Excerpt from Dream a Little Dream
Book #2 of the Miracle Falls Series
After several grueling days on the road, Lauren Wilson reached the freeway turnoff to Miracle Falls at just after eleven o’clock at night. The sight of the familiar sign, Welcome to Miracle Falls Where Miracles Can Happen, brought out a sigh of relief. She’d made it.
At this hour, the restaurants and businesses were closed and traffic nonexistent, normal for a chilly March evening between the winter and spring tourist seasons. In that respect, the town wasn’t so different from July in Sedona when the blistering sun and high temperatures slowed the hordes of visitors to a trickle.
With its abundant, lush green meadows and snow-drenched Cascade Mountains visible on the southern horizon, Miracle Falls was very different from the desert. Here in the Pacific Northwest, March was damp and cold. She missed the dry warmth.
She missed more than that. For one forlorn moment her thoughts turned to David and her life there. Make that her former life. He was no longer a part of her world. Neither was Marissa. No more fiancé or cherished girlfriend, and no more prestigious restaurant job.
“Good riddance to them both!” Lauren said and squared her shoulders. Although Glendale Highway, like the roads running through town, was virtually deserted at this hour, she paid careful attention to the U-Haul attached to her Subaru Outback. The midsize trailer contained all her belongings. Hauling the unwieldy thing had added hours to the fifteen-hundred-mile trip from Sedona and likely caused wear and tear to the car.
Thanks to all the driving, she’d become a pro at navigating roads and freeways. She could turn most corners without a problem. The only thing she couldn’t do was back up. “If worse comes to worst, I can always take a job as a truck driver,” she quipped in an attempt at humor. Even to her own ears, the joke fell flat.
Lately, she’d taken to talking to herself out loud. A sign of loneliness? Maybe. But no one listened quite as well to what she said as she herself. Now that made her lips quirk.
Friends and family expected her to check into a motel for the night and arrive tomorrow, and she hadn’t notified them otherwise. At a stop for fast food earlier, she’d decided to save money and drive straight through.
Arriving tonight wasn’t a problem, as she had the key to the one-bedroom cottage she’d rented for the next two months while the owner was away. It was fully furnished and moving in would be easy, although from the photos she’d viewed online, the place had seen better days. Quite a comedown from the luxury townhouse she’d shared with David.
Six years of her life, gone!
As the familiar anger and humiliation flooded her, her hands tightened on the wheel. “Darn it, I will not waste any more time on regrets and what-ifs.” She no longer cared about David, but his despicable behavior still smarted. She’d come home to forget all that and start fresh.
After loosening her grip and pulling in a few calming breaths, she felt in control again. According to the GPS, the cottage wasn’t far. And a good thing, as she was exhausted. Forget unpacking tonight. She’d bring in a few personal items then fall into bed and sleep. The rest of what she needed could wait until morning.
From what she could see of the slumbering town that had been her home until eleven years ago, nothing but the weather had changed since her last visit in August for her sister Rylee’s wedding. Summer had been in full swing then, the leafy trees providing shade from the hot sun, colorful flowers in meadows, and hanging baskets everywhere. March was chilly with scarcely a promise of spring in the air and as yet no sign that the stark branches would soon fill with buds.
The Glendale Road exit sign which led to Fletcher Street and her temporary home was coming up. Moments before she signaled to make the turn, a loud popping noise startled her. The car and U-Haul veered dangerously. Through sheer grit and luck, she managed to hold steady and steer to the shoulder, a noisy, bumpy, unnerving experience. “Great,” she muttered, instantly guessing the cause. “A flat tire.”
Though she was alone on the road, she turned the hazard lights on before exiting the car. A gust of wind went straight through her. She’d forgotten how biting the wind could be this time of year. Shivering, she zipped up her windbreaker and wished she’d exchanged it for a warmer coat in the U-Haul. She wasn’t about to search for it now.
Using the flashlight on her phone—the scattered roadside lights out this way were no help—she frowned at the listing right front end of the car. Must’ve run over something sharp. That’s what Roadside Assistance was for.
Lauren looked up the number on her phone—for some lucky reason, she was able to access the internet out here—and called. After about a dozen rings, the voicemail system clicked on. She started to leave a message then changed her mind. Either the people who worked the night shift were out on a call, or they’d fallen asleep from sheer boredom on a moonless night.
What to do now? She considered calling Rylee but quickly dismissed the idea. Her sister and Brock would be asleep. Same with her parents. No problem, she knew where to find the spare. She’d change the tire herself. So what if she’d never done it. That’s what YouTube was for.
