Love Unbroken (A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel) - J.h. Croix - ebook
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A steamy, full-length, standalone romance with a guaranteed HEA from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Diamond Creek, Alaska offers Emma Davis the chance to get to know her newfound sister and a fresh start after she escaped a disastrous marriage. Trey Holden blows her away just with a smile. Not to mention that he’s so sexy her defenses melt in his presence, and an amazing single father, wilderness pilot, and lawyer all in one. Falling for a beautiful woman is definitely not on Trey’s radar. Until he meets Emma. Though Emma can’t deny the intense attraction between them, the emotional scars from her past have convinced her she can’t take a chance on love.The fire between Trey and Emma burns too hot to be ignored. But the ghosts of Emma’s past may have followed her to Diamond Creek. Trey is everything she thought she could never have, so she finds herself pushing him away just when she needs him the most. Can Emma let down her guard long enough to open her heart? Can Trey convince her that what they have is worth it?*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.

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Love Unbroken

A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel

J.H. Croix

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Epilogue

Excerpt: Love Untamed by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved

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Resources

Acknowledgments

About the Author

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1512036153

ISBN 13: 9781512036152

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Created with Vellum

Dedication

My beloved dogs who put up with one-handed petting when I’m writing. Drumroll yet again for my husband who makes me laugh more than anyone, hence he has my heart.

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Chapter 1

Emma closed the back of her truck after putting a cooler inside and leaned against the side. It was just past five in the morning, and she was waiting for her friend Susie to meet her. She glanced at her tiny cabin for a long moment. Just looking at it made her smile. It was tiny and whimsical – a cedar sided A-frame with a bright green roof and purple trim, complete with a purple star at the point of the A-frame. It sat in a small open area amongst spruce and alder. The hill tumbled down behind it, offering a wide-open view of Kachemak Bay. She’d been in Diamond Creek, Alaska for almost three years.

The sun was rising behind the mountains across the bay, streaks of gold and pink reaching into the sky and filtering through the wispy clouds that sat above the mountains this morning. The air was cool and crisp, typical for an Alaskan summer morning. When the sun was high, the chill would dissipate. A faded blue Subaru pulled into the driveway. Susie climbed out of her car, grabbed some fishing gear and walked to Emma’s truck.

“Morning! Sorry I’m late,” Susie said. Emma reached over and took a fishing rod out of Susie’s hands.

Susie was her sister’s best friend and had become a dear friend to Emma. Emma couldn’t help but smile at Susie. She was a petite bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Susie’s head almost reached Emma’s shoulder as she barely topped five feet, and Emma was just shy of six feet. Susie had warm brown eyes and unruly brown curls, which were pulled back into a ponytail this morning.

Emma lifted the window to the back of her truck and placed Susie’s gear in the back. “You’re not late. We said sometime before five fifteen. How’s it going?” Emma asked.

Susie tossed her bag in the truck and looked over with a grin. “I’m ready to catch some fish! Promise we can get coffee at Red Truck on the way by though.”

Emma nodded. “Of course. How could we not?”

“Okay, so why are we going to Homer to fish when we could just as easily fish in Diamond Creek?” Emma asked from the backseat. She and Susie had met her sister Hannah at the harbor parking lot for the drive to Homer. Emma took a sip of her coffee, savoring the rich flavor.

“Because Homer has the Fishing Hole,” Susie said as if that explained everything.

“What’s the big deal with the Fishing Hole?” Emma asked in return.

Hannah turned to look over her shoulder from the passenger seat. “It’s a man-made fishing hole that’s stocked with kings, pinks and silvers. It’s a fishing dream if you want to stock up on salmon. That’s why we’re going. It’s not quite as fun as dipnetting, but it’s close.”

Emma nodded, thinking for a moment. She’d quickly learned that the words king, pink, red and silver related primarily to salmon in Alaska. Though she’d been in Alaska several years now, she’d yet to enjoy every possible fishing or outdoor activity because the options were extensive. “So how come every town doesn’t have a fishing hole?”

Susie and Hannah shrugged in unison. “Who knows? Maybe because Homer has an ideal spot. The Homer Spit is an easy place to do what they did. It sticks so far out into the bay. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in Alaska. So when we want to get a jumpstart on salmon, we go to Homer. Dipnetting fills the rest of the freezer after that.”

As Susie drove and kept chatting with Hannah, Emma watched the landscape roll by. Homer was roughly an hour south of Diamond Creek. Homer was another tourist draw in Alaska, dubbed the Halibut Capital of the World. Emma was accustomed to the jaw-dropping views in Alaska, but had yet to lose her amazement. The highway hugged the coastline with view after view of mountains, a few glaciers and beautiful ocean vistas. Occasionally, an eagle or moose would make an appearance. Today, they’d already driven by a mother moose and her calf nibbling on alders by the road.

