Series: Echo Ridge Romances #4
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 03/18/2018
Contributors: Heather Tullis
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Damon lived in ten towns while growing up, but Echo Ridge is one of the few that started to feel like home before his parents relocated their family again. Now a widower, moving back to the small ski resort town is irresistible for him—but somewhat less so for his daughter, Maggie. Learning that Haley, the girl who had gotten away, is back in town is an unexpected bonus.
When Haley left a high-powered job in New York City to take care of her grandmother, she never expected to run into the boy she’d been crushing on sixteen years earlier. When they end up working together on the homecoming float, she finds the attraction between them just as compelling as before. But when given a choice, will she give him her heart, or leave love behind to return to her job in the city?
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“This is bogus, Dad.” Maggie folded her arms and flopped back in the passenger’s seat with all the attitude gained in her twelve years, making Damon grit his teeth for the umpteenth time that morning. He knew moving to Echo Ridge hadn’t been her idea of fun, and he remembered how he had felt about it as a teen when his parents had forced him to pull up the shallow roots he had grown in his previous town—again--to move here.
The older buildings lacked the comfort of familiarity she had felt in Albany, where they had lived for all of Maggie’s life until the previous week. Unlike the first time he’d seen the town sixteen years earlier, now when he looked at Echo Ridge’s charming streets, historic library, the growing center of business and Fay’s Cafe—the same as ever, but updated with fresh paint and a new sign—he felt that pull of home.
They sailed past Kenworth’s department store as Maggie dove into the discussion again. “It’s stupid that I have to be a candy striper. It was Nalia’s fault. I didn’t want to spray paint the school. I hardly did anything, so why do I have to pay?”
What Damon wanted to know was why he had been forced to share in the consequences—driving her to and from the hospital where she would volunteer, listening to her complain, having to be the responsible parent to a teenager at all. When had that become a thing? What had happened to his sweet-tempered little girl? “It’s called guilt by association. You should have left instead.” It was an old argument and he was heartily tired of discussing it.
Nothing had been the same for either of them since Colette, his wife, had died. He didn’t expect Maggie to forget her mom—he surely wouldn’t, but all of this trouble and her bad choice in friends had started after her mother’s death fifteen months earlier. Or maybe that was just when he had become aware of them. He was ashamed to admit, even to himself, that he hadn’t been nearly as involved in his daughter’s upbringing as he should have been for the first eleven years of her life. He was making up for it in spades now.
Damon tried to tune out the complaints as he pulled into the hospital parking lot. This would be good for her, teach her compassion, help her to see how important it was to give service. Plus, the judge ordered more than fifty hours of community service and with school coming up on them soon, he wanted her to get it out of the way quickly.
“Old people smell funny.” Her sullen declaration marked the end of the rant.
“I’ll be sure to let your grandmothers know how you feel about the way they smell.”
“Daaad. That’s different. They smell sweet like flowers, not like old, sick people in a hospital.” Her disapproval made her look like she was twelve-going-on-thirty.
How had Colette handled their daughter before? He had missed so much, traveling for the architectural firm he had worked for and putting in extra hours to support the family in the style which he had mistakenly thought they needed to become accustomed. But really all they needed was time. Far more time together.
He had failed utterly at making sure he had the time with his family while his wife had been alive, and now that it was just him and Maggie, he intended to correct the issue.
Starting a new business was not for the faint of heart. Damon picked up his mail from the tray on the otherwise empty receptionist desk in his office where the mail lady left it in the morning.
Still no paperwork for his business’s tax ID number. He wondered when he would finally get the forms so he could finish up some final details for the business. He had applied for the EIN before moving to Echo Ridge, he had everything set up so it would be good to go as soon as he arrived, but he hadn't anticipated how much work it would be to get things up and running.
He supposed that was why he had put off starting his own architecture firm for so long, even though he’d been thinking about it for several years. But he was ready for the change now, and he couldn't wait to get settled in to the new flow of his life.
The email icon on his computer blinked at him when he sat at his own desk. He knew he needed to reply to Maggie's grandparents soon, but their hopes to have her come live with them instead of starting at the new school were not an option. He had moved to Echo Ridge so that he could get closer to his daughter and give her a chance for a fresh start with better friends, not so that he could be far away from her. He hoped they hadn’t told Maggie about the offer, or her attitude would only get worse.
But then again, what teenager—or pre-teenager—wanted to pick up and move away from their friends?
He just had to convince her this would be a great thing.
His cell phone beeped and he checked the readout hoping it wasn't his in-laws. Thank goodness it was Scott instead.
Hey, you wanna grab some lunch?
Was it already lunchtime? Damon checked his watch. Yep, twelve o’clock. Paperwork had monopolized him all morning.
