A Coldwater Warm Hearts Christmas

It hurts to see a younger version of yourself making the same mistake you did, but if nothing else, it proves Solomon was right. There really is nothing new under the sun.
—Angela Holloway, a high school English teacher who longs for all the drama in her life to stay safely between the covers of her books. 

Chapter 1
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'Marianne Dashwood, you little idiot.' Angie shook her head and closed the dog-eared copy of Sense and Sensibility. 'Why must you moon around over a jerk like Willoughby when Colonel Brandon would walk through fire for you?'
Tucked into the big corner booth at the Green Apple Grill, Angie set the book aside and took a sip of her coffee. The rest of the Coldwater Warm Hearts Club would be wandering in pretty soon for their weekly breakfast meeting, but since Angie joined the group, she’d always been the first one to arrive.
Punctuality was next to godliness in her last foster parents’ home. Probably because her dad at the time had been a railroader. She often joked that she’d rather be caught pregnant out of wedlock than be late someplace.
As if my getting pregnant wouldn’t require a miracle of biblical proportions anyway. Kind of need a guy for that.
Lester Scott ambled by and topped off her coffee without asking if she wanted more.
“Say, Teach,” the old Viet Nam vet said. “You oughta try the new breakfast special.”
Lester was one of the Warm Hearts Club’s biggest successes. Before the club members got hold of him, he’d been a homeless alcoholic. Now he was employed, sleeping indoors, mending fences with his estranged family and had been sober for nearly a year and a half.
Of course, that had all happened before Angie joined the group. During her time in the Warm Hearts Club, she hadn’t helped anyone yet.
But I’m working on it, she told herself. She just hadn’t found the right project.
“What is the new breakfast special?” Angie asked.
“Well, it’s sorta my idea, you see.” A proud smile turned up the corners of Lester’s mouth. “You know how it’s kinda popular nowadays for folks to say they’re vegetarians?”
“So anyways, I convinced Laura that the Green Apple menu needs a Vegetarian Omelet.”
Angie glanced at the plastic-covered menu. “I don’t see it listed here.”
“Oh, that’s ‘cuz it’s new. You get a three egg omelet made with onions, peppers, cheese and your choice of ham or pork sausage.”
“Ham or sausage?” Angie arched a brow at him. “You know vegetarians don’t eat meat, right?”
“Oh. Oh, yeah? But I don’t think folks around here would like a meatless omelet so much,” Lester said with a frown. “How’s about this? We could call it the Hypocrite’s Vegetarian Omelet.”
Angie laughed. “I love it when words mean things, Lester. That’s exactly what you should call it.”
The old fellow beamed down at her. “So, you want one or not?”
Usually, Angie made do with cream cheese and a bagel, but today was an in-service day for the teachers at Coldwater Cove High. Since there was no cafeteria when classes weren’t in session, she’d probably be noshing on junk from the vending machines for lunch at her desk.
“Sure,” Angie said. “Bring me a Hypocrite’s Vegetarian Omelet.”
Lester whipped out his order pad. “Ham or sausage?”
“Both! If I’m going to be hypocrite, I may as well go all in.”
“Sure thing, Teach. Why go hog when you can go whole hog?” Lester headed back to the kitchen, whistling tunelessly through his teeth.
Angie opened her book again, but glanced up when the trio of bells jingled over the door to the Green Apple. She recognized the pair of high school kids that hurried in, the brisk wind sending a dry leaf or two swirling after them. Shivering in the sudden draft, Angie pulled her old cardigan tighter around her. It was so worn it would have looked at home in the Matrix movie, but it was too comfortable for her to trash. Plus, it was warm. Early November mornings in Coldwater Cove always started with a breath of winter.
The newcomers were students of hers, Cassie Wilson and Tad Van Hook. She was a JV cheerleader and he was a power forward on the Fighting Marmots varsity basketball squad.
The jock and the cheerleader. Cliches exist because they’re true.
Cassie was pretty in a wind-swept prairie sort of way, with long sandy-brown hair and a dusting of freckles over her pert nose. Despite the blustery weather, she wore a flirty short skirt and a gauzy tank topped by a pink denim jacket. Her small feet were snugged into turquoise cowboy boots. Rawboned and handsome, Tad was head and shoulders taller than Cassie and had three years on her to boot.
Angie’s lips drew into a tight line. She’d seen this play before.
A senior and a freshman. It hardly ever works out.
But things seemed to be going well for young love at the moment. They were both laughing and holding hands as they settled into the booth behind Angie without noticing her.
