Carly's Rule

Carly's Rule

Vickie King

September 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-361-0

Can they find a second chance for love?

Book 1 of The Braddock Series

Our PriceUS$12.95
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It’s been years since their teenage romance broke her heart and he disappeared from her life. Now Luke Donovan walks into Carly Braddock’s West Virginia bakery, and all the old feelings resurface. He’s in town for his work as a preservation specialist hired by the local historical society—but also to fix his relationship with his rebellious daughter, whom Carly doesn’t know exists—until now. With so much baggage between them and so many bittersweet memories, can she break the rule she created to protect her heart?

Vickie King has published short fiction in Woman’s World Magazine. This is her debut full-length novel. She would love to hear from her readers. Write to her at or contact her through her Facebook Author Page or her blog page at



"A heartwarming, emotional story of a love rekindled." – Elizabeth Sinclair, author of the Hawks Mountain series

"A delightful and heartwarming read!" – Eve Gaddy, award winning author of Cowboy Come Home



Chapter 1

ONLY A FEW THINGS made pastry chef Carly Braddock’s mouth water. Two of those things included the dream of putting her business on the map and the goal of creating the perfect recipe for sugar cookies. The third just walked through the front door of Sugar Plums, her bakery and café.

It couldn’t be. She narrowed her gaze. Surely, she was mistaken. After all, it had been years.

As the man made his way through the café, the familiar set of his shoulders and the confident but lazy gait that only one other person owned set her pulse to thrumming. She stared at that pretty-boy face and slightly tousled dark hair that had once made her sit back and drink her fill. Still did.

Her stomach fluttered as if she were once again that girl in love whose whole world revolved around this one person.

Luke Donovan.

Memories rushed to the surface. Instantly, her knees weakened, but in typical woman-scorned fashion she stiffened her spine and steeled herself against the power he’d once held over her heart.

Halfway down the counter, he slid onto a padded chrome stool and picked up a menu. Her employee, Addie, spotted the newcomer and grabbed her order pad. Carly caught the middle-aged woman’s attention to let her know she’d handle this one and then on jellied legs moved toward Luke.

Carly didn’t want to take his order. She had to, if for no other reason than to let him know she’d survived how he’d simply disappeared from her young life, so many years ago. He wouldn’t know that her experience with him had shaped the other relationships she’d had.

With her stomach a jittery mess, she stepped in front of him. "Know what you want?”

His gaze slid from the paper menu to her. Those eyes of his, like blue-gray glass, cut clear to her soul. He stared at her for a curious moment. The intensity of his gaze brought doubt to her mind. Did he recognize her? Sweat slicked her palms.

A slow, slightly crooked grin turned the corners of his mouth. "Carly.”

Breathe. "Hello, Luke.”

"Been a long time.” While his voice had matured with age, he still had that sexy Texas drawl that made her want to close her eyes and listen.

Fourteen years. "Yes, a long time.” She hoped she sounded normal, unaffected.

"How’ve you been?”

Did he mean after he’d broken her heart, or when she’d managed to bury any thoughts of him to get on with her life? Maybe he meant more recently? She cringed a little at the unfamiliar cattiness welling up in her. "Good. And you?”

Something flashed in his eyes. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but it wasn’t the carefree gaze she remembered. It was harder, more disciplined. "Doing great,” he finally said, but his tone sounded more forced than casual.

"What brings you to Corrigan, again?” She tried not to put emphasis on again, but the bitchiness that can lay dormant in a woman came out of hiding and took over.

"Professionally, I’m in wood preservation, so I’m doing restoration for the Corrigan Historical Society. I’ll also be working on the old Thaxton house on the north side of the lake.”

She knew the one—aging, two-story Victorian with a wrap-around porch, lots of property, and a fruit orchard out back. It had its own dock on Lake Corrigan and a killer view.

"You might remember my friend, Brian Thaxton, who used to visit his father at that house during his summer vacations.”

"I remember.” She remembered everything that had to do with Luke, from the way he held her, to the way his eyes fluttered closed when they kissed, and yes, even his passionate reverence for wood. Trying to block some of her memories, she repositioned the packets of sugar in the little container in front of her.

"Since his dad has passed on, Brian and his family only use the house for summer vacations and holidays. Sometimes, they rent it out. Even rented it myself a few times.”

His words stilled her hands, but she didn’t look up. Luke had come back to Corrigan? When? Before she’d left for college? During the years she’d lived in Atlanta? And why hadn’t he gotten in touch with her?

"My contact with Brian is how I ended up getting the bid on the job with the historical society,” he went on, as if his words about returning to Corrigan in the past shouldn’t have had any effect on her.

Reality set in. Why should he have bothered contacting her? To him, they were teenagers having a summer romance. Life must have gone on as usual for Luke.

Momentary panic welled up in her. Would she run into him at any of the historical society meetings where she supplied the coffee and desserts?

