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Copyright © 2017 by Erin Wright
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
To the teenage me:
I’m glad you didn’t give up that day in the music closet
Overdue for Love
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A FREE Story For You…
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The story doesn’t end…
Also by Erin Wright
About Erin Wright
Quick Note: If you enjoy Christmas of Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.
With that, enjoy!
Well, this party was exactly as exciting as Ivy McLain thought it was going to be.
Which was to say, not very exciting at all.
Of course, this was Sawyer, Idaho. What else could she expect?
She sighed. Only this, unfortunately. A bunch of old farmers, standing around and jawing about how their crops didn’t bring in enough money and there wasn’t enough water this past year, or maybe there was too much water, and the combine broke down in the field again…
It was enough to make Ivy’s head hurt. Why people intentionally chose to live this way was beyond her. Especially the cold part. She shivered, pulling her woefully inadequate jacket tighter around herself. Ugh. A little over two weeks before Christmas in Sawyer freakin’ Idaho. She should be grateful it wasn’t snowing, but she couldn’t find it in herself to be that saintly.
It was too cold to be grateful orsaintly.
Her mom looked up from her discussion with Mrs. Frank about plans for next year’s garden, and waved. Ivy smiled as cheerfully as she could – which was to say, not cheerfully at all – and huffed out a breath. If she didn’t love her parents so much, she never would’ve made herself come back here. Thank God it was just a weekend visit. To actually live in Sawyer again…
Another shiver ran through her – from disgust or cold, she couldn’t tell – and she spun on her heel to head towards the refreshment table. She’d make herself some hot cocoa and—
“Oof!” she gasped, when she ran into a brick wall.
She looked up to see…
Well, the cutest brick wall she’d ever laid eyes on. The phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” was definitely appropriate. Thick brown hair just long enough to run her fingers through, and the most piercing emerald green eyes she’d ever had the pleasure to see. Whiplash quick, he reached out a hand to steady her, gripping her elbow to keep her upright.
“Howdy,” he said, pushing his cowboy hat a little further up on his head. In his hand was a mug of mulled apple cider.
An empty mug of mulled apple cider, because she’d spilled it all over him with her clumsiness.
The world froze as she realized what she’d done. Dammit all, she was a waitress! She knew how to navigate in tight spots. What on earth was she doing, running people over like that? A painful silence stretched between them, a chasm as she stared at the damage she’d wreaked.
And then the dam broke, and the words came tumbling out.
“So sorry!” she gasped, looking at his jacket, covered in a brown liquid that was now dripping off onto the frozen ground. “So, so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going and then you were there and…let me help clean you up. It’s the least I can do.” Not waiting for his response, she began dragging him towards the refreshment table, thankfully only a few feet away. She’d get him cleaned up and on his way, and then she’d run and hide in her parent’s broom closet.
Preferably for the next year or so.
“No worries!” he said with a low chuckle as he hurried along behind her. She stopped abruptly at the table and began grabbing the paper towels. “This jacket needs to be dry cleaned anyway,” he continued. “Kept meaning to take it on over to the Wash ’N Spin, but haven’t had—”
Which is when she started patting his face dry, and he had to shut up. Dammit, dammit, dammit. She’d gotten apple cider everywhere. How on earth did she get it on his earlobe?! She was patting him dry and trying really hard to ignore his strong jaw covered with a light dusting of dark brown hair and green eyes and–
Just get this done already, Ivy!
Her pats were coming a little slower, though, as she got caught up in his gaze. They were only inches apart from each other, and sure, her hands were filled with dirty paper towels, and sure, his jacket was sticky to the touch from the cider, but in that moment?
None of that mattered.
All she could do was stare at him. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, her breath uneven.
“My name is Austin Bishop,” he said, breaking the silence between them. “And yours is?”
She probably should’ve thought to introduce herself before she put her hands all over his body, but better late than never, right?
“Ivy McLain,” she said, proud that she could get her name out at all. She sounded breathless, but she was breathless, so there wasn’t much to be done about that.
“I thought you looked like Iris,” he said, with what was possibly the cutest grin she’d ever seen on a man’s face.
“People say I look like her,” Ivy said with a shrug, happy to note that her voice didn’t sound quite as breathless as it had before. “I don’t see it, personally.”
“You don’t see…” His voice trailed off and he cocked an eyebrow at her in disbelief. “You two could be twins,” he said bluntly.
Ivy threw her head back and laughed. It was sweet of him to say, of course. And she wasn’t going to be coy and demure and say that it wasn’t true – even though it really wasn’t – in an attempt to get him to give her more compliments.
