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Loving From Afar

by Mona Ingram

The Women of Independence Book 1

What would you do if your perfect life was shattered by a series of uncontrollable events?

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What would you do if your perfect life was shattered by a series of uncontrollable events?
Loving From Afar (The Women of Independence 1) by Mona Ingram
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♥Don’t miss today’s KND Romance of the Day♥

Loving From Afar (The Women of Independence Book 1)

by Mona Ingram

Loving From Afar (The Women of Independence Book 1)
4.2 stars – 243 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

Here’s the set-up:

SEMIFINALIST IN THE ROMANCE CATEGORY FOR THE 2014 BEST KINDLE BOOK AWARDS SPONSORED BY KINDLE BOOK REVIEWS

What would you do if your perfect life was shattered by a series of uncontrollable events?

Allison Ransome loses everything; everything except her love for Cole Slater, the young man she planned to marry after graduation.

Gutted by Allison’s perceived treachery, Cole moves on with his life. Ten years later, he returns home, telling himself he will avoid the woman who broke his heart.

But nothing goes as planned. Can Allison and Cole forget the past and come to terms with the events that tore them apart?

Loving From Afar is Book One in The Women of Independence series, and is Allison’s story.

Book Two is The Last Goodbye, and is Danielle’s story.
Book Three is Never Look Back, and is Maya’s story.
Book Four, titled Love’s Like That, will be released in mid-April 2015 and is Katie’s story.
All four are stand-alone books.

Reviews:

“How do you repair the seemingly unrepairable? That really is the basis of this book. The tragedies of life encroach on these characters in such a way that you, along with them just can’t seem to find a way out of the path that each of them has taken by choice or by circumstance. This book is at times gut wrenching and heart breaking but it is also life and love affirming. So how do you repair the seemingly unrepairable? Read this book and find out.” – Amazon Review

“This book wasn’t like any other romance I’ve read. It grabbed my interest from the beginning and then took me on an emotional ride that kept drawing me back to the story when I really should have been doing other things! Some tough emotional parts, but I liked that… it was an honest story, told from the heart. Looking forward to the next story in the series.”- Amazon Review

Click here to visit Mona Ingram’s Amazon author page

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Free Romance Excerpt Featuring LOVING FROM AFAR by Mona Ingram – 17 Straight Rave Reviews & KND Romance of The Week!

Last week we announced that Mona Ingram’s Loving From Afar is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!

Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Loving From Afar, you’re in for a real treat:

4.6 stars – 17 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
What would you do if your perfect life was shattered by a series of uncontrollable events? Allison Ransome loses everything; everything except her love for Cole Slater, the young man she planned to marry after graduation. Gutted by Allison’s perceived treachery, Cole moves on with his life. Ten years later, he returns home, telling himself he will avoid the woman who broke his heart. But nothing goes as planned. Can Allison and Cole forget the past and come to terms with the events that tore them apart?
Author’s Note: To paraphrase a reader: “This book has some tough, emotional parts, but it’s honest.” At its core it’s a heartfelt romance.
Loving From Afar is Book One in The Women of Independence series. Book Two, tentatively titled The Last Goodbye, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2013.

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  And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:

Loving From Afar

Prologue

Allison stood back as her friend finished mounting the fan and plugged it in. Air swept gently over the seedlings, and she smiled at the satisfied look on Dani’s face.

“Much better,” her friend said, with a satisfied nod. “That’ll help to vent the place.” She poked at the double layer of poly that covered the domed greenhouse. “It’s a great setup.”

“Thanks to you.” Allison gave her a wry smile. “You know, it’s been years, and I still can’t believe you’re a successful contractor. What did you say you have lined up for your next project?”

“Mr. And Mrs. Berkshire’s sunroom. They’ve asked me to tear off the old one and build them a snazzy new one.” She adjusted the angle of the fan. “I’m looking forward to it. Did you say the airflow from the fan is actually good for the seedlings?”

Allison was accustomed to her friend’s abrupt changes of subject. “Yes.” She wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “The air strengthens them while moderating the temperature.” She tugged on a pulley at the end of the greenhouse and opened a 2’x2’ flap on the end wall. The vents had been Danielle’s idea when she put the structure together. She’d installed one vent at each end to catch the gentle breezes that swept through the valley.

“The Berkshires. They’re Timothy’s parents, aren’t they?”

“That’s right. Really nice people.”

“Did you ask them about Timothy?” Allison forced herself to look her friend in the eye. “About where he is now?”

“I didn’t have to ask. They were eager to tell me all about him. He’s in Vancouver and doing well. He works for a company down there that provides services to the television and film industries. Apparently, he scouts locations and stuff like that.”

“Huh.” Allison picked up a handful of potting soil and closed her fist around it. In the heat of the greenhouse, the Pro Mix dried out quickly. She’d have to dampen it down again before she did any more transplanting. She raised her head. “Back in high school, was I the only one who didn’t know that Timothy was gay?”

Dani lifted her shoulders. “I can’t honestly say that I knew, either. He didn’t come out or anything.” She raised an eyebrow. “Cole never said anything?”

Allison shook her head. “Nope.” There was a catch in her throat. “I thought we shared everything.”

“Guys are different about stuff like that. Anyway, it was what…ten, eleven years ago? People weren’t so open.” She turned thoughtful. “Timothy was lucky that Cole befriended him. He needed all the protection he could get. I think the other kids sensed he was different, even if he never confirmed it.”

A sad smile twisted Allison’s lips. “Cole was like that. Always sticking up for the underdog.”

Danielle paused, and took a deep breath. “He’s back, you know.”

Allison’s head came up sharply. “Timothy?”

“No. Cole.”

For a moment, she couldn’t catch her breath. She staggered back, gripping the edge of the seeding bed for support. “And just how long were you going to wait to tell me?”

Danielle grinned. “I’m telling you now.” Her smile faltered. “I hear his father’s been ill.”

“Why haven’t I heard that?” Allison frowned.

“Because you hide yourself out here? Because you have no social life? Just the other day, Faith was saying she hasn’t seen you in over a month.”

“What about you? When was the last time you were out on a date?”

“Oh, no you don’t.” Dani’s eyes flashed. “This isn’t about me. And don’t tell me that going out with Mark counts as a date. He’s a nice guy and everything, but you two are just propping each other up.”

“No fair! I–”

Dani shook her finger. “You shouldn’t tell me these things if you don’t want them to come back at you.” She looked at her watch. “I have to go.” She walked out the wide greenhouse door and looked at the long, straight rows of black plastic, ready to receive the seedlings. She turned slowly to look at her friend. “He looks hot, Al. I scarcely recognized him.”

Allison closed her eyes and let her head fall back. The sweep of air from the fan cooled her momentarily, but it would take more than a fan to cool down what she still felt for Cole Slater.

Dani’s tone was gentle when she spoke again. They’d known each other too long; had helped each other survive too many emotional train wrecks. “I thought I’d better warn you,” she said softly, then climbed into her pickup truck and headed up the long driveway to the road that ran along the high side of the valley.

* * *

Cole found himself on the twisting road that led through Hidden Valley. The road surface was lumpy and badly patched, much as it had been when he was a teenager. The difference was that his bike was bigger now, and it took the twists and turns with ease.

He knew that Allison had bought a place out here, but he wasn’t ready to see her yet…if ever. She was growing flowers, of all things. Flowers for drying. Evidently she made them into bouquets and sold them all over the Okanagan. He told himself he wasn’t looking for her place, but even so, he noticed the sign by her driveway as he roared past. It wasn’t large, as signs went, but it didn’t need to be, considering that she didn’t encourage visits from the public. It read The Flower Farm. He caught a glimpse of rows of black plastic as he passed, and smiled to himself. It was difficult to picture Allison farming…even if it was flowers. As far as he could remember… and he remembered everything… she’d never shown any interest in gardening. But that was all so long ago…

Lost in memories, he found himself at Green Lake in no time at all. He and Allison had come out here a lot when they were young. The numerous beaches along Okanagan Lake were a magnet for tourists as well as the locals, and as a result, they generally had Green Lake to themselves.

He parked the bike and squeezed through the turnstile gate, heading for what he still thought of as “their” spot. Ponderosa pines offered shade, and the sweet scent of resin filled his nostrils. Dried pine needles crackled underfoot and memories engulfed him. He sat down at the edge of the steep hill leading down to the lake, and took it all in. Very little had changed since the last time he was here. The place was silent, except for some intermittent birdsong. He braced his arms on raised knees and lowered his head. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on those days. His father was dying, and he needed to keep himself strong for the ordeal that lay ahead.

So why had he come here, where memories of his time with Allison were the strongest? Why was he torturing himself, wondering what might have been?

The answer was obvious, even if he didn’t want to admit it. He’d never gotten over her. Never gotten over the shock of what had happened. Cole had driven home, told his dad that he was leaving, and taken off like a bat out of hell. Taken off to make a new life for himself; a life where he controlled the outcome, a life where he wouldn’t have his heart ripped to shreds by a woman.

The distinctive chatter of a Kingfisher brought his head up. He searched the trees along the edge of the lake but couldn’t spot it. It didn’t matter; just knowing the bird was there was comforting. It meant that there were still fish in the lake. Some things, at least, had stayed the same.

He’d loved growing up here in Independence. The other guys his age had talked constantly about getting out, about going to a larger town, but he’d been content. His mother had died when he was young; he scarcely remembered her. His dad had lived by the Golden Rule and expected him to do the same. It had seemed corny at the time; corny and old fashioned, but as Cole grew older, he’d come to appreciate his father’s values.

They’d lived in a small mobile home park that was tucked into one of the narrow valleys that ran roughly parallel to the lake. There’d been those few months right after his mother died, when his father hadn’t known what to do, but other than that, Marty Slater had done a great job of raising him.

His father had smoked all his life, and it was catching up with him now. Since he’d left home, he’d managed to see his father a couple of times a year. His father, along with his lady friend Marnie, usually visited him on Vancouver Island, where Cole ran a successful business. He’d seen them just a few months ago, and his father had appeared in good health, but when Marnie called him two days ago, he’d come running, and was shocked at his dad’s appearance. These days, Marty Slater spent most of his time in a big recliner facing the television; Cole could tell by the items on the two tables that flanked the chair. Books, remote controls, cell phone, tissues, and pain pills painted a picture of someone very ill; someone who was too weak to move around. Cole wondered idly if the doctor would give him an estimate of how much longer. Probably not.

“Jesus,” he said aloud, and dropped his head again. It was almost too much to take in. He’d always been aware that his father flirted with lung cancer every time he lit up, but he was still in his fifties; it was too soon for him to die. He wondered if Allison knew.

He pushed himself to his feet. Damn her for creeping into his thoughts at a time like this! But then whose fault was that? He’d been an idiot to think that by coming here, where they’d shared so much, he could face up to the past and get her out of his system. This was where they’d dreamed of a future together and every thought led him back to that time.

A loon warbled on the lake, but he didn’t look. He had to get going, get away from this memory-laden place. Besides, the community nurse was coming to check on his father right after lunch, and he wanted to be there when she arrived. The nurse might be more forthcoming about his dad’s prognosis than the doctor.

Reflection from the black plastic caught his eye as he rounded a corner. He knew the road well, and this was where he’d seen Allison’s sign.

He slowed his bike, knowing he shouldn’t, but something compelled him. He tore off his helmet, braced his feet on the loose gravel at the top of her driveway, and looked down at her place.

Movement in the greenhouse drew his eye, and a woman emerged. At first he wasn’t sure. The woman was about the right age, but there was something different about her; about the way she carried herself. The bright aura that had always surrounded Allison was missing from this woman. And yet… there was something achingly familiar about her.

The woman raised a hand, as though to wave at him… or was that wishful thinking? She fussed with her hair, then shaded her eyes and looked directly at him. And then he knew. This was Allison. The bond they’d developed a decade ago still pulsed between them. He could see it in her eyes, even from this far away, and it scared the hell out of him. They stared at each other for a long, intense minute. Then he replaced his helmet, started the bike and drove off.

* * *

Allison invariably looked up when she heard a motorcycle. Some people, like her friend Faith, looked to the sky when they heard an airplane; with Allison it was motorcycles. She pretended she didn’t know why she looked, but she wasn’t kidding anyone, especially herself. Cole had bought a motorcycle as soon as he was old enough to get a permit, and ever since, the sound made her heart leap into her throat; made her pulse speed up a little. Her reaction had mellowed over the years, but it was still there, springing to life every time she heard that distinctive sound. She’d always believed that he would come back one day, even though things could never be the same. Too much time had passed for that, but she still hoped.

The motorcycle had stopped at the top of her driveway. The driver braced himself, removed his helmet and looked down at her, but made no sign of recognition. He didn’t need to; she knew it was Cole. She raised a hand to wave, then caught herself just in time and raked her fingers though her hair. If she waved and he rejected her now, her heart would break.

She shaded her eyes and stared at him, willing him to come down the driveway and say hello. The longing to see him again, to hear his voice, to feel his touch, was almost more than she could bear. She knew he’d been to Green Lake. It had been their spot to go and talk; the fact that he’d gone there must count for something.

