When her fiancé is busted at a gentlemen's club, Norah Ballard calls off the wedding. Shocked and humiliated, she takes the first train out of Chicago and ends up in a picturesque small town called Birchwood Falls.
Michael Banning spots the new woman in town and recognizes her from college. She's even more gorgeous and sophisticated now. He's no longer the nerd he was back then, and now that she's on his turf, he's going to touch and taste every sleek, beautiful inch of her. Whatever her reason is for being in his town, he'll fulfill all her desires so she never wants to leave.
Norah doesn't plan to let another man—no matter how sweet, smart and sexy—get close enough to hurt her again. But Mike's passionate pursuit of her, the way he seems to know just how to arouse her, awakens a sexual hunger she didn't know she had.
This was a day most girls dreamed of.
Norah Ballard gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Hair in place and makeup perfect: check. Strapless mermaid style, light taupe designer gown: check. Romantic halo of flowers circling her brow and a floor-length veil: check. Calm stomach instead of the requisite bridal butterflies: check. She was more aloof from the buzz of activity around her than she probably should be. Shouldn't she be happily excited? Or terrified? Something other than indifferent? Something other than cold?
She, a senior associate at her firm, and her fiancé Garrett Dunleith, a partner in his family's firm, were both aggressive, ambitious lawyers. They'd be a Chicago power couple. God, that sounds arrogant.
Control was her thing. She controlled her decision to enter law school, controlled her career. Once she'd met Garrett in college, she realized they would be a force to be reckoned with in the Chicago legal community. From practically the first moment they'd met, she'd planned their wedding and marriage. She'd planned every step of the event from the wedding date to rings to showers to their wedding clothing. After two years of marriage, they'd have children spaced two years apart. Nothing would go amiss today. The reception had been arranged at the Peninsula Hotel for exactly one hour after the ceremony at the church.
I love Garrett. I'm positive I do. Goose bumps popped up on her bare shoulders and arms. Gazing around the church's bridal dressing room, she searched for a draft. It was early May, not quite summer yet. She took a deep breath, as deeply as she could sewn snugly into the gown by the designer's seamstress.
A moment of panic. She struggled for a deep enough breath. You can't faint. You're just fine. Get control of yourself. Horrifying thoughts suddenly plagued her. Should she really be getting married? Did she love Garrett? Even after thirty-five years, her parents were still so much in love. She was well aware of what that looked like.
It's not like that with you, is it? Waves of cold surged over her skin to double-pebble the goose bumps. "Oh, my God," she sighed.
More tense than she realized, her breath caught in surprise at the click of the door. Her mother slipped into the dressing room, motioning everyone else out and closing the door. "He's not here yet. Have you talked to Garrett?"
She frowned. "No, not since last night. He was going out with his brother." Chewing her lower lip, she smeared her lipstick. "Could they have gotten drunk?" That wasn't something she'd considered Garrett would do. He was as controlled as she was.
"Are you sure about this, Norah? That you want to marry him?" Her mother couldn't meet her eyes, instead gazing into the mirror and needlessly fluffing at her hair.
"Why are you asking me that now? At this late date?" The conversation served to increase her odd feelings of panic and doubt.
"Just ignore me, honey. I'm sure you know what you're doing."
Her heart fluttering with uncharacteristic anxiety, she dialed Garrett's cell. No answer. Just a moment ago she'd felt remote. Suddenly reality burst in, the door to the room flying open banging against the wall. Her best friend Vicky dashed in. "Turn on the TV! Quick!" Vicky pointed the remote at a flat-screen mounted on the wall. "Channel Four."
The three women silently watched the report in progress on the early morning news.
"Local men, one a prominent attorney, caught up in a vice raid on the infamous Happy Pappy's Gentlemen's Club on the near west side."
They watched film of Garrett and his brother drunk as lords, bare-chested, her fiancé wearing his necktie around his forehead. Speechless and open-mouthed, she watched as they shouted bleeped-out obscenities, gesturing at the cameras and making huge spectacles of themselves.
"Turn that off!" Her limbs suddenly wooden, her brain frozen, she couldn't think. She needed to do something though. But what? How dare he deviate from her carefully set plans.
