Smitten - Chapter One

Smitten - Echo Falls, Texas Book 7 - Available now on Amazon. Here's the first chapter, y'all! Enjoy!

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” Khalil Gibran


 Olivia Applegate put on her favorite pair of dirty jeans, rolled up the sleeves of her aged denim shirt, and laced up her work boots. Glancing in her bedroom mirror, she nodded approval at the tight gray ponytail, frowned at the wrinkles under her eyes, and rubbed her medicated lotion on her arthritic hands. Downstairs, the baby duck-yellow kitchen soothed and pleased as always. Coffee perked and poured into her favorite green travel mug, heavy beige coat appropriately buttoned, and her work playlist ready on her phone, she went out the back door of her house and sighed with contentment.

Cars. Bunches of Cars. Broken, beautiful cars. Blue ones. Red ones. White ones. Classic cars. Family cars. New cars. The line down her driveway made a neat row, and every single one needed maintenance service or repair.

Her white, two-story home with its wrap-around porch and green shutters had never seen so much action except maybe when the family arrived for Wednesday night dinner or when they all crowded into the second-story Captain’s perch to watch the stars. The sprawling corner lot boasted the elegant house, a long fence line beside the double driveway, a half-dozen dormant flower beds and five venerable oak trees.

Standing on her porch, Olivia breathed the crisp winter Texas air. Clear blue sky replaced the heavy rain clouds from the day before. The leafless trees remained unmoving in the ambient quiet. Lots of quiet. She hadn’t started this business on purpose, but it had grown from one favor to the next favor to the next favor until she charged for her work and her driveway became her happy place. She liked to think her father would be smiling down in pleasure that she finally was back in the family business.

Trotting down the back steps, she caressed the Meyerson’s maroon SUV, pretending the cold of late February didn’t bother her bones. The canopy pitched over the car did nothing to dispel the frigid air, and she regretted rejecting her number one mechanic’s suggestion they get an outdoor heater. The Murray’s car remained in her garage, waiting for parts.

She took a final sip of her coffee, warming her hands on the mug. Anxious to get started, she collected her tools from the garage, scooted the creeper closer, laid out her equipment, and lowered her ancient body to the ground. She remembered every detail of the first time she’d rolled under a car to work on it – with her dad – and smiled at the memory. Justin Bieber blasting through the earbuds in her ears, she rolled under the car and got to work.

Her music selection moved from Bieber to Keyes to AC/DC to Miley Cyrus. Calculating in her head the cost of opening a business so she’d have a lift to do this work, she jerked at the tap on her shoe.

Sliding out from under the car, she squinted up the lean length of Rand Caldwell. He served as the manager of the community hospital, the keeper of all emergency needs in their small town and was the son of the chief of the Echo Falls Fire Department. He had broad, sturdy shoulders, long legs encased in blue spandex running pants, and neon green Nikes on his feet. She happened to know running defined his happy place. The red cheeks, the intense blue eyes, and the handsome look of him were at odds with the grim set to his mouth.

She sat up and pulled the earbuds out of her ears. Before she could comment, he gripped her elbows and helped her to her feet.

“Olivia.” The quiet deference in his tone raised a brow. She hated it when people treated her like an old lady.

“Rand.” His frown made her worry. “What’s wrong?”

“Any reason why I wasn’t told there was a meeting of the hospital board last night? That’s no way to conduct business.”

As the longest sitting member of the Hospital Board of Directors and its chairperson, Olivia struggled for a minute, processing the information. “What are you talking about? There wasn’t a meeting.”

Surprise crossed his face. “You weren’t there?”

“What are you talking about? There was no meeting. I would know. I call them.”

“Saw Chief Hudson this morning. He mentioned it. He was surprised I wasn’t there.” His clipped words told her exactly his level of upset.

Rand took her elbow and led her to the back steps. “Lord, it’s too cold out here for you to be working on the ground.”

“I’m fine.” Texas weather in February is not for the faint of heart. Tuesday’s high hit seventy. Olivia shivered, revealing the lie of her I’m fine. She plowed through anyway.

“It’s thirty-nine today. You need a shop.” Rand opened the back door.

“Talk to my son. He’s stonewalling me.”  Stifling her irritation and the bit of truth in his concern, she led him into the kitchen. “If it’s too cold for me under the cars, it’s too cold for you to be running.”