Not much later, Emma lugged a cooler in one hand with a fishing pole in the other. While she’d become proficient at fishing, she was by no means an expert. She hadn’t even had to buy her own equipment because Hannah’s husband and his two brothers ran a guide business. They geared her up the first summer she arrived. The Fishing Hole on the Homer Spit was a sight to behold. For starters, the Homer Spit was a narrow ‘spit’ of land that jutted four and a half miles into Kachemak Bay. The road on the Homer Spit was the longest road into ocean waters in the world. Driving out onto the Spit felt like driving on a bridge, except that it was a narrow expanse of land. Arriving at the Fishing Hole, Emma was startled at how busy it was. Parking was a competitive sport. Every inch of shoreline that surrounded the Fishing Hole was filled with people.

Emma had no idea how they’d manage to find a place to fish, but she gamely followed Susie and Hannah. As they approached the shoreline, Emma discovered that space was to be had among the constant shifting of the crowd. In minutes, she geared up in her waders and dropped a lure in the water. The next hour passed in a blur. According to Susie and Hannah, silver salmon were their goal for today and between them, they caught two apiece in short order.

Emma lifted her fishing rod to cast again and felt a tug on the line. She froze.

“Hey! That’s my hat!”

Emma turned, scanning the cluster nearby to find the source of the voice. Her eyes landed on a small boy with stick straight brown hair, holding a baseball hat that appeared to be attached to her fishing lure. She was relieved to see that he was laughing and looking up at a man beside him, so she assumed he wasn’t hurt. She walked over, carrying her fishing pole.

“Hey there, I think I may be the one that caught your hat,” Emma said with a smile.

The little boy tilted his head back to look up at her. Emma looked down into his eyes, a rich brown with gold flecks.

“Dad, she caught my hat!” the boy said, almost gleefully. He seemed overjoyed at the accident. Emma was just relieved he hadn’t been hurt.

The man the boy spoke to had his back to them when Emma walked over. He turned, and Emma’s heart leapt. The boy’s father was tall with dark hair flecked with silver and had the same chocolate brown eyes as his son. When he looked down at his son, a grin flashed across his face. When he saw Emma, his gaze shifted quickly to a more serious, almost austere look. His features were strong and sharp, his eyes intelligent and probing. Emma wished for his smile to return. With those eyes and that smile, all she felt was a primal pull. Her stomach fluttering and pulse skittering, she didn’t speak.

Befuddled, it took Emma a moment to realize that she was staring and hadn’t said a word. The man, whose mere presence had reached into the center of her and grabbed hold, walked closer and held out his hand. “Hello there, I’m Trey.”

Emma’s hand moved of its own accord. She thought for sure anyone nearby would see the sparks that struck when he clasped her hand, but no one appeared to notice. “I’m Emma,” she replied.

Trey gave her hand a firm shake, holding on perhaps a moment too long, his eyes questioning. “Looks like you caught Stuart’s hat,” he said when she didn’t say anything else.

Emma finally brought her attention to the moment though her heart was beating so hard she worried he might be able to hear it. “I guess I did. I’m sorry. I was trying to cast carefully.”

Stuart looked up from fiddling with the fishing hook caught in his baseball hat. “There’s way lots of people!”

Trey’s smile returned. Emma realized she finally understood what it meant to swoon because she feared she might just do that. She had to pull herself together and now.

Trey glanced down at Stuart. “How about you hand me that hat? Don’t want you catching your fingers on the hook,” he said.

Stuart handed the hat over, immediately looking back up at Emma. “Have you ever caught a hat before?” he asked, his smile made more endearing by the missing tooth in front.

“Not that I know of. I’m just glad your hat is all I caught.”

“No harm done. I’d bet something that’s not a fish gets hooked here every day. It’s so crowded,” Trey said. He glanced up as he finished working the hook out of the hat. “There you go,” he said, handing the lure back to Emma.

His fingers brushed hers, the barest touch eliciting another jolt within Emma. She felt hot all over, a blush heating her as it bloomed on her neck and face.

She didn’t want to walk away and had no idea what to say. For a second, she thought she saw an answering flare in Trey’s eyes, but he shuttered it quickly, that serious look returning.

“Thank you,” Emma finally said.

Silence lengthened between them, broken by Stuart’s enthusiastic voice. “Dad, can I catch one more fish before we go?” he asked. He walked to the small cooler nearby and peered into it.