After unlocking the car’s liftgate with her key fob, she stepped over the trailer hitch and opened the liftgate wide. She found the jack, the lug wrench and the spare tire, a good start, then searched YouTube for a tutorial on how to change a tire.
She watched the short video twice. First, put the jack in place, then raise up the car so the tire was off the ground. Which wasn’t as easy as it looked, mainly because she couldn’t get the darn jack in the right position. Grumbling in frustration, she shoved her hair behind her ears and plunked down on the cold, damp ground to try again.
“I could use a miracle about now,” she muttered to the long-dead town founders, who’d dubbed the town “Miracle Falls.”
Although Lauren didn’t believe in miracles.
Plenty of others did. Miracle Falls, the spectacular falls the town was named after and the centerpiece of a lush park and resort as well as a wedding pavilion, drew locals and tourists by the droves. And not only to experience the power and majesty of the falls or enjoy the hiking trails. According to area folklore, a kiss at the falls could lead to true and lasting love.
If such a thing even existed.
“Of course it does,” Lauren assured herself in the darkness. “Maybe not for me right now, but my Mr. Right is out there somewhere. Eventually, I’ll find him.”
The jack still wasn’t cooperating. Assessing her options, she stood and glanced up and down the dark highway. Headlights some distance away signaled an approaching vehicle. Relieved but wary—as safe as Miracle Falls was, she was no fool—she clutched the lug wrench and straightened her back to make her five-foot, six-inch self appear taller.
The vehicle drew closer, slowed, and braked to a stop. A black CR-V. The driver lowered his window. She recognized him, at one time had known him well. She and Quinn Adams had been friends since the night of their senior high school prom when their dates had ditched them to fend for themselves. Then and there, they’d become instant friends, commiserating with and consoling each other.
Help had arrived. Lauren’s flagging spirits lifted.
“Well, hello there,” he said, flashing the irresistible smile that always coaxed out her own. “Weren’t you supposed to show up tomorrow?”
Of course, he’d know that. Credit her family and friends and social media for spreading the news. “That was the original plan, but here I am.”
“It’s good to see you, even on the side of the road at this hour.”
In the dim light she couldn’t make out the expression in his eyes, but his tone was warm and not one bit “poor Lauren.” He didn’t say he was sorry about David or mention anything about the shambles her life had become. A welcome change from most everyone else.
He nodded at her lopsided car. “You have a very flat tire.”
“Unfortunately. What are you doing out so late on a weeknight?”
“I’ve been tying up loose ends at the office. Today there were a lot of them.”
“I had no idea an attorney specializing in wills worked such late hours.”
“It hardly ever happens, but my office manager had to leave work due to a sick kid. I was left to answer the phones between clients, do the filing and paperwork that wouldn’t wait, and supervise Wylie while he learns the ropes. This is only his second week. You can’t believe all the administrative work Carlita usually takes care of. She’s a gem.”
Lauren tuned out that last part about Carlita. “Your brother’s working for you?” This was surprising, as the man had problems holding down a job. He also tended to be overly fond of alcohol.
“Part-time, on an as-needed basis. He delivers documents around town on his bike.”
“He must be doing better than the last time I saw you.”
“Much. Not long after your sister’s wedding, he got his second DUI. His license was suspended, and he spent the night in jail.”
“That was a bad time for him, but something good came of it. He made up his mind to get sober and stay that way. He’s following through too, with six-plus months of sobriety under his belt.”
“Good for him. So when you said ‘bike,’ you didn’t mean motorcycle.”
“Nope, a used ten-speed.”
“Wylie riding a bicycle around town.” She couldn’t imagine.
“Without a driver’s license it’s either that, beg a ride, catch a bus, or walk. He also has a steady job making deliveries by bicycle for Pizza Time. He’s been there since the DUI and seems to like it.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said with heartfelt sincerity. “The place off Main Street? They serve great pizza.” She frowned. “Did you say he delivers food on his bike?”
“In a pizza-size basket, anywhere within a seven-mile radius. I was on my way home when I saw your car.”
She wondered where Quinn lived. The subject had never come up.
“Have you changed a tire before?” he asked.
“Well, no, but how hard can it be? Or so I thought.” She gestured at the empty jack. “Harder than it looks, as I found out. As you can see, I haven’t gotten very far.”
“Did you contact Roadside Assistance?”
“First thing. No one answered. I watched a how-to on YouTube. Changing a tire seems simple enough. If I could just get the jack to cooperate.”