Or not. He drove away and she dropped her hand, defeated. It was clear from the way he’d looked at her that he still found her repulsive. Tears burned behind her eyes. How could she have allowed herself to think that he might still feel something for her? She tossed her gloves onto the potting table in the greenhouse, grabbed a clean rag from the box by the door and headed for the creek that ran through her property.

Jones Creek meandered down the bottom of the valley, through town, and eventually emptied into Okanagan Lake. Home to trout, muskrat, a few mink, and duck families in spring, there was always something to see along the creek’s edge. She headed for one of the old chairs set up under the willows and used the rag to wipe away bird droppings and leaves. Over the years, it had become her favourite spot on the property, and at this moment, she needed the calming influence of the burbling water and the soft sway of the willow leaves more than ever. Seeing Cole had stirred up too many old emotions, both good and bad. Memories that seemed like they’d happened only yesterday…


Chapter One

November, twelve years ago

“Allison, aren’t you ready yet?” Katherine Ransome called up the stairs to her daughter. “They’re lighting the tree at eight, and it’s already seven fifteen.”

“I know, Mom.” Allison came running down the stairs. She hated the way her hair looked under the toque that her mother insisted she wear. Okay, it was going to be cold tonight, but she’d look like such a loser. She bet Dani’s grandmother wouldn’t force her to wear a toque. She pulled on her boots, her coat and scarf, and headed outside, where her father was warming up the car.

The town of Independence always scheduled their Light Up ceremony on the last Friday in November. Many years ago, the city fathers had shown a great deal of foresight and planted a fir tree in the town square. Situated squarely in front of City Hall, it was visible from every side of the square, and had become a favourite meeting place. “Meet you at the Christmas tree,” was a phrase often heard between the residents of Independence.

The car tires scrunched on the fresh snow as Allison’s father backed out.

“Wait,” she called. “Our toys for the toy drive. Did we bring them?”

“Yes, they’re in the trunk.” Allison’s father smiled at her in the rear-view mirror. “Anxious to see Santa, are you?”

Allison rolled her eyes at her father. “No, but I hear the new fireman is kind of hunky.”

“Allison!” Her mother turned part way around in her seat. “He’s far too old for you, and you know it.” When she saw the expression on her daughter’s face she turned to her husband, pretending to be angry. “Don, your daughter is trying to give me a heart attack. She’s incorrigible, but then I always said she takes after you.”

“Stop teasing your mother.” Allison’s father gave her a wink in the mirror. “Stick to guys your own age.”

“What about Lindsey? She’s going out with an older man.”

“That’s not the same, and you know it. Dennis is only two years older than your sister, and besides, she’s twenty-two. You’re only fifteen.”

Allison didn’t know why she’d opened that can of worms. They could discuss it a million times and Lindsey would still be seven years older. She loved her sister, but they had very little in common.

Her father turned into the parking lot. “Oh, look,” said Allison. “They have the air cadets directing traffic.”

“Good idea,” her father pulled into a space. “It was a mess last year when the Rotarians tried to do it.”

“Now, Don.” Her mother reached across and patted him on the knee. “You know they do their best.”

Her father muttered something under his breath, but Allison was already looking for Dani. They’d promised to meet near the concession stands, and the area was already swarming with people. She jumped out of the car as soon as her father had parked.

“Nine thirty.” Her mother tapped her watch. “Remember, now. We’re counting on you to find us. Tammy has invited us to stop by her shop and get warm around nine, so look for us there.”

“I know, Mom. You already told me.” Her mother had been having her hair done at Tammy’s Cut ‘N’ Curl for as long as Allison could remember. The woman believed in paying it forward, and every year at graduation, she quietly arranged to do the hair of any high school student who couldn’t afford to pay. She’d never once disclosed their names.

The downtown area was almost dark in anticipation of Light Up, but Allison found Danielle breathing warm air into her gloved hands and stomping her feet. “It’s so cold,” her friend said impatiently. “Come on, let’s get some hot chocolate.” She looked over Allison’s shoulder and her eyes widened. “Don’t look now, but guess who’s here?”

“Gee, like half the town?” Allison made a face. “How am I supposed to guess? Oh, wait. Don’t tell me. It’s Jason, right? That new guy?” She turned around to look and Dani tried to pinch her through her coat.

“I said don’t look!” She glared at her friend. “Okay, tell you what. You go and get the hot chocolate and I’ll talk to him.” She put on her most angelic face. “After all, someone has to make him feel welcome.”

Allison groaned. “And that would be you, right? Okay, go ahead, but stay where I can see you.” The Kinsmen had a stand selling hot chocolate, and she got in line.

Steam rose out of the small drinking holes in the lid of the Styrofoam cups as Allison turned away from the concession stand. She raised her head to look for Dani and was jostled roughly by an older teen. Hot chocolate sloshed down the side of one of the cups, narrowly missing her fingers.

“Careful!” she cried, looking up. It was Buddy Stiles, a boy who was a year ahead of her in school. Backed up by his posse of friends, he was known for his bullying tactics.

“Careful yourself,” he shot back. “You should watch out where you’re going.” He pretended to lunge toward her and she stepped back, alarmed.

“That’s enough, Stiles.” Cole Slater stepped between them. He was turned away from her, facing Buddy, but Allison recognized him. He was hard to miss around school. At 6’1”, he was taller than most of his peers. He was known as a loner, but that didn’t prevent him from standing up for himself, as well as others.

He turned around, a concerned look on his face. “Are you all right?” He glanced at her hand. “You’re not burned, are you?”

Allison smiled up at him. “No, I’m fine.” Still angry, she looked over his shoulder at Buddy, and opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d upset her.

“Here, let me take those.” Cole lifted the cups from her trembling hands. “Where are we going with them?”

Allison pointed toward Dani, who was chatting with Jason. “Over there. One is for Dani.” She couldn’t quite believe he was paying attention to her. She’d seen him in school of course, and they’d exchanged tentative smiles, but they’d never spoken.

“Looks like she’s talking to the new fellow.” Cole smiled down at her. “Are you with anyone? A guy, I mean?”

The hopeful look in his eyes made her heart flutter. “No, just Dani.”

“Good. Have you picked out a spot to watch?”

“Not really.”

“I know a great place, if you’d like to try it out.” He glanced toward Dani and Jason. “Do you think they’d like to come?” He pointed to the hardware store. “My dad manages the hardware store and I usually watch from the roof. Shall I go ask them?”

“Sure.” She watched as he made his way over to Dani and Jason, handed them the cups, and pointed to the roof. They exchanged a few words, and then Dani held up the cup in a salute and grinned. She seemed quite content to keep Jason to herself and watch from down here.

Cole bought two more cups of hot chocolate and led her down a narrow alley between the hardware store and the dollar store. He pulled out a key and opened a metal gate, allowing them access to a set of stairs at the back of the building. “I’ve always watched from up here,” he said, and led her to the front of the building, where a low false front shielded them. A makeshift bench was firmly attached to the roof, and they sat down.

“Your dad doesn’t mind?” she asked.

“No, as a matter of fact he used to bring me up here when I was small. His only rule is that I don’t bring a bunch of people.”

She sipped her hot chocolate and looked down on the crowd. “It all looks so different.” She turned to him. “Thank you for inviting me.”

“You’re welcome.” He scanned the crowd and she could tell the moment he spotted Buddy. He tensed, and his lips drew into a thin line. “That guy’s bad news,” he said. “We didn’t have any real bullies before he came to town.”

“I know.” She shot him a quick look, wondering if she should bring up a rumour she’d heard. This was the perfect opportunity, and there might not be another one.

“I heard he was harassing Timothy last week, and you stood up for him.” She took another sip of hot chocolate. “I was glad to hear that. It’s not Timothy’s fault that he’s not very big.”

Cole gave her a quick, puzzled look. “Yeah, well, we’ve been friends for a long time. Besides, someone needs to stand up for him.”

“You seem like such opposites. How did you ever become friends?”

He considered her question for a moment before he replied. “My mom died while I was in first grade. It was unexpected, and my dad kinda fell apart for a while.” His fingers tightened around the hot chocolate cup and she thought he might crush it. “For a while my clothes were mismatched, and there were many days I didn’t have anything clean to wear. I took a lot of flak from the kids.” He drained the cup. “Timothy was a skinny kid even back then, but he stood beside me through all that, and I decided that when I got older, I’d never let it happen to anyone else if I could help it.” He shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be a hero.” A wry grin turned up the corner of his mouth. “The truth is, I’m trying to talk Timothy into learning to defend himself.”

“How is that working?”

He acknowledged her question by lifting his eyebrows. “If you have to ask, then I guess you know the answer. Not well.”

The loudspeaker squealed and they turned their attention to the temporary stage, where a choral group had assembled. The chatter of voices faded to near silence as the words to Silent Night floated on the crisp winter air.

As though on cue, fluffy white snowflakes commenced falling and Allison looked up, eyes wide with delight. “Did you arrange this?” she asked softly, turning to Cole.

“Just for you,” he said, bumping shoulders with her.

The last notes of Silent Night drifted away and the mayor stepped up to the microphone. Allison scarcely listened; she’d heard the speech every year since she could remember. Besides, the young man beside her was far more interesting.

“Why did you ask me up here?” She was almost afraid to hear the answer.

He looked at her steadily. “Because I like you.”

“Oh.” His response was what she’d wanted to hear, but the bluntness took her by surprise.

“You’re always cheerful and smiling,” he said. “And I can tell that you’re a loyal friend.” He glanced down to where Danielle and Jason were huddled together against the cold. “I’ve seen the two of you together, and you support each other.”

Allison looked down at her friend and was silent for a moment. “We do, but how did you know that?” she asked finally.

“It’s just an impression I have.” He shrugged. “Teenage girls can be nasty, but not you two.”

She nodded. “That’s true.” She thought for a few moments. “Dani lost both of her parents when she was young. I don’t think she’s ever gotten over it.”

“She was old enough to remember them?”

“Yes, she was seven when they were killed. We were talking about it the other day, and she says the memories have faded a lot. She can’t remember what their voices sounded like, and believe it or not, she doesn’t have any videos of them.”

Cole finished his hot chocolate and looked at her. “Finished?” He held out a hand and she passed him the empty cup. He nested them together, but she could tell his mind was somewhere else. “Dad has pictures of my mother, but I can’t honestly say I remember her. Sometimes a woman will walk by and I smell her perfume and I get a strange feeling, but I don’t know. It might be all in my imagination.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“No, it’s okay. I was just thinking how it must be worse for Danielle, with no pictures, and the memories slipping away like that.” He turned toward the stage. “They’re doing the countdown.”

“…three, two, one, Light Up!”

The lights on the tree came to life, and the crowd applauded. Stores facing the town square flipped the switches on their decorations, and suddenly the area was bathed in the warm glow of coloured lights.

“This is the part I like,” said Allison. “When all the lights come on.”

Cole nodded, but didn’t say anything. She liked the way he didn’t find it necessary to talk all the time; some guys in her classes never shut up.

The town’s new fire truck drove up the side street, horn blaring. It would be parked for an hour, accepting unwrapped toys for the toy drive. The citizens of Independence always donated far more than could be used locally, and the surplus was gratefully received by towns where the need was greater.

“The toy drive is a nice tradition.” Cole spoke her thoughts. “There’s something about living in a small town where people are basically good, that feels right. A lot of the guys my age love to knock it. They talk constantly about going to live in Vancouver, but I don’t see it.”

“I’ve heard them. They love to say that Independence is a big name for a little town.” She looked sideways at him. “I wonder who named it, and why?”

“You haven’t been to the museum?”

“Once on a school trip, why?”

“There’s a section with old photos and one of the captions explains that back when most of the travel up and down the lake was by boat, the town pretty well had to be independent. In addition to the fruit, there was a lot of market gardening, and farmers produced milk and eggs, and all the meat the town could use. I’ve always thought it was a good name.”

“I agree, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” She sat silently for a moment. “What are you going to do after you graduate?”

“I’m not sure.” He stared at the empty cups, which he still held. “I’m leaning toward a trade of some sort. Electrician or something like that. There’s a lot of development in the valley and it’s likely to keep on for a while.” He gave her a sideways glance. “What about you?”

“I’m not sure, either. My mother’s friends are always asking me. Sometimes I wish they’d leave it alone.”

“I know what you mean.” He stood up and offered her his hand. “Come on, let’s go down and wander around the concession stands. It’s probably the same stuff as last year, but we need to move around a bit before we freeze.”

He pulled her up and for a moment they were standing close together. She looked into his eyes and his expression softened. “I can’t figure out if your eyes are blue, or green,” he said.

“A little of both, I think.” Her heart was in her throat. “What about yours?”

“I’m told they’re hazel.” There was that crooked grin again. “But I haven’t checked lately.” He pulled up his collar and stamped his feet. “Come on, let’s go.”

Allison gave herself a mental shake and followed him down the stairs.

They wandered through the park, stopping to examine the various crafts available for sale. Cole was fascinated by the wooden toys. He picked up a simple pull toy and spoke to the vendor. “Is this laminated?” He ran his fingers over the wood, where two contrasting colours met.