Trey held Emma’s gaze for another moment before finally breaking away, glancing over his shoulder toward Stuart. “One more and that’s it,” he replied.

Turning back to Emma, his lips quirked in an almost smile. “Stuart loves to fish. He’d stay here all day every day if I let him.”

Emma nodded politely, the wheels of her mind turning, wondering who Stuart’s mother was, wanting desperately to know more about Trey and realizing she needed to get a grip. She looked back up into Trey’s eyes. Her blush just wouldn’t quit. She forced herself to speak. “Well, nice to meet you. Glad Stuart’s hat is okay.” Lifting her hand in a polite wave, she started to walk away.

Trey’s voice halted her steps. “Nice to meet you too.”

Emma turned back, that flare she thought she’d seen in Trey’s eyes definitely there this time, his eyes darker and brighter. Flustered, her words stumbled. “Oh…okay.” She turned away, almost running back to where Susie and Hannah were fishing.

Her face still flushed, Emma quickly got her line back in the water, appreciating the bustle around her.

“So you hooked Stuart Holden’s hat, huh?” Susie asked. Susie was situated on the shore between Emma and Hannah.

“Sure did. It was an accident—obviously,” Emma replied.

“Stuart’s dad is one of the best pilots around. He runs a wilderness flightseeing business and also has a law practice on the side,” Susie said with a wink.

“Oh god, no. He’s a lawyer?”

Susie gave her an odd look. “Yeah, not sure why that’s a bad thing. They moved to Diamond Creek about a year after you did. I don’t know Trey well, just as an acquaintance. Even though they’ve lived in Diamond Creek for a while now, he’s not out and about much.”

“I’m glad my hook only landed in Stuart’s hat,” Emma said, her blush returning just thinking about Trey.

Emma felt Susie look toward her. She hoped Susie didn’t notice how flushed she was.

“Wow, you are blushing. What does that mean?” Susie asked slyly.

Emma tried and failed to un-blush, which only flustered her more.

“I think you might have noticed that Trey’s a bit handsome. Trust me, you’re not the only one. He’s widowed and has his share of women drooling over him. I mean, he’s hot, he’s a pilot, and he’s prime marrying age at forty. Rumor is that he moved to Diamond Creek to start his flightseeing tours because he’s a single dad now and needed more time with his son. I guess he used to be pretty busy doing the lawyer thing in Anchorage. The only reason you haven’t heard about him is that he’s not seen in public enough to blip on the gossip radar,” Susie said with a chuckle.

Emma heard only that Trey was widowed and her mind was off to the races, prodded by the undeniable pull she felt toward him. She didn’t even notice she hadn’t bothered to respond to Susie.

“Hannah, your sister’s gone gaga over Trey Holden,” Susie said, leaning in front of Emma to catch Hannah’s attention.

Hannah was busy reeling in another silver salmon and glanced over with a wide smile. “You don’t say?”

“Oh my god, Susie. I met the man for maybe three minutes. I will admit he’s handsome, but I’m not gaga,” Emma retorted.

“Coulda fooled me. As soon as I told you he was widowed, you were in fantasyland over there.”

Emma’s blush deepened. After a moment, she gave in and laughed. “Think whatever you want,” she remarked.

Susie’s curls shook with her laughter. Hannah glanced over to Emma as she placed the silver salmon she’d caught in their cooler. “Good luck. Once Susie’s on the scent, she’s hard to shake. If you want her to stay out of your business, you’d better play your cards close.”

Emma shrugged. “It’s okay. I can deal with nosy friends. Just don’t go and embarrass me in front of him,” she warned.

“Fat chance of that. Like I said, he’s not around much. If you do have the hots for him, you have your work cut out for you,” Susie replied. Her gaze sobered. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Trey without Stuart at his side. I don’t know for sure, but I heard his wife died from some heart problem. He doesn’t seem too interested in a relationship.”

Emma absorbed the information Susie provided and looked over to where Trey and Stuart were standing. He was bending over to help Stuart untangle his fishing line. Susie let her off the hook from further teasing, and Emma found herself strangely disappointed because she didn’t get to hear more about Trey.

Within the hour, they were jostling for space at the cleaning tables. Before they headed home to Diamond Creek, she got one more view of Trey when she saw him walking with Stuart, Stuart’s small hand clasped in one of his hands and a cooler in the other. The sparks he elicited were so strong she couldn’t ignore them. She wondered if she’d completely lost her mind. At thirty-four, she’d written off any chance of a relationship after her first marriage ended, which had been nothing short of a disaster. She hadn’t counted on anyone making her second guess herself.

