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SERIES: Bluegrass Homecoming, Book 2
GENRE: Small Town, Second Chance/Divorced/Widows
ENDING: HEA (They’re a couple and live Happily Ever After)
WORD COUNT: 35,000 to 44,999 (large novella)
HERO’S AGE: 40-49
HEROINE’S AGE: 40-49
HEAT LEVEL: Mostly Sweet (Shut The Door, Honey)
GRAPHIC LANGUAGE: Just a little (No “F” Bombs, but a little other stuff, no explicit sex)
Schoolteacher Kelly Baron raised her child alone. Now that her daughter’s grown and married, Kelly can finally start her new life in North Carolina, responsible only for herself. She has just one more thing to do: help her mother. To do so, she must return to Heritage Springs, Kentucky, the place she’d fled years before. Back then she’d been nothing but a small-town girl from the wrong side of the tracks, hiding a secret that could have destroyed lives.
Newly divorced lawyer Rob Scott seeks solace for his heartache in his small-town roots. Maybe being an incurable romantic isn’t smart for a lawyer who has to deal with hard facts. The last thing he’s looking for is a relationship. He’d made millions in Chicago, but in his heart he’s always kept a secret dream, a desire he’s never told anyone. Then he runs into Kelly, the girl who’d disappeared from his life years ago, leaving behind only hurt and unanswered questions.
Kelly’s kept her secret all these years. But sometimes the only way to build a future is to face the past.
READ AN EXCERPT
Seneca Park, Louisville, Kentucky
“Kelly, will you marry me?”
Heat swept Kelly Baron’s face, and it had nothing to do with the warm June day. Choking back dismay, she stared at the kneeling man at her feet. “For goodness sakes, Thomas, stand up.”
Thomas struggled to his feet and sat down beside her on the park bench. His normally flushed face was peppered with sweat, and he had an expectant look in his eyes. “I’m serious,” he said, fumbling in his pocket and withdrawing a small, black velvet box. “Dead serious.” He lifted the lid.
Secured inside the box was a spectacular princess-cut diamond solitaire set in a white gold, cathedral setting. Kelly was somewhat of an expert about diamond engagement rings because of her daughter’s recent wedding, but she never expected Thomas Dunlap to offer her one, let alone one that looked to be the size of a carat.
Kelly focused on the beautiful ring, avoiding the conflicting emotions whirling in her head and the warning bells ringing in her ears.
Her usually reticent suitor became assertive and removed the ring from its box. “Here. Try it on.”
Before Kelly could demur, Thomas grabbed her left hand and slipped the ring on the third finger.
“It’s too big,” were the only words she could force from her dry lips.
“That’s no problem,” Thomas said, bending over her hand. She could see the thinning spot of hair at the top of his head. He slid the ring up and down on her finger and then raised his eyes. “We can get it sized to fit. What do you think?”
“No, about marrying me.”
That again. Panic set in. It’s not that Kelly didn’t like Thomas. They had been dating since his divorce. He was an elementary school principal in Jefferson County, and she taught fifth grade in a local Catholic school. They liked to walk for exercise, go to Broadway Series plays, and eat Italian. They had a lot in common. But she had never, ever considered marrying anybody, not even when she’d been pregnant with C.B. and needed to get married in the worst way.
“I’m not sure it’s the right time,” Kelly mumbled, looking at the way a thin strand of salt and pepper hair fell across his forehead.
Thomas sat back, opening a little space between them but continuing to hold her hand.
“It’s a perfect time.” His voice lowered turning persuasive. “We’ve dated five years. Colleen is happily married, and you finally settled your great-aunt’s estate.”
“But her house hasn’t sold.” She looked down, avoiding his gaze. Aunt Bess had left her house to both Kelly and Colleen, and when it sold her daughter and new husband would have a tidy nest egg.
“A technicality.” Thomas grasped both hands and renewed his efforts. “Look, Kelly, you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself now. It’s time for you to do what you want and move forward with your life.”
Kelly lifted her eyes to gaze into his face. She blinked. For twenty-one years she’d packed her life full of busyness and responsibility, spending her time taking care of first her daughter and later Aunt Bess. Thomas was right. All that responsibility was over. She would be forty in July. It was time to be a little selfish.
But did that include marrying Thomas?
She shook her head once. “I don’t know. This is so,” her voice faltered, “unexpected.”
“I know it is, Kelly, darling. But you must have guessed how I feel about you.”
Kelly dropped her gaze again, uncomfortable with his earnest, direct stare. Yes, she had known Thomas cared, but part of her had believed he would never marry again given the hideous nature of his divorce. It wasn’t as if theirs was a platonic relationship. They enjoyed good enough sex twice a month, usually the weeks he didn’t have his son.
She met his gaze again. “What about Clayton?”
“Clayton goes to college in the fall,” he said. “Kelly, you and I are footloose and fancy-free, sweetheart!” A smile transformed his face, smoothing out the worry lines in his brow, but leaving Kelly’s chest tight. “We’re good together, professionally and personally. It’s now or never, darling.”