“Mess up those talented chef’s hands? Forget that. I’ll do it.”
“Would you? Thank you so much.” She was going to let it go, but didn’t. “And I think I told you when we ran into each other last August that I’m not a chef anymore. I’m a front of house manager, which means I manage all personnel except the chefs. I also make sure the restaurant is clean and attractive.”
“You left out ‘ensure good service and a positive experience.’ ”
“You do remember,” she said, surprised.
“Every single word.” His eyes glittered in the dark.
The day after the wedding, they’d run into each other at the Corner Café both in search of coffee. They’d caught up over steaming mugs. Lauren had told him about David’s, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant her fiancé had started and ran, where she’d served as the personnel manager since day one. David had been too busy to come with her to the wedding, but then, he was always busy. She’d gotten used to socializing by herself.
Had she really gushed over his genius and their engagement? Never-ending as the engagement had been, dragging on for years. Her cheeks burned, and she was relieved Quinn’s attention was on positioning the jack. Which he did like a pro. But then, he’d always been good at everything he did.
He’d taken off his top coat and rolled up the cuffs of his white dress shirt, exposing thick wrists and competent hands.
“I hope you don’t get that nice shirt dirty,” she said.
“If I do, I have plenty more just like it in my closet. Still, if it wasn’t so cold I’d take it off.”
She wished it were warmer, because the man was in great physical shape. Geesh, Lauren. He’s a friend, not a potential date. Although after graduating high school, she could have dated him. They’d spent weeks of their free time that summer hanging out as friends before he’d told her he wanted more. He was a great guy, fun and attractive, but she didn’t have romantic feelings for him. Anyway, the timing had been wrong. She was barely over her ex-boyfriend, and they were heading off to schools on opposite sides of the country for new adventures. What was the point of beginning a relationship that would end almost as soon as it started?
“I feel for those restaurant customers who missed out on your great cooking,” he said while he worked. “Thinking about your food always makes my mouth water.”
“That’s kind of you to say, but when you last tasted my cooking, you were eighteen, and so was your palate. You’d feel differently now.”
His brow furrowed slightly, signaling he was about to ask her something cooking related. Unwilling to discuss the matter further, she compressed her lips and shook her head in silent warning not to. These days she cooked only for herself, easy dishes anyone could make. “Let me know if I can help with the tire change,” she said.
“It’s a one-person job.” He made short work of proving his words, removing the damaged tire and attaching the spare in its place. “All done.” Pushing to his feet, he brushed his hands together.
He stored the tools and the bad tire in the trunk and then shut the liftgate. “This spare isn’t meant to last. I wouldn’t drive more than fifty miles on it. You’ll want to get a replacement in the morning.”
“I will. I owe you, Quinn.”
He dismissed the comment with the wave of his hand. “Forget it. I did what anyone would do.”
“And I’m grateful. It was late when you stopped and later now. I’m sure you want to get home, and I still have to find the cottage.”
“You’re not staying with your parents or at your sister’s place?”
“Rylee and Brock are newlyweds. I wouldn’t want to intrude on them. I didn’t want to stay with my parents either. My mom… When she’s worried, she tends to hover.”
“Should she be worried?”
“Absolutely not, but she’s my mother, and my circumstances have changed. I’m no longer engaged, and I don’t have that great job anymore. She doesn’t have much confidence in me right now, but I know I’ll be fine.” Lauren raised her head high.
“I have total confidence in you.” How did he know she needed to hear that? “I know how moms are. Even after all these years, I still remember mine doing the hovering thing.”
Sadly, Quinn no longer had a mother or a father. Years before Lauren had met him, his parents had been killed in a car accident. Such a tragedy.
In the moment of silence that fell between them, Quinn rolled down the cuffs of his shirt and shouldered into his coat. “Where is this new place of yours?”
“On Fletcher Street.”
“Never heard of it.”
“I hadn’t either.”
“Miracle Falls is growing. Maybe it’s one of the roads in a newer subdivision.”
“From the photos I saw online, this place is old.” With rent she could afford. “According to my GPS, it’s only a few miles up the road.”
“Why don’t I tail you in case that spare goes flat.”
“It’s after midnight on a week night. Don’t you want to get home?”
“Eventually, I will. Anyway, we’re both headed in the same direction.”
He put the Boy Scouts to shame. “As long as you’re not going out of your way.”
He returned to his car and followed her off the exit. She needed to think of a way to thank him that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. While she followed the GPS directions to the cottage, she considered what to do for him.
