Hometown Healing, page 1
She’s home again, but not for long...
Unless this cowboy recaptures her heart
Returning home with a baby in tow, Paige Cordell’s determined her stay is only temporary. But to earn enough money to leave, she needs a job—and her only option is working at her first love’s dinner theater. With attraction once again unfurling between her and Jed Gilbertson, can the man who once broke her heart convince her to stay for good?
Paige hesitated. Her heart still hadn’t recovered from their lunch after their museum trip. Sitting across a table from Jed a second time sounded much too intimate. Especially after their little shopping experience. She hadn’t had that much fun in some time.
Never could she have imagined Jed Gilbertson swapping his jeans and boots for flared polyester.
She worked to suppress a giggle.
“What’s so funny?”
Taking the hand he offered, she climbed into his truck. “Just thinking what a girl could do with thrift-store-shopping photos.” She held up her phone and wiggled it.
His eyes widened. “You didn’t. You wouldn’t.” He reached for it.
She inhaled sharply, her pulse accelerating as his gaze held hers.
He stepped back. “On second thought, I should get back to the theater.”
She straightened and nodded. “I should get home, too.”
She would not let him break her heart again...which was the only possible way things could end.
Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who’s addressed women’s and church groups across the nation. As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she and her team help women rest in their true worth and live with maximum impact. When not writing, Jennifer loves spending time with her adult daughter and hilarious husband. Visit her online at jenniferslatterylivesoutloud.com to learn more or to book her for your next women’s event.
Books by Jennifer Slattery
Restoring Her Faith
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Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
To my husband—you’ll always be my hero.
Note to the Reader
Excerpt from Shelter from the Storm by Patricia Davids
Paige Cordell felt as if she had regressed back to that awkward, frizzy-haired bookworm who’d left Sage Creek, Texas, fourteen years ago. With no intention of ever returning.
And yet here she was. As a divorced unemployed single mother no less.
Nothing screamed failure like sitting in Mom’s driveway with all of her belongings crammed into a U-Haul hitched to her car.
She glanced back at little Ava, sleeping soundly in her car seat. She looked so peaceful with her rosy cheeks, the halo of red curls and the slight part of her lips. As if she hadn’t just spent nearly an hour fussing, not that Paige could blame her. They’d had quite the drive. Traffic, work zones, an accident just outside of Houston.
Her phone rang. Paige glanced at the screen. It was Mira, her old high school friend.
“Just checking you made it into town okay. And to see if maybe you’d like to stop by my place for a nice cold milkshake.”
“Just got in.” She explained the reason for her three-hour delay. “And though I appreciate the offer, I’m wiped.”
“And discouraged. I know I’ll find another job eventually...”
“Have you prayed about it?” Mira’s statement sliced through Paige like an accusation. “Might help.”
“Please don’t talk religion to me. Not today.” She believed in God. But unlike her friend, she didn’t find comfort in tossing every decision up to Him.
Besides, she and God hadn’t exactly been on the best terms as of late.
“Well, like I said, this is only a hiccup.” Mira’s overly perky pep talk wasn’t helping. “Consider this an extended vacation.”
“I can’t believe Ardell let me go. I mean, I get budget cuts, but why me? I was a high performer. I never missed a deadline, pitched great article ideas...”
“You’ll find something even better with more job security.”
Paige inhaled a fortifying breath. “You’re right.” She’d never allowed setbacks to discourage her before, and she had no intention of starting now. “Maybe even for a better magazine with a larger readership.”
Only, Chic Fashions was about as big as they came. Not only was it Chicago’s premier fashion publication, but it was considered the top in the nation. She’d worked long and hard to land a position with them, only to end up jobless and living with her mother.
The antithesis of adulthood.
She glanced at Mom’s single-story brick house, heavily shadowed by a towering oak. Thick roots snaked through the grass, and a handful of dandelions dotted the lawn. The windows were dingy, like they hadn’t been washed in...ever, and the canary-yellow trim was beginning to peel.
Other than that, the place seemed well-kept, and the yard had been mowed, which was surprising if her sister were right about how much Mom struggled. Hopefully Paige’s arrival would help pull Mom out of this phase she was in.
A blur of red seeped into her peripheral vision, and she shifted to watch a shiny red pickup truck pull into the adjacent driveway.
Her pulse spiked as a tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat stepped out and then turned her way. “Seriously? Could this day get any worse?” she muttered.
“Why? What happened?”