Emma gestured for Susie to walk into the cabin first. Susie had persuaded her to take some of her mother’s extra zucchini and insisted she needed to get it out of her car today. Emma’s cat, Sula, whom she had gotten from the local shelter, slipped in the door with them, sashaying around their feet and rubbing against Emma’s legs. Sula was a small, but feisty cat. She was black and white, her fur soft and luxurious. Susie plunked the zucchini on the counter and gave Sula a quick pet while Emma shifted items around in her freezer to fit today’s salmon catch. The inside of the cabin was open and bright. The downstairs consisted of an open living room and kitchen area with a bathroom to the back. The front wall was nothing but windows, a great feature in the long Alaskan winters. A spiral staircase led upstairs, which included a loft area that was furnished with a desk, two reading chairs, and built-in bookshelves lining the walls. A door upstairs led to the single bedroom. A small deck overlooked the bay in the back.

“So you said you had a plan for all this?” Emma asked, gesturing to the zucchini Susie was already washing in the sink.

“You get to choose. We shred it in a food processor, or we just slice it up. Either way, we freeze it. What’s your preference?”

Emma shrugged. Sula leapt softly onto one of the stools by the counter between the kitchen and living room and looked solemnly at Emma before she began cleaning her feet.

Susie’s ponytail came loose when she tilted her head to the side, rolling her eyes. “You have to have an opinion. Come to think of it, you hardly ever seem to have an opinion. Have I mentioned that before?” Susie asked with a knowing smile.

Emma returned Susie’s eye roll. “You have, in fact, pointed that out. I would argue I do have opinions, but I’m just not as outspoken as you. I mean, you’re…you.”

“Well, duh. Of course, I’m me. And I know most people would consider me outspoken. I’m just saying that unless someone prods you into it, you don’t offer your opinion.” Susie said with a shrug.

Susie was right, and Emma knew it. What she didn’t want to get into was that she’d developed the habit of keeping her thoughts and opinions to herself when she’d been married. It was just easier that way. Rather than getting into that with Susie, Emma thought for a moment about what she wanted to do with the zucchini.

“Shred it,” she said firmly. “My mom used to make casseroles with it like that.”

“And I can give you my mom’s awesome zucchini bread recipe. Where’s your food processor?” Susie asked, immediately on task.

A few hours later, Emma sat on her back deck and watched the sun set over Kachemak Bay. Susie had helped her get the zucchini shredded and ready to freeze before taking off. The sun was falling in the long, slow slide of summer sunsets in Alaska. It was going on nine at night and the light was just beginning to fade. The mountains across the bay were darkening as the pink orb of the sun slid behind them—lavender, pink and gold rays arced into the sky. Diamond Creek was a small town in Southcentral Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. The town was situated on the shores of Kachemak Bay, one of Alaska’s most treasured coastal areas. It was famous for its breathtaking beauty, which included ocean views, mountains on all sides, glaciers, and volcanoes in the distance. Mount Augustine was the lone volcano that sat beyond the entrance to Kachemak Bay in Cook Inlet, the long inlet that stretched inland from the Pacific Ocean to Anchorage.

Along with its beauty, Kachemak Bay and Diamond Creek offered world-class fishing and hunting, which drew tourists from all over the world. What could have been a quiet, middle of nowhere town had phenomenal restaurants, art galleries and a busy social life. Year-round residents were tight-knit. Emma had been welcomed into the community of Diamond Creek, her acceptance eased by her connection to Hannah who’d grown up here.

Emma took a last look at the view. She was still adjusting to the joy of not feeling tied up in knots inside, which is how she’d felt for most of her marriage—the marriage that had thankfully ended before she moved to Alaska. The sense of home and freedom she felt here was such a blessing it overwhelmed her at times. When she walked the spiral staircase into the loft, Sula was seated on the railing and leapt down to follow her into the bedroom.

Chapter 2

Three years prior

No one ever told you that you could make stupid decisions when your mind and heart were screaming at you every step of the way. That’s what Emma thought as she stood with her back to the locked bathroom door, flinching with each strike of a fist against the door.

“Stupid bitch! Open the damn door, or I’ll break it down!”

Miracle of all miracles, the bathroom door was fairly sturdy and had a decent lock. Despite Greg pounding on the door for a solid five minutes and trying to wrench it open, the door held its ground. He gave up and left the apartment, slamming the front door on his way out. Emma crept to the window, remaining in the shadows, and cautiously looked out to the parking lot.

