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~ Lacy Evans, who’s never really been in trouble . . .
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She didn’t usually talk to herself, but she’d been on auto-pilot for two bleary-eyed days. After driving half-way across the country, she tooled into Coldwater Cove, Oklahoma, at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.
The town was one step up from rustic, a hundred steps down from trendy. And the last place on earth she ever thought she’d live again. But that was before her business partner ran off with half a million dollars in client funds and left her holding the empty bag.
It was too early to pop into her parents’ house. Mom needed her “beauty sleep” until eight at least. Dad might be puttering about in the kitchen, making his abominable coffee, but if Lacy tried to slip into the house now, his booming welcome would be loud enough to wake the dead in the cemetery next door.
Besides, after what happened in Boston, she didn’t deserve a welcome. So she drove around the narrow streets, looking for evidence that time had passed since she was home last.
Coldwater Cove was a quiet little place where Arkansas tossed a rumpled blanket of hills and hollows over the Oklahoma state line. The air that morning was so still there wasn’t a single ripple on Lake Jewel, the blue water hazard that formed the eastern boundary of the town. The tired peaks of the Winding Stair range brooded over the lake, their velvety foothills bathed in an Ozark haze. Nothing ever seemed to change here.
In a weird way, Lacy was glad. If nothing was different, it was like Boston never happened.
The lights were on in the Green Apple Grill on the Town Square. Her stomach rumbled, a reminder that she hadn’t eaten since those stale Twinkies in Peoria. She pulled up in front of the “hurt-your-eyes” green door. There were still no parking meters on the Square around the Victorian gem of a courthouse, so she got out, locked her Volvo out of habit, and went into the Green Apple. A trio of bells tinkled over the door.
“Have a seat. Be with you in a minute.” The rumbling baritone came from a guy on the other side of a half wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the place. His broad-shouldered back was turned to her. The grill hissed when he gave it a quick scrub-down with a damp rag.
Lacy slid into the nearest booth, hoping they still had Belgian waffles on the menu. Just thinking about melted butter and powdered sugar made her mouth water.
“Lacy? Lacy Evans, is that you?”
Jacob Tyler peered at her from the kitchen. Superstar half-back, homecoming king, voted most likely to succeed—he was Mr. Big Stuff when they were in high school. Lacy never thought he’d still be in Coldwater Cove, much less in front of the Green Apple’s grill.
“Hey, Jake. How’ve you been?”
“Can’t complain. Besides, no one would care if I did.”
Lacy doubted that sincerely. Jacob still had that devastating dimple in his left cheek and a mega-watt smile. It was almost enough to make her forget the flotilla of broken hearts bobbing in his wake.
Almost. The last thing she needed was more man trouble on top of everything else.
“What can I do you for?” he asked.
“Coffee, and—please, God—waffles.” They weren’t listed on the plastic-covered menu affixed to the wall.
“For you, anything.”
That was Jake Tyler’s gift. He made a girl feel special. Only trouble was, he made all the girls feel special.
While he went to work on her breakfast, Lacy took a deep breath and enjoyed the sensation of not moving. When she pulled a tablet from her backpack, her hand shook a little. She chalked it up to lack of sleep. She refused to think of it as residual panic.
I’m ok. The people I borrowed all that money from have no idea where I am.
When she turned on her tablet, Bradford Endicott’s face grinned up at her from her screen saver. She quickly deleted him, wondering why it had taken her so long. She was so over feeling anything for the guy but loathing. Chalking up the flutter in her belly to hunger, Lacy flexed her fingers and scanned the to-do list.
The first item to tick off was finding a place to live. Her stuff, such as it was, was en route from Boston. She had two days to call in an address for delivery.
Lacy so didn’t intend to spend any more nights in her parents’ spare room than she could help. Granted, she deserved to suffer for being so stupidly gullible, but being reduced to the status of a twelve year old might be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Her savings were far from bottomless, but it would be cheap to live in Coldwater Cove. If she was careful, she’d have a month or two to figure out what to do with herself. She’d be broke inside of a week in Boston.
More broke than she felt on the inside.
“I was sorry to hear about your troubles,” Jake interrupted her thoughts. “So, how you holding up?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. That business about the guy back in Beantown who absconded with your money.”
It wasn’t her money. It was their clients’ money, deposits made on special pieces and design work yet to be delivered. And he wasn’t just any guy. He was her partner. She and Bradford had been all but engaged. And she’d made the mistake of trusting him. She frowned at Jacob. “How did you—”
“Remember where you are, Lace,” he said. “Your mom tells her hairdresser, who confides in her sister, who lets it slip to the UPS guy, yada, yada, yada. Then once something makes the Methodist prayer chain, it’s better than going viral on YouTube.” His smile faded. “Seriously, though, are you ok?”
