or something.” Idiot, she’s going to think it’s all you care about.

She paused for a moment and he wondered if he had totally misread her before. When she spoke, though, her voice was enthusiastic. “Sounds great, but I get out of here late tonight. It would be at least seven-thirty. Is that okay? I could meet you there.”

Relief poured through him—she hadn’t decided he was a dork. The fact that she’d returned his call hadn’t been enough reassurance. “Sure.” He rattled off the address. “I guess I’ll see you then.”

“See you.”

He hung up after he heard the click on her side of the line, grinned, then tried to settle down to work.

***

On their second date the moon shimmered through the telescope lens, taking on a mystical quality no photograph had ever managed to portray. Dani had never seen anything so beautiful and had to catch her breath in wonder.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Kade asked. “Doesn’t it make you think of Neil Armstrong and the moon landing? That must have been the most incredible day.”

“This is insane.” Dani kneeled back on her heels to look at him beside her, his features softened by the night. “You keep surprising me with new sides of yourself.” It was their second date, if you didn’t count when they met at the movie, which Dani didn’t, so she knew there was still plenty to learn about him.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to become too predictable.” He leaned toward her, his eyes intent on hers. “Where would be the fun in that?” His fingers lifted to brush lightly along her cheekbone as the crickets chirped in the background.

Why was she so drawn to this man? Her lips curved as she lifted her mouth to his and spoke in a whisper. “Oh, I think there’s an argument in favor of predictability too. Like right now.” They hovered there for several seconds before she closed the gap the rest of the way, pressing her lips to his, unable to stand the sweet tension rising between them. His mouth was soft and warm and so, so gentle. Unlike so many who rushed to take, to devour, his touch was teasing, sweet and giving. When his hand slid to her shoulder, drawing her closer, she was happy to comply.

They lingered over the kiss for a long, long moment, and when they pulled back, she hummed. “Mmm, nice.” It had been so long since she’d had anyone she wanted to kiss—none of the few men she’d been out with over the past year had even tempted her.

“I’m not being too forward for you?” he asked as his hand caressed her shoulder.

She’d never had any guy ask her something like that before—not for a simple…okay, not-so-simple kiss. “I don’t know. We might have to try it again so I can make up my mind.”

“If you need some convincing.” His lips curved as they met hers again.

Better and better, she thought as she wound her arms around his neck. Though a tiny voice hidden in the back corner of her mind cautioned her to be careful, go slow, she was able to ignore it. She hadn’t seen any of the warning signs so far.

When he moved away, it was with a murmured, “I was dying to kiss you the night we met.”

She smiled. “Yeah? You didn’t act like it.”

“You were a little skittish. I thought I was better off convincing you to go out with me first.”

“Good call.” Dani swallowed back the emotions rising inside her. She’d never felt so connected to a guy so fast before, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do about it now. Deciding she needed time to think it over before they took even one more step down the road they were on, she turned back to the telescope. “Have you ever used a bigger scope?”

“I have one at home strong enough to see the rings of Jupiter. Sometime we’ll have to head further out of the city, or I’ll borrow a boat and we can go out on the water where we don’t have so much light pollution. You won’t believe it.” He checked his watch, pushing a button to make the face light up. “We have a while before the Leonid meteor shower really gets going; let me show you some other things.” He started adjusting the telescope and she shifted out of the way.

“How did you get into astronomy?” Dani wanted to know what made Kade tick, how he was formed, what he thought about things. Maybe then she would dare trust him as much as her heart wanted her to.

He took a moment to answer. “When I was a kid my dad took me to a planetarium and we looked through one of those huge telescopes, the kind that can see Mercury like it’s across the room. It was so cool. I started talking about becoming an astronaut.”

She could imagine his youthful enthusiasm because he still had so much of it. “And yet you sell boats?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, it wasn’t long before I decided space flight wasn’t a great option. I actually get motion sick on planes, so living on a rocket or space station is definitely not in the cards for me. Besides, I’m too tall.”

“But you still keep up the hobby. Is this your telescope, or did you inherit it from your dad when you moved out on your own?”

“No, it’s mine.” His voice was a bit low and hard to hear. A moment later he moved away and gestured for her to look in the lens. “Check it out, it’s Pisces constellation.”

She put a hand on the eyepiece, but kept her gaze on Kade. Something wasn’t right here, and she had to understand it before she could really trust him. “Tell me about your family. I think we’ve talked about everything else out there. Do you and your dad still go star gazing together sometimes?”

He avoided meeting her eye, looking instead at the grass, and a nearby tree. “No. We haven’t done it in years. I don’t know if he even has the equipment anymore.” He brushed at his jeans, as if he’d gotten something on them.

He doesn’t know? What happened between them? She wanted to push harder, but since it seemed to be a sore spot, she turned the focus. “What does he do for a living? What about your mom? Do you have a brother or sister?”

“A brother. Jason’s in college and works in my dad’s boat shop. Mom’s always stayed at home. She loved to bake and was involved with some organizations around the neighborhood when I grew up. I swear she knew everyone and was always taking people goodies and staying to chat when they were having a rough time. She always had a smile for everyone and never complained about anything, no matter how rough things got.” Both laughter and tears filled his voice, making it husky.

“You’re talking about her like she’s gone.” An ache for her own loss rose in Dani’s chest. “Did she die?”

His head shook for a moment before he spoke aloud. “No. She’s still around. Doing well, from what I hear.” He picked a handful of grass from the ground beside them and threw it into the cool November breeze. “We’re not really in touch much anymore.”

When she saw the hurt on his face she lifted a hand to his cheek. She knew that ache. “I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?” She doubted he would, but she was dying to know what happened. It was too soon to push for answers though. They didn’t know each other well enough.

“Not tonight. Some other time.” He grabbed her hand and turned his face so he could brush a kiss on her palm. “Tell me about your family.”

“It’s just me and my older brother, and he lives in Oregon.” She tried to keep her voice light and even, but his emotions had touched off hers and she struggled to stay calm. “My dad died in an accident when I was seven. Mom never remarried. She said she’d never meet another man like him.” She shrugged as she held back her own longing for a love that strong. “She died of cancer when I was nineteen.” Dani had been enrolled in cosmetology school when her mom’s diagnosis came back: an inoperable brain tumor. Dani had postponed school and stayed to help out. She never regretted it—it was the best and worst time of her life. “She had treatments, but nothing helped. She only lived another six months.”

Dani thought of her brother Trent’s trial less than a year later, of how lonely she’d been since his incarceration, and felt her heart weep. She wasn’t ready to tell Kade about it, though.

“I’m sorry, honey.” He brushed away the tear on her cheek.

“I’d give anything to have either of my parents back.” She tried not to push him about what had happened with his family, but she couldn’t help but wonder how he could be happy knowing they were around, but not being in touch with them.

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Homecoming excerpt

Alana loves her job as the reporter for the local newspaper and she’s made a life for herself despite big odds. The last thing she expects when she walks into the newspaper office one rainy afternoon is to find her nomadic ex-boyfriend Kyle in the head photographer’s chair. 

Kyle has never forgotten the girl he left behind when he started working as a freelance photographer. Now he is ready to settle down and reconnect with his family—and to see if there’s still a spark between him and Alana. He’s not prepared for the secret she’s been hiding from him all these years.

This book was previously released under the name Heather Justesen.

 

Chapter One

A bomb burst nearby, churning dust into the air and Bo turned, hearing the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun on his left. He lifted the sniper rifle to his shoulder and sited down it to the group of people below. He could smell the dust and fear of Afghanistan, feel the pressure on his lungs as he searched the scope for his target, the tension rising with the screams around him. As he found the general, he smiled, adjusted to compensate for the breeze and distance, and pulled the trigger.

When the general was hit by the bullet a couple of seconds later, he twisted and suddenly turned into Tosca. She landed flat on her back, eyes rolling back in her head as blood poured from several locations despite the fact that she had been hit by a single bullet.

Bo popped into a sitting position in bed and blinked in the darkness, his breathing heavy, his heart racing, and blood pounding. His hands were clenched and aching.

“Honey, it was just a dream.” Tosca’s hand touched his upper arm, light and reassuring. “It’s okay. It was just a dream.”

He blinked a few times, still hearing the screaming in his head, the dread and terror of having shot her. He turned and pulled her into his arms, needing the reassurance of her touch, the smell of her skin, the sound of her voice in his ear.

Tosca happily obliged, holding him as well and speaking soothing words in her sweet Southern drawl while he came back down to earth again. A part of him felt weak and foolish for needing her reassurance, but the other part of him was just glad to have her there.

“Feeling better?” she asked after several minutes had passed. “You were yelling just before you woke up. It must have been bad.”

He had incorporated her into his combat dreams before, but he had never been the one to hurt her until now. Bo knew it wasn’t real, that it was some twisted manifestation of his worry, but he couldn’t help it.

“It wasn’t a picnic. Sorry for waking you. I know you have work today.” He pulled back, pressing her strawberry blond hair back from her face. It was short, almost a pixie cut, and in need of coloring again soon. “I seem to be making a habit of waking you up at night.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m happy to wake up for you anytime.” She reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. The light created odd shadows on her face, but clearly illuminated her worried expression. “You’re having more trouble sleeping than you used to, aren’t you?”

That depended on how you looked at it. Yes, it was worse than when they were first married and moved to Montana under their pseudonyms, but not more than when he first returned to Colorado from serving in Afghanistan.

“I’ve had worse. It’ll be okay, I just need to work on some of those techniques the therapist taught me back home.” He didn’t mention that he was practicing them sometimes when he got time alone. They didn’t seem to be helping.

Bo kissed Tosca gently, then glanced at the clock. It was nearly four, and he had to be out and ready to start milking at five anyway.

“I might as well get moving. You try to get some sleep. You’ve got a few hours before you need to get up.”

“You’re sure?” She touched his cheek, her soft, small hands caressing his skin.

“Of course, honey. I’ll see you when you get off work. I love you.” He made a point of using an endearment rather than the new name the feds had given her. He still thought of her as Tosca and probably always would, but he lived in fear of using the wrong name in front of the wrong person.

“Love you too.” She lay back in bed and reached over to turn off the lamp.

Bo, now known as Adam Beckstead, slid out of bed and took his cell phone off the charger. He was no stranger to sleepless nights.

They had been in Summerville, Montana since leaving Colorado in late July. It was now mid October and the court case for Charles was coming up the following month. As the date for the case approached, Bo found himself growing more and more anxious, concerned about his wife’s safety and the experience she would have when she got on the witness stand and had to testify about seeing the murder.

He stepped into the little cottage’s bathroom and turned the water on hot, then stripped from the T-shirt and pajamas he’d worn to bed the previous night. Margot/Tosca/Sarah—Bo’s wife in all of her various names—had been put into witness protection nearly a year earlier when she saw her boyfriend, Charles, kill a man, and learned he was involved in organized crime. She had moved to Bo’s hometown of Juniper Ridge soon after. They met and fell in love there—and Charles found her. She and Bo had moved again, marrying and taking on new identities—that of Adam and Sarah Beckstead, who had been married three years and hailed from Arizona and Alabama.

As Bo climbed under the water, letting it run over his head and down his back, he tried not to think about everything he left behind in Colorado. He didn’t regret choosing to marry Tosca and move away with her, regardless of her changed name and background, even if he deeply missed his own family and the farm on which he’d grown up.

The nightmares weren’t helping at all. If they could just get through the court case and return to Montana unscathed, he knew things would settle down and the rampant PTSD he was dealing with would get better. It certainly couldn’t get much worse. He finished his shower and got dressed for the day. The milking would wait for no man.

