I’m so excited to tell you that the second book in my Angel Falls small town romance series, THE WAY YOU LOVE ME, releases January 29th. And you can read the first three chapters for free right now!
Just SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE to start reading, or click the button to read the book description and see the buy links!
***If you missed the first book in the series, THEN THERE WAS YOU, it’s on sale in e-book format at all retailers for just $1.99 and you can check it out here.
***Also, my standalone Christmas novella, CAN’T MISS CHRISTMAS, is currently free to anyone who signs up for my newsletter, or just 99¢ for anyone else (or free if you’re subscribed to Kindle Unlimited). Check that out here.
Have happy, blessed, and restful holidays, everyone!
The Way You Love Me
At 4:45 on a Monday afternoon, Gabriella Langdon fiddled with the tiny card on her solid mahogany desk, proof that she’d finally achieved the perfect life. The card was rectangular, the shape of a ticket, and made of costly paper stock. It was lined in a gold scroll and embossed with script lettering you could feel with your fingers, like Braille. Congratulations for making partner! it said. In the break room sat a tiny, perfect, half-eaten cake, chocolate ganache with beautiful icing flowers, decadent and rich, just like Lockham, Stockholm, and Gleason, the senior partners in her law practice (or, as her brother, Rafe, referred to them, Lock ’em, Stock ’em, and Fleece ’em).
“We’re so proud of you,” Rachel, her stepmom, said from her spot on the forest-green velvet chair in front of her desk. “What an accomplishment.”
Funny, but Gabby didn’t quite feel it was heraccomplishment, despite all the hard work she’d put into law school and the ensuing years. Her father had helped her to land this job. In fact, her dad had helped her to get into law school, desperate as he was to give her some direction. So she’d finally made it, finally proved she had direction and a responsible job, but the victory felt…hollow.
Her nonna, who sat next to Rachel, said, “We’re always proud, except she looks worn out, doesn’t she, Rachel? Look how pale she is. And thin.”
Nonna’s comment was accompanied by hand gestures and a big sigh, part of her Italian genetic makeup. Gabby reached up to pinch her cheeks. Pale? How could she be pale? She had her grandmother’s nice olive coloring. She was neverpale. “I haven’t been out in the sun much this summer, Nonna. But now that I’m partner, I’ll get some color.” She was lying through her teeth. She might never see the light of day again.
“It’s already the end of August,” Nonna said. “Summer’s almost over.”
“I think she looks fine,” Rachel said. “Maybe she’s tired from packing.” She turned to Gabby. “I am a little worried about your hours.”
She wastired from packing. The downtown Cleveland condo she’d owned with her ex-fiancé had sold, and she’d had to move out ASAP. “I’m just getting established,” Gabby said. “I’m sure things will settle down.” Another fib. The partners worked just as hard as the associates. Maybe harder. That was just the way it was.
“You’ve lost your sparkle,” Nonna said. Nonna might have early dementia, but she always called ’em like she saw ’em. “You know what your grandfather would say.”
“What was that, Nonna?” Her grandfather had died long ago, but Nonna still spoke frequently and affectionately about him.
“He’d say, ‘You only have to polish the shoe once to get it to shine.’” Nonna demonstrated the quote with emphatic hand motions. “‘After that, you start rubbing off the leather.’ Too much work is no good.”
Her grandfather had been a kind, practical man with no shortage of sayings. Though Gabby and her siblings tended to suspect he may have made most of them up himself.
Gabby’s lackluster state could be attributed to the fact that things in her personal life weren’t exactly going great. She’d broken up with her fiancé, Malcolm, a year ago. Her only current prospect was Milo Blumenthal, the managing partner in her practice with the soft middle and the pale, pale skin who brought stinky sandwiches to work and had asked her out twice the previous week.
Plus she was a few months shy of thirty-one, which wasn’t old by any means but made her wonder if everything she wanted in life was going to pass her by—love, children, and something she wanted desperately but couldn’t even describe: a sense that she was in the right place, doing the right thing with her life. She felt as if she was performing in the expected fashion, and to everyone looking in, she was doing great! Fantastic! So why didn’t she feel that way?
“We’ll talk more about what’s wrong with you at Sunday dinner,” Nonna said.
“Can’t wait,” Gabby said with a forced smile. Sunday dinner was Nonna’s solution to everything—it had been a tradition in Gabby’s family for generations, and everyone knew attendance wasn’t optional. Even when her brother, Rafe, had broken his leg a few years ago, they’d relocated it to his hospital room. No kidding.
Through the glass panel of her office she could see Milo pacing in the hall, glancing at his watch. He tapped on it and mouthed, Time is money.
Gabby glanced at her own watch, gave him a little wave and smiled sweetly. Her family was more important than Milo’s obsessive timekeeping, plus it was after five o’clock and he could stick it.
Nonna stood, lifted a large shoe box from the floor, placed it on Gabby’s desk. “This is why we’re here. I want you to look through these for me.”
Gabby took the heavy box and shook it. She could hear papers shifting from side to side. “What’s in here, Nonna?”
“My fortune,” Nonna pronounced.
Gabby exchanged glances with Rachel before taking off the lid and flipping carefully through the top items in the box. Old bank statements, a CD for $5,000, an old life insurance policy for $100,000.
Gabby tended to have a disproportionate number of elderly clients who wanted to get their wills in order, many of whom saved their important documents in shoe boxes just like this one. She wasn’t quite sure why she was a magnet for the good, decent people of her town, who needed their wills drawn up but would never be big moneymakers for the firm, much to Milo’s chagrin. But she loved chatting with them, or sometimes just listening when they needed someone to talk to.
Something sparkly from the bottom of the box caught her eye, a gold chain with a pendant. But not just any pendant. A trapezoid-shaped piece of white marble with gray veins. Nonna’s family was originally from Tuscany, near Cararra, and the pendant certainly looked like it was carved from a piece of Cararra marble.
“That’s for you,” Nonna said.
“Oh, what is it?” Gabby asked, holding it up to see.
“It’s for finding the love of your life.”
Gabby narrowed her eyes. She was known among her siblings as the romantic one in the family, but she could never top Nonna’s often fantastical romantic leanings. Such as her staunch belief in their town’s legend.
The centerpiece of their little town of Angel Falls, Ohio, was a beautiful bronze statue of two angels whose arms and wings joined together to form a big heart. It was stationed at the head of the bridge that was built over the lovely falls the town was named for. Legend had it that any couple who kissed in front of the angels, tossed a coin into the water, and had their picture taken would have true love forever. Tourists came from all over to spend a day in the quaint town, shop the Main Street shops, dine in the cute restaurants, and, of course, get their picture taken.
She didn’t really believe the legend; it was more for the tourists anyway. Once she’d tried to get Malcolm to throw a coin in the water to cement their love for all eternity, but he’d laughed at her and said it was too silly.
Good thing, in retrospect.
But this tale…she’d never heard it before from Nonna. Nor had she ever seen this piece of jewelry. And she would know, because Nonna used to let them play dress-up with all her beads and baubles, as she called them.