She forgot about that when she realized she was almost at the city limits. The cottage was farther away than the GPS had led her to believe. At last, she saw the Fletcher Street sign. After signaling to alert Quinn, she turned onto a two-lane street. The vehicles parked along both sides reduced it to one lane, leaving scant room to maneuver the U-Haul forward. Oh, joy.
The only option was to back up, which she was unable to do.
Could the night get any worse?
Thank goodness for Quinn. Maybe he’d have a suggestion or two. For the second time that night, she put the warning lights on.
Judging by Lauren’s trudging steps as she approached Quinn, it was obvious the long drive home and the late hour had worn her out. Yet she managed to convey her usual gracefulness. But then, her feet could have been stuck in concrete, and she still would’ve appealed to him. She always would.
Not that it mattered. Fool me once…
The summer after high school, they’d hung out nearly every day. Along the way, he’d developed deeper feelings for her. When he’d let her know, she’d friendzoned him. Ouch, but better than nothing. Or so he’d thought at the time. As it turned out, her definition of friendship didn’t match his. Not long after he’d headed east for college and she’d left for culinary school, she’d forgotten all about him.
It’d taken him a while to get over her, but he was past all that now. So no, he wouldn’t go down that dead-end path again. Casual friendship was fine with him.
He noted the mixture of modest cottages and two-story houses along the road. “So this is Fletcher Street. Can’t believe I didn’t know that—I happen to live about three miles south of here.”
“We’re almost neighbors. I wonder if most roads out here in the country are this narrow.”
“Not where I live. My street is wide enough for both parking and driving.”
“Lucky you. This is a long way from your office. Is there a reason why you chose the area?”
Easy question. “A few years ago, Grams and Paps relocated to a senior living community a few miles from here. I wanted quick access to them and liked the woods, so I bought a house in the area. I doubt you can maneuver down this road with that U-Haul.”
“That’s why I pulled over.” Her hands twisted together. “I need to back up—the one maneuver I haven’t attempted with the trailer. Any suggestions?”
“Yeah, let me do it. When I moved Grams and Paps, I rented a U-Haul the same size as yours to transport their stuff. I had to back up once or twice, which isn’t something a guy forgets. I’ll park my car, then we’ll deal with yours.” She nodded and stepped aside, and he moved the CR-V close to the ditch at the mouth of the road.
When he returned, she was chewing her lip. “Are you sure you can do this? I can’t afford any damage.”
“If I couldn’t handle it, I wouldn’t offer. Relax and get in.”
While they buckled up, he outlined his plan. “About a tenth of a mile back, we passed a turn around. The U-Haul should be safe there.” He put the vehicle in reverse, and she sucked in an audible breath. Man, she was nervous. “Trust me,” he said, and waited for her nod.
He didn’t understand his relief when it came. Alert and cautious, he began to back up, taking care not to sideswipe anything.
Before he’d moved more than a few feet, she cleared her throat. “Maybe I should get out and watch for approaching cars.”
At this hour there wasn’t another moving vehicle in sight, but she needed to do something to ease her concerns. He nodded. “Good idea.”
Once he made it safely onto the highway, she joined him in the Subaru. Moments later, he pulled into the paved turn around and parked. “Let’s search out other ways to get to Fletcher Street and your new place.”
“Okay.” She squinted at her phone, then huffed a frustrated breath. “Darn it, my GPS stopped working.”
His was the same.
“Do you happen to have a decent map in your car?” she asked. “The one from the U-Haul people only shows the U-Haul locations in the area.”
“No, but I happen to know the zoning rules out here. They require bisecting road access every few blocks. I won’t have any trouble driving the CR-V down this street. We’ll get our bearings and take whichever road is closest to the cottage.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” she said, sounding almost cheerful as they walked to his car.
Moments later, he rolled slowly up Fletcher Road. “Do you see any house numbers?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Not in the dark. Wait—there’s a house with the porch lights on.”
Quinn let the car idle and read off the number. “This is 12703. What are we looking for?”
“Finally, something I know—15926.”
He nodded. “Up the street a bit.”
“I’m guessing quite a bit.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” He continued to drive at a leisurely pace. Every block or so, a bisecting road marked another group of house numbers. Some minutes and a good mile later, after passing scattered homes with huge yards, they sighted her house number—the last mailbox on the block and, according to the sign, fifteen feet or so from a Road Ends warning and a turn onto County Line Road. Across from that, woods and darkness.
“We’re here,” he said and braked to a stop.
“At the opposite end of where we started. At least the GPS is working again. What a night this has been. A lot more than you bargained for when you offered to follow me.”