“Frustration. Running is my only outlet.” He blew on his hands, their redness telling her he’d gone without gloves.

“How far this morning?” She shrugged out of her coat and hung it on the rack by the door, stuffing her phone in her pants pocket.

“Just around town. That’s when I saw Chief Hudson.”

She reached for the coffee pot and poured the hot liquid into one of her oversized white ceramic mugs. She collected the creamer from the refrigerator and handed both to him. Pouring herself a fresh cup, she grabbed the muffins she’d made yesterday and led him to the breakfast table.

“I didn’t come for breakfast.” He eased into a chair and sipped his coffee.

Olivia snorted. “Eat anyway.”

“You and my mother. Constantly trying to feed me.” Smart boy took a   muffin anyway and started eating.

She smiled, always happy when her baking pleased others. She studied the stress lines on his face and regretted not being able to relieve the tension.

 Echo Falls was lucky to have a man of Rand’s background handling the medical concerns of the community. They leaned on Doc Garrison for far too long and with him now gone, God rest his soul, the town had floundered until Olivia had gone to Rand and begged him to come back to Echo Falls and take over management of the hospital, the ambulance, and the medical needs of the community. Two years and they still hadn’t found a new doctor.  

She handed Rand a napkin and sat, her muscles and bones protesting the movement. She kept her face clear of her reaction to her aches and pains. “Now tell me what you’re talking about. There wasn’t a meeting scheduled last night. I would have been there.”

“According to Chief Hudson, he got a call yesterday afternoon for the meeting. I wouldn’t care, but they were talking about our search for a doctor and changing the staffing of the hospital to cut costs. I should have been involved.”

Olivia took a long sip of her coffee to give herself time to absorb the information. “Was everyone else there?”

Rand wiped his face with his napkin, having quickly annihilated his muffin. “I didn’t ask the chief for a headcount, but I assumed. I’ve worked hard to keep the staffing balance stable to handle the community while we don’t have a doctor. I can’t have interference or the whole matrix will crash, and the nurses aren’t going to take that lightly. We have a contract guaranteeing their employment.”

“I know. Let me make a phone call.” Olivia rose and left Rand in the kitchen with another muffin in his hand. She went to her favorite chair in the living room and pulled her phone from her pocket. Alexander Murray, her accountant and friend, also sat on the board.

The phone rang four times before a male voice answered. “Murray.”

Expecting his receptionist, Olivia fumbled for words.


“Alexander, it’s Olivia.”

“Olivia, I’d heard you were sick. How are you feeling?” The man’s congested voice suggested he’d come down with something himself.

Huffing, she didn’t take time to be diplomatic. “I haven’t been sick. I’ve been fine. Who told you that? Why was there a meeting last night without me?”

Silence greeted her.

Alexander cleared his throat. “I’m not exactly sure who told me. I arrived late and they were already discussing you were sick.”

“What did they say about Rand not being there?”

“Conflict in the schedule.”

“Ridiculous. He always makes time for meetings, Alexander. He didn’t know. He’s sitting in my kitchen wanting to know what the heck is going on. What did you talk about?”

“Cutting the hospital costs by twenty-five percent, griping about no doctor like you can find one at the corner drug store, and how Rand wasn’t being aggressive enough to find one.”

“That’s unfounded, Alex. It’s not easy to find a doctor who will embrace life in a small town.”

“I know, Olivia. I defended all the steps we’ve taken. So did Paul Hudson. But Charlotte and Robert remained adamant we should take further steps and they aren’t wrong. The hospital continues to struggle with a balanced budget right now.”

Charlotte Drummond had replaced Mitt Barlow, the town banker, who retired. Robert Laskey had filled the empty spot vacated by Doc Garrison’s death. Olivia had always maintained five board members were not enough, but she’d been secure in the quorum of Alexander, Paul Hudson and herself who frequently voted together. They had been able to keep things righted. Alarm crept through her. “Did you vote on anything?”

“Tried to, but we were split two-two with no vote from you. Without input from Rand, Paul felt we should hold any other decisions. Charlotte wasn’t happy. She wanted to bring in an outside company to do an audit of the hospital and take over the management until things could be squared away. I believe it’s the same company that made an offer to buy the hospital nine months ago, although she didn’t say.”

Olivia swallowed a string of inappropriate comments. “It’s not Rand’s fault the hospital expenses are running over, and we rejected that company because we felt it wasn’t a good fit for the community.”