Gabby fingered the smooth, white surface hooked by a gold cap to the chain. It felt like a worry stone, like someone had fretted on its smooth surface many times with their fingers. “Were you wearing this when you met Grandpa?”
Nonna went quiet, which was unusual. “Your grandfather didn’t give that to me.” Then, she said, gesturing, “You need to put it on.”
Gabby didn’t put much credence in the town legend. Nor did she have any reason to believe in even more romantic folklore, but she slipped it on. “Thanks, Nonna. It’s beautiful.” To Rachel, she shrugged and said, “At this point, I’ll try anything.”
“Gabriella, you’re young,” Rachel said. “You’re just in a little dry patch right now.”
“She’s not that young,” Nonna said.
Gabby wasn’t that young when she was with Malcolm, either, but she had still made mistakes. She’d thought she was in love. He was John Stamos handsome and successful, the kind of guy she’d thought would please her high-achieving family. She’d spent a lot of time giving herself pep talks that yes! yes! she could make this work, because she was almost thirty and hurry, because another guy might not ever come along.
“Gabby just needs a stroke of good luck,” Rachel said. “And I’ve been working on it. Our new minister is handsome, funny, and a great guy. And he’s single.” Her stepmother literally clapped her hands. “And guess what? I’ve arranged for you to meet him.”
Oh no. “Rach, I appreciate it, but I don’t think it’s a good idea—”
“You promised to let me have a go at it.”
That she had. In a moment of desperation, she’d acquiesced to Rachel’s offer to help. Rachel knew so many people as the owner of the high-end antiques store on the main drag, Gabby figured Rachel would have a much better chance of finding someone than she would, holed up in her office night after night.
Thankfully, Nonna interrupted Rachel’s matchmaking. “I’m tired, Rachel. Let’s go get a cheeseburger before you take me home, what do you say? Gabriella, can you come with us? You can get those awful chicken nuggets you like so much.”
“Thanks anyway, Nonna,” Gabby said. “I’ve got some work to finish up.”
“Nonna,” Rachel said, “I was going to bring you back to our house for dinner tonight. I thought we could throw some chicken on the grill and make a quick pasta salad. Doesn’t that sound healthy?”
“Forget the cooking. Let’s get a cheeseburger,” Nonna said, never one to let healthy food stand in the way of her and a great burger.
Hmmm. Nonna wasn’t usually insistent, nor did she often favor fast food over homemade. But hey, cheeseburger cravings—or in Gabby’s case, chicken nugget cravings—were real, and who was she to question? Rachel stood and offered a hand to Nonna, who took it and hoisted herself carefully from the chair. A little stab of sadness went through Gabby; she could never seem to accept the invariable signs of aging that seemed to be getting more frequent with Nonna.
Gabby held her breath. Rachel was the most health-conscious person she knew. She rarely ate meat, jogged, and practiced yoga. A cheeseburger probably hadn’t passed her lips in years.
“You know, it isa nice evening,” Rachel said. “Maybe we should drive through for cheeseburgers and eat them outside on the patio tonight. I’ll even open a bottle of wine, what do you say, Rose?”
“That sounds lovely,” Nonna said, winking at Gabby. “How about we get French fries too?”
“Sounds perfect,” Rachel said seamlessly, her inner horror completely disguised. Another reason Gabby loved Rachel.
“Bye, you two,” Gabby said, walking them to her door. “Thanks for coming by.”
“Don’t forget to charge me for your time,” Nonna said. “We can take the money from all my stocks.”
Gabby kissed her grandmother on the cheek. At least Nonna had retained her sense of humor through the dementia. “Thanks, Nonnie. I’ll send you a bill.” No she wouldn’t, but saying that made Nonna happy.
“Want us to pick you up some nuggets for later?” Rachel asked.
“Sorry, can’t tonight,” Gabby said to Rachel. “But I’ll be over to Nonna’s later.” It was Gabby’s turn to keep Nonna company tonight, an arrangement she’d made with her siblings because they were worried about Nonna being alone.
“Okay,” Rachel said, kissing her goodbye. “Don’t work too hard.”
“You sure you can’t come?” Nonna asked. “It’s dinnertime and you’re still working. And you’re too skinny.”
Gabby knew they were not going to let the dinner thing go. To Nonna, refusing food was a sin of the highest order. “Well, the truth is,” Gabby confessed, “I signed up for a creative writing class that’s being taught by a big-time author.” For courage—in order to learn how to reallywrite instead of all the scribbling she did that seemed like it was going nowhere. “Actually, the first class is tonight.” She didn’t want to be rude and glance at her watch, but she had a lot to do before she left for class. And it was getting late.
“A writing class,” Rachel said, a little hesitantly.
“Another class?” Nonna asked. “Aren’t you done with all the classes?”
It was true that Gabby had a handful of different majors in college, and she had tended to take a lot of different hobby-type classes for fun after she graduated from law school to help make her job a little more bearable.
“This one is different, Nonna. I want to learn how to write a book. A big, juicy saga with plenty of drama, true love against the odds, and…kissing.” Lots of great kissing. And the hope of finding love, because regardless of what had happened to her, she still believed it was possible, and she would never lose hope.
“I like kissing,” Nonna said.
“Is your teacher anyone I know?” Rachel said.
“Caden Marshall. I never knew him, and he left Angel Falls years ago. He’s a New York Timesbest-selling writer.”
Rachel frowned. “Paige’s son. You know Paige, who owns the book shop, right?…He’s a few years older than you. You sure you don’t know him?”
“I only know the rumors that went around,” Gabby said. She didn’t care whether the rumors were true, as long as the man knew how to teach writing.
“He was a nice boy,” Rachel said. “For a time, he walked the dogs after I’d broken my leg skiing. But I don’t know if success corrupted him. It happens, you know.”
“What happened?” Nonna asked.
“He was brilliant,” Rachel said. “His first book was a runaway best seller. But then his wife went to the tabloids and accused him of stealing her ideas. It blew up into a big scandal and his reputation was ruined. The divorce was quite notorious in the papers.”
Gabby had remembered his mother being so proud. Paige had lined the front window of her bookshop with copies of his book and created a massive stacked display right near the front door.
“Rumor has it he hasn’t written anything since,” Rachel said. “And Paige says the ex hardly sees their little daughter.”
Paige had quietly defended her son, refusing to take her son’s books out of her shop window even though kids had egged her windows and the Ladies Historical Preservation Society had snubbed her.
“Oh I remember now. His book was very depressing,” Nonna said. “I read it in my book club. But he is very good-looking. Dark, handsome, and tortured. Like Heathcliff.”
“We don’t want Gabby to fall for her professor,” Rachel said, sounding a little panicked. “He’s riddled with scandal, divorced, and has a child. We want Gabby to make a smart, uncomplicated choice, don’t we?” She smiled hopefully.
“Gabby is like me,” Nonna said. “Her passions rule her sense sometimes.”
“Nonna, you’re the most sensible woman I know,” Rachel said. “And Gabby learned a lot from her broken engagement. I know she’s going to make a wise choice next time.”
