Книга - Making His Way Home


Making His Way Home
Kathryn Springer

You Can Go Home AgainThe only thing Cole Merrick wants to do with the Mirror Lake property he inherited is sell it. And the sooner the better. The handsome pilot has no attachment to the place where he and Grace Eversea fell in love years ago. He never meant to break his promises—or her heart—when he left town without a word.Now, just in time for Mirror Lake’s 125th birthday celebration, he comes face to face with all he left behind, including Grace. And he wonders if he ought to give this town a second chance. If only he can convince Grace to do the same for him….Mirror Lake: A small town where dreams of finding home come true.

You Can Go Home Again

The only thing Cole Merrick wants to do with the Mirror Lake property he inherited is sell it. And the sooner the better. The handsome pilot has no attachment to the place where he and Grace Eversea fell in love years ago. He never meant to break his promises—or her heart—when he left town without a word. Now, just in time for Mirror Lake’s 125th birthday celebration, he comes face-to-face with all he left behind, including Grace. And he wonders if he ought to give this town a second chance. If only he can convince Grace to do the same for him....

Mirror Lake: A small town where dreams of finding home come true

“Now you better get on over

to the Redstones’ place before Grace thinks you stood her up.”

“Stood her up?”

“You won her basket at the box social—you’re her date.”

“For the square dance?”

“For everything.” Before Cole had a chance to ask Candy to clarify that cryptic response, she marched to the door, grumbling. “The last thing a woman needs is a guy who won’t step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

The words had continued to cycle through Cole’s mind on his way to the parking lot.

He had done the right thing.

It was the reason he’d left Mirror Lake.

And Grace.


is a lifelong Wisconsin resident. Growing up in a “newspaper” family, she spent long hours as a child plunking out stories on her mother’s typewriter and hasn’t stopped writing since. She loves to write inspirational romance because it allows her to combine her faith in God with her love of a happy ending.

Making His Way Home

Kathryn Springer

www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)

In his heart a man plans his course,

but the Lord determines his steps.

—Proverbs 16:9

To Char

My friend who drives two hours to see me

when I need a sanity break (and brings lunch!)

and laughs at all the right places in my manuscripts. You’re the reason there will always be a

“Faye McAllister” in every story I write. Love you!


Chapter One (#u709218b4-6c48-501b-b53e-17b0923e047d)

Chapter Two (#uc7ed1115-eece-5d0a-848c-c09d4ada232e)

Chapter Three (#u509cda8f-f088-5810-9344-accd8319f087)

Chapter Four (#uc6647693-6432-530d-bbe9-9ae677bf2180)

Chapter Five (#u24c6629d-791b-504c-b2f6-f3cdcc3b4964)

Chapter Six (#ue0e735b4-373f-507b-a8fe-dc7b84bff08a)

Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo)

Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo)

Dear Reader (#litres_trial_promo)

Questions for Discussion (#litres_trial_promo)

Chapter One

“The dress is adorable, Grace! I knew that shade of yellow would look perfect on you.”

Grace Eversea summoned a smile, trying to match Kate Nichols’s enthusiasm while she maneuvered her ankle-length skirt—and six inches of petticoat—through the narrow gap between the sofa and the coffee table.

Add a bonnet and a pair of button-up shoes, and people just might think she’d stepped down from one of the sepia-toned portraits hanging on the wall of the historical museum.

But then again, Grace acknowledged ruefully, that was kind of the point.

It had been Kate’s idea that everyone who volunteered to help with Mirror Lake’s 125th birthday celebration should dress for the part in clothing authentic to that time period.

Something Grace hadn’t found out until after she’d agreed to act as the official tour guide for the event, transporting people to unique historical landmarks and other points of interest scattered throughout the area. In a horse-drawn wagon.

Which posed a problem that apparently only Grace could see.

“I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to sit down while I’m wearing this...bustle.” And breathe in this corset. “I think every article of clothing they wore in 1887 was designed to pinch, itch or constrict.”

At the same time.

“That could explain why none of the women in those old photographs we found were smiling.” Kate chuckled as she reached for the garment bag draped over the back of a rocking chair. “I better get back to the café. Mayor Dodd wants to go over some last-minute details before the opening ceremony tomorrow. You’re welcome to join us.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll—” change clothes! “—take B.C. for a dry run. I’m not sure how long it will take to complete the whole circle. We have to make five stops—”

“Six,” her friend interrupted cheerfully.

Grace blinked. “Six?”

“That’s the other reason I stopped by.” Kate’s clover-green eyes sparkled with excitement. “I sent the letter over a month ago but didn’t mention it because I didn’t want to get your hopes up. But then he called yesterday, out of the blue, and gave us permission to add the property to the tour....”

“You lost me.” Grace jumped in when her friend paused to take a breath. “Who called? What are we adding to the tour?”

“Sloan Merrick’s place.”

Grace’s breath snagged in her lungs, and this time she couldn’t blame it on the corset. “I didn’t think that property was still in the family.”

“I wasn’t sure, either. That’s why I went to the courthouse and did a little investigating.” Kate grinned. “Apparently Sloan left the house and land to his oldest grandson when he died.”

An image rose in Grace’s mind, swift and clear, almost as if it had been lingering just below the surface of her memories, waiting for permission to appear.

Shaggy hair the color of a midnight sky. Crooked smile. Eyes the rich, deep green of a fresh cedar bough.


“Right.” Kate’s eyes widened and Grace realized she’d said the name out loud. “Anyway, he apologized for not getting back to me sooner. His only stipulation for letting people tour the property is that we check the cabin first to make sure it’s safe. Isn’t that great?”

“Great,” Grace echoed.

“I’m surprised you remember Cole,” Kate went on. “I don’t think he lived in Mirror Lake very long.”

“A summer,” Grace murmured.

And yes, she remembered.

A girl didn’t forget the first time she’d fallen in love.

Or the first time her heart had been broken.

But she didn’t tell Kate that Cole Merrick had been responsible for both.

* * *

“One hour and twenty-six minutes, B.C.”

The old draft horse stomped a platter-size hoof and tossed an aggravated look at Grace.

Okay, so maybe she hadn’t added in the ten minutes the wagon had been parked in front of the gravel road leading up to Sloan Merrick’s house.

Grace closed her eyes.

What was wrong with her?

Her yard bordered the Merrick property. She’d driven past this exact spot hundreds—no, thousands—of times on her way to work and hadn’t thought about Cole.

But over the past few hours, memories had begun to pop up like dandelions. Grace no sooner yanked one out than another one immediately took its place.

She couldn’t blame Kate. No one, not her parents or even her closest friends, knew that she and Cole had formed an unexpected bond when his family had moved in with Sloan the summer before her senior year of high school. At seventeen, Grace had been shy and bookish; Cole grieving his father’s death and angry at the world in general.

They’d come face-to-face one afternoon in Grace’s favorite spot—a boulder roughly the size and shape of a hammock that jutted out over the lake. Anxious to finish the book tucked under her arm, Grace had stumbled upon a boy trying to light one on fire. An English text, which made it even worse because that happened to be Grace’s favorite subject.

She’d rescued the book and ordered him to leave. Not only had Cole refused, but he’d also returned the next day. And the next. After several days of ignoring each other, a tentative friendship had begun to take root. And as the weeks went by, it had blossomed into something more.

They’d talked about their families. Their fears.

Their future.

That’s why Cole’s abrupt departure had come as such a shock. In the days and weeks that followed, Grace waited for the phone to ring. Checked the mailbox every day. Twice. In time, she’d come to the realization that he hadn’t felt the same way about her.

By the time her senior year of high school ended, Grace had stopped waiting for him. Not thinking about Cole had been a little more challenging, but she had managed it.

Most of the time.

“Come on, B.C. Let’s get this over with and go home.” Grace clicked her tongue and the mare obediently plodded forward, right between two rusty No Trespassing signs hammered to the oak trees that flanked the gravel driveway.

The two-story brick house wasn’t visible from the road, so she hadn’t realized how neglected the property had become since Sloan’s death four and a half years ago. The man had been meticulous in maintaining the spacious grounds, but weeds had taken over the raised vegetable gardens and branches from a recent storm littered the yard.

The original homestead, a rustic cabin with a crumbling layer of white chinking between the logs, sat at the edge of a small pond garnished with cattails. Lilac bushes scented the air with a heady, soul-stirring fragrance that rivaled the perfume counter of an exclusive boutique.

