Another Chance at Love: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 1)
Welcome to the new world from USA Today bestselling author Alexa Aston—Maple Cove—a small town on the Oregon Coast where romance is heating up!
A woman who has experienced one too many betrayals—and the man who has always loved her. A second chance to throw the dice . . . and risk everything for love . . . .
High school student Dylan Taylor wants to sink permanent roots into Maple Cove, his hometown situated on the Oregon coast. His girlfriend, Willow Martin, prefers to pursue her passion for art, stretching her wings and living abroad. The pair agrees to go their separate ways after graduation though they secretly believe they will always love one another. But Dylan also leaves the Cove after his family is tragically killed by a drunk driver, joining the army and serving as a military policeman in various posts around the globe.
A dozen years later, Dylan makes his way back to Maple Cove and is elected sheriff. Willow, after another bad breakup and the death of her beloved grandmother, returns from abroad to her hometown—and sparks fly between the couple.
Dylan believes fate has brought them together again and looks at Willow’s return as an opportunity to renew their romance. Willow, burned one too many times by unfaithful men, does her best to push her former flame away, telling him they are adults now and very different people from the teenagers who were once madly in love.
The more Willow is around him, though, the more she believes Dylan is the one who got away.
Can she risk her heart one more time in the hopes of finding her soulmate—or will Willow deny the love that still exists and leave the Cove for good?
Find the answer in Another Chance at Love, Book 1 in Maple Cove.
Each book in this contemporary small town romance series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
1 – Another Chance at Love: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 1)
2 – A New Beginning: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 2)
3 – Coming Home: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 3)
4 – The Lyrics of Love: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 4)
5 – Finding Home: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 5)
Release date: May 31, 2022
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 328
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
I vacationed on the Oregon coast last summer for the first time and fell in love with its peace and natural beauty. My trip inspired me to write this Maple Coast contemporary romance series!
Another Chance at Love: A Small Town Romance (Maple Cove Book 1)
May—Night of the Senior Prom
Willow Martin gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Her long auburn hair had been artfully twisted into a chic chignon by her grandmother, Boo. Boo had also helped Willow sew the lavender dress she wore that enhanced her violet eyes.
“There. You look lovely,” Boo declared. “Dylan Taylor won’t know what hit him when he sees you.”
She usually didn’t bother with make-up but with it being Senior Prom, Willow had played up her eyes and mouth. She’d made sure the lipstick was the kind that didn’t come off.
Because she planned to do a lot of kissing tonight.
Actually, more than kissing. She looked into the mirror again and wondered if this time tomorrow, she would be able to tell the difference in herself. Tonight, she was a virgin. Tomorrow, that would have changed.
Dylan had changed her in small ways. He wasn’t the kind of boyfriend to tell her what to think or order her to lay off the ice cream and potato chips. She’d seen too many of her friends being controlled by the boys they dated, and because of it, she had avoided dating and only gone out in groups until this, her senior year. Somehow, at a Labor Day cookout, she and Dylan, who had been friends since kindergarten, paired off.
Suddenly, everything became right in her world.
They’d spent all senior year together. Willow couldn’t imagine being closer to anyone than she was with Dylan. Not Jackson, her brother, who was three years older and attended USC. Not Boo, who had taken in Willow and Jackson when their parents had been killed while skiing fifteen years ago. Everything with Dylan was easy. They never argued. Although they enjoyed different interests—Dylan being on several of the school’s athletic teams and Willow known for her artistic talent—they also liked to hike and fish together. She loved being around his parents and especially his little sister, Grace. At twelve, Grace was a budding artist herself, always showing her work to Willow and asking for advice. Willow had won a full scholarship to UCLA and planned to study art. Where Boo was a sculptor, Willow’s favorite medium was paints, both oils and pastels. She longed to study in Europe someday.
If she did, it meant leaving Dylan behind.
That was why tonight would be the night she gave herself to him. She wanted her first time to be with this boy she loved. They would have the next two weeks of school and then the summer together before she went off to Los Angeles and he stayed home to attend community college in nearby Salty Point. They had talked about how different their lives would soon be and how far away they would be from one another. Dylan had told her he wanted her to be free of any entanglements when she went to college. He wanted her to meet people and experience new things.
Left unsaid was that her heart told her he would be waiting for her when she returned—and that was the problem. A huge, elephant-in-the-room-nobody’s-talking-about problem.
Willow didn’t want to settle down in Maple Cove as Dylan did. She wanted to see the world. Explore new places. Taste different foods. Soak up the architecture and art in different countries. Already she knew she would apply for the Junior Year Abroad program UCLA offered, so she could study in Paris. To be in the city of so many great artists over the centuries and see their works in museums was at the top of her to-do list. In fact, she already knew she would love Europe and would most likely make it her home after college graduation.
That meant no Dylan.
Tonight would allow her to show him how much she really loved him. It would also be the most treasured memory she would hold in her heart, one of this perfect boy, on the cusp of manhood, and how he would forever own a piece of her, as she did him.