“Yes, it is.” The man stood up. “Does woodworking interest you?”

Cole continued to caress the piece. “Yes. We’ve done a bit at school, but this is taking it to a whole other level.”

“Thank you.” The man was obviously pleased. “Young men your age rarely comment on my work.”

Cole smiled. “Oh, I’m sure they appreciate it. They just don’t think it’s cool to say so.”

The man chuckled. “You’re probably right. Very perceptive.”

Cole put down the piece. “Thanks for letting me look.”

“Any time.”

Allison watched the exchange with interest. Cole Slater wasn’t only good looking, he was interesting; she’d like to get to know him better.

The freshly fallen snow scrunched beneath their feet as they wandered along. Allison was glad her mother had forced her to wear the toque. Her arms and legs were getting cold, but at least her head was warm. She shivered.

“Cold?” Cole paused and looked into her eyes. “You should have told me. Let’s see if we can find a couple of open seats at the Blue Lantern. They usually stay open late for this shindig.”

She glanced at her watch. “I’d better not. I promised Mom I’d meet her at nine thirty and it’s already nine.”

“I suppose I should go, too. My dad’s home alone.” He offered her his arm. “Come on, I’ll walk you to…” He turned. “…where?”

Allison laughed. “To the hair salon.”

“You’ve got it.” He walked her across the square and deposited her at the door of Cut ‘N’ Curl. Snow swirled around them, caught by a gust of wind. Flakes caught in Cole’s eyelashes and he laughed. “Looks like we timed that just right.” He tugged her toque down around her ears and his fingers brushed her cheek. “Thanks for tonight.”

Allison’s legs threatened to buckle, but she managed to remain standing. “I enjoyed it.”

“Good.” He smiled down into her eyes. “I’ll see you around.” He turned, hunched his shoulders against the sudden gust of wind, and walked away.


Chapter Two

Cole walked briskly to the parking lot and brushed the snow from his father’s car. He’d enjoyed himself tonight, thanks to Allison. He admired the way she’d stood up for herself when that idiot Stiles tried to intimidate her. She was feminine, and yet independent at the same time. Sorta like the name of the town. He’d have to talk to her about that the next time he saw her.

The hand holding the snow scraper stilled. Next time? It surprised him to realize that he hoped there would be a next time. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the school, and perhaps that had something to do with why he’d noticed her. She wasn’t one of those girls who admired themselves in the mirrors in their lockers. She laughed easily, and as he’d mentioned to her earlier, she was a loyal friend.

She’d looked so cute standing there with the snow swirling around that silly toque. It had taken all of his self-control not to lean in and kiss her. Somehow he didn’t think she would have objected. She had a wide, generous mouth and he found himself wondering how it would taste.

He wasn’t the only one leaving the parking lot, and he focused on getting out safely. People tended to back out without looking, and he didn’t want anything to happen to his father’s car. Spring couldn’t come soon enough. He’d bought a small motorcycle last fall as soon as he’d been old enough for a learner’s permit. It occurred to him now that he’d need another helmet if Allison was to go with him, Okay, so he was getting ahead of himself, but there was something about the way they’d talked together that felt right. He was smiling as he turned onto the road that led away from town.

* * *

Allison watched Cole walk away. Meeting him here tonight had been like an early Christmas present. An early unexpected Christmas present. She’d noticed him at school of course…what girl hadn’t? She couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen him with a girl. Many of them tried to talk to him, and he was always polite, but she’d never actually seen him with anyone.

She caught her reflection in the window of the store next door to the hair salon. What in the world had he seen in her? She had no idea, but whatever it was, she hoped he’d see it again…soon.

A couple of dozen adults milled around inside the hair salon and she stopped with her hand on the door handle. She had half an hour to spare; she’d go look for Dani.

Her friend wasn’t hard to find. She and Jason were huddled on one of the park benches, chattering away like old friends.

Dani looked up, spotted her, and waved.

“Where’s Cole?” she asked, as Allison drew closer.

“He’s gone home.” She stuck out her hand to Jason. “We haven’t met. I’m Allison Ransome.”

He stood up. “Jason Raymond.” He looked down at Dani and his expression grew soft. “Dani has been telling me about you.”

Allison rolled her eyes. “Oh, great!” Jason smiled and she turned to her friend. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay; that you have a ride home.”

Jason spoke up almost before she’d finished. “I’ll take her home.”

Allison looked from one to the other. They both had stars in their eyes and she wondered if there’d been something special in the air tonight. “All right, then.” She gave her friend a pointed look. “I’ll talk to you later.”

* * *

The phone was ringing as Allison entered the house with her parents.

“Now who’s calling at this time of night?” Allison’s mother picked up the phone. “Hello?” She listened for a moment, and then held out the phone. “It’s for you, Allie.”

Dani must be eager to tell her all about Jason. She took the phone from her mother and spoke with a laugh in her voice. “I can’t believe you’re calling me already!”

She thought she heard a muted television in the background, but other than that, the line was silent. She waited a few beats. “Dani?”

“Hi, it’s Cole.”

Allison bit back a groan of embarrassment and slid down the wall behind the kitchen counter. Her parents insisted that the old-fashioned, plug-in phone worked just fine, but it was times like this she’d love to be able to walk away and have a private conversation.

“Cole. I’m sorry, I thought you were Dani.”

He chuckled. It was a low, sexy sound that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. “Actually, I can’t believe I’m calling you already either.” He paused, and she pictured him thinking. “I just wanted to make sure you got home okay.” Concern laced his voice. “You looked like you were getting a chill.”

She was certainly warm now. “I’m fine, but thanks for calling. I take it you got home okay?”

“Yup. The snow plows had been up the valley already. Listen, would you like to go skating on Sunday? I hear the pond out by the rodeo grounds is frozen already and I was wondering if you’d like to go.”

“I’d love it. What time?”

“After lunch? I could pick you up around one.”

“Sounds good.” She paused. “I had fun tonight, Cole. Thanks again.”

“Me, too.” She thought she heard a little hitch in his voice. “Goodnight, Allison.”

“’night.”

* * *

By the time Christmas rolled around, they were considered a couple. Allison sometimes wondered what he saw in her, but when she asked him, he’d just squeeze her hand and give her a look that made her forget to breathe.

Cole’s varied interests ensured that they never ran out of things to talk about. He challenged her views as often as she questioned his, and on the occasions when they agreed to disagree, there was no rancour between them. They were falling in love in the best possible way…by becoming friends first.

At New Years, Allison and Dani spent several days at the ranch owned by Dani’s uncle. His sprawling, seven hundred acre property surrounded one small lake and bordered on another. To the north, her uncle leased additional Crown Land for his cattle. A confirmed bachelor, Jake Flynn was known as one of the best cattlemen in the area.

“Guess what?” Dani didn’t wait for a response. “Uncle Jake says we can have Jason and Cole over for New Years. Isn’t that great?”

“Is your uncle going to be there?”

“Yeah, but he’ll be downstairs, if I know him. He bought himself one of those huge television sets for Christmas.”

“Okay, then. It’s just that I know my mom won’t let me come if he’s not going to be there.”

“Same here.” She sighed. “Gran already lectured me about that.” Danielle lived in town with her grandmother during the school year, and at the ranch with her uncle during holidays. “What do you think, should I get some mistletoe?”

Allison’s lips tingled and she touched them with the tips of her fingers. Several times over Christmas Cole had looked like he was going to kiss her, but he’d backed off, leaving her feeling strangely empty. Maybe with some mistletoe….

* * *

Cole and Jason arrived together on New Year’s Eve, their coats and hair dusted by the fine snow that had started to fall shortly after the dinner hour.

The two couples spent a quiet evening talking, playing games and listening to a countdown of the best songs of the year on the local radio station. Part way into the evening, Allison volunteered to heat up the mini pizzas in the kitchen and Cole followed her. She slipped the tray into the oven, turned on the timer, and turned to find him right behind her.

“Happy New Year,” he said, handing her a small box tied with a silver bow.

“Cole…?” She looked up at him. “What’s this?”

“It bothered me when we agreed not to exchange Christmas presents so…” He lifted his shoulders.

Her fingers trembled as she opened the box. A silver heart lay nestled on a bed of purple velvet, the fine chain tucked around behind.

“It’s beautiful!” she cried, lifting it out. “Help me put it on.”

He removed it from the box and held it up. “Turn around.” His voice was husky. She turned, and he draped it around her neck, uttering a few words of frustration as he fumbled with the clasp. But he managed to make it work, and she ran to the mirror in the dining room to admire it.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said, touching it and meeting his eyes in the mirror. “I love it.”

He nodded, at a loss for words.

Allison walked up to him. “Thank you,” she whispered, and kissed him softly on the lips.

A low growl escaped his lips and his arms went around her. “You’re welcome,” he said into her hair, then pulled back. “You really like it?”

“Of course, silly. It’s beautiful.” She looked into the familiar hazel eyes. “But you shouldn’t have.”

“Oh yes, I should.” He lowered his head, his intention clear. Just before their lips met, he paused, and in his eyes she saw her future.

Bryan Adams was singing in the background as he kissed her for the first time. His lips brushed hers, tentatively at first, and then he cupped the side of her face and slanted his mouth over hers, deepening the kiss until she thought she might die from the pleasure of it.

“Everything I do, I do it for you.” The lyrics of the song wove themselves into the fabric of her life as Cole nibbled at her bottom lip. Held in his strong arms, she’d never felt safer in her life, and she smiled up at him as he pulled back to look at her.

“What?” he said, searching her eyes. “Why are you smiling?”

“Because I’m happy,” she said, going up on tiptoes to plant a brief kiss on his lips. “Because I feel safe when I’m with you.”

He pulled her head against his chest. “Always,” he said. “That’s a promise.”

She sighed against him, listening to his heartbeat. It was steady, if a bit more rapid than normal. Steady. That was the perfect way to describe Cole Slater, she thought dreamily.

“Hey, you guys,” Dani called from her spot near the fireplace. “A girl could starve waiting for you two. Are the pizzas ready yet?”

“Hold on.” Cole gave Allison a quick peck on the lips and opened the oven door. They slid the pizzas onto a platter and went back to join the others in the living room.

“So.” Dani gave Allison a sly look. “I see you found the mistletoe. Oh, my gosh, what’s that around your neck?” She launched herself up from the floor. “It’s gorgeous!”

“It’s a New Year’s gift from Cole.”

Dani examined it. “Very nice,” she said, turning to Cole. “You be good to my friend, you hear?”

“I hear you,” he said, his gaze fixed firmly on Allison’s face. “It will be my pleasure.”

Click here to download the entire book: Mona Ingram’s Loving From Afar>>>

 

What Would You do if Your Perfect Life Was Shattered by a Series of Uncontrollable Events? LOVING FROM AFAR by Mona Ingram – 17 Straight Rave Reviews & KND Romance of The Week!

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4.6 stars – 17 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

What would you do if your perfect life was shattered by a series of uncontrollable events? Allison Ransome loses everything; everything except her love for Cole Slater, the young man she planned to marry after graduation. Gutted by Allison’s perceived treachery, Cole moves on with his life. Ten years later, he returns home, telling himself he will avoid the woman who broke his heart. But nothing goes as planned. Can Allison and Cole forget the past and come to terms with the events that tore them apart?

Author’s Note: To paraphrase a reader: “This book has some tough, emotional parts, but it’s honest.” At its core it’s a heartfelt romance.

Loving From Afar is Book One in The Women of Independence series. Book Two, tentatively titled The Last Goodbye, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2013.

Reviews

“How do you repair the seemingly unrepairable? That really is the basis of this book. The tragedies of life encroach on these characters in such a way that you, along with them just can’t seem to find a way out of the path that each of them has taken by choice or by circumstance. This book is at times gut wrenching and heart breaking but it is also life and love affirming. So how do you repair the seemingly unrepairable? Read this book and find out.” – Amazon Review

“This book wasn’t like any other romance I’ve read. It grabbed my interest from the beginning and then took me on an emotional ride that kept drawing me back to the story when I really should have been doing other things! Some tough emotional parts, but I liked that… it was an honest story, told from the heart. Looking forward to the next story in the series.” – Amazon Review

“I recommend any book this Author has out and any future story she will share with us in the future. She truly has a gift.” – Sharing a Bit of Romance blog

*  *  *

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A Free Excerpt from Mona Ingram’s Fallen Angel, Our Romance of the Week

Mona Ingram’s Fallen Angel:

by Mona Ingram
3.7 stars – 6 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
Laura MacLeod doesn’t need an intervention to know she’s in trouble. A paediatric nurse on an oncology ward, she has seen her share of suffering. But when tragedy touches her personally, she falls apart and accepts help in the form of pain killers. She becomes rapidly addicted, and her downward spiral is humiliating as well as life-changing. Fresh from rehab, she travels to the Okanagan Valley, where she has agreed to perform menial work at a winery for several months.F-18 fighter pilot Bradley Jamieson has witnessed the horrors of war in Afghanistan, resulting in the loss of his ability to speak. Weary from the aftermath of war, he accepts his friend’s invitation to visit his winery. Unable to understand how a beautiful woman like Laura could throw away her life by taking drugs, he is determined to avoid her. But the more he sees of this gentle woman, the more he’s attracted to her. The summer sun isn’t the only thing generating heat in the valley. Laura and Bradley battle their their growing attraction for one another while fighting their inner demons. Can these two troubled souls find the peace they desire, or will reality bring them crashing back down to earth?
(This is a sponsored post)

The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:


Chapter One

Laura didn’t need an intervention to know she had problems, which was why she was doubly surprised when she walked into her grandmother’s house and saw all the people who, for whatever reason, still loved her.

