Living for years amidst a whirlwind of fear and danger, Julia Farris finally snaps free from the bonds that kept her in Arizona. But when she arrives in her hometown of Edinboro, Pennsylvania, she realizes she’s jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
With the death of his parents, Mark Webb went to part time at the local police department to run his parents’ bed and breakfast, a job he’s begun to think very lonely until his old high school flame shows up.
As Julia tries to seize control of her life, she finds herself intrigued with the possibilities presented by Mark’s presence. But getting closer to Mark might spell disaster. What’s a girl to do when one ex might be dead and the other wears a badge?
Julia Farris pulled the keys from the ignition and opened the door of the rented Honda Civic. A cold blast of air blew across the lawn, sending the recent fallen snow dancing through the air. Her gaze roamed over the full parking lot. Apparently the holidays still brought in a lot of business for the bed and breakfast. She had missed this place. After so many years of being held prisoner in the dry and weary land of Arizona, she had arrived back in her home town of Edinboro, Pennsylvania. And for the first time in many years, she could say she felt safe.
Her gaze became fixed on Webb’s Bed and Breakfast where she had spent so much of her junior high and high school days. The three-story Victorian home remained in great repair. She needed something familiar, and the auto pilot portion of her brain had brought her here. She could handle this. This would be easier than facing the ghosts inside her deceased parents’ house.
She wondered how well Mr. and Mrs. Webb had faired over the years. Only one way to find out. She retrieved her suitcase from the trunk and began the slip and slide walk across the parking area before finally coming to the shoveled walkway. About halfway to the door, she stopped dead in her tracks at the familiar voice that called out a greeting from the front door.
No one had called her by her maiden name in years, and the sound was oddly comforting and foreign at the same time. The man who had said it brought on a mix of emotions she had no hope of sorting through anytime soon. Mark Webb, her high school sweetheart, filled the doorway with his large frame. The boy she remembered had filled out into this rippling-muscled man.
She plastered a smile on her face as she closed the rest of the distance between them. He met her on the covered porch, and she only had a fraction of a second to put her suitcase down before his arms encircled her. When he gave a light squeeze, she flinched and moaned before she could stop herself.
He released her quickly and took a step back from her. “Did I hurt you?”
“No. I slipped at the airport and hit my side on one of the hand rails. No big deal.” She hoped he bought the quick lie. She had no desire to go into any explanations right now. “I’m fine really,” she said in response to the nicely arched brow he raised at her. “You look like you are doing well.”
‘Well’ was a mild term for the way he looked. His light brown hair was cut short and styled in that on purpose disarray that had become popular with men. His bright green eyes were still as captivating as they used to be. Faint laugh lines had started to appear around his lips. The gray thermal shirt he wore had two of its three buttons undone. The fabric stretched tight across his broad chest and over his large biceps. It hung loosely over the top of designer jeans that fit just right over his lean hips.
“I’m doing pretty good.”
“I didn’t expect to see you here. But then again I wasn’t thinking about this being Thanksgiving weekend either. Of course you would be here to see your parents.”
His smile faded slightly as he looked down at her suitcase. “My parents are both dead now.”
“Oh my. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, don’t be sorry. You haven’t been here since you left after your wedding, so you wouldn’t have known. I run the bed and breakfast now.”
Silence stretched between them. She had already opened her mouth and inserted her foot so she was scared to say anything else.
“And look at what a bad job I’m doing at being a host by keeping you out in the cold.” He leaned down and picked up her suitcase. “I’ll put this in a room for you. If you’d like to go into the kitchen, the wood-burning stove is lit and you can get warm. And I was just about to have some coffee if you’d like to join me.”
She smiled at him again. “That sounds like a plan.”
She stomped her feet on the wooden porch to dislodge any snow before entering the house behind him. He went straight for the stairs, and she couldn’t help watching his powerful legs and well-muscled backside move as he ascended. She pulled off one boot and then the other, never looking away from him. He paused at the top to look back at her. A smile formed on his lips. Busted. She blushed as she turned and headed in the direction of the kitchen.