No wonder Kate had wanted to add the Merrick place to the tour. Even in its neglected state, there was something appealing about the structure. A simplicity that reflected a time when life had been the same way.

Grace hopped down from the wide plank seat and looped B.C.’s reins around the weathered pole of an old clothesline. She waded through the tall grass and circled the cabin, on the lookout for potential hazards to curious children and petticoats.

As she rounded the corner, her gaze drifted to a narrow opening between two poplar trees. And even though it wasn’t part of her scheduled tour, Grace was drawn down a path that only existed in her memory.

As the wooded area opened to a small clearing along the shoreline, she stopped dead in her tracks.

A man stood on the rock, hands in his pockets, facing the lake.

Apparently she wasn’t the only one who ignored the No Trespassing signs.

Mayor Dodd had warned everyone to prepare for an influx of visitors. Not only had people in the community invited their family and friends to attend the celebration, but Grace’s friend, Jenna, had also mentioned it in the weekly column she wrote for the online edition of Twin City Trends magazine.

As if he sensed Grace’s presence, the stranger turned around to face her, his face shadowed under the brim of a ball cap.

“Sorry.” She took a step back. “I didn’t realize anyone was here—”


Her breath stuck in her throat.

Either her mind was playing tricks on her...or Cole Merrick was back in Mirror Lake.

* * *

Twelve years disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Cole was seventeen years old again, about to torch a textbook and sprinkle the ashes over the water, when a girl had stumbled into view. Eyes the color of dark chocolate had widened with astonishment when she’d spotted him.

Almost identical to the expression Cole saw on her face now.

Well, he was feeling a little shell-shocked, too, by this unexpected blast from the past.

Grace Eversea. The last person Cole had expected to see.

He automatically took a step toward her.

Grace took another step back.

Cole frowned. He hadn’t changed that much over the years. A few crow’s feet fanning out from his eyes—ones he held Bettina and Travis and Sean, his twin brothers, directly responsible for—but other than that...no tattoos. No piercings. The reflection in the mirror remained pretty much the same.

“It’s me.” He yanked off his cap. “Cole.”

“I know.”

I know?

Those two words might have made Cole feel a little better. If Grace hadn’t tossed a quick look over her shoulder like she was searching for an escape route.

“It’s...been a long time.” Because there’s nothing like stating the obvious, is there, buddy?

“Yes, it has.” Grace finally smiled, but it wasn’t the one Cole remembered. The one that had made him feel like he could conquer the world. This one was distant. Polite. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

It sounded almost like an accusation.

“Kate wrote to me,” Cole explained. “About Mirror Lake’s birthday celebration.”

And if everything went the way he hoped, in twenty-four hours he would be celebrating something else. Phase two of the expansion project for Painted Skies, his private air charter service.

“She mentioned that. Today.” Grace sighed. And glanced over her shoulder again.

Cole took advantage of the momentary silence to study her. At seventeen, Grace had cared more about books than shoes. Other girls their age knew how to flirt; Grace knew how to listen. She’d taught him how to skip rocks and hunt for literary symbolism buried in obscure passages of Shakespeare. A failing grade following his father’s death had sentenced Cole to six weeks of summer school, and Grace had saved him from a D in English Lit.

Who was he kidding?

She’d saved him from a lot of things.

Cole had never known anyone quite like her.

But if the wary expression on Grace’s face was anything to go by, she didn’t feel the same way. The conversation was beginning to feel like an awkward blind date instead of an unexpected reunion between two people who had once been friends.

Close friends.

In fact...Grace happened to be standing in the exact spot where Cole had kissed her for the first time. Right underneath that silver birch...

He heard her quick intake of breath and yanked his wayward thoughts back in line.

Grace pivoted away from him. “It was...nice...to see you again, but I have to get back.”

“Hold on.” The words slipped out before Cole could stop them. “I’ll walk with you.”

He hopped down from the rock and caught up to Grace as she reached the clearing. Her figure was still as slender as the reeds that hemmed the shoreline, but faded Levi’s hugged curves that hadn’t been there in high school.

They fell into step together, but Grace kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. The mane of glossy, sable brown hair was pulled back into a low ponytail at the nape of Grace’s neck, giving Cole an unobstructed view of her delicate profile.

Her steps quickened as the house came into view, as if she couldn’t wait to be on her way.

Cole, on the other hand, suddenly wanted to know more about her.

“Would you like to come inside for a few minutes?”

Grace looked shocked by the impulsive invitation, and Cole mentally smacked himself upside the head. Grace wasn’t the teenaged girl who’d turned his world upside down—and his heart inside out.

Not to mention there was probably someone who would be tempted to punch his lights out for asking.

“I can’t. I have to get B.C. home,” she murmured. “She gets cranky if she doesn’t get her oats at a certain time.”

For the first time, Cole noticed the enormous draft horse hitched to an old-fashioned buckboard.

The mare’s head swung around, and she whinnied a greeting.

Cole grinned.

At least someone looked happy to see him.

Chapter Two

Grace had no choice but to follow as Cole strode over to the wagon.

“Hey, Buttercup,” he crooned, knuckling the mare’s wide velvety nose.

B.C.’s ears twitched in response to the husky rumble of Cole’s voice and Grace’s heart responded with a traitorous twitch of its own.

“I can’t believe you remember her name,” she muttered.

“It’s pretty hard to forget a two-thousand-pound horse named Buttercup.”

But apparently, Grace thought, it wasn’t hard to forget other things. Like plans. And promises.

She fumbled with a strap on the mare’s harness in an attempt to avoid eye contact with the man whose presence had tipped her world off its axis.

For the first time, she noticed a black midsize SUV parked on the other side of the house. If she hadn’t been so distracted by her thoughts, she would have realized someone else was on the property.

But what was Cole doing in Mirror Lake?

Grace had never considered the possibility that Kate’s letter would not only gain permission for her to lead tours of the Merrick property, but also result in a visit from the owner of the property himself.

But here he was, standing less than three feet away from her. It felt almost surreal.

After Cole had left town without a word, Grace had played dozens of different scenarios in her mind, rehearsing what she would say if their paths ever crossed again.

She hadn’t realized that she would find it difficult to say anything at all. Or that Cole would be more attractive at twenty-nine than he’d been at seventeen.

His lanky teenaged frame had shot up another inch or two and filled out. He was still lean in the hips, but his shoulders were broader, his arms more muscular. The unruly strands of ink-black hair that had once brushed the top of his collar had been cropped short. Taken one by one, Cole’s features could almost have been described as ordinary. Deep-set green eyes. Strong cheekbones. Angular jaw. But added together, they packed quite a punch.

The fact that she could hardly breathe was proof.

“How many miles does she get to the gallon?” he asked.

Grace refused to respond to Cole’s teasing smile. “We thought the historical tour would be more fun if we used an authentic mode of transportation.”


“I’m on the planning committee.”

“I didn’t realize you were one of the people who’d volunteered to help with the celebration this weekend,” Cole said slowly.

“I’m the only one with a horse and wagon.” Grace untied the reins, a not-so-subtle hint she was ready to leave. “B.C. only comes out of retirement for special occasions now, though, like the Fourth of July parade and Reflection Days in September. The kids love her.”

“So you’ll be leading the tours?” Cole seemed as determined to continue their conversation as she was to end it.

“A journey back in time.” Grace had come up with the name during a brainstorming session with the planning committee and the irony wasn’t lost on her now.

She didn’t want to journey back in time. Not if it meant facing Cole Merrick again.

“So you came back for the weekend?” He rested a tanned forearm on the side of the wagon. “Or do you spend your summers here?”

“I don’t know what you...” The air emptied out of Grace’s lungs, making it impossible to finish the thought.

Cole assumed she’d returned for the celebration.

But why wouldn’t he? She’d confided in him that summer. Trusted him with her dreams.

With her heart.

“I’m not visiting. I live here.”

“In Mirror Lake?” Cole struggled to hide his surprise. As far as he knew, Grace had never planned to make the town her permanent home.

“That’s right.” She wedged the toe of her cowboy boot inside the spoke of the wagon wheel and swung onto the seat before Cole could offer his assistance. “My parents moved to Boston to be closer to my sister, Ruth, and her family a few years ago. They bring my two nephews back for a visit every summer.