Tosca lay in bed, listening to the water run in the next room. Bo never talked about his nightmares, or what he saw in them. She thought they had worked through the worst of his issues before they move to Montana, but the past few weeks proved otherwise. The occasional nightmare had turned into nearly one per night. He was growing more withdrawn and holding back pieces of himself from her, even when she prodded him to share.

He was as sweet and helpful around their tiny little cottage as ever, but there was a piece of him that used to be in their relationship that he was holding back now.

She turned over in bed and wiped at the tear on her cheek. Had she done this to him? Had following her to this new place damaged him in ways they hadn’t been able to anticipate? Did he regret the decision?

She didn’t know, and she didn’t dare ask. If he said yes, would she be able to handle it?

At first the move had seemed fine. They were so in love, so happy, and they liked their jobs, the new town, and the people they met. But she couldn’t help her growing worry as the court date approached, and his worsening nightmares weren’t helping her stress level.

She hoped and prayed that things would calm down when Charles was in prison once and for all. Even though they wouldn’t be able to come out of hiding and resume their old lives, at least the pressure would be released.

The water turned off and she closed her eyes. She didn’t want him to know she was still awake or he would worry. And he didn’t need one more thing to worry about.

She put her hand over her stomach. It had been well over a month since she’d had her cycle. Was it stress or was she pregnant? She didn’t know, and didn’t have the courage to find out—not yet. If she was, what would Bo think? Would he feel even more trapped than he already seemed to feel? Or would he be excited? They’d talked about kids, hoped to start a family, but hadn’t intended to do so quite yet. Was it too soon?

She thought of the new life that could be growing in her womb and hoped everything would work out, somehow.

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Safe Haven

When the US Marshal’s office sends the newly married Bo and Tosca Carver into hiding in a little Montana town, they settle in for a safe, quiet life while they prepare for the court case against Tosca’s former boyfriend. But Charles wants her dead before she can testify, and he’s once again found her safe haven.

Thanks to an old army buddy, Bo thinks he’s found a new place to lie low, but can they really hide from the man who has already been able to track her down twice?

 

One

A bomb burst nearby, churning dust into the air and Bo turned, hearing the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun on his left. He lifted the sniper rifle to his shoulder and sited down it to the group of people below. He could smell the dust and fear of Afghanistan, feel the pressure on his lungs as he searched the scope for his target, the tension rising with the screams around him. As he found the general, he smiled, adjusted to compensate for the breeze and distance, and pulled the trigger.

When the general was hit by the bullet a couple of seconds later, he twisted and suddenly turned into Tosca. She landed flat on her back, eyes rolling back in her head as blood poured from several locations despite the fact that she had been hit by a single bullet.

Bo popped into a sitting position in bed and blinked in the darkness, his breathing heavy, his heart racing, and blood pounding. His hands were clenched and aching.

“Honey, it was just a dream.” Tosca’s hand touched his upper arm, light and reassuring. “It’s okay. It was just a dream.”

He blinked a few times, still hearing the screaming in his head, the dread and terror of having shot her. He turned and pulled her into his arms, needing the reassurance of her touch, the smell of her skin, the sound of her voice in his ear.

Tosca happily obliged, holding him as well and speaking soothing words in her sweet Southern drawl while he came back down to earth again. A part of him felt weak and foolish for needing her reassurance, but the other part of him was just glad to have her there.

“Feeling better?” she asked after several minutes had passed. “You were yelling just before you woke up. It must have been bad.”

He had incorporated her into his combat dreams before, but he had never been the one to hurt her until now. Bo knew it wasn’t real, that it was some twisted manifestation of his worry, but he couldn’t help it.

“It wasn’t a picnic. Sorry for waking you. I know you have work today.” He pulled back, pressing her strawberry blond hair back from her face. It was short, almost a pixie cut, and in need of coloring again soon. “I seem to be making a habit of waking you up at night.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m happy to wake up for you anytime.” She reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. The light created odd shadows on her face, but clearly illuminated her worried expression. “You’re having more trouble sleeping than you used to, aren’t you?”

That depended on how you looked at it. Yes, it was worse than when they were first married and moved to Montana under their pseudonyms, but not more than when he first returned to Colorado from serving in Afghanistan.

“I’ve had worse. It’ll be okay, I just need to work on some of those techniques the therapist taught me back home.” He didn’t mention that he was practicing them sometimes when he got time alone. They didn’t seem to be helping.

Bo kissed Tosca gently, then glanced at the clock. It was nearly four, and he had to be out and ready to start milking at five anyway.

“I might as well get moving. You try to get some sleep. You’ve got a few hours before you need to get up.”

“You’re sure?” She touched his cheek, her soft, small hands caressing his skin.

“Of course, honey. I’ll see you when you get off work. I love you.” He made a point of using an endearment rather than the new name the feds had given her. He still thought of her as Tosca and probably always would, but he lived in fear of using the wrong name in front of the wrong person.

“Love you too.” She lay back in bed and reached over to turn off the lamp.

Bo, now known as Adam Beckstead, slid out of bed and took his cell phone off the charger. He was no stranger to sleepless nights.

They had been in Summerville, Montana since leaving Colorado in late July. It was now mid October and the court case for Charles was coming up the following month. As the date for the case approached, Bo found himself growing more and more anxious, concerned about his wife’s safety and the experience she would have when she got on the witness stand and had to testify about seeing the murder.

He stepped into the little cottage’s bathroom and turned the water on hot, then stripped from the T-shirt and pajamas he’d worn to bed the previous night. Margot/Tosca/Sarah—Bo’s wife in all of her various names—had been put into witness protection nearly a year earlier when she saw her boyfriend, Charles, kill a man, and learned he was involved in organized crime. She had moved to Bo’s hometown of Juniper Ridge soon after. They met and fell in love there—and Charles found her. She and Bo had moved again, marrying and taking on new identities—that of Adam and Sarah Beckstead, who had been married three years and hailed from Arizona and Alabama.

As Bo climbed under the water, letting it run over his head and down his back, he tried not to think about everything he left behind in Colorado. He didn’t regret choosing to marry Tosca and move away with her, regardless of her changed name and background, even if he deeply missed his own family and the farm on which he’d grown up.

The nightmares weren’t helping at all. If they could just get through the court case and return to Montana unscathed, he knew things would settle down and the rampant PTSD he was dealing with would get better. It certainly couldn’t get much worse. He finished his shower and got dressed for the day. The milking would wait for no man.

Tosca lay in bed, listening to the water run in the next room. Bo never talked about his nightmares, or what he saw in them. She thought they had worked through the worst of his issues before they move to Montana, but the past few weeks proved otherwise. The occasional nightmare had turned into nearly one per night. He was growing more withdrawn and holding back pieces of himself from her, even when she prodded him to share.

He was as sweet and helpful around their tiny little cottage as ever, but there was a piece of him that used to be in their relationship that he was holding back now.

She turned over in bed and wiped at the tear on her cheek. Had she done this to him? Had following her to this new place damaged him in ways they hadn’t been able to anticipate? Did he regret the decision?

She didn’t know, and she didn’t dare ask. If he said yes, would she be able to handle it?

At first the move had seemed fine. They were so in love, so happy, and they liked their jobs, the new town, and the people they met. But she couldn’t help her growing worry as the court date approached, and his worsening nightmares weren’t helping her stress level.

She hoped and prayed that things would calm down when Charles was in prison once and for all. Even though they wouldn’t be able to come out of hiding and resume their old lives, at least the pressure would be released.

The water turned off and she closed her eyes. She didn’t want him to know she was still awake or he would worry. And he didn’t need one more thing to worry about.

She put her hand over her stomach. It had been well over a month since she’d had her cycle. Was it stress or was she pregnant? She didn’t know, and didn’t have the courage to find out—not yet. If she was, what would Bo think? Would he feel even more trapped than he already seemed to feel? Or would he be excited? They’d talked about kids, hoped to start a family, but hadn’t intended to do so quite yet. Was it too soon?

She thought of the new life that could be growing in her womb and hoped everything would work out, somehow.

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Identity

Robert (Bo) Carver is happy to be home from his final deployment in Afghanistan, especially since it means taking over the family ranch that he’s always loved. When he meets the cute new nurse at the medical clinic downtown, he thinks there’s a chance he can have everything he’s ever wanted. Tosca Michaels, on the other hand, isn’t looking for a new relationship—she’s just happy to have survived the last one—but there’s something about this cowboy she can’t quite ignore.

Meanwhile Bo’s twin Hank struggles to ignore his attraction to the new director of the Juniper Ridge Ambulance. Joquell Westbury may be beautiful and competent, but she bought his dream home out from under him. Despite Hank’s determination to dislike her, the more he gets to know her, the harder it is to hold onto his anger in the face of his growing attraction. As much as he’d like to make things work, he doesn’t see how this country boy and trust-fund girl can make things work.

 

One

“Will you miss me?” Margot Eggen leaned in for one more kiss goodbye from her boyfriend Charles. They stood just inside the door of his Atlanta mansion.

“Every minute. I’ll come back sooner if I can, but it’s only a week, sweetheart.” He slid his strong hands up her arms and pressed his lips to hers. “I’d rather focus on you, but sometimes business has to come first.” A noise echoed from the other entrance to his home and he smiled wryly. “Speaking of.”

With a sigh, Margot shifted back and picked up her purse, which had fallen sideways beside the little table next to his door. Her keys had fallen out and were half-hidden by the elegant cloth on the table. She scooped them up. “Call me.”

“Every day—probably more than once a day. We’ll have a terrific Christmas together when I get back.”  He held the door for her, then followed her out to her car, pressing one last kiss on her before helping her into the beat up Toyota she’d bought when she turned sixteen.

Margot started the car, blew him a kiss, and wondered how she had gotten so lucky. She had only known Charles for a month but things between them had been going so well. Better than she ever expected. The man was perfect: tall, dark, and handsome to the nth degree, and he didn’t mind that she didn’t have an impressive pedigree or a fancy education. Not that she’d told him everything about her past, but she was starting to think he wouldn’t walk away from her when she came clean.

Sure, she liked that he had money, but that wasn’t nearly as important as the way he made her feel, the sweet way he always saw to her comfort.

Wanting to plug her phone into the stereo, she reached into her bag, but didn’t find the cell. She stopped at the end of the driveway to check in her purse. It wasn’t there. “This is the last thing I need today,” she muttered.

She couldn’t go anywhere without her phone. She was on call at the twenty-four-hour clinic where she worked.

Thinking it would give her an excuse to steal another kiss from Charles, Margot backed up the drive and hopped out when she pulled beside the door. She expected to have to knock at the door to have him unlock it, but when she nudged the handle, the door swung open. It hadn’t been shut tight.

Margot lifted the tablecloth and found her cell phone sitting under it. She scooped it up and heard voices coming from down the hall. She moved further into the house and heard Charles..

“You think you can just walk away, Carter? You think I’d let you do that?”

Margot stopped before entering the room, peeking her head around the doorway. There was a plant on a buffet against the wall between her and the two men, but she could see through the fronds.

Charles stood facing a shorter man with thinning dark hair. Light glinted off of the black metal barrel of a gun as Charles waved it toward the man. A silencer was attached to the weapon.

“But, Charlie, you don’t understand,” Carter said.

“I think I do. Come on, let’s take a walk.”