She swallowed the rising knot of bittersweet emotion, lifted her gaze, and tried not to let any uneasiness into her voice. "I moved back here last year myself and opened this bakery.” All her energy for the past year had been lavished on Sugar Plums and her recipes, and she had plans for them both. But the pride she normally experienced when talking about her business dissolved with the onslaught of memories of Luke.

He looked around. "Nice place. I see you have Wi-Fi. I’ll definitely take advantage of that, since the cottage I’m staying at doesn’t have Internet access. Got Internet on my phone, but I can’t do business from it.” He paused. "We should get together, talk about old times.”

Or not. That’s the last thing she wanted to do, and to think she’d wasted so much time worrying over what had happened to him. "Now that I own the bakery, I put in some fairly long hours. I rarely have much time outside of work.”

An awkward pause froze the conversation. She’d only thought to let him know he couldn’t still affect her. She hadn’t intended for it to sound like a brush off. Liar. Okay, so she’d meant it to sound exactly like that. At one time, she’d thought she only wanted closure, thought that she’d never be one to hold a grudge. Now, she wasn’t so sure. Every emotion over Luke she thought long gone simmered just beneath the surface of her mind, fresh and raw.

He flipped the menu over, glanced at it. It drew her gaze to his tanned hands, recalling how she and Luke used to sit on the beach with her nestled in front of him, his hands clasped around her as they stared at the lake. His hands—even now she remembered how they had unleashed a multitude of new and wonderful feelings. She didn’t want to think about those times. They still brought an empty ache.

She looked up. His intense gaze caught hers again. Her cheeks warmed.

"Guess I’ll order now.” He perused the menu. "Coffee and one of these apple dumplings.”

She swallowed, found her voice. "Good choice. It’s a variation of my granny’s recipe.” Hold it together, Carly. She jotted his order down and then placed a cup of coffee and a few little containers of cream in front of him on the counter, as if he were any other customer, as if they didn’t have a history. "Be right back.”

On legs that were steadier than they had been when Luke first walked in, she headed to the kitchen. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he watched her. Her body betrayed her, because just the thought made her pulse pick up. Too proud to look back, she kept walking, anxious to be out of his company even for a short time to regroup.

A few minutes later, she set a plate in front of him. It held a plump, sweet apple baked in a flaky crust.

"Smells great,” he said, piercing the dumpling with his fork, letting the fragrant cinnamon steam escape.

"Thanks.” What happened that night? Where did you go? Why didn’t you come back? The words formed, but she didn’t give them breath. The answers didn’t matter anymore.

The bell above the door jingled as several customers came in. Patrons already filled nearly every seat in the café, and in the back she had a three-tier wedding cake that wouldn’t decorate itself.

Carly straightened. "I’ll leave you to enjoy your food.”

He smiled at her with that grin that had long ago burned itself in her mind. No matter how hard she fought against it, it still unleashed butterflies in her stomach. Only now, it made her want to run back to the kitchen where she had total control.

"I’m glad I stopped in this morning. I’ll definitely be back.”

Tall, sexy Luke Donovan had returned to Corrigan. Better than she remembered. Better than she could have ever imagined. She wished he’d stayed away.

LUKE WATCHED CARLY until she disappeared through the double doors. She still looked much the same to him—same chestnut-colored hair, only shorter now, that framed her face in soft curls. Who could forget those dark brown eyes the shade of coffee or those beautiful full lips? Carly Braddock was the sweetest part of his past.

Guilt slammed into him for the umpteenth time since he’d walked into the café. It had been all he could do to carry on a polite conversation without saying, "I’m sorry,” but the new, more mature version of Carly had stopped him cold.

She’d been polite, but he hadn’t seen any of the sweetness that used to shine from her and had been as ingrained in her as breathing. Heaven knew she wouldn’t have recognized the person he’d turned into after he’d left Corrigan that summer, and she definitely wouldn’t have wanted to know him then. He’d been the antithesis of that seventeen-year-old boy who’d fallen in love with Carly Braddock and made promises he’d never dreamed he wouldn’t be able to keep.

He’d screwed up—hated himself for it, hated what he’d done in those months following that summer, and yet to wish away all of his screw-ups and all the chaos of that time would also mean wishing away who he’d finally become now. Something special had grown out of his mistakes. So if he had to do it all over, he’d have to do it the exact same way, even if it meant hurting Carly again.

CARLY PULLED INTO her parents’ driveway. She grabbed the white bakery box from the passenger seat and headed to the house. Upon opening the front door, the smell of her mother’s meatloaf from dinner lingered in the air and mixed with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Growing up, she’d been surrounded by several generations of good cooks. No wonder she’d chosen a profession as a pastry chef.

In the dining room, she deposited the bakery box on the antique buffet that had been passed down from her grandmother, Tilly.

With a cup of coffee in his hand, her brother, Mac, strolled in from the kitchen. "Hi ya, twerp. How’s the bakery business? Making lots of dough?” He lifted the lid on the box, grabbed a pecan roll, and then took a bite. One would never know from the name calling that her brother worked as an attorney and had joined her father’s law practice a few years ago.