She’d lost her business, her condo, and her professional reputation, but she was better off than Bradford Endicott would be if she ever laid eyes on him again. Lacy wasn’t a naturally violent person. But if Belize ever honored the extradition request for him, she’d be more than happy to bloody his nose. Then she’d testify against him for ripping off their high-end design clients and running off to Central America with all the firm’s liquid assets. And Ramona, their stiletto-wearing, hair-flipping, sure-to-rock-a-bikini assistant.
“I’m fine,” she assured Jake. She switched off the tablet and stowed it in her pack. She couldn’t think about what to do next. At least not until she got some real food in her. “I didn’t make it to the ten year reunion. What’ve you been up to? I expected to see you in the NFL.”
“College football convinced me my future lay elsewhere. Two concussions in as many months was too much. Not much point in a football scholarship if you get your brain rattled every week trying to keep it. I need all the gray matter I got.”
“You did ok in school.”
“Yeah, but only when the answer was a matter of opinion.”
Jacob smiled again and a shock of dark hair fell forward on his forehead. Lacy itched to push it back for him, but she scrunched her fingers in her lap instead. She should be immune to his brand of self-deprecating charm.
That’s how vaccines work, isn’t it? You take in a little of the virus, get comfy with it, and then you’re safe from the full power of the real thing.
Still, her chest constricted a bit at his lopsided grin.
“Did a hitch with the Marines after that,” he said.
“Oo-rah.” He came around the half wall with a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate of steaming waffles in the other. She noticed his slight limp for the first time. And the fact that below the camo shorts, his left leg was titanium from the knee down. He caught the direction of her gaze. “Ran into an IED in Helmand province.”
Afghanistan. According to Mr. Curtis, their high school history teacher, the land of the Khyber Pass was a place where plenty of countries got their rears handed to them over the last millennium or so. “Jacob, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I was one of the lucky ones.” He set down the plate of waffles and coffee in front of her. A shadow passed behind his dark eyes. “Most of guys in my unit didn’t make it back.”
Lacy buried her nose in her cup and wondered how to change the subject. Out of nowhere, she blurted, “So, did you ever get married?”
“Once. Didn’t take. You?”
“Almost engaged. Once. Ditto.” She forked up a bite of waffles and, deciding carbs were better than men, sank into powdered sugar bliss.
“Saving yourself for me, huh?” he said as he settled into the booth opposite her.
“You’ve uncovered my evil plan.” They laughed together. They both seemed to need it.
“Are you here for good?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” The way she was feeling, it was more like she was there for bad. Coldwater Cove was her penance. And her sanctuary. And the slow-paced insularity of the place was likely to drive her batty if she stayed longer than six months.
“I hear Helen’s looking for someone over at the Gazette. She’d jump at the chance to have you.”
Lacy nearly choked on the waffle. She used to write for the Coldwater Gazette when she was in high school, covering ballgames and board meetings alike. Back then, everyone figured she’d become an investigative journalist like her Uncle Roy. Instead, she shook off the dust of this little wide spot in the road and followed her passion to a design school in New England. She specialized in fusing Old World antiques and architectural features with industrial kitsch. Her work won awards, the important “hang-on-your-brag-wall” kind.
But that was before she partnered up with a guy who ran off with their clients’ deposits and she had to liquidate everything to try to make it right. From the displays in their trendy Back Bay showroom to the equity in her condo and every last nickel in her IRA, everything she’d worked for was gone. Even after all that, she still had to sign a usurious note with some semi-unsavory characters for a balance that would eat her alive if she didn’t find a way to pay it off pronto.
Lacy might be able to pull together a room, but clearly, she was not cut out to be a businesswoman.
“I don’t think I can work at the Gazette again. It would feel like going backward. Besides, my uncle says small town papers are a license to steal,” Lacy said between waffle bites. The local rag filled its pages with puff pieces that ended with ‘and a good time was had by all,’ and then charged the earth for advertising space. It was an insult to her uncle’s journalistic soul. Since Lacy adored Uncle Roy, she agreed with his opinion on the subject. “It’s like Chinese food, only in print. After you read the Coldwater Gazette, your brain is hungry again in an hour.”
“Yeah, well, it might pay the bills. Things change and sometimes you have to do whatever comes to hand.” A hard edge cut through his tone. It hadn’t been there before. Jake shrugged. “Just a thought.”