“I know, Olivia. I was a bit insulted myself, as I’ve been doing the audit of the books for the hospital for years and wasn’t consulted. I admit, though, the cost overruns concern me, and we need to do something. I have on my schedule to do a full audit myself since the hospital has a new account manager.”

“Well, the first thing to do is have another meeting with all of us in attendance and get to the bottom of this mess. We shouldn’t meet without all members even though I know three is a quorum.”

“I don’t disagree. Let me make some time to run through the numbers before we talk again. Will you tell Rand I’m sorry?”

“Yes, I will. I’ll talk to you soon.”  She hung up with more concerns than before.

“I take it that wasn’t good news.” Rand stood in the dining room doorway, hands on either side of the casing.

“I don’t know what is going on, but it’s obvious someone wanted to meet without the two of us. I’m guessing it was either Charlotte or Robert.”

Rand shifted and stepped into the living room. “My money is on Charlotte. She doesn’t like me much since I had a run-in with her kid at the community center. Kid’s a bully.”

Olivia stood up, her body jerky with indignation. “Imagine! Someone told them I was sick. I’m never sick.”

Rand’s face tightened again. “What’s the plan? I know you have one.”

Hands on her hips, she mulled over options. Her daughter-in-law, Helen Applegate, served as the town mayor. “Let me start with Helen. Let’s see if the mayor’s office knows anything about anyone wanting to buy or run our hospital.”

“Oh god, not that again.” Rand dropped his hands to his sides and paced further into the living room.

Sliding her phone back in her pocket, Olivia agreed with his sentiment. “Nothing has changed. It wasn’t a viable option then, it isn’t now.”

The kitchen door slammed. “Olivia?”

Rand stepped aside to clear Olivia’s way to the kitchen.

Instead, she peeked to check on the visitor. “That’s Josh. Gotta get him started on the Meyerson’s car while I do some sleuthing.”

Josh Anderson appeared in the same spot in the doorway. His sturdy build and dark good looks reminded her of her grandson Tom at that tender early twenties age. In the beginning, Josh worked part-time for her. Since then, they’d formed a partnership when it became obvious their love of mechanical work united them.

“You started without me.” His accusation filled her with remorse.

Olivia blushed. Dammit. Why couldn’t she work in peace? Not that she minded sharing, but she lived for her Zen moment of the day. “I started the Meyerson’s muffler and got interrupted. Can you finish it?”

Josh stared. She heard his “duh” without him saying so.

“Fine, fine.” She shooed him off. “Go get busy. I’ve got some phone calls to make before I join you.”

Josh grinned, nodded at Rand, and left them alone. The back door slammed again to punctuate his exit.

Rand stared at Olivia for a moment and then sighed. “Will you call me later, no matter what you learn?”

She pointed him to the kitchen and pulled out a to-go coffee cup and filled it for him. Adding cream, she tried to alleviate his concerns. “Of course, I will. Don’t worry.”

Handing the cup off to him, she sighed inside against the tired, frustrated lines plain as day on his face. The whole situation bothered her deep down because she’d begged him to come home. Life wasn’t a bed of roses for him and that didn’t sit well with her.

He fitted the top she gave him to the cup. “Since I came home, worry is all I do, Olivia.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I know. We’ll figure this out. I’ll call you when I know more.”

Rand nodded and followed Josh’s path out the back door.

Olivia stepped to the living room window and watched him stroll down the driveway. Since he lived six blocks over in Tom’s old apartment complex, he’d be home in a jiffy and his coffee might even still be warm.

When he disappeared, she turned away, her temper spiking.

Charlotte Drummond. Every town had one.

A Diva. A gossip. A shark.

But her first mistake was thinking Olivia was just an old woman.

Her husband, Thomas, God rest his soul, used to say that she was sight to behold when she was angry.

Well, she was riled and ready.


Struggling to be reassured by Olivia’s words, Rand made a quick decision at the end of her driveway. Instead of running the distance down Mustang Drive from Olivia’s to his apartment on Johnson Street, he walked up Hays headed to his parent’s house and sipped the coffee Olivia gave him. His mother would be in the kitchen where she always lingered when she had the day off from the fire department. His father would be gone to the small community airport that he managed. Since his mother had been complaining about the empty nest since Adam had married and moved out, he thought she wouldn’t mind an impromptu visit.

