by D. J. Van Oss
Golden Grove Book One
Is it ever too late for second chances?
Kate Brady never thought she'd set foot in her hometown again. Golden Grove was the scene of the biggest embarrassment of her life, back when she was "Katie Braces," the high-school art nerd. But if she's going to climb the corporate ladder at her demanding Chicago design firm, she has to take on a re-branding job for Nitrovex, the big (and boring) chemical plant on the outskirts of her Iowa hometown. And to do that, she's going to need the help of her old next-door-neighbor, Peter Clark, the guy she's never really gotten over.
Before he lost his dad, Peter Clark had always planned on a career as a chemical engineer doing cutting-edge science. Now here he is, still stuck in his small hometown, teaching chemistry at his old high school. The last thing he expected was seeing his childhood crush, Katie, back in Golden Grove on business. When one business trip turns into multiple visits, he sees a chance to rekindle their friendship and heal old wounds.
Will Kate be able to get the job done while enduring all of these heart-thumping distractions from Peter? And will Peter take a chance on finding love with the girl he once let get away?
Genre: Contemporary RomancePurchase link(s): Amazon AmazonAU AmazonCA AmazonUK
Content/Theme(s): Second Chance, Small Town, Sweet, Humor, Inspirational, Romantic Comedy
Release Date: March 1, 2017
Publisher: Blue Penny Press
Excerpt & More
Peter peered through the finder scope, then adjusted the focuser. He squinted through the eyepiece, which went fuzzy, then clear. In the center was a tiny, faint dot. He checked the coordinates on a small blue piece of paper again to be sure.
“There it is if you want to see it.”
They were on his back porch. A ceiling fan turned slowly above them. The telescope was perched on a brass tripod near the railing, angled up past the trees. He was fortunate the star was in the right position tonight.
Kate came by his side. “I look through here?” she asked, pointing at the eyepiece.
She hunched over, knees bent, squinting through the eyepiece. Peter’s eyes lingered on her shapely jeans.
“What’s it called? Peter’s Death Star?”
“Officially, it’s called 6890:1457:1. But I named it Lucky.”
She looked up. “You call it Lucky Star?”
“After my dog, Lucky.”
“Oh, Lucky,” she said, seeming to remember. “I loved Lucky, the little bugger.” She returned to the eyepiece. “You know, as techie as this is, it’s kind of cool,” she said. “I mean, who knows if there’s life on a planet revolving around that star. And it’s named after Lucky.”
Peter smiled, head tilted. “You know, that’s probably the geekiest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“Oh, I see,” she said as she stood up, smiling. “Got your blood moving, huh? Well, how about I—”
She took a step forward, but her foot caught one of the legs of the telescope tripod, tripping her. Peter immediately reached for her arm, catching it as her other arm swung around and frantically grabbed his shoulder to keep from falling. Gravity did the rest. Both tumbled back into the padded wicker love seat, feet twisting, Kate landing face to face on top of Peter with an oof!
As quickly as it happened, they both were now frozen, arms clutching arms, staring at each other’s faces, inches apart, mouths open, eyes wide. The moment of embarrassed silence broke when both burst out into simultaneous laughter. Kate rolled off Peter and slumped next to him on the padded seat.
“Nice moves, Clark,” she said.
“Me? Uh-uh—you were the tripper. I was just the catcher.”
“Mmm…no, I think you put that tripod thing there on purpose.”
“I’m not that smooth. I’m a scientist, remember? We’re only interested in cold, hard facts.”
“Right. Chemical reactions in the brain.”
Peter could smell her perfume. If it was just chemicals in his brain, they were certainly fizzing. He cleared his throat. “So, Kate, since you’re here—”
“There’s something I wanted to ask you.”
She turned to him, brown eyes focused. She was so close now. “What’s that?”
“It’s not a huge thing, really. More of a favor. You probably won’t even be in town.”
“Okay, then forget it.” She turned away.