Time seemed to stand still. With one hand on the screen door and the other clutching the door frame she contemplated turning around and leaving. At least long enough to down another pill. For one irrational moment she was thankful that she’d showered and washed her hair this morning. As if that meant they’d go easy on her. But she could see from the five determined pairs of eyes that no one here was going to cut her any slack. That’s the way it worked, wasn’t it…on those television shows? Her throat went dry and she looked at her grandmother, who was seated next to her father on the couch.

“Could I get something to drink, please?” She gave a weak smile. “Diet Coke if you have any, Gran.” She started to make her way toward the kitchen but Jenna, her friend since childhood, jumped up. “I’ll get it.”

They’re probably afraid I’ll make a run for it out the back door, she thought to herself. And they may be right. The shock was beginning to wear off, and she took in the two remaining people in the group. Rachel Ellison, the head nurse from St. Mark’s and a woman she didn’t recognize.

The woman stood up and motioned for Laura to sit down in the big chair in the corner. Laura almost giggled; it reminded her of a wedding shower where the bride-to-be was the center of attention.

“My name is Myrna Hyslop. I’m an intervention specialist and I’m here to help your friends and family.”

Jenna came back into the room. Ice cubes clinked in a tall glass and she held a can of coke in the other hand. She placed both items on the table beside Laura and gave her friend a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Love you” she murmured, then went back to the other side of the room and sat down.

Laura poured half of the coke with a trembling hand and took a deep swallow. It tasted great, but what she’d really like is another oxycodone to go with it. She tried to remember when she’d taken the last one, but her memory was fuzzy. She set the glass back down, frowning with concentration. Her memory was deserting her frequently these days, and she didn’t like it.

There were times, like right now, when she couldn’t even remember what had sent her down this path to self-destruction. But then the memories would come flooding back and she’d feel herself falling even deeper…if that was possible…into the black void that was currently her life.

She forced herself to look at the people gathered in her grandmother’s living room. Her father, divorced from her mother for ten years now. Always there for her. It was her father who’d supported her when she announced her decision to become a nurse. He was the best, and she’d been genuinely delighted for him when he told her a few weeks ago that he’d found a woman to share the rest of his life with. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name right now, but her father was happy and that’s all that mattered.

Next to her father was her Gran. As long as she could remember, a stable force in her life and a source of unconditional love. As a child, she’d spent at least two weeks a year here at her grandmother’s house in the Shaughnessy district of Vancouver. Those had been some of the happiest times of her life.

Rachel Ellison. Head Nurse at the hospital, and her supervisor. It was only a little over a month since Laura had fallen at work and broken her arm at work. The cast had come off two days ago and she massaged her arm, trying once more to recall what had precipitated that fall. She hated to admit it, but she couldn’t remember that either. At least she’d done one thing right. She’d stashed away a supply of oxycodone before the accident. The doctor wouldn’t prescribe any pain meds for her after the fall, informing her that a broken arm didn’t warrant anything more than Tylenol, and besides a stronger pain killer could prove addictive. She’d almost laughed out loud at that, but had managed to nod in solemn agreement.

Jenna Harkness. Her closest friend since childhood. They’d grown up together in Quesnel, had done volunteer work at the local hospital, and had shared everything. Even when Laura had gone to Vancouver for her nurses’ training, they’d remained close. Laura had been there when Jenna married Drew, and had rushed to see each of her children only days after their birth. Her friend’s eyes were all shimmery with tears, and she wondered if Jenna was about to tell her that she was no longer godmother to Hayley and Mark. The idea was insupportable, and for the first time she felt real fear.

“…which is why your family and friends are here for you today.” The intervention specialist was speaking but Laura hadn’t heard a word. What was her name again? She turned toward the other woman, hoping that her expression didn’t reveal what she was thinking. That she didn’t belong here. Her family were wonderful to be so caring, but her current state was only temporary. She’d be back up to speed any time now.

She took another drink, playing for time. She’d come to love the sound of ice cubes recently. They signalled good times ahead. She frowned again. They were supposed to be good times, but in recent weeks she’d often wake up in the morning not remembering what had happened after the second drink in her favourite bar. She stared into the bottom of the glass. She’d better cut back on the drinking, or she wouldn’t be in any shape to go back to work.

She looked at the faces around the room and put on a conciliatory smile. “I’ve been drinking too much” she said, nodding as she spoke to let them know she accepted the seriousness of her problem. “And I promise to cut back right away.”

Nobody responded. They didn’t have to; it was clear that they didn’t believe a word of what she said. This was going to be tougher than she thought.

“Okay, you’re right. I won’t just ‘cut back’. I’ll stop drinking completely.” She tried another smile and held up the arm that had been broken, flexing her fingers as she spoke. “I’ll be fit for work soon and I need all my senses for that.” She looked directly at her supervisor, who was looking at her oddly. “Rachel knows what I mean, right?”

The Head Nurse looked at the intervention specialist who nodded, then turned her attention back to Laura. “You’re not coming back to work. I’m sorry, Laura, but I can’t afford to have you back on the floors.” She gave her head a little shake. “I’d planned to talk to you the day you had your accident. In retrospect, I should have realized what was going on, but it never crossed my mind that you had a substance abuse problem. You were skating on thin ice then, but now you’ve gone right over the edge.”

Laura wanted to tell her she was mixing her metaphors, but something held her back. “How can you possibly say that? I haven’t seen you since I got the cast on.” Her tone was getting desperate, but she couldn’t stop herself. “I’m much better now.”

For the first time she saw something like pity in Rachel’s eyes. “Laura, we saw each other a couple of weeks ago, at the staff picnic. You don’t remember?”

“Come on, Rachel. Stop kidding.” She glanced around at the others in the room. They were all looking at her gravely and her world seemed to tilt. She looked back at her supervisor and when she spoke her voice was little more than a whisper. “I don’t remember.”

“You were pretty high when you got there, so I’m not surprised.”

Laura didn’t intend to give up without a fight. “Come on, Rach, everybody has too much to drink once in a while; it’s how we blow off steam. You know that.”

“Your drinking is only part of your problems.  It wasn’t until I discussed the situation with Dr. Rowland that I started to put the pieces together. He told me that you’d been taking oxycodone for a couple of months before you broke your arm.”

“And you believed Stew?” Laura was incensed. “He’s the one who gave it to me in the first place.”

She closed her eyes, dropped her head. She wanted to snatch the words back, but it was too late. Her first instinct was to blame Rachel for tricking her, but that lasted only a second. It wasn’t Rachel’s fault she’d become addicted. It wasn’t even Stew’s fault, much as she’d like to share the blame. She was an RN, for God’s sake; she’d known the consequences of self-medicating with oxycodone long before he suggested that she take one to help her get through the bleak days after Mattie died.

They all spoke after that. Her father, her grandmother, and finally her friend Jenna. Ashamed and resentful at the same time, she heard very little of what they had to say. She knew they loved her and wanted to help her, but what right did they have to interfere in her life? It wasn’t until Jenna spoke of her children that she raised her head and actively listened to her friend.

“I’m not giving up on you, Laura. You’re godmother to my children, and I need you to be in their lives. What if something should happen to Drew and me, God forbid? You promised to take care of them, and I need you to be well. Please say you’ll go.”

Go where? Laura wondered. Either they hadn’t discussed that part, or she hadn’t been listening. But did it matter? Not really. She knew what was in store for her; the location was the least of her concerns.

She knew better than to ask if she could go home. After brief but tearful goodbyes, the Hyslop woman bundled her into a large SUV and pulled out into traffic.

Laura was silent for the first half hour, watching downtown Vancouver slide by outside the window. “Where are we going?” she asked eventually, as they crossed the Lions Gate Bridge.

“Please call me Myrna”, the woman said with a thin smile. “We’re going to Vancouver Island. There’s an excellent rehab center not far from Nanaimo, so we’ll be crossing from Horseshoe Bay.” She seemed remarkably upbeat. “I always enjoy the ferry crossing.”

Laura remained silent for several moments. “What about my apartment?” she asked finally. She hoped it wasn’t too much of a mess.

“Your father’s going to take care of that for you.”

Laura absorbed this information with a silent nod. She twirled a piece of hair around her finger and rubbed it against her lips. It was a gesture she used to make to calm herself when she heard her parents arguing, or when her mother had been particularly vile toward her. She dropped the piece of hair and glanced sideways to see if Myrna had noticed, but the woman was manoeuvring through traffic, approaching Highway 1.

“What about clothes, toothbrush, stuff like that? And who’s paying for all this?” Laura hadn’t meant to sound belligerent, but the words came out that way.

Myrna narrowed her eyes.

She probably thinks I’m a spoiled bitch. Maybe she’s right. She smiled in an attempt to let the other woman know she meant well.

“Your father sent along a suitcase for you. You won’t need a huge wardrobe at Water’s Edge, but he and his new lady friend picked out some nice things for you.”

“You saw what they bought?”

The other woman nodded. “Yes, it’s part of my job. You’ll be checked again when you arrive just to make sure. As for the money, your father and grandmother have paid for that as well.”

“I can afford to pay for it.” Laura didn’t know why she’d said that. Maybe she just needed to assert herself. Everything else seemed to have been decided for her.

“Good. But that’s between you and your father now.”

They fell silent after that. Laura scarcely noticed the sparkling blue of the Pacific as they neared the ferry terminal. She was startled when Myrna spoke as they waited in line to board the ferry.

“I’ve made this trip many times.” She glanced across at Laura. “It never fails to inspire me, knowing that people like you have the strength to turn their lives around.”

Traffic started to move. Ferry staff motioned them forward impatiently and Myrna guided the SUV up the ramp and into the gaping mouth of the ferry.

Laura felt as though she were being swallowed whole. She fought the panic that threatened to engulf her as they drove into the gloom of the parking level. Until now, she hadn’t given serious thought to what lay in store for her. She took several deep, calming breaths. Whatever was coming, it couldn’t be worse than what she’d already been through…could it?

Chapter Two

Bradley Jamieson watched the shaft of sunlight move slowly across the bed. He willed it to stop, but it moved inexorably toward him. Soon it would be in his eyes, he’d be forced to move, and the woman in bed beside him would know he was awake.

She was lovely, no doubt about that. They’d been introduced a couple of weeks ago and he’d been attracted to her, but had been hesitant to ask her out on a date. Finally he’d texted her, and she’d replied almost immediately. Last night had been wonderful; an intimate dinner sitting side by side in a booth at his favourite restaurant, followed by a leisurely walk along the waterfront. He couldn’t recall who had initiated the first kiss, but it had been long and hot; there was no doubt that they both wanted more.

The sex had been fantastic…for both of them. A small smile tilted the corner of his mouth as he recalled the number of times she’d told him what a wonderful lover he was.

She stirred in bed just as the sun hit him in the face. It was pointless to pretend any longer.

“Oh, you’re awake” she said, propping her head on a hand and looking down at him with a smile. “Did you sleep well?”

He nodded. He’d had a rare night free of nightmares. That in itself was worth celebrating. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and rubbed at the stubble on his cheeks. The woman…what was her name…ah yes, Alexa…scooted across the bed and was snuggling up behind him, pressing her breasts into his back.

“What are you going to do today?” She asked, fingers tiptoeing across his abdomen and heading south.

He grabbed her hand to halt its progress and brought it to his lips. He must be mad not to want more sex, but the price was too high. He knew what would happen afterward; she’d want to talk. They all wanted to talk, and it was more than he could take. They wanted to pry into his private life, to find out why he couldn’t talk, and each one in her own unique way wanted to “fix” him.

He kissed her hand again and tenderly touched her cheek, trying to soften the refusal. He liked her, he really did. She was gorgeous to look at, and intelligent, but he didn’t want to talk and she did. In that respect, she was no different from the others.

He grabbed his BlackBerry. Leaving town today, he typed and showed it to her. Sorry he added, had great time last night. He didn’t have to tell her that he’d only just decided to take his friend up on his offer of a bed for the summer–in exchange for working in the vineyards.

She gave him a sad smile. “You’re not going to call me again, are you?” It was more of a statement than a question.

He smiled back, and shook his head. It was one thing he’d learned a long time ago: don’t complicate your life with lies.

“I thought not.” She kissed him lightly on the lips. “You’re a nice guy, Bradley Jamieson. If you come back to town and change your mind, I’d love to hear from you.”

And with that, she slipped into her clothes and was gone. Bradley stared at the closed door for several long minutes after she’d left and wondered if his life would ever get back to normal.