He wasn’t one to let things go. He knew this about himself, resolved to work harder at it, but the upshot was he carried around tons of baggage and stress because he took way too many things personally. This tendency had improved in the big city where he’d not had so many connections. Here he kept tripping over versions of himself from toddler to high school. Everybody had a memory. Were his current problems because no one saw him as the health care professional he was or did it all stem from agendas that he had no awareness of?

The cold weather quickly cooled his coffee, but he drank it anyway. The act forced him to keep a steady pace instead of letting his restlessness force him into a run that would jeopardize muscles no longer stretched and properly limber.

He approached his parent’s house fifteen minutes later, the familiarity of the neighborhood settling him. He’d left home for Dallas-Fort Worth to get a college degree and to escape the trap between two brothers who knew what they wanted and had gone for it with a vengeance. He alone had been floating and drowning in the comparisons between the three brothers. No way could he compete with the NY Times Bestselling author or the charming, friendly fireman. Not that they were those things when they left Echo Falls as young men, but he still keenly felt the competition.

He bound up the steps and entered the sprawling rancher. The gray siding desperately needed a coat of paint, and he was sure when spring settled in Texas, his father would be on the ladder getting the job finished. The mahogany door squeaked as it opened, giving away his entrance. He’d long since given up trying to sneak in or out of this house.

“Hark, who goes there?” His mother tilted into view from the kitchen, her brown hair pulled up into a tight bun, her hands covered in dough. She was graying a bit. When had that happened?

“It is I, fair Rand.” He kept up with the Shakespeare theme because it would make his mother smile.

Her familiar laugh echoed down the hall.

He moved to the kitchen doorway and shielded his eyes against the bright orange t-shirt sporting the elementary school logo. The shirt itself was covered in flour, but he knew the logo because he had one exactly like it in bluebird blue.

“What are you making?” He dropped his empty cup into the trash by the island, noting the dishes in the kitchen sink.

“Cinnamon rolls for the fire department brunch cookout this weekend. Why aren’t you running?”

“I did five miles.” Interrupted miles, with a conversation with Chief Hudson in the middle. “Stopped to talk to Olivia and I didn’t want to waste her coffee.”

Her mother eyed him with that look that made him spill his guts every time growing up. “What’s up?”

“Can’t I just stop in to say hello to my mother.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. This was him practicing letting go. Nonetheless, he squirmed.

“You know you want to tell me. Spill it.” She punched the dough and started her creation process.

“Just some meeting of the board last night that I wasn’t invited to. Turns out Olivia wasn’t told either.”

His mom whistled under her breath. As the Echo Falls Fire Chief, Sally Caldwell directly managed a full department of headstrong men and women firefighters and wrangled with city hall frequently. She liked to say she’d cut her teeth on three stubborn sons. “Big mistake to cross Olivia.”

“Yeah, well I’m not sure whether it was on purpose or what. So, I’m going to not comment.”

“You’ll just stress on in silence.”

“No, I’m trying to keep to my New Year’s resolution and let it go until I know more.”

His mother dusted off her hands and reached for the butter. She smeared the top of the dough with a good layer and set the knife aside. “I’ve heard that the Norman Group from Houston has a representative in town again.”

Rand rolled his eyes. Norman Group tried to buy the hospital nine months ago and was rebuffed. The hospital desperately wanted to stay independent and not be taken over by a corporation. “I’m staying out of that. It’s above my pay grade.”

“Going to Olivia put you in that pay grade.”  His mother sprinkled a sugar and cinnamon mixture on the dough, the speculation in her eyes not in any way masked.

“I don’t understand why they’d try to have a conversation without me or Olivia or the mayor involved. It’s not a simple thing when this town does not have a doctor.”

“Any luck on that front?”

“No, I have been able to unite with a few other small hospitals across the area so we can combine resources and share the load, and I have some feelers out across Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico at the medical schools. Nothing yet that solves the biggest problem we have.”

“You’ll find someone.”

Rand stifled the need to roll his eyes, his own inner criticism not as important as his mother’s validation. “It’s my top priority.”

“Well, in other news, Shorty’s daughter is back. She’s been doing emergency transports for the firefighters working the wildfires in California since she left here last year. I guess once the fire season cooled down, she decided she needed a break and wanted to see her Dad. Probably his recent health scare.” George “Shorty” Beck was the head mechanic at the airport and worked closely with his father. He’d split with his wife years and years ago and Laurel popped into town off and on.

