Excerpt from My Heart Belongs to You
Book #6 of the Miracle Falls Series
Starr Dehl was going stir-crazy, and the day had barely begun. Her fault for coming home to Miracle Falls in cold, bleak January. But with Dahlia and Jake’s wedding in six-plus weeks, it seemed a good excuse to leave LA. She needed time to design and make dresses for the wedding— Dahlia’s wedding gown and the matron of honor and bridesmaid dresses for herself and Sunshine. A ton of work.
She’d attempted to get a head start in LA and had already sketched out Dahlia’s dress. But the hectic pace Wes demanded for the costumes she designed for him, and his insistence that she travel with the band on their never-ending tours had waylaid her progress. That and the panic attacks.
Those things were terrifying. Months ago, afraid she might be seriously ill and maybe dying, she’d hurried to her doctor’s office for an exam. The woman’s advice: see a relaxation therapist and take a much-needed break. Now, before she lost more weight and bit her nails to the quick.
It didn’t help that lately and for the first time ever, her passion for designing and sewing her creations had diminished significantly. Doing both for the wedding wasn’t half-bad, but to continue making a living at it? Not so much.
A blasphemous thought she quickly pushed away. She hadn’t told a soul about the doubts she was having— saying the words would make them real. Besides, she was certain that after a much-needed break from Wes, she’d be back to her normal enthusiastic self in no time.
Of course she would. Without the career she’d eaten, dreamed and breathed since she’d first started sewing in fifth grade, cemented into her heart and soul with a degree at Parsons New School of Fashion, she’d be lost, a rudderless ship in a vast sea of what nexts.
At the very thought, fear and uneasiness twisted her stomach and foreboding tremors eddied up her spine.
Starr clenched her teeth. “I’m not going to quit the job I love,” she stated out loud. “I’ll go back to LA refreshed and ready to continue with the career I was made for, the job Wes hired me to do and depends on me for. Got that?”
The self-pep talk helped. So did the deep breaths she sucked in and released until she felt in control again. Everything would be fine.
She’d been in Miracle Falls four days now, bunking at Mama J’s, aka Mama, because to Starr and her sisters, the woman was their mother. Not biologically, but she’d taken them in after an aneurism had ended their mom’s life. Sunshine had been eight, Starr seven and Dahlia six. Raising three stair-step sisters hadn’t been easy, but Mama had loved them and done a good job. She was also head of medical records health information at Miracle Falls Hospital, a big deal.
On top of that, she had an active social life that kept her busy, much busier than Starr had realized. Not that long ago, Mama had been more of a homebody, her life revolving around Starr and her sisters and of course, her work. Now the woman was so busy with friends and activities in the evening that not counting dinner with the family Saturday and fussing over Starr much of Sunday, communication with her had been reduced mostly to texts and an occasional phone call.
Her sisters had equally full lives. Besides running successful businesses, Dahlia was busy planning her wedding to Jake. Much of Sunshine’s free time was spent with Trevor, her smart private investigator boyfriend. The way their relationship was going, no one would be surprised if they got engaged in the near future.
Starr wasn’t involved with anyone— as crazy busy as she was keeping Wes in custom-designed outfits and shopping for accessories to go with the clothes, who had time for love?
Which didn’t mean she didn’t want it. Someday. At the moment, she was focused on other things. Three, to be exact. First and foremost, eliminate the panic attacks by practicing the exercises the relaxation therapist had given her and cutting down on stress. The stress reduction part had begun the day she’d left LA. A close second, designing and sewing the wedding dresses. All of which were tied to number three, renting a small place where she could sew and live in peace while she was in town.
As much as she loved Mama, staying with her had to end, and soon. Setting up the sewing machine and laying out the patterns on the kitchen counter— the dining table wasn’t big enough to work on and there was no place to set up the folding table Starr had brought with her— then putting everything away so that they could use the kitchen to cook and eat was getting old. Really old.
Eager to go out and look for a place, she filled a baggie with cheese and crackers, then sent a text to Mama. I’m exploring neighborhoods and checking out possible rentals. I have no idea when I’ll be back and will get something to eat while I’m out. In other words, I haven’t had a panic attack since I left LA, so quit worrying about me.
A born worrier, Starr was more than capable of doing that all by herself. After bundling up in the thick parka Mama had kept for the few times Starr visited and donning boots, gloves, and a hat, she tromped outside. Despite the bitter cold, it was a beautiful morning. The weak winter sun shone on the snow so that it glittered, and the smell of cold clean air invigorated her. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed winter. Who’d have guessed?