“Mom claims it’s to give the boys a taste of country living, but she pulls weeds in the flower beds all day and Dad cuts enough firewood to last all winter. I think they’re the ones who need to spend some time in the outdoors.”

So, not only had Grace made Mirror Lake her home, but she still lived next door.

Had she fallen in love with one of the locals and decided to stay? Cole’s gaze dropped to her left hand. No wedding band or engagement ring.

He couldn’t believe it. Were all the men in town blind, deaf and dumb? Or just dumb?

“Why did you decide to stay?” Cole couldn’t prevent the words from slipping out.

“I love it here.”

Was it his imagination, or had she placed a slight emphasis on the word “I”?

“What do you do? For a living?” Cole knew the sluggish economy had hit the northern Wisconsin counties particularly hard, but Mirror Lake had been struggling for years. He figured the only thing that had kept the town going was an equal mix of love and loyalty, along with a generous dash of stubbornness, in the hearts of the people who called it home.

“I’m a social worker.”

That surprised Cole, too. “I thought for sure you’d be teaching English Lit at some fancy prep school.”

Grace looked away. “Plans change.”

Cole couldn’t argue with that. And sometimes they were simply put on hold, waiting for the right opportunity.

“It was nice of you to let us add the cabin to our tour,” Grace said after a moment, so politely that once again, Cole was reminded that she’d changed, too. “Kate asked me to stop over tonight and make sure there were no safety issues.”

Cole glanced at the cabin. The sun had dissolved into a strip of clouds on the horizon and shadows funneled through the trees and crept into the yard, shrouding the small structure in darkness. “Are there? I haven’t had a chance to look around yet.”

“The grass is pretty tall, but I didn’t see anything that could cause an injury. And the cabin appears sound.”

“No...snakes?” He tried to suppress a shudder.

“No snakes.” Grace’s unexpected smile, the first genuine one he’d seen, sent Cole’s heart crashing against his rib cage.

She was obviously remembering the afternoon they’d explored the tiny cabin and disturbed a pine snake dozing in an old chair. Cole had mistaken it for a coil of rope—until he swept it onto the floor. The thing had glided over his feet on its way to find another hiding place, but Cole had beat it to the door, leaving Grace behind in tears.

Because she’d been laughing so hard.

Truth be told, Cole was beginning to remember a lot of things about the summer he’d met Grace.

But it was the future he needed to focus on.

After he’d discovered Kate’s letter—misfiled in a desk drawer, thanks to Bettina, his absentminded younger sister—Cole had contacted Sullivan and Sullivan, the only law office in Mirror Lake. Not only had the attorney recognized his name, but he’d also claimed he had a copy of Sloan’s will and a key to the house—for Cole.

Until that moment, Cole hadn’t truly believed his grandfather had left him an inheritance. He’d assumed the house and land, along with all of Sloan’s personal possessions, had gone up for sale after his death.

Shaken, Cole had asked the lawyer why he hadn’t been told about his grandfather’s wishes. Sullivan had hemmed and hawed a bit before explaining that Sloan had set a condition—that Cole not be told about the property unless he returned to Mirror Lake on his own.

Cole didn’t believe in coincidences, but he did believe in divine intervention.

This is your time, his secretary, Iola, had said right before Cole had left for Mirror Lake.

His time hadn’t been his own since he was seventeen. But now that his mother had remarried and his younger siblings were starting their own lives, maybe he could finally believe it was true.

And all he had to do to make his dream a reality was to sell the piece of land that had been in the Merrick family for five generations.

* * *

“I’m sorry, but Sully won’t be back in the office until Monday.”

Cole stared at the receptionist—and apparently the other half of Sullivan and Sullivan—in disbelief. Candy Sullivan, a bleach blonde in her mid-fifties, had pointed to a chair by the window when he’d walked into the law office. Then she’d spent the next fifteen minutes chatting on the phone while she painted each fingernail a shade of red that matched the fire hydrant on the curb outside.

Fortunately, her conversation had come to an end about sixty seconds before Cole’s patience.

“I picked up the key from Mr. Sullivan when I got into town yesterday. He didn’t say anything about going away for the weekend.”

“Yesterday Sully didn’t know that Mayor Dodd was going to ask him to judge the square dance competition.” Candy pursed her lips and blew a stream of air on her pinky finger. “He needs a few hours to get ready, so he skipped out early. Matilda Fletcher, she’s the head of the historical society, found him the cutest pair of red suspenders—”

“You mean he’s still in town?”

Penciled-in eyebrows hitched together like boxcars over the narrow track of Candy’s nose. “Where else would he be, honey? A town only turns one hundred and twenty-five years old...” A brief pause. “Once.”

Cole pulled in a breath and held it, trying to cap off his rising frustration. He’d promised Iola he would be back by the end of the day.

His secretary’s husband, Virgil, had taken Cole’s place in the cockpit for the flying lessons Cole had scheduled, but he preferred to be on the ground now, taking care of the shop. A job that had belonged to Cole before he’d bought out the business from Cap Hudson, the flight school’s previous owner.

“Do you know where I can find him?”

“He’s probably at the park right about now. I have to get over there myself.” Candy dropped the tiny brush back into the bottle and aimed a pointed look at the clock.

“You wouldn’t happen to know the name of a local Realtor, would you?”

“There’s only one. Sissy Perkins.”

“Where is her office located?”

“A block off Main. Right behind the bank.”


“But Sissy isn’t working today, either.”

“The square dance competition?”

Candy Sullivan’s shield against sarcasm had to be as thick as her bronze foundation because she smiled at him. “The box social. It starts at eleven, by the pavilion.”

Cole glanced at his watch. If he hurried, he might have a few minutes to talk to both his grandfather’s attorney and the Realtor.

Or see Grace again.

He shook away the thought and another one immediately took its place....

Grace sitting on the rock, her bare toes drawing lazy circles in the water while she listened to him recite a passage from his English text. Splashing him if he dared to grumble.

But the Grace he’d encountered the evening before wasn’t the one he remembered. That Grace wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get away from him.

Cole felt a stab of regret for the way things had turned out.

He’d thought about Grace over the years. Pictured her standing in a sunlit classroom against a chalkboard backdrop, the classics fanned out on her desk like a buffet. Each book a sample of a new literary adventure she would encourage reluctant students to try.

He’d never imagined she would become a social worker and continue living in her childhood home. She was the one who’d challenged him to pursue his dreams.

Plans change, she’d said.

But what had changed? Her circumstances? Her goals? She’d told him what she was doing, but not why.

Because it’s none of your business, Cole reminded himself.

And right now, his business was somewhere in the park.

He waited at the corner for a brightly painted ice-cream truck to lumber past before crossing Main Street.

From the looks of it, half the town had already gathered in front of the pavilion. Cole stalked toward the makeshift stage set up in the shade of a towering maple, dodging kids and dogs and several people who looked like extras on the set of Little House on the Prairie.

He paused to look around, trying to find Marty Sullivan’s face in the crowd.

“I think the auction is about to start,” he heard someone say. “Let’s get closer to the stage. I can’t see what I’m bidding on from way back here.”

“Just don’t bid on the one with the pink ribbon tied around the handle. That one’s mine.”

“It’s Grace Eversea’s basket, ain’t it?”

Cole’s head jerked around at the name. He eased around the trunk of the nearest tree so he could eavesdrop—see—better.

Two guys close to his age stood several yards away. One of them was as tall and skinny as a fly rod, with shaggy blond hair and a full beard. The other a businessman of some kind, pale and clean-cut with a smile as tight as the garish purple tie knotted around his neck.

“What if it is?” Purple Tie sounded a wee bit defensive.

“Good luck with that,” Shaggy scoffed.

“You’re just bitter because Grace wouldn’t go to the fireworks with you last Fourth of July.”

“How many times have you struck out?” Shaggy shot back.

“Not as many as you.”

Cole almost smiled. He wasn’t sure why the guy was bragging about it.

“And you think winning her basket is going to make Grace forget the reason she turns down all the guys who ask her out?”

“I know it will. Women love this kind of attention. When I outbid everyone else, she’ll be flattered—”

“And grateful.”

His friend flashed a sly grin. “You got it.”

Cole couldn’t believe it. If he had his way, neither one of them would spend five minutes in Grace’s company. They didn’t deserve her.

“I’ve got twenty dollars.” Purple Tie tapped his back pocket. “Do you think it’ll go for more than that?”

“If it does, I’ve got five I can lend you.”