Rand’s stomach twisted into tight knots, the accompanying surge of anger provoking a bout of nausea. He eased a swallow down his throat. “That’s nice to hear.”

Was that too neutral? Would he give himself away?

He’d stayed mum about what had happened between him and Laurel Beck over Christmas more than a year ago. She came wrapped in a lethal package of gorgeous, vivacious, smart, and daring. The combo knocked him flat. One kiss and he was addicted. One kiss and she was addicted. Together, they fell into combustible – crazy for each other in bed and fighting out of it.

She’d stayed for Christmas, then New Years, and he’d gotten lost in his own fantasy of smoothing their relationship and keeping her. Not proud of himself because he avoided his family the whole time while lost in her, he’d resolved to tell them. But their date for the Sweetheart Dance in February hadn’t materialized. She’d stood him up. She’d left Texas on her plane without him, flat out honest with him about their differences in outlooks and goals and her unwillingness to settle down. Left standing, heart and love still in hand, he shuddered against the worst moment of his life.

Since then, he’d gone all in and committed to the welfare of this town. There was no room for Laurel in that equation. She was a nomad, a gypsy who would never settle and he had a serious aversion to making a fool out of himself chasing her and shredding his heart again. Just because his heart clenched at the sound of her name meant nothing.

“No comment?” His mother rolled the dough from one side to the other.

“I’m sure Shorty will enjoy her visit.” Rand shifted a kitchen stool and sat down.

His mother paused in rolling the dough into a long piece for cutting. Her silence made him want to babble nonsense, a tendency born in the teenage years when trying to cover misdeeds. He resisted, searching for a different topic. “Did Gage like the house I found for him to rent?”

“He wasn’t thrilled with the cemetery in the backyard, but he took it. Not like there are many rentals in this town.” She efficiently cut the dough into thick pieces and placed into a flat pan to raise.

“Sounds perfect for a mystery writer. Can’t figure why he’s moving back home anyway. Did he say anything about that?”

“Said he needed a change of scenery. Tried to convince him that we have enough room for him here, but he spouted some nonsense about needing his creative space.”

“He’s a grown man, Mom. He’s had his own place in New York for a long time. Moving back in with Mom and Dad doesn’t cut it. We had this discussion when I moved home. It’s why I have an apartment.”

“Adam lived here.” Her logic revealed a lonely mother, inducing guilt and making him resolve to get his head out of work and spend more time paying attention to what mattered.

Rand grinned. “Adam’s the baby. Still.”

“Says the child with middle-itis.” She set the finished rolls over on the stove to rise and washed her hands.

“We’re having dinner tonight. Adam and Juliette, Gage. Can you come? We haven’t had time for a family dinner in a long time.”

“Yeah, I can be here. What time?”

“Five. A bit early, I know. But Adam’s on shift at eight, filling in.”

“Whatcha cooking?” He’d asked that same question in the same way since he was five years old.

His mother laughed. “Roast, all the trimmings.”

“Pie involved?”

“Nope. Girl Scout cookies and ice cream. No time to make pie with the cinnamon rolls.”

He glanced around the kitchen, then stepped to open the pantry cupboard. “Where are they?”

His mother gave him her mom stare. “You think you’re eating my Girl Scout cookies?”

“Of course. You love me.”

“I do,” she confessed. “But I don’t have any yet. Robin Applegate’s going to deliver them later. How about you join me for breakfast?”

He closed the pantry. “Olivia fed me muffins, but I could eat more.”

“Let’s go to Clem’s. Rolls will be ready for the oven when we get back and then I’ll tackle cleaning the kitchen.”

“I can make that work. Mind taking me home after?”


His mother grabbed a jacket and her keys but stopped in front of the squeaky front door.

“Leave your problem to Olivia and Mayor Helen, Rand.”

“I’ve worked my heart and guts into this town and that hospital. Feels like that work is being discounted.” Admitting that felt like a breach of his walls. He kept his emotions buttoned up tight, but he never could not tell his mother.

“Not by Olivia or anyone else who matters in this community. I’m proud of you. We’re in a better spot than we were right after Doc Garrison died. Let Olivia manage it. She’s a force that woman and she’ll fix it.”

“Doesn’t hurt to have her back.” Rand opened the door.

“No, it does not, and you will. Patience, son. Patience.”

Maybe he also needed a piece of apple pie and some ice cream from Clem’s. For strength, because he kept reaching for his patience and came up with less every time he needed some.