Not much had changed in the quaint country décor of the house. Everything seemed so familiar. It’d be easy to surround herself in all this and use it as a security blanket. She made her way across the polished hardwood floor to the old wood-burning stove in the corner of the kitchen. Her lips pulled into a smile as she remembered Mrs. Webb threatening to skin her husband alive if he even thought about getting rid of this old thing. She had claimed it added character to the room.
Julia stretched her hands out toward the warmth the stove offered and sighed. She’d been robbed of too many years. Her smile faded as she thought of all the people that had been important in her life that she’d never be able to speak to again. She hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.
“I see you found your way.”
She looked over her shoulder at Mark as he entered the kitchen. The realization that she’d actually missed him hit her unawares. Her gaze followed him as he made his way over to the light-stained wood cabinet that held the coffee mugs. He removed two cups and placed them on the white counter top. His mom had also argued for the white counter top to stay during the remodel. She had liked the fact she could use bleach on it and not only kill all the germs but take out any stains from various spills.
“It feels really good to be here.”
He turned and cast a dazzling smile in her direction. “I’m glad to have you here.”
Her heart gave a weird beat as she turned to walk over to the small rectangular wooden table by the bay window. She took a seat at one end, amazed at how, after so long, his smiles could still affect her like that. He put a handful of various individually wrapped creamers in a small bowl and headed toward the table, carrying the two steaming cups of coffee by their handles in one large hand and the bowl in the other.
“Thanks,” she said, accepting the cup of hot brew he offered her.
“Are you hungry? I have some leftover turkey in the fridge. You could whip up a sandwich or something if you like.”
“No. This is fine. I ate something in Houston while waiting for my next flight.”
“Alright, if you change your mind you know where everything is,” he replied, taking a seat at the other end of the table.
And she did remember where everything was. She had spent many hours in this house, sitting at this very table as she and Mark studied for various tests in high school while eating scones and drinking hot tea. But instead of the long looks and the playful teasing that marked those times for her, she now sat with him in silence, neither one of them sure what to say to bridge the twelve year gap that had separated them.
She decided to take the first step. “Do you mind telling me what happened to your parents?”
He sat forward with his elbows on the table, his cup between his hands. “Dad died of a heart attack about three years ago. It was unexpected. As far as any of us knew, he’d been in perfect health. But with the strain of losing dad, mom couldn’t keep this place up all by herself. So I went to part time at the police station so I could help her out. A year later, her diabetes got really bad and her kidneys started to fail. We tried dialysis, but she only made it another five months before she went into complete renal failure. They tried to find a match for a kidney transplant, but it just didn’t happen. So I’ve been running this place for the last two years. She made me promise to not sell it.”
“She really did love this place.”
“Yeah, she did. She liked having a full house and people to take care of.” He sat back in his chair. “So what brings you here? And dare I ask if your husband will be staying here as well?”
She looked down at the cup in her hands before answering. “No. Allen won’t be staying here.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. Not really. Suffice to say, I’ve left him.” She left off the part about where she had left him.
“Ok. As long as you are ok, I’ll leave it be.”
“I think I’m going to be just fine.”
Mark couldn’t believe Julia had showed up on his doorstep. He’d just been thinking about how lonely it had become around the holidays with his parents gone and no other family around when he saw her get out of her car. When they’d dated in junior high and high school, she’d been a very pretty girl, but the woman she had become was downright beautiful.
He loved that she still wore her dark brown hair long. He had to resist the urge to touch it, wondering if it would be as silky as he’d remembered it. He watched her now across the table. She reached up and pushed her hair behind one small ear. Her almond-shaped, golden brown eyes were surrounded by dark lashes. Her full lips were the things of men’s dreams. The red turtleneck she wore stretched tight across her large breasts.
Memories from the past that had lain dormant now rose up to the front of his thoughts. He had shared many smiles, hugs, and jokes with her. Hell, they had even lost their virginities to one another in a moment that could be described as nothing less than awkward. The next day, they’d fought and that had been the end.