Margot backed toward the outside door, suddenly worried. Charles had never done or said anything that made her nervous before. He’d always been a perfect gentleman. She nearly tripped over the table by the exit and caught a pen before it rolled off the top and fell onto the hard tiles. She rushed to her car, wanting to get away. How could she have been dating someone who threatened another person with a gun?

She slid into her car as she saw Charles push the other man out through the sliding glass doors that led to the garage. Carter turned, though whether to fight or to speak, it wasn’t clear.

Charles didn’t give him a chance to say a word, however. The gun went off and, despite the silencer, the noise was loud in the dark quiet.

Carter slumped to the ground and Charles snorted in disgust. He muttered something Margot couldn’t hear and turned away, pulling out his cell phone and heading toward his house again.

Shaking, Margot set her car in neutral so it would coast down the driveway. The movement of her car, or maybe the sound of tires on pavement must have alerted him to her presence, however, because he looked up, surprise on his face. Margot cranked her key in the ignition and pushed on the gas, even as she heard him calling out her name.

Her back window shattered, and she ducked as the glass sprayed her from behind. A hole appeared in the front windshield under the left side of her rearview mirror. Margot’s heart hammered, and she thought she might hyperventilate. She turned onto the street, taking the corner much faster than normal. Trees and bushes obscured her from view and she headed for the main road, trying to figure out where to go. He knew where she lived, so her apartment wouldn’t be safe.

As she pulled out of the neighborhood, she saw Charles’ red Lamborghini leaving his driveway and speeding in her direction.

She drove for several miles, aimlessly dodging down random streets, grateful when she lost Charles after several turns. Her cell phone rang repeatedly. All Charles. Suddenly she remembered something she’d heard about cell phones being traceable by GPS. It made her feel paranoid and stupid, but she gave into the fear and turned the phone off.

Her whole body shook, and she wept as she remembered the cold, merciless expression on Charles’ face when he’d shot Carter. How had she thought she was falling in love with him? Why did she always pick guys who shouldn’t be trusted? Was Carter dead? She didn’t know, but she couldn’t take any chances.

When she’d been driving over half an hour and could finally think beyond her own immediate safety, she realized she should have called the police, had someone check to see if the little man was still alive. By now, though, Charles would surely have had someone take care of him—one way or the other.

She pulled into a truck stop and got a cup of coffee at around two a.m. Hunched over in a booth listening to a bunch of truckers complain about the cost of fuel and engine repairs, she finally felt her brain click back into place.

She had to call the cops. She had to report what she’d seen.

Her hands still shook when she reached into her bag to pull out her cell phone. She turned it on, then dialled 911.

***

Ten weeks later

Margot had no idea what the powers that be thought they were doing sending her to the Rocky Mountains. Granted, Atlanta wasn’t exactly the tropics, but the little resort town the US Marshal drove her into was several feet deep in snow—and so small! The closest hospital was down the mountain twenty miles, and the clinic where she would be working only had two doctors.

Imagining the snow bunnies with elevation sickness didn’t help her feel better about abandoning the inner-city clinic filled with people who didn’t have anywhere else to turn for care. But staying alive was kind of high on her priority list, so Atlanta hadn’t been an option.

US Marshal John Sandoval had filled her in on the town’s attractions: a ski resort, mountain biking and golfing in the summer, plenty of hiking, and a five-star resort hotel with spa were high on the list. He’d been a little spare on the fact that there wasn’t even a Walmart within thirty minutes, or that there was only one regular grocery store and an organic food market open five days a week.

Lovely.

The four-plex they pulled up in front of was brown brick, old, but seemed decently maintained. It was hard to tell through the piles of snow in the yard.

In the weeks since she first called the police, who turned the case over to the FBI, she had been stuck in a safe house in South Carolina. It had taken them longer than she expected to create her new identity. Then they butchered her hair into one of those short, devil-may-care styles and lightened it from dark brown to strawberry blonde. With the use of daily toner and more makeup than she’d ever owned before, she hardly recognized herself anymore. Margot—whose name was now Tosca Michaels—was starting over as a whole new person. Too bad she wasn’t ready to leave her old self behind.

She got out of her new-to-her car and followed John to the front door. He pulled out a key and showed her into the apartment.

It was empty.

She had always lived in furnished apartments and had expected this to be the same. “Where’s the furniture?” The question was more than a little horrified. All she had was a couple suitcases of clothes. How did they expect her to fill the place with no money? And they were how many miles from real shopping, never mind a furniture store.

“You’ve been given a furniture stipend. It’s generous for an apartment this size,” John told her. He handed over an envelope and she rifled through it, noticing a large assortment of hundreds, fifties, and twenties.

The basement apartment was tiny: one bedroom, itty-bitty bath, living room, and combined kitchen/dining room. Of course, she didn’t need much since she didn’t get to bring any of her belongings—what was left after Charles’ goons had trashed her place was now in storage. And she’d never lived anywhere someone would refer to as lavish.

The apartment may have been small, but once inside, she could tell the place was well maintained. She smelled paint and a hint of pine cleaner. The counter-tops were a little worn, but they were scrubbed clean and the stove and refrigerator looked fairly new and sparkled inside.

Tosca looked out the window at the sound of a truck engine pulling up out front. A dark-haired man buried in a brown coat got out of a large, white truck. She hadn’t met the man who was supposed to keep an eye on her, now that she was in the middle of nowhere, but she wondered if that was him. John was posing as her brother, helping her move her things in, and would only stay until that evening before he left to catch his flight back to Georgia. A member of the sheriff’s department lived next door to protect her for the foreseeable future. She wasn’t sure if that made her feel safer or not.

“Please tell me he’s the one,” she said to John as the tall, good-looking man approached the stairs. He practically oozed strength and self-confidence.

John looked out the window and shrugged. “That’s not our guy. Must be a neighbor.”

If all her neighbors looked like that, Tosca thought things might be looking up. Then she shook her head. Trusting a man was what had gotten her in this position to begin with. And her previous boyfriends hadn’t been much better. Maybe she ought to take a sabbatical from dating for a few months—at least until she figured out who she was supposed to be and got comfortable enough with her fabricated background that she wouldn’t slip up.

They brought in the last of her bags, and as Tosca dumped her things in the echoing bedroom, she wondered why they hadn’t brought any furniture with them. “Where am I supposed to find a bed and table? You can’t tell me this po-dunk town has a Bassett Furniture.”

“You couldn’t afford Bassett; not on what you make,” John said. “Don’t worry, Trent promised there was a place in town where you can get some nice stuff, used but in good condition.” Trent was the ex-FBI agent turned sheriff’s deputy who would be keeping an eye on her. “He said he’d meet us at six. You want to grab some lunch and take a look around town?”

She glanced at her watch. It was only one o’clock. “Might as well; I’m starving. Do they have a pizza place?”

They climbed into the car and he directed her a couple of blocks down Main Street. The pizza restaurant was nearly empty—a depressing fact even if it was the middle of the week. If this was her future, she wasn’t sure she wanted it.

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Second Chances excerpt

Karissa thought she knew exactly how her life was going to be, but when her marriage goes down in flames, she has to move home to the family ranch with her young son and start over again.

Marshal Wilmore has had a crush on Karissa since they were teenagers. The timing never seemed to work out for them before. Now that she’s home, he hopes she’ll see him through new eyes. When several members of the high school basketball team he coaches are caught in a doping scandal, he job is and reputation are on the line. Can he still convince her that he’s worthy of her trust?

 

One

Karissa glanced out the window of her little apartment again and wondered what was keeping her brother and father.  The morning was growing old, and she knew it would be late by the time they got everything loaded and reached home.

A U-Haul truck came into view and the driver honked the horn, announcing his arrival. Must be Hank. Dad would never be so obnoxious. “It’s about time.” She felt bad as soon as the words escaped her lips. She’d barely slept the night before, staying up until four a.m. to pack the rest of her things, and was a little on edge. She reminded herself to be sweet and grateful that her father and brother were taking the day to help her—doing this alone would have been impossible.

Her son, Paul, raced past her, jetting a spaceship through the air, pushing the button that made the battery-operated engine sounds blare. She grimaced and held herself back so she didn’t snap at him. She was definitely sending the toy with him to his dad’s and she hoped they left it there. Dennis had bought it for their son, after all. He should have to deal with the noise.

Karissa hurried to let her father and brother in, and opened the front door to see Marshal Willmore getting out of the moving van. The surprise hit her like a shockwave.  What was he doing here?

Hank’s white 4×4 pulled up right behind the moving van and she could see her brother behind the wheel, but not her dad. She forced herself to smile and wave like she wasn’t bothered by the image of Marsh, loping toward her in a T-shirt and blue jeans, the fabric stretched over his trim, but nicely muscled frame.

Hank joined him on the sidewalk and they approached side-by-side. He enveloped her in a tight hug, easing her stress and fears slightly.

“Hi, it’s good to see you,” she said to her brother, then glanced toward Marsh. “You came to help. Where’s Dad?” She tried to sound upbeat and unbothered by the appearance of the guy who had teased and tormented her alongside her brothers while she was growing up.

Marsh’s smile was easy and confident. “Your mom wasn’t feeling great, so I offered to come so he could stay with her. I’m practically one of the family, anyway.”

Hank snorted. “Yeah, you two are just like brother and sister.”

Marsh shot Hank a dirty look.

“How’s the packing?” Hank asked, as if to shift the discussion, though a smile lingered on his lips.

“Great, almost done. I hope you brought a few tools with you; we still have to tear down the beds.” She left off the fact that her soon-to-be ex-husband didn’t know a hammer from a screwdriver, but felt that, as the man, the tools should go to him in the divorce. And he wasn’t shy about taking what he thought should be his.

“What? You think I’d go anywhere without my stash?” Hank asked. “They’re in the truck, of course.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the parking lot.

Paul came out of the apartment and threw himself into his uncle’s arms, but Karissa quickly ushered everyone inside. It was after eleven and she knew Hank would want to help milk the cows that evening. “There’s not too much to move, I hope,” she said. “We should easily be able to squeeze it all in the two trucks and my car.”

Marsh walked down the hall, peeking into each room as he passed it, then returned to the living room. “You’re not kidding. I’m surprised he left you the beds.” The irritation in his voice exactly mirrored her own frustration.

Karissa pressed her lips together and turned to the kitchen. Discussing the fact that Dennis had snuck in while she was at work and helped himself to the table and chairs, sofa set, television and entertainment center, half the dishes—including a few heirloom pieces she’d inherited from her grandmother—and all of the movies wasn’t going to soften the antagonism in Marsh’s voice.

The sound of tires on pavement drew Karissa’s eyes back to the parking lot and she frowned at the sight of Dennis’s car. He was early. Not that she was complaining.

“I think I’m going to have a chat with him,” Hank said, setting Paul on the floor.

“No, you won’t. You know you’ll just make the situation worse.” She put a hand on his chest and was glad when he stopped, though he could easily have gotten around her. “He’s here to pick up Paul for his weekend visit, and he’s done me a favor by coming hours early. Be civil.” She would say to be nice, but didn’t think that word would be in his vocabulary at the moment.

Karissa grabbed the backpack of Paul’s weekend belongings and told Paul to give his uncle a hug goodbye, then went out to meet Dennis.

His mouth was set in a grim line as he eyed the trucks. “I can’t believe you’re taking my son so far away,” he complained as soon as she was close enough to hear.

They’d had this discussion before, so she didn’t respond to his complaint. “You’ll bring him home Sunday night?”