Get out. This is your chance. Get out now!
Then it all fell into place, the reprieve she hadn't known she wanted until this moment. "Wait here," she ordered Vicky and her mom. With a swish of the mermaid's tail, she swept out of the room and entered the back of the sanctuary.
"May I have your attention please." The usual church murmuring came to a halt and people slowly nudged one another and turned to face her. Before anyone could speak, she did, composing her features to conceal that her stomach was wildly somersaulting. "Due to the absence of the groom, the wedding is cancelled. Over the next weeks your gifts will be returned. The reception at the Peninsula will go on as planned, so please enjoy yourselves. I'm sorry about this, and thank you for coming." With that she retreated to the dressing area before her calm demeanor broke and she started shrieking. Control. Control. Just get through this. Think!
Closing and locking the door, she stood for a minute trying to control her shivering, her panic, and definitely her tears. "It's over. I called it off," she tonelessly told the two women closest to her. She refused to break down even in front of them. "Oh, and the reception is still on. The guests deserve a party after this fiasco."
Open-mouthed and shocked, they stared at her.
She refused to meet their eyes, and after a longing final look at her mermaid gown, the gown on which she'd worked so closely with the designer, she allowed herself a sigh. Collecting her emotions, she then muttered, "Get me out of this dress!"
Finally alone, she curled into the train seat, leaning her head against the window glass. Detached from all that had happened in the last few hours, she felt sheltered in the dark coach car, the speeding train taking her far away from Garrett Dunleith.
It had taken her less than an hour to repack her honeymoon suitcase, removing the bikinis and sundresses. She exchanged them for jeans, tops, sweaters, and other casual clothing. Early May, it was hot in the Caribbean but would still be cool in the Midwest or wherever she ended up. Stopping at the bank, she got cash from her checking account, took a cab to Union Station, and bought a ticket on the first train out. The station was closer to downtown than the airport, it was easier to buy a last-minute ticket, and was something totally unexpected for her to do.
She didn't care where the train was going. She'd either stay on it until the end of the line or get off. It didn't matter where. She refused to stay in town just to be further humiliated on what was to have been her wedding day.
She texted her parents and Vicky that she'd be in touch soon and not to worry about her. The text to Garrett was a bit more scathing. She called him asshole and a whole lot more.
The day's events played over and over in her mind. The TV report. The announcement to the guests. She'd been on auto-pilot as far as her feelings, she reluctantly admitted, since even before the wedding but was now deadly cold about her plans. A little niggling thought suggested she was sorrier about losing the gown than the groom. Chuckling mirthlessly, she settled into the seat watching the Chicago suburbs then flat farm fields fly past the window. In a way, this wasn't a tragedy at all. It felt more like a pardon.
With the train wheels clackety-clacking on the tracks, the occasional lurches and whistle blowing at crossings, she fell into an exhausted sleep comforted by the odd rhythm.
"…Falls, Ioway. Ten minutes."
She jerked out of a surprisingly deep sleep at the conductor's clipped announcement. It had been unusually quiet on the train, no babies crying, no kids racing up and down the aisles to disturb her. Amazed she'd slept the night through, she blinked her eyes out of a muzzy-headed stupor, not sure why the conductor's call woke her this time. She yawned, stretched the kinks out, and gazed out the window all the while taking deep breaths to quell the thumping of her heart from the sudden awakening. As a counterpoint to her emotions, the train puttered slowly along a rushing river, water leaping and sparkling in the morning sunshine. A glance across the aisle showed rocks and greening foliage on the side of a hill.
"Birchwood Falls comin' up," repeated the conductor.
She heard the rustling of clothing and thumps of suitcases hauled down from the overhead bins. Outside the window, now that they'd passed warehouses, the sun hit her full force and lit the town with an enchanted glow. Enchanted glow? Where had that come from? Nothing in her life was enchanted right now, and it was supposed to be. Right this minute she should be enjoying married life. This was to have been her honeymoon and a month off work. She teared up at the memory of her beautiful expensive gown. What a waste. Again she realized she missed that more than the SOB groom. Brought roughly back to reality when the train came to a halt at the station, she glanced out the window, spotting a sign.