“You’re looking awfully starry-eyed, Willow,” Boo said, studying her carefully. “I hope you and Dylan have thought of protection.”
Leave it to Boo to know what was on Willow’s mind and heart. As always, her grandmother was frank and forthright, pulling no punches. She doubted many grandmothers discussed the use of condoms with their granddaughters.
She turned and enveloped the much shorter woman in her arms. “That’s taken care of, Boo. I promise.”
“Good,” Boo said emphatically. “No sense in getting pregnant and tying yourself to this town.”
“You’ve lived in Maple Cove for decades,” she reminded her grandmother, who had just turned seventy-three the week before.
“That’s because I got out and lived for a good long while before I met your grandfather. I saw things and did things and when I met him, I had no regrets when he wanted me to stay in Maple Cove and settle down. I could turn my back on that big, beautiful world because I had my Murray. My wonderful love for ten years.”
Willow had never known her grandfather. He had died of sudden cardiac arrest at forty. Boo was only thirty-five and had raised their only child, an eight-year-old boy who became Willow’s father.
Boo reached up and cupped Willow’s cheek. “I want you to go to California, my precious. Study art. Drink a little too much. Make friends you’ll have for the rest of your life. Dylan is a good boy. Steady as a rock. But he’s tied to this place. You need to be free to explore your art. Find your style. Know yourself. It won’t hurt, though, to make love to that boy because he’ll be gentle with you. Treat you like a true lady. Dylan will be the one you can judge every man by in your future.”
“But for now, you think I would be settling if I stayed with him. Or came back to Maple Cove for him.”
Her grandmother sighed. “I do, honey. You have a grand future ahead of you. More talent than I ever possessed. You’re going to be known in the art world. I guarantee it.”
“Boo, you are an amazing sculptor,” Willow protested.
“I’m damned good,” she said proudly. “Made enough from my art to provide for you and Jackson and still have some left over. But you’re better.”
“Dylan and I have talked. Once I leave for UCLA, we agree there won’t be anything to tie us to each other.”
Boo nodded sagely. “That boy is smart enough to know to let you go. I like that. This way, you won’t try to run home too often or sit in your dorm room and miss out on the parties and all the fun because you have a boyfriend back home. Same for him. Dylan needs to live his life, too. Find a nice girl and make a home with her here in Maple Cove.”
“I know.” She bent and wrapped her arms around her grandmother, who barely topped five feet. “I love you, Boo.”
“And I love you more, my sweet girl. Now, go have some fun tonight.”
They went downstairs and five minutes later, Dylan rang their doorbell. As he entered, Willow couldn’t help but admire his coal-black hair, freshly cut, and warm, gray eyes that gazed at her admiringly.
“You look beautiful, Willow,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Just. Wow.”
“You look pretty handsome yourself,” she replied, fully appreciating the way he filled out the dark suit that his mother had bought him to wear to prom and graduation.
“I got you this,” he said, indicating the white cardboard box he held. Opening it, he said, “It’s a wrist corsage. I know how particular you are, and I didn’t want you to have to pin anything to your dress.”
She held out her wrist and allowed him to slide the corsage over her hand. “I love it.”
He grinned. “Mom said you’d like it.”
They stood staring at one another. She tried to drink in this moment. The tang of his cologne. The approval in his eyes. How her heart beat wildly in her chest at the thought of finally having sex with him.
Reaching for her hand, he said, “We’d better go. Carter and Emily are waiting in the car.”
“Have a wonderful time, you two,” Boo said.
“We will, Boo,” Dylan said. “I promise to have Willow back by—”
“No curfew tonight,” her grandmother proclaimed. “Stay out the entire night. Watch the sunrise together.”
“Really?” Willow asked, knowing her grandmother’s permission extended to what would happen after prom tonight.
“Really. Enjoy yourselves.”
Her hand felt warm and protected in his as they went down the front sidewalk to the car. Dylan opened her door and then came around and joined her in the back seat as she greeted Carter and Emily. Carter Clark was Dylan’s best friend, and Willow suspected Emily would one day become Mrs. Carter Clark.
“Next stop, Maple Cove High,” Carter proclaimed.
They arrived at the school parking lot less than five minutes later, producing their prom tickets at the door and entering the gym Willow had spent all morning at, helming the decorations.
“Wow!” Dylan said, squeezing her hand. “This is fantastic.”
“Thank you,” she said, glowing with pride at how everything had turned out.
She looked around at the transformed gym, which she and her decorating committee had turned into a Paris boulevard. Willow had worked for months designing murals upon sheets which the committee hung along the gym’s walls. There were scenes of sidewalk cafés and flower shops. Clothing boutiques and restaurants. She had even painted the Eiffel Tower on one and the Arc de Triomphe on another. Finally, one entire wall was her rendition of the Tuileries Gardens.
Tables had been placed in front of her scenes throughout the gym, along with fresh flowers in the center of them. The entire scene looked like Paris in the springtime.