“Do you hear me?”

He wrapped an arm around his mother’s shoulder and kissed her temple again. “Yes, ma’am. I hear you.”

Out in the driveway, she gazed over the hood of her fire engine red mustang. “Do you know how long it took to build a viable fire department here?”

He sighed internally. He’d heard the story many times but was smart enough not to say that. “Longer than it should have, according to you.”

“Yes, and every day I had to stay focused. You need to do that, too. Things work out the way their supposed to. Believe in other people and give it chance.” She popped the locks and got in the car.

He opened his own door and bent his six-foot frame into the leather seat. “That’s my problem. I think there’s a few people here whose objective isn’t the same as what I’m working toward.”

She started the car and backed out. “Olivia’s is. Mine is. Mayor Helen’s is. Chief Hudson’s is. Keep focused on the people who have taken care of Echo Falls over the long haul. You’re one of us, not one of those late-to-work people.”

He grinned. “One of us?”

“Yeah, we’re a good group to belong to.”

“I believe you, Mom.”

“I believe in you, Rand.”

Uncomfortable with the emotion, he changed the subject to something he knew would divert his mother – fire department gossip. Good thing Clem’s was only five minutes from the house. After parking, Rand hurried out of the car.

“Let’s eat, Mom, but I don’t have my wallet. I hope you’re buying.” He gave her a hopeful, puppy dog look.

She laughed. “Some things never change.”


Laurel Beck stood on the tarmac and watched her dad anchor the cargo plane she lovingly nicknamed Super Monster. The plane gave her a home away from home, and she only let a few people touch her baby. Her dad, as the mechanic boss of the small Echo Falls airport, personally handle her plane. She liked to think the act demonstrated his caring. In truth, this interest in parking her plane allowed him to avoid talking to her. His body language hadn’t changed since she’d seen him a year ago. Stiff shoulders and no eye contact signaled his continuing displeasure. Her business partnership with one of her mother’s ex-husbands remained a contentious subject. Her former stepdad had been more of a father than the blood one standing in front of her. Even if he’d only been family to her for two short years, he’d helped her every step of the way including an assist to buy her plane.

George “Shorty” Beck shifted around and made sure the hatch of the plane was secure. He’d had a health scare a month ago. A heart attack? A stroke? She wasn’t sure. He gave her neither details nor the outcome. The only reason she knew he’d been hospitalized was a phone call from Pat Caldwell.

Weeks of stilted phone calls left her unsatisfied, and even seeing him acting like his crotchety, normal self didn’t reassure her much. After all the years since her parent’s divorce, she couldn’t put words to why she was so worried about this one event. It’s not like they were close.

In the distance, the same traditional houses, the same family businesses, the same complicated feelings about Echo Falls assailed her. For once, she gave the town a break, because it wasn’t the town that had a problem. She and her dad had a problem, one that over the years had hardened and calcified. His health scare worried her. Would it be worse to keep to this track and have her pride or lose her Dad and regret for the rest of her life not sorting this out?

She stood with her hands sheltered in the pockets of her tan leather jacket and let the wind beat at her brown hair, tossing the strands this way and that, working up her courage, working up her stubborn.

When he came across the tarmac, she approached him. “I do know how to park and shut down my own plane.”

He jerked to attention and waved her off. “I got it, Laurel. Been doing this job a long time. You got people that do this for you in California. I do it here.”

She sighed deeply, choking on her frustration. The whole idea of coming home was to ask the hard questions of herself and get resolution, to rest and recover from a hellacious flight schedule that had descended her into emotional turmoil, and to reconnect with a father she’d lost a long time ago. She always ran away when circumstances in her life smacked of any challenge outside of flying. Last time here, confronted with desires and dreams she feared reaching for, she’d run to California to the wildfires. For the first time, that run habit drove her too close to the raw edge of life and the aftermath still beat at her with the volume of bongo drums.

He pointed her to the airport office.

She trailed after him like she was nine years old again.

He opened the door to the office and stood aside to let her go in first. The continuous loop in her brain churned through years of resentment and anger. One of the reasons she stayed away from Echo Falls as much as possible stared her starkly in the face – her father loved the town more than he did her.

And that was so much crap. She wasn’t nine anymore.

One of the few faces in town she recognized stood at the counter. The airport manager, Pat Caldwell, worked behind the long expanse of white countertop and had a phone tucked at his ear. He gave her a big smile with a quick wave and kept talking. Something about needing a transport.