* * *

It didn’t take long for Bradley to get organized and on the road. He’d texted Matt at the winery and been assured that he was still welcome. He’d laughed at the next line: ‘Will that old beast make the trip?’

The Norton was Bradley’s favourite means of transportation. There was something freeing about being on the bike, and it had been thoroughly serviced over several weeks the previous month; Bradley trusted it to make the trip.

It was noon by the time he set out from Comox. He planned to cross the ferry at Nanaimo and drive into the Fraser Valley tonight. Motels were plentiful in the area; hopefully he’d have a good sleep and make it to the Okanagan around noon the next day.

As he crossed the bridge from the Comox side of town to Courtenay, the Snowbirds, Canada’s aerobatic team, streaked across the sky, practicing one of their manoeuvres. The Tutors were small compared to the F-18s that Bradley had flown in Afghanistan, but he still stopped to look every time he heard a jet engine. He paused by the side of the road to watch them, marvelling at the precision flying. The aircraft dispersed and he gunned the motor, sliding smoothly into traffic. It was times like this that he felt guilty. Trained at great expense to be a fighter pilot, he was useless now. Okay, so he wasn’t to blame, but that knowledge didn’t help in the dark of the night, when he woke up to the horror of his memories, knowing that in his dream he’d been trying to scream, but unable to make a sound.

He rolled onto the five o’clock ferry with the other bikers, sent to their usual spot at the front. ‘First on, first off’ was their mantra. It was all part of the freedom of traveling by bike. He made his way to the deck, claiming a spot on one of the lifejacket storage containers. Here, with his back resting against the hull of the ship, he could watch not only the departure, but the eclectic mix of tourists that flocked to Vancouver Island every year. Virtually every European language was represented today, along with the ever-present, much-travelled Aussies and Asians. He sat back and closed his eyes, soaking up the sun. He hadn’t bothered to shave before leaving home, and he counted on his appearance to fend off anyone who would otherwise want to talk.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?” He couldn’t quite place the accent. He opened one eye and shook his head. Her shoes identified her as European. There was something about their footwear that gave them away every time. That and the accent, of course. If he had to guess, he’d say she was Dutch. He made a broad gesture, indicating that she should make herself comfortable, and closed his eyes again. She pushed her backpack against the bulkhead, then sat back, resting against it. Her scent invaded his nostrils; it was something fresh, light and decidedly feminine.

Don’t even think about it, he told himself.

She raised a hand in greeting and a young man came and sat beside her. Bradley smiled to himself; he didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

* * *

Bradley Jamieson was one of those rare men who really loved women. At least the ones he’d been involved with told him he was a rarity, and judging by comments from the men he’d served with, they were right. The couple beside him were chattering away in a language he didn’t recognize, and he relaxed, thinking back to his younger days.

He’d grown up in Comox, home to Canadian Forces Base Comox. It was inevitable, he supposed, his desire to become a pilot. He knew every aircraft type that flew in and out of CFB Comox – American as well as Canadian. But even back then, he’d known that you just didn’t walk through the gates and sign up. As a matter of fact, you were lucky if they even considered you, and a degree or two always helped.

And so in the summer holidays, while his friends went fishing or chased girls, he worked at every job he could find, saving money for his education. The grocery store paid the best; he made himself available for work any time they called, but it wasn’t enough. In between, he mowed lawns and did yard clean-up.

It was a hot summer day when he first noticed her…really noticed her.

“Bradley” she called from behind the screen door. “Could you help me with something?”

He looked up, trying to recall her name. Oh yes, it was Mrs. Fraser. Her husband worked at the base, and according to her, had little time to spare for yard work. He’d noticed her several times that day; she seemed to be watching him through the kitchen window. He hoped she was happy with his work.

He wiped the sweat from his brow as he walked up the back steps. She opened the screen door and stood there, almost as if she were posing. She had on some sort of a top that tied under her breasts, leaving her midriff bare, and incredibly short shorts for an older woman. At least she seemed older to him. He tried not to look at her, but she had an amazing body and she wasn’t shy about showing it.

“What is it?” he said, looking around.

She walked across the kitchen and he noticed that she was wearing what the school girls called ‘wedgies’ on her feet. They made her legs go on forever. He swallowed painfully.

She bent over as if to lift a cardboard box from the floor. “This box is too heavy.” He could see the crease of skin where her legs joined her buttocks and got an instant erection.

She straightened up and turned back to him. “I was hoping to move this out to the storage shed, but it’s just too heavy.” Her gaze dropped to the level of his crotch and her lips parted. “Would you do it for me?”

“Sure.” He didn’t know how he got the word out; his tongue felt thick and clumsy in his throat. She stood back a bit and he picked up the box. “The storage shed,” he said, trying not to look at her cleavage.

“Yes, and then come back in. I’ve made some lemonade.”

He practically ran to the shed and shoved the box into the first spot he could find. It was all he could do not to race up the steps when he got back to the house.

“So,” she said, handing him a glass of lemonade. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

He swallowed half the glass in one gulp. He wasn’t quite sure where this conversation was going. “Sort of,” he said, wondering if she could tell he was stretching the truth.

“Aha.” She took a small sip from her glass, eyeing him over the rim. “And what do you do for fun?”

“I, ah, well, we…” How could he explain the fumbling and groping in the back seat of his friend’s car?

“Do you have sex?” She came closer. There was a musky smell about her. It was unfamiliar but oddly arousing. “I mean, I hear about young people these days and it all sounds so different from when I was your age.” She placed her glass on the counter then took his and placed it beside hers. She was so close to him now that her breasts were almost brushing against his chest. At least when she was this close she couldn’t see that he was hard again.

Or maybe she could. She ran a finger over his lips and his mouth dropped open. She slid the finger inside his mouth and then withdrew it, putting it in her own mouth. He was afraid that he was going to come right there, in her kitchen. That would be mortifying and he closed his eyes, trying to regain control.

She touched his face again with her fingertips, tracing the line of his jaw, then down his neck, resting her hand against his chest. she tweaked his nipple, and he groaned aloud.

“You’re really a very handsome young man,” she said. Her voice had changed. It was husky, and when he dared to look into her eyes they had darkened. She slid a hand lower and cupped his erection. “Would you like to make love to me?” she asked, running her hand up and down the length of him.

He could only nod.

“Then come with me,” she said, and walked up the half flight of stairs in the split-level home.

He followed her into a cool, dark bedroom. “What about your husband?” he croaked. He wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anything, but he didn’t relish being beat up by an irate husband.

“He’s out of town on deployment,” she murmured, stepping out of her shorts. Her halter top followed and she stood before him in nothing but a lacy white thong. His fingers itched to touch her but he sensed that she was enjoying revealing herself to him. With a slow, tantalizing motion she slid the thong down until she stood in front of him, completely naked. Her pubic hair had been trimmed and he stared at it. He’d never seen anything like that before, not that he had much experience with naked women.

“Know what I was doing this morning while you were working outside?” She lay back on the bed, watching him undress.

He could care less what she’d been doing. All he could think about was what was being offered and he wanted to get it before she changed her mind. He fumbled with the zipper on his jeans.

“I was watching you and wondering what it would be like to have sex with you.”

He tore off his shorts and his erection sprang free.

“Oh, come to mama,” she said, reaching for him. “I don’t imagine you want to wait any longer, do you?”

He thrust into her. Once, twice, and then he exploded like nothing he’d ever experienced before. He lay there for a few moments, catching his breath, and then raised his head. “I’m sorry” he said, and meant it. “That wasn’t much good for you, was it?”

She smiled. “No, but you show great promise. Next time will be better.” She rolled out from under him and took his hand, guiding it to her innermost recesses. “In the meantime I’ll show you a sure fire way to please a woman.”

And she did. That afternoon and many more throughout that magical summer. She was an inventive teacher and he was an eager student. By the time school started again and her husband had returned from his posting, Bradley had acquired more sexual experience than most men gain in a lifetime.

* * *

The ferry shuddered as it moved away from the dock. Bradley opened his eyes, disoriented for a moment. Then he remembered where he was. He supposed he should go and get in line for some food. He didn’t mind the wait; it was something to do during the crossing. Besides, he needed some energy and his wits about him for the hectic pace of traffic on the mainland.

Chapter Three

Laura had been to Vancouver Island several times before. Most recently with Stew, a man she’d thought she might get serious about. They’d gone to Long Beach on the west coast of the island for a long weekend. Back before her world had fallen apart.

Everything looked different today as they pulled into Nanaimo. Even though it was sunny, the island appeared to hunker down, as though something bad were about to happen. Laura gave a small shudder and pulled her jacket more closely around her shoulders.

“Are you all right?” Myrna’s tone was kind. Laura knew that the other woman was watching her carefully for the first signs of withdrawal.

“I’m okay,” she replied, forcing herself to stay calm. She was starting to feel restless, but was determined not to show it. As if her actions mattered now. But for some reason, they did. She wanted to hold it together at least until she got to the rehab facility.

“What’s the name of the place we’re going?” she asked.

“Water’s Edge.”

“Sounds like a resort, or a golf course or something.”

Myrna smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?” They were on the highway now, and she was signalling a move into an exit lane. “You’ll hate it for the first few days of course, but I’m sure you’re expecting that.”

Laura twirled a piece of hair around her finger. “I wonder if I’ll ever get my job back.” She looked at the other woman. “I love nursing, especially paediatrics.”

Myrna shot her a sympathetic look. “Rachel said you were a terrific nurse. She cared enough about your future to contact your family and initiate the intervention.”

Laura stared out the window. “I was a terrific nurse. Past tense.” She was silent for a few moments. “But I only have myself to blame if they never take me back.”

“If it comes to that, there are lots of other things you can do with your skills.”

“I suppose so, but it won’t be the same.” For the first time today, tears came to her eyes. “It’ll never be the same.”

* * *

Laura’s childhood had been like no one else’s. That is, no one she knew. She’d been born beautiful; at least that’s what her mother told her…constantly. She was born and grew up in Quesnel, where her father owned a dealership that sold heavy equipment. Unlike her friends, who viewed their parents as infallible and rock solid, Laura recognized at an early age that her parents didn’t belong together. Her mother complained about living “in the sticks” and bemoaned the lack of what she termed “culture” and a “social life”.

Her parents were constantly at war over how she should be brought up. “It’s not ladylike,” he mother shouted, when shortly after her twelfth birthday Laura announced she’d been riding with Jenna and helping out at the stables.

Her father, as usual, was on her side. “For God’s sake Carolyn, the Queen rides a horse. What do you expect the child to do?”

“Have you looked at your daughter recently?” Her mother stabbed him in the chest with a finger. “Really looked at her? She’s a beautiful child, Hugh, and she could have an amazing career ahead of her as a model.”

Laura cringed. Why did her mother always have to focus on her looks? She’d examined herself in the mirror, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

The arguments raged on, but her father stood his ground. It wasn’t until Laura heard the dreaded word ‘divorce’ that she decided to take matters into her own hands.

She found her father on the sales lot, in the cab of a backhoe with a prospective buyer. He broke into a smile at the sight of her. “Hi, Sweetheart. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

Laura waited in his office, reading a book she’d taken out of the library that afternoon.

“This is a surprise,” her father said, filling the room with his presence. He looked at her carefully. “Is anything wrong?”

“No.” Laura used one of her father’s business cards for a bookmark and returned the book to her backpack. “Dad, I’ve been thinking. I could try this modeling thing. Especially if it would make Mom happy.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed and he was silent for a few moments. She sensed that he was struggling to formulate a reply. “Laura, I understand what you’re trying to do, but I’m not sure that anything would make your mother happy at this point in her life.”

She recognized the truth in what he said, but she had to try. She loved her mother…perhaps not as much as she loved her father, but if they divorced over this, she’d blame herself for not trying harder.

“No, really Dad. I want to try it.” She gave him what she hoped was a convincing smile. “Summer’s coming up so it wouldn’t take time away from school. It could be fun.”

He looked at her long and hard. “If that’s what you want, it’s okay with me. But you have to promise me one thing. If it ever stops being fun, or if you feel you’re not being treated well, you stop. I’ll back you up one hundred percent. No questions asked.”

The change in her mother was remarkable. She planned her assault on the agencies in Vancouver like a general mapping out a campaign. It seemed that there wasn’t a thing about her daughter that couldn’t be improved by a visit to a salon. “Only the best, mind you,” she said. “I know the perfect place in Vancouver. We couldn’t possibly trust your hair or brows to the local people.”

Laura tried not to notice the triumph in her mother’s voice when she announced that “her daughter” wanted to try modeling. After all, the constant bickering between her parents had died down. That was progress, wasn’t it?

Her mother put Laura on a strict diet. “It’s only for a couple of weeks, child. You need to lose ten pounds before Kristof photographs you.”

“But Mom, I’m not fat.” Laura was sitting on her bed.

“No, of course not, but the camera has a way of making a person look heavier.” Her mother glanced at herself in the full-length mirror on the wall and frowned. “Trust me.”

Her father drove them to Vancouver and saw them settled with Gran. “You remember what I said,” he reminded her, giving her a hug before he left. “Call me anytime you want to come home.”

And so it started. Laura had to admit that it was fun; being pampered, being photographed, the endless shopping.