“No wonder you won an art scholarship,” Carter said. “It’s like Paris has come to life right here in Maple Cove.”
“Let’s dance,” Dylan said, pulling her onto the dance floor and slipping his arms around her.
They began swaying to the music, lost in each other’s eyes. Love for him poured through her, and Willow had to refrain from kissing him in the midst of everyone. That would be for later. When they had their private celebration.
As they danced, she decided it was time to clue him in to her plans. “I’m ready for us to be together tonight, Dylan.”
He frowned. “We are together, Willow. I want us to be all summer. Until you leave.” A shadow crossed his face.
“No, I mean together.”
Realization dawned in his eyes. “Do you mean...” His voice trailed off.
“I do. We’re going to go to Gillian’s after prom. She’s gone to visit her cousin in Portland for the weekend. We’ll have the house all to ourselves.”
“Yes. And I have protection,” she assured him.
Dylan sighed. “You are the best girlfriend ever.” He glanced around. “I suppose we need to stick around, though I’m itching to leave now.”
“Why? No one’s stopping us from leaving.”
He laughed. “Because we’re supposed to stay? Besides, we just got here. You worked so hard. You need to enjoy this night. Savor it.”
“I think we can enjoy being together even more,” she told him, pressing against him.
His smile lit up his face. “You’re on, you wicked girl.”
He released her and grabbed her hand, weaving through the crowd. People kept stopping them, telling her how great the gym looked. She tried her best not to be impatient and politely thanked everyone.
They finally made it off the dance floor when the principal stopped them. He, too, was full of compliments.
“Our star quarterback and resident artist. You make the perfect couple,” he told them. “I suppose I shouldn’t reveal this, but you’ve been named King and Queen of the prom. We’ll announce it after dinner.” He glanced up. “Oh, it looks like the food is ready to come out now. Excuse me.”
After he left, Dylan shrugged. “I guess we better stick around. We can leave right after our royal dance.”
Carter and Emily waved them over, and they joined them and two other couples for the meal. When it ended, the Senior Class sponsor announced them as King and Queen, and they danced the spotlight dance alone, their classmates watching in awe. When it ended, applause broke out, and they left the dance floor.
“Do you mind walking to Gillian’s?” Dylan asked. “I hate to ask Carter for the keys.” He grinned. “Because once I get you in bed, I plan to keep you there all night.”
“Not at all,” she said, eager and a little bit nervous at what they would soon be doing. Thinking about making love and actually going through with it were two different things.
They left the gym, and in the empty foyer Dylan pulled her into his arms for a long, slow, delicious kiss. Willow leaned into him, feeling the blood race through her veins as her body caught fire.
He broke the kiss. “There’s more of that to come,” he joked, and then gave her a hard, swift kiss.
Threading his fingers through hers, they went to the glass doors and stepped into the cool evening. Immediately, one of her twinges tingled within her. The premonitions didn’t come often and always were the harbinger of bad news. She froze, worried that something had happened to Boo.
“Willow? Do you have one of your feelings?” Dylan asked, concern in his voice.
“Yes,” she whispered, dread filling her.
He hesitated a moment and then said, “We can go back inside, Willow. We don’t have to do it.”
Before she could reply, a squad car pulled up in front of the school. Sheriff Walt Willingham stepped from the car and began making his way toward them.
“Hello, Sheriff,” Dylan called out.
Anxiety filled her. A sick feeling washed over her.
The lawman came to a stop in front of them. “Dylan. Willow.” He paused, frowning. “Did you know I was coming?”
“No, sir,” Dylan said. “We just came out to get some fresh air. Is it... Boo?”
Sheriff Willingham shook his head. “No, son. It’s your family.”
Dylan’s fingers tightened around hers. “Something’s wrong?” he asked, panic in his voice. “They were going to go over to Salty Point for dinner this evening.”
“They did.” The sheriff sighed. “They were coming back along Boxboro Highway when an eighteen-wheeler crossed the line and struck their car head-on.” He shook his head again. “There’s no easy way to say this, son. Your folks and Grace are gone.”
A sound came from Dylan, like a wounded animal. He dropped to his knees. Willow followed him, wrapping her arms about him. Willingham said a few more things, but she doubted Dylan heard anything else.
The night which was supposed to be one to celebrate their love had turned into tragedy.
Paris—Twelve years later
Willow put down her brush, and with a critical eye, studied the painting she had worked on over the last two weeks. It had taken her a long time to capture the right shade of the woman’s dress, with the dark folds of the skirt deepening the color. Once she had nailed it, everything else fell into place. The streaks of light as dawn broke. The massive oak tree reaching to the sky. The gazebo steps the woman stood upon.
She cleaned her brushes methodically, humming as she did, and then stripped off her paint-splattered clothes and showered in the tiny bathroom of her studio. During her twenties, she had lived in Berlin, London, and finally Paris, and had never gotten used to the miniscule shower stalls in Europe. Or the lack of storage. Or the high rent on her studio and flat. At least she was finally making good money from her art and could afford this separate space. Especially since Jean-Luc worked out of their flat in Montmartre, an artsy residential neighborhood. They were fortunate to have a two-bedroom flat, with one bedroom serving as Jean-Luc’s art studio, where he created his sculptures.