She watched Greg shift from the person he was inside the privacy of their home to his public persona as he offered to help a neighbor carry groceries inside. Nausea welled. She was disgusted with his façade and more disgusted with herself for staying with him as long as she had. She waited, her breath quiet and slow, barely moving, until he got into his car and drove away. He was most likely headed to one of his preferred bars where he would drink and send a series of texts to her. The texts would start angry and attacking, shift to apologetic and then syrupy sweet. He’d come home drunk and fall into bed. She would lie on the far side of the bed and wish herself away, wondering night after night just how she ended up here.

Tonight was different though. After Emma was certain Greg was gone, she slipped out of the bathroom, moving quickly and quietly. Within minutes, she walked outside with a small duffel bag that contained all that she could carry with her from this life. The drive to the Boston airport was several hours away. She and Greg lived in western Connecticut, but she’d decided on Boston because Greg wasn’t that creative. If he tried to find her trail, he’d start at Bradley International Airport in Hartford and then perhaps New York. Pushing further north would hopefully throw him off. Roughly two hours into her drive, she exited off of the highway in Massachusetts and turned into the used car dealership she’d visited last week. They’d already drawn up the paperwork to purchase her car.

Emma had to give the dealership points for efficiency. Inside of another fifteen minutes, she was walking outside, her old car no longer hers. With a car rental place another block away, she drove away in a rental car, trying and failing to push thoughts of Greg out of her mind. When they’d met, she’d fallen for the charming, solicitous man he’d seemed. The first few months of their relationship had been marred by a few of his explosive episodes of anger, though he never touched her. It was only after she moved in with him that he became violent. She’d become the master at hiding bruises. Although, and this is the part that she hated to contemplate, Greg was adept at not hitting her in obvious places. He never struck her face.

Emma had been married to Greg for over two years now. She’d never imagined that she could feel so isolated from her family, but the unease her parents gave off when they visited was strong and pushed her further into herself. Greg had family in Connecticut, so she’d moved with him, too far away from her parents in North Carolina. Prior to her relationship with Greg, Emma had been close to her parents. No matter how hard she tried to stop it, Greg managed to chip away at her connection to them. There was always one reason after another why it wasn’t a good time to visit. He interrupted her calls with them, usually for innocuous reasons.

Emma had always felt lucky when it came to parents. She had known for as long as she could remember that she was adopted and knew this made her special. She had no recollection of how her parents originally told her she was adopted, but she’d turned it into a fairy tale—that she’d been chosen by them. And they’d been amazing parents, always supportive. Until Greg. Now she felt anxious calling them, worried they judged her, worried they knew what was really happening with Greg. She also knew that Greg would likely try to find her if she went to them just now, so going there wasn’t an option.

Out of the blue, she’d finally dug up the information on her biological family that her parents had given her years ago and posted on an online forum. A few weeks ago, she’d gotten a response from a woman named Hannah who might be her biological sister—in Alaska of all places. This possible link from so far away was a doorway out of her situation. Hope blossomed in the barren soil of her heart. Though she wondered every other minute if she was crazy and if she could pull it off, she booked the ticket to Alaska. As the plane lifted into the sky, Emma felt free in a way she hadn’t in years.

Chapter 3

Emma quickly typed up a note from her last session. She was a therapist at a local community mental health program, Kachemak Bay Counseling. When she’d decided to move to Diamond Creek, she’d worried about how she’d find work in her field. She had a graduate degree in social work and had worked in various positions as a clinical therapist. Her training made her experience with Greg even more shameful for her. She should have known better, or that’s what she told herself over and over.

She was finally reaching a place of acceptance that her personal experience wasn’t unusual and wasn’t her fault. Domestic violence had bedeviled researchers, treatment providers, courts and law enforcement for years because it crossed every imaginable social boundary. Being an educated woman with actual training around domestic violence didn’t help her when she became a victim. She was merely another statistic. Rich, poor, middle class, every color of skin, every culture, every religion, every city, town, state, country, continent and more had victims, overwhelmingly women. Despite the massive social problem domestic violence was, society still didn’t have a reliable way to prevent it, to effectively support victims and keep them safe, or to effectively prevent perpetrators from repeating the pattern. A history of domestic violence often traversed through multiple generations of families—perpetrators and victims.

Emma abruptly stood from her desk, wondering if she’d ever stop reciting statistics about domestic violence to herself. She often told herself to treat herself the same way she’d treat a client. She’d tell them it wasn’t their fault, that this was how domestic violence happened, it slipped into one’s life before they saw it coming, the hints were only obvious after the fact, and most of all, they shouldn’t blame themselves because it wasn’t their fault they gave someone the benefit of the doubt.