“Great. Then I’m in.”

Cole dug his wallet from his back pocket and thumbed through the contents as the bidding started.

A slow smile spread across his face.

So was he.

Chapter Three

Grace nibbled on the tip of her fingernail as the mayor’s wife delivered a picnic basket to another smiling couple.

The box social was the 1887 equivalent of a blind date, something she’d managed to avoid in spite of the efforts of well-meaning friends and coworkers. So why had she actually volunteered to participate?

Probably because it had sounded like a fun way to kick off the celebration. But that was before her basket was the one the men would be bidding on.

“We’re down to the last two, gentlemen.” Mayor Dodd’s gaze swept over the crowd as he held up a wicker hamper lined with pink-and-white checked gingham. “And I have to say, something in here smells mighty delicious.”

“Is that one yours?” her friend Abby O’Halloran whispered.

Grace could only nod as the butterflies in her stomach took flight.

“Who will give me five dollars for this basket?” Mayor Dodd bellowed, his voice carrying through the park without the aid of a microphone. “I see your hand back there, mister.”

Grace didn’t dare turn around and see who’d placed the first bid. Abby and Kate, however, had no qualms.

“I can’t see who’s bidding,” Kate complained, stretching up on her tiptoes. “I need a stepladder.”

“Or Alex,” Abby teased, referring to her older brother, who happened to be Kate’s fiancé.

Grace groaned. “Just tell me when it’s over.”

“Five dollars...ten. Do I hear fifteen? Fifteen dollars for this lovely basket and the company of the lovely lady who prepared it. Twenty! Do I hear twenty-five—”

“Thirty dollars.”

“Now you’re talking.” The mayor tucked a thumb inside his brocade vest and strutted across the stage as the crowd cheered, caught up in the friendly competition. “My wife tells me there’s one slice of peach pie in here, which means you’ll have to get close enough to share.”

Abby nudged her. “That was smart.”

“Smart had nothing to do with it,” Grace muttered. “I got hungry last night.”

After returning home from that unexpected encounter with Cole, it had been pie or a pint of rocky road. She’d opted for the treat with a calorie count that didn’t cross over into the triple digits.

“Thirty dollars—who will give me thirty-five?” Mayor Dodd’s eyes narrowed. “The money is for a good cause, gentlemen! New playground equipment for the park—”

“Fifty dollars.”

A second of absolute silence followed the bid. Even Kate was rendered momentarily speechless.

“Fifty dollars. Going once—” Mayor Dodd slammed the gavel down as the crowd began to cheer. “Sold! For fifty dollars.”

“That’s more than Quinn paid for mine.” Abby exchanged a grin with Kate.

“Come up here and get your basket.” Mayor Dodd held it up like a trophy. “And your girl.”

Grace wished the earth would open up and swallow her as she slowly made her way toward the stage.

She’d heard a rumor that Tom Braddock had been bragging to everyone in their department that he was going to win her basket. Tom had asked her out several times over the past few years but Grace had politely declined, using the excuse that it wasn’t wise to date a coworker.

It was safer than admitting the real reason.

But Tom glared at her when she walked past, as if it was her fault that someone had outbid him.

“Don’t be shy now, Grace,” the mayor boomed, twirling the end of his mustache. “It’s all in good fun, you know.”

Grace tacked on a smile and looked around, ready to thank whoever had emptied his wallet for the new playground equipment.

And her gaze locked with Cole’s. Everything else disappeared as they stared at each other.


“Hi.” Grace’s lips shaped the word, but she wasn’t sure if she said it out loud.

“I hope you don’t mind.” Cole flashed a crooked smile. The one that had had Grace’s heart spinning pirouettes when she’d been a naive teenager.

“Mind?” she repeated. Because that smile stripped her of the ability to form a complete sentence, let alone a complete thought.

Instead of answering, Cole held something up.

A basket with a bright pink bow.

“It looks like we’ll be having lunch together,” he said.


If only it were that simple, Grace thought with rising panic. But she wasn’t about to tell Cole that by bidding on her basket, he hadn’t simply agreed to spend an hour in her company. He was now her date for the square dance that evening and—Grace swallowed hard as another, more terrifying thought occurred to her—another event scheduled for the next day. One that would ruin any attempts Grace might have made to avoid Cole’s company.

* * *

“What did you do?”

Watching Grace march toward him, Cole decided it had to be a trick question. Because the answer seemed pretty obvious to him.

“I bid on your basket.” And he’d won.

But Grace squeezed her eyes shut, giving Cole the distinct impression that when she opened them again, she was hoping he wouldn’t be there.

Maybe she’d rather have lunch with the guy in the purple tie. Because it sure didn’t look like she was thrilled with the prospect of spending time with him.

Regret sliced through Cole. There’d been a time when Grace had welcomed his company. When she’d welcomed his arms around her...

And there was another reason he shouldn’t have taken part in the auction. Life had taken them down different roads. They’d been kids that summer. Cole was a different person now and so was Grace.

The hunted look she cast over her shoulder proved it.

“Come with me,” she muttered. “We have to get out of here before...”

They were surrounded. By a group of women wearing bonnets.

Grace closed her eyes.

Maybe she was hoping they would disappear, too.

“I don’t believe we’ve met.” A stunning blonde with silver-green eyes smiled up at him. “I’m Abby O’Halloran.”

“Cole Merrick.” Given the way the women were dressed, in full skirts that skimmed the tops of their black, button-down shoes, Cole resisted the temptation to bow.

Grace sighed. “Cole, these are my...friends. Abby O’Halloran, Emma Sutton, Zoey Wilde and Jenna McGuire.”

All four of the women were close to Grace’s age but Cole didn’t recognize their faces. He hadn’t socialized much when he’d lived in Mirror Lake. Between summer school and keeping his three younger siblings entertained, there hadn’t been time to hang out with the other teenagers.

Only Grace.

“Hello.” Cole added a smile because they looked a lot more friendly than his former neighbor at the moment.

Four pairs of eyes blinked. In unison.

“Here.” Zoey Wilde, a slim brunette with pearl-gray eyes, flipped open a cardboard fan and handed it to Grace. “I have a feeling you’re going to need this more than I am.”

Cole had no idea what she meant, but Grace’s cheeks turned the same shade of pink as the ribbon tied around the handle of the basket.

“Yes. Well. Cole and I should be going now. Mayonnaise in the chicken salad.” Grace grabbed his elbow and propelled him forward. Toward the parking lot.

They managed to make it ten steps before their escape route was blocked by a petite redhead.

“Hi, Grace. Cole.” Kate Nichols’s shamrock-green eyes sparkled up at him. “I didn’t think you were going to stick around for the celebration.”

Neither had Cole.

“Marty Sullivan isn’t scheduling appointments until Monday. His wife mentioned he was here, so I was hoping to track him down.” Hoping to convince the lawyer to make an exception when he’d spotted Grace standing near the stage. Beautiful. Confident. Nervous.

Kate tipped her head and a flame-colored curl sprang free from the bonnet. “You’ll probably see Sully at the square dance tonight.”

“I won’t be in town that long.”

“But you have to—” Kate clamped her lips together, sealing off the rest of the words.

Probably because, out of the corner of his eye, Cole saw Grace vigorously shaking her head and making a slashing motion across her throat.

He frowned. “Have to what?”

Kate looked at the sky, as if she expected to find the answer written in the clouds. “Um, tour the historical museum? There’s a great...thimble collection. Not to be missed.”

“Then we should probably make our way over there, sweetheart,” a voice interjected smoothly. “Before the line gets too long.”

“Alex.” Kate turned to the man who’d sauntered up behind them and smiled, tucking her arm through his. “This is Cole Merrick. He used to live in Mirror Lake. Cole, my fiancé, Alex Porter.”

Cole recognized the wealthy hotelier’s name instantly. He just couldn’t believe that Kate Nichols, who looked as sweet and wholesome as one of the apple pies in the dessert case at the Grapevine café, had ended up engaged to someone like Porter. Cole didn’t know the man personally, but he knew the type. He flew them from city to city, waiting on the runway while they closed million-dollar deals over lunch. The bread and butter of Cole’s charter service.

“Merrick.” Alex extended his hand, his grip testing Cole’s character. The jade-green eyes, his intentions.

Grace cleared her throat.

“Okay!” Kate said brightly. “Alex and I should probably leave you two alone so you can get acquainted. He has to judge the pie eating contest at two o’clock.”