With the phone still pressed to her ear, she sank farther into her seat with no intention of leaving her vehicle. At least, not until Jed Gilbertson was no longer standing less than fifty feet away. Staring at her.
She turned to the box of office junk on the seat beside her to avoid making eye contact. “Jed just pulled up at his grandmother’s.” It’d been too long, and her heart had been too shattered, for him to still have such a pull on her.
“I thought you were over him.”
So did she. “That doesn’t mean I want to see him.”
“I doubt you can avoid that, considering the close relationship he has with his grandmother.”
As did Paige. At least, she had, before moving away. She loved that woman dearly and wanted to see her, to reconnect—with
“He’ll probably be paunch bellied and balding in another five years.” Mira laughed. “Does that help?”
Paige envisioned him in his junior year, sneaking extra cookies off his grandma’s counter, something he’d done often. Laughter danced in his chocolate-colored eyes, and a scruff of a beard was just beginning to fill in.
He’d filled out some since then, though he’d always been muscular, and his features had sharpened. Other than his Stetson—he’d traded his signature black one for a tan variety—he dressed as she’d always remembered. Simple T-shirt, faded jeans and boots that were scuffed and worn but not tattered.
The man who had once been her entire world. For a while, she’d thought she’d been his, as well.
She hated to admit it, but he’d only grown more attractive, while she’d noticed the first hints of crow’s-feet on her own face.
“Your breakup was a long time ago, Paige. Let it go. Maybe you two can become friends again. You used to be so close. And if not, who cares? Guys like him peak in high school.”
And apparently women like Paige peaked in their thirties, then regressed.
As much as she wanted to remain in her car for the rest of the evening, Paige needed to get out before she looked even more foolish than she felt. “I should probably get going.”
“You’ve got this.”
“And don’t forget, you, me, coffee or dinner. Soon.”
After ending the call, she took a quick glance at her reflection in the rearview mirror. Hair the color of a new penny, in a slightly frizzed bob that cost little more. The spider veins accumulated from three nights of poor sleep contrasted sharply with her pale blue eyes. And her peach-toned skin made the flush in her cheeks all the more noticeable. She eyed her yoga pants, which were splotched with bleach stains, and cringed. Of all the times to choose comfort over appearance...
Just then, little Ava began to fuss. “Mama’s coming, sweet girl.” She fluffed her humidity-flattened hair and stepped out into the hot August sun. Footsteps scuffed toward her.
Ignoring the tall, handsome figure standing an arm’s length away, she unfastened her daughter from her car seat and positioned the little one on her hip.
She turned to find Jed looking as handsome—and country—as ever. His chocolate-brown eyes made a visual sweep of her, pausing a fraction on little Ava, before locking onto hers. “Haven’t seen you in a spell. You...you look good.” He lifted his hat to scratch his head, revealing those wavy chestnut locks she’d always loved. Like she’d expected, he wore his hair short, almost shaved on the sides, but longer and fuller on the top.
Heat rushed to her cheeks. “Thanks.”
“Who’s the little princess?”
“Ava Marie, my daughter.” As if he hadn’t heard all about Paige’s relationship troubles and her gem of a baby-leaving ex-husband. She had to be on every prayer chain in Sage Creek, if not all of Texas.
“Need help?” Stubble covered his square jaw, and his lips curled upward in his characteristic crooked smile. The one that had captured, then shattered, her heart when she’d needed him most.
She took a deep breath, hoping her voice wouldn’t reveal her rush of emotions. Emotions she’d thought were long buried. “I’ve got it, thanks.” Then, to prove the point, she grabbed her computer bag from the back and slung it over her shoulder. “How are you?”
“Oh, you know, same ol’, same ol’.”
His response provided the perfect end to an awkward conversation. She forced a smile. “If you’ll excuse me...”
Little Ava squirmed in her arms.
He eyed her U-Haul. “You moving back?”
She swallowed but held his gaze, though his question zeroed in on all of her insecurities.
Proving she stunk at relationships. And choosing men—something she’d do well to remind herself of every time Jed’s deep brown eyes spiked her pulse.
“For a while. To help my mom.” Which was true. He didn’t need to know the rest. “How’s your grandmother?”
“Putterin’ around, as ornery as ever. She’ll be glad to see you. Does she know you’re back?”
Paige gazed toward Mrs. Tappen’s house. “Probably.” Her mom likely mentioned something to her. Still, Paige really needed to stop by, see how she was doing.
“Bet she’d even make a batch of those snickerdoodles you always loved.”