But everyone knew that Iris was the prettier of the two, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
“So why the plant names?” Austin asked after her chuckles had died down a bit. His gaze was as intense as ever, like he was trying to memorize every curve, every freckle, every laugh wrinkle on her face. It was disconcerting to have someone look at her so…intently.
She tried not to read too much into it, though. He probably looked at everyone that way.
She shrugged. “My parents wanted us girls to remember ‘our roots,’ so they named us after plants. Mostly what ended up happening was they couldn’t keep our names straight. I kid you not – I thought my name was Iris-Ivy for the longest time.”
He chuckled, and a warmth spread through her that belied the brisk winter temperatures. She wanted to lean into him again, but this time, not be blotting up spilled apple cider. She wanted—
“Oh, there you are!”
The voice cut through the cold air like a whip – slicing through Ivy’s heart and sending spasms of pain through her. No, not her. She can’t be here! Iris promised me she wouldn’t invite—
And then Tiffany was draping herself over Austin, practically climbing up his side. Tiffany sent Ivy a sickeningly sweet smile that didn’t even vaguely reach her eyes, as she looked her up and down. Dismissing her, Tiffany turned back to Austin. “I didn’t realize you’d be here, darlin’,” she cooed. “I tried calling you about going to the ice skating show tomorrow night, but you didn’t answer.” She ran her fingers up his chest and to his face, bopping him on the nose playfully. If she was going to get any closer to him, she’d have to strip naked to do it.
Ivy began backing up, mumbling something that could’ve been, “Have a good time,” or “Good food tonight,” or “I hope you eat bugs and die…”
Really, it was quite mumbled, and even she wasn’t sure what she said, and then she was spinning on her heel and heading towards the house, the dirtied paper towels still in her hands. She began wringing them in her hands as she walked.
“Austin and Tiffany?” she muttered under her breath as she stalked, blinded by rage as she went. “Tiffany?!” She could forgive him for anyone but Tiffany.
Okay, maybe not Ezzy, either.
But anyone but Tiffany or Ezzy, she could understand. But those two…they just didn’t seem his type.
Not that she knew his type. She barely knew his name. But floozy, bitchy girls didn’t seem like they should be anyone’s type, if you asked her.
Not that anyone had, of course.
She tossed the dirty paper towels into a trashcan as she passed, and then stormed into the kitchen, muttering as she went. “Damn Tiffany, always ruining – Iris!” she yelped in surprise when she spotted her sister at the sink. Beautiful as ever, but a little more fragile than she used to be, Iris turned and shot her a smile.
Ivy scowled. Her sister had promised not to invite those two to the party. “You would not believe who is here!” she announced as she headed for the fruit platter on the counter. Yum – honeycrisp apples. They were her fav, and really only available in the fall and early winter. Which made them an even bigger treat when she could get her hands on them. She snatched one up and began crunching on it as she paced her parent’s small kitchen.
Iris grabbed another potato and gave it a light scrub. “Yeah?” she prompted. She looked like she was in the middle of making the infamous McLain potato salad, which was awesome. If Ivy was going to be stuck in Long Valley for a weekend, she might as well enjoy something amazing to eat.
“Tiffany and Ezzy! You didn’t invite them, did you?” Ivy asked around a mouthful of apple.
Iris turned, and without a word, sent Ivy a death glare.
That death glare. The patented Iris Blue McLain death glare.
Ever since they were kids, Iris had been able to kill with just a look, a look that always made Ivy feel about three feet tall.
Turns out, Iris hadn’t lost her touch when it came to her glares.
Ivy shrunk back. “I didn’t think so, I just thought I’d ask,” she mumbled sheepishly.
Iris just continued to glare, and Ivy continued to feel awful. On second thought, that was a really terrible thing to accuse her sister of doing. Iris knew just as well as anyone how miserable Tiffany and Ezzy had made her life all the way through school. She never would’ve invited them here on purpose.
Ivy knew that…when she wasn’t wrapped up in her own little anger-induced pity party.
When the silence extended out into painful territory, finally Ivy mumbled, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Iris nodded her head – just once, regally, like a queen forgiving her subjects – and just like that, things were okay again. Iris began gathering the potatoes from the kitchen sink and moving them over to the table.
She probably needed to sit down. Ever since her car wreck three months ago, Iris had struggled with simple things, like standing. Or walking. Or staying upright.