Ugh.Gabby loved her family but it was time for them to go. She put her hands up. “Look, I’m not going to fall for my scandalized professor, okay? And I don’t care about his past, as long as he can teach me writing.”
“Well,” Rachel said. “Good luck with the class. It sounds exciting.”
“You can tell us all about it on Sunday,” Nonna said.
Gabby saw them out, then shut down her computer and tidied up her desk. She fingered the beautiful necklace one more time. Maybe it should upset her that her family was campaigning to find her true love, since clearly they didn’t believe she was capable of finding him on her own, but frankly, Gabby didn’t mind the help. Her oldest sister, Evie, was married with two adorable kids, and her sister Sara had just married the police chief, Colton Walker, last Christmas and was now blissfully happy. And Rafe…well, Rafe was Rafe, and at twenty-eight, he still wasn’t showing any signs of settling down.
When Gabby thought of happiness, of the life of her dreams, other things besides money came to mind. Like sitting on a big, old front porch on a hot summer evening, sipping iced tea and holding hands with someone. Kissing while lying on a blanket and making love under the stars, the piney scent of the woods fresh and clean. Having a love like her grandparents had known, which had endured for decades.
She’d never had an experience like that, a soul mate who made her feel that she was exactly where she should be in her life, with the person she was meant to be with. Where she could slow down enough to enjoy a good book and a cup of tea or knit a friend a baby gift or go for a long, cleansing bike ride through the parks just outside of town.
No, life had gotten too fast. Too busy. Too out of control.
That dream seemed about as far away as New Zealand. Or tucked away in one of the romance novels she sneaked a few pages of every night before she collapsed into bed. Alone.
She turned off her office light and locked the door behind her. On to writing class. And sensible decisions.
Milo had asked Gabby to do one last thing on her way out, and now she was running late to her first class. Great. Just great. She drove around the John Herschel Glenn College campus, circling the parking lot over and over with the acuity of a vulture eyeballing prey, along with six other cars doing the very same thing. Rain clouds were hovering, another reason to park and get into class. Suddenly, right smack in the middle of her present row, a spot opened up.
She accelerated, flicked on her blinker, and was just about to nose her Honda Civic into it when a shiny black F150 truck coming from the opposite direction pulled directly in front of her and scooped up the spot. She hit the brake fast to avoid smacking into the rear bumper of the truck and came to a screeching halt. Her body flew forward toward the windshield and then snapped back, thanks to her shoulder belt.
A few choice words bubbled to her lips, and a certain finger might have begun to twitch of its own accord. An exclamation Gabby saved for emergencies rushed to her lips.
Gabby laid on the horn—one long, satisfying push on the wheel. For about three seconds, she felt all the stress and tension from her day melt into that blaring bleat of sound. Until the driver’s door of the pickup opened. She didn’t know much about trucks, but judging from the chrome rims, mud flaps, and LED light bar, it was likely driven by some guy who could potentially start a confrontation. One of those I-own-a-big-truck-so-therefore-I-own-the-world types. The sensible thing to do would be to just move on, because now she was going to be late for sure.
The guy exited the truck, leaving the motor idling, and walked with a long-legged stride toward her car. To her surprise, he didn’t look like a crazed truck owner at all. Nor was he a college kid but a man, tall and lean, saved from being rangy by good, hard muscle evident in the way his legs filled out his faded, well-worn jeans and in the way his button-down chambray shirt fit over his broad chest. He looked dangerous, all right—dangerously hot.
She made out a dark head of thickly layered hair, worn a little longish over his collar. He looked pissed off, his well-defined brows knit down into a deep V. From the set of his five-o’clock-shadow-lined jaw, she could tell that he was not going to give up without a fight.
His good looks threw her, but not as much as the cartoon character stickers and smattering of tiny fingerprints on the back window behind the driver’s seat.
Something about the stickers—or maybe it was the fingerprints—deflated her anger. And her fear. How scary could a man be who probably had a car seat in the back seat of his truck?
Suddenly he was next to her, signaling her with a roll-down-the-window sign.
She hit the automatic lock button, just in case. Maybe he was a maniac. Did he look like a maniac?
Oh, no. He looked like sin.
She cracked open the window, but she braced her hands on the wheel, ready to peel out backward or close the window on his fingers if he tried to reach in and strangle her. She’d read about that once.
He seemed to note the fact that her car had stopped inches from his, then assessed her with hazel eyes that were an intriguing mix of green, brown, and blue, surrounded by little crinkly lines that placed him solidly in his early thirties. “I’m sorry for taking your spot,” he said, “but I’m late for my first day of class.” Then he flashed an overly bright smile just imperfect enough to be human. “Surely a nice woman like you would give a guy a break?” He met her gaze head-on with those beautiful eyes.
She frowned and tapped her fingers on the wheel. Clearly this was a guy who was trying to charm his way out of conflict. And judging by his looks, it had probably worked for him many times before. He probably had a reputation for stealing hearts as well as parking spaces. “I’m late for class too.”
“I really need it—probably more than you do.” He smiled again—an utterly false smile that did not reach those fascinating eyes of his. Uh-oh. Not only was he flirting with her, he was also being arrogant. Strikes One and Two.
She rolled her eyes. “Pu-lease. Don’t think you can stun me with your good looks.” Except she did feel stunned. He was gorgeous.He glanced around nervously. “Look, ma’am,” he said, “I’mnotflirting with you. I just really need this space right now.”
“Ma’am? Exactly how old do you think I am?” “Ma’am,” everyone knew, meant at least forty. She wasn’t forty! She wasn’t even thirty-one yet.
“I apologize again for taking the spot, but I really have to go.” Before she could say Hey, hold up a second, buddy, he was walking away, raising his hand in a backward wave as he jogged to his truck.
She couldn’t help watching him walk to his vehicle. His stride—graceful, purposeful—was hard to take her eyes off of. Not to mention he had the kind of narrow man butt that filled out those comfy old Levis just right.
Oh, what was wrong with her? She was doing womankind a disservice, noticing the smoking-hot body of this man who was clearly an asshat.
For no apparent reason, he glanced back and caught her staring at him. His frown resonated across the parking lot, as deep and foreboding as the impending night.
Caught ass watching! As if that weren’t bad enough, he got in his truck, threw it in gear, and plowed the rest of the way into the spot, without a glance backward.
While she sat there drooling at his behind.
And as if Mother Nature were having a laugh at her expense, the skies opened and it began to pour.
Gabby barely noticed in light of the rudeness. The gall. And shame on her for drooling over his butt. Shaking her head, she threw her own car into drive and moved on through the full-to-the-brim lot.
Maybe what everyone said was true, that she really did have terrible judgment in men. And jobs. And everything else. And how had she allowed herself to get sidetracked from her goal of getting to class on time by a great butt? Well, no matter. She’d never see him—or it, for that matter—again.
* * *
Caden Marshall’s reputation was as fragile as a house of cards. Being late for his first class would be the tiny flick of a finger that would topple it before he’d even begun his job as a professor at the tiny liberal arts college in Angel Falls, Ohio. Funny, but he’d imagined that if he’d ever returned to a college to teach, it would be with bright, eager MFA students, not a night class composed mainly of adults who were dabbling in creative writing for fun.