Jack Frost had shrouded the windows of the reliable Honda Civic she’d driven some twelve-hundred-plus miles from LA. Before she scraped them clean, she turned on the engine to warm up the car. When she finished the job, she was sweating and tired. No doubt partly due to the physical damage caused by too much stress over too long a period of time. At least her appetite was coming back.
She didn’t have snow tires yet, but had made an appointment for the following morning. No matter— she’d learned to drive in ice and snow years ago. Besides, most of the roads had been plowed and salted.
But where to start? With no idea, she decided to drive around and look for Available to Rent signs, including the neighborhoods in the north part of town, which was more woodsy and rural. Winter should be an easy time to find something.
The town had grown quite a bit since she’d last visited some years ago, and she relied on the GPS to navigate. She headed north, toward several new neighborhoods that’d sprung up while she’d been in LA. When she’d graduated from design school in New York and moved to LA to design costumes for Wes and other bands almost seven years earlier, the population of Miracle Falls had been roughly five thousand. Today, more than seven thousand people lived here, and the town was still growing.
While she was scouting around one of the areas in the north part of town, she noticed a two-lane road. Woodlawn Road, Dead End, the sign said. Why not take a look? Maybe she’d find something there.
Filled with a sense of adventure, an emotion she’d nearly forgotten for too long, she started down a rustic road. Evergreens and other trees with bare branches lined both sides. Exactly the rural-type area she wanted.
Houses peeking from between the trees were far and few between. No wonder the road hadn’t been plowed. Driving was tricky, and she went at a snail’s pace. Then, glimpsing a cottage through the trees and a Y in the road leading toward it, she quickly turned into the small driveway. Too fast for the ice and snow. With a mind of its own the Civic veered toward the snow-covered yard and plowed into a charming life-sized metal rendering of a dog. A sharp thud and hideous screech filled the air, knocking the dog down before the car abruptly stopped.
Oh, no! Tense and fearing a panic attack, she shut her eyes, drew in a calming breath and held it, then released it the way the relaxation therapist had coached her. To her relief, her chest barely felt tight, and she was able to breathe without struggling. No panic attack this time. A good sign. The airbag hadn’t deployed, either, making exiting the car easy. Worried about the front end and the damage to the metal dog, she quickly tromped closer to check out both.
Wanting to work on his latest whimsical creation that morning, Brady Barton had convinced Toni, a trusted and experienced employee, to swap schedules. His father wouldn’t like that, wasn’t much for change and preferred that his schedules be meticulously maintained. But not counting holidays, Mondays were generally slow, and Brady saw no problem with going in after lunch. It meant working till closing at eight o’clock tonight, but he didn’t mind.
A few months ago, a friend of a friend who lived in town had seen one of the whimsical animal sculptures he’d posted on his Instagram account, an occasional source of sales. She’d wanted one for herself and had purchased a playful cat. Yesterday, she’d contacted him and asked for another cat about the same size in a different pose. Brady had grinned. His first ever second sale, and from a local.
After discussing the details with her, he made a sketch of what he envisioned and emailed it to her. She loved the design, and he sent her a contract to finalize the details. He was anxious to get it made and delivered to her within a few weeks. Working fulltime at the store left him little time to get it done, which was why he rarely worked evenings and never weekends there.
He was welding pieces of scrap metal together when an unpleasant noise stopped him mid-meld. As far as he could tell, it’d come from the guesthouse at the back of his property. Filled with a sense of dread, he shut off the blowtorch, tugged off his heat-resistant gloves and set his safety glasses aside. In record time, he was out of his basement studio, pulling on his hat and winter gloves and shrugging into his coat enroute.
Trees and the tall privacy fence between the two places obscured the little cottage from view. Traversing the slippery, snow-crusted ground was treacherous. Thanks to the great traction on waterproof snow boots, he crossed the meadow and a narrow stand of trees, five hundred yards in all, then unlocked and opened the gate in the privacy fence without falling on his ass.
There he paused, silently noting a woman peering through the windows. What was she up to?
The woman— her car— was parked where his beloved sculpture had sat for the past eighteen months. It lay on its side, a metal found-object homage to Shep, the joyful Irish Setter and loyal companion he’d brought home from the pound when he’d graduated from college eleven years earlier. The dog had seen him through the divorce and after, until he’d passed on last fall. Just knowing it was there made Brady feel good.
She was up on the porch. He stayed still and watched her peer through the front windows, then head around to one side. Scowling, he advanced toward her. “What are you doing?”
He was angry and his voice gruff, reminding him of his father. God keep him from turning into that. The woman let out an audible gasp and pivoted toward him. “Inhale,” he swore she murmured. She took a deep breath, then scooped a handful of snow off the porch railing and formed it into a snowball. Her cheeks were red, her eyes narrowed in warning. “Don’t come any closer.”