"You can stop calling me names anytime now, moron. I’m thirty years old.” She, on the other hand, didn’t have a reputation as a lawyer to uphold.

Reaching out, he mussed her hair.

She gave him a playful shove.

He took another bite of pastry and chased it down with a drink of coffee. Mission accomplished. With a full mouth, he couldn’t ask her a bunch of questions. Her family tended to be a little overprotective and a whole lot nosey. Someone was always up in somebody else’s business.

One by one, family members wandered into the dining room—her father, pregnant sister-in-law, and two nephews. The next few minutes unfolded in classic Braddock chaos, as pastries were dished out, glasses filled with milk, and cups replenished with coffee. Generally, Carly soaked up that loving chaos, but today she wanted to get in and get out.

"You all enjoy the pastries. I’m going upstairs to my old room to root through the closet. I’ll be back in a few.”

Carly made it to the bottom of the stairs, when her mother breezed out of the sewing room. A yellow measuring tape dangled from around her neck. "Hi, Honey.”

"Mom, do you mind if I go through my closet? I’m looking for some things to take back to the apartment.”

"Of course I don’t mind. It’s still your room.” She kissed Carly’s cheek. "Need some help?”

"No, but thanks. I won’t be up there long.” She didn’t want her mother to know why she wanted to go through her old stuff.

She bounded up the steps, turned left, and then swung open the door to her old bedroom turned guest room.

"Shut the door!” Her thirteen-year-old niece, Lisa, sat at the desk beneath the window. She snatched her book against her chest and tossed an angry look over her shoulder, but then her features softened, and she smiled. "Oh, hi, Aunt Carly. I thought you were one of the boys. They’re always trying to sneak in and spy on me.”

Carly had a special bond with her only niece. "You’re preaching to the choir, sweetie. With four brothers, I hardly had any privacy growing up.” She paused on the threshold and saw that her niece clutched a diary. "I just need something from my closet. I won’t be long. Oh, I brought pecan rolls. Better hurry if you want any.”

After her niece had gone, Carly stepped into the walk-in closet, flipped the switch, and scanned the shelves. It didn’t take long for her to locate the shoebox. It had yellowed with age, the corners split and worn. She stared at it, a little off kilter for letting nostalgia push her into looking for the box in the first place. She peeked inside just to make sure it was the one she wanted. Like a waterfall, memories rushed over her. She closed the lid and then turned off the light.

A few minutes later, Carly reached the doorway to the dining room. "Okay, I’m going to take off.”

Her mother swung around. "You’re leaving now? But we haven’t even visited yet.”

Carly wanted to escape to her apartment over the bakery and sort through the box. "I’m headed home, but I’ll be back on Sunday.”

"What are you going to do in that stuffy little apartment? It’s Friday night. You should have a date.” Her mother gave Carly the look, the one that told her she needed a husband. "Find a nice guy. What about the guy over at—”

"Let her be, Nell. The right one will come along some day,” her father said.

"Thank you, Daddy.” It wasn’t as if Carly hadn’t had a few offers to go on dates since she’d returned home from Atlanta, but no one had given her insides that little twinge of excitement. She leaned over and kissed her father’s nearly bald head. He tugged on one of her curls. He smelled of peppermint and coffee. The scent comforted her. She needed that more today than she had in a long time.

Her mom put her hands on her hips. "Well, she’s thirty years old. I don’t see what’s wrong with pointing out a few eligible bachelors.” No one could ever accuse Nell Braddock of beating around the bush.

Carly groaned.

"She knows I just want her to be happy.” Her mother tucked a stray hair behind Carly’s ear, as if she were Lisa’s age. "You know that, right?”

"Of course, Mom.” Carly had three single brothers. Why couldn’t her mom pick on one of them?

"She is happy.” Her father looked up. "Are you?”

"I sure am.” Sort of.

Her father sat a little straighter. "Besides, my girl might decide to go back to college one day, and maybe she doesn’t want a husband and family to distract her.”

And there it was—the gentle reminder that she hadn’t quite achieved Braddock status. So much for being comforted. To her father’s dismay, she hadn’t followed in the footsteps of the rest of her siblings, who held degrees in all of their chosen fields. She was who she was—an informally trained pastry chef, and she loved every minute of it.

"Okay, I’m outta here. See everyone Sunday.”

"I nearly forgot,” her mother said. "The first strawberries will be ready to pick in a few days. You’re still entering something, right?”

Corrigan’s Annual Strawberry Festival would begin in less than a week. As a new merchant in the area, Carly intended to enter the dessert division. She hadn’t decided what kind yet. Since people came from surrounding counties, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to showcase Sugar Plums with something delectable.

"I’ll be over to help pick. Let me know when they’re ripe enough.”

They had a round of hugs, the last one from Mac. He walked her to the door.

She sighed. "Unless I have a college diploma, I am never going to measure up.” Not wanting the entire family to hear, she’d kept her voice low.