Cole waited for everyone to laugh at the joke. No one did.

Alex tucked Kate against his side. And then flicked a look at Cole. “Take care.”

Of Grace.

Cole didn’t miss the subtle warning.

At least now he understood why Grace had been in such a hurry to leave. Under different circumstances, Cole might have been offended by Porter’s protective behavior. But for some reason, it was good to know Grace had people looking out for her.

“Is that everyone?” he teased as the couple strolled away.

“Not even close,” Grace murmured. She hiked up the hem of her gown and started off again, dodging the other picnickers as if she was the Packers star quarterback going for a touchdown.

Cole followed at a more leisurely pace, carefully fixing his gaze on the yellow ribbons dangling from Grace’s bonnet and not on the intriguing sway of her...bustle.

“How about right there?” Cole pointed to a spindly oak tree, its sparse branches creating a patch of shade not much larger than the picnic basket he was carrying.

Grace hesitated.

“Or we could always eat lunch between those two pickup trucks over there.”

She nibbled on her lower lip, clearly tempted by the suggestion.

“I was kidding, Grace.”

“Oh.” The flash of disappointment on her face was almost comical. “I suppose the tree will be fine.”

“Everything looks great.” Cole lowered himself to the ground and relocated a June bug lumbering through the grass while Grace snapped open a square of gingham flannel that matched the ribbon on her basket.

“Thank you.” She began to unpack the dishes and arrange them on the blanket, careful not to brush up against him.

“Beautiful day.” Cole waded into the silence.

“It’s supposed to be sunny and warm today and tomorrow.”

“Looks like there’s a pretty good turnout.”

Grace nodded. “Yes.”

And they were back to making small talk. But because Cole had started it with the weather comment, he couldn’t really complain, now could he?

“Everyone’s been talking about the celebration for months. A lot of people can trace their ancestors all the way back to the year the town was settled.” Grace was using her tour guide voice now. “The planning committee spent most of the winter researching local history and we had a chance to read through some of the old letters and diaries the family members kept.”

Cole glanced at the white petticoat peeping out from below the ruffled hem of her dress. “I see they kept their ancestors’ clothes, too.”

Except for the cowboy boots. Grace had been wearing them the night before, another small but charming glimpse of the girl he’d fallen for that summer. Before he’d been forced to put his own dreams and plan aside.

“The historical society let us borrow them for the weekend.” Grace tugged off her bonnet and drops of sunlight splashed between the leaves, highlighting threads of mahogany in her hair. “It was Kate’s idea. A creative way to help people remember the past.”

Unfortunately, Cole wasn’t having a difficult time doing that. Not with Grace sitting less than two feet away from him, carefully removing the crust from her sandwich....

“What are you looking at?”

Cole’s lips quirked. “You still don’t eat your crusts.”

“No.” Grace glanced down at her plate. “Because they still taste like crusts.”

The simple logic—and the way Grace’s nose wrinkled—made Cole smile. “I just figured that removing the crusts from a piece of bread was something a person...outgrew.”

“Do you eat mushrooms?”

Cole couldn’t prevent a shudder. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because they taste like mushrooms?”

“So in other words, a strong aversion to a particular food isn’t something a person necessarily outgrows.”

“It’s not a strong—” Cole stopped. “I guess not.”

Grace smiled.

Okay. They were having a conversation about crusts and mushrooms, but at least it was a conversation. And he’d coaxed a smile from her.

Cole considered that progress.

Until Grace chucked her half-eaten sandwich back in the basket.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a lot of time, but the first tour starts in an hour and I have to get B.C. hitched up to the wagon.” She rose to her feet. “Don’t rush, though. Just leave the basket on the stage and I’ll pick it up when you’re...”

Gone? Cole was tempted to fill in the blank while Grace searched for a polite word.


He couldn’t help but wonder if she would have cut the time short if Shaggy or the guy in the purple tie had placed the highest bid.

But it was probably for the best if he and Grace parted company. The same conclusion Cole had reached twelve years ago.

“There you are!”

Cole turned at the sound of a familiar voice and saw the auctioneer chugging toward them across the lawn.

“You left before I had a chance to give you this.” The man stopped at the edge of the blanket and waved an envelope under Grace’s nose. “It’s the roster with the names of the people who signed up for your first tour.”

“Thank you, Mayor.” She practically snatched it out of the man’s hand.

“You look familiar.” The man’s attention shifted to Cole now. His snow-white mustache, waxed into points, hung from the shelf of his upper lip like icicles. “Do you have family around here?”

Cole didn’t know what to say, not sure he was comfortable claiming a relationship with Sloan, one based solely on DNA.

To his surprise, Grace stepped into the silence. “This is Cole Merrick, Mayor Dodd.”

“Sloan’s grandson?”

“That’s right.” The words stuck in Cole’s throat.

“Sloan would be thrilled to know you’re back, son.” The mayor clapped him on the back. “That piece of land meant a lot to him.”

Cole smiled.

“It means a lot to me, too, sir.”

The down payment on a new plane.

Chapter Four

“I wanna drink, Mama!”

Grace heard the cheerful announcement a split second before a preschool girl popped up on the other side of the beverage table set up in the corner of Daniel Redstone’s barn. A pair of big blue eyes locked on the glass dispenser of ice-cold lemonade that Grace had filled before the square dance started.

“All right.” The girl’s mother repositioned the sleeping infant cradled in her arms and smiled at Grace. “We’ll take one cup, please.”

Grace ladled the lemonade into a plastic cup and the woman reached for it at the exact moment her daughter tugged on the strap of the diaper bag to get her attention. It started a chain reaction. Lemonade sloshed over the side of the cup, soaking the mother’s shirt, and the baby woke up.

The woman’s smile disappeared as a piercing cry rent the air.

“Here, Mama!” The girl snatched a napkin from the stack and the rest of them followed, sliding off the table like a miniature avalanche.

Now the woman looked as if she were about to burst into tears. She tried to bend down to pick up the napkins and the diaper bag bumped a corner of the table.

“Let me help,” Grace said quickly as the tower of plastic cups began to sway. She reached for the diaper bag, but suddenly found herself holding the baby, swaddled in a blue blanket, instead.

“Thank you.” The children’s mother began to blot the moisture from her shirt with one of the napkins as she collected the rest of them from the ground. Once Grace recovered from her initial surprise, she smiled down at the infant in her arms.

“Hey, sweetie,” she whispered. “Do you have a smile for me?”

To Grace’s wonder, he stopped crying immediately and stared up at her, his expression changing from absolute misery to utter delight in the blink of an eye. The scent of baby powder and lotion washed over Grace, sweeter than anything she would find at a perfume counter. The tiny legs pedaled inside the blanket and Grace chuckled.

“How many do you have?”

Grace glanced up and met the woman’s knowing gaze.

“How many?” she repeated.



“Really?” The look of astonishment on the woman’s face was flattering. “You look like someone who knows her way around babies.”

The compliment wrapped around Grace’s heart like a hug.

“Not yet,” she murmured, reluctantly turning the baby over to his mother.

The woman planted a kiss on her son’s downy head. “Well, you will someday,” she declared. “And trust me, even with all the commotion and chaos, there’s nothing better than being a mom.”

As Grace watched the family make their way over to one of the benches that lined the interior walls of the barn, the secret she’d been keeping stirred in her heart and brought a smile to her face.

In God’s timing, when the adoption agency she’d been working with finally called, she would discover that particular truth for herself....

“Is the lemonade free?”

A pack of adolescent boys jockeyed for position in front of the beverage table and Grace smiled. “Yes, it is.”

When they left five minutes later, Grace had to refill the dispenser and open another package of napkins. She was in the process of filling more cups of lemonade in anticipation of another wave of thirsty dancers when the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. The temperature rose several degrees, weighting the air and making it difficult to breathe.

Two possibilities collided and neither one would bring the evening to a pleasant conclusion.

Either she was having some kind of allergic reaction to the egg salad or...

Grace slid a cautious, sideways glance at the entrance of the barn. The ladle in her hand tipped sideways, sending a stream of lemonade running down the side of the cup and onto the checkered tablecloth.

What is going on, Lord? If this is some kind of test, I should have had a chance to study for it!