Time for a forced smile. Did she want to spend the rest of her life with Thomas Dunlap? Become Mrs. Thomas Dunlap? No. For one thing, if she ever married, she would keep her maiden name. She would never succumb to an out-of-date tradition. And besides, she was too self-reliant, too used to doing what she pleased with only her daughter and her aunt to put her life in the hands of another.
But Aunt Bess was dead and C.B. was married. Thomas was right. She was free.
“This is such a surprise. Will you let me think about it?” She hated the timid note that crept into her voice. Slowly, Kelly disengaged her hands and withdrew the sparkling ring from her finger. It was too much bling. It was too much pressure. She handed it back to him. “You know I don’t do change well.”
Thomas slid the ring back into its protective velvet box. He had the look of a man receiving a death sentence. I hate to hurt his feelings. She hadn’t quite told him “no,” but she hadn’t said “yes.” If the situation were reversed, she’d feel like shit.
“You have a habit of avoiding things,” he said with a sharp shake of his finger, reprimanding her as if she was a six-year-old caught hitting another child on the playground. “It’s a character flaw you need to work on.”
Kelly shifted on the park bench. Thomas was always too blunt. That was his character flaw. She pressed her right hand hard against the bench and fought down her annoyance.
Yet could Thomas be right?
Twenty-one years ago she had avoided telling C.B.’s father she was pregnant, but that was because his mother had found out they were secretly dating and warned her away from him. She made it perfectly clear her son had a future that didn’t include a small town girl from the wrong side of the tracks. It was evident she went behind her son’s back because he never said anything about his mother’s interference. Probably her husband didn’t even know about her scare tactics.
But his mother was right. When they talked about life after high school, he made it clear he didn’t intend to end up in a small town like his father. He intended to go places, be important. Kelly was never part of that future he painted for himself.
When she found out she was pregnant, Kelly couldn’t tell him. He didn’t love her. He would reject her and their child.
And so once Kelly started keeping the secret, she had never revealed the truth to anyone, especially not her own father, who had threatened to beat it out of her and confront the boy and his parents. It was just as easy to avoid telling her mother, who could be bullied by her husband, and later C.B., who accepted life without a father. Leaving her hometown and moving to Louisville put distance between her and the problem.
Thomas cleared his throat. “I won’t wait forever,” he told her.
“Of course not.” Kelly shook off the memories and touched his sleeve. How did she soften her response? “I just need time to process this. Please?”
He kissed her then—a typical Thomas kiss with lips pressed firmly shut and eyes closed. Kelly responded as always, timidly, tepidly—trying to deny the longing in her heart for the love of her life, someone who cherished her, didn’t want to change her and loved her just the way she was.
Someone she was too afraid to find.
“Did Thomas really say that?”
Ear pressed to her iPhone, Kelly nodded even though her best friend Rachel couldn’t see the action. “Yes. You know how he is,” she said.
Kelly leaned back against the headboard of her queen-sized bed with its cozy, apple green comforter and cotton sheets—her refuge from the untidy world where she lived. She’d never had sex in it. Thomas preferred the six hundred-thread count, extra deep Egyptian cotton sheets of his king-sized bed. What’s more, he didn’t like anyone touching him when he slept. She was used to sleeping alone, so part of her didn’t mind.
Another part longed to be held all night long, tenderly cuddled and caressed, not taken for granted once the deed was done.
It was dark outside, almost ten o’clock. One lamp illuminated Kelly’s cream-colored bedroom walls, casting shadows over her nightstand where her stack of to-be-read books was piled.
“What are you going to do?” Rachel’s voice, low and soft, was not able to mask its cautionary note.
“About Thomas?” Kelly paused. “I don’t think I’m the marrying kind.”
She heard Rachel’s sigh of relief almost as if her friend were in the same room, not seven hundred miles away. Did Rachel agree? When they met, Rachel was single and didn’t have a child, but she’d always been willing to let C.B. tag along with them when they went out to eat or shop at the mall. Then Rachel met Carl on eDate.com and the rest, as they say, was history.
Rachel had taken the chance Kelly had never been willing to take. She had married Carl and moved away settling in Beaufort, North Carolina, where she and Carl ran a thriving bed and breakfast.
“Thomas is right about one thing.” Rachel took a big breath as if gathering courage. “Your life is wide open. It’s time for you to start fresh.”
“No ‘buts.’ I don’t want to hear any excuses. Life just doesn’t happen. You must create what you want out of it.”
Kelly flinched, her hand holding the cell phone suddenly going damp. She switched hands and wiped her right hand against her pajama pants. “I know. I’ve been thinking I should do something different with my life.” Part of her wanted to make a change. The other part remained terrified.
“You know you don’t love Thomas,” Rachel said. “He was simply convenient.”
“You’re right.” The room suddenly seemed cooler as if Kelly was closing a door. “I know I should take a few more risks, but I’m not good at it.”
“You can do whatever you put your mind to.” Kelly sensed Rachel’s smile. “You’re stronger than you think.”