Willow dried off and applied makeup, something she rarely did. Tonight, they would be celebrating her thirtieth birthday, which should be a time of joy. Her gut told her it might be the end of things, though, as she slipped into a deep purple wrap dress and then combed her fingers through her auburn tresses. If she let them dry naturally, they would fall in waves about her.
She dug through her purse and found her phone, which she turned off anytime she worked. She had missed three messages, one each from Tenley and Sloane, her closest friends, and the other from Remy.
“Business before pleasure,” she muttered to herself as she listened to the voice mail from her agent. Remington Moore lived in New York and had represented Willow her entire career. She didn’t bother with a business manager, mostly because she didn’t trust anyone but herself with her money.
They had lived together two years. In recent days, Jean-Luc had made a few comments that led her to believe he might want to make their arrangement something more permanent. It wasn’t what she wanted. Not anymore. Jean-Luc was the stereotypical artist—moody, wildly creative, and utterly charming. He flattered her endlessly and was a marvelous lover, but he could also be very self-centered. He also went through money faster than anyone she knew. Having grown up in a frugal household, she had made sure to keep their finances separate. Because she was much more successful in her career, Willow paid the rent on their flat, while her lover bought groceries and wine and often brought flowers home for her.
The problem was that Willow didn’t really love Jean-Luc. She had been drawn to his good looks and talent, but she had committed to moving in with him too soon when he pressed her to do so. After a year-and-a-half of living together, she realized her lover was merely convenient. Someone to come home to and have sex with. She realized it was merely sex. They had never truly made love. That physical connection had never been followed by a deeper, emotional connection. Willow still didn’t really know who Jean-Luc was. They didn’t communicate as a couple should. When she tried to delve deeper, he would grow angry or tell her she wanted too much from him.
A wave of sadness washed over her. Her heart told her tonight wouldn’t be a celebration.
Instead, it would be a bittersweet parting.
She sighed. None of her romances had turned out as she had expected. She had only taken a handful of lovers over the years, beginning in college. Not one of those relationships had developed into anything lasting. She had lost her virginity to her college boyfriend because it seemed everyone had already done so by nineteen. She had felt awkward being what seemed to be the only virgin on campus. He claimed she loved her art more than she did him, which was true. He tried to force a commitment from her before she left for her year of study abroad, which she refused to bend to. She had told him they should see other people while apart. When she returned to Los Angeles the following year, they had tried to start something back up and still drifted apart.
Twice she had struck out during her twenties, once in London and again in Berlin, choosing to be with men who had more looks than substance. One had continued to pick fights with her as she became more successful and his star in the art world began to fade. That breakup had been a nasty one. The other, a playwright, had cheated on her with his new leading lady. Willow had been hurt at the betrayal more deeply than losing the actual relationship.
When she met Jean-Luc, they had instant physical chemistry and after only two months of dating, they had moved in together. Willow had been lonely at the time, having recently moved to Paris without knowing a soul. She liked having someone to come home to and wanted to have not only a lover but a companion to discuss art or politics. Unfortunately, Jean-Luc had never fulfilled that role. It was if she had put their relationship on a back burner and let it simmer, ignoring it for too long. Perhaps turning thirty today and starting a new decade in her life was the wake-up call she had needed. Her heart told her that they weren’t meant to stay together.
Yet ending their relationship on her birthday was a downer. Maybe she could put on a happy face tonight and try to celebrate. Then she would speak with Jean-Luc tomorrow, and they could decide what to do. Part of Willow wanted him to fight for her—for them—and yet deep inside, she knew he would come up lacking.
And she would be alone yet again. Perhaps she was destined to never marry. She kept making mistakes, choosing the wrong kind of men. She wondered if she would ever be able to trust her judgment when it came to a relationship.
Tapping her phone, she brought up Remy’s message and listened.
Willow, call me back immediately. I don’t care what time it is. But call me as soon as you get this.
That was interesting. Usually Remy was up-front when she left a voice mail. Willow could hear the excitement in her agent’s voice. She tapped on her favorites and then Remy’s name, taking a deep breath as the phone rang in New York.
“Willow. You aren’t going to believe this. You have a showing at the Runyon Gallery.”
“What?” she squealed. “Please, tell me you aren’t joking, Remy. The Runyon Gallery makes or breaks artists’ careers!”
“I would not begin to joke about something like that. The good thing? You won’t be sharing the stage with anyone else. It’s exclusive. And fast. They want to hold it in three weeks.”
“Three weeks? That’s barely time to select the paintings, much less stage everything,” she complained, her head racing with which paintings to select.
“I know that. They know that. But if anyone can do it, it’s you. I’ve already e-mailed you a list of what paintings I have here in New York. The bulk of the show can come from that. You’ll need to choose some of your most recent work, however, and ship it over. And get your ass on a plane ASAP.”