Frowning, Mac looked down at her. "Measure up? Where is that coming from?”

"Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you don’t hear the little reminders from Daddy that I didn’t finish college. He just said it in there a minute ago—‘My little girl might want to go back to college one day.’” She mimicked her father’s deep voice.

"Dad’s proud of you, whether you see it or not. You’re their pride and joy, their only little girl, and they love you.”

"I’m not questioning their love for me.” She shook her head. "Forget it.” Wrong day to rehash this.

"Hey, you’re perfect just the way you are, and if you tell anyone I said that, I’ll deny it.” Though she knew the comment was meant to lighten her mood, she saw the moment the serious side of him returned. He nudged her chin with his knuckle. "Smile. You haven’t done enough of that since you came back to town.”

Her eyes burned. "Knock it off.” She couldn’t think of a comeback to that, and she hated it when he got mushy. "I gotta go.” She made her escape to her SUV.

Mac knew what she’d been through in Atlanta, knew what the last relationship had done to her, how it had emotionally drained her. She’d thought dating a man with a ready-made family would be perfect for her, but she’d learned her lesson with that. Never again. Any man she dated now would be childless. In fact, it had become Carly’s number one rule. Never get involved with a man who has a child. Nothing but grief went with it, because if the relationship didn’t work out, her heart couldn’t take being torn to pieces again.

FRESH FROM A shower, Luke padded to the compact kitchen of the lakeside cottage he’d rented for the summer. Since seeing Carly again, he hadn’t been able to get her out of his head. Although she wasn’t his reason for coming back, he’d be lying to himself if he said her face hadn’t come to mind when he’d accepted the job on the Thaxton house.

How could he not think of her? Carly had been his first love, and while some men might have forgotten theirs, he hadn’t. Because so much time had passed, he figured she had a family of her own, so he hadn’t entertained any ideas beyond friendship. Okay, maybe that was a tiny lie. He had wondered what it would be like to hold her again, to kiss her once more. He’d have to be dead not to think about that. They’d been each other’s firsts. They’d learned together.

It hadn’t taken the grown-up Carly long to shut down any hope of a friendship between them. Just as well. He needed to stay focused on his reason for being in Corrigan—and it even took precedence over the Thaxton house and the city restoration project he’d accepted.

He glanced at the digital clock on the stove, picked up the phone and dialed Texas. It rang twice.

"Donovan residence.”

"Claire, it’s Luke. How’s everything?”

"About what you’d expect.”

Immediately, a knot of tension built between his shoulders. "Travel arrangements are all set. The tickets will be waiting for you at the airport. You fly out in a couple of weeks. I’ll email all the pertinent info. Is Brooke around?”

"She just got home.” Claire paused. "Mr. Donovan, about this summer. I’m afraid my plans have changed, but I’ll explain after you’ve spoken with Brooke.”

Luke sighed. What now? A few minutes or two passed, and then he heard the extension being picked up, as he waited for the sound of the voice that gave him a reason to get up every morning.

"Hi, Daddy.”



Chapter 2

HEARING BROOKE’S voice tugged at Luke’s heart. There was no one he loved more than his twelve-year-old daughter. At one time, not that long ago, he could do no wrong in her eyes. Now, it appeared he couldn’t do anything right. He didn’t even know where he’d messed up.

"Hey, Sweetie. Ready to leave the city for some fun in the country?”

A heavy sigh blew through the receiver. "Do I have a choice?” Her defeat-laden tone tore him up. He and Brooke needed this time together. They needed to find that father-daughter balance they’d lost.

As the word no to her question formed in his thoughts, Brooke said, "Never mind.” In the background, he heard the sound of her computer booting up. "Why do I have to come there, Daddy? Why can’t I stay home for the summer? I’m going to be thirteen in a few weeks.” A rapid succession of tapping ensued. Was she even paying attention to their conversation? "Can’t Mrs. Franklin watch me?”

Claire Franklin had been Brooke’s nanny for the past four years. These days Brooke balked at the term nanny and preferred to call Claire their housekeeper. While the woman did keep house for them, she had been hired to watch Brooke. At fifty-five, Claire had set a goal to retire at the end of the summer. She would have been gone by now, but Luke had offered her a rather large bonus to come to Corrigan with them until August. After that, she was headed to Florida to live with her sister. Now, he had to wonder about Claire’s change of plans.

"Think of this as a long family vacation. You remember the lake, don’t you? There’s plenty to do.”

"I remember it’s in the sticks.”

"While it’s not what you’re used to, there are a lot of things to do in Corrigan.”

"Well, I just know I’m going to be bored.”

"You used to love it here when we’d visit the Thaxtons during the summer.” He and Brian Thaxton had been friends forever, since their fathers had traveled the rodeo circuit together. Both single fathers had taken the boys with them most summers, except for that summer Luke was seventeen. Brian’s father had broken his leg in a fall and couldn’t compete, so Luke had stayed with the Thaxtons to keep Brian company. Luke hadn’t known he’d meet someone like Carly.