It was painful for Ivy to see. Her sister had been the basketball star of Long Valley. She’d helped Sawyer win state championships. She was captain of the girl’s basketball team as both a junior and a senior. She had more athletic talent in her little pinky toe than Ivy did in her whole body, something the whole valley now knew.
When the high school coach had first welcomed Ivy onto the basketball court, his eyes had been bright with excitement. He’d been handed a gift – another McLain who’d help extend the Sawyer High School winning streak for another three years after Iris had graduated and moved on to college.
It was an excitement that quickly fizzled out when he saw Ivy’s ball handling skills, which were…nonexistent.
She’d ended up on the JV team all four years of high school.
That sort of thing just wasn’t what a soul could live down in a small town.
Ivy snapped her head up as Iris began to muse, “My best guess is that they heard about the free food and music, and decided to come on down and mooch off us. They’re the kinds of people who would think that’d be okay.”
Ivy considered that for a moment and then sighed. “You’re right.” She grabbed the last item – a bowl of washed potatoes – and carried them over to the table for Iris. She should’ve been paying attention instead of wallowing in her own insecurities, and helped Iris with more of the items. Iris smiled up at her with gratitude anyway, and Ivy forced herself to smile back.
Some days, Iris could be infuriatingly kind. It really wasn’t fair that she was that pretty and that talented and thatnice.
“Thanks, sis,” Iris said cheerfully, oblivious to Ivy’s inner turmoil, and drew the bowl towards her, pulling out potatoes so she could begin chopping them.
Ivy headed back to the fruit platter on the counter. Those honeycrisp apples were some of the best she’d ever had, and she couldn’t seem to keep her hands off them.
“Well, they’ve ruined everything,” she informed Iris around a mouthful of apple.
“Everything?” Iris echoed skeptically.
“Yeah! There was this guy, and—”
“Hey, you guys, I need to know where you want this table,” one of the caterers said, popping his head around the kitchen door.
Iris started to struggle to her feet, but Ivy waved her off. “You sit and take a break and get the damn salad done already. There are rumblings in the ranks that no one has brought the famous McLain salad out yet. I’ll go.” It was about time she helped out, instead of just mooning over cowboys. She snagged another apple slice and headed out the door, listening as the caterer outlined the issue. She would get this straightened out, and then go hide in her parent’s broom closet. It was the least she could do for Iris, and for her parents.
It wasn’t their fault that returning to Long Valley was the disaster she knew it would be. That blame could be laid squarely at the feet of two women who’d spent years of their lives making Ivy’s life miserable…
And one hunky cowboy with terrible taste in women.
She was flying back to California tomorrow, and already, she couldn’t wait.
After extracting himself from Tiffany’s loving (read: smothering) embrace, Austin made his way over to Declan’s side. Declan was one of the few people at this party who he knew really well, plus there was the fact that he was dating Ivy’s sister which made Declan the expert on all things Ivy McLain, at least as far as Austin was concerned.
Once he got to Declan’s side, he wracked his brain, trying to think of how to subtly ask for info about Ivy – something a little bit better than “You’re banging Ivy’s sister and I’d really like to do the same to Ivy” – when Declan’s face lit up with laughter. “Damn, Austin, I thought Tiffany was going to strangle you, she was hugging you so hard. How long have you been dating her?”
Austin glared at his best friend. Not many people liked being on the receiving end of laughter, and no surprise, Austin didn’t either. “One date. I went on one date with her. You’d think I’d proposed to her by the end of it.”
Declan let out a shout of laughter that had a couple of nearby people turning their heads to find out what was so funny. Austin did his best to blend into the frozen ground. Attention directed towards him wasn’t exactly his favorite thing in the world.
He upped his glaring. Declan laughed louder.
“Man, I can’t believe you even went on one date with Tiff. Did she trap you down at the diner?”
“Yes,” he groaned, not wanting to admit it out loud. Now that he knew the town better, he’d found out that this was a typical move for Tiffany, but at the time…
He paused, hoping Declan would change topics, but he was just staring, waiting for more details, so finally Austin mumbled, “It was the first day I was here in Sawyer. I only knew you, and…she was my waitress. Seemed nice. Said we could go to the rodeo together. I thought that sounded like fun, and making a new friend would be nice. I had no idea I was signing up for a lifelong commitment.” He scrunched up his face in disgust. “Hell, even Ezzy is possessive, and I didn’t even go on a damn date with her!”