He thumbed out a response. Yeah, I hear there's a new Greek place in town that’s supposed to be good. Let's try it out.
Scott replied back that he liked the place and they arranged to meet in twenty minutes.
The restaurant had been updated with new décor since his high school days—it was much more inviting now.
Scott had staked out a booth in the corner and Damon slid in across from him.
“How are things going?” Scott asked. “You look a little overwhelmed."
Damon nodded. “I never realized how much work it was to put together a new business. I mean I knew it was gonna be a big job but I just hadn't expected it to take so long. Seriously, the government had me apply for everything online, and I have to wait ages for them to send me a copy instead of them letting me print it off the website.”
Scott chuckled. “Welcome to the world of hurry up and wait. Dad's been moving me into office work over the last couple of years and I'm starting to like it okay but I still prefer the ranching end of the business. Cows aren’t big on red tape."
Damon nodded sagely. “You always did have a thing for cows. What's up with that anyway?”
“Hey, watch it. You’re pretty attached to a fine steak too, if I remember correctly.” Scott gave his shoulder a nudge. “What are you doing with Maggie during the day? School doesn't start for at least a week, right?”
“She's been picking up some hours as a candy striper at the hospital. Not the thing she'd most like to be doing with her time, but she has to do her community service eventually. I told her there was no time like the present. Besides, she’s working with other girls her age, so maybe she'll make some friends.”
They caught up with things going on at their respective families and businesses, ordered their meals, and soon began discussing the big reunion weekend coming up. Homecoming weekend was always alumni weekend in Echo Ridge and though Damon hadn't actually graduated from Echo Ridge High School, anticipation thrummed through him at the thought of getting involved and seeing some of the people he had gone to school with for the six months his parents had lived in town.
“We could really use some help with the float,” Scott said. “We'll be starting on it in a couple days—we should have started weeks ago, but we’re going with a simpler design than most of the fancy floats. You could bring Maggie along to get her out of the house. I have several employees pitching in, but there’s plenty of work to be done."
Damon chuckled. “Yeah, I can just imagine how excited she would act about that. There's nothing quite like spending an evening with a bunch of “old” people putting together a float for an event you don't care about."
“I think Marsha Michaels is bringing her daughter. You don't know, they might get along well. She's a good girl so you wouldn't have to worry about them tagging any buildings when our backs were turned."
Damon might have been offended at the joke if it had been anyone besides Scott, but after sixteen years of friendship, he knew it was meant to break the tension. "Funny. I'll think about it. Where are you working on the float?" This could be a good opportunity to get to know more people. If there was anything he’d learned in the many places they’d lived, it was that if you wanted to feel like you were part of a community, you had to get involved right away.
The clincher came when Scott started listing off the names of the other people he knew who were helping.
Damon's mind caught on Haley Richie—the girl who had gotten away. How could he possibly forget her? And how could he turn down the chance to spend time with her again, to see if there were still sparks between them? “Is Haley involved with anyone?"
Scott’s grin turned sly. "Not as far as I know. You should definitely come. She's even prettier now than she was in high school."
Not seeing how he could possible go wrong, he agreed. “I'll see you then."
Scott just grinned.
The black and white of Oreos and vanilla ice cream swirled together into a dull gray mixture that resembled Haley’s life. Blah and boring. Not that the shake wouldn’t taste good, or that she hated what she was doing, but it definitely lacked the brightness and interest of the M&M concoction she had made just before.
At Fay's Café, the creamy treat and sound of Wynonna Judd crooning from the jukebox reminded her of being sixteen and talking about boys with her best friend, Felicity. Strange how the right surroundings could make seventeen years ago seem like last week. The fact that she was back here working at the café, even if it was for the granddaughter of the previous owner this time, only heightened that similarity.
Sometimes nostalgia was totally overrated.
Haley removed the shake from the machine, added a big twist of whipped cream and the cherry on top then rained some Oreo cookie crumbs on it. She finished it off with a single cookie placed into the whipped cream. Making shakes at Fay's was as much art as anything, but it didn't soothe her the way drawing out some advertising plan used to do. Her back ached, and her feet were screaming at her. She supposed it was time to replace her shoes again—the insoles in these had stopped providing enough support a while ago. She just needed to wait for her next paycheck and hope nothing came up to suck up the trickle of extra cash she had been able to siphon into savings.
This was totally not what she had expected her life to be like by the time her fifteen-year reunion rolled around. Then again, she had chosen this trajectory, so she had no one to blame but herself.
Haley turned and presented the shake to the teenager on the other side of the counter. The young man from her grandma’s neighborhood gave her a little wave before heading over to sit with his friends in the corner.