“Have you gone to your parents’ house yet?” By the way she continued to look at the table, he figured that was a big no and maybe he should have continued with his silent trip down memory lane. But he’d really been curious why she never came home for their funeral. It’d been way out of character for the person he knew her to be.
“No, I’ve not gone by there. I’m not ready to face that right now.”
“I put flowers on their graves when I went and took flowers to my parents.”
Her eyes met his. “Thanks.”
“It’s no big deal. It’s not like you wouldn’t do it for me.” He stood up and picked up his empty coffee cup. “Would you like some more?”
“No, this is good.”
He walked over to the sink and rinsed the cup before placing it in the dishwasher. “So, do you have a plan from here or are you just winging it?” He leaned one hip against the countertop, crossing his arms over his chest.
“First thing I need to do is find a job.”
So she planned on staying. This was a good thing. She had always wanted to become a teacher in Edinboro. In fact, that had been one of the reasons they broke up the summer after their senior year. He had wanted to move to a larger city and become an FBI agent, and she had wanted to stay here. They became angry with each other when neither of them would give an inch in their proposed plan for their lives. The argument that had ensued lead to their breakup. Funny thing, in the end, he’d come back to Edinboro and found out that she’d gotten married and moved away.
“I guess you plan on applying to teach in the schools around here.”
Her gaze dropped to the table again. “No. I never got to finish college. I’ll have to find something else.”
Not the answer he would’ve guessed. “Well, I happen to have an opening here for a housekeeper. My housekeeper Linda’s first baby is due any day now. She’s worked here for the past three years now and would still be working if I hadn’t made her take time off. She kept trying to go into early labor from all the moving around she’d been doing.”
“Well. I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to take her job away from her. I mean is she going to need to return to work after the baby?”
He smiled. “No. We worked it out so that she could take a year off with the baby. So if you want the job, it’s yours.”
He watched as she took a long slow drink of her coffee.
She swallowed and put the cup back on the table. “Ok. I’ll take it. I can start in the morning.”
“You don’t have to start that soon if there are things you want to take care of first. I mean, if you want to go to the cemetery or go through your parents’ things…”
She pushed back from the table and snatched up her cup. “I already told you I’m not ready for that.” She walked over and rinsed her cup and placed it in the dishwasher. “I better get to bed. What room did you put my things in?”
“Hey… I didn’t mean…” He reached for her hand, but she flinched and pulled back from him. He let his hand fall back to his side. “I wasn’t trying to upset you. If you want to start tomorrow then that’ll be fine. I put your stuff in my old room on the third floor.”
Her head came up, and her gaze fixed on him. “That’s not necessary. I could stay in one of the guest rooms on the second floor.”
“Nonsense. Besides they are all full any way.”
“Ok then. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yeah…Goodnight,” he said to her retreating form.
After she disappeared through the doorway and he was sure she was out of hearing range, he released a frustrated sigh. He never imagined things could be so odd and strained between them.
Ok. So she didn’t want him to touch her. Just because they had been together once a long time ago didn’t mean he could just think it was ok to try and act as if they were still familiar with each other.
But that wasn’t what ate him alive. He’d been ready to purpose to her that summer after graduation. When he’d started into the conversation about their futures and the plans he’d made, he’d wanted to use it to build up to popping the question. To ask her to be a part of his future. Instead, it had lead to a terrible argument. It all boiled down to her not wanting to leave Edinboro and him not wanting to give up his dream.
After two years in college away from her, he returned to find that she’d gotten married and moved away with that dick Allen Farris. She’d done the very thing she refused to do for him. It might have been alright if she had created a wonderful life with the asshat, but no. Her adventure would end in a divorce. So why did this piss him off again?
“Crap.” He rubbed his hands over his face before looking back at the doorway she had left through. It didn’t matter what she’d done. She was here now and he had another chance to prove to her she belonged with him.
A smile spread across his face as he added soap to the dishwasher.