“Yes. And you’ll bring him back out to me for my next visit.” It was more of a reminder than anything, as if her move was designed to deprive him of his son instead of her admitting that she needed a little help from her family. Her work hours as an emergency dispatcher were too irregular to depend on child care. Dennis’ eyes flicked to the apartment.

Karissa glanced behind her and saw Hank standing in the doorway, deep scowl lines between his eyes. She could keep him from talking to Dennis, but she supposed keeping him from shooting intimidating glances was too much to ask. She returned her gaze to Dennis. “Bring him to me before eight so I can get him in bed. He has school starting Monday morning.” And she had a new job.

“Yeah.” His face turned to smiles as the sound of Paul’s feet pounded down the walk toward them.

“Daddy!” Paul launched himself into Dennis’s arms and was cradled close.

This man may have torn her world in two when he announced he had gotten another woman pregnant and was choosing her over his wife, but there was no doubt that he adored his son. Karissa tried to just be glad that he still cared about Paul, even if he’d stopped loving her.

“Did you bring back the dishes?” she asked him.

“You’ll get them when the divorce finalizes,” he said, coolly.

“Right.” Stubborn jerk. She gave her son a hug and kiss goodbye and said she’d see him in a few days, then turned back to the apartment, fighting to keep the sadness, anger, and exhaustion under wraps.

Marsh came out of the apartment, heading for her as Dennis led Paul away. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Though she wasn’t. She sucked in a cleansing breath, fighting for self-control. “I said not to come out.”

“Settle down, Kar. I’m just grabbing some tools to take apart those beds.” He gave her shoulder a quick squeeze as he passed.

She gritted her teeth and wished he had never come. It was bad enough having Hank see her like this without dealing with Marsh as well. She forced a smile as she walked back into her echoing apartment.

If she could just hold on for a few more hours, she’d be alone and on the road home again.

Home, that elusive place she’d been trying to create for herself and Dennis, and had failed utterly.

***

They stopped to gas up at a convenience store down the street, and Marsh watched every move Karissa made. She was unhappy. Or maybe it was the exhaustion she’d used as an excuse for the temper he saw flash in her eyes from time to time. She hadn’t blown up at them, though, and that worried him.

Karissa had always been feisty and more than ready to stand up for herself. This woman had been worn down by circumstances.

She went inside, and Marsh leaned against the moving van, his gaze still following her.

“Rein it in, buddy,” Hank said. “I don’t think she’s even remotely ready to think about another relationship.”

Marsh pulled his gaze away from her. “Yeah, I’m getting that feeling. What did that jerk do to her? How long has she been like this? It’s like she’s a totally different person.”

Hank scowled. “If I’d had any idea how unhappy she was…I just want to pound that guy.”

“Get in line.”

Hank sent him a sidelong glance with a hint of smile on his face. “I don’t think she was overjoyed to see you.”

Marsh nodded. “She just needs a little time to remember why she had a crush on me when she was a kid.”

Hank snorted. “Dude, that was all in your head. Wishful thinking. She thinks you’re a pain.” He pulled the gas nozzle out of the tank and hung it up. “Oh, wait a minute, you are a pain.”

“You’re very funny.” He gave his best friend an annoyed scowl, but his eyes had already returned to the store, where Karissa was emerging with a tall soda.

Moving too fast with that one would definitely be a mistake, but that meant he had time to ease her into friendship first—which would be good for both of them.

He’d let the chances pass him by when they were teens, knowing their three-year age difference would bring her daddy’s shotgun out if he’d asked her out. Though they’d ended up going in different directions, she’d always been the one who got away.

This time he wouldn’t let her slip through his fingers. He believed in second chances.

To read more, purchase Second Chances from your favorite retailer.

Second Chance Kisses: Almost Home

Second Chance Kisses

 

Do you remember your first love? Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a second chance to follow your heart? In this collection of novellas written by award-winning and bestselling authors, come home to Echo Ridge as summer winds down and hearts once broken and lost are given one more chance, a second chance to love.

Read the anthology here.

 

Almost Home

Damon lived in ten towns while growing up, but Echo Ridge is one of the few that started to feel like home before his parents relocated their family again. Now a widower, moving back to the small ski resort town is irresistible for him—but somewhat less so for his daughter, Maggie. Learning that Haley, the girl who had gotten away, is back in town is an unexpected bonus.

When Haley left a high-powered job in New York City to take care of her grandmother, she never expected to run into the boy she’d been crushing on sixteen years earlier. When they end up working together on the homecoming float, she finds the attraction between them just as compelling as before. But when given a choice, will she give him her heart, or leave love behind to return to her job in the city?

 

Chapter One

“This is bogus, Dad.” Maggie folded her arms and flopped back in the passenger’s seat with all the attitude gained in her twelve years, making Damon grit his teeth for the umpteenth time that morning. He knew moving to Echo Ridge hadn’t been her idea of fun, and he remembered how he had felt about it as a teen when his parents had forced him to pull up the shallow roots he had grown in his previous town—again–to move here.

The older buildings lacked the comfort of familiarity she had felt in Albany, where they had lived for all of Maggie’s life until the previous week. Unlike the first time he’d seen the town sixteen years earlier, now when he looked at Echo Ridge’s charming streets, historic library, the growing center of business and Fay’s Cafe—the same as ever, but updated with fresh paint and a new sign—he felt that pull of home.

They sailed past Kenworth’s department store as Maggie dove into the discussion again. “It’s stupid that I have to be a candy striper. It was Nalia’s fault. I didn’t want to spray paint the school. I hardly did anything, so why do I have to pay?”

What Damon wanted to know was why he had been forced to share in the consequences—driving her to and from the hospital where she would volunteer, listening to her complain, having to be the responsible parent to a teenager at all. When had that become a thing? What had happened to his sweet-tempered little girl? “It’s called guilt by association. You should have left instead.” It was an old argument and he was heartily tired of discussing it.

Nothing had been the same for either of them since Colette, his wife, had died. He didn’t expect Maggie to forget her mom—he surely wouldn’t, but all of this trouble and her bad choice in friends had started after her mother’s death fifteen months earlier. Or maybe that was just when he had become aware of them. He was ashamed to admit, even to himself, that he hadn’t been nearly as involved in his daughter’s upbringing as he should have been for the first eleven years of her life. He was making up for it in spades now.

Damon tried to tune out the complaints as he pulled into the hospital parking lot. This would be good for her, teach her compassion, help her to see how important it was to give service. Plus, the judge ordered more than fifty hours of community service and with school coming up on them soon, he wanted her to get it out of the way quickly.

“Old people smell funny.” Her sullen declaration marked the end of the rant.

“I’ll be sure to let your grandmothers know how you feel about the way they smell.”

“Daaad. That’s different. They smell sweet like flowers, not like old, sick people in a hospital.” Her disapproval made her look like she was twelve-going-on-thirty.

How had Colette handled their daughter before? He had missed so much, traveling for the architectural firm he had worked for and putting in extra hours to support the family in the style which he had mistakenly thought they needed to become accustomed. But really all they needed was time. Far more time together.

He had failed utterly at making sure he had the time with his family while his wife had been alive, and now that it was just him and Maggie, he intended to correct the issue.

***

Starting a new business was not for the faint of heart. Damon picked up his mail from the tray on the otherwise empty receptionist desk in his office where the mail lady left it in the morning.

Still no paperwork for his business’s tax ID number. He wondered when he would finally get the forms so he could finish up some final details for the business. He had applied for the EIN before moving to Echo Ridge, he had everything set up so it would be good to go as soon as he arrived, but he hadn’t anticipated how much work it would be to get things up and running.

He supposed that was why he had put off starting his own architecture firm for so long, even though he’d been thinking about it for several years. But he was ready for the change now, and he couldn’t wait to get settled in to the new flow of his life.

The email icon on his computer blinked at him when he sat at his own desk. He knew he needed to reply to Maggie’s grandparents soon, but their hopes to have her come live with them instead of starting at the new school were not an option. He had moved to Echo Ridge so that he could get closer to his daughter and give her a chance for a fresh start with better friends, not so that he could be far away from her. He hoped they hadn’t told Maggie about the offer, or her attitude would only get worse.

But then again, what teenager—or pre-teenager—wanted to pick up and move away from their friends?

He just had to convince her this would be a great thing.

His cell phone beeped and he checked the readout hoping it wasn’t his in-laws. Thank goodness it was Scott instead.

Hey, you wanna grab some lunch?

Was it already lunchtime? Damon checked his watch. Yep, twelve o’clock. Paperwork had monopolized him all morning.

He thumbed out a response. Yeah, I hear there’s a new Greek place in town that’s supposed to be good. Let’s try it out.

Scott replied back that he liked the place and they arranged to meet in twenty minutes.

The restaurant had been updated with new décor since his high school days—it was much more inviting now.

Scott had staked out a booth in the corner and Damon slid in across from him.

“How are things going?” Scott asked. “You look a little overwhelmed.”

Damon nodded. “I never realized how much work it was to put together a new business. I mean I knew it was gonna be a big job but I just hadn’t expected it to take so long. Seriously, the government had me apply for everything online, and I have to wait ages for them to send me a copy instead of them letting me print it off the website.”

Scott chuckled. “Welcome to the world of hurry up and wait. Dad’s been moving me into office work over the last couple of years and I’m starting to like it okay but I still prefer the ranching end of the business. Cows aren’t big on red tape.”

Damon nodded sagely. “You always did have a thing for cows. What’s up with that anyway?”

“Hey, watch it. You’re pretty attached to a fine steak too, if I remember correctly.” Scott gave his shoulder a nudge. “What are you doing with Maggie during the day? School doesn’t start for at least a week, right?”

“She’s been picking up some hours as a candy striper at the hospital. Not the thing she’d most like to be doing with her time, but she has to do her community service eventually. I told her there was no time like the present. Besides, she’s working with other girls her age, so maybe she’ll make some friends.”

They caught up with things going on at their respective families and businesses, ordered their meals, and soon began discussing the big reunion weekend coming up.  Homecoming weekend was always alumni weekend in Echo Ridge and though Damon hadn’t actually graduated from Echo Ridge High School, anticipation thrummed through him at the thought of getting involved and seeing some of the people he had gone to school with for the six months his parents had lived in town.

“We could really use some help with the float,” Scott said. “We’ll be starting on it in a couple days—we should have started weeks ago, but we’re going with a simpler design than most of the fancy floats. You could bring Maggie along to get her out of the house. I have several employees pitching in, but there’s plenty of work to be done.”

Damon chuckled. “Yeah, I can just imagine how excited she would act about that. There’s nothing quite like spending an evening with a bunch of “old” people putting together a float for an event you don’t care about.”

“I think Marsha Michaels is bringing her daughter. You don’t know, they might get along well. She’s a good girl so you wouldn’t have to worry about them tagging any buildings when our backs were turned.”

Damon might have been offended at the joke if it had been anyone besides Scott, but after sixteen years of friendship, he knew it was meant to break the tension. “Funny. I’ll think about it. Where are you working on the float?”  This could be a good opportunity to get to know more people. If there was anything he’d learned in the many places they’d lived, it was that if you wanted to feel like you were part of a community, you had to get involved right away.

The clincher came when Scott started listing off the names of the other people he knew who were helping.

Damon’s mind caught on Haley Richie—the girl who had gotten away. How could he possibly forget her? And how could he turn down the chance to spend time with her again, to see if there were still sparks between them? “Is Haley involved with anyone?”

Scott’s grin turned sly. “Not as far as I know. You should definitely come. She’s even prettier now than she was in high school.”