“Okay.” She began to think quickly and then named four paintings in Paris that would need to be shipped, knowing Remy would know which ones she referred to, since Willow always sent photos of her completed work to Remy. “Oh, and the Swiss lake one.”
“The countryside on that one is spectacular. We’ll definitely include it.”
They spoke a few more minutes, discussing what should or shouldn’t be included in the show.
“Book yourself on the first flight out tomorrow. Or tonight if you can,” her agent urged.
“It’s my birthday, Remy. Jean-Luc and I have dinner reservations at a super-fancy place.”
“Oh, baby, I forgot! You’re thirty today. Happy Birthday!”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll make my flight reservation now and text you the info. I’ll also arrange to have the canvases I want sent to New York.”
“I can’t wait to see you, Willow,” Remy said. “You’ll stay with me, of course.”
“Of course. With Tenley married and living in a tiny one-bedroom, you are my first and only choice.”
Remy laughed. “See you tomorrow.”
Willow hung up and immediately scanned the Internet for outbound flights tomorrow morning. She made an economy class reservation, ever mindful of money, and then pulled the canvases that would be included in the show. She changed her mind about one and replaced it with a different choice, feeling good about the switch. Then she called Peter, who ran errands for her.
“I have the paintings to ship against the east wall,” she told him, explaining about the upcoming exhibition in New York. “See that they go out first thing in the morning. I’ll text you the gallery’s address.”
“Sounds like a big show, Willow,” he said.
“It is,” she agreed. “The biggest of my life.”
“I’ll see they’re properly crated and shipped. You can count on me,” Peter reassured.
“Thank you. I’ll see you when I get back. I’ll even take you to dinner,” she promised.
Willow slipped into her coat and as she locked up and went down the stairs, she listened to the other voicemails on her cell. Sloane’s came up first.
Hey, Willow, I’m in Reykjavik covering an economic summit. Actually wearing heels and makeup for the first time in months, since those don’t go over well when I’m on assignment in Africa. Anyway, sorry I missed you. Hope you have a happy birthday. I’ll try you again tomorrow once the conference finishes. Maybe I can swing by Paris and we can do dinner. Love you!
She stopped at the bottom of the stairs before going outside and shot Sloane a quick text that she’d be in New York for the next month or so, knowing she’d want to stay for a while once the exhibit began. Since the city was Sloane’s nominal home base when she wasn’t traveling the globe for her newspaper, she hoped they could manage to meet up if they both were in the States at the same time.
Willow stepped outside into the drab October afternoon. Though it was only three o’clock, it could have been five or later. A soft rain fell, and she immediately raised the hood on her all-weather coat, thinking how chilly it was for this time of year. She listened to Tenley’s message as she walked. It was brief and just said to call when she could, so Willow decided to do so now before she arrived home.
The phone rang twice and her old college roommate picked up. “Hello? Willow?”
“Yes, it’s me. Walking down a street in the Eighteenth Arrondissement and wishing you were here with me.”
“Well, happy birthday, sweetie. I’m just sorry Charlie’s Angels aren’t together to celebrate it. Thirty is a big one.”
Willow smiled at the name their landlord in college had given them. The trio had moved from the dorms to a dilapidated house their senior year. The owner of the rental, a guy in his sixties named Charlie, dubbed their trio Charlie’s Angels. They’d referred to themselves that way ever since.
“What if I told you I’m flying out tomorrow for New York?”
“Seriously?” Tenley asked, excitement in her voice.
“Yes, I have a show coming up. Remy just told me about it. I have a ton of work to do to get ready for it, but I can always make time for you. Sloane, too. She’s in Iceland now.”
“Oh, that boring econ conference.”
“That’s the one. Anyway, I haven’t talked to her, but if she makes for home, we definitely need to get together. Even if she doesn’t come to New York, I want to see you.”
“I’d love that,” Tenley declared.
“How’s the book coming along?”
“We can talk about that—and your upcoming show—at dinner. They’ve opened this incredible Italian place in Brooklyn. Not that Brooklyn needed anymore Italian joints, but this one is fabulous. I freelanced and did some of their PR, so they comped me some meals in return. We can go there and eat and drink the night away.”
“Sounds heavenly,” Willow said. “I’ll be jet-lagged tomorrow, especially because I’ll head straight to the gallery to see the set up, but I’ll text you the day after and we can firm up plans.”
“I’m so glad you’ll be here, Willow. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Ten.”
By the time she ended the conversation, Willow was only a few blocks from home. The shower turned heavy in an instant, though, and she made a quick decision, ducking into a café to wait out the storm. She ordered a café au lait and shrugged out of her coat, placing it across a chair. Looking around, she saw the café was nearly empty, with only one other couple on the far side. As the server set down her coffee, Willow decided to make a quick call to Boo. It was about the time her grandmother got up each day, and she wanted to share her good news about the upcoming show at the Runyon. She would wait to call Jackson. He would already be at his office in LA, most likely with a client, or going over his opening, since he had a big murder trial coming up soon on the docket.
