By Phoebe Mills
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Abby Engel has a great life. She's the owner of Sunshine Corner, the daycare she runs with her girlfriends; she has the most adoring grandmother (aka the Baby Whisperer); and she lives in a perfect hidden gem of a town. All that's missing is the thing she wants the most: a family. But after a stint of online dating and a string of bad blind dates, she's ready to give up. And then her ex-boyfriend (aka the love of her life) walks back into town…
Carter Hayes has no intention of staying in Heart's Hope Bay. He's there to help his sister out for a few weeks, and then he's back on a plane to Las Vegas. But small-town living has its appeal, and it’s not long before Carter's reminded of just how much he loves his hometown…and the one woman he’s never been able to forget. But after breaking her heart all those years ago, can Carter convince Abby that he’s her happy-ever-after?
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Abby Engel understood the whole concept of needing to work her way through some frogs before finding her prince, but just exactly how many was she expected to kiss before she found The One? At twenty-nine, she wasn't old by any stretch of the imagination, but with her abysmal dating track record, she felt ancient. And in a town as quaint—read: small—as Heart's Hope Bay, Oregon, she feared she was running out of frogs to kiss.
After last night's doozy of a blind date—despite him being perfect on paper with a stable job and a love for his big family—her options felt exceptionally dreadful. If the selection of men she had to choose from didn't drastically improve, she might actually lose hope in finding that forever love she was searching for.
She sighed, looking over the day's schedule for the Sunshine Corner, the day care she owned and ran out of the home she shared with her grandma. "Maybe I brought this on myself when I asked for a family man."
Savannah—one of her oldest and best girlfriends and fellow day-care cohort—laughed, blowing a strand of blond hair out of her face as she prepped the sand table for their nine o'clock texture time with the toddlers. "I'm pretty sure every deity in the world knows you didn't mean someone who was obsessed with their mom. I mean…yuck. What dude knows his mom even has a UTI let alone that she has chronic ones, and then decides they're appropriate first date dinner conversation? You have the worst luck in men, I swear. I don't understand. It's like you're cursed."
"She's right," Jenn said with a definitive nod, her shoulder-length black hair swinging with the motion. She bounced Amaya—one of their youngest charges—on a hip as the baby cooed and gnawed on her tiny fist. "Remember the guy who told you that you were pretty but that you'd be super hot if you lost ten pounds?"
Savannah made a disgusted sound in her throat. "I'd like to…" She trailed off so as not to be overheard by the children, but she mumbled what sounded an awful lot like punch that guy in the junk. "Remember the one who brought his own sandwich in a baggie to the restaurant to save a few bucks?"
"Oh! How about the guy who—"
"Okay!" Abby cut in, throwing her hands up. "I get it. My dating life sucks."
"It doesn't…" Savannah said, but the rebuttal was half-hearted at best.
"It does. And I can't even blame it on small-town selection. I've gone out with the most eligible bachelors in Heart's Hope Bay, and, yeah, a couple stuck for a while, but nothing more than six months. Now I'm in this drought, even though you guys talked me into setting up an account on that dating site. But they all turn out the same—a mediocre, if not horrible, first date and no signs of a second. Either the guys are completely weird or there's no chemistry." Abby dropped into one of the kiddie chairs and let loose a heavy sigh as her shoulders slumped. "I don't get it. Is it me? Am I awful?"
"No!" Savannah and Jenn said in unison, their heads shaking rapidly.
The corner of Abby's mouth ticked up, the only whisper of a smile she could manage right then. She might have atrocious luck in love, but her friendship pool was filled to bursting. She adored her girlfriends—both the ones who worked with her and her closest friends who didn't—but they couldn't give her the big family she'd always dreamed of.
A buzz sounded from the front door, and Abby stood to answer it, happy for a distraction from her thoughts.
"I got it," Jenn said, passing Amaya off to her along the way.
Fortunately, a baby to snuggle was an equally good distraction. Abby looked down as Amaya kept up a constant string of babble and felt urgency tug her in gut as she stared into the baby's beautiful face. Her butterscotch eyes, surrounded by impossibly thick lashes, were set off by her warm sepia skin, her riot of tight black curls backlit by the sun coming in through the window. Amaya was a good baby—sweet and giggly and cuddly—but the truth was, even if she wasn't, Abby still would've felt that pull in her stomach. To have a child of her own. To have a family of her own.