Hadn’t meant to scare her. He stood stock still. His first thought was that she was beautiful. High cheekbones, generous mouth and full lips. Tall, with long legs. His ex-wife Verity had been a looker, too, and had ripped his heart to shreds. His ex was a blonde, and this woman had black hair, make that shiny black, that fell past her shoulders. “Or you’ll what— lob that snowball at me?”
She looked sheepish. “It’s the only weapon I have. I used to play softball, and I have a good aim.”
He admired her pluck. “Just tell me why you were looking through the windows like that.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Uh-uh, you first. Answer my question and tell me what happened to my dog.”
“You own that?” Her eyes widened. “I’m so sorry.”
As she headed down the porch steps to the yard, he realized how tall she was. He was six foot two, and she was at most two or three inches shy of that.
“I didn’t mean to plow into it,” she added. “I’m scheduled to get snow tires tomorrow morning. Terrible timing, I know. I’ve been driving around, looking for a place to rent for the next seven weeks that I’m in town. I saw the Y in the road and took the turn into the driveway too fast. My car went renegade on me. This place,” she gestured toward the one-story, “is exactly what I’m looking for. I was trying to find out if anyone was home. You didn’t answer the door when I knocked.”
“I don’t just own the dog sculpture, I made it.”
“No way. I’m impressed with your creativity and feel like such a twit for ruining it. You were saying?”
“I don’t live here. Neither does anyone else. This is my guesthouse, and it’s not for rent.” Now and then, he thought about renting it out, and from time to time he opened it to visiting friends or relatives in both summer and winter, but most of the time it sat vacant. Which was fine with him.
“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped as if she’d been defeated. “I’d better call my insurance company.”
He moved toward the front end of the car and studied it. “From what I see, there’s a minor dent in the fender. If that’s the only damage and you report it, your premium could go up.”
“Good point. At least let me pay for the sculpture.”
“Irreplaceable, but you can reimburse me for the materials I used when I made it.”
“So it means something to you.”
She had no idea how much. “Everything I create means something to me. This one is an ode to my dog.” He paused and shifted from one foot to the other. “He passed on last year.”
Her face pinched in on itself, and she glanced down. “Now I feel even worse.”
Good— she should. On the heels of the thought, he felt for her. She hadn’t meant to knock it over. “Don’t waste your guilt on me. I should be able to repair it.” It wouldn’t be the same, but if he’d learned one thing since the divorce, it was to man up and move on. “I’m Brady Barton,” he said, extending his hand. “And you are?”
After squinting at his outstretched arm as if not sure she wanted to touch him even though they both wore gloves, she gave in and shook. Then quickly let go and stepped back. “Starr Dehl.”
He knew that last name. “Any relation to Dahlia?”
“She’s my sister. You know her?”
“I designed her engagement ring and her and Jake’s wedding bands.”
“I love that ring!” she said, her face lighting up. Her eyes, a dark brown, seemed to sparkle. “So you’re the talented jeweler. Small world.”
“Smallish town. That’s me.” It’d only taken his father two years to give in and let him try his hand at designing jewelry, currently the only part of the job he enjoyed. “The wedding isn’t for a while yet,” he said, wondering what she was doing in town this far in advance.
“I’m designing and making clothes for it— the matron of honor, bridesmaid dresses and wedding gown. It’s easier to do the fittings here than in LA.” She paused, looked away. “Plus, I needed time off from my job.”
There was more to that story, he guessed. Maybe like him, she was unhappy with the day job. He wasn’t going to ask. Her life wasn’t his business and vice versa.
“The woods around here are so pretty,” she said. “I really like this part of town. You don’t happen to know of any places for rent in the area, by chance?”
Nope, and he wasn’t about to offer the guesthouse. The last thing he needed was a neighbor, especially a beautiful female, knocking on his door about one thing or another. He shook his head. “I don’t.”
Time to get back to the studio and work a while longer before changing clothes and heading to the jewelry store. “I’m due at work soon. Why don’t I turn your car around,” he offered, to keep her from inflicting more damage to his property.
“That’s probably a good idea.” She handed him the key and stood on one of the porch steps while he maneuvered the vehicle, not so easy with those tires and the ice.
When the job was done, he returned her key. “Thanks,” she said. She reached into the passenger seat and pulled a card from her purse. “Here’s my contact info. Let me know what I owe you. Again, I’m truly sorry.”
He stuffed the card in a pocket of his parka without glancing at it. “Take it easy out there,” he advised. As soon as the car disappeared from view, he carefully collected the broken tribute to Shep and carried it to the studio.