Once again, she forced her thoughts back to this moment. Just in time because her phone beeped, the receptionist letting her know her client had arrived. Moments later, a teenage girl named Stella Walsh slouched in the corner of the small couch in Emma’s office. Emma sat across from her in a chair, a coffee table between them. Stella had been coming to see her for about six months now. She was a bit like a cactus at first, all bristle and prickle. If Emma touched on something too close for comfort, Stella would lash out. These days, Stella was only cranky for a few minutes, the façade a coat she needed a few minutes to shed. After that, it was all Emma could do to get a word in edgewise. Like so many troubled adolescents, Stella desperately needed to feel like someone was listening to her, like what she had to say mattered. With the hubbub around evidence-based treatments, Emma found time and again that the power of listening without judgment could be immensely healing and was often the most powerful thing she could offer clients.

“So do you think I should try out for that recital?” Stella asked, an abrupt shift in topic. A moment ago, she’d been a solid few minutes into a rant about how horrible boys were, particularly when they thought they were ‘like men or something.’

“Catch me up here. What recital are we talking about?” Emma asked. She mentally riffled through the recent sessions she’d had with Stella and couldn’t think of any recital mentioned.

Stella sighed dramatically and started chewing on her nails. She tended to go for a combo outdoorsy goth look. Today, she wore practical hiking boots paired with black leggings and a denim mini skirt. A scarf of black fabric patterned with skulls hung haphazardly around her shoulders atop a practical raincoat. She never wore makeup and had creamy skin with rosy cheeks. Her dark brown hair and eyes stood out against her complexion. Much as Stella was loath to admit it, she was a beautiful girl. She’d once said, “No one would think I was cute if they knew where I grew up. It was the dump of all dumps.”

Stella had been in foster care for two years. She’d been removed after years of reports and investigations about drug abuse by her parents and concerns about the condition of the home. Her mother had died of an accidental overdose, and her father didn’t fight the removal. He’d drifted in and out of jail. She’d flat refused to attend therapy until she had a brush with the wrong crowd and almost gotten nailed for dealing drugs at school. Not because she was dealing them, but because someone had decided her locker would be a good place to hide them. The only thing that got her off the hook was the cop who noticed the gap in the surveillance recording from the hallway. Turned out that the vice-principal’s son happened to be the one that put the drugs in Stella’s locker. Diamond Creek might be rural, but it was pretty high tech. All of the school surveillance recordings were backed up to an off-site server.

Once the investigator got the backups, Stella didn’t have to worry about legal problems. But she was in a world of social hurt. She’d spent most of her childhood as a social outcast—the kid who came to school dirty, sometimes smelly and who never had the right clothes. Bringing friends home was out of the question. When she’d finally been placed in foster care, she’d gotten a bit lucky, if there was such a thing in that situation. She’d been placed with a single foster mother, Janie, who was experienced at dealing with troubled teens, completely imperturbable and the perfect combination of blunt and warm. Stella respected and cared about Janie and had slowly started to bloom there. But her social naiveté made her vulnerable.

After the incident at school, Janie had dragged Stella into counseling. Stella paused from chewing her nails and tilted her head to the side.

“Well?” Stella asked again.

Emma pursed her lips. “I don’t think you mentioned this recital to me. What do you think my answer would be?”

Stella sighed dramatically again, rolling her eyes for good measure this time. “Usually you say something about how you’re not here to tell me what to do.” Stella couldn’t hide her smile.

“That sounds like something I would say,” Emma replied, returning Stella’s smile. “What do you think about the recital?”

Stella sighed and this time it wasn’t for effect. The sigh sounded tired and vulnerable. After a long silence, she spoke, her voice small. “I want to try out for the piano part. Mrs. Cooper—she’s my music teacher—says I’m really good. Janie signed me up for lessons all summer, and Mrs. Cooper says I keep getting better. It’s the fall recital, so they have tryouts this summer so we can start practicing. But I’m scared. I’ve never done anything like it. Not even close. And who will come to see me if I get in?”

Emma waited a beat before responding. “If you want to try out then you should try out.”

“Brilliant,” Stella said. “That’s genius. How come someone can’t give me instructions? I’d like instructions for life.”

Emma smiled ruefully. “Because there aren’t any. And when I tell you that I’m not here to tell you what to do, it’s because I’m not. Aside from pointing out the obvious, I don’t think you’d listen to me if I told you what to do. Back to the recital, it sounds like it might matter to you. Feeling nervous about something like that is pretty common. It’d be weirder if you weren’t nervous. And to answer at least one of your questions, Janie would be there, along with everyone in her family. And you have to admit, her family is huge. They think of you as part of their family and would be heartbroken if you thought they wouldn’t come to your recital.”