She picked up her book again and tried to concentrate on the foibles of Miss Austen’s heroines. She didn’t mean to eavesdrop. Even though nosiness was akin to an Olympic sport in Coldwater Cove, Angie wasn’t the gossipy sort. It wasn’t her fault she could hear the conversation going on behind her.
“This is so sweet of you, Tad,” Cassie said, a smile making the pitch of her voice drift upward. “You’ve never actually taken me out on a date, you know.”
There was a longer pause than there should have been.
“It’s just breakfast, Cass.”
“Well, it’s sweet, is all. Sort of takes our thing up a notch.”
Tad cleared his throat. “Um . . . what do you mean . . . our thing?”
She giggled, sounding even younger than she was. “You know, silly. Us. You’re my guy. I’m your girl. We’re a thing.”
     The silence was deafening. Angie caught herself reading the same sentence over and over. Sense and Sensibility just couldn’t compete with the real life drama unfolding in the next booth.
“We’re a couple, right?” Cassie insisted.
“Um, I mean . . . well, sort of, I guess. I mean, we have fun. What we got . . . it’s like casual, you know. We hang together . . .”
“Hang together?” A tiny bead of fear shimmered in Cassie’s tone.
“Yeah,” Tad said with disgusting cheerfulness, willfully ignorant of her distress. “Hang.”
“But . . . ” Cassie’s voice dropped to a shaky whisper. “Don’t you think of me as your girl?”
Angie cringed for her. This conversation was sounding all too familiar. But instead of being a JV cheerleader, Angie had been several years older, an English major finishing her freshman year at Baylor. And the guy hadn’t been a jock. He’d been about to graduate summa cum laude, bound for law school.
Several states away.
“Look, Cass . . . It’s . . . well . . . no,” Tad admitted. “I don’t think of you like that.”
This time the silence blared from Cassie’s side of the booth. Finally she found her voice. “How do you think of me?”
“Um . . . as a friend. Someone I hang with?”
Cassie sucked in a sharp breath and made a soft sound. Not quite a sob, but more than a snuffle.
Oh, precious lamb. Angie’s chest ached for the girl. At the same time, she wanted to leap up and give her a shake.
Give it up, sweetie, Angie wanted to tell her. He’s not the guy you think he is. He’s not your white knight. He doesn’t know who you really are and he doesn’t care. You’re a notch on his belt. Don’t look now, but he’s about to bigger, better deal you. In fact, he’s already moved on. If you’d ever read Jane Austen, you’d know he’s a Willoughby, through and through.
If Angie didn’t quit biting her lower lip, she’d make it bleed, but she couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t her place.
Cassie kept trying. This time, though, her voice was frosty.
“Well, if I’m not your girl, if we’re not a couple, I’d like to know what you think a relationship is. Because to me, I mean, after all we’ve done . . . well, it seems like we’re the real thing, whether you want to admit it or not.”  
“Look, Cass. Why are you making this so hard? I like you, OK? I mean, I like hanging with you.”
“And when you say hanging, you mean . . .” Her voice slipped back into whine mode.
“You know, how we do. We hang. Now and then.”
Lester swooped by to take their breakfast order. “So, kids, what’ll it be?”
“We’re not ready,” Tad said curtly.
No joke. Neither of them was ready for a real relationship. Tad should be considering which basketball scholarship to accept and Cassie ought to be working on bringing up her GPA.
Silence reigned again, but Angie would’ve bet her unused vacation days that neither of them was studying the menu.
“So,” Cassie finally said. “Are we going to hang at the Winter Dance?”
“Um . . . I dunno. Maybe. Sure. Why not?”
“Great!” The perky cheerleader was back. “I’ve already picked out my dress!” She launched into a steady patter, a running one-sided conversation about the terrible importance of finding the just right shoes to go with the “totally bangin’” dress she was going to wear.
          Oh, Cassie, can’t you tell he doesn’t care? Not about your dress. Not about your shoes. Not about you.
          Angie was suddenly glad Tad wasn’t in her Advanced Placement English class. She’d have been tempted to flunk him on principle. She wished he’d just go ahead and dump Cassie instead of stringing her along with hopes of the Winter Dance.
           Or maybe Cassie might somehow find the backbone to walk away from him.
Stand up, Cassie. Angie willed the girl to move, but she didn’t hear the slightest creak from the red vinyl seats. Come on. Tell him he’s history. Tell him you’re worth so much more than a half-hearted ‘why not?’ And tell him if he ever grows up enough to figure that out, he’s going to be sorry he let you go.
But Angie knew she wouldn’t.
Cassie was probably going through some mental gymnastics. She was trying to convince herself that Tad loved her, really. He just didn’t know how to show it. He’d come around, though. Maybe at the Winter Dance . . .  