The phone rang seven times before Boo picked up.
“Boo, are you all right?” she asked, instead of saying hello.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” was the feisty response.
Her grandmother was eighty-five now and still sharper than most people in their prime. She had visited Willow in both London and Paris, usually bringing along Gillian Roberts, their next-door neighbor, who was like an aunt to Willow.
“You usually answer the phone faster. That’s all. I have wonderful news, Boo. Remy has scheduled a showing of my work at the Runyon Gallery in three weeks.”
“That’s marvelous, Willow.”
Though her grandmother’s words sounded enthusiastic, all Willow could hear was fatigue in them.
“You sound tired, Boo.”
“I am. A little bit, my precious.”
“Will you be able to come to my opening? Gillian is also invited, of course.”
Boo sighed. “I don’t think I’m up for traveling right now, sweetheart. I’ve had a nasty head cold I’ve been fighting. Flying and colds don’t mix.”
“But the exhibit is three weeks away, Boo. And it will run for a couple of weeks. Surely, you’ll be okay by then,” Willow pleaded, not being able to imagine such a momentous occasion taking place without her grandmother present.
She sniffed. “You used to put off Jackson and me with those very words when we were young,” she pointed out. “We’ll see translated to a hard no in Boo-speak.”
“I did,” Boo admitted. “If I’m not feeling up to coming, then I know Gillian can go in my place.”
This wasn’t like Boo at all. Her grandmother loved everything about New York. Worry filled Willow.
“Is something wrong?” she asked softly.
“Other than Ed Ferguson’s poodle peeing all over my flowers on a regular basis, not much,” Boo replied. “I need to get some coffee in me, Willow. You know I’m not much for anyone before that happens.”
“All right. We’ll talk soon. After I land in New York tomorrow.”
“Take care, baby.”
It was only after she hung up that she realized her grandmother hadn’t mentioned her birthday. It wasn’t like Boo to forget a special occasion, especially the birthday of one of the children she’d raised. Willow sipped her coffee, trying not to fret. After all, Boo was eighty-five. It was probably time she did slow down. Besides, Boo celebrated every day of being Willow’s grandmother. She was her grandchildren’s most ardent supporter. It didn’t matter if a birthday had slipped her mind.
Willow determined that after the exhibition, she would go home to Oregon. Driving cross-country to Oregon after the show might give her time to clear her head. She hadn’t been home since her college graduation. It would be good to see Maple Cove and the house she grew up in. Hopefully, Jackson could come up from LA and they could all spend Christmas together.
Finishing her coffee, she saw the torrents of rain had let up and she left the café, walking the remaining two blocks in a fine mist. She entered their building and climbed the five flights to the top floor. When they had found the flat, she had wanted to rent it because of the great light it got, even though it was slightly beyond her and Jean-Luc’s budget. Then she sold a few paintings, and somehow she became the one paying the rent. It wasn’t as if she wanted to be some little woman whose man took care of her. She only wished Jean-Luc would offer to help out more, especially since he’d sold three pieces over the last two months.
She took out her key, happy to be home earlier than usual. Maybe they could go to their favorite café first and have a glass of wine and catch up before dinner. He had made the reservation to be an early one, so they could come home and celebrate in private.
As she placed the key into the lock, one of her tingles overwhelmed her. She hadn’t experienced one in years. Suddenly, she stilled, wondering what awaited her on the other side of the door. Reluctantly, she turned the key in the lock and entered, closing the door behind her. She pushed back the hood and unbuttoned her coat. As she started to hang it on the rack, she stopped.
Another trench coat hung there. A woman’s. Dread blanketed her. Instead of calling out a greeting, she slipped off her shoes and padded to the studio, past a beautiful floral arrangement that she assumed was for her birthday. Entering it, she found it empty.
Through the paper-thin wall, she heard a giggle. Then a moan. Followed by the bedsprings squeaking. A sick feeling washed over her.
She had suspected Jean-Luc of stepping out on her before and had confronted him. Both times, he had pleaded his innocence and lavished her with attention in the weeks that followed, lulling her into a sense of false security. This time she had proof of his infidelity.
In their shared bed.
Anger now racing through her, she stormed to the bedroom and flung open the door. As she suspected, her boyfriend was pumping into a naked female who wasn’t shy about expressing her delight.
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” she called out.
Immediately, Jean-Luc froze. The woman dropped her arms from around his neck and turned toward her. Willow saw it was Laetitia Seydoux, an acquaintance from two floors below, who was a dancer working part-time in a nearby floral shop. Laetitia smiled lazily and then turned back to stroke Jean-Luc’s face tenderly.
He rose from the bed, tearing off the sheet and wrapping it about him, his gaze meeting Willow’s defiantly. Then he turned to Laetitia.
“Get dressed,” he barked.