Stella sat up a little straighter, the barest sheen of tears in her eyes. “Janie would come. Grannie too. And lots more…” she paused and took a breath. “Guess I have to just blow through this. What if I get stage fright?”

“Well, you won’t know if you’ll get stage fright unless you try.”

Stella wrinkled her nose, chewed her nails, but didn’t slouch again. She finally made eye contact with Emma again. “K…I’m gonna try out. It’s next week before my appointment with you. Can I call you to tell you if I don’t get in? That way, if the news sucks, I can get it over with.”

Emma nodded. “Of course you can. I’ll send good vibes. Plus, if your music teacher thinks you’re really good at piano, you’re probably really good.”

Their conversation moved on. Emma considered bringing up the issue of Janie’s family again, but decided against it for today. Emma thought a sense of belonging would be incredibly healing for Stella. At sixteen, Stella had to consent to her own adoption. With her mother deceased and her father long gone, his parental rights had been terminated, so there weren’t many legal hoops to jump through for an adoption. So far, Stella had resisted the idea. She claimed it was stupid for sixteen year olds to get adopted. Janie had told Emma many times she’d love to adopt Stella, and she made sure to tell Stella that even though Stella brushed it off.

Stella had come a long way in six months, so Emma had high hopes Stella might take a few more steps that could help her. At the end of their session, Stella skipped down the hall, turning for a last wave to Emma just before she pushed through the door to the waiting area. Emma loved working with adolescents. They lived in that odd mix of child and adult, the tug of war between those parts of the self.

Stopping by the grocery store on the way home, Emma was perusing the fruit section when she heard her name. Turning, she was startled to see Trey. Instantly, her heart jumped. Don’t be an idiot, Emma. There’s no way he’s into you.

She promptly dropped the apple she held. “Oh!”

She leaned over to pick it up, only to have her purse swing as she moved and bang into the edge of the produce shelf. Apples and oranges rolled off the shelf, hitting the floor in a series of thumps.

Emma stood, the lone apple she’d originally dropped back in her hand. Blushing furiously, she glanced up at Trey.

Trey bit his lip to keep from laughing, but a laugh burst forth. “Sorry. Not your fault, just one of those things.” He looked around, apples and oranges surrounding them in a messy circle.

Emma shook her head and smiled ruefully. “Guess it’s better to laugh. Not much else to do.”

“Dad!”

Emma followed the sound of Stuart’s voice to see him on the other side of the produce display.

“I found the grapefruit!” Stuart exclaimed, holding a grapefruit high above his head, a proud smile on his face.

“Good job,” Trey replied.

Stuart noticed Emma and turned his wide smile on her. “You’re the lady who caught my hat!” He paused, wrinkling his forehead. “I can’t ‘member your name.”

“That’s okay. I have a hard time with names too. Remind me what yours is.”

“Stuart,” he said with a firm nod. He started to walk around to where they were, still holding the grapefruit aloft.

“My name’s Emma. Maybe we’ll remember the next time we see each other.”

“Hey Stu, careful with the grapefruit,” Trey said just as Stuart came around and saw the fruit scattered on the ground. He came to a quick stop, his arm finally dropping to his side. He kept a good hold on the grapefruit, cradling it in both hands now. Eyes wide, he looked around, his eyes questioning when he looked up to Trey.

Trey smiled. “Minor accident here. How about you stay put while Emma and I clean these up?”

Stuart nodded with alacrity, politely remaining in place. “What happened?”

“My purse ran into the apples. Once they started falling, the oranges came along for the ride,” Emma said. She set her purse on the ground and carefully began collecting the fruit. Trey waved a store employee over and worked quickly and methodically, placing the fruit in his grocery basket. He gestured for Emma to do the same. Once the employee arrived, Trey succinctly explained he wasn’t sure if they wanted the fruit back on the display until it was cleaned. The appreciative employee relieved them of the basket piled with fruit, and the mess Emma had made was gone.

She couldn’t help but admire how practical Trey was. Oddly enough, that only made him more attractive to her. Just thinking about how much she enjoyed watching him clean up her mess made her hot inside. She fought her blush, but could feel her face flaming. Stuart conveniently distracted her.

Stepping to her side, he smiled up at her, one side of his brown bangs sticking up. His missing front tooth brought a twinge to her heart. Knowing the mother of this sweet boy died just wasn’t fair.

“All cleaned up,” Stuart said. He started to gesture with his hands, and Trey deftly grabbed the grapefruit from Stuart.

“I wasn’t gonna drop it,” Stuart said.

“Just being safe,” Trey replied.

Stuart looked up at Emma, his brown eyes so bright. “My dad’s good at cleaning up,” he said proudly.