“Hey, order up." Hank, the forty-something, long-time fry cook set a tray with fries and burgers onto the counter between the kitchen and dining room.
"Thanks, are you about caught up back there?" Haley asked.
"I'm getting there. It's been a crazy afternoon."
“Yeah, my feet are totally feeling it.” She gave him a half-smile and heard the front door chime announce somebody had walked through. She held back a little sigh of relief as she realized people were leaving and not entering.
"There's Cami,” a bejeweled, purple-haired Fay said. “You can take off for the afternoon.”
"Thanks." And Hallelujah—this shift couldn’t end soon enough.
The 50s-themed decor of the café was bright and cheery despite it being almost all black and white. It was the favorite hangouts of old and young alike, but Haley’d had her fill. Thankfully, she wouldn't have to come back for a couple days. Or maybe not thankfully. Not working as many hours as possible had a negative effect on her bank account.
“Has it been crazy?” Cami asked as she came in, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.
"Uh. Huh." She couldn’t say it emphatically enough.
Cami chuckled. “I hope it continues. I could use some good tips.”
Haley hadn't said anything about good tips. But she supposed the adults coming in after work might do better at tipping than the teenagers she had been dealing with all afternoon. She took one last order out to the young couple in the corner booth, and moved the orders that were still left, making sure Cami knew who they belonged to.
She removed her little black apron, pulled her hair out of the elastic that had been holding it back, and clocked out.
Haley stopped at the grocery store on the way home, picking up some fresh veggies and chicken breasts for dinner. As she got into line at the checkout stand, she ran into Felicity, who had returned to Echo Ridge six years earlier with her husband.
"Hi, how are things going?" Felicity looked fresh and beautiful, making Haley feel even worse about her own work-worn appearance.
"I'm just heading home from work. How are the plans for the float?"
Felicity’s cousin Scott had drafted her to help plan and build the float for his family ranch and meat processing businesses. The floats for the alumni parade were getting more elaborate every year, and though Scott didn’t seem to think they had a shot at the grand prize—a promotional banner displayed at all home games that year—he wanted to make a good showing for the business.
"Finalized finally. I'll be going to pick up the supplies tomorrow, so we should be ready to start work tomorrow night. You’re still willing to help out, right?"
"I'll be there. I could use a change of pace. Do we have enough hands to help us out?"
Felicity nodded. “We're working on it. The time is going to be tight, but we’re not going crazy with it. Don't worry, we've got some other people rounded up and Scott has one more guy in mind."
Haley double-checked the time for the float party, paid for her purchases, thanked the cashier, and told the cashier and Felicity goodbye, heading for her car in the parking lot. It didn't take long for her to arrive back at Gran’s old house. It was a white Victorian two-story, with three big bedrooms upstairs and one on the main floor. It was really too big for just Gran, and had been for a good many years, but Gran and Gramps had bought it a year after they were married, and Gran always said she wasn't going to move out of it. And if Haley had anything to do with it, she wouldn’t have to until she was darn good and ready.
Haley's parents had moved away when Haley was a freshman in college and left grandma in Echo Ridge all by herself, which, for many years, hadn’t been a problem. Now that her mental health was starting to suffer, she couldn’t stay in the house alone, but she refused to go into an assisted living center, and Haley was willing to do anything to let her grandma stay in the house as long as she wanted to be there.
Haley carried the purchases into the tired kitchen where her grandmother was chopping carrots. “Hey, I told you I would pick up stuff for dinner tonight."
“Oh, don't worry about me, dear.” Gran smiled pleasantly. “I thought we could use some carrots on the side. What do you have there?"
Haley pulled out the ingredients, putting them away as she discussed her day with Gran before heading upstairs to change out of her greasy, stinky work clothes. As she opened the closet to find a fresh outfit, she noticed the box sitting in the corner. The flaps were partially opened, revealing the plaque she'd received in recognition of her work on her last big campaign for the advertising agency in New York.
Farmland Breakfast Bars had taken off after she and her partner had written the jingle. She still occasionally heard people humming it to themselves as they walked down the breakfast aisle at the grocery store. That had been shortly before she had quit her job—turning down a promotion she had been working for—to move back to Echo Ridge. It had been an impulsive decision, and she was rarely impulsive, but despite her frustrations, she didn’t regret it. Especially when she heard her grandmother singing old folk songs from the kitchen. How could she ever regret her Gran’s happiness?
Trusting her grandmother to be fine in the kitchen for at least a few more minutes, Haley flopped down onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling, letting the work aches and pains soften and melt out of her muscles.
When the fire alarm in the kitchen started to blare, Haley dragged herself off the bed and went down to check on her Gran, who was burning the chicken Haley had told her not to start cooking yet.
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