Not seeing how he could possible go wrong, he agreed. “I’ll see you then.”

Scott just grinned.

 

Chapter Two

The black and white of Oreos and vanilla ice cream swirled together into a dull gray mixture that resembled Haley’s life. Blah and boring. Not that the shake wouldn’t taste good, or that she hated what she was doing, but it definitely lacked the brightness and interest of the M&M concoction she had made just before.

At Fay’s Café, the creamy treat and sound of Wynonna Judd crooning from the jukebox reminded her of being sixteen and talking about boys with her best friend, Felicity. Strange how the right surroundings could make seventeen years ago seem like last week. The fact that she was back here working at the café, even if it was for the granddaughter of the previous owner this time, only heightened that similarity.

Sometimes nostalgia was totally overrated.

Haley removed the shake from the machine, added a big twist of whipped cream and the cherry on top then rained some Oreo cookie crumbs on it. She finished it off with a single cookie placed into the whipped cream. Making shakes at Fay’s was as much art as anything, but it didn’t soothe her the way drawing out some advertising plan used to do. Her back ached, and her feet were screaming at her. She supposed it was time to replace her shoes again—the insoles in these had stopped providing enough support a while ago. She just needed to wait for her next paycheck and hope nothing came up to suck up the trickle of extra cash she had been able to siphon into savings.

This was totally not what she had expected her life to be like by the time her fifteen-year reunion rolled around. Then again, she had chosen this trajectory, so she had no one to blame but herself.

Haley turned and presented the shake to the teenager on the other side of the counter. The young man from her grandma’s neighborhood gave her a little wave before heading over to sit with his friends in the corner.

“Hey, order up.” Hank, the forty-something, long-time fry cook set a tray with fries and burgers onto the counter between the kitchen and dining room.

“Thanks, are you about caught up back there?” Haley asked.

“I’m getting there. It’s been a crazy afternoon.”

“Yeah, my feet are totally feeling it.” She gave him a half-smile and heard the front door chime announce somebody had walked through. She held back a little sigh of relief as she realized people were leaving and not entering.

“There’s Cami,” a bejeweled, purple-haired Fay said. “You can take off for the afternoon.”

“Thanks.” And Hallelujah—this shift couldn’t end soon enough.

The 50s-themed decor of the café was bright and cheery despite it being almost all black and white. It was the favorite hangouts of old and young alike, but Haley’d had her fill. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to come back for a couple days. Or maybe not thankfully. Not working as many hours as possible had a negative effect on her bank account.

“Has it been crazy?” Cami asked as she came in, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Uh. Huh.” She couldn’t say it emphatically enough.

Cami chuckled. “I hope it continues. I could use some good tips.”

Haley hadn’t said anything about good tips. But she supposed the adults coming in after work might do better at tipping than the teenagers she had been dealing with all afternoon. She took one last order out to the young couple in the corner booth, and moved the orders that were still left, making sure Cami knew who they belonged to.

She removed her little black apron, pulled her hair out of the elastic that had been holding it back, and clocked out.

Haley stopped at the grocery store on the way home, picking up some fresh veggies and chicken breasts for dinner. As she got into line at the checkout stand, she ran into Felicity, who had returned to Echo Ridge six years earlier with her husband.

“Hi, how are things going?” Felicity looked fresh and beautiful, making Haley feel even worse about her own work-worn appearance.

“I’m just heading home from work. How are the plans for the float?”

Felicity’s cousin Scott had drafted her to help plan and build the float for his family ranch and meat processing businesses. The floats for the alumni parade were getting more elaborate every year, and though Scott didn’t seem to think they had a shot at the grand prize—a promotional banner displayed at all home games that year—he wanted to make a good showing for the business.

“Finalized finally. I’ll be going to pick up the supplies tomorrow, so we should be ready to start work tomorrow night. You’re still willing to help out, right?”

“I’ll be there. I could use a change of pace. Do we have enough hands to help us out?”

Felicity nodded. “We’re working on it.  The time is going to be tight, but we’re not going crazy with it. Don’t worry, we’ve got some other people rounded up and Scott has one more guy in mind.”

Haley double-checked the time for the float party, paid for her purchases, thanked the cashier, and told the cashier and Felicity goodbye, heading for her car in the parking lot. It didn’t take long for her to arrive back at Gran’s old house. It was a white Victorian two-story, with three big bedrooms upstairs and one on the main floor. It was really too big for just Gran, and had been for a good many years, but Gran and Gramps had bought it a year after they were married, and Gran always said she wasn’t going to move out of it. And if Haley had anything to do with it, she wouldn’t have to until she was darn good and ready.

Haley’s parents had moved away when Haley was a freshman in college and left grandma in Echo Ridge all by herself, which, for many years, hadn’t been a problem. Now that her mental health was starting to suffer, she couldn’t stay in the house alone, but she refused to go into an assisted living center, and Haley was willing to do anything to let her grandma stay in the house as long as she wanted to be there.

Haley carried the purchases into the tired kitchen where her grandmother was chopping carrots. “Hey, I told you I would pick up stuff for dinner tonight.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, dear.” Gran smiled pleasantly. “I thought we could use some carrots on the side. What do you have there?”

Haley pulled out the ingredients, putting them away as she discussed her day with Gran before heading upstairs to change out of her greasy, stinky work clothes. As she opened the closet to find a fresh outfit, she noticed the box sitting in the corner. The flaps were partially opened, revealing the plaque she’d received in recognition of her work on her last big campaign for the advertising agency in New York.

Farmland Breakfast Bars had taken off after she and her partner had written the jingle. She still occasionally heard people humming it to themselves as they walked down the breakfast aisle at the grocery store. That had been shortly before she had quit her job—turning down a promotion she had been working for—to move back to Echo Ridge. It had been an impulsive decision, and she was rarely impulsive, but despite her frustrations, she didn’t regret it. Especially when she heard her grandmother singing old folk songs from the kitchen. How could she ever regret her Gran’s happiness?

Trusting her grandmother to be fine in the kitchen for at least a few more minutes, Haley flopped down onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling, letting the work aches and pains soften and melt out of her muscles.

When the fire alarm in the kitchen started to blare, Haley dragged herself off the bed and went down to check on her Gran, who was burning the chicken Haley had told her not to start cooking yet.

To finish reading this story, purchase the anthology here.

Silver Screen Kisses: You’ve Got Email

Silver Screen Kisses

Silver Screen Kisses is a collection of stories inspired by movies from everyone’s favorite list. Written by award-winning and bestselling authors, these contemporary romances take the reader back to Echo Ridge in the spring, when the promise of new love is budding just like the tulips around the Emerald Inn Bed & Breakfast.

Buy the anthology here.

You’ve Got Email

Maria never expected to fall in love with a man she’d never met, but she can’t wait to get to her laptop every night to chat with Bobwhite67. She would be happy to focus on getting to know him better, but her two jobs and two sons keep her ridiculously busy. Then there’s her ex-husband’s bookie, who’s impatiently waiting for the last couple payments on his debt.

Chapter One

Over the last month, Maria had begun to fall in love with a man she’d never met.

The cursor flashed on the laptop screen and Maria stared at its blinking form, waiting for a response. She glanced back at the clock—she would have to leave for work at the café soon, but she craved a few more exchanges from the man on the other end who was not quite a stranger anymore. It was late spring and the ski resort had shut down, but the weather was still chilly outside, and frugal as she was, she kept the apartment at sixty-five degrees while the boys were in school, choosing to bundle up rather than pay extra for her utility bill.

She pulled the soft, llama-wool blanket her mother had brought her from her last visit to family in Peru up around her chin. Why had she ignored her mother’s advice, choosing to settle in up-state New York instead of in the south where it was warmer?

Bobwhite67: I’ve been wondering lately what I would take onto a deserted island if I could only take one thing. What would you take?

Snuggling deeper into the blanket, she considered the question. I would say my kids, if I could be sure they would be safe, because I can’t imagine living without them. But if it had to be just me without anyone else… A Walmart?

Bobwhite67: lol That *is* one thing. I was thinking more like a fishing pole or a multi-tool—something you could actually carry. I’m thinking I’d pick a multi-tool. With that, I could make other things to survive.

Zoomama: Well, if I have to pick something I could carry, I’d say a first aid kit because getting an infection in the tropics is supposed to be pretty dangerous. Yep, with plenty of Looney Tunes Band-Aids.

Bobwhite67: You can never have too many Looney Tunes Band-Aids. I like Bugs Bunny best, how about you?

Maria studied the computer screen, smiling at the easy way they joked and learned about each other. She had never thought she would connect with anyone online, but this guy—there was something about him. She lifted her hands and started typing.

Zoomama: I’m a Tweety Bird fan. Dodging the bad cat and coming out on top despite his size. *sigh* I just looked at the clock. Your break is probably over, and I need to go to job #1. Talk to you later.

She hit send and pushed away from the computer. Her car was on the fritz—again—so she would have to walk to work. Thank goodness for the woman next door, who would pick the boys up from daycare and put them to bed tonight while she was at the café. She had a full day of cleaning and errands behind her already, since she had enjoyed a day off from her other job as head housekeeper at The Emerald Inn Bed & Breakfast. She had recently inherited the position thanks to the previous head of housekeeping moving on to a different job. Maria enjoyed her job there, and the family atmosphere, but going from once or twice per week to full time at the B&B had made it hard to balance her life when her hours at Fay’s Café hadn’t been reduced.

She slid into a jacket, slung her small woven purse over her shoulders, and then covered up with a slicker before grabbing her keys and umbrella. A glance at the counter tempted her to sneak a treat, and she grabbed just one alfajor cookie before heading out the door. She would save the rest to enjoy with the boys, but she loved the creamy, buttery, smooth taste of home.

The walk may have been short, but the rain pelted against her umbrella and slicker, and splashed onto her shoes. She shivered as a car drove past and threw a small wave of filthy wetness onto the sidewalk. A few drops from the deluge speckled her walking shoes, which was more than enough for her. Why hadn’t she bagged her shoes and worn boots today instead? Oh yeah, her mind had been too much on Bobwhite67, the man she had met on a dating website, and she hadn’t thought to change out of the comfortable shoes she wore most days. They had been messaging back and forth for over a month now, and though she had been able to establish that he lived within convenient driving distance of the ski resort—which could mean up to an hour away—they had never met. Considering the way he had become such a big part of her life, she was starting to think that meeting was going to be necessary.

The heat of the Fay’s Café greeted her like an old friend. The black and white 1950’s decor and pen and ink drawings of people in period-appropriate attire adorned the place. She loved working here and the sense of community she had developed with not just her boss and co-workers, but also many of the regulars who ate there.

She reconsidered her love of community as she caught sight of the two men in the kitchen, frying up burgers. Fay’s Café was packed, so she couldn’t blame Fay for bringing in extra help—but she definitely hadn’t expected one of them to be Bret.

Maria shook the water off her umbrella at the door before bringing it inside, which gave her a moment to put on the smile she always wore at work.

Cami, a new hire, smiled with relief as she saw Maria, then finished adding a swirl of whipped cream to the super-thick shake she had just created. Fay, tattoos, gobs of gold jewelry, and bright purple hair, smiled at the woman and two young girls who stood ordering at the counter.

It was just another Tuesday afternoon.

Maria hung up her winter gear and grabbed an apron from the hook. “What happened to Dale?”

“He called in sick a couple hours ago, so Fay called us to work.” Austin, Fay’s new husband said.

“It takes two of you to fill Dale’s shoes?” Maria asked.