"I see how you're looking at that baby right now," Savannah said.
"How am I looking at her?"
"Like you might stick her in your bag and take her upstairs with you tonight to keep her."
Abby gasped and snapped her head up to stare at her friend. "I would never!"
Savannah's peal of laughter caused a couple kids to turn and look at them with curious eyes before focusing back on their puzzle. "I was just joking. Obviously you wouldn't nab a child. Besides, there are easier ways to get a baby," she said dryly.
"Yeah, well, if I could get past the first date with one of these guys, that'd be a great step in the right direction."
"Who says you need to date, period? You can just have one on your own."
"Haha. So funny."
Abby huffed out a disbelieving laugh. "Please tell me you're still joking."
"Why?" Savannah shrugged. "Women do it all the time. The only thing you need a guy for is his—"
"I don't think anyone needs to hear that before eight in the morning, Savannah." Abby's grandmother, Hilde, tutted as she breezed down the curved mahogany staircase from their living quarters upstairs. Her dark purple skirt swirled around her ankles like waves kissing the shore, and she wore her gray hair in a knot at the base of her head.
Savannah's only response was a tinkling laugh as she bent to help a few of the kids with their puzzle.
"What's so funny?" Jenn asked, being tugged in by one of their preschoolers.
"Nothing," Abby said.
But Savannah wasn't deterred and lifted her head. "I was just telling Abby she doesn't need a man if she wants a baby."
Jenn grinned. "Well, that's true. Lori and I are proof enough of that."
Abby understood where her friends were coming from, but they were forgetting one major, glaring detail—she didn't just want the baby. She wanted the whole big, happy family. "Yeah, but you and Lori have each other. It isn't just you raising Brayden by yourself. You have a partner."
Amaya started to fuss in Abby's arms, all the commotion of the day's drop-offs no doubt getting to her. Abby bounced and patted, rocked and shushed to no avail. As Abby tried to console the baby, the preschooler who'd tugged Jenn in released her hand and took off with a speed only seen in four-year-olds, her brother toddling behind her. Neither of them spared their mom, Norah, a backward glance.
"You're right," Jenn said, her dark brown eyes softening along with the rest of her as she met Abby's gaze. "But the option's there if you want it."
"And if you decide to go that route, just let me know," Norah said, easily sliding into the conversation. "I've got boxes upon boxes of baby clothes I could give you. I'd love to get them out of my house."
Hilde swooped in, plucking a crying Amaya from Abby's arms. Just like always, the child calmed within seconds of being in the Baby Whisperer's arms. "I wouldn't get rid of those just yet, Norah."
Norah laughed. "Believe me, we're done."
"Mmm-hmm…" Hilde said, her raised eyebrow and smirk speaking of secrets the mere mortal folk weren't yet privy to.
"Oh no," Norah said, shaking her finger at Abby's grandmother. "Don't you send any of those baby vibes my way, Hilde. I mean it! I'm outta here. Have a great day, ladies."
They all laughed at her quickly retreating form, even though there was truth in what she'd said. Hilde was known in Heart's Hope Bay as the Baby Whisperer for two reasons. First, she could calm any baby at any time, without fail—a handy person to have on call at a day care, no doubt. And second, she had the uncanny ability of knowing who was going to be the next person gracing the town with a precious little one. And she was never, ever wrong.
"Do you have to do that? You know she's going to be a wreck for the rest of the day," Abby said to her grandmother, waving to one of the dads dropping off his twins.
Hilde shrugged, her nose pressed to Amaya's curls as she swayed the baby side to side. "I can't control it, Abby. I only know what I know."
"Maybe you should try keeping that knowledge to yourself once in a while. Or focusing your powers on something else."
A grin tugged up the corner of her grandma's mouth, a mischievous spark in blue eyes the exact shade of her own. "Now, where's the fun in that? And as for your other suggestion, I'm working on it. Thought I might take a stab at your love life. How's that sound?"
"Like a horrible idea you absolutely should not attempt."
"Too late," her grandma said with zero remorse.
Abby's groan mixed with everyone else's laughter before they were interrupted by Sofia, one of their preschoolers, who was bursting with excitement. "Miss Abby! Look! Look who brought me today!"
"Who's that?" Abby asked, bending down and smiling at the little girl.
But before Sofia could respond, a deep, male voice said, "Hi, Abby."