“No, I mean, you might be around. If you’re in town.”
She turned back. “I won’t know unless you tell me what it is first.”
“Right. So this Homecoming Dance is this week. Saturday night.”
“So you said.” She just looked at him, nodding once, waiting.
“And the teachers are allowed to go. With the students. Not with the students, of course, but along with the students. If they want to go. The teachers.”
She was still staring at him, nodding.
He felt like a stupid teenager. This shouldn’t be that hard. Just say it, it’s not a big deal. “So, I was wondering if you were around, of course, because I can see where you’ll probably be back in Chicago by then. Most likely, right?”
More nodding, with a slight smile. She was doing this on purpose.
“Oh, geez, Kate, I’m trying to ask you to the Homecoming Dance.”
She burst out laughing, clutching his knee, then looked up. “That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?”
“It shouldn’t have been, but it was.”
“Oh, but you were so cute.”
“So. You never answered my question,” he said.
A smile. “You never really asked it.”
Peter sighed. “Right.” He got down on one knee and looked up at her, hands clasped. “Kate Brady, will you extend to me the honor of the pleasure of possibly going to the Homecoming Dance at Golden Grove High School, which will actually be in what is now the Community Center, next Saturday night at 9:00 post meridiem?”
“If I’m in town.”
“If you’re in town,” he repeated.
“Yes,” she said, beaming.
“Thank you. My knee hurts.” He got up and flopped back in the wicker chair next to her, rubbing his right knee.
“You’re getting old.”
“Not as old as you.”
She swatted him. “Only by four days. We’re barely thirty.”
Silence came again. They rocked the wicker chair together, back and forth, as the streetlights shone through the nearly bare trees. She moved closer to him.
“Peter?” she said softly.
“What does post meridiem mean?”
* * *
Kate leaned on the railing overlooking Peter’s backyard and gazed upward. The night was clear. The stars were huge and silent and everywhere. It was almost overwhelming. She’d forgotten how many stars there were. The city lights drowned them out in Chicago.
She shivered. “Thanks again for letting me borrow your jacket.” She had his navy-blue cotton jacket wrapped around her. It was long enough that she could tuck her hands in the ends of the sleeves. She liked that.
“Certainly. Nights are getting cooler.”
She turned to face him, leaning on the wooden porch railing. “You didn’t say much about the Dixon job yesterday.”
He shrugged. “Not much to say. They have to review my credentials, go over the interview notes. I’m sure there are a lot of other applicants.”
“But you might get it?” she probed.
Another shrug. “I suppose it’s possible.”
He didn’t seem too excited. At least, not as excited as she had hoped. “Did you like the school?”
“The school was amazing. The labs were amazing, the trees were amazing, all the students looked amazing. Everything was very…tweedy.”
“Never mind.” His shoulders were slumped, his eyes looking past her.
This topic was turning into a dead end.
She laced her fingers together. “So, I’ve been wondering.”
“What dire straits have left you Golden Grove’s most eligible bachelor?”
“Surely something’s been bubbling in that lovely beaker you call a heart.”
He splayed back in the love seat, arms spread on each side. “Nothing but the usual chemicals. Mostly proteins. Albumins, globulins. I had a banana today so there’s probably some potassium.”
She nodded. “Mmm. Albumins and globulins and potassium. Oh my.” She came and sat by him. He kept his arm on the seat back behind her.
“And who’s saying anything about most eligible bachelor in town?”
So, he was curious. “Oh, just about every able-bodied woman in town I meet, it seems.”
He almost snorted. “They say that about any male under thirty with a pulse.”
Kate nodded. “Mmm…I see. And what about, um…Penny Fitch?” she asked nonchalantly.
“Just a friend. If that.”
She laughed. “Penny? But I thought you—I thought she was the one all the boys had the hots for.”
“Yeah, maybe some of my friends. In high school. Besides, she’s had a rough past few years. Got divorced a few years ago before she moved back here.”