Because Cole was framed between the rough-hewn timbers of the doorway, backlit by the setting sun as if he’d been photoshopped there. A day’s growth of beard shadowed his angular jaw and the strands of dark hair across his forehead were carelessly mussed. The sleeves of his lightweight cotton shirt were rolled back to reveal tanned forearms. Both hands tucked into the front pockets of faded, boot-cut jeans.

It wasn’t fair that the casual look totally worked for him, Grace thought.

The square dance had started less than an hour ago, but if she had a dollar for every time someone had asked her about the “gorgeous guy” who’d bid on her basket, the city council wouldn’t need the money they’d raised at the box social. Grace could have singlehandedly funded the new playground equipment at the park herself.

Not only that, Kate and Abby had ambushed her in the parking lot, anxious to hear all the details about the lunch she and Cole had shared.

Her friends had all become engaged or married over the past few years and for some reason, it wasn’t enough that they’d found their happily ever after. They were committed to making sure that Grace found hers, too.

They weren’t happy to discover that he wasn’t going to be at the dance.

“I don’t understand,” Kate had huffed. “Jenna and Dev were standing right next to Cole during the auction and she said that he looked thrilled when he won your basket. What’s the matter with him?”

Grace remained silent, knowing there probably wasn’t anything wrong with Cole. But based on the way her heart started thumping like a bass drum whenever he smiled, there was definitely something wrong with her.

Because Grace had already been exposed to that smile, you’d think she would have built up, oh, some sort of immunity over the years.

During the short amount of time they’d spent together at the box social, she’d had to remind herself—frequently—that Cole wasn’t her friend. He was the one who’d broken her heart.

But the most disturbing thing was, Grace couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he possessed the power to do it again.

She watched Cole begin to weave his way between the clusters of people. Her gaze skipped ahead of him in a panicked attempt to guess his destination.

And landed on Kate and Abby, taking a break from the dancing on one of the wooden benches that lined the wall.

Her friends looked up as Cole stopped right in front of them.

Don’t be paranoid, Grace chided herself. Just because he hasn’t left town yet, it doesn’t mean he’s looking for you.

Abby and Kate were both laughing now at something that Cole said, as if they’d known him for years. Then they exchanged a knowing look that made Grace’s blood run cold.

Don’t do it! she silently pleaded. Don’t. Do. It.

Two hands lifted. Two fingers pointed in her direction.

And Grace took cover behind the nearest post.

* * *

“That’s strange.” Abby O’Halloran rose to her feet, a frown puckering her forehead. “I just saw Grace behind the beverage table a few seconds ago.”

Cole shifted his weight and tried to see over the heads of the couples that whirled past him. Given the number of people packed in the barn, the entire population of Mirror Lake must have turned out for the event.

The space behind the beverage table was empty. Where had she...

Cole saw a dab of yellow calico peeking out from behind one of the weathered support beams.

“Thanks.” He smiled at Grace’s friends. “I’ll head over there and see if I can find her.”

“I’m glad you changed your mind about escorting Grace to the dance tonight,” Kate said.

Changed his mind?

If it hadn’t been for Candy Sullivan, Cole wouldn’t have known that he was supposed to be Grace’s escort that


After she’d left him, Cole had finished his lunch and set out to find the elusive Marty Sullivan. The man had managed to elude him all afternoon, but Cole had received a tip—from a guy collecting aluminum cans in the alley—that Candy Sullivan always checked her bid on eBay before she locked up for the day. Cole set up a stakeout at the law office and waited. Sure enough, his informant was right. Candy had shown up sixty seconds before closing time.

“I know this is probably a bad time—” He had followed her inside and flashed what he’d hoped was a charming smile.

Candy hadn’t been charmed.

“Can’t whatever business you have with Marty wait until Monday morning?” She’d glared at him over her computer monitor. “Some things are more important than business, you know.”

Right. Things like box socials, square dances, Pin the Tail on the Donkey and whatever else was in the works for Mirror Lake’s birthday celebration.

Finally acknowledging that resistance was futile, Cole had given in. “When will he have time to meet with me?”

“Monday morning. Nine o’clock.” Candy scooped up a snakeskin purse roughly the size and shape of a bicycle tire from the floor. “Now you better get on over to the Redstones’ place before Grace thinks you stood her up.”

“Stood her up?”

“You won her basket at the box social, you’re her date.”

“For the square dance?”

“For everything.” Before Cole had a chance to ask Candy to clarify that cryptic response, she marched to the door, grumbling. “The last thing a woman needs is a guy who won’t step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

The words had continued to cycle through Cole’s mind on his way to the parking lot.

He had done the right thing.

It was the reason he’d left Mirror Lake.

And Grace.

* * *

When a large, masculine hand curled around the beam a few inches above her head, Grace realized she should have hidden behind something larger. Like a bale of hay. Or the rain barrel.

She dared to look up and found herself neatly trapped in a pair of cedar-green eyes.


“Grace.” The crooked smile made an appearance, but it wasn’t the boyish one that she remembered. This was a potent, take-no-prisoners grown-up smile. And it packed more of a wallop than Delia Peake’s cane.

She retreated to the beverage table again and poured a glass of lemonade. For herself. Because her mouth had gone as dry as the sawdust scattered on the floor.

Cole propped a hip against the side of the table, clearly in no hurry to leave. “That looks good.”

“Would you like a glass?” Grace asked reluctantly, because as a member of the hospitality committee, it was her duty to be...hospitable.

“No, thanks.” He planted both hands on the table and leaned forward. “But I would like to know why you didn’t tell me that I was supposed to escort you to the square dance tonight.”

In a town the size of Mirror Lake, she should have known someone would spill the beans.

“You told Kate you were leaving.” Grace shrugged as if it didn’t matter.

Cole raked a hand through his hair, disheveling it even more. Grace resisted the urge to smooth a wayward strand back into place, which only proved the theory that those who didn’t learn from history were destined to repeat it.

“I had a few things to take care of and they took longer than I thought.”

Disappointment rattled through her, bumping and bruising everything in its path.

Did you really think he stuck around so he could spend more time with you?

“Don’t worry about it.” Grace moved the pitcher to cover the damp spot on the tablecloth. “I don’t think anyone on the planning committee took into consideration that we might get bids from outsiders today.”

A shadow passed through Cole’s eyes, and she felt a stab of guilt. But, she reminded herself, he was the one who’d chosen to leave.

I love this town, Grace. We could build a cabin near the water...

“There you are!”

Grace inwardly braced herself as Sissy Perkins, the local Realtor, strode up to them. She’d been aware of the curious looks she and Cole had been receiving for past few minutes. She was only surprised that Wes Collins, the editor of the Mirror Lake Register, hadn’t gotten to them first.

“Sissy, this is—”

“My newest client, according to Candy,” Sissy flipped a panel of dark hair over her shoulder and aimed a megawatt, sign-on-the-dotted-line smile at Cole.

“Client?” Grace echoed.

“That’s right.” Sissy nodded. “Sloan Merrick’s place.”

“You’re selling it?”

The words slipped out of Grace’s mouth before she could stop them.

Cole hadn’t explained why he’d come back to Mirror Lake so Grace had assumed that Kate’s letter had somehow prompted the visit. That he’d decided to check things out for himself before allowing people to tour the property.

But no. He’d come back to snip off his last tie with the town like an annoying thread dangling from the pocket of his shirt.

“Grace—” The husky rumble of Cole’s voice reverberated through her.

She forced a smile.

“You don’t owe me an explanation.”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind hearing one,” Sissy declared. “That land has been in your family for years.”

* * *

My grandfather’s family, Cole wanted to say.

Sissy Perkins might be familiar with the town’s history but it was clear she didn’t know anything about his personal history. Sloan had never considered Cole’s mother, Debra, a “true” Merrick.

Cole’s parents had eloped two weeks after graduation and left Mirror Lake for good. Sloan had blamed Cole’s mother for the fracture in their family, but failed to see his own pride had ultimately prevented it from healing.

“If you aren’t interested, I can talk to someone else,” Cole said evenly.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested.” Sissy backpedaled so quickly the words practically left skid marks in the air. “How long are you going to be in town?”

“That depends,” Cole hedged.

“On what?”

It was a good question. And he should have known the answer.

Cole watched Grace dab at an invisible stain on the tablecloth and wondered what she was thinking. He used to tease her that she couldn’t keep a secret. Every one of her thoughts—every feeling—had been reflected in her eyes. But not anymore.