But as the saying went, beggars couldn’t be choosers. He needed job security. Tenure. He wanted to live a responsible life with a decent job and provide well for himself and his almost-four-year-old daughter, Ava. Which was why he’d jumped when a job at the local college in his hometown had opened up.
Ava had started a new day care this week. She was exhausted after her long day and was crying up a storm when his mom had come to babysit, reminding him that he was the one responsible for uprooting his daughter. He’d tried to console her, but when he left, she was still crying, each hiccupping eh-eh-ehripping his heart out a little further.
Two doors down from his classroom in the administration building with the brick clock tower, Cade stuffed the windbreaker he’d used to cover his head from the rain back into his book bag, raked back his damp hair, and made sure his shirt was tucked in. The standard institutional clock on the gray wall read 6:59. He’d made it, thank God, but he felt guilty about his aggressive parking lot behavior. He wasn’t usually an a-hole, but he’d supposed the high stakes involved with doing this job well had made him one. He vowed to do better—which seemed like his mantra these days. Falling short of everything but trying really hard not to.
There were ten students on his roster, and two of them, both women, were gathered around a desk, talking to the seated occupant. One of the women had short pink hair and arms covered with tattoos. The other woman was around fifty, with short gray hair and glasses. Scanning the rest of the class, he noted a woman and man, both above seventy, sitting on opposite sides of the room and a handful of middle-aged women, who he noticed had copies of his book on their desks.
He braced himself for the questions that were sure to come. In a few years, people would forget that he was a New York Timesbest-selling author with a one-hit wonder. But until then, his life was going to be hell.
The glory of hitting the Timeslist was followed almost immediately by claims by his ex-wife that he’d stolen her ideas. Claims she’d tweeted and posted on social media that had gone viral and had ended up in an interview on Page Six of the New York Post, the most infamous gossip column in the country. And once that story hit, his reputation had imploded. And his words had dried up.
He reminded himself he was here to teach, not run a damn book club. He would have to take charge and distract them from things he didn’t want to share. And focus on the things he did want to share—teaching them the craft of writing. Even if he felt like a fraud.
“What’s so funny?” Cade asked, clearing his throat and forcing a look of interest on his face. A look that would’ve come naturally just a few years ago but now felt forced. He reminded himself that he’d taught classes in grad school, so he wasn’t a complete novice at teaching. It was just his ambivalence at being here, starting over doing something he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to do. And the horrible realization that by returning to his hometown, becoming a professor at the exact same college where his father had taught, he’d somehow managed to become the father he despised.
Everyone looked up and automatically began to disband, making their way back to seats strewn with notebooks and laptops and coffee cups.
“Oh hi, Professor,” the middle-aged woman with glasses and short gray hair said cheerily. “I’m Helen. Gabby here was just telling us about some douchebagidiotwho stole her parking spot.”
His gaze swiveled over to the seat. The little crowd had dispersed, leaving a young woman in plain view. A woman with big brown eyes and lots of wildly curly dark hair wound up in a loose bun. Memorable, because she was beautiful. But mostly because he’d just seen her in the damn parking lot.
For a second, he stared into her startled eyes. She was dressed in a dark gray dress and dangling earrings. Classy. She nervously twirled a pencil. A pencil, when most of the students had laptops—or at least notebooks and pens—in front of them.
The back of his neck prickled, causing the urge to rub it. What were the odds? This was an omen. Karma biting him in the ass. He’d never taken a parking space from anyone before, let alone a woman—let alone a student. Desperation had made him panic, and now he was going to pay. He was not meant to be here, in East Angel Nowhere, Ohio. Starting off on the wrong foot was certain to set the tone for the rest of his time here. And he could not afford wrong feet.
“I’m sorry for your trouble, Ms.—a—” He glanced at his class roster.
“Gabby. Gabby Langdon.”
Langdon.He knew the family. Dr. Walter Langdon was a longstanding physician in town—had been his own doctor growing up—and Cade’s sister, Beth, had just been hired into Dr. Langdon’s practice to work with him and his daughter Sara. Cade had gone to school with one of the Langdon kids…Evie. They’d lost their mother young, as he recalled.
He looked up to find dark, fiery eyes spitting daggers at him.
Oh Shit. He called up his calmest expression. “Well, obviously you found a spot because you made it here on time.” Before he did. How on earth?
“Barely,” she said.
Helen snorted. “Yeah, there’s no courtesy—let alone chivalry—left in the world.”
The old metal clock on the wall let out an audible click, as if it were tsking at him. His first impulse was to apologize. But how could he do that in the first minute of class? He’d be labeled as a jackass.
“Maybe it was someone in a rush for a good reason,” he offered. Lame, but what could he do?
Gabby crossed her arms, a move that showcased her very nice breasts, which he certainly was notnoticing. The fact that he was struggling not to notice added to his discomfort.
“You’re awfully forgiving, Professor,” she said.
The woman with the pink hair snorted. “Typical man, cutting another man some slack.”
“Well, you never know when something’s going on in someone’s life that made them in a big hurry.” He gave his nemesis from the parking lot a pointed look. “An extenuating circumstance.” He hoped she wouldn’t out him, even though he deserved it.
She narrowed her eyes. “Regardless of whatever is going on in someone’slife, that doesn’t give himan excuse to be a jerk.”
“Go, Gabby,” Ms. Pink Hair said, pumping the air with her fist.
He took a step forward and faced the pink-haired woman directly. “Maybe it was a fluke thing and the person’s not really a jerk.”
Gabby was not deterred. “Well, if one party injures another party, the second party should have some kind of recourse. Maybe in the form of an apology.”
Lawyer. She hadto be a lawyer. “This is a creative writing class, Ms. Langdon. The Con Law class meets down the hall.”
“Oh, this guy knew what he was doing, all right,” the pink-haired woman said. “He tried to charm his way out of it, too. I hope you let him have it, Gabby.”
The woman—Gabby—looked him over with intelligent eyes that proved she was no pushover. He couldn’t help but respect that, even though she could do him quite a bit of harm. Like all women. Life had taught him none of whom could be trusted.
“It’s okay,” she said carefully. “No harm done.”
Oh, thank God. The knot in his neck uncoiled a little. She was backing down.
Then she smiled a little, a conciliatory gesture that threw him. And another thing: she was…pretty. Really pretty. She had soft curves and untamed hair and full red lips, and the cumulative effect made his breath hitch.
He tore his eyes away from her and glanced at his watch. “Speaking of time, let’s get started. I’m Caden Mitchell,” he said to the class. “Taking this class for Dr. Shreevesanan, who just found out she’ll be on bed rest for the next two months until her twins are born.”
A murmur rose up from the students. “Is Amira okay?” Helen asked. “She’s my neighbor. She was the one who encouraged me to sign up for this class.”
“But she’s only thirty-three weeks,” the pink-haired woman said.
“How do you know that?” Helen asked.
“I own the tattoo parlor downtown, and her mom came in last week.”