“How do you know so much about this?” she asked her mother. They were sitting on the outdoor patio of a downtown hotel. Laura smiled up at their server and waved away the offer of dessert.

“I dabbled in modeling when I was younger.” Her mother sat up a little straighter and Laura saw her through new eyes. Her mother must have been very attractive when she was younger.

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yes, well, it didn’t go very far.” Her smile was brittle. “I wasn’t the type they were looking for, evidently.” She gazed off into the distance for a moment, then returned her attention to her daughter. “But you’re different.” She tapped the portfolio that rested against her chair. “The camera loves you, as they say. We should see some good results next week.”

Her mother was right. Of the three agencies they visited that week, they had two immediate call-backs, resulting in two offers of representation.

“Daddy,” cried Laura over the phone. “An agency wants to represent me. They have a major client who’s launching a new line and they want me to be their new face.”

Her father laughed. “You sound like a pro already.”

“Yeah, well I don’t know about that. The contract is humongous.”

“You haven’t signed it yet, have you?”

“No, Mom’s reading it over before I sign it. She has to sign it too.”

“I want you to fax me a copy right away.” Her father’s tone had changed. “Your mom has done well to get you this far Sweetie, but contracts are serious business, and at this point we need the advice of someone who doesn’t have so much invested in this.”

She didn’t quite understand what her father meant, but when she told her mother, she went ballistic.

“No!” she cried. “Absolutely not! Who does he think he is, trying to control your career when he’s done nothing to encourage you?”

Laura opened her mouth to set her mother straight, and then thought better of it. “He’s not trying to control my career, Mom. He just wants his lawyer to read the contract.”

“No.” Her mother spit out the word.

“Then I guess I can’t sign it.” She was quaking inside, but she held her mother’s gaze. “I promised.”

Carolyn MacLeod glared at her daughter. There was malice in that glare, and Laura realized in that moment that she’d done nothing to help her parents’ marriage. As a matter of fact, this latest development might just tear it apart. But she had a lot invested in this modeling venture, and she wanted to see it through.

“All right.” Her mother tossed the contract on the table and glanced across the room toward the computer. “You know how all this computer stuff works. Can you send a fax on that machine?”

“Yes, or I can scan it and send it as an attachment.”

“Whatever.” Her mother started to leave the room but paused at the door and turned back. “I’m doing this for you, you know. I hope you appreciate that.”

Laura knew better but she smiled. “I know, Mom and I do appreciate it. I really do.”

* * *

Laura became the face of a hot new designer and over the next two years appeared in print and television ads for every one of his wildly successful products. Her father had ensured that all of her earnings were deposited in a bank account in her name. Her mother was predictably furious, but she was bathing in the reflected glow of her daughter’s success and didn’t raise much of a fuss.

* * *

After an exhausting photo shoot for a magazine spread Laura couldn’t wait to get home. “I’ve missed you.” Jenna gave her a big hug, then held her at arm’s length. “You look so different in those magazines. Sometimes I think I don’t know you anymore.”

“Don’t be silly.” Laura heard a horse nickering and looked toward the barn. “Is that Ciero? How’s she doing?” Jenna’s horse had been heavily pregnant the last time she saw her.

“She had the most beautiful little foal just two days ago. I’ve been waiting till you see her so we can name her together.”

The girls ran to the stall where Ciero greeted them cautiously, maintaining a position between her foal and the two girls.

“She’s beautiful,” sighed Laura, tears pooling inexplicably in her eyes. “I’d forgotten how I love the sight of a new foal.”

Jenna’s eyebrows drew together. “Why are you crying?”

Laura brushed away the tears. “I’m not crying.” She attempted to smile. “Not really.”

They wandered out into the sunlight.

“It’s just that I miss all this.” She made a broad gesture, encompassing the ranch and the green hills that rose in the distance. “I miss home.” She glanced sideways at her friend. “Running back and forth to Vancouver was fun at first, but it’s getting to be a real drag. I’m not sure how much longer I want to do it. I guess seeing the new foal reminded me that there’s a lot more to life than posing in front of a camera.”

They leaned their arms against a rail, watching the horses in the paddock. “My contract comes up for renewal in a couple of months and my mom has already negotiated terms for another year. She didn’t even ask me. I’m supposed to sign by the end of the week.”

“Huh.” Jenna didn’t know what else to say.

“My Dad says I can quit any time I want.” She looked at her friend. “Remember a couple of years ago when we tried to volunteer at the hospital?”

Jenna grinned. “Yeah, they said we were too young.”

“Well, that’s what I’d really like to do. I want to be able to play on the basketball team, and volunteer at the hospital. Who knows, I might even get a boyfriend.”

“As long as it’s not Drew.”

“As if.” Laura nudged her friend. “So you guys are serious?”

A dreamy expression came over Jenna’s face. “Oh yeah. Don’t laugh, but I’ve already decided. I want to marry him.”

For the briefest moment Laura was jealous. “You know something? I think you will.” She gave her friend a hug. “I think I’ll go home and tell Mom what I’ve decided.”

* * *

Laura experienced the full force of her mother’s wrath. In the space of minutes, she went from being the golden girl to ‘an unappreciative slut’. When her father came home from work her mother turned on him, accusing him of sabotaging all of her hard work.

The tirade went on for days until Laura could stand it no longer. She reluctantly confided in her father, who immediately whisked her off to Vancouver for a quiet stay with her grandmother. By the time she returned home, her mother had moved out. She never returned, and two years later, Carolyn and Hugh MacLeod were divorced.

Laura didn’t spend a penny of the money she earned. Her father gave her an allowance all through high school. Once a year they’d have what he called a ‘board meeting’ where he’d take her out to dinner and they’d discuss the investments he’d made on her behalf. The totals grew every year, thanks to her father’s prudence, but the amounts were so large they didn’t seem real. She was a wealthy young woman.


Click here to buy Fallen Angel now!

Mona Ingram’s Fallen Angel is our new Romance of the Week!

Mona Ingram’s Fallen Angel is here to sponsor our list of free Romance titles in the Kindle store:

by Mona Ingram
3.7 stars – 6 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Laura MacLeod doesn’t need an intervention to know she’s in trouble. A paediatric nurse on an oncology ward, she has seen her share of suffering. But when tragedy touches her personally, she falls apart and accepts help in the form of pain killers. She becomes rapidly addicted, and her downward spiral is humiliating as well as life-changing. Fresh from rehab, she travels to the Okanagan Valley, where she has agreed to perform menial work at a winery for several months. F-18 fighter pilot Bradley Jamieson has witnessed the horrors of war in Afghanistan, resulting in the loss of his ability to speak. Weary from the aftermath of war, he accepts his friend’s invitation to visit his winery. Unable to understand how a beautiful woman like Laura could throw away her life by taking drugs, he is determined to avoid her. But the more he sees of this gentle woman, the more he’s attracted to her. The summer sun isn’t the only thing generating heat in the valley. Laura and Bradley battle their their growing attraction for one another while fighting their inner demons. Can these two troubled souls find the peace they desire, or will reality bring them crashing back down to earth?

 

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Our Romance of the Week Sponsor, Mona Ingram’s Full Circle, Offers This Free Excerpt!

Mona Ingram’s Full Circle:

by Mona Ingram
4.3 stars – 7 Reviews

 

Here’s the set-up:

Bella Thompson has news: she’s pregnant. But before she can tell her boyfriend Jeffrey, he shatters her with the news that he’s going to marry someone else. The textile mill, owned by Jeffrey’s father, is the town’s main employer, but textile mills all over the country are losing market share, and Lambert Textiles is no exception. Bella is given a choice: Go to Atlanta and give up her child for adoption, or leave town and raise her child on her own. The choice is clear, and she travels to California, where she settles in Santa Monica. Determined to make her own way in the world and return to Willow Bend on her own terms, Bella puts all her energies into building a successful business with her partner Rafael Vargas. But at what cost? Follow Bella as she struggles to balance her passion for business with the ultimate prize…love.

The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:


Prologue

The private jet had been descending for several minutes now. Bella shuffled the papers she’d been holding and put them away in her briefcase. Trying to study the reports had been a waste of time…a futile attempt to divert her thoughts. She looked across the low table and into the eyes of the man who had been her partner for the past fifteen years. Sometimes it angered her that he could read her so well whereas she rarely knew what he was thinking. Those dark eyes studied her now, and she thought she caught a hint of sadness behind the sweeping black lashes.

The cabin attendant paused between their chairs. “The captain has asked me to inform you that we’ll be landing in ten minutes.”

Bella glanced up at the young woman. “Would you ask the captain if he could circle Willow Bend before we land? I’d like to see it from the air.” The flight would land at a nearby airport, the Willow Bend facility having closed long since.

“Certainly, Miss Thompson.” The attendant nodded and went forward.

Bella looked out the window. “I’ve never seen Willow Bend from the air,” she murmured. “I wonder if I’ll be able to see any changes since the last time I was here.”

Rafael watched her closely but he remained silent; she hadn’t really expected him to answer.

The aircraft made a slight change of course, then dropped one wing and commenced a slow circle around the town. Sun glinted off the river and an invisible hand tightened around Bella’s heart. She forced herself to continue looking and spotted the high school with its adjoining football field and bleachers. A few blocks beyond that was the section of town where she’d grown up but she couldn’t spot the house among the jumble of roofs. On the gentle rise across the river the homes were more stately; here and there swimming pools flashed brilliant blue in the late afternoon sun.

And there it was. The old Lambert textile mill. Silent these past ten years. She didn’t know what she’d expected to feel when she saw it. After all, her father had worked there most of his life and had lost his job along with hundreds of others in the town. She looked more closely. The heavy wire fence that had once encircled the mill was gone. In its place, strategically placed trees and shrubs lifted their leaves to the sunshine. A few cars and several pickup trucks were parked in the newly paved lot. For the first time since leaving California earlier today Bella experienced a surge of excitement. Excitement mixed with apprehension.

“You’re sure we’re doing the right thing?” she asked, uncharacteristically nervous. “It’s such a big step, opening a new production facility.”

“Bella.” She loved the way he said her name. “We’ve been over this many times.” He looked at her and his gaze softened for a moment. “You’re going to give this town a chance to get back on its feet.” He didn’t need to look down at the mill; he’d been here half a dozen times already. “Besides, it’s too late now.”

Chapter One

Twenty years earlier.

It was overcast the day Bella found out she was pregnant. Madonna was singing Papa Don’t Preach on her bedside radio and she gave a strangled laugh as the words filtered into her consciousness. She held the stick in her hand, backed up unsteadily and sat down on the edge of her bed.

The test confirmed what she already knew. The signs had been there for weeks now, but she’d clung to hope the way a man clings to a life raft in stormy seas. And her life was about to get stormy, she knew that for a fact. With one hand on her stomach she rocked back and forth, slowly accepting the reality of her situation.

She wondered what Jeffrey was doing right now. They didn’t see each other every day, but today was Friday, and they usually grabbed cold drinks and went to “their place” by the river; a quiet, sheltered spot carpeted with pine needles. They jokingly referred to it as their love nest, but it was in fact a place where they dared to dream of a future together. It wouldn’t be easy, they knew that. Bella’s mother was a skilled dressmaker who worked at home, and her father worked at Lambert Textiles, whereas Jeffrey was the son of Edward and Judith Lambert, owners of Lambert Textiles and Willow Bend’s largest employer.

She and Jeffrey had been together since the spring, when he’d broken up with Angela Sterling. At first she couldn’t believe that Jeffrey was interested in her; she didn’t consider herself beautiful like many of the other girls, or sophisticated, like Angela. She smiled to herself, recalling how she’d been so nervous around him at first. But as the days got warmer and she began to know him better she relaxed and accepted the fact that he was interested in her…in what she thought and had to say. The sex had been a natural extension of their growing affection for one another. Bella thought of it as “making love” even though Jeffrey had never used the same term. Come to think of it, he’d never called it anything. She glanced at her watch. He’d be getting out of school and wondering where she was. She’d made an excuse for missing school this afternoon, saying she had a Doctor’s appointment. She’d never lied to him before, but he’d forgive her for this when she told him the news.

Another nervous spasm gripped her stomach. She’d better go find him and get it over with…the longer she waited, the harder it would be. What would she say and how would he respond? Oddly enough, she didn’t have the faintest idea.

She shoved all evidence of the pregnancy kit in her bag, checked her appearance in the mirror and crept downstairs. A murmur of voices reached her from the dining room…or it used to be the dining room before her mother converted it to her workshop and consultation room. When Mom had mentioned a bridal fitting this afternoon Bella had sighed with relief. It was the perfect opportunity to sneak in the back door, go upstairs, and do the test.

The back door closed quietly after her and she went through the gate at the back of the yard and down the lane that ran along the back of the properties on this side of town. Clouds were scudding across the sky and she shivered, even though it was the warmest part of the day. Within minutes she was approaching the river, and her steps quickened.

Jeffrey’s car was parked in the usual spot, partly hidden behind some bushes a quarter of a mile from where they usually met. Her pulse quickened as she pictured him there, sitting on the blanket he always brought, waiting for her.