Abby froze, every cell in her body sparking to life at the sound of those mere three syllables, goose bumps sweeping over her skin as her body hummed with a remembered awareness. Before she even turned around, she knew who'd be standing there. There was only one person in the world who, by merely speaking, could send shivers racing down her spine, igniting long-forgotten memories in their wake. One person who could fill her up and wring her out in the same breath.
Carter Hayes, her high school sweetheart, the boy she'd given two years of her life—not to mention her heart—to, and the one who'd gotten away.
It may have been eleven years since she'd heard his voice, but she'd recognize it anywhere. Mostly because it'd haunted her dreams the entirety of the time he'd been gone, leaving her wondering more often than not about what might have been, if only…
If only he hadn't gone away to college.
If only they'd actually tried the long-distance thing.
If only he'd come home after graduation instead of setting up residence a thousand miles away.
If only she'd meant enough to him to stay. Or return.
Savannah stared at her with wide eyes, her eyebrows lifting in an Oh shit expression as a group of four kids with clasped hands played Ring Around the Rosie with her in the middle. Abby returned the stare before glancing down and silently cursing herself that she was meeting Carter for the first time in more than a decade when she had baby spit-up on her shirt.
Rolling her shoulders back, she pasted on a bright smile and turned to face him. "Carter. Hi."
"You know my uncle, Miss Abby?" Sofia asked, her head cocked to the side.
She broke eye contact with Carter and smiled down at his niece, grateful for the excuse to get her fluttery heart under control. "I do. We, um…" She flicked her gaze back to Carter's briefly before returning it to the little girl. "We went to high school together."
"I love playing school. It's my favorite!" With that, she sped off into the melee of fellow three-year-olds, locating her best friend in seconds.
Abby turned back to Carter only to find his gaze sweeping over her, another thing to be grateful for. She'd always gotten lost in his eyes, and she wasn't so sure this time would be any different. Since he was otherwise occupied, she returned the favor, drinking him in for the first time in too long—and, no, those times she stalked his social media accounts while inebriated absolutely did not count.
Holy moly had the years agreed with him. He was tall and broad, filling out since he'd been gone, though he still had the sleek, lithe body of a swimmer. His hair was longer than it'd been in high school, the dark strands a little shaggy and the perfect length to delve her fingers into.
But she wasn't thinking about that. Nor about how broad his shoulders looked under his peacoat, or about that delicious shadow of scruff he'd never had when they'd been teenagers and the way it framed his kissable lips, or about—
Savannah cleared her throat, and Abby snapped her gaze up just in time to watch Carter do the same. At least she hadn't been the only one with roaming eyes.
"It's good to see you." His smile was a little stilted as he ran a hand through his hair, seeming unsure as to a proper greeting. Abby was right there with him—did exes hug? Did they shake hands? She wasn't quite ready to see if the spark that had always been charged between them still existed, and, it seemed, neither was he.
He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. "My sister told me you worked here."
"She does more than work here," Jenn said a little defensively, clearly picking up on the weird vibes between him and Abby. As a transplant to Heart's Hope Bay, Jenn never knew Carter from years ago. Didn't know his and Abby's history either. "The Sunshine Corner is Abby's baby."
"That's right. Becca told me that, too," he said, his voice tinged with a note of something Abby couldn't quite place. "That's amazing. Congratulations."
"Thanks." Abby offered him a genuine smile. "What about you? What are you doing now?"
See? That sounded like a totally reasonable question and not at all like she already knew the answer.
"I'm an architect specializing in historic restoration with a firm in Vegas. Just here working remotely for about six weeks to help with Sofia until Becca gets back up and running."
Abby cringed, recalling the details of the car wreck that'd happened just outside of town only a couple days ago. "I heard about your sister's accident. I'm glad it wasn't anything more serious than a broken ankle and that Sofia wasn't hurt."
"Me too." He glanced over at his niece, who was currently in an animated conversation with her best friend.
"It's nice of you to come back and help. Did your dad look after them until you could get up here?"
Carter and Rebecca's dad, though a lifelong Heart's Hope Bay resident, had become a bit of a recluse in recent years, rarely leaving his home on the outskirts of town. She had memories of him being more active in the community once upon a time, but then Carter's mom had passed away, and everything had seemed to change.
Carter's mouth tightened, his shoulders tensing. His words, when they came, were tinged with a hardness she'd forgotten he'd had whenever he spoke of his father. "No. I flew in the night Becca called me. I'll be the only one helping my sister and Sofia with what they need."