On the way to Mirror Lake, he’d spent several hours mentally preparing himself for the moment he walked through the front door of his grandfather’s house. When he would relive those first few weeks following his father’s death.

But nothing had prepared him to see Grace again.

Should he apologize for not saying goodbye? For not contacting her again after he’d left town?

Or would she think he was crazy for bringing it up? Or even worse, that he was arrogant enough to believe that she’d actually thought about him over the years?

“I’m meeting with my grand—Sloan’s—attorney Monday morning at nine o’clock,” he finally said, reluctant to talk business in front of Grace.

Although she, of all people, should understand why he felt no sentimental attachment to the property.

“Then stop by my office at ten.” Sissy poured a glass of lemonade. “I’ll try to take a drive out that way before we meet. Is the place in pretty decent shape?”


Cole and Sissy both turned toward Grace. Her eyes widened a little, as if she hadn’t intended to join the conversation. But then she raised her chin, daring him to disagree.

He couldn’t.

“It could use a little TLC.” Cole refused to feel guilty about its run-down state. Forty-eight hours ago, he hadn’t even known the house and land belonged to him.

Sissy’s gaze bounced between him and Grace. “That’s right. You two are neighbors.” She flashed that bright smile again. “I’ve tried for years to convince Grace to sell. She could find a nice little place in town instead of living way out in the woods like that. It isn’t exactly the most practical home. And all those rooms. It’s waaay too big for a single woman. Unless—” Sissy tossed a sly glance in Grace’s direction “—there’s something you aren’t telling us.”

Cole couldn’t help but notice that Grace didn’t deny it. And was she...blushing?

“You look a little flushed, sweetie,” Sissy said. “It is warm in here.” She picked up a paper napkin and fanned herself. “Oops, I told Doug I’d be right back. I better scoot over there before Mayor Dodd draws the names for the competition tomorrow.”


“The 1800s’ version of Survivor.” The Realtor smiled. “You didn’t hear about that?”

“No.” Cole glanced at Grace, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on something over his shoulder. And every drop of color had drained from her face.

Cole’s emergency response team training kicked in and he was at Grace’s side in an instant. “Do you need some fresh air?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Can you get me some, please?”

“That might be kind of difficult.” In spite of his concern, Cole wrestled down a smile. “Maybe we should go outside.”

“Right. Outside.” Grace lurched toward the door, but the wall of people shifted, effectively blocking her escape. Her frantic gaze bounced from person to person, looking for a space large enough to squeeze through.

“Excuse us.” Cole took a step forward, but a teenaged girl cut them off.

“You can’t leave now.” She flashed a smile and the light reflected off the row of metal braces on her front teeth. “You won’t be here if the mayor calls your name.”

The expression on Grace’s face made Cole wonder if that hadn’t been her plan all along.

“Is there something else you forgot to tell me?” he murmured.

Grace nodded.


Chapter Five

Grace tried not to groan when she saw Mayor Dodd making his way to the platform.

“If I could have everyone’s attention!”

“You go ahead without me,” she gasped. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Cole didn’t budge. “You’re the one who needed some fresh air.”

What Grace needed was divine intervention. Because she’d assumed Cole would be long gone by now. Blissfully unaware that when he’d bid on her basket, he had inadvertently set a whole new chain of events into motion.

Which might explain why she was feeling a bit nauseous.

“Welcome, friends.” The mayor pitched his voice above the hum of conversation. “First of all, I’d like to thank Daniel and Esther Redstone for generously allowing us the use of their barn for the square dance this evening.”

Enthusiastic applause followed the statement and the attractive, middle-aged couple who attended Grace’s church smiled and waved to the crowd.

“Our little community has a lot of big things planned for the weekend and trust me, you won’t want to miss out on a single one of them,” Mayor Dodd continued. “Our first event starts bright and early tomorrow morning with a special competition that pays tribute to the brave men and women who settled Mirror Lake.

“Eight couples will face a series of challenges that will help everyone appreciate how difficult life was a hundred and twenty-five years ago but—” the mustache rustled along with his smile “—we also wanted to make it entertaining.”

A knot formed in Grace’s stomach, because she hadn’t expected Cole to be at her side during this particular announcement.

“All the lovely ladies who took part in the social today agreed to have their names placed in this basket. From that group, we will choose eight participants.” Mayor Dodd held up an old fishing creel. “Will the eight women—and their escorts—please join me on the stage when I call out your names?”

The fiddle player’s bow danced across the strings as the mayor dipped his hand into the basket and retrieved a slip of paper.

“Our first contestant is...Sissy Perkins!”

The Realtor’s shriek cut through the whoops and hollers that echoed through the barn. As she made her way toward the platform, Doug, the burly truck driver who’d won her basket, took her by the hand.

“Kate Nichols! Come on down.”

Kate grinned and bobbed a curtsey at the crowd. Alex followed at a more leisurely pace as she bounded toward the stage.

Grace could feel her heart pounding in her ears, muffling the sound of the mayor’s voice as he shouted another name.

What were the chances she would be chosen to participate? Over two dozen women had made baskets for the box social and only eight would be required to take part in the competition....

“Contestant number three—Haylie Owens.” The mayor had pulled out another slip of paper.

The teenagers in the far corner of the room cheered and nudged Haylie and Rob Price, her blushing date, toward the other couples.

Grace held her breath as several more of her friends took their place in line. Abby and Quinn. Emma and Jake.

“And last, but certainly not least—” the mayor paused and Grace closed her eyes as he reached for the final slip of paper in the basket.

“Grace Eversea!”

Heads began to swivel in her direction, but Grace’s feet were glued to the floor. Delia Peake bustled up, brandishing her pink-tipped walking cane like a sword.

“Go on, Gracie. They’re waiting for you.”

Grace stumbled forward as the crowd parted, clapping and shouting words of encouragement. Halfway to the platform, she realized she wasn’t alone.

“I think you forgot something else.” A familiar voice murmured in her ear.

“What?” Grace pushed the word past the lump of panic that had lodged in her throat when the mayor called her name.

“Me.” Cole’s low laugh wrapped around her heart and squeezed.

Why was he being such a good sport?

Because he had no idea what he was getting into.

Which was why, Grace decided, it was up to her to get him—them—out of it.

As quickly as possible.

“Each of the couples will be required to complete three different challenges, which I will announce right before the competition begins.” Mayor Dodd smiled when a rumble of disappointment stirred the air and Grace realized the omission had been deliberate. The competition had been advertised as one of the highlights of the celebration, but a little mystery would fan the people’s curiosity and guarantee a good turnout the following day.

“But—” the mayor motioned to someone across the room “—this might give you a hint as to what is in store for the couples.”

Happy, the lanky mechanic who was almost as old as some of the buildings featured on Grace’s historical tour, stepped out from the shadows, weighted down with tin buckets that clinked together like wind chimes as he ambled toward them.

“Inside the buckets that Happy is handing out is a coupon our couples can exchange for one item at the beginning of the competition tomorrow morning.” The mayor’s eyes twinkled. “Agreeing on that item just might be the first challenge some of them will face.”

Laughter followed the statement, which Grace knew had been his intention.

She didn’t dare look at Cole. A private picnic lunch under a shady tree was one thing, a competition in full view of the entire community was another.

“Andy will play one more song and then you can all go home and get a good night’s sleep.” Mayor Dodd grinned at the couples lined up in front of him. “You’re going to need it!”

The fiddler began to play another lively jig as Happy paused in front of Grace.

Cole reached for the bucket at the same time she did, and their hands touched. Grace’s heart began to flop around inside her chest like a freshly caught trout.

She could only hope the mayor would let her exchange her coupon for another partner.

* * *

Grace had vanished.

The last time Cole had seen her, she and the mayor had been deep in conversation.

He had a hunch what the topic of that particular conversation had been. It had occurred to Cole as he’d followed Grace to the front of the crowd, prodded by the elderly woman with a helmet of salt-and-pepper curls who resembled a swashbuckling gnome, that he’d messed up. Big time.

“I thought you might want to take a look at this.” The mayor stepped in front of Cole as he was making his way to the door to find Grace. “We printed up some brochures so people could learn a little history of the town. It mentions Samuel Merrick, your great-great-grandpa. If it wasn’t for him, this town wouldn’t exist. But I suppose you’re familiar with the story.”

As a matter of fact, Cole wasn’t. His dad hadn’t talked about Mirror Lake very often, and Sloan wasn’t the kind of man who’d propped his grandchildren on his knee and entertained them with stories about the family genealogy.