"Yeah, well, I’m not a little kid anymore, and the Thaxtons don’t even live there. What do you want me there for anyway? You’ll be working all the time.”

Restoring wood in historic buildings took him all over the United States for weeks or months at a time. The projects he’d scheduled in Corrigan were small in comparison to his job with the preservation firm. "I’m not going to work all the time. We’ll do things. I want this to be a special summer.”

A lull in the conversation followed and dragged on for what seemed like minutes.

"Why is this summer special, Daddy?” Her voice broke slightly, reminding him of a much younger Brooke. The inflection concerned him, left him hollowed out.

"It’s what we make of it, Brooke. If we plan to have a crappy time, then that’s probably what we’ll have.”

She sighed again.

"Let’s just see how it goes, okay?”

"I’m not going to know anyone there. If I could bring a friend with me...” Her voice drifted off.

His kid was good—pulling out the lonely card. "You’ll meet friends.”

"I doubt it.”

"I’d bet my life on it,” Luke said into the receiver.

The pecking on the keyboard stopped. "Don’t say that.” She paused. "I gotta do homework.”

"I love you,” he said, but the shuffling on the other end told him she’d already set the phone down. Had she heard him? An empty ache settled in the pit of his stomach.

Claire came back on the phone, and he tried to put aside his fear that he and Brooke might never mend what was wrong. "She’ll be all right once she gets there.” It was as if Claire had heard his thoughts.

"I hope so. Tell her I love her, and I’ll see her in a couple weeks.”

"Will do, Mr. Donovan.” Claire never called him by his first name. Can’t get too personal, she’d said. He’d given up trying to change her mind.

"You said your plans have changed?”

"Yes, my sister fell and broke her hip. She’s in the hospital now and will go to a rehabilitation facility for two weeks, but then she’ll need me. I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay the summer like I planned. Once you email the flight info, I’m going to arrange a connecting flight to Florida. I’m really sorry about this.”

Luke pinched the bridge of his nose. "It’s okay, Claire.” He could hire someone from Corrigan to take Claire’s place, or he could take Brooke with him on his jobs. It wasn’t as if he’d be working a full day every day. He’d just have to see how things went.

They talked for a few more minutes, finalizing details, and then he punched the button on his cell, disconnecting the call.

The weight in his chest grew heavier. How did he go about fixing what was wrong between Brooke and himself, when he had no earthly clue what had happened or when? He only knew his daughter had become moody, silent and secretive. One night, she’d tried to sneak out of the house and had triggered the security alarm. Thankfully, it had been one of the nights he’d been home, and he’d intervened before she’d had time to actually go anywhere.

Where did a kid her age sneak out to and why? He could see her trying this at fifteen or sixteen, but at twelve? A month ago, while putting laundry away, Claire had found an unopened pack of cigarettes in Brooke’s dresser drawer. What next? Alcohol? Drugs?

He refused to let his daughter go down the same path as her mother. No, he’d get to the bottom of his child’s problems if it was the last thing he did. It was the reason he’d taken a hiatus from his job and why he’d put his lucrative side business, Wooden Possibilities, on hold.

This summer was supposed to strengthen his ties with his daughter, so he’d better start thinking of ways to do that. He sighed, grabbed his keys, and locked the cottage.

INSTEAD OF GOING to her apartment after leaving her parents’ house, Carly found herself being pulled toward Lake Corrigan where she’d first met Luke. Determined to rid herself of the memories jabbing her heart and mind, she turned off Buchanan Road and onto Shoreline Drive.

She pulled into a slot on the asphalt parking lot. It was early enough in the evening that the sun had barely begun its descent. She grabbed the shoebox, shoved her purse under the passenger seat of her SUV, and then jammed her keys in her jeans’ pocket. The smell of freshly mown grass lingered in the air and mixed with the scent of lake water, a telling sign that summer had arrived, even if the official calendar day was still more than a month away.

Rather than walking down the steps onto the sand, she chose a vacant picnic area under a shelter. After settling herself at one end of the concrete picnic table, she lifted the shoebox lid. One by one, she pulled out faded movie ticket stubs, a red paper napkin from Gionelli’s Pizza Parlor, a lone sparkler left over from the Fourth of July, and a key chain with a wooden C dangling from it. Carly ran the pad of her finger over the smooth wood Luke had spent hours carving with only a pocketknife. She’d used that key chain for months after he’d left.

She set aside the key chain to pick up the envelope. She opened the flap and slid the photos out. The first one showed her in cutoffs and a white tank top sitting on a remnant of an old aluminum boat, her flip-flops tossed in the sand next to her bare feet. Elbows resting on her bent knees, she cupped her chin and gazed into the camera. Pure adoration captivated her face, because she’d been looking at Luke who’d taken the picture.