“Now,” he commanded, harboring no nonsense from the dancer.
Sullenly, she sat up and swung her legs from the bed. Laetitia took her time putting on her clothes. Jean-Luc turned away from both women. Willow felt her cheeks grow hot as she watched the scene unfold, wondering what lies her lover was currently concocting.
Finally, Laetitia fastened the last button on her blouse. She glared at Willow and said, “I hope you enjoy your flowers. The ones I always bring so he can pretend he cares about you.”
Laetitia walked past Willow, brushing against her on purpose. She forced herself to keep from snatching a hunk of hair and jerking the woman back.
When the door slammed, Willow said, “Well?”
Jean-Luc sat on the bed, the sheet still draped around him. “What do want me to say?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I think any apology you offered would be insincere.”
“Why should I apologize?” he said angrily. “You are too American,” he accused.
Willow resented that he turned the situation to make her appear to be in the wrong. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Americans are so... moralistic. We French are more open. I need a woman who fulfills my needs.”
Fury filled her. “And you’re saying I don’t?”
He shrugged, that Gallic shrug that could mean a hundred things. “Sometimes you do. Sometimes I need more.”
“So, instead of discussing this with me—talking it through as two mature adults who are lovers—you decided to cheat on me?”
“Cheating sounds so... bourgeoisie,” he told her. “You are wanting to make something simple complicated.”
Willow marched over to him. “And you are making a complicated issue over simplistic.” She crossed her arms. “I won’t have it, Jean-Luc. You swore you weren’t cheating on me before, and yet here I find you in our bed with Laetitia. Was she the only one? Have there been others?”
She could hear her voice rising in hysteria and fought to calm herself.
Again, the shrug. “There may have been a few others.”
“That’s it. I’m done,” she said, stepping back. “I turned a blind eye before, but we’re over now. You need to move out.”
A part of her felt relief that she had come home and found him cheating. It would save time and pleading. In the long run, she knew she would be better without him.
Hurt filled his eyes. “Where am I to go? You are the one who makes the money, even though you aren’t that good an artist.”
“What did you say?” she demanded, fury and resentment filling her, knowing he only thought of her as his meal ticket.
His eyes darkened. “You heard me, Willow. You are good—but I am great. I just need time to be discovered.”
“I want you out. Now,” she said through gritted teeth and then thought a moment.
Her art had been everything to her ever since she left Maple Cove for college. She had made sacrifices, both large and small, for it. Now, when she was on the eve of her greatest success, nothing but emptiness filled her. She needed more in her life. The people she loved. Jean-Luc had been an itch which she’d scratched. The scratching had gone on too long and created an open wound. She was hurting now. Humiliated. Feeling betrayed. But every wound eventually scabbed over.
When hers did, she didn’t want to be in Paris.
She wanted to go home.
“Grab a few things and go to Laetitia’s now. You can come back tomorrow night. I’ll be out by then. You can keep the flat until the lease ends at the end of the year. I’ll contact the leasing agent and make sure he understands it won’t be renewed. Are we clear about that?”
He cursed under his breath and then grew braver, cursing aloud as he tossed off the sheet and stepped into his clothes that lay on the floor. As he threw a few things into a duffel bag, he called her names she wouldn’t say aloud to her worst enemy. Worse, he accused her of being dull and that he had cheated out of boredom. Willow kept her composure through it all, not wanting to stoop to his level.
What surprised her most was the realization that she felt nothing for him at all. What she did feel was tremendous sadness. Her heart ached from loneliness, something she felt would continue to haunt her the rest of her life. She had never been worthy in the eyes of her various lovers. Any self-confidence she had crumbled in that moment.
When Jean-Luc finally left, she locked the door behind him. Though angry tears coursed down her cheeks, she packed two suitcases for New York with the clothes she favored the most. The rest she would leave behind. She didn’t need chipped dishes or old wineglasses or ragged bath towels. Jean-Luc was welcome to it all.
She did text Peter and asked that he ship not only the paintings she’d left out for New York, but she also asked for him to box up her paints and art supplies and send them, along with the canvases she hadn’t chosen to be placed in the show. She provided Boo’s address in Maple Cove, saying to send the additional items to Oregon. She would go home to Boo and lick her wounds, after she was done in New York.
Boo always made everything better.
“Happy Birthday,” Willow said aloud and then slumped to the floor and had a cathartic cry.
Dylan Taylor rolled out of bed and threw on running shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt. He slipped his phone into his pocket and hit the bathroom before lacing up his shoes. After a few minutes of stretching, he went down the back staircase and out the door to the alley behind Sid’s Diner. Sunrise wouldn’t be for another three hours, when the polls opened.
The election that would decide if he became the sheriff of Barton County.
He ran down the alley and emerged onto the square. He ran around it, past the diner, Buttercup Bakery, and the Hidden Bear Bar & Grill. He turned south and continued along the square, not paying attention to the places he ran by, trying to clear his head. He cut over to Broad and headed south, still on autopilot.