He wasn’t there, and the blanket wasn’t spread out under the pines. She opened her mouth to call, and then spotted a flash of color down by the river. He’d been wearing her favorite shirt this morning; pale blue denim. She took a few more silent steps on the pine needles and paused for a moment to drink in the sight of him. Dark brown hair curled at the back of his neck, and what she could see of his skin was bronzed with an early summer tan. He bent and picked up a handful of stones, sorted through them and started to skip them on the tranquil waters of the slowly-moving river. Watching him she frowned; his movements were jerky and un-coordinated. Something was bothering him. Maybe his father had been on his case again; asserting himself was a constant battle for Jeffrey. His father expected him to take over the business, but Jeffrey wanted to be a veterinarian. Bella had a feeling his father would win that battle.

She took a few steps closer and he seemed to sense her presence. He turned slowly and she could see at once that he was troubled. Dark smudges of color under his eyes gave him a haunted look and as his gaze met hers the ground shifted beneath her feet. Did he know? Her fingers unconsciously clutched at her bag.

“Jeffrey?” she said tentatively. “Are you okay?”

He looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head. “No,” he replied, his voice little more than a whisper. He closed the gap between them and took her hand. “Come on, let’s go sit on those big rocks” he said, drawing her along the bank of the river. “We have to talk.”

She followed him, heart pounding in her chest. This wasn’t the way this conversation was supposed to go. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was definitely stressed. As a matter of fact, he didn’t look anything like the Jeffrey she knew.

He settled her on a flat rock and sat down across from her. When he finally raised his eyes he looked at her as though trying to memorize her face. Prickles of apprehension crept up Bella’s spine.

The silence lengthened until she could no longer stand it. “What is it?” she asked, knowing instinctively that the answer would change her life. Even more than it had already been changed today.

“There’s no easy way to tell you this, Bella.” His gaze met hers for an instant, then shifted away. “I’m getting married.”

Bella must have heard wrong, because she thought he said he was getting married. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Her voice was surprisingly calm, but her heart was thundering in her chest.

His eyes closed for a moment. “I’m going to marry Angela.”

Bella couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Angela Sterling?”

“Yes.”

“But why?” She could hear the plaintive tone in her voice, but she didn’t care. It was a fair question, and she deserved an answer.

He lowered his head into both hands. “She’s pregnant,” he mumbled. “I found out last night when she came over to the house with her parents.”

This wasn’t happening! Bella leafed through a calendar in her mind. “But how can that be?” she cried. “You broke up with her months ago. How come you’re just finding out now?”

He sat up, his gaze darting around before landing on her face. “She asked me to drive her home after football practice one day last month and we…I…” The words started to tumble out. “She wanted to get back together; she was begging me and I was saying no, but she…” He blushed. “She got me at a weak moment, and we had sex.”

The silence was broken only by the sound of a bumblebee and the river lapping against the shore. “You had sex,” Bella repeated slowly. “While you were supposed to be with me. And now she’s pregnant.”

He nodded.

“And you’re going to marry her.” She had to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.

She stared at him and it was as if she were looking at a stranger. How could he do this to her? Strangely enough, she could actually picture him marrying Angela. “And how does Angela feel about all this?”

“I don’t know.” He raked his fingers though his hair. “No, that’s not true. Actually, she seems quite happy about it.”

Bella could imagine the triumphant look on Angela’s face.

“I’m sorry, Bella.”

“I’ll just bet you are.” Where had that come from? Within the space of a few moments she’d found a backbone she didn’t know she had. She stood up and grabbed the bag that held the confirmation of the life growing within her. “You know something, Jeffrey Lambert?” She stuck her face inches away from his. “You’re not only a cheat but you’re a spineless asshole.” She climbed the bank until she stood over him. “You may think you’re sorry now, but that’s nothing compared to how you’re going to feel when I get through with you.”

“What do you mean?” He looked genuinely concerned.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to divulge our little secret. But some day I’m going to make you pay for this. I don’t know how or when, but trust me, you’ll pay.”

He looked at her as though she’d grown horns. And maybe she had. She gave him one last look then turned and walked away. It wasn’t until she got closer to home that she started to shake. How could she have gone from loving him to hating him in the space of seconds? It had been surprisingly easy, and she had the feeling that she’d need every ounce of anger she could dredge up to help her though the next few weeks.

Chapter Two

“You told him you’re going to make him pay?” Her friend Carla made a face. “What kind of stupid threat is that?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Carla. I was just so disgusted by his admission that he’d had sex with her.” Bella had changed her mind about going home and was sitting with her best friend in Carla’s back yard.

“What did you expect? He’s a guy.”

“What about you and Ethan? You wouldn’t say that about him.”

“That’s different.” Carla paused. “We’re different. I mean, who’d ever think an Italian American and an Irish American could get along for this long without any major battles?”

“It’s been known to happen. Besides, we live in the south. It might be a different story if we lived in New York or something.”

“Ethan wants to go to New York.” Carla picked up her lemonade and studied the condensation rolling down the sides of the glass.

“Whatever for?” Bella had never considered leaving Georgia.

“Two reasons.” Carla put down the glass and looked steadily at her friend. “First one is that he’s got the acting bug and he knows he has to go to New York if he’s going to pursue it seriously. The second is that he doesn’t have confidence in the future of the textile mill.”

“Really?” Bella turned Carla’s words over in her mind. “What makes him think that?”

“He works in shipping, remember? He sees how much raw material comes in and how much finished product is being shipped.” She paused, watching her friend carefully. “He doesn’t think the mill has more than a few years left. He says this town is going to be hit hard when it finally closes.”

Bella spoke her thoughts. “My Dad’s always said that having only one major industry in a town is a dangerous thing.” She glanced at her friend. “It’s like that study we did in Economics this year, isn’t it?”

“Yes.  Our family bakery will be affected, but it will survive; people still need to buy bread. It’s families like yours that will really suffer. Your dad works for the Lamberts and your Mom’s business depends on people with money.” Carla took a large swallow of lemonade. “Speaking of your Mom, does she know about this?” She gestured to Bella’s stomach.

“No, and I don’t know how I’m going to tell her.”

“Ha!” Carla gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “She knows.”

“No she doesn’t.”

“Bella Thompson. Listen to yourself. Your Mom may have had only one child, but she knows what it means when she hears you puking your guts out every morning. Trust me, she knows.”

Bella placed a hand protectively over her stomach. “Do you think so?”

“Oh, yeah,”

Bella looked at her friend thoughtfully. “Assuming you’re right, it will make it easier to tell her.”

“Look, kiddo. I know you’ve only had a couple of hours to think about this, but do you know what you’re going to do?”

Bella had thought about little else. “First of all, I’m going to go to Doc Farnham and get it confirmed.”

“No, no, no.” Carla shook her head emphatically. “Definitely the wrong move.”

“What do you mean?”

Carla scooted forward on her seat. “Listen to me, Bella. We live in a small town in the south. It may be the nineteen nineties, but this is a conservative town where people gossip for a living. Your Dad works for the mill and your Mom takes in sewing.” She sat back and waited for her words to sink in. “I agree that you have to go to a doctor for a check-up, but not here. Not in this town.”

Bella looked at her friend. “How do you know all this?”

Carla shrugged. “My cousin Maria.”

“Oh.” Bella vaguely remembered the abrupt departure of her friend’s cousin.

Carla put a gentle hand on her friend’s arm. “Go home now, Bella. Tell your Mom before your Dad gets home. It’ll make you feel a lot better.”

Bella gave her friend a lopsided smile. “When did you get so wise?”

Carla shook her head. “I just wish I could be of more help.” She squeezed Bella’s arm and let it go. “Call me if you need me, okay?”

* * *

“Bella, could you come in here please?” Her mother called her as soon as she stepped through the back door.

“Hi, Mom.” Bella stood in the open French doors that separated her mother’s workspace from the rest of the downstairs. “How was your day?”

Her mother waved a hand impatiently. “Sit down, dear.” She pushed her chair back from the sewing machine. “Are you pregnant?” Her gaze moved to Bella’s stomach. “I want you to tell me the truth.”

“Yes, I am. How did you know?” It was a stupid thing to say, but she hadn’t expected such a frontal assault and needed time to think.

“I’ve heard you in the mornings.” Her mother looked away, out the window. “Have you confirmed it?”

“I did a pregnancy test today.”

Her mother looked startled. “Where did you buy the test? Not at our CVS, I hope.”

Carla had been right; it was starting already. “No, Mom. I bought it last weekend when I went to the mall near Atlanta with Carla.”

“Does she know?”

“Yes…she’s my best friend. I told her I was going to go to Doc Farnham and she warned me against it.”

“Yes, she would,” her mother said vaguely. “After that business with her cousin Maria.”

“You knew about that?”

“Bella, this is a small town.” Her mother paused, took a deep breath. “A very small town. People talk.” She looked up. “It’s Jeffrey, I suppose.”

Bella nodded. It was evident her mother had been thinking about this.

“Have you told him?” Her mother’s eyes narrowed.

“No.” It was Bella’s turn to look away. She spoke dispassionately. “I went to meet him after I took the test. I’d planned to tell him, but he had some news of his own.”

Her mother waited.

“He’s going to marry Angela.”

“Angela Sterling?” Her mother had made several items for Angela’s mother, wife of the town’s leading attorney. “I got the impression that they broke that off a while ago.”

Bella continued, dry-eyed. “They did, but according to Jeffrey, they had some sort of an encounter last month and now she’s pregnant.”

“What a mess.” Her mother pressed the fingers of one hand into her forehead. “Don’t these young people have any restraint?”

“Was it so different in your day?” Bella surprised herself, but held her ground.

Anger flared in her mother’s eyes, but soon subsided. “No, I suppose not.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, each lost in her thoughts. Finally her mother spoke. “There’s a church in Atlanta that has a home for unwed mothers. I think you should go there.”

Bella studied her mother. She couldn’t blame her, really. Willow Bend was a small town, and a pregnant daughter reflected badly on any mother. “Is that what you want?”

“It’s what I would prefer, yes.” Her mother couldn’t meet her eyes.

“What happens when I get there?” Bella was fairly sure she wouldn’t like the answer.

“You’ll go there as soon as you start to show, and live there. You’ll get medical care, and have your child in the hospital adjoining the facility.” Her mother twisted a piece of fabric nervously. “And after the child is born, it’s given up for adoption.”

Bella nodded. “And then I come back here, like nothing happened?”

Her mother looked up, startled. She obviously hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“No.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said no. I’m not giving my child up for adoption.” Her voice started to rise, but she made no effort to lower it. “How could you suggest such a thing?”

“Lower your voice.” Her mother looked nervously out the front window. “People will hear you.”

“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Bella leaned toward her mother, her voice low and steely. “It’s about making sure people don’t find out. What about me?”

Her mother lifted her head. “You lost your rights when you had sex with that boy.” She stood up and walked toward a side window. “Your Dad and I have talked it over and he’s left all the decisions up to me.” She turned back to Bella. “You either agree to this, or you’re on your own.”

“Just like that?” Somewhere in the back of her mind, Bella admired her mother’s determination.

“Yes. Just like that.” Her mother braced herself against the back of the chair, and Bella noticed that her hand trembled slightly. “There isn’t any other way.”

“All right.”

Her mother took a step forward. “You’ll go to the home?”

“No, I’ll go out on my own.” Bella tried to speak calmly. “But I won’t wait. I’ll go within a couple of weeks.”

Tires crunched on the gravel at the side of the house. “Your father’s home. I’d like to talk to him alone, if you don’t mind. Dinner will be on the table in half an hour.”

* * *

Carla sat on her bed, legs crossed in the lotus position. “So where are you going to go?” Bella had gone to Carla’s place after dinner, relieved that Ethan was in rehearsals for a play.

“I’m not sure yet, but Mom suggested Florida. She seems to think that I’ll need fewer clothes if I go somewhere warm. Plus, I think she wants to be close by when her grandchild is born.”

“Those are good reasons.”

Bella shrugged. “I suppose so.” She was quiet for a few moments. “I’ve never lived on my own before, but for some reason I’m not afraid. I figure if I leave soon, I can get a job for a few months. You know, get settled.”

“What are you going to do for money?” Carla had a good head for money; she’d been paying the bills and doing the banking for the bakery for the past several years.

“Mom’s going to pay my bus fare and give me two thousand dollars.” She looked at her friend. “Is that very much?”

Carla raised both eyebrows. “Not really. You’ll have to pay a month’s rent in advance, and some places want another month as a security deposit. You’ll have to find a job right away.”

“I’ll find something. I’m not worried about that. I’ve even been thinking about getting two jobs, so I can put some aside for when I have the baby.”

Her friend’s eyes filled with tears. “You’ll let me know if you need help, won’t you?”

It was a struggle, but Bella didn’t give in to tears. “You know I will.” She checked her watch. “I’d better get going. Ethan will be here any moment to pick you up.”

Carla walked her to the door. “Remember, I’m driving you to the bus station in Atlanta.”

Bella gave her friend a quick hug. “I remember. Thanks for everything.”