The businesswoman in her perked up while the kid in her told her to stay out of it. She’d come to check on her father, not to open business. She mentally shied away from the other reason she’d come. Making amends with the one person she should never have hurt.

“I’ll put your plane in for some maintenance while you’re here.”

“My plane is fine. As you pointed out, I have a maintenance chief at the airport I fly out of in California.” She took in her surroundings and marveled at the sameness. The small building housed the center office, a small bathroom off to the side and two offices in the back, Pat’s and her Dad’s. It was decorated in beige walls, white tile floor and age-old flight memorabilia. Same as always.

“Nothing like free labor, though.”  Her dad winked at her, his false cheer grating on her nerves.

“I can make arrangements for my own labor, too.” Contrary was her middle name. She knew that about herself and accepted it. It was a pain to constantly find the white when somebody said black, but that was who she was. Her plane wasn’t the reason she was here. “I came to see you. Too see how you’re doing.”

Her father pivoted to the small bathroom at the side to wash his hands and didn’t answer her.

To say they didn’t communicate well was an understatement. She felt trapped in a bad sci-fi novel where the robot spoke in clicks and hisses and the universal translator was inoperable. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she went on the offensive when he returned and went to the coffee pot. “Need a lift.”  He raised the coffee pot her direction.

“No, Dad. I need answers. What did the doctor say? What happened?”

“Just a little bout. I’m fine. All better.” He handed her a full cup of coffee.

“That’s what you keep telling me, but it’s short of a diagnosis, a treatment plan.” Though why she should be surprised, she didn’t know. He was called Shorty, not because of his height or his crew-cut, but because he tended to give short answers to questions. Yep and nope were two of his favorites.

“No need for you to worry.” He handed her a cup.

“If you were dying, is that what you’d tell me too?”

He set his cup down and turned to her, his eyes flashing. “Yep. I’m not dying. Just a blip and it’s all fixed now. That’s all I’m saying.” His hands on his hips and the grim turn of his mouth were enough to chase her off her questions. She hated that look. Hated the way it made her feel. Hated that it shut her out, and she didn’t like inducing that mood in her father.

She set down the full cup of coffee without taking a sip, careful to not let it crack on the counter and give away her agitation. “Well, I guess you don’t need me here. Too late now to fly out. I’ll get a motel.” The tears that threatened ticked her off further.

“Now, Laurel, don’t be that way.” Her father’s deep sigh filled her with disappointment. They never could get past the prickliness with each other. Hard to trust a man who’d abandoned her at nine and all her lofty ideas about finally putting that behind her and having a relationship with her father died at his words.

She stepped closer to him, not wanting to interrupt Pat’s conversation. “That’s what you always say. It’s my fault. You won’t talk. Won’t share. I did eight incredibly taxing, dangerous months flying supplies to the California wildfires since I saw you last. I thought we could catch up, put away… you know, never mind.”  She zipped her coat back up and went to the door and pulled it open.

“Laurel…” She stopped, but he didn’t continue. Just stood there with his coffee cup dangling in his hand.

She heard Pat’s goodbye and the click of the phone hanging up. “Laurel. It’s good to see you.”

She turned and tried for an easy smile. Pat Caldwell was a big bear of a man with an easy way about him. His dark hair was peppered with gray, but his blue eyes were still friendly and warm. He rounded the counter and came to her, giving her a big hug.

She swallowed the sting that her own father had gone right to taking care of her plane and hadn’t bothered to hug her.

Pat released her and stepped back. “Glad you came to visit. You and your Dad should come to our house for dinner tonight.”

She stuffed her hands in her pockets, at war with herself over what to do. “I think that’s up to Dad.”

“Yeah, we can do that.” Her father raised a brow at her in question. At some point, she was going to have to purge this nine-year-old girl who knee-jerk reacted to everything around her dad. She affected every decision Laurel made, and she still needed to see one other person.

She nodded at Pat and went outside.

Her father came up behind her. “Staying or going?”

“Staying I guess. I wouldn’t mind seeing Sally. I’ll get my bag from the plane. Should I get a room?”

He huffed. “No. You can have your room at my house.”

It had never really been her room except for the handful of times she’d stayed here when she’d visited. But she didn’t correct him. They needed d├ętente and she was going to give it to them if it killed her.

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