Cade chose to ignore the information that Amira’s mother, a sweet woman of around seventy he happened to meet earlier this week, might have gotten one or more tattoos. But the information also made him realize he was back home, where everyone knew everyone’s business. It was a reminder to be careful about the information he shared. “Amira wanted everyone to know she’s fine,” he said. “The bed rest is just a precaution.”
The class looked a little distressed. Amira was a sweetheart, but from what he’d heard, she had the reputation of being motherly in the classroom—kind, nurturing, and a very easy grader.
The gray-haired woman spoke up again. “I-I’m not sure I want to take this class if she’s not the teacher.”
“Well, Helen,” Cade said, glancing at the paper he’d passed around and had everyone sign. “You’re right, I’m definitely not Dr. S.” He’d been a serious author, and now he wanted to be a serious teacher. “I know most of you work full-time jobs. Some of you are taking this class for fun. Others because you have a goal to publish a book one day. Regardless of your motivation, I want you to know that you’ll work hard here. You’ll stretch yourselves if you want to get something out of this class.”
And maybe he would discover another serious writer with a lot of potential, just as his own mentor had recognized his talent and helped him along. That was a noble thing to do, right? Teaching wasa noble profession. It just didn’t feel exciting and gut-wrenching and heart pounding all at once, like his writing had once upon a time.
Something his father once told him a few years ago stuck in his mind.Those who can’t do, teach.He shook his head and turned his attention back to the multiple pairs of eyes staring at him.
“Okay. I thought we could go around the room and talk a little about ourselves. Feel free to say why you signed up for this class. I’ll go first.” Mentally, he dusted off the scrubbed version of his bio. “I teach creative writing but I did my PhD work on the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
All true. But in the last year of grad school at the University of Michigan, he’d submitted a manuscript to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had somehow gotten into the most prestigious writing program in the country—more difficult to get into than Harvard, where he’d studied as an undergrad.
One of the ladies held up a copy of his book, waving the stark black cover with gold lettering that he’d once been so proud of. “Professor Marshall, will you sign my book? And when’s your next one coming?”
He forced a laugh. “Well. I’m glad you have such great taste in books. I’d be happy to sign it after class. And a publication date for the next one hasn’t been set yet.” He felt like an imposter, someone teaching writing who couldn’t write. His eyes lit on Helen. “Why don’t you go next?”
“I’m a librarian,” she said, and Cade found himself exhaling deeply. “A year ago, my husband walked out after thirty years of marriage. That was scary, but in some ways, this is scarier. Writing exposes a personal side of yourself. It makes you vulnerable.”
Cade nodded. “Hemingway reportedly said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’” He got a few chuckles from that. “So you’re absolutely correct. Writing isscary. Next.”
His students were a ragtag bunch. There was the mother of a few young children who looked like she’d forgotten to comb her hair, which he could totally relate to; an older woman who thought she’d signed up for a poetry class; and a retired doctor who, because of his age, was taking the class for free and who was on his phone probably Googling the Hemingway quote and getting ready to challenge him about its accuracy.
Then came his pal from the parking lot. “My name is Gabby Langdon. I’m taking this class because I want to write a book.”
Of course, she did. “You and eighty percent of all people.”
Her expression didn’t fall, and something in her eyes flickered. He recognized it as a familiar look he got from Ava almost daily—defiance.
“Maybe so, Professor,” she said. “But somebody’s got to write them.”
“What kind of books do you want to write, Ms. Langdon?” he asked.
She blushed. That threw him. “I—um—an emotional book that makes people feel things. And love. There has to be a love story.” She pressed a hand over her heart.
Definitely a sentimentalist. Funny, though, that was what he’d set out to do—at the beginning. Write a book that made people feelsomething. Now he realized writing—and life—was so much more complicated than that.
“I’ve always wanted to write but I never thought it was an option for me. But now I want to explore that option, and I need the tools to do it. That’s why I’m here.”
“Aw, romance is all butterflies and ponies,” the old doctor said from the back of the class. “Write something painful and real.”
“Love isreal,” Gabby shot back.
“Yeah, real painful,” Helen said, and that got a laugh from the class.
“Love is something Hollywood makes up to sell movie tickets,” the old man said.
Cade silently agreed, but instead he said, “Any real experience—like love—can be translated into writing. That’s why people read fiction. To feel something.”
He’d given up his own illusion of romantic love a long time ago. He didn’t need the heartache. The mental bloodshed. “Where do you get your ideas from?” a woman asked out of the blue.
“Maybe he gets them from his wife,” someone whispered.
Cade pretended not to hear that, even while it shredded his insides. Instead, he walked casually to an empty desk and pulled it out a little, leaning against it in the aisle. “Stephen King said, ‘stories are found things, like fossils in the ground,’ So to answer your question, I don’t know how or why ideas take shape. But I want you to struggle with yours, and then come to class and share them with your colleagues. Each class, I’ll be sharing a few pages of a student’s work for instruction and critique. You may feel uncomfortable about that, but it’s critical to share. Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a solitary profession.”
In the early days, he’d trusted Emerson, his wife, implicitly—they’d shared everything about their writing in those early days, and it had been a heady, exciting partnership. He would never know for sure if he’d subconsciously taken something that wasn’t his, and that haunted him.
The pink-haired student spoke up. “It’s nice to know we’re going to be reading each other’s stuff. My name’s Erin, by the way, and I write paranormal romance at night. Werewolves, vampires, and shape-shifters, mostly.”
“Great. I’m eager to see your work.” Butterflies and ponies. Werewolves and shape-shifters. Fantastic.“Okay, for next class, read chapter one of your textbook and come prepared for an essay quiz, which we’ll have at the beginning of each class. Then starting this weekend, you’ll each be writing fifteen hundred words a day and posting them to our class online portal. Anyone who can’t meet that word count for five days a week should consider dropping the class. Any questions?”
Gabby raised her hand. “I have a question.”
“Yes, Ms. Langdon?”
“Well, what if—well, what if we’ve never written that many words in a day before? And what if we work all day? I mean—do you have some suggestions on how to do that?”
Cade let out an impatient sigh. “Ms. Langdon, everyone in this class is an adult, and I’m not here to coddle anyone. I realize that word count might be a challenge, but it’s meant to weed out the serious writers from those who don’t care to work hard.”
“But you didn’t answer my question. I’m not trying to get out of the work, Professor. I’m only asking for suggestions on how to manage it.”
“Clear your schedule, turn off the TV, decrease your social obligations, set a timer. Everyone has to develop their own style and find what works best for them.”
As he approached the smart board to begin his lecture, he thought he heard a soft “Aye-aye, sir” behind him. When he turned, Gabby’s eyes were trained on her notebook. But Helen, who was sitting across from her, was chuckling with her hand over her mouth.
“Ms. Langdon, perhaps you’d like to go first on Monday to read us your work, how does that sound?”