“Good thing I did. This end is better—fewer houses and plenty of space to park.” He gestured toward the sign of the street ahead. “That’s County Line Road. It has dual lanes each direction. We should be able to drive the U-Haul down here with no problem.”
“I’m all for that. How odd that the porch light is off. The owner’s out of the country until the end of April, but the agency managing the property is supposed to leave it on. I thought sure at least one of the inside lights would be on too.”
“They weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.” Quinn wondered how often the agency checked on the property and hoped the bulbs weren’t burned out.
They headed through the early spring grass, which was nice and short after the cold winter. Also wet, thanks to the rainy afternoon.
They reached the sliver of concrete that served as the front stoop. “Do you have a key?” he asked, his breath clouding in the damp night air.
Instead of searching in her large shoulder bag, she fished through it by feel. Her forehead wrinkled in concentration and one side of her mouth skewed up. She looked adorable.
“Got it,” she said, holding up the key. She unlocked the door.
Quinn stood back while she found the light switch. The porch light flickered on, and the lights inside filled the little—make that tiny—cottage.
He saw a front room and an area rug over the scarred wood floor. A sofa, lamp, TV, and small coffee table crowded the space. Carpeted hallways led to opposite ends of the house. In one direction, a dated kitchen with worn linoleum floors and appliances that looked ancient, although the table and two chairs appeared to be newer. The opposite way led to the bathroom and a bedroom. The double bed, night stand, and dresser left scant room to move around.
Lauren sucked in an audible breath.
“Not what you expected?” he asked.
“I knew it was old and small, but I thought… In the online photos, it looked nicer.”
“It’s pretty rundown,” he agreed. “Did you sign a lease, or are you renting by the month?”
“I signed a short-term contract to stay the entire two months until the owner comes back. I can’t believe he lives in this dump. But I shouldn’t complain—the price is right.”
“Two months isn’t that bad.”
“And gives me time to find something better. In the meantime, I’ll get a job and start earning a living again, which I’m sure will happen quickly.”
For her sake, Quinn hoped so. “What type of job are you looking for?”
“The only kind I know—restaurant work. If possible, in management. I’m good at that, and I have a great recommendation.”
“Then getting what you want shouldn’t be a problem. A bunch of software programming companies have opened here and new restaurants have too.”
“That’s what my sister, Rylee, says. I’m counting on it.” She yawned. “As soon as I get settled, I’ll start looking.”
Quinn yawned along with her. “Let’s get your things in here.”
“All I need tonight is one suitcase from the U-Haul. Tomorrow, I’ll bring in the rest of what I want to keep close by, and then drop off my furniture and the stuff I don’t plan to use for now at Best Storage. I rented a space there.”
With the cottage so small, that seemed wise. “If you’re looking for help with the furniture, I’ll bet Wylie will give you a hand,” Quinn said. “I don’t think he’ll charge much either.” His brother could use the money.
She looked thoughtful. “Rylee and Brock are going to help me here at the cottage for a little while before Brock has to get to work. The woman who manages the storage facility said I could borrow a dolly to move the furniture. I planned to manage by myself, but some of the pieces are heavy. Help would be nice.”
“Before I leave, I’ll give you my brother’s number. Let’s go get the U-Haul.”
The drive down County Line Road and back to Glendale Highway didn’t take long. In what seemed no time, Quinn pulled in behind the Outback.
“I really appreciate this,” Lauren said. “Good night.”
He couldn’t leave her like this. “I’m worried about that spare. I’ll follow you to make sure you get to the cottage.”
“It’s not very far away. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“But you’re still going to follow me,” she said, glancing at his compressed lips. “You’ve already gone way above and beyond. Why do this too?”
No point in lying. “Because I’m glad you’re here.” For the first time tonight, she offered the genuine smile he hadn’t realized he’d been waiting for since he’d stopped to change the tire.
“I don’t care what you said, I want to repay you for your help tonight.”
“If you insist. I wouldn’t say no to one of your homecooked meals.”
There went her hands, twisting at her waist. “Can I think about that?”
What had happened to the self-assured, budding eighteen year-old chef who’d cooked for friends and family without hesitation? Sensing that now was not the time to ask, he gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Okay.”
She seemed to relax. “I’m happy that after all these years we’re still friends.”
In the lightest sense of the word. He wasn’t going to assume anything more. “Same.”
She made it fine, parked on the side of County Line Road, and waved him off. He lowered the window. “Do me a favor?”
Except agree to cook for him until she thought it over. “Ease my mind—text when you get that spare replaced.”