“Really? I figured she’d have married a billionaire and be toting around five kids in a minivan by now.”
He shrugged. “Things don’t always go the way you think.”
Kate said nothing for a moment. She was thinking of this porch. Scenes from summers years ago. “It must be hard here. Without your dad.”
He looked away, pulled back his arm and ran his fingers through his hair. It fell back almost exactly into the same place.
“There are moments. But it is what it is.”
Her heart tugged toward him. She felt as if what she said next would carry a huge amount of weight. Maybe enough to break whatever friendship she’d rekindled with him. Maybe enough to ruin any chances of something more. “That’s one of the things I love about you, Peter.”
His gaze jerked toward her. “What’s that?”
“Your loyalty, your love.” She looked away. “I’m not sure I could have made the same sacrifice for either of my parents.” It was embarrassing to say out loud, but true.
“Well, I didn’t have a lot of choice. Mom needed help, and Dad was…Dad.”
“I can’t imagine how tough it was for her.”
“I didn’t have to. I had to watch it.” His face was stony for a moment, then softened. “But she was a trouper.”
“I’m sorry, Peter.”
“You don’t have to be.”
“No, I mean for everything.” She reached out, touched his hand. His fingers closed around hers, and they were silent for some time.
Kate tried to find something—anything—encouraging to say. “Well, you know you’re doing well here, right? With teaching? It didn’t turn out all that bad.”
“I suppose not.”
“Is it lonely?”
A slight breeze moved her hair. She could smell him on the jacket she was wearing.
He moved a little closer. “Although you never know who might turn up,” he added.
Her heart bumped. “True.”
“For example, say, a traveling salesman.”
“Salesgirl,” she corrected.
“Salesgirl. Or a new teacher at the school.”
She nodded. “New schoolmarm in town? That only works in Westerns.”
He nodded. “True. We’re dealing with a modern chick flick here, right?”
“I’d say so, yes.”
“So it would have to be someone spunky.”
She shook her head. “I prefer the term highly motivated.”
“Okay, so someone highly motivated, and of course she’d have to be very pretty, although she doesn’t think she’s very pretty.”
She just nodded. Leaned closer. His arm moved around her.
“And, let’s see…she’d have, what? Blue eyes?”
“Right, of course. Brown eyes, and wavy hair, probably reddish-blonde. Something that glinted in the starlight like diamonds on spun gold.”
She nodded. “Wow, that’s pretty colorful for a scientist.”
“Quiet, I’m on a roll. And she’d have maybe a sprinkle of freckles around her nose like a dusting from a dandelion.” He traced the side of her nose with his finger. “You know. Kind of that girl-next-door look?”
“Mmm,” was all she could say as she nodded.
His face was inches away. “Know anyone like that?”
“I might know someone,” she whispered as she closed her eyes.
She was in a tree house, knees on the floor, leaning forward, wearing a purple dress. Yellow flower-shaped plastic barrettes from Bailey’s Five and Ten in her hair. The smell of strawberries and pine boards. Please, God, don’t let our braces lock together.
He kissed her, long and slow this time, his right arm reaching around her back, his left cradling her neck. She felt like she was home. Not her house, not this town, just here. With Peter, on this porch.
It was more than a kiss. It was a confirmation of what had been missing all these years. More than some fuzzy, nostalgia-fueled dream. It was real this time.
They separated, noses almost touching.
“That was much better than seventh grade,” he said. “Even better than Chicago. I think we’re getting the hang of this.”
A dog barked, the stars silently looked on.
“Yes,” she agreed whole-heartedly.
It felt right. It was right, wasn’t it?
Then why was there this sinking, hard feeling in her chest?
The blanket of cool stars above her reminded her where she was. This wasn’t the glow of Chicago’s eternally lit sky. It was an unavoidable reminder that, even here in Peter’s arms, she was still miles away.
But those thoughts could wait until later. It would all work out, somehow.
It had to, right?
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