The second photo revealed Luke in shorts and no shirt, tanned, happy, the essence of youth sitting on the same overturned boat hull. He smiled for the camera, those eyes of his taking on a smoky look against a backdrop of a summer sky. That grin had melted her heart the moment she’d met him.

Other snapshots taken over the course of the weeks brought back a specific memory—making a monstrous sand castle, the strawberry festival, standing on the dock of the marina, while they took turns snapping photos of each other. The muscles in her jaw tightened.

Her gaze zeroed in on a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Corrigan Gazette, their local newspaper. She unfolded it. Taken the week of the Fourth of July at the local strawberry festival, it pictured an artist who had a booth at the fair and drew caricatures. In the background, a young couple stood off to the side, waiting for their turn to have their images drawn.

In the photo, she and Luke held hands. The paper had yellowed with age. She didn’t have another picture of them together. Staring at the grainy newspaper clipping, she thought of the promises he’d made. To come back the next summer, that they would attend the same college, but most of all, he promised to love her forever. As an adult, she knew the expectation of the love they’d promised was unrealistic, but she hadn’t known that then.

She crumpled the clipping and shoved everything back into the box.

Why had she let Luke’s presence in Corrigan open old wounds? Why had the fates allowed him to come back when she’d barely healed from Atlanta—where she’d let her heart be broken again?

At sixteen, she hadn’t known how to love with anything less than her whole heart. It had taken her months to get over Luke and to gain some sort of normalcy. But her life had gone on. She’d started school again and tried to act as if nothing were wrong, but she’d never forgotten.

Well, she wasn’t a teenager anymore, and she didn’t have to let Luke Donovan’s presence seep into the life she’d made. She’d given herself the time she needed to wallow in the past. Time to put it to rest for good and focus on the new future she’d already begun carving out. Without hesitation, she marched to the nearest trash barrel, tossed box and all into the garbage, and then walked away.

HANDS IN HIS jeans’ pockets, Luke stopped and scanned the area around the lake. Directly across the water, he saw the outdoor bandstand where summer concerts were held, so he was fairly certain he stood in the place he remembered from that summer with Carly. The boat hull was gone, but he hadn’t expected it to be there after so many years.

Many evenings, he and Carly had sat on the old aluminum hull, listening to the music that drifted across the water from the bandstand. Maybe subconsciously he’d come in this direction because he’d seen her today. After talking with Brooke, he’d gone for a walk to clear his head, and, before he knew it, he’d found himself in this spot—the place he used to think of as his and Carly’s.

As he headed back toward the cottage, a flash of something caught his attention, and he looked up. A woman stood under the picnic shelter and appeared to be tossing the remains of her dinner into the trash barrel. He knew all about eating alone. Since he was gone from home so much for his job, he did that a lot.

A warm evening breeze stirred the air at the same moment the woman turned. She pushed the hair from her face. Carly.He raised a hand in greeting. She didn’t wave back.

Even after all these years, the way he’d left her that summer still bothered him, but time and absence had made it easy to push the guilt from his mind. Now he’d returned to Corrigan, and so had his guilt. That was the thing about a conscience. Sometimes, it nagged at a person until you just had to clear the air.

By the time he reached the bottom of the concrete steps leading to the picnic area, she’d already fished her keys from her pocket. He heard the electronic bleep and saw her headlights flash as she unlocked the door. A sense of urgency rushed through him. He took the remaining steps two at a time. She opened the driver’s side door and slid in.

"Carly, wait.”

She closed the door and started the engine. Through the windshield, she looked at him. Barely twenty feet from her SUV, he stopped. Even though she saw him, was she going to drive away?

When he didn’t move, she turned the engine off and slumped back against the seat. By the time he reached the vehicle, Carly had gotten out. With her arms crossed, she leaned against her front fender.

"Thought that was you,” Luke said. "I’ve been walking around the lake, looking at all the changes. Can’t believe how many more restaurants there are and shops that rent fishing equipment. The number of boats at the marina blew me away. The town has really grown.” He couldn’t believe he’d just blurted out a bunch of small talk.

"Towns do that.”

"You come out here a lot to eat your dinner?” Luke flicked his gaze toward the picnic table.

Carly furrowed her brows, her gaze following Luke’s. "Oh, I wasn’t...” She paused, stiffened her spine, and repositioned her crossed arms. Impatience filled her eyes. "Did you need something?” Ouch. The sharp edge to her voice aligned with her defensive body language.

Seeing her again made him want a chance to explain about that summer. He didn’t expect forgiveness, but he owed her just the same. Still, it didn’t look like he’d be easing his conscience this evening, especially when those brown eyes hardened like petrified wood.

"Uh... just wondered what time your café opens in the morning. I’m going to need Wi-Fi.” It wasn’t a lie. He did have to send the flight information to Claire, and he couldn’t get any real work done from his smartphone.

"Six o’clock.” The chill in her tone crushed the sweetness he remembered, and it saddened him. He only had himself to blame for disappearing out of her life without a single word.