A hush descended, and he began his lecture. Okay, now they knew he was serious. And he was. He was going to keep everything by the book, strict, and on the straight and narrow. Just like he was going to rein in his life, which had veered completely off course. And he wasn’t going to be sidetracked by any distractions—especially pretty, sentimental students who knew how to call him out for being cynical and unsympathetic. It was like she was holding up a mirror, and he didn’t like at all what he saw.
As soon as class ended, Cade gathered his things, hoping to get home as fast as possible. He prayed Ava wasn’t still lying on the floor, exhausted and sobbing. One of the seniors asked him a question about margins and font in her Word program, which he explained in detail. Sure enough, there came Gabby, headed toward him, book bag and coffee mug in tow.
He wasn’t supposed to noticestudents. But Gabby wasn’t an eighteen-year-old student, she was his age, and she knew how to put him in his place. He must be crazy, but even her defiance was sexy.
“Excuse me, Professor Marshall,” she said, approaching his desk.
She was Trouble. Someone to avoid. But first he had to clear all these inappropriate thoughts out of his head. Including her light, fresh scent, which he’d just noticed as she’d walked up to him. He cleared his throat. “Ms. Langdon,” he said, getting busy sorting his papers.
As he shoved his lecture notes into his book bag, he decided that his attention on Gabby was only because it had been way too long since he’d had sex. It was time to change that, get out a little. Meet some people. Once he had Ava settled, he planned to do just that. He would choose someone simple, easygoing, and nondemanding. Someone who wouldn’t compete with him, screw him over, and leave him for roadkill like his ex.
“I wasn’t complaining about the word count,” she said. “And despite what my question made you think, I am serious about this class.”
“I wasn’t implying that you weren’t a serious student. It’s just that I want to be clear from the beginning that this class will involve work, and anyone who doesn’t have the time to put into it probably shouldn’t be taking it.” He glanced up briefly to see her gazing at him steadily, her eyes stubbornly narrowed.
“Oh, I’ll devote the necessary time to it,” she said. “I’m determined.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said. He stuffed the remaining papers into his book bag. When he looked up, he found she’d already turned to leave.
Oh hell. “Ms. Langdon?” he called after her. He had to say what was on his mind, as quickly and painlessly as possible. She didn’t deserve the crotchety, authoritarian treatment he’d been doling out in spades because he was struggling to get control of his life…and his reaction to her. Hell, it wasn’t really working anyway.
She stopped at the doorway and turned back. “Yes, Dr. Marshall?”
“I’m sorry about the parking spot.” There. He’d said it.
“You’re sorry about taking my parking spot?” she echoed, a bit incredulously.
“Yes. There were extenuating circumstances, and I—well, I apologize. I was out of line. And—I appreciate that you didn’t say anything in front of the class.”
“That’s all right. Because I guess now you’ll have to give me an A for my silence.” His face must’ve gone blank because she threw up her hands and said, “Kidding.” A bright, wide smile spread across her face—unpretentious and so appealing.
In spite of himself, he smiled too. “Glad we can put that behind us.” He paused. “Except I didsee the spot first,” he said, just to get her goat.
The blush rose into her cheeks. “Are you kidding—”
She laughed. “Well then. Apology accepted.” She held out her hand.
He glanced at her offering of peace. Something told him to glower and nod and leave it at that, but he couldn’t do that. He just did the natural thing, reached out and shook her hand. But something happened between the shaking and looking into her big brown eyes, which had locked uncomfortably with his. A frizzle of awareness spread warmly through him, a wave of attraction he hadn’t felt in years.
He had no idea how long he stared—too long. Finally he released his hand. Cleared his throat. Dragged his gaze back to his book bag and started digging for his keys.
“Well, I—um—yeah. See you Wednesday, Dr. Marshall.” She gave a little salute before she turned on her heels and walked out of his classroom.
Cade watched her go. The old metal clock on the wall gave a loud click as the metal hand jolted forward, as if marking the moment that something in his life had just shifted.
* * *
Gabby walked down the fluorescent-lit hallway and out into the drizzly night. Professor Heathcliff had just the kind of aura of darkness she was attracted to—in a bad way. The urge to peel away those shadowy layers and see if something brighter lay beneath—that unexpected smile, for instance—was a temptation she had to ignore.
She gave herself a stern talking to. I will not be attracted to guys with issues. I will not have the hots for my professor. This is my time to figure out who I am, not act on romantic whims, which had clearly gotten her into trouble in the past.
In the glow of the iron lamposts that surrounded the Gothic brick building, a group of students had gathered. As she walked down the wide concrete steps, she recognized Helen’s gray hair and Erin’s pink spikes, which looked extra bright under the lamplight.
“We waited for you,” Helen said, grabbing her arm. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, we were giving you another ten seconds, then we were going to storm the classroom,” Erin said, reaching in her denim bag for a cigarette. “I wish the offices were open. I’m dropping this class first thing in the morning.”
“Yeah,” Helen said. “I can’t write fifteen hundred words in a week, let alone a day.”
Gabby laughed. “Dr. Marshall’s bark might be worse than his bite. But still, he’s not exactly going to make this class a fun experience.”
“He’s scary,” Erin said. “I don’t feel like this classroom is a safe space for my muse.”
“I don’t think it’s a safe space for my ego,” Helen said. “It’s already been trampled on by my ex.”
“I work a lot of hours,” Gabby admitted. “I’m not really sure how I’m going to find time to do all of this work.”
“I thought this was supposed to be fun,” Erin said.
An image of Gabby’s dad suddenly came to mind. He was kindly and gray haired, but under all that pleasantness was a driven man who would not back down until each one of his children was settled and happy. She guessed his drive came from a promise he’d made to their mother before she died, that he’d watch over and guide each kid’s future—except it had developed into a crusade. Her dad was hell-bent on having each of them be successful, self-sufficient human beings. The problem was that his ideas of success didn’t always jive with his children’s.
She’d had many battles with her father as an undergraduate as she’d gone from major to major. Everyone in the family had breathed a sigh of relief when she’d finally settled into law school, and except for her bad choice of a fiancé, had molded her life into exactly how her father had envisioned it—a stable career, a decent income.
But the nagging feeling she just couldn’t get out of her gut that something was missing in her life had only intensified once she’d found a box of her mom’s things buried in a closet at her grandmother’s house. In it were old college papers, notebooks full of writing, and a manuscript.
Her mother wrote. Maybe Gabby’s dissatisfaction with her job and her own desire to write wasn’t quite as crazy as she once thought. In any case, she had to find out herself.
“We can’t quit,” Gabby said softly, and then again louder. “We’re not going to quit. We can be strong together.” She locked arms with Helen, who looked startled. Erin lifted a skeptical brow. “We’re not going to let this guy get to us. But he’s a big-time author. I think we can learn a lot from him. And maybe he’s not as mean as we think.” Because when he’d smiled just now, lordie, the angels practically sang.
Besides, Gabby was an optimist.
Heathcliff might be romantic and mysterious, but she would stay away from him, because no distraction was going to stand in the way of what this man could teach her about writing.
The group dispersed, and Gabby walked over to her car, which she’d parked directly in front of the administration building. She pulled off the soggy yellow ticket that was stuck under the windshield and smiled. She’d parked here as a last-ditch effort not to be late for class. Turned out it was so worth the thirty bucks she’d have to pay to see the look on Dr. Marshall’s face when he’d discovered she’d made it to class before he did.