“Thanks.” Cole folded up the brochure and stuck it in his back pocket, anxious to intercept Grace before she left.

“If you’re looking for Grace, you just missed her,” a young woman pointed to the side door.

Sometimes, Cole thought, being in a small town where everyone was privy to everyone else’s business was a good thing.

As he jogged down the row of cars parked along the road, it occurred to Cole that he had no idea what kind of vehicle Grace drove. Other than a horse-drawn wagon.

“Grace’s truck is the third one from the end,” someone called. “Silver Ford.”

“Thanks,” Cole called back, unable to keep the smile out of his voice as he dodged an abandoned stroller.

A hundred feet away, he saw the silhouette of a woman with her back against the door of a compact pickup truck, the vehicle of choice in this area of the state. Grace’s head was tipped toward the sky, eyes trained on a band of moonlight that spilled through a seam in the clouds. Her lips were moving, and Cole knew she wasn’t talking to herself, she was talking to God.

Her strong faith had both mystified and challenged him when they’d first met. After his father died, Cole wasn’t sure whether to blame God or ignore Him completely. Grace was the one who’d said it was okay to be honest and simply tell Him that.

Cole felt something inside him shift and break loose from its moorings. What would his life be like if he’d told Grace the truth about his family? Would she have waited for him? Or run in the opposite direction?

Not that it mattered now. He’d made the decision for them and never looked back.

Cole took another step forward, feeling very much like the intruder that he was.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

Grace started at the sound of his voice but didn’t look at him. The gravel crunched under Cole’s feet as he made his way to her side.

“It’s not your fault.” She sighed. “I should have told you the box social was the kickoff for the other events this weekend, but...”

She hadn’t thought he’d stick around.

Cole was tempted to apologize, except he wasn’t sure he was sorry things had worked out this way. A plan slowly began to take shape in his mind.

“So, what’s the next step?” he asked.

“The next step?” she repeated cautiously. “I’ll call Kate when I get home, and we’ll figure something out.”

“What’s to figure out?”

Grace blinked. “If it’s too late for me to drop out of the competition. Or if I need to find someone to take your place.”

For some reason, neither one of those choices sat well with Cole.

“It’s my fault you don’t have a partner for this little competition tomorrow,” he pointed out.

“The fact that you used the words ‘little competition’ only proves you have no idea what you’re getting into,” Grace said. “People have been talking about this for weeks. It’s one of the highlights of the celebration.”

“And you’re trying to talk me out of competing tomorrow because?”

“You aren’t going to be here.” Grace’s eyes met his. “Are you?”

That had been his original intention, but things had changed and Cole decided to go with it.

“You didn’t plan on any of this,” Grace went on. “I don’t want you to feel obligated.”

Obligated wasn’t quite the word Cole would have chosen.

“I’ll be your partner tomorrow.”

The moon slipped behind a cloud and Cole could no longer see Grace’s expression.

“What made you decide to stay?” she asked after a moment.

Cole smiled.

“You did.”

* * *

The next morning, Grace took a slow lap around the living room, coffee cup in hand, and glanced at the clock for what had to be the hundredth time since the alarm had gone off.

Maybe Cole wouldn’t show.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t given him an opportunity to back out of the competition.

After she’d given him a more compelling reason to stay.

Fragments of the conversation they’d had the night before circled through her memory.

What made you decide to stay?

You did.

Grace was still kicking herself over that one. She shouldn’t have made the comment about Sloan’s place needing a little TLC. But she’d been so rattled when Sissy announced that Cole planned to sell it that she hadn’t been thinking clearly.

But because she’d brought it up, Cole had decided to stick around and tackle a few minor repairs after the competition. A win-win situation, he’d told her right before he’d left.

But even though Cole had claimed it was his fault if she were left without a partner for the competition, Grace wondered if he would have stayed if he hadn’t scheduled two meetings for Monday morning.

To sell the land, as Sissy had so boldly pointed out, that had been in his family for over a hundred years.

As soon as the thought swept through her mind, Grace knew that she was being unfair. Cole’s father had grown up in the brick house next door but moved away from Mirror Lake after he married Cole’s mother. It had caused a rift in the family; Sloan blamed Debra for taking his son away and had never forgiven her.

Why would Cole feel any sentimental attachment to the property?

Or anything else, for that matter.

She set that thought firmly aside. She and Cole would be together for a few hours and then part company. Grace had tours scheduled in the afternoon, and Cole would be busy sprucing up the house he couldn’t wait to put on the market.

He might have felt obligated to be her partner for the competition, but that didn’t mean he had to accompany her to the bonfire and fireworks at Abby’s bed-and-breakfast that evening or to the outdoor worship service that Matt, her pastor at Church of the Pines, planned to lead on Sunday morning.

On her way to the kitchen, Grace caught a glimpse of her reflection in the oval mirror and cringed. The white shirtwaist paired with a simple, ankle-length cotton skirt provided more freedom of movement than the gown she’d worn the day before, but the men definitely had an advantage over the women during the competition. The men didn’t have petticoats to deal with. Hopefully no one would notice she was wearing her cowboy boots.

“Grace?” A tap on the front door accompanied the low rumble of a masculine voice.

She froze. Maybe she could pretend—

“I know you’re home. You’re too cautious to leave the house with a candle burning.”

Grace scowled at the votive in the windowsill, not sure whether she should be insulted or flattered by Cole’s description.

“Maybe I’m not cautious anymore,” she muttered, petticoats hissing as she strode to the door.

Cole chuckled.

Because he’d heard her.

To make matters worse, he looked...great. Hair still damp from a recent shower. A white T-shirt that stretched across his muscular chest and accentuated the broad shoulders.

If Grace were honest with herself, she knew it wasn’t Cole’s presence that had her emotions tied in knots. It was her reaction to his presence. Rapid pulse. Flushed cheeks. Weak knees. The side effects were so dangerous, the guy should come with a warning label from the surgeon general.

Cole’s gaze swept over her and his smile widened. “Cute.”

“The men are supposed to dress in costume, too.”

“I didn’t shave this morning, does that count?” He scrubbed a hand across his jaw.

It counted as one more reason to dive into the coat closet and stay there until Monday afternoon. Because the shadow of whiskers, combined with the spark of humor in Cole’s eyes, only added to his masculine charm.

The trouble was, Grace didn’t want to be charmed.

“Believe me, someone will find something for you to wear.” Grace tried to come up with the most terrifying prospect.

“Suspenders. Red, like Marty Sullivan’s.”

“You aren’t trying to scare me off, are you?”

“No.” Yes. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Instead of taking the hint, Cole wandered into the living room. “This is nice. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside your house.”

That’s because he hadn’t wanted to.

Grace had invited him over for dinner, but Cole had always come up with some kind of excuse not to meet her parents. After he’d left town, it had only affirmed the truth. Cole had never planned to continue their relationship. The deep connection she’d felt had been one-sided, and she’d been too naive to recognize the signs.

“I know it looks a little old-fashioned. A lot of the antiques belonged to my grandparents.” Grace traced the tip of her finger across the wooden spine of the chintz sofa. “I haven’t had the heart to change anything. It’s...home.”

Chapter Six

H ome.

Cole felt a pinch of envy.

For the past twelve years, home had been the cramped, two bedroom trailer tacked onto the back of the hangar. After Cole had graduated from high school, he’d all but begged Cap, his former boss, to rent it out to him and his family.

He’d even offered a list of reasons why it was a good idea. The hangar would have round-the-clock security. He would be available evenings and weekends if Cap had an overnight stay somewhere.

What he hadn’t told his boss was that he’d hoped his mom would feel better if she wasn’t constantly surrounded with reminders of his father. Or that it was easier to keep an eye on his younger siblings—and feed them—if he could pop in for a few minutes between his other duties.

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You Can Go Home AgainThe only thing Cole Merrick wants to do with the Mirror Lake property he inherited is sell it. And the sooner the better. The handsome pilot has no attachment to the place where he and Grace Eversea fell in love years ago. He never meant to break his promises—or her heart—when he left town without a word.Now, just in time for Mirror Lake’s 125th birthday celebration, he comes face to face with all he left behind, including Grace. And he wonders if he ought to give this town a second chance. If only he can convince Grace to do the same for him….Mirror Lake: A small town where dreams of finding home come true.

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