"That’s good. I need to get an early start.” In the uncomfortable silence, he shoved his hands into his jeans’ pockets. He wanted to tell her he’d thought about getting in touch with her so many times, but even after things had quieted within him, he knew it had been too late. She had deserved better than him. "Well, I won’t keep you.”

She hesitated for a few seconds, long enough for him to see a reflection in her eyes of the Carly he’d once known. Then it vanished, and her shoulders relaxed, as if his words had given her a reprieve from talking with him. The thought centered heavily in his chest and squeezed.

"Okay.” She climbed into the SUV.

He watched her back out of the parking space and pull onto the road. Maybe he should forget about trying to explain his actions back then. For all he knew, she wouldn’t give a flip one way or the other. Besides, he couldn’t change what had happened to him then.

He leaned against the concrete picnic table and watched a bird swoop down and peck at something on the rim of the trash barrel a few feet away. It drew his attention to the chunk of wood resting in the lid of an overturned shoebox. From the time he was a boy, anything wooden had always interested him.

An elderly neighbor of his grandmother’s had taught Luke to whittle when he was eleven. He hadn’t known back then that it would be the start of his passion, his career. He straightened, walked to the barrel, and looked down. The wood was smooth and circular. The metal clasp attached to the chain had snagged on the split corner of the box. A key chain. He lifted it. A shock of memories flashed through his thoughts.

Dangling from the chain was the letter C.

AT THE STOP sign, Carly stuck her hand into her purse on the passenger seat and fished out her cell phone. She scrolled through the names and touched call. After two rings, the familiar voice answered, and it immediately grounded Carly.

"Hey, it’s me. Want to have a girls’ night at my place?” Her voice sounded a little breathy and shaken, even to her.

Silverware rattled in the background, and Carly pictured Roxie with the cordless under her chin as she loaded the dishwasher. "Love to, but Todd’s on duty this evening, and I don’t have a sitter.” Roxie’s husband, Todd, worked as a deputy with the county sheriff’s office, and Roxie was an emergency room nurse at Corrigan General Hospital.

Carly made a right hand turn off Shoreline Drive onto Buchanan. "I’m coming over.”

"Anything wrong?” Roxie asked.

Carly swallowed, biting back the sudden need to blurt out the day’s events. "I need some girl talk. I’ll pick up a pizza.”

"Better make it two. Tori’s friend is sleeping over. I’ll chip in.”

"You’re on. See you in a few.” Carly hit end on her cell and then dropped it back into her purse. She and Roxie had been friends since grade school, even though Roxie was a year older. She was the only person in the world that knew all Carly’s secrets.

After picking up two pizzas at Gionelli’s, she made a stop at her bakery and picked up half of a double chocolate cake, then drove through town.

Roxie lived in an older housing development off Maple Drive, so named for the shade trees that lined both sides of the street. Carly pulled into the driveway. For a moment, she sat in her SUV, knowing she should be spending any available free time working on her recipes, especially the elusive sugar cookie recipe that she hoped would make Sugar Plums a household name. How could she think with her mind filled with Luke? She needed to talk about it with someone who’d been there that summer—Roxie.

Carly lifted the pizzas and bakery box from the seat and made her way to the front door. Tori, the eldest, met her there and quickly divested Carly of the pizzas.

"Mom’s in the kitchen putting peanut butter in Maddie’s hair. She got bubble gum stuck in it.”

Carly raised a brow and then gave a shake of her head. "Whatever works.” She entered the kitchen to see Roxie lifting the sniffling five-year-old from the counter.

"Go play. We’ll wash your hair when we give you a bath tonight.”

"But I smell like peanut butter,” Maddie whined, grasping a handful of her shoulder-length strawberry blond hair that was several shades lighter than her mommy’s.

"You’ll survive.” Roxie turned and spotted Carly. "But I may not.” Roxie set out paper plates and settled her three kids and Tori’s friend around the breakfast table with their pizza and drinks. "Let’s take ours to the back porch. I’ve already got our plates and stuff out there.” She snatched the bakery box on the way out. Carly carried their pizza.

On the screened-in patio, they chose seats opposite each other at the wrought iron table. The evening had turned cooler, and the air around them quickly filled with the aroma of yeasty bread and the pungent scent of pizza sauce.

Roxie popped a piece of pepperoni into her mouth. "I’ll start my diet again tomorrow.” At barely five foot two, with an extra twenty-five pounds or so on her, Roxie was forever on some kind of diet. Carly thought her friend had the build and complexion of a forties pin-up model.

Faint shadows darkened the fair skin beneath Roxie’s vivid green eyes. Lack of sleep? Tension? Carly narrowed her gaze. "Anything wrong?”


"You look tired.”

"I’ve got kids. I’m always tired.” Roxie laughed it off.

Eventually, she would unburden herself but, for now, Carly wouldn’t press her friend for answers. Carly pinched off a piece of the crust, fiddled with it, then set it back on her plate, as her stomach did a flip. Where should she begin? "You’ll never guess who came into Sugar Plums today.”