“He sure is,” Emma said. She turned to Trey. “Thank you for helping me with that.”

Trey nodded firmly. Emma noticed Stuart’s nods were a semblance of his father’s. With Stuart, they were endearing as he appeared to be trying to look decisive. On Trey, they were sexy. That level of clarity just layered onto everything else drew Emma to him. It was absolutely ridiculous she was so gaga over Trey she got turned on by him cleaning up fruit and nodding.

Just as Emma was wondering what to say next because what did one say in this situation, Stuart spoke.

“Dad, can we have Emma over tonight? I can show her Tootsie and Neon. ”

Emma was startled at Stuart’s question, although Trey looked unperturbed. He tilted his head, a small smile gracing his face when he looked at Stuart. Shifting his gaze to Emma, his smile faded.

“Stuart would like more people to meet Tootsie and Neon,” Trey paused and smiled wryly. “Tootsie is our cat, and Neon is his fish.”

Emma wasn’t sure what to say. She wanted to please Stuart and say she’d come over, while she also desperately wanted Trey to want her to come over for reasons that had nothing to do with Tootsie and Neon. She was simultaneously mortified because she knew she could not contemplate her feelings for Trey. Even if, and it was a big if, Trey was interested in a relationship, if he knew her history, he wouldn’t want anything to do with her.

She focused on her last thought when she responded. “Stuart, that’s very nice of you to want me to come over. But I can’t come today. Thank you for asking me though.” Emma hoped keeping her response polite and vague would allow her to bow out gracefully and avoid an awkward moment with Trey.

Stuart looked disappointed, but he nodded politely. “Maybe another time?” he asked hopefully.

“Maybe,” Emma said with a smile.

She glanced toward Trey and for a split second, his eyes darkened. Almost as quickly, Trey’s expression shifted into a polite, serious façade.

“Maybe we’ll find a time Emma can meet Tootsie and Neon. For now, we need to finish shopping,” Trey said, placing his hand on Stuart shoulder. He nodded to Emma, his smile bland, his eyes shuttered. “Nice to see you again.”

Emma’s heart hammered, but she merely nodded, pasting a polite smile on her face. “You too. Have a good evening.” She turned away quickly and finished her shopping, her mind only half paying attention.

When she pulled up in her driveway a little later, her whimsical cabin was bathed in soft pink light. The sun was just beginning its slide down the horizon. The mountains were dusted with gold and pink, the dark green of the spruce trees covering the mountainside haloed in the shafts of light.

Once she put away the groceries, she curled up on the couch and absentmindedly flipped through television channels. Sula curled up beside her. Emma couldn’t keep her thoughts away from all the reasons someone like Trey would never even consider her. Her marriage to Greg felt like an anchor that she couldn’t shake loose. For a while after she’d gotten the courage to leave and moved to Diamond Creek, she’d felt so free, the world wide-open again. She’d even managed to successfully divorce Greg, which had been terrifying for her. After finally leaving, she feared the court process would offer him an avenue to find her, or worse, an avenue to shame her. With her parents help, she used her father’s business address for all court filings. As far as Greg knew, she resided at a post office box in North Carolina. The fight she expected from him hadn’t happened. The relief she felt when she received the finalized divorce papers was immense. She immediately had her maiden name restored and savored every time she signed Emma Davis rather than Emma Neals.

Trey was the first man Emma had even the slightest attraction to since her marriage ended. She thought it would never happen again, and frankly, that had been just fine with her. But why oh why did this attraction have to be so potent? And why did it have to be to a man she could never consider? He was just way too together. Single father, pilot and lawyer…and sexy as hell. Definitely not in her league. If Trey knew her history and how she should have known better, he’d question her sanity.

Chapter 4

Trey stood on the beach, watching Stuart valiantly hold a kite in the brisk wind. The kite in question was bright orange, in honor of Neon, Stuart’s beloved goldfish. Flying kites was Stuart’s favorite activity. They spent many a weekend afternoon down on the shore. Trey had moved to Diamond Creek because he loved this part of the coastline, and he thought it was a perfect spot for flight tours. The wind skidded across Kachemak Bay today, stirring up white caps. Clouds hovered around Mount Augustine, but otherwise the sky was clear. The bright orange kite stood out against the blue sky.

When it became obvious Stuart’s small arms were getting worn out despite his protests, Trey helped him bring the kite down. Stuart was about as well behaved as a six-year old could be. Even when he protested, it was never tinged with defiance, just hope. Trey held Stuart’s hand as they walked along the beach back to the parking lot. Thoughts of Helen ran through his mind.