Angie knew these things because she’d been Cassie.
Once. About ten years ago.
Angie hadn’t wanted to believe that Peter was slipping away, even though he gave her the same signs Tad was sending Cassie. She made excuses for him. She refused to believe it when her friends warned her. Even after he left for good, she couldn’t accept it. She fantasized about how he’d eventually come to his senses and realize he needed her as much as she did him. He’d come crawling back, a gorgeous ring in hand. Even in her fantasies, she had zero pride. She always fell back into his arms.
Angie was halfway through her first semester of student teaching before she finally admitted to herself that Peter would never come back, never come looking for her. Only one of them had been in love and it wasn’t him.
She still wanted to curl up into the fetal position when she thought about it.
Which fortunately wasn’t often.
Because Angie Holloway was off men for the foreseeable future. They turned women into soppy little doormats, and she was done letting someone wipe their feet on her.
“Hey, you the teacher?”
The rough baritone made her look up from her unread Austen. The rumbly voice belonged to a guy whose dark hair was thoroughly tousled, as if he’d just risen from bed.
Okay. That’s a totally inappropriate thought. No good comes from imagining a guy in a bed. Or freshly out of one either. 
“You her?” he asked again.
She wondered how he could’ve made it in the door, set off the bells and stalked up to her table without her noticing before now. She must have really zoned out.
It’s Peter’s fault. Even remembering him for a little bit makes me a mess.
Angie couldn’t decide what color this new guy’s eyes were. A cross between dark gray and deep blue. Despite the brisk day, he was wearing no jacket. His jeans looked like they’d been worn by hard work instead of coming from the factory pre-ripped and faded. She could barely make out the words “Parker Construction” sewn in red thread over the pocket of his washed-out black t-shirt.
“Lookin’ for an English teacher,” he said, more forcefully. “Angie Something-or-other. You her?” 
“It’s Holloway, not Something-or-other. And yes, I am she.” She gave herself a mental shake as she found her voice. “Do you ever speak in complete sentences?”
He shrugged. The man’s shoulders were massive. “If I have to.” A smile curved his mouth. His teeth were so white he belonged in a tooth paste commercial. “I’m Seth Parker. Heather sent me for you.”
As what? A present?
Her friend, Heather, was always trying to set her up with someone. Heather and her husband Michael had trotted out computer nerds and local shop owners, a few ranchers and one emergency medicine resident at Coldwater General who couldn’t keep from talking about the gory details of his day. Angie had lost count of how many awkward double dates she’d squirmed through.
Through which I squirmed, she corrected her own ungrammatical thought. Grammar was order amid chaos. It was her safety net. She fell back on it with gratitude.
But Seth Parker was still there, standing by the booth. This was the first time Heather had ambushed her with a Neanderthal—albeit a smoking hot Neanderthal—who probably wouldn’t recognize a dangling participle if it smacked him in the face.
Still, something about the logo on his shirt niggled at her memory.
Parker Construction
The company had just won the bid to build an addition to the high school. They were known for tackling big projects all over southeast Oklahoma with a reputation for delivering high quality and on time completion.
Could this guy be that Parker? She doubted it. She was all for the strong, silent type, but this man spoke in monosyllables. How could he run a successful company?
“Come on now.” He turned and headed for the door. When she didn’t follow, he stopped and cocked his head at her. “You coming?”
“I am not in the habit of going off with strange men.”
“Nothing strange about me, miss. I’m common as an old shoe.” He opened the door and held it wide for her. “Meeting’s been moved to the courthouse. Like I said, Heather sent me for you.”
So it wasn’t a set-up. The Warm Hearts Club meeting had just been moved. Feeling foolish, Angie rose and headed for the door. “Oh. You might have said so.”
“Thought I did.”
“Wait up, Teach!” Lester called after her. “Don’t you want your omelet?”
“Sorry, Lester. I have to go.”
“I’ll take it,” Tad Van Hook spoke up. “I need to eat and get out of here. Cassie’s waffles are going to take forever.”
Cassie slumped a little in the booth, but Tad didn’t seem to notice.
“I can put it in a to-go box for you, Teach,” Lester said.
“No, that’s ok. Give it to Tad,” Angie said as she swept past Seth, who was still holding the door for her. At least, he was a well-trained Neanderthal.
And no one deserves a Hypocrite’s Vegetarian Omelet more than Tad Van Hook.

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It’s hard to be the new girl in town, especially around the holidays. But when the town is Coldwater Cove, there are plenty of folks willing to welcome you—and lovingly meddle in your life . . .