Abby nodded, folding her hands in front of herself, not wanting to pry into that family matter when it obviously made him uncomfortable. Never mind the fact that it wasn't her place anymore. They used to share their hopes and fears with each other, but they hadn't even shared hellos since he'd left.
"Well…I'm glad you're able to work remotely to be with them. I'm sure Becca appreciates it." She tucked her hair behind her ear as thoughts of Carter being in town for a month and a half finally caught up with her, her stomach somersaulting for no good reason. Offering him a smile, she said, "And it'll be nice to have you back in town, too."
He opened his mouth to respond, but Sofia ran over and tugged on his finger, pulling with all her might to drag him away. "Uncle Carter, come look!"
"Okay, all right. Give me just a sec." He chuckled, fondness replacing the animosity that'd been there moments before when he'd spoken of his father. Lifting his gaze back to Abby, he said, "Looks like I'm being summoned. It was good to see you, Abby."
"Yeah, you too."
With one final glance in Abby's direction, he let himself be led away by his niece. Abby didn't want to watch him walk away with that stupid swagger, and she certainly didn't want her heart pumping like she'd chugged a triple-shot espresso, leaving her hands trembling and her stomach unsettled.
"Need a bib?" Savannah asked with a wry lilt to her voice. "You've got a little drool…"
Abby snapped her gaze away from Carter and glared at her oldest friend. "Oh, shut up."
"I feel like I'm missing something here." Jenn divided a look between them. "Who's Carter, why are you giving him your you-know-what eyes, and why haven't you gotten all over that?"
"Oh, she's gotten all over it, all right."
"Savannah!" Abby hissed, shooting a glance around to make sure no little—or big—ears had picked up on what she'd said.
Her friend just shrugged. "What? It's the truth. Abby and Carter over there"—she jerked her head toward the tall, dark, and handsome man—"were high school sweethearts once upon a time."
"Oh really?" Jenn asked, her interest clear. "Tell me more."
"No. There will be absolutely no telling of more. At least not right now." Abby pointedly looked around to all the little people surrounding them.
Jenn heaved a deep sigh. "Fine. I guess you're right. I wouldn't be able to hear the good stuff anyway."
And there had been good stuff. Two years' worth. Her split with Carter had been pretty average for high school seniors who went to different colleges, but her feelings for him had been anything but. Hell, even after all this time—after countless misses with men and bad date after bad date—she knew that what they'd had was something special. She'd loved him with all her heart, and she'd thought they were perfect for one another.
Had thought, maybe, he'd be it for her. That they'd be one of those couples to make it last.
Maybe that was why she'd had such a hard time finding a connection with anyone else in the time since he'd been gone. Had she subconsciously been holding each and every guy up to Carter? To the memory of a love that no longer existed?
She glanced up only to find him already watching her, her eyes automatically connecting with his across the room, and Abby felt a zing from her head to her toes, struck by that disorienting sensation of not simply being looked at, but really seen—something that'd been lacking in her life for far too long.
This was going to be a long six weeks.
It was odd being back in a place that felt so familiar and so foreign all at once, but Carter couldn't deny the truth of both. Heart's Hope Bay was an idyllic small town nestled on the rocky Oregon coast, complete with a gorgeous beachfront and a downtown worthy of a postcard. This town, long as he'd been gone, would always be home to him…same as it would always be the place that held memories he'd spent more than a decade running from.
He'd been back a handful of times over the years, but whenever possible, he'd paid to fly his sister and niece out to Vegas to visit him instead of returning. He shouldn't have found it shocking how little the town had changed in the time he'd been gone. The ice cream parlor on Main Street still had a hand-drawn sign on the sidewalk proclaiming today's flavor, and Mr. Reyes still had his Christmas lights up despite it being February, and the Daily Heart was still delivered every day before dawn. It felt like stepping into a time warp, except he'd changed since he'd been gone.
His phone rang as he walked through the back door of his sister's house. He tossed his keys onto the checkered kitchen counter and pulled his phone from his pocket, glancing down to see his manager's name on the screen.
He swiped to answer. "Hey, Jake."
"Carter, hey, man. You get all settled in Heartful Bay?"