Kelly shrugged off the praise. She’d never considered herself particularly strong. “Whatever.”
“Call me tomorrow? We’ll talk some more.”
“Good night, Kelly. And don’t worry about Thomas. He’s not for you.”
“I know. Good night, Rachel.”
Kelly ended the call and placed the iPhone on her nightstand. She sat forward and hugged her knees to her chest, resting her chin on her knees. Rachel was right. She needed change. She deserved it after all she’d been through and all the sacrifices she’d made over the years for C.B.
But Thomas Dunlap wasn’t particularly the kind of change she needed.
What did she need? Would she always date someone who was safe?
Kelly sighed, trying to shake away her funk.
C.B. and Daniel had moved into a small house in Middletown. He was taking care of her little girl now. What if she quit her teaching job and put her things in storage? Her apartment lease was up next month. She could let the realtor sell her aunt’s house. Then she’d be free to move to Lexington or maybe Northern Kentucky. At least she’d be away from the complication of Thomas.
The idea of creating a new life was new and exciting.
Yes, she’d do it. Having something to look forward to and making her mind up so quickly made her feel good.
Kelly relaxed against the pillows only to jerk forward moments later as the ringtone “My Old Kentucky Home” blared from her iPhone. Wonderful. Why did her mother always spoil her sweet dreams?
Kelly squeezed her eyes shut a few seconds. Then she reached over and picked up the phone. “Hi, Mother.”
“Kelly, dear, how are you?”
“Fine. You’re calling late.”
“I need your help. With Colleen settled and school out for the year, I thought you’d have time to come home and give me a hand.”
Kelly had been home once in twenty-one years and that was a year ago when her father died. She had avoided Lanham Springs, Kentucky, like the plague.
“What do you need, Mother? Is it something I can do for you from here?”
“No, you can’t.” Her mother’s voice was tight. “I’m moving out of this big house. It’s too much for me. I need your help to go through things. I’m afraid I’ll throw away something you or Colleen will want, you know things from your father’s family.”
“I don’t think C.B. is interested in antiques.”
“Kelly!” Her mother cut her off. “I never ask anything of you. Not since what happened. But now I need your help. And Colleen may want something from your father’s family since she doesn’t have her own father.”
Ouch. Kelly should be used to her mother dredging up “the big mistake,” but it hurt just the same. “Mother, I don’t have time.”
“You never have time.” She heard her mother’s deep intake of breath. “Kelly, I’m almost seventy. I don’t get around as well as I used to. I need your help.”
Kelly read the pleading note in her mother’s sharp voice. “With C.B. married and Aunt Bess gone, I’m starting a new life, Mother.”
“I’m starting one too, dear.” Her mother’s tone softened. “It’s just for a few weeks.”
It had to be tough getting older. Aunt Bess had not taken kindly to old age and had gone kicking and screaming to the end, never acknowledging she wasn’t able to do what her aging body prevented her from doing. Her mother was different. She’d never written a check until her father died. Although always subservient to him, her mother had taken his passing hard.
She and Aunt Bess could never understand Grace Baron’s passivity and abject dependence on her husband. They were two self-reliant women, cut from the same cloth and used to doing things for themselves. It was hard for them to ask for help, but they gave it freely as part of their DNA.
“Okay, Mother,” Kelly said, knowing this time she couldn’t deny her mother’s request. “I can be up there in a couple of weeks. I have some things to get done here before then.”
“You must arrive before July tenth. That’s when I’m, er, moving. Can you be here for your birthday on the sixth? It will be fun to celebrate it here.”
“I’ll be there. Don’t worry.”
As always her mother hung up without saying goodbye. Kelly slammed the iPhone down on her mattress. Damn! She set her jaw, flipped off the bedside lamp and stared into the darkness. Her mother was moving into a retirement home. She needed Kelly’s help, but Kelly dreaded going home.
“You can never go home again,” James Agee had written. Kelly fled Lanham Falls at eighteen, accepting the truth of that adage.
By agreeing to help her mother, she was putting her life on hold one more time. Maybe Lanham Springs was as good as any place to retreat and plot her next move.
Meet Jan Scarbrough
Jan Scarbrough is the author of two popular Bluegrass series, writing heartwarming contemporary romances about home and family, single moms and children, and if the plot allows, about another passion—horses. Living in the horse country of Kentucky makes it easy for Jan to add small town, Southern charm to her books and the excitement of a Bluegrass horse race or a competitive horse show.
With author Maddie James, Jan has written the Montana McKenna series, the story of the family of James McKenna, a Montana rancher whose death changes the lives of his wife and children.
Leaving her contemporary voice behind, Jan has written paranormal gothic romances: Tangled Memories, a Romance Writers of America (RWA) Golden Heart finalist, and Timeless. Her newest book, My Lord Raven is a medieval story of honor and betrayal.
A member of Novelist, Inc., Jan has published with Kensington, Five Star, ImaJinn Books, Resplendence Publishing and Turquoise Morning Press. Today she self-publishes her books with the help of her husband. She has published 23 romances.