The mention of her favorite cookies brought back a slew of memories—of her sitting at Mrs. Tappen’s breakfast counter with her cold hands wrapped around a hot mug of cocoa that was topped with miniature marshmallows. Of her parents’ fighting, the reason Paige had always ended up at the sweet woman’s home. After her father had bailed and Mom had shut down completely, when Paige had been in desperate need of a friend, Jed’s grandmother had opened wide her arms and her house.
But the memories that most squeezed her heart were of the hot summer nights she and Jed had sat on Mrs. Tappen’s back porch, sipping lemonade. They’d talked about everything, from pop music to where they wanted to land as adults.
Back then she’d felt certain Jed’s future would include her.
He stepped closer, and his cologne teased her nose. “What can I carry for you?”
“I’m good, but thank you.” She marched up the walk to her mom’s house, locking her car en route.
She’d unload the rest of her things later. On her own.
Because despite Jed’s little welcoming act, she had no intention of being friends with the man.
Her heart couldn’t take another rejection.
* * *
With his hands in his pockets, Jed watched Paige march into her house. She was more beautiful than ever. Her auburn hair, streaked with blond, was cut in one of those modern, windblown styles. Her teeth were straight and white. Way back then, she used to wear braces.
She looked classy, even in workout clothes. And for sure citified. She looked nothing like the quiet, shy teenager he’d once kissed.
If he had to do it over...
If her abrupt departure was any indication, the girl wanted nothing to do with him. Did she hate him that much, or had she simply moved on, determined she was too good, too...elegant and proper, for guys like him? But he only had himself to blame. He should’ve held on to her when he had the chance, been there for her. Should’ve stood by her and fought for her. Instead he’d been too wrapped up in his own drama. Too busy chasing the next party and running from the high-dollar, fancy life his parents tried to force on him.
He wasn’t fool enough to think they could ever have anything between them again, but he hoped they could at least be friends. And that somewhere beneath her sad eyes, he’d catch a glimpse of the girl he’d fallen in love with. Did she still exist, or had city life squeezed that out of her?
Couldn’t be easy raising a kid on her own. Was that what had brought her back? There’d been a time when he would’ve known that. When she told him everything.
Before stupid rumors and his reckless, party-chasing behavior had destroyed her trust and broke her heart. And the fact that she had believed the lies a bunch of high schoolers had spewed had broken his.
She should’ve known he hadn’t cheated on her and never would have.
Surely she wasn’t still nursing that grudge?
With a sigh, he turned toward his grandmother’s house and sauntered up the walk.
Inside, he hung his Stetson on a peg near the door. The aroma of baked goods—peach pie and chocolate chip cookies, if he were to guess—wafted toward him, causing his stomach to growl. His grandmother’s high-pitched voice emanated from the kitchen. She was singing a country song he didn’t recognize.<
Smiling, he shucked off his boots and proceeded past the formal sitting room, which was decorated with family pictures, and headed down the hall. In the kitchen, he found her at the sink with her back to him, and her hips and head swaying in opposite directions.
She squealed and whirled around. “Oh, Jed! You scared me, boy.” She wiped her hands on a towel, then deposited it on the counter.
He surveyed the slew of sweets occupying nearly every surface. “What’s with all this? Trinity Faith throwing a charity bake sale I wasn’t aware of?”
She nodded. “To help with the library’s new book campaign.” She grated orange peels over a cream pie. “So, what’d you find out about my grass?”
“You’re overwatering, for one. The backyard was swampy wet, especially by the fence. You might have a mess of take-all patch.”
He chuckled. “That’s the name of the fungus.”
“Makes no difference what it’s called. Question is, can you get rid of it?”
“I’ll grab some fungicide next time I stop at the hardware store. I’ll give it a good spray when I come back to mow on Saturday.”
“I hate to put you out. I know you’re busy with the theater and all.”
“Nah, it’s fine. I could use the exercise.”
“How do things look for this weekend?”
His heart ached to see the worry in her eyes. She loved that dinner theater and all of the memories it represented. Seemed weird that they’d been talking about changing the name, but Murder, Mystery and Mayhem wouldn’t fit their new branding. They were taking a risk, but they needed to do something.
Jed’s grandfather had purchased the business some twenty years ago, and for a while it’d been thriving. The place had drawn folks all the way from Austin. But when Grandpa had gotten sick, the business had taken a hit. After he had died a few years ago, she’d fought hard to keep it, and had even refinanced her home to pay off the mounting debts. It hadn’t been enough.
That was when Jed had stepped in and purchased half of the business, using the equity he’d built into his place.
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