“What can I say, Bret here is barely any help at all.” Austin flashed his best friend and business partner a grin. As far as Maria had been able to tell, they had been friends since elementary school and despite going to different universities and taking jobs in different parts of the state for years, they hadn’t grown apart. For Fay’s sake, she was glad their new ski and mountain bike shop was doing well.

“He likes to think he’s the useful one back here. I let him.” Bret wound a terry cloth towel a couple times and snapped the edge at Austin.

Seriously, Maria had no idea how the two of them managed to run the ski shop most of the time. They were great guys, in their own way. And handsome—handsome enough to make her tongue tie up in knots the first few times she met them. Especially Bret. Though she had to agree with Fay that her mulato husband looked great with the closely cropped beard and mustache, and super short hair, she preferred Bret’s longer brown waves and angled face. He still made her nervous even though he’d been a regular customer since moving back to town the previous fall. Not that she would ever admit it. “Your husband and brother are crazy,” Maria told Fay as she came up to join them.

“You don’t have to tell me that.” Fay smiled. She and Bret may have been step-siblings, but they were close. Her new marriage to Austin didn’t seem to be hurting her mood any, either.

Maria took over at the cash register as a couple of teens walked in, holding hands. The girl leaned against her boyfriend as they stared at the menu—even though they had both eaten there a dozen times already that year, and would order the exact same thing they always ordered.

When Maria’s boss, Bonnie, from the B&B walked in her blonde, bobbed helmet hair as stiff as ever, she worried that there was something wrong.

“Is there a problem?” Maria asked.

“No, Maria.” Bonnie smiled. “Everything is perfect, as usual after you clean. I just came down to pick up the order I called in a while ago. How do you manage working here after a full day working for us? You’re amazing.”

“Thanks.” Exhausted was more like it, but Maria just smiled as she reminded herself that she was only a couple months away from being free of her ex-husband’s debts to some less-than-savory people. His disappearance had put her in an awkward position. Soon she would finally be able to let her boys join soccer teams and take Karate if they wanted to. “I’ll check on that for you.”

She walked over to the window into the kitchen and asked, “How’s that phone order coming?”

“Nearly done. We’ve got this down.” Austin waved a flat hand through the air like it was a boat on the ocean.

“Good.” Maria turned around as the bell over the door dinged and at least a dozen teens came in, dripping on the checker-board tiled floor. Ay, ay, ay, where were they going to sit?

Maria started taking their orders at the cash register—eight shakes, two slices of Fay’s special chocolate cake, and three donuts. Thankfully a table cleared out by the time they finished ordering, and the kids crammed around it.

While she wrote down the last order, Bret came up and bagged the food for Bonnie. “It looks like you’re a little busy.”

“Yeah.” Maria bristled slightly that he thought she needed help, though she knew she shouldn’t. She shot him a smile she didn’t feel and moved to prepare the shakes on the other side of him. He had never been anything but friendly to her, and didn’t deserve a cold shoulder. She was still attracted to him, but he barely seemed to notice she was female, so she had put that feeling on the back burner. Way, way back.

Bret chatted with Bonnie about their respective businesses while Bonnie pulled out her money.

“Bret, your website is so beautiful. I told Roy we needed to update a year ago but he thought we were fine. Then I showed him your site—it’s so pretty. Who designed it for you?” Bonnie asked.

“I did,” Bret said. “Web design was my regular job until the shop really started to take off this winter. I still keep ours up to date.”

Bonnie popped one hip to the side and leaned in. “Are you interested in some extra work—since it’s your slow season and all. If Fay dragged you down here, I know you’re not hopping at the shop.”

“For the B&B?”

“What else is there in my life?” She laughed.

Bret looked intrigued. “I might be. We should sit down and see what you have in mind.”

“How does tomorrow morning at the B&B sound? Amos is making his orange rolls and I’ll be sure and save you some. I know how you like them.”

Maria winced when Bret agreed. First the diner, and now at the B&B. Well, maybe she could avoid him—there was plenty to do on the upper floors, away from the main office space where they would be meeting. She set the first cup into the shake mixer, which drowned out the rest of their conversation. She didn’t usually go for gringos, but there was something about Bret’s angular jaw and firm lips that always drew her attention. She knew feeling anything for him was beyond ridiculous, so why did she feel like a stuttering fool who was trying to learn English all over again every time she was in his presence?

Bret returned to the kitchen and Maria pushed him from her thoughts—she would need her full concentration if she was going to keep from messing up when she was already worn out from a morning “off” of trying to catch up with her normal life.

She managed to continue smiling although she wanted to scowl when she saw Lance come into the café. He pushed a hand truck ahead of him loaded with three boxes. “Hi, Maria, I haven’t seen you much lately.”

“I’ve been mostly working evenings the last few weeks.” And he was one reason that she had been glad of that. Not that there was anything wrong with Lance, he was a perfectly nice guy, really. His family owned a big farm with grass-fed beef and pastured pork and Fay bought all of their beef and pork products directly from them. Usually they delivered on Wednesday mornings, but either Lance had found out that Maria was working nights, or he was getting a head start on the weekly deliveries.

When he had gotten signatures from Fay and put away his hand truck, he returned, sliding into the open stool at the bar next to the register. “I can’t leave this place without a slice of Fay’s cake and a side of ice cream.”

And a chance to ask her out, no doubt.

Maria took his money and got his dessert from the cakes and pies in the display case. “Running a tad ahead of schedule for tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I decided to hit the restaurants in town tonight so I can spend a little extra time looking at a new tractor when I’m out and about tomorrow. They have a nice dealership this side of Albany.”

“That’s good planning. I wish you luck with your tractor shopping.”

“I should be back around dinnertime. You want to grab something to eat and maybe go see Roman Holiday at The Silver Screen? They’re doing a whole series of old movies right now.”

“I’ve heard about that, but I work tomorrow night. Thanks anyway.” She shot him a bright smile and took the empty cake plate to the sinks in the kitchen.

She dreamed of the day that Lance lost interest and looked elsewhere. He was a great guy, but as her gaze skittered to Bret, she realized that lately she had been comparing all of the men who asked her out to him—they all suffered by comparison.

Why couldn’t she just let it go?

Chapter 2

The Emerald Inn was an old three-story with themed suites. Bret had never stayed there, but he knew a number of locals who had used it for the first night of their honeymoon before heading out for their real destination, and a lot of his ski shop customers that winter had indicated they were staying there. He had known Roy and Bonnie for as long as he could remember, since he grew up in this area

Bret had heard they were undergoing a renovation, and was curious about the changes. Their current website left a lot to be desired—if he were a potential guest, he would definitely want more details about the rooms, the ability to see what rooms were available, and to book online. He studied the building, as he entered, thinking of things they should highlight on the site.

The lobby showed the grandeur of the establishment, it too, had undergone a renovation since he’d seen it last. The owners had made it their home and raised their children in one area while hosting other families in the rest of the enormous structure.

He stopped at the front desk and rang the bell. Ingrid greeted him and realizing who he was, contacted Bonnie to meet him.

Bonnie hurried through a doorway. “You made it—Look Roy, Bret made it.”

Roy came in behind her. “I can see that.” He shook Bret’s hand. “It’s good to see you grew up.”

“Roy! Don’t be such a grump.”

“What? I can’t be glad the kid who toilet papered the house is grown up?”

Bonnie swats Roy’s arm. “Like you never toilet papered a house. Go in and see if Amos is done with those orange rolls. I promised Bret he could have some.”

Roy rubbed hands together. “With pleasure.”

Bonnie smiles fondly at him before he goes.

Bret held in a laugh, they hadn’t changed at all. “I’m glad you needed help during our slow season.” He was really glad that he would have some way to bring in money—even if it wasn’t a huge sum. While his and Austin’s shop had done surprisingly well, considering it had only been open for about six months, the ski season was now over and it was still too soggy for mountain bikers.  Austin was still shipping gear to people further north, but that would stop soon, so they’d be depending on international shipping for the rest of the summer.

“It does seem serendipitous, doesn’t it?” She waved him down the hall and into the office. “I don’t know if you’ve seen our current website.”

“I checked it out last night.”

“Then you know how desperately we need something new. Now that Elise is finishing the final renovations and we have a beautiful gazebo out back, I want to push for more weddings and we need a total overhaul. I also have some ideas for new pages that I’d like to add.”

“Great. I have a couple suggestions myself.”

“Perfect. Let’s start with a tour. I’ll explain the changes to the B&B and then we can sit down with Roy and put our heads together.”

Bonnie showed him through the first floor, and then down to the basement to poke their heads into the room where Elise was currently working. Roy joined them as they headed upstairs so he could get a feel for the place.

Bret was surprised when he looked up at the sound of scurrying feet and caught sight of Maria moving from one room to another carrying a stack of folded towels. It didn’t seem to matter what she wore or did, he always felt a tug of attraction when he saw her. He wondered what she was  doing here. “Does Maria work here?”

“Yes, Maria—we love Maria—she’s such a hard worker! She’s been acting as our head housekeeper for a while now. I keep hoping she’ll change her mind and decide to keep the position but I don’t know how she juggles this plus still working at the café.”

“With two young boys too. That’s crazy.” How had he missed that she was basically working two full-time jobs? Sure, he’d done it for several months when he and Austin started the shop, but neither of them had small children at home—and she was a single parent. He couldn’t help but be amazed, and frankly, a little concerned. How was she managing to raise those two boys and work both jobs without going crazy?

He wondered—not for the first time—what had happened to their father. He hadn’t asked her, though. Maria seemed a little skittish around him, and he hadn’t wanted to make her even more uncomfortable by pressing her with questions.

Bret dragged his attention back to Bonnie, who was discussing the amenities available in that room with Roy jumping in occasionally to add off-the-wall comments.

The whole visit took nearly two hours, between the tour and discussing ideas for the website—not to mention Amos’s amazing orange rolls. Bret agreed to architect the backside of the site in the next couple of days and send over a few links of design themes and the structure of what linked to what for them to review before they signed a contract.

Bret climbed into his beat-up Nissan and glanced up as movement in an upstairs window caught his eye. He caught a glimpse of Maria, looking out at him before she disappeared.

He wished she weren’t so quiet, and that he could read her easier.

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Kisses Between the Lines: Much Ado About a Kiss

Kisses Between the Lines

In these five novellas, readers will experience the power a book has to change a life, make dreams come true, and bring two hearts together as the characters work to fill the classic section of the library. Filled with charm, wit, secrets, and hope, each story is a sweet romance with a promise to keep you turning pages into the night. We hope you enjoy this book and the kisses between the lines.

 

Much Ado About a Kiss

Fay’s life is just fine, thank you. Running the café she’d practically been raised in: Check. Her artwork in a gallery: Check. Volunteering on the library board: Check. The one thing she doesn’t need right now is a guy in her life—especially her brother’s irritating best friend from high school, so when the two men announce that they are moving home to start a ski and mountain bike shop in town, she isn’t pleased. If only she could completely forget that one kiss she and Austin shared in high school. Why does he have to upset her just-fine world? Not this time. Not if she can help it. But can she?

 

 

Chapter One

FAY HAD NEVER WISHED to escape from a library before, but suddenly felt a consuming desire to get away before she got roped into something more.

“Hardcover,” Marian, the assistant librarian, added before Fay slipped through the doors into the cool autumn air.

“Easier said than done,” Fay muttered as she tipped her face back to capture more sunlight. She had shivered through the library board meeting for the past hour and was glad to get out.