While she polished off the waffles and made appreciative noises at appropriate intervals, Jake filled her in on what had happened with some of their other classmates. Quite a few had moved on, but more were still in Coldwater Cove than she expected. There’d been marriages and shacking-ups, splitting the sheets and reconciliations. Kids had been born, houses built. Businesses had bloomed or withered. Everyone had been filling up their lives with people and things.
All Lacy had to show for her twenty-nine trips around the sun fit neatly into a relatively small pod. She figured her worldly goods ought to be somewhere in Ohio by now.
“Everyone will be happy to see you back,” Jake assured her.
She smirked. “On the theory that misery loves company?”
“After you’ve seen Kabul, Coldwater’s not so bad,” he said. “Besides, it’s not the back of beyond it used to be. We’ve got cable and internet on top of the Gazette to keep us up to speed. And whatever news they miss turns up on the Methodist prayer chain.”
She took a swig of coffee. It wasn’t as bitter as the brew she was used to. She’d become accustomed to coffee that gave her taste buds a smack. “Never figured you for a Methodist.”
“Getting your leg blown off will make you rethink a lot of things.”
Lacy nodded, but Jake looked away, signaling that was all he had to say on that topic. If she waited long enough, he’d probably tell her more. All her life, people had told Lacy the most amazing things, surprisingly personal things, because she was willing to sit in silence and wait for them to fill it.
But she didn’t want to invade Jake’s head. It didn’t seem polite after he made her waffles and all.
The bells over the door tinkled and a guy in Sheriff’s Office khaki came into the Green Apple. Coldwater Cove was too small to have its own police force, so the county boys did double duty. He took off his hat. The tight brim hadn’t done his dark-honey hair any favors, but Lacy’s stomach lurched in recognition anyway.
It was Daniel Scott.
Every girl in Coldwater Cove had a not-so-serious fling with Jacob Tyler at one time or another. It was like a rite of passage.
You go through it and get your heart bruised. Sadder, but not much worse for the wear because even though Jake has moved on to the next girl, he’s so darn likeable, you’re still his friend.
Lacy was glad she’d gone through her “Jake phase” in fifth grade when their courtship consisted of holding hands during school assemblies. Right after their budding “true love forever” ended abruptly when a new girl moved to town, Lacy’s dad had signed her up for riding lessons. She stopped pining for Jake almost immediately. At ten or eleven, girls love horses more than boys anyway.
But Daniel Scott . . .
For one breathless summer before Lacy headed east to study design, Daniel was her soft, warm night and endless sky. And even though she was the one who moved to Boston, he’s the one who got away.
“Saw the out of state plates and—” He stopped mid-step. His eyes were as green as she remembered them, not muddy like a moss green, but vibrant like a spring morning.
“Lacy,” Daniel said.
That was it. Just her name. It’d been over a decade since she’d seen him, yet something inside her hummed with remembered longing. A slow-motion scene where they ran toward each other, arms outstretched, scrolled across her mind.
Down, Lacy. You are so seriously sleep-deprived. And Bradford Endicott should be enough to make any girl swear off men completely.
Instead of a slow-mo sprint, Dan walked over to the booth where she and Jake were sitting. They started the round of small talk again. It felt like the same ground she’d covered with Jacob, only Daniel didn’t sit with them. A question tromped around on the tip of her tongue, but she bit it back.
The bells over the door tinkled again. A group of folks dressed in their church clothes filed in for the breakfast special before Sunday School.
“Gotta go.” Jake slid out of the booth to take care of his customers.
“Me, too.” Daniel put his hat back on, and when he looked down at her, one side of his mouth lifted up. She would have given her last penny for the thought behind that half-smile. “It’s good to see you, Lacy. Welcome home.”
His lips parted as if he was about to say something else, but then he turned and walked away. Still looked pretty incredible doing it too, but Lacy didn’t need to ask that other question anymore.
She’d seen the ring on his left hand.
Discover Lexi's books at these fine stores:
"This story will tug at your heart as a maligned heroine comes back under a cloud of suspicion and a damaged war hero helps her find a new happy ending." - RTBOOKReviews
"The quirky characters, a minor mystery and the down-home feel in the first installment in Eddings' Coldwater series will delight readers looking for a sweet small-town romance." - C.L. Quillen, Booklist
“The heart-tugging scenes, stellar characters, captivating secondary storylines, and small-town charisma will whet readers’ appetites for a return visit to Coldwater.” – Publishers Weekly
Do you appreciate large print?
The Coldwater Warm Hearts Club is now available in hardcover!
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The Coldwater Warm Hearts Club is Book 1 in the Coldwater Cove series.
I love the characters in this story and can't wait to share them with you. They're all dealing with some pretty tough issues, but they don't lose sight of what's really important. This story is about discovering where home really is and finding that one special person you want to share it with.
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