Which caused Declan to let out another bark of laughter. “Well,” he finally said, wiping the tears from his eyes, “you picked a hell of a girl to become friends with. Tiffany is about as likely to let you go as she is to chip one of her manicured nails doing real work.”
Yeah, Austin figured that out – a little too late, but no way to fix that now. “So what’s the deal with Ivy?” he asked, as casual as he could manage as they stood side by side, facing towards the groups of people mingling, Christmas music playing quietly through it all.
“I can tell you she’s leaving tomorrow,” Declan said, serious for the first time. “Ivy hates Long Valley with a passion, and actually, Tiffany and Ezzy play a big part in that. They made her life a living hell growing up. I tried to defend her a few times from it, but they’re girls. I couldn’t take ‘em out back and punch ‘em.” He shrugged. “Iris tried to stand up for her too, but…Anyway, Ivy left the night of high school graduation and never looked back. Knowing her, she’ll do her best not to be here for another decade, if she can get away with it. Iris practically had to twist her arm off to get her here for this party. She’s a California girl, through and through. And the thing is, I’m not sure I blame her.”
Austin nodded, soaking the information in. It was too damn bad, really. She sure was cute, what with her dark red hair and easy smile and curves in all the right places. It would’ve been perfect to take her out on a date or two, maybe even wander on over to the diner where Tiffany was a waitress. He could’ve used her to finally get some breathing room from Tiffany, and Ivy could have gotten her revenge.
But between now and tomorrow? Dammit all, it wasn’t real believable to pretend that he and Ivy had somehow fallen madly in love.
Saying goodbye to Dec, Austin made his way over to the refreshment table to get another cup of mulled apple cider. It was probably a good thing Ivy was leaving, anyway. She was a little too cute and a little too fun to laugh with. He needed to get Tiffany off his back, not find an actualgirlfriend.
Austin was single, and with any luck, would stay that way for life. He’d tried falling in love once before.
So warm. She snuggled down deeper under the covers.
There was screaming.
Why is there screaming?
Ivy jackknifed up in bed. Her mom was screaming and crying, the sound muffled through the closed bedroom door. Holy hell! She leaped out of bed and threw on her ratty old bathrobe that she hadn’t worn since high school, yanking her bedroom door open, where she promptly plowed right into her father, who was also tearing down the hallway.
“Oof!” she grunted.
That made it a second time in two days that she’d run into someone. So much for her waitressing skills keeping her light on her toes.
No time to apologize to her dad or laugh about it, though; they untangled themselves and then were running down the hallway and into the living room, the cries of Betty Rae getting louder as they moved. “Help! Oh God, you have to help! Call 911!”
They rounded the corner into the living room and Ivy skittered to a stop, seeing but not understanding. Her mom was dragging Iris’ limp body into the house, covered in blood and melting snow. Iris’ eyes were closed; her pale cheeks a stark contrast to the deep red spreading everywhere. Mom laid her down gently and began rocking back and forth over her, crying and stroking her hair away from her face.
“My baby, oh my baby!” she wept, as the blood and the snow swirled together and dripped onto the tile foyer floor.
Ivy just stood there in shock, staring. How…what…Her brain refused to comprehend what was in front of her.
Somewhere in the distance, she numbly heard her dad barking into the landline, “My daughter! She fell. She was outside. She hit her head and is bleeding everywhere. Yes…okay…Betty!” he shouted, covering up the mouthpiece of the phone. “The dispatcher wants to know if she’s awake or not.”
Her mom shook her head. “I’ve been begging her to wake up, but she isn’t moviinnnnggggg…” She broke back down into sobs, rocking back and forth, cradling Iris’ head against her. “Iris, baby, wake up for Mom. You have to wake up.” The icy winter air curled inside through the open front door, along with snowflakes, still falling endlessly from the sky.
Snow? When did it start snowing? It must’ve started after her parents’ party finished last night. She hated snow. White and cold and endless and…
Ivy’s vision blackened around the edges as the world narrowed. She breathed in through her mouth slowly, trying to quell her panic. Iris needed her. Passing out wouldn’t help anything. Blood had always been Iris’ thing, not Ivy’s, and seeing it everywhere, mixed with the hated snow…
The room went a little darker still. Ivy fought it back. She had to. She could help. What would Iris do?
She forced herself into the kitchen, where she snatched some hand towels out of the drawer. Iris would stop the bleeding. A ten-year-old kid would know to stop the bleeding. Ivy felt like she was swimming through syrup, everything distorted and moving slow.
Her sister needed her, dammit. She could have a panic attack later. As soon as Iris was okay.