Not that she didn’t love working with the library or look forward to her role as the food competition organizer for the upcoming library fundraiser—the Harvest Hurrah. She saw Kirke Staples and Jennifer Solomon getting into his Toyota sedan across the parking lot. Those two were the best of friends, and rarely found apart—she admitted to herself that she was jealous of their closeness, even if they did say their relationship was platonic. Who were they fooling, anyway—besides themselves?

She let that thought float away as she turned to the right, heading the half-block to the café she owned. The lunch rush would get started soon and apparently she had to add finding a copy of Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing to her lengthy to-do list before the Harvest Hurrah. In hardcover, no less. Marian had ruthlessly cornered everyone on their way out of the meeting—she was a woman with a mission and not afraid to chase it. Fay appreciated that quality, even though she wished she had escaped without an assignment this time. When would she find the time to shop for a special enough book to please Marian? She shook it off for the moment, needing to put the meeting into its mental cubicle and focus on what she needed to accomplish at work.

The “bustling” city center of Echo Ridge was nothing compared to New York City, where she had lived for nearly eight years before returning home to take over her grandmother’s café after the original Fay had passed away. Though she missed the mix of sights, sounds, and smells that had encircled her in the city, she had finally been ready to return home to face the people who had made her life miserable as a teen. Now, partly thanks to her work with the library board, she felt like she had found her groove in the quaint town that had changed so much and so little in the last decade.

The library had been an escape for her as a child—almost as much as her grandma’s café had been, so she had been excited at the prospect of joining the board to help improve and support it. The other members of the board had mostly stopped staring at the tattoos on her arms, and the hot pink streaks in her otherwise black hair. When she had lived in New York City, neither of those things would have even caught someone’s eye.

She waved to Jonah through his gallery window as she passed and felt flutters in her stomach when she thought of the showing in a couple weeks highlighting her work. Funny how she had run to New York City with dreams of being discovered, but it hadn’t happened in any real way until she moved home again. Life had a way of surprising you.

She took one last glance at her notes from the meeting and scribbled something about the book she needed to find and then pushed through the front door of her café. Her eyes swept through the 50’s decor, black and white Naugahyde booths, shiny silver trim, black wooden frames around some of her drawings on the walls, and the rotating seats at the counter. She waved to her regulars—a trio of middle-aged women sitting in the corner booth who were taking a break for some peach pie and coffee. Strangers ate at another table and Maria, a single mother of two young boys, cleaned a coffee pot on the far end of the waitress area.

“Hello,” Fay greeted Maria and Hank, the cook in back. Hank took care of most of the greasy spoon-style food these days while Fay bounced between paperwork, baking, and covering the front during Maria’s off-hours. Once a week she even flipped burgers and deep fried various things for customers so Hank and his evening relief, Dale, could have time off. She was glad business had grown enough to bring Maria on full time instead of having to work day and night herself, though she would soon need to add more workers to keep up with everything.

The extra help was especially nice now she was baking in the mornings before they opened.

Fay checked in with Hank and Maria to see if they needed anything before heading to the baking end of the kitchen.

Though she tried to focus on the recipe, her mind kept wandering. The kick-off for the library fundraiser next week was going to be great. People in the community were so excited to have the bestselling author Armand D. Beaumont in their midst. She wanted everything to be perfect for the Hurrah.

In the meantime, she had another event she was providing cookies for, so Fay pulled her hair back and covered it with a net, donned an apron, and started mixing dough. She would let it chill overnight and bake in the morning.

She had whipped up enough dough for six dozen peanut butter cookies, eight dozen chocolate chip cookies and had moved on to snicker doodle dough when Maria stepped into the kitchen area. “There are a couple of men here who want to speak to you.” Maria’s Spanish accent from her childhood in Peru was barely noticeable most of the time, but it showed up when she was nervous. Fay was surprised to hear it now—were they IRS or something? Maybe cops?

“Tell them it’ll be a minute.” She needed to add the rest of the dry ingredients first so she wouldn’t forget where she was.

As she dropped the salt into the enormous bowl on the stand mixer, someone came through the door.

“I can’t believe you kept us waiting,” a familiar male voice said.

“She’s big on playing games,” another joined in.

Fay was surprised by both voices, but the second one jarred her. She felt her breath hitch, then set down the empty spoon. What were they doing back again?

When she turned, she saw her step-brother Bret and his best friend Austin Sparks standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “I told you to wait a minute, I’m not supposed to have people back here.” Besides, hair net. Ugh! Of course Austin would see her wearing one. It would give him an extra reason to make fun of her.

“We’re not technically in the kitchen. We’re at the threshold. And is that any way to greet your brother?” Bret asked.

“Or me? I know you can greet me far more nicely than that.” Austin was taller than her brother with light brown skin from the mix of his African American dad and Italian mom. Last time she’d seen him he’d been clean shaven, but now he wore a thinly-trimmed beard and mustache which somehow made his angular jaw look even better than before.

She glared at him as she moved away from the stand mixer and pulled off her hair net. She gave Bret a hug, intentionally snubbing the big jerk. “I’m glad to see you. What brings you both to town?” She gestured for them to move back so she could join them in the public area of the café.

Bret shifted out of the way, but Austin didn’t budge, making her put a hand on his shoulder and nudge him back so she wouldn’t have to push past him. Moron. Gorgeous, obnoxious, brilliant, funny moron.

“We’re moving back,” Austin said.

“You are? Both of you? Wh-why?” She got a hold of herself and gave him her steeliest gaze. “You’ve run through all of the snow bunnies and mountain biking girls at Gore Mountain? Maybe you hoped there would be more at Ruby Resort? Thought you’d drag Bret back too?”

His gaze cooled slightly. “Something like that.”

“Hey, I know you two get a kick out of insulting each other, but seriously, can’t you at least try to get along?” Bret asked. He and Austin had been best friends for years before Bret’s dad had married Fay’s mom when they had all been in eighth grade. It was a good thing Bret was so nice, or she would never have put up with his friend.

“I’ll be civil if he doesn’t tease me,” she vowed.

Austin smirked. “I don’t know if I can hold up my end of the bargain. She’s way too fun to tease. Her face grows pink and her eyes sparkle.” His gaze veered toward her hair.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Sparking with anger is not necessarily a good look.”

“Says you.” Despite his words, Austin backed behind the counter.

Deciding she had more important information to glean, Fay let it go as she poured them both some coffee. “So what’s this all about?”

“You’ll find out if you join us for dinner tonight,” Bret said. “Austin’s family is coming to Dad’s for a barbecue and we’ll tell everyone about it and answer questions all at once.”

Fay was going to make excuses—she had so many things to do and she turned down family dinners as a rule, but Austin piped up. “Unless you’re too busy to make time for your family. Your mom said she hasn’t seen you in weeks. Not since we were here last.”

Jerk, talking to my Mom behind my back. He always knew how to push her buttons. But he was right. It had been a while since she had made it for dinner or stopped by. She had spent more than enough time there with all the trips the two men had been making to town over the summer and hadn’t the patience for more—especially if she was going to be the subject of her mother’s full focus. A moment to consider the day’s plan was all she needed—she did have Hank on shift all evening and Maria was scheduled through the dinner rush. It wasn’t usually too busy on a Wednesday night, but taking an hour or two for dinner with her family was going to eat into her precious prep time. “Fine. I’ll be there, but I can’t stay all evening, I have things to do here.”

“We understand.” Austin took a sip of his coffee. “This is so good. Do you think we could each get a slice of peach pie too?”

“The coffee was free. The pie is going to cost you.”

“That’s okay, I’m celebrating, I’ll pay. You want some peach, or the apple?” he asked Bret.

“Apple all the way.”

Fay plated some for each of them, heating it and adding ice cream to Bret’s just to needle Austin. Their tug of war ran both directions, after all.

“Hey, I never said I was paying for à la mode,” Austin complained.

“That’s okay, the ice cream was my treat, because I know how much he likes it.”

“I like ice cream, too,” Austin said.

“I know.” Fay flashed a cheeky grin before turning to Maria to instruct her only to bill them for the pie. Maria nodded and murmured something shyly. Austin smirked in return; Fay pretended not to see. “What time is dinner tonight?”

“Six thirty. Don’t be late.” Bret pointed at her with his fork, before scooping up another bite of pie.

“You make the best peach pie on the planet,” Austin said.

Fay looked at him, surprised by the compliment. “You’re lucky you came in today. That’s the last of the fresh peaches for the season.” She’d had to beg them from a friend who had a very late-producing peach tree. She only made the pie when it was in season because fresh was her byword.

“Apparently I’m extra lucky when it comes to you.” He shot her the knowing grin that drove her completely nuts. It made her think about that day.

In defense, she started backing away—she did have a lot to do. “Enjoy your pie, if I’m leaving here for dinner, I need to get some things done. Make sure you leave Maria a nice tip.”

Austin’s chuckle followed Fay back into the kitchen. Why did he always get under her skin? She took two deep breaths, then donned her hair net again. She needed to get this cookie dough mixed and chilling so she could start on desserts for the evening customers.

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Christmas Kisses: One Winter Night

 

Christmas Kisses is a collection from five bestselling and award-winning authors. Set in the snowy town of Echo Ridge in upstate New York, these inspirational romances are sure to delight while you sip cocoa by the fire and listen to Christmas carols.

 

One Winter Night

Jonah Owens thought moving to Echo Ridge to open his art gallery would solve all of his problems. The need to sell his grandma’s house adds an unexpected complication. It would be easier if his neighbor didn’t have all those farm animals.

Kaya Feidler’s family has owned their land for nearly a hundred years–long before the neighbors were there. There’s no way she’s giving up the animal therapy business she’s been struggling to make profitable. She gets a temp job helping Jonah in the gallery. Spending time together is a recipe for romance, but can they overcome their own hangups to be more than friends?

 

 

Chapter One

JONAH OWEN SMILED AT MRS. CHESTER, the prospective buyer for his grandmother’s house. He saw the dispassionate way she studied the layout, the slight disdain in the lines of her mouth when she looked at the wheelchair lift in the bedroom, and the sneer that overcame her features when she gazed out the back window and focused on the next-door neighbor’s house. “How many horses do they have?”

“Three or four I think. I’m not sure. She’s very conscientious about cleaning up after them and the other animals.” His grandmother had talked incessantly about her neighbor, Kaya’s, animal therapy business, but he’d only met her briefly once or twice over the years. When the prospective buyer turned and looked at him with disbelief, he realized he’d said the wrong thing.

Mrs. Chester—the only name she’d offered him—narrowed her dark eyes at him. “What other animals? All I see are horses. How did she get zoned for farm animals anyway? I thought this was a residential zone.”

“I believe she has a couple of goats, some chickens and maybe some rabbits. I’m not sure exactly. She does animal therapy with children, so she rarely has more than one other car over there at a time.” He didn’t really know as he hadn’t spent much time at the house since he’d moved back to town. “Her family used to own all of this land once, for the entire subdivision, plus the Fieldstone Manor subdivision. Since they’ve had horses and other animals for over one-hundred years, her property was grandfathered in under the old rules.” That had been a burr in his side since he’d started trying to sell his grandmother’s home.

Mrs. Chester wasn’t the first potential buyer to object to living next to The Red Star Ranch. He had the feeling she wouldn’t be the last, either. She didn’t seem all that thrilled with his Gram’s house in general, but he tried to salvage things anyway. “She’s very respectful of the neighbors, keeps the noise and smell down, and isn’t the type to have crazy parties or anything.” He needed to get the woman’s focus off the ranch and onto the house itself. “What do you think of the sun room? It’s my grandmother’s favorite room in the house. Warm and toasty in the winter, not too hot in the summer thanks to the tree that shades that part of the house.”