Birchwood Falls—You've Come Home
A sign. An omen? The town literally glowed in the sun. Like Brigadoon. She'd recently seen a revival of the classic musical, the story of two hunters discovering the magical Scottish town as it materialized from the morning mist. Just as Birchwood Falls appeared to her, aglow and radiant in the sunrise. The beginning of a new day. A new life?
She froze in her seat for a moment staring at the sign. This town called to her. In a daze, she gathered her suitcase and jacket. Alighting from the train, she stepped out onto the wooden platform, bemused at not knowing what the future held. She watched as the train rumbled down the tracks leaving her in this strange place. Alone for the first time in her life, she had no plans, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. She cracked a slight smile at her unexpected freedom. She'd have to find someplace to eat, then a place to stay.
Then cold hard reality hit her, and she shivered abruptly with fear. She'd have to find a doctor and get tested for STDs. Garrett might have endangered her life. God forgive him, because I never will.
"I'll have the special." Norah managed a smile at the waitress pouring hot coffee into an oversized mug. In this friendly town, she'd been offered a ride toward the center of town by a man who'd gotten off the train too. He'd dropped her at Java Joe's coffee house. Steam rising toward her face, the smell of the roasted beans permeating her sinuses gave her a jolt of renewal. The kick of caffeine made her feel alive in spite of her worries and the oddity of the previous day.
"Just passing through?" The waitress, Zelda according to her nametag, nodded to Norah's rolling suitcase when she placed a plate loaded with scrambled eggs, home fries, and sausage links on the table.
"I thought I'd stay awhile," Norah responded. "Is it a nice town?"
"Real nice, honey. You lookin' for work?"
"Not now. Where would you recommend I stay?"
"We've got a fancy resort along the river the other side of town. Be right back." Zelda dashed to the pass-through from the kitchen to pick up another order. Coming back, she added, "Nicer and not as expensive is the McMillan House. The second floor apartment is available."
"I'll check it out. Thank you." Norah scarfed down everything on her plate. She never ate such a big breakfast, usually had a bagel or toast and coffee. But for some reason she was starving this morning. Oh, right. She hadn't eaten since—when? Since the night before the wedding that didn't happen.
Zelda pointed her down the street toward the McMillan House which turned out to be a cute red clapboard two-story bungalow. "Hi, I understand you have an apartment for rent." Norah extended her hand to the woman wearing jeans and a pullover shirt who looked not much older than herself. For a landlady, she had expected an Aunt Bea older type of woman. "My name's Norah Ballard."
The woman grasped her hand. "Sure. I'm Jan Warner. I'll show you the apartment and you can decide if you want it." The second floor had been remodeled stylishly. Living/dining/kitchen all open plan, a bedroom, and lovely modern bathroom completed the apartment. And it was furnished. "Everything's here. Dishes, pots and pans, and linens. All you have to do is hang up your clothing and settle in."
"Thank you, Jan. I'm not sure how long I'll be here, but if you need an end date…"
"Oh, no. Why don't you just pay by the week to start. I won't kick you out without talking to you first." Jan smiled as she headed out the door. "Welcome to Birchwood Falls. I hope you enjoy your stay. If there's anything more I can do or if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask."
"Thanks again. This is a lovely apartment." Norah closed the door and turned to peruse the quaint space. Back in the city, as a senior associate, she made good money and had a beautiful condo in a high rise overlooking Lake Michigan. But right this minute she didn't miss her modern furniture and views. This apartment was sweetly decorated, very pretty and girly with flowered upholstery on the sofa, two turquoise micro-suede side chairs, and a round smoked-glass dining table with four chairs. Four may be a tad ambitious since her guest list included zero people. She found she didn't miss the lake because the view out these windows was of a lovely old-fashioned town with beautiful buildings, parks, and trees.
The surprises were adding up. Big-city girl settles in small town and goes country.
Well, let's not get too carried away.