Chuckling, he dropped into one of the mismatched chairs at the small, round, red table set up in the eat-in kitchen. "Heart's Hope Bay, and yeah. I'm good. Though it's hard to catch up on sleep with a three-year-old belting out Frozen at six in the morning."
Jake made a gruff sound of commiseration. "Thanks for sticking around to take care of Redmond before you left. I know that put you on a late flight out of here."
"No problem." That had been Carter's motto the entirety of his career since the day he'd graduated college and started at his first entry-level job. He'd busted his ass, working his way up the ladder. Learning everything he could from the most intelligent people in the field…all with the goal to branch off and start his own firm at some point.
"Since you've had more than twenty-four hours of downtime, does that mean you're ready to dive in?"
The corner of Carter's mouth lifted. His boss—and friend—was a hard-ass, but at least he didn't pretend otherwise. "It's eight fifteen. Aren't you jumping on my case a little early?"
"Hey, not all of us got to sleep in. I've been at it for two hours already."
Carter snorted and rooted around in his messenger bag for his laptop. "It's not my fault no one's kept you company this week."
"Who says I haven't been kept company?" Jake asked wryly. "My late-night companions know the score."
The score being that Jake was a workaholic and didn't have time for a relationship or a family—much like Carter. He had enjoyed his job at Mosley & Associates for the past several years, but working for other people wasn't his end goal. He wanted the freedom and prestige that came from owning his own architecture firm.
He'd been well on his way toward seeing that come to fruition, with the last big promotion he wanted coming up for grabs at the end of this quarter. But he couldn't have anticipated Rebecca's accident, or his need to return to Heart's Hope Bay for the next six to eight weeks to help her take care of a high-energy three-year-old. Never mind that their father lived in town—Carter wouldn't trust the man to watch over a pet rock, let alone his flesh and blood. It put a wrench in Carter's plans, but he'd do anything for his sister and niece, even if that meant pushing back his goals a little.
And even if it meant interacting with Abby Engel while he was home.
In the time he'd been gone, he'd somehow managed to avoid seeing her, even on his few short trips back. Considering his current stay was more than a two-day stint, he figured he'd run into his high school sweetheart at some point while he was back, but he didn't think it'd get dumped on him right after his arrival. Seeing her had been a punch to the gut. The years had only made her more beautiful—something he hadn't thought possible, way back when. Her cheekbones had become more pronounced, her body filling out in ways that made his mouth water. She wore her red hair a little longer, a little sleeker, the waves more tamed than they'd once been. But one thing that hadn't changed was her eyes—still the same deep, soulful blue they'd always been.
Those eyes had had a way of seeing past every wall he'd erected and pinpointing the real him. Something he hadn't experienced with anyone else in the time since. Or ever.
He'd be lying to himself if he didn't acknowledge that he still had feelings for her, mostly of the what could've been variety. They'd split after high school because it'd made the most sense—four years at different colleges in different states made for a challenging relationship. And while that was certainly true, the real reason Carter called it off was because they wanted drastically different things in life—him, a prestigious career and the responsibilities that came with it. And her, a big family she could raise right here in Heart's Hope Bay.
Carter had zero desire for such a thing. Based on his history, he didn't think he had the whole family thing in him. Not to mention the idea of being tied down to a person—or persons—and a place that felt claustrophobic to him. He hadn't been able to fly the nest fast enough or get far enough away. He'd run from this tiny town with its too-painful memories that reminded him of everything he'd lost and the voice in his head that sounded an awful lot like his dad whispering that he'd never amount to anything.
"…get that sent off to Redmond this morning, that'd be great."
Carter zoned back into the conversation and shook his head to clear the thoughts he had no business thinking. He was here to help his sister, care for his niece, and do his job. Thinking about Abby—or his dad, for that matter—didn't factor in.
Luckily, he'd worked with Jake long enough to know exactly what he needed to send off to Redmond without having to admit to his boss that he'd been daydreaming about his ex-girlfriend instead of listening.
"No problem," Carter said, opening his laptop. "He'll have it by ten."
"See?" Jake's smile rang through the line. "That's exactly why you're my point person on our biggest projects. You get shit done."
That he did. He'd been a career-focused guy since the day he'd graduated college, climbing the corporate ladder as fast as humanly possible. It meant long hours and an exhaustive travel schedule, but that was fine with him. He had time for Becca and Sofia and little else. What more did he need?
- On Sale
- Aug 24, 2021
- Page Count
- 352 pages