“Yes, very nice.” She barely glanced at the room as she headed for the front of the house. “The house layout is nice enough. I could deal with removing the wheelchair lifts, but I don’t like animals. I’m afraid this won’t work for us. Thank you for taking the time to show me around.” She was on the porch in seconds, not pausing to say goodbye on the way to her car.

Jonah wanted to growl. This was the fourth buyer who had objected to the ranch next door. When he pointed out the lack of smell, two of them had reminded him that it was December in ski country, not July, and the smell would be far worse when it was hot outside. He couldn’t dispute that, though he’d rarely noticed a hint of smell during his visits. Kaya Fiedler may have inherited the place rather than earning it, and she might have her quirks, but she took good care of the animals. He supposed she would have to if she wanted to keep her animal therapy license.

He’d seen up to six horses over there at a time before, but not recently. He wasn’t sure if she had sold one, or if some were just inside when he looked over. He didn’t spend that much time checking out the ranch.

Between his grandmother’s health and all of the time he spent working to get his business off the ground, he had enough on his mind. If he didn’t sell the house soon, he might have to rent the space over the gallery where he was living now, so he could pay the mortgage here. His grandmother couldn’t afford both the mortgage and the assisted living center where he was trying to move her.

He watered the ficus before he double-checked the locks on the doors and windows and headed out. It was breaking his grandmother’s heart to sell her home, but she couldn’t live here alone anymore and he worked too many hours to be here as much as she would need. Ora Owen was a proud woman, and determined to be independent—which is why she broke her hip and was currently in a rehab center. If only she had moved to assisted living two years ago when he first urged her to do so.

He checked his watch—Mrs. Chester had been thirty minutes late. That was thirty minutes he couldn’t afford to have missed from the gallery today. He’d have to put off that trip to fill his grandmother’s Christmas list until later in the week instead.

“I can’t believe you call this organized. Start over.” Cecilia’s strident voice rose loud enough for Kaya to hear her from the next department. Kaya felt a pang of empathy for Anika, who was a hard worker. If the place was a mess, chances were it was because of a customer, not because Anika had done anything wrong. Then again, Cecilia sometimes freaked out over the smallest disarray, even if the rest of the department was flawless. She was one miserable woman.

Kaya thought Cecilia could really use a cat to snuggle up with and take the edge off.

“Isn’t that display finished yet?” Cecilia snapped, now standing behind Kaya.

Kaya turned to look over her shoulder at the older woman, her dark gray hair seemed to crackle with her bad temper. “I had to stop to assist a few customers.” She kept her tone apologetic, though she wanted to growl and snap back. She had worked holidays at Kenworth a few times over the years, but never under Cecilia Grange. The woman was impossible. If Kaya didn’t need the paycheck so badly, she would kick the woman in the shins and walk out. And to think she had once considered herself lucky to get the job.

Then again, a temporary, part-time position had been pretty lucky. The horses would run out of feed if she didn’t get more holiday hours in. She had always liked this job in the past. It was a change of pace from her struggling equine therapy business, and since she had lost a few clients thanks to the rising prices of gasoline and the winter weather, she had to work on the side so the horses would have food. Otherwise she would have to sell one of them. Or both goats. And she desperately didn’t want to do that. She had thought that nearly three years into her animal therapy business she would be making enough money to get her through the year, but it had been a tough fall.

Cecilia’s beady eyes glared over the tops of her glasses. “You’re all just full of excuses. Get back to work, and don’t get so distracted. If you’re going to take breaks while you’re on duty, I’m going to start counting them as your scheduled ones.” She turned and marched off.

Kaya bit her tongue and turned back to the display. She didn’t know why the board of directors didn’t kick the woman to the curb; she was so unprofessional. Not only could the neighboring employees hear, but several customers as well. And Kaya hadn’t been taking breaks on the job, she’d been working hard. Which is more than Kaya could say for Cecilia, who seemed to do nothing but walk around, take two-hour lunches, and complain.

Biting back her anger, Kaya acknowledged that the woman must do something worthwhile or why would they keep her on staff? It was just not clear what she actually accomplished besides making all of the employees miserable.

This job only ran through New Year’s Day, Kaya reminded herself. She could put up with anyone for another month. Especially since the alternative was losing one of her horses.

It was only a few weeks and then the holidays would be over and the job would be gone, so she would suck it up and deal with it, for now. But she was going to tell Keira what she thought of the old bat before she left. Keira may not be over Cecilia, technically, but it was her family’s store, so she had to have some kind of pull with the board.

Someone needed to get rid of Cecilia before she chased off all of the good employees.

Chapter Two

KAYA SMILED AS THREE OF HER favorite people walked up to the barn in her backyard late that afternoon. Her life may not have been ideal, but the Shoemakers came to her place, rain or shine, through all but the worst blizzards. “Hello, how are you all doing today?”

“Great, I can’t wait to see how my girls are doing.” Shyanne said from her wheelchair. She was nearly fourteen now and had fallen in love with Kaya’s dairy goats—Jet Star and Morning Star. Their mother was the show-winning Yellow Star, and she hadn’t been able to keep from buying goats whose names worked with her ranch. Kaya had been teaching Shyanne to milk the goats, since milking time was during their session, and she’d shown an interest.

Sasha, Kaya’s Great Pyrenees, a livestock-guardian dog, gamboled over, greeting the three visitors happily.

Shyanne’s younger brother, Chad had physical and social disabilities, though he wasn’t wheelchair bound. He had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the horses the very first time their mother had brought them to check the place out.

Their monthly fee didn’t hurt either. Their mom, Evelyn, had even recommended Kaya’s services to several of the other clients who now came regularly to the ranch, which had been a huge blessing in the beginning when Kaya had been living on credit cards and income from her graveyard shift stocking shelves at the local Target.

Even without that, they would have been some of her favorite people—they were each a ray of sunshine in their own way. She ushered them into the barn.

Shyanne didn’t even have to call to the goats. When they heard her voice, they came running through the door into the protected area in the barn, bleating a welcome. She rolled her wheelchair over and rubbed their heads through the fencing. “Hey, there, girls. How are you today? I brought you treats.” Her hands went into her pockets and came out with a few twisty pretzels—one of their favorite snacks.

“I’ll get her settled,” Evelyn said.

“Thanks.” Kaya walked over to Chad, who was looking down and brushing the toe of his shoe over the cement floor. “Are you ready to see the horses? Pepper is anxious to see you.”

He nodded, stammering. “I saw her when we were outside. She was running around the paddock. She likes to run.”

“Yes, she does. Someday maybe you’ll be ready to run with her. Today, though, let’s just get you on her back and riding. Can you help me saddle her up?” When he first started coming, she had Pepper, a sweet, gentle, red chestnut, all decked out with saddle and blanket. After a few weeks, she had him help take the saddle off of Pepper and brush her down at the end. The previous month they had graduated to him helping saddle her and remove the saddle afterward. He was nearly twelve and taking the responsibility of caring for the horse was part of Chad’s treatment. Kaya sent monthly reports to his therapist so he would know how things were going on her end.

Chad walked over to the wall, collecting the heavy saddle with his wiry arms. She watched as he took it over to the gate into the paddock and laid it across the top, then returned for the bridle, blanket and other items.

Pepper met them at the fence and Chad climbed over, petting the horse, checking her for any injuries before he started to saddle her up. Kaya watched him go through the process making sure that he did it right, and then checked all of the buckles and connections herself when he finished.

She gave him a high five. “That was terrific. You did a great job. I didn’t have to tighten anything. You’re set. Mount up.”

Chad grinned. It was the first time he had done it all correctly by himself and she could see the joy the accomplishment gave him. He led Pepper closer to the fence and used it to mount her, then rode off around the paddock.

“He’s showing so much progress,” Evelyn said as she joined Kaya at the fence.

Kaya had to agree; it gave her so much satisfaction. “Are you seeing an improvement in other areas as well?”

“We are. His teacher commented on it recently. It’s helping him to deal with a lot of other areas in his life. He just needed the confidence.”

Confidence wasn’t the only area where he needed help. “How are things with the other kids at school? Is it getting any better?”

Evelyn let out a low breath of frustration. “No. I think we need to move so he can have a fresh start. I just don’t think we can get the help we need in that district. They’re doing fine with Shyanne—her disabilities are all physical and she copes well, plus she’s so social and friendly with everyone. But the teachers and programs just aren’t working for Chad. My parents keep trying to convince us to move out near them. Their schools are a little better, but it just feels wrong. I can’t imagine tearing them away from here.”

“Arizona is so far away.” Kaya’s heart sank at the suggestion. She would miss getting to see them so often.

“I know. But we can’t keep living at the apartment where we’re at now. Shyanne is getting so big. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt my back lifting her in and out of the wheelchair. She’s working out so she will be able to do most of it herself, but she’s not there yet, and may not be for quite a while. I knew we wouldn’t stay there forever, I just didn’t count on it being an issue so quickly. I can’t seem to find a flexible job—even part time—so I can qualify to buy a house that would be easier for her. My ex is settling down with a new wife and kids and can’t, or won’t, help out more than he already is.”

“I’d hate to have you go.” Kaya paused to call out a correction to Chad. Though she was talking to his mom, she kept her eyes on him at all times. “As soon as it warms up here, I have several families who’ve committed to group lessons. I think Chad is comfortable enough that he’s ready to work with other kids. I think it could be good for him socially, and the group will be small, no more than four at a time.” She’d miss the pay from his private lesson if he switched to group, but it was the next step, and he was nearly ready for it. Maybe she should try a group social with several of her private clients and see how they meshed. That might help with the transition. She’d have to think about that in January.

“Mom, we need a goat. I like their milk better.” Shyanne called from the pen. She brushed Morning Star, paying special attention to her flank, which, oddly enough, was the goat’s favorite place to be caressed.

“That’s another thing our apartment can’t handle.” Evelyn said it like a joke, but there was pain in her eyes. They needed a house with a yard and animals for the kids to keep advancing.

“You ever thought about moving closer to here instead?” Kaya asked. “I could use a full-time goat groomer, and my neighbor is selling.” Not that she wanted Ora to move to that assisted living center, but it looked inevitable.

Evelyn shot her a tired look. She was maybe in her late thirties, and with her sandy-colored hair, smooth skin, and blue eyes, seemed somehow even younger than that, though she seemed worn out at the moment. “More times than you can imagine. I’ve been online looking at places, but nothing really stands out. The kids would love it. I’ve even heard good things about the school system, but a mortgage is going to take more income than we’re getting from Glen plus Shyanne’s social security and it can be hard to find a decent job when I never finished my degree.” She sighed. “I’ll figure it out.” She lifted her voice again to call encouragement to her son.

Kaya wondered what Evelyn studied in school, but Chad waved that he was ready for the next step. Maybe they could talk more later. “Looks like he’s warmed up and ready to go.”

“I’ll help Shyanne set up to milk,” Evelyn said, heading away.

Kaya vaulted over the railing and into the paddock to join him. “Hey, you ready to try a canter?”

“I don’t know,” Chad said.

“Let’s give it a test and see how you like it. It’s jiggly, though.”

Chad looked a little dubious, but took to the faster speed like a pro.

Kaya ached when she thought of not seeing this kid again, but she had him for now. She’d have to do what she could while the opportunity was still there.

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