On the way to the house, she'd spotted the grocery store conveniently located next door and ran over there for items she'd need to get started. She'd also asked Zelda for a doctor's name and made an appointment for the next day. It was late afternoon by the time she put her purchases away in the kitchen, and now she had nothing to do. She'd received a text from her folks telling her Garrett was furious about the bank account. She texted back that she didn't give a shit how he felt. There was nothing directly from him though. Miserable creep.
Jittery, unlimited time with her own thoughts and the dubious attractions of TV drove her out of the apartment to the square in the center of town and the quiet-looking tavern across the street from the courthouse.
Ollie's shadowy interior suited her with its little white Italian lights draped above the polished bar in the center. Dark wood wainscoting lined the walls topped with plaster painted a rich, deep crimson. Light streaming through the open door helped her scope out a corner table in the back. A few tables were already occupied.
"Welcome. What can I get you?" The woman's voice, soft but whispery husky, sounded friendly enough, and the smile on her face seemed genuine. Norah took a couple of steps toward the bar. "Beer is fine."
"Go ahead and sit down wherever you want. I'll bring it to you, honey."
"Oh, that's okay. I'll just pick it up here."
"Suit yourself." The bartender scanned her. "First one's on the house. You're new here, aren't you? I haven't seen you in here before."
"Yes." She drummed the bar awkwardly. Used to being anonymous in the city, she should have realized she'd be noticed as a new person in a small town.
"I'm Bernice. My husband and I own this place. And my son." She handed over an iced beer mug then swiped a towel over the already clean wooden surface of the bar.
"Thanks." Norah placed a five on the bar and waved away the change which Bernice dropped into a tip jar with a thank you. Sliding onto a chair at a table in the back, she hoped to send a message—don't approach. She sipped the cold brew and surveyed her surroundings. Ollie's looked like a nice place, not trendy but definitely not shabby. Clean. The hardwood floors were spic and span. Matching chairs surrounded sturdy tables with votive candles in the center. She tapped her foot along with songs from the fifties and sixties playing on the vintage jukebox near her.
"Hey, Mom, I'm home."
She ducked her head and peered over her shoulder at the sound of the deep male voice uttering a little boy's words. A tall, lean figure strode briskly through the door from the kitchen, and a sharp breath stuck for a moment in her lungs. The downright handsome man seemed to fill the room with his boisterous voice and happy grin. He'd swung his arms wide as if embracing everything in his sight.
"Got any cookies?"
There was no way she could squelch her snort. She covered her lips in embarrassment when she realized he'd heard and was staring at her. "Sorry," she mumbled and quickly shifted her gaze back to her beer. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't quite place him. How could she? She didn't live here.
"Hey, no problem." He winked. "You're never too old for cookies and milk after school, are you, Mom?"
School? Too old to be a student, Sweetie was a gorgeous hunk of a man with inky-black hair obvious even in the dim bar, a long face, strong nose and square chin. His khakis fit him to a T flaunting his flat belly and narrow hips. A white shirt, open at the neck with long sleeves rolled up over muscular forearms, gleamed in the low light. He stood with one hand on his hip, the other hooking a sport coat slung over his shoulder. When he turned his back to go behind the bar, she took note of his gorgeous butt and took a hasty sip of beer to cool off her imaginings. What the hell's happening to me? Hanging the jacket on a hook behind the bar, he tied a waiter's apron around his waist and ran a rag over the already clean bar. Sweetie whistled along with the old songs and was pretty good at it. She felt like she was in Disneyland or Mayberry, somewhere happy.
Glancing at her, his gaze narrowing and lingering, he said, "You okay, miss?"
She lifted her mug and nodded. A few more people came in and the place got noisier. One man, his dark hair tied back in a ponytail, took a stool at the bar and leaned over it. Sweetie pointed to a table where both men sat down. She watched his face, which wasn't a hardship. His expressions went from a friendly smile, to eyes wide in shock, to a frown of distress, his lips pressed flat.
Boy, he looked shocked and angry. She wondered what made him so upset then remembered she was having a bit of a trauma herself. She had no interest in getting involved in his. Besides, how bad could it be? He, his mom, cookies, a nice clean bar? Idyllic small town? Bah! What could be wrong?