Chapter Three

“I can’t believe you’re actually leaving.” Carla looked around the bus terminal. “Look at all these people!” She brought her attention back to her friend. “I want to remember you here, Bella, so I’m not going to walk you out to the bus.”

Bella tried not to show her relief. “I was hoping you’d say that. Let’s say goodbye and get it over with.” She had a tight hold on her ticket, but her stoicism was starting to slip away. “I’ll contact you as soon as I’m settled, I promise. And as for you, I want to know right away if you and Ethan go to New York. Okay?”

Carla nodded, unable to speak. She pulled her friend into a fierce hug and then turned and walked away. At the outside doors she paused and turned. Tears streaked her face, but she smiled, waved a hand and then disappeared into the brilliant sunshine.

Bella gave a sigh of relief. One more hurdle crossed. She looked up at the departures board, even though the ticket seller had told her which bay to look for. Then she looked down at the ticket in her hand. Los Angeles. Not telling Carla where she was going had been difficult, but the change of plan was something she had to do on her own…an act of defiance, perhaps. She’d write to both her mother and Carla as soon as she found somewhere to live.

* * *

Exhausted from the past ten days she slept much of the way to Dallas, where she switched buses. She washed up in the restroom, and then ordered breakfast in the restaurant, covertly watching the other passengers. Singles, couples, mothers with children; each had a different story, and she realized that hers was just one among many.

She was surprisingly content to let the hours and the countryside roll by. New Mexico, with its unique landscape was oddly appealing and before she knew it they had crossed into California. Here the names were more familiar and she sat up straighter, fascinated by the golden light that streamed through the windows of the bus. More passengers started to board, and at Indio her luck ran out; an older woman took the seat beside her. Smelling faintly of lavender, she clutched her bag in her lap with both hands.

“How far are you going, my dear?”

Bella was startled. It was the first time anyone had spoken to her other than food vendors or bus drivers since she left home. “Ah…I’m going to Los Angeles.”

“Terrible place.” The woman gave a small, almost imperceptible shudder.

“Why is that?” Bella didn’t really want to engage the woman in conversation, but she might as well hear what she had to say.

“It’s so spread out. You have to have a car to get anywhere.”

“Oh.” Bella hadn’t considered that when she’d impulsively bought her bus ticket, but it was too late now.

“But there are lots of lovely towns up and down the coast.” She fussed with her bag. “I live in Van Nuys. My son is coming to get me.”

“Do you have any suggestions?” Bella turned part way in her seat. “I mean for me…small towns?”

The older woman thought for a moment. “Santa Monica is nice; it’s not too far from Los Angeles if you’re thinking of trying to get into the movie business.”

“Heavens no, not me.”

The woman tilted her head, gave her an appraising look. “I don’t know why not. You’re quite attractive, you know.”

“I am?” Bella pulled back. No one had ever called her attractive before. “Thank you, but I don’t think that’s for me.”

“Good for you. Got your feet planted firmly on the ground, then.”

“I hope so.”

The woman fell silent and Bella realized she’d nodded off to sleep. As the bus drew closer to Los Angeles, the reality of her situation started to sink in. It would be shortly after noon when she arrived, and she had no place to stay. She made another snap decision. If there was a connecting bus headed for Santa Monica, she’d take it.

* * *

The Los Angeles terminal was overwhelming, but she finally found a helpful ticket seller who gave her instructions on how to make the final connection. When she stepped off the bus in Santa Monica she gave silent thanks to the older woman who’d suggested that she come here. Dizzy with fatigue, she studied the ads in the bus terminal, and checked into an inexpensive motel a few blocks away. She didn’t even shower before falling into bed.

* * *

Bella slept for twelve hours and awoke feeling rested and confident. A different clerk was on the desk and she approached him with a smile. “If you were looking for a furnished apartment to rent, how would you go about it?” she asked.

He gave her a quick once-over. “I’d probably check the ads in our local newspaper first. Rental agencies can be expensive.” He handed her a map. “Here, you’ll need this.”

Bella sat in a sunny corner of a fast food restaurant and studied the newspaper. Several studios were advertised, but they were too far from the center of town, and she wanted to save every penny she could by walking. She was about to give up when a small ad caught her eye. With trembling hands, she put a coin in the payphone and waited for a response. Ten minutes later she stood before a small single story home on a shaded side street. A wide veranda faced toward the street, fronted by flowerbeds blooming with riotous color. She opened the gate and walked tentatively up the steps. Before she could knock, the door was flung open and a small, dark-skinned woman greeted her warmly. She looked to be about five months pregnant.

“You must be Bella,” she said, holding the door open. “I am Sofia. Sofia Alvarez.” Dark eyes looked her over carefully. “You are looking for a rental?”

“Yes, I am.” Bella said, taking in the impeccably clean house. “You said it was over the garage.”

Something moved behind the woman’s eyes. “Yes, it used to be my husband’s hobby room. Come, I show you.”

Sofia stood back proudly and gestured for Bella to enter.

“This is lovely!” Bella couldn’t believe her eyes as she explored the small space. “Everything looks new.”

“You would be the first tenant,” said Sofia proudly. “The construction was finished last month, and I’ve been furnishing it slowly.”

“And you’re sure you only want four hundred a month?”

Sofia nodded. “From the right person, yes.”

“Well, I’d love to have it. When could I move in?”

“It’s ready now. Why should you pay for a motel room any longer than necessary? Come, I’ll get your details and give you the key.”

* * *

The small apartment had been well thought out. The kitchen opened to a small living area, but it was perfect for her needs. The bedroom was at the rear, and a small balcony overlooked the back yard. Bella couldn’t believe her good fortune. She dragged her suitcases up the stairs and unpacked quickly, eager to take possession.

After unpacking, she explored the kitchen. It contained a set of dishes for four, as well as basic utensils and a new set of pots and pans. She closed the cupboard doors, leaned back against the counter and started a mental shopping list.

“There’s a grocery store three blocks that way,” said Sofia, pointing the way. “You can probably get everything you need there.” She hesitated, hand over her stomach. “You are welcome to join me for dinner tonight. I was going to make quesadillas, and it’s no trouble to make for two.”

Bella wasn’t sure how to respond. “That’s really kind of you, but…”

“Please come. It’s your first night, and I’d like to welcome you.”

“Okay, then. I’d enjoy that.”

“Good, see you around six.”

* * *

Bella walked slowly to the grocery store. She would be careful about how much she spent, but she had the added cushion of the money her father had given her before she left home.

“I want you to have this,” he’d said, catching her outside one day. It appeared that he was fighting back tears. Bella was stunned; she’d never seen her father get emotional before. He’d clutched clumsily at her hand, passing over some folded bills. “Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”

“I’ll be fine, Dad. Really.” She’d given him a quick kiss on the cheek and tucked the money into her pocket. “And thank you. I’ll come back one day and make you proud.”

He pulled her into a quick, fierce embrace. “I know you will, Girlie. I know you will.” And then he’d turned away, headed for his workshop in the garage.

Bella had counted the money later that night. He’d given her twelve hundred dollars. It was a lot of money for a family that didn’t have much to spare, and she vowed silently that one day she would pay him back.

* * *

“Wow!” That was great.” Bella stood up from the table and began to clear the dishes. “I’ve had quesadillas in restaurants at home, but they were never this good.”

Sofia beamed with pleasure at the compliment. “You don’t have to do that,” she said, struggling to rise. “You’re supposed to be my guest.”

Bella glanced pointedly at the other woman’s stomach. “It’s the least I can do. When are you due?”

“December.” Sofia made it to her feet. “Shall we sit out on the porch and have some iced tea?”

Bella gave her a stern look. “You just tell me where it is, and I’ll bring it out.” The two women had chatted about inconsequential things during dinner, but a bond had been formed, much to Bella’s delight.

“I guess you’re wondering about my husband.” They’d settled at the end of the porch where they were more likely to catch the evening breeze.

“I did wonder, yes.”

Sofia looked up at the rustling palms. “He was a policeman. We came up to Los Angeles from Juarez, where he was in the drug squad.” She paused for a moment, lost in thought. “He was part of a combined task force with the Los Angeles police. They were closing in on one of the big drug importers, but somebody must have tipped them off. There was a shootout, and my husband and two other officers were killed.”

“I’m so sorry.” Bella didn’t know what else to say. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”

“No.” Sofia was silent for a moment. “I still look up sometimes, thinking that I hear him in the house. It still doesn’t seem real.”

“Do you think about going home?”

The other woman looked startled. “No. I can’t go back there. His cover was that he was transferred to Guadalajara. You know, to protect his family. But I wouldn’t want to go back even if I could.” She looked at Bella and smiled. “This is my home now. I like it here and I have a good widow’s pension. It’s not a lot, but the house is paid for.” She gave a shy smile. “The other officers on the squad took care of hiring the workers to renovate your apartment and the department paid for that.”

Bella shook her head. “And I thought I had it bad.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“You are alone, yes?” Bella noticed how Sofia’s language slipped once in a while when she was unsure of herself. It was charming.

“Yup. I came as far as I could without leaving the lower forty-eight.”

Sofia took a drink of iced tea. “Someday you will tell me about yourself. But I think not tonight.”

Bella was grateful for the other woman’s understanding. “Not tonight.”

They sat in the gathering darkness, comfortable with each other.

After a few minutes, Sophia spoke. “I suppose you’ll look for a job.”

Bella gave her a faint smile. “I was just thinking about that. I don’t really have many skills, but I’m confident I’ll find something.”

And she did. Within a week, she was working full time at a fabric store, with an evening shift at a fast food outlet. Sophia waited up for her every night and they shared a glass of iced tea while Bella told stories about the day’s customers. As the months slipped by, they formed an unbreakable bond of friendship. And then one night she came home to a strange car in the driveway. Every light in the house was on, and she ran up the front steps.

She opened her mouth to ask what was happening but was forestalled when she heard the cry of a baby from the back bedroom. Sofia’s friend Consuela bustled out from the bedroom. “Is a girl,” she announced, a broad smile on her face.

“And Sofia?” asked Bella. “Is she all right?”

“She’s fine. She say for you to come in when you get home.”

Bella paused at the door to the bedroom. Soft light from the bedside lamp fell on her friend. Sofia held her new daughter, eyes luminous with unshed tears. “Come, look,” she said quietly. “She’s beautiful, no?”

“Hello Valeria.” Bella knelt down beside the bed and looked up. Sofia nodded; she’d finally settled on the name just a week ago. She reached out and stroked the tiny hand with its perfect fingernails. “She’s beautiful,” she murmured.

Sofia’s eyes remained focused on her daughter. “She has her father’s nose,” she said softly. Her eyelids started to droop and she shook herself awake. “I’m getting tired,” she said apologetically. “It’s been a long day.”

“How was it?” The women had speculated about what childbirth might be like.

“Not too bad.” Her eyes softened. “You’ll see.”

Bella pulled back. “You know?”

Sofia reached out a hand and stroked Bella’s cheek. “Si, I know. We can talk about it later.”

 

* * *

“Our children will grow up together.” The women were sitting on the front porch, the cradle between them. It seemed to Bella that Valeria grew every day while she was away at work. “That is if you stay here.”  The last was said hopefully.

Bella brushed a fly away from the baby. “That’s something I haven’t allowed myself to think about too much,” she said. “I mean, I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t tried to make any decisions.”

“Do you want to go back to your town in Georgia?”

“No, not really.” Bella picked up her iced tea and pressed the cool glass against her forehead. “How would I explain coming home with a baby? That’s the reason I left in the first place, so nobody would know I’m pregnant.” She placed a hand over her stomach; it was becoming a familiar gesture.

“Does it make you sad to think that you can’t go back?”

“I thought it would, but it doesn’t.” Bella stopped to consider her reply. “My parents love me, but we’re not what you’d call a close family.” She looked across at her friend to see if she understood. “You know what I mean? “My mother never told me I looked nice, or anything like that, and my Dad was kind of distant. I think I miss my friend Carla more than anything, but she’s moved to New York with her boyfriend. So I guess California is my new home.”

“Have you been to a doctor yet?”

“Yes. I went to the clinic last week. She said I’m disgustingly healthy.” Bella tapped her fingernails against the side of her glass. “I’m a bit concerned about the cost of going into the hospital for the birth, though. What made you decide to do it at home?”

Sofia shrugged. “My mother was what you call a midwife. I never considered any other way, even though I have medical coverage through Eduardo’s pension.”

“Do you think I should try it?”

“You’d have to make up your own mind about that, but Consuela is wonderful, and if she thought anything was wrong, she would call for an ambulance.”

Bella cringed. “That’s not going to happen, is it?”

“No, of course not.”

* * *

Sofia was right. The birth of Bella’s daughter took only a few hours, surprising even the experienced midwife.

Bella held her daughter to her chest. “I love you,” she said fiercely, kissing the tiny face, hands and feet. “And I will make sure you know that every day of your life.”

Sofia watched her indulgently. “Everyone says we should enjoy them now, before they start to talk.” Her gaze went to Valeria, who was lying on a quilt on the floor.

“Not me.” Bella shook her head. “I can hardly wait ’til she starts talking.”

 

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