* * *
“How’s my princess?’ Cade’s mother held out her arms for Ava, who leaped into them, while Cade looked on and smiled. It was a sunny Friday afternoon and they’d both survived their first week of class/daycare, and now he and Ava were visiting his mom in the bookstore where he’d spent so many wonderful hours as a child.
Thiswas the real reason he’d moved back home. To give Ava the experience of having a family, to show her that she was loved and cared for and adored even though things hadn’t worked out between her mother and him.
“I have some picture books for you,” Paige said to her only grandchild as she carried her to the back of the store. “Would you like to look at them while your dad and I talk for a few minutes?” Cade’s mother was completely grandchild deprived, and made no secret she fully intended to make up for every lost second by being lovey, warm, and by completely spoiling Ava. An arrangement Ava happened to be completely thrilled with.
Hell, Cade had to admit he was pretty thrilled with it too.
While his mom grabbed books for Ava and chatted, a big basset hound moseyed out of his corner bed and up to Cade’s calf, nudging it.
“Hey there, Cooper,” Cade said, stooping to scratch the dog behind the ears. “What’s up, buddy?”
Cooper wasn’t telling, but as Cade looked around, he noted not much had changed in the old building since his childhood: same painted tin ceiling, same brick fireplace from Victorian times surrounded by green and maroon tiles. He’d just walked over to inspect a cracked tile when his mom spoke.
“What a nice surprise,” she said. “I thought they were keeping you too busy at the college to stop by, but I’m so glad you did.” She clapped her hands together and spoke to Ava. “I’m so happy to have you and your daddy back in town.”
“Me too, Mom,” Cade said, and he realized he meant it. Even with all his mixed feelings about his new job, being back home just felt somehow very right.
“Me too, Grammie,” Ava said with a sweet smile.
He stood from inspecting the tile. “I stopped by to order a few books for my research. Do you have time to help?”
“Of course.” His mom led his daughter over to a window seat strewn with multicolored pillows, where a big yellow cat lay curled up enjoying the sun. She grabbed a small stack of picture books from atop a bookshelf and set them in front of Ava. The basset promptly climbed his personal little basset-sized staircase and plopped down next to her. “Here you go, sweetheart,” Paige said. “You sit there with Mr. Buttons and Cooper for a few minutes while I help your dad, okay?”
Ava was more than content “reading” a story aloud to her new pals. Meanwhile, Cade followed his mom to the big wooden counter. The newest Harlan Coben lay on the counter, turned upside down with a pair of bifocals sitting on top. She snatched them up and perched them on her nose.
“How is that?” Cade asked, giving a nod to the book.
“Oh, terrific.” His mom sighed. “Harlan is a wonderful writer. But not as good as you, though.” His mom had never met a book she didn’t like.
“Mom,” Cade said with a warning tone. “I’m not here to talk about my writing. I’m here to order books for my research project. At my new job. As a professor, remember? I have a big meeting coming up with the New Faculty committee, and I have to tell them what research I’m going to produce and how that ties into my plan for tenure. If they approve, I’ll be the new Fitzgerald Scholar.”
“Well, that sounds very proper. Very structured,” she said, pressing her lips together in that way she had when she didn’t want to say what she was really thinking.
“I am structured, Mother. I have a real job now.” He’d had a grant to finish his second novel, but he’d been unable to produce, and that was why he’d taken the teaching job.
“I hate to see you in a job that limits your creativity.”
She failed to take into account the decent hours, great benefits, and, most important of all, the steady stream of income that was crucial when raising a child. His parents had been divorced since he was twelve, and lord knew they hadn’t had a great marriage, but at the very least his mom had had his father’s support in raising Cade and his sister, financially at least. His dad didn’t do emotional support. Then or now.
“Most moms would be proud of the fact that I got this position at the college.” Cade knew she was proud of him—she just would not stop campaigning for him to go back to writing. “And what have you got against professors? You were married to one.”
“Let’s not drag your father into this.” She paused. “Cade, you know I’d be proud of you even if you were a beachcomber, if that’s what made you happy. I just can’t help feeling that your divorce sucked all the happiness from your life, except where Ava is concerned.”
A glance over at Ava showed her happily turning pages while Cooper nudged his nose under her arm and the cat curled up in a ray of sunshine on her other side.
“Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” his mom asked. “Louisa brought us some new blend from the Bean. The tourists love it, so we decided to try it and now we know why—it’s really good.”
“That sounds great, but don’t fuss.” He was a coffee guy through and through. He smiled at his mom as she bustled around, starting the coffeemaker and then turning to a table heaped high with stacks of books. “Oh, this just came in and I snagged you a copy. Thought you might want to read your competition.”
Reluctantly, he took the book she handed him. He recognized it immediately. It was the latest bestseller by Paul Blazer, one of his fellow students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His thirdnovel since Iowa.
He set the book back down atop the pile. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I left that life behind. I really don’t have time to write anymore.”
He poured the coffee, and his mom grabbed a box of Thin Mints from a shelf below the counter and pushed it over to him, saying nothing, which spoke volumes.
His favorite cookie. Unable to resist, he dug in. And tried to steer the conversation back to a more neutral topic.
“You need anything repaired while I’m here?” He walked back over to the old fireplace. “I see you’ve got a couple of cracked tiles in the fireplace surround.”
“Of course. The building is a hundred and forty years old. But Caden, I can’t help thinking—”
“What kind of mother would I be if I can’t speak my mind when I see that something’s bothering my child?”
“Maybe the kind with an adult child who can figure things out on his own?”
She frowned. “How many years were you there for me when I was getting over the divorce? I hadn’t had a job for fifteen years. I didn’t know how to do anything, and I was so stunned and shocked that I had trouble functioning. Now I can offer support to you and Ava.”
He squeezed his mom’s shoulder. “You were and are a great mom. You picked yourself up and did great things. And I want you to know I’m doing fine. I have an opportunity for a good, stable job. And Ava will settle in. We’re both doing terrific.”
“You forget I’ve known you your entire life. And I know how much you love words. You were always scribbling in notebooks, making up stories, creating characters and worlds—”
“And then life happened, and I had to grow up.”
“Sweetheart, I understand what you’re going through, because I went through it myself. I’m afraid you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You’re getting away from what you love to do.”
“I’m fine, Mom.” Cade smiled as gently as possible but stood at the same time, signaling that the conversation was done.
“I bet once you settle into a routine you just might find joy in writing again. And maybe you’ll start dating again too.”
He gave her a warning look. Dating someone seriously was the last thing on his mind.
She suddenly reached over and grabbed his hand. “You’ve been suffering by yourself for way too long. You need to know your sister and I are here for you and for Ava because we want to be. We love you. Don’t close yourself off from your family.”
Cade nodded, because he was a little choked up. “I get it, Mom. It’s good to be back home.”
“Grammie, will you read this book to me?” Ava asked, holding up a book with a colorful painting of a little girl in pigtails holding hands with an older, balding man.