Dylan had returned to Maple Cove at the request of Walt Willingham. The sheriff had broken the horrible news to Dylan a dozen years ago about the crash that had left him an orphan but at eighteen, a legal adult. Willingham had helped him wade through the next couple of weeks. Dealing with the funeral home. Insurance. Putting the house up for sale. Though he had never seen himself leaving his hometown, the urge to escape it flooded him.
Funny, it had always been Willow who had had the tug of wanderlust pulling at her. Friends since grade school, it had taken until their senior year for them to feel what he joked to be their love connection. Suddenly, he had seen Willow as a woman—and had fallen hard and fast. Still, he agreed with her that after graduation they needed to go their separate ways. They had different goals in life. Different dreams. His had been to put down roots in their hometown. Hers was to live abroad in Europe, in a bohemian lifestyle that he couldn’t wrap his head around.
Instead, in a touch of irony, he had probably traveled more places than his former girlfriend had. Walt went with Dylan when he enlisted in the military a month after he earned his high school diploma. Based upon his ASVAB testing, the army saw their new recruit was intelligent, disciplined, organized, and a true problem-solver. After his seven weeks of basic training as a new soldier, he did another fifteen weeks of military police training. The work had taken him to bases around the world, where he investigated crimes and worked in securing military installations. Along the way, he had earned a degree in criminal justice, thanks to the GI Bill and being able to attend online courses, where a huge chunk of his work experience resulted in course credit.
He'd been at a crossroads ten years in, not sure if he wanted to reenlist or if he should return stateside and put his degree and policing experience to use. Dylan had discussed it with Walt, since they had remained close over the years. While he’d toyed with the idea to go to work for the Oregon State Police, Walt had other ideas, convincing Dylan to come home to Maple Cove and Barton County, where a deputy job awaited him. Deciding to take it, he’d come back to the place of his birth and joined the force under Walt’s leadership.
It was only after he’d been on the job for a month that Walt confessed he had alternative motives in bringing Dylan home. The longtime sheriff had cancer. A slow-growing kind but cancer all the same. Walt’s idea was for Dylan to run for sheriff in his stead when the next election occurred.
Today was election day.
He finished the run and returned to his apartment over the diner. Sid had lived above his place until he married a local teacher. Nancy insisted they move to a house so they could raise a family, and the apartment had been rented out from that time on. Sid had been dead five years now. Nancy quit teaching in order to take over the place. Dylan was the latest in a long line of tenants. With no wife or kids, the small apartment suited his needs.
He showered and dressed in civilian clothes. He had already taken off the day from work so he could be at the polls, greeting voters and pressing the flesh. Since he was on his time, he didn’t think it appropriate to be in uniform. Dylan dressed in dark slacks and a sports shirt, running his fingers through his hair as he studied his reflection in the mirror. By this time tomorrow, he would either be sheriff of Barton County or out. His opponent in the race, Rick Mercer, had made that clear.
Making his way downstairs, he saw the diner was already three-quarters full at six in the morning. Walt sat in their usual booth. Dylan slid in across from his friend and noticed the deep, dark circles under Walt’s eyes.
“You okay?” he asked.
“When you win today, I will be.”
“If, Walt. If I win.”
Walt gazed at him intently. “You will. You have my backing. That means a lot in this community. You’ve got a stellar military career behind you. You’ve also done a terrific job as a deputy ever since you’ve been back. Besides, there’s always the football contingency. They’d vote you in for your quarterbacking skills alone.”
“Even if that was over a dozen years ago?”
“Especially because it was that long ago. Good sports memories—like that sixty-two-yard touchdown pass your junior year in that one the game with two seconds to go—age like fine wine.”
Nancy appeared with two empty cups and poured them both coffee.
“Morning, Nancy,” they both said.
“Your food will be right out,” she told them, bustling off to another table.
As Dylan doctored his coffee, he noticed Walt’s hand shaking. He’d never seen a tremor before.
“Walt, what’s wrong? Tell me.”
The sheriff glanced around and then leaned in. “They found another tumor yesterday. A big one.”
The news hit Dylan hard. Using his best poker face, he asked, “Does that mean chemo? Radiation?”
“Neither,” Walt said flatly. “I saw what Janie went through with her breast cancer. How the treatments meant to save her drained the life from her. Her mouth so sore and swollen and her throat so tight that every time she swallowed, it was painful.” He shook his head. “I won’t go through that. The oncologist said even if I did, I’d only buy myself a few extra months at most. He also admitted they wouldn’t be good ones.”
The lawman took a sip of coffee. “I’m going to enjoy what time I have left, Dylan. I don’t want to fight this any longer. I’ll let you take over. Enjoy a little golf and fishing while I can. And then Janie’ll be waiting for me when my time is done. Don’t try to talk me out of this.”
“I won’t,” Dylan promised, though his heart tore at him.
Walt Willingham had become a second father to him—and then his friend and mentor. The thought of losing Walt, who had always seemed larger than life, cut Dylan to the bone.
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