Carly’s brother hadn’t been around all that much lately, and the entire family worried about him since his wife died. "No, I wish.”

Roxie leaned closer. "Not Alex.”

"Definitely not Alex.” Widower Alex Vandor, owner of the posh Vandor Hotel chain, had sweet-talked Carly away from her job in Atlanta at Delectables Bakery with a hefty salary and big promises. Then, just as quickly, he’d sweet-talked her into the life he shared with his son, Sammy. Two years later, she’d returned home to Corrigan, emotionally battered, not from the loss of Alex, but from the loss of his son, a little boy she loved as her own.

"Thank goodness, because I was going to say, I hope you told him to take a flying leap.” She took a sip of her tea.

"Believe me, I hope I never see Alex again.” But his son? Well, Carly tried not to think about what her sudden absence had done to Sammy. It had been a year. She hoped he’d forgotten her. It was the only way she could cope.

"Then I don’t know. Tell me.” She took a bite of pizza.

"Luke Donovan.” Just saying his name after all these years brought the old aches to the surface.

Roxie swallowed and gave a disbelieving look at Carly. "Your Luke?”

Once, that had been true. "He’s not myLuke, but, yes, the same one.”

Roxie’s green eyes widened, and she sat back in her chair, stunned into momentary silence, something foreign to her. She leaned forward again. "Tell me he’s bald and has a beer gut.”

Carly pushed aside the pizza, opened the bakery box, and cut a slice of the rich, velvety cake, already feeling her hips widening. She needed sugar to get through this. "Unfortunately, time has been remarkably kind to him.”

"That figures. Why is it men get better looking with age, while women have to work twice as hard to look half as good?”

"I don’t know.” These days, Carly had been too busy with her business to worry much over her own appearance outside of making sure she looked presentable for work. "No matter how good looking he is, I sort of gave him the brush-off.” Once Luke had been her weakness, but she was no longer that besotted teenager.

"Good for you. The jerk. So what excuse did he give you for the disappearing act that summer?”

"I didn’t ask.” Carly’s words came out on a sigh of frustration. She’d been so close to asking him that she could still taste the disappointment in herself.

Roxie looked up, her fork in midair. "Are you crazy? Carly, I can’t believe you would pass up the chance.”

She lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. "I know, but I just couldn’t get my mouth to work. The question stuck right there on the tip of my tongue, too. Anyway, how lame is it to still be thinking about that after all these years?”

"It isn’t lame. It’s normal. What he did to you wasn’t right.” Roxie put her hand over Carly’s. "Your one regret has always been that you wanted to know what happened to Luke.” Paying true homage to their friendship, Roxie’s eyes filled with compassion and understanding.

"Well, I don’t have to wonder anymore. He’s alive and doing well.” For years, Carly had imagined all sorts of bad things that might have happened to Luke, because she’d known deep in her soul that only something terrible could have separated them. What an idiot she’d been. Her entire young life had been affected by his sudden disappearance.

Outside of the occasional movie, dance, or sporting event, she’d never dated much during high school. It had taken her until college to actually have a steady boyfriend again, but never, even as an adult, had there been that breathtaking feeling that she’d experienced with Luke. Now, she believed it was simply the feelings of young love, or maybe first love, because it sure hadn’t happened since then.

"You need to ask him, if for nothing else than to appease your curiosity... and mine, of course.”

A slight pull drew at the corners of Carly’s mouth. Even when she felt like crap, her friend could always make her smile. She adored that quality in Roxie. "I can’t imagine what he would think of me if I asked him, especially after all these years.”

"Who cares what he thinks? What’s he doing here anyway? Is it for good?” Roxie took a bite of cake, rolled her eyes and mumbled, "Oh, this is so worth the calories.”

"He’s working on the Thaxton house and some kind of project for the historical society, but I don’t think he’s here to stay. That’s all I know. Well, except that he’s been back in Corrigan since that summer. Can you believe that? He mentioned it so casually in conversation, which tells me he didn’t give a flip about looking me up.”

Roxie just shook her head at that. "When did he get here?”

"I don’t know.”

"Is he single?”

She shrugged. "Don’t know that, either.”

"Good thing your brother is the private investigator, because you’d suck at it.” Roxie licked the frosting from the tines of her fork and then pointed it at Carly. "Okay, you need to talk to him. Find out what happened back then, and at least get some closure for yourself.”

Carly had always wanted closure for that time in her life. If nothing else, she deserved it. "Maybe you’re right. He did ask me what time Sugar Plums opened in the morning, so he could have access to Wi-Fi. It’s not too busy that time of the morning. Guess I could ask him then.”

"There you go. Perfect opportunity. Call me after he leaves and give me all the details.”

Carly sighed, not looking forward to a conversation with Luke. "Wish me luck, so that I don’t chicken out.”

Roxie lifted her drink. "Here’s to luck and closure.”

Carly tapped her red plastic cup against Roxie’s. "And to me having the courage to face the past head on.”



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