“Sure, Sweet Face, bring it over here.”
Ava lifted the book up to the counter and Paige reached for it. The title was Just Grandpa and Me.
Cade exchanged glances with his mother. “Tell you what, sweetie,” Paige said, holding out the cookies for Ava to take one, “let’s pick another one.”
“She’d be better off reading Bad Grandpa,” Cade said as Ava disappeared around the bookshelves.
“You know your father is living in Gates Mills now.”
A small bedroom community of Cleveland with rolling hills, plenty of acreage, and a lot of mansions. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“He stopped drinking.”
“Don’t tell me you’re on friendly terms with him.” Cade’s voice came out sounding an octave higher than usual.
“I wouldn’t exactly say friendly. More like cordial. He’s come into the shop a few times for books. You might just run into him yourself.”
“I’ll make certain that doesn’t happen.” Cade noticed his mother’s frown. “You can’t want me to have a relationship with him again.”
She shrugged. “He’s worked hard to get his act together. I believe he regrets things.”
“Oh, Mom, come on. Surely you’re not defending him.”
“I’m not defending him. But I am old enough to realize holding on to old resentments poisons you. I’m over it. Maybe you should get over it too.”
He thought about all the disappointments that they’d suffered over the years—his father’s drinking, which his mother had struggled at first to cover up, the childhood events his father had never showed up for, the arguing. And, later, the myriad of young girlfriends his father had brought so nonchalantly to events he was actually sober enough to attend—the school plays, the ball games, the awards ceremonies. All that, and Cade had continued to believe the best about him. Had seen the brilliant literary critic—hell, he’d wanted to be half as brilliant as his father—and ignored the burned-out drunk who didn’t seem to give much of a damn about him or his sister Beth. Until…
“I might’ve forgiven him the awful things he said about my book. But when he accused me of selling out to buy fame…that was it.”
“You had reason to be angry with him. All I’m saying is, I think your father feels remorse. Maybe you’ll have the opportunity while you’re here to reconnect.”
“I don’t need that kind of relationship, Mom,” Cade said.
“Maybe not, but people change, and your daughter could really use a few relatives.”
“Just not bad ones,” Cade said.
His mom rolled her eyes and reached across the counter. “Hand over your list and I’ll start ordering your books.”
Just then the tiny tinkle of the bell over the door sounded, and the mailman walked in with a leather sack slung over his shoulder. He tipped his hat to Paige as he approached the desk and handed her some mail. Cade recognized him immediately as Matt McGee, or Matt the Mailman, as he was known when Cade was a kid. He was a little grayer, a little balder, but he had the athletic shape of a guy who walked a lot.
“Matt, you remember my son, Cade. And that beautiful little child over there is my granddaughter, Ava.”
Matt shook Cade’s hand with a strong, steady shake. “Hey there, Cade. Nice to see you all grown up.”
“Hey, Matt. How are Anna and Connor?” Cade had gone to school with Matt’s kids.
“Fantastic.” He turned to Cade’s mom. “This came for you, Paige. Maybe it’s those tiles you ordered for your fireplace? I can come and fix those after my route on Saturday.”
“Why, thanks,” his mom said. “Cade just offered to help out with that too.”
Her tone sounded odd—nervous, maybe. Enough to make Cade look up. He wasn’t completely sure, but his mother looked like she had some color in her cheeks.
“So, you writing your next best seller?” Matt said. “Your mom’s impatient for it, you know.”
“I just started teaching at the college,” Cade said. “Not much time to write.”
“Well, glad you’re back in town. And I know your mom sure is glad.”
“Thanks,” Cade said. What was going on here? Things might look the same in his hometown, but only on the outside. His mother had apparently forgiven his dad, and was she dating? He didn’t even want to think about that.
Matt gave him a pat on the shoulder and as he left out the door, Cade couldn’t help noticing that he tossed a wink in his mother’s direction, which brought color to her cheeks again. He’d started randomly flipping through one of the books his mom had handed him when the door opened again, and someone say, “Hello, Paige. Lovely to see you.”
Cade jerked his head up at the sound of the too-familiar voice. Standing next to him at the counter was a broad-shouldered, silver-haired man. His father.
“Oh, hello, Elliot,” his mother said cheerily. “We were just talking about you.”
“I hope with sympathy,” Elliot said. “Or at least a sense of humor.”
“Neither,” Cade said. “Just Mom being her usual kind and forgiving self.”
“That book you ordered came in yesterday,” his mother said, sending Cade a warning look that he interpreted as try to be civil. “I’ll run back and get it.”
His father stood there, scrutinizing him closely. Cade had the sense that he was looking into a mirror at an image of himself years into the future. The same thick hair, his father’s cut closely and tamed; the same thick brows, the same defined jawline, stubborn and unyielding. Yep, they were both definitely cut from the same cloth.
“You’re looking well,” his father said quietly.
Cade’s first reaction was to move a step closer to the counter so that he blocked his father’s view of Ava. As if that would protect her from this man who had wreaked so much pain and havoc on their family. He leveled his breathing as he decided his next move. His father looked fit and trim, all evidence of bloat or belly gone. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and dress pants, his blue eyes as bright as ever. The ravages of years of alcohol abuse seemed confined to creases around his eyes and mouth, which in his case was a look he wore well.
“Your mother tells me you’re teaching at Glenn,” his father said, trying again to engage him.
“Yes. Just started.” He couldn’t bring himself to make pleasant conversation. He told himself he was no longer the desperate adolescent boy begging for his father’s love and attention. Elliot had failed horribly as a father, and Cade was not obligated to continue a relationship that brought him only disappointment and sorrow.
“I’d hoped you’d have another book out by now.”
Anger made the blood whoosh in his ears. “Why would that even matter to you, Elliot?” His father had ravaged his book in the press, and privately berated Cade for what he’d assumed was a depressing ending contrived to please the literary crowd. When Cade had finally done something his father had never managed to do—write a novel—his father’s response had been that it hadn’t been good enough. But then, nothing with their relationship ever was.
Cade braced for judgment. A critique, which Elliot did so well. Yet his father was uncharacteristically silent.
“Of course it matters to me. You’re my son.”
Cade controlled a snort, but just barely. Fortunately his mother walked out of the back room just then. “Here you go,” she said, handing Elliot a brown envelope and placing another book on Cade’s pile. “You’re both all set.” She looked nervously from one to the other.
“Thank you, Paige,” his father said, the perfect gentleman.
Cade gathered up his books. His father was still staring at him with a shrewd expression. “Nice seeing you, Caden,” he said.
“Take care, Elliot,” Cade said. It was the most he could bring himself to say.” See you soon, Mom. Thanks for the books.”
“I’m thinking dinner one day this weekend,” she called after Cade. “With your sister. Check your schedule, okay?”
Cade nodded and turned to get Ava, but even though he’d left the counter, he could still see his father’s face in front of him, and the look in his eyes. Maybe it was his imagination, or his brain playing tricks. But it was an expression he knew only too well. A longing. Except it was too late for that. Way too late.