Noelle Langford’s ambitions have always been bigger than the little town of Havre de Grace, but when her father’s heart attack summons her home, she finds the town little changed, except that Connor Bradley, the high school nerd, is now the town’s doctor, a Grade-A hunk, and a widower with two young children.
Connor doesn’t have time for distractions, not while juggling single parenthood and his clinic on five hours of sleep a night. He most certainly doesn’t have time for Noelle, the high school flirt, who is prettier and more irresistible than he remembers.
When her father’s heart attack derails Connor’s plans for his first Christmas without his wife, Noelle wants to save the day for his adorable children, but can she also find her way into Connor’s guarded heart?
Pre-order GRACED today and receive it on November 10th, 2015. Available at Amazon and at all other major retailers.
READ AN EXCERPT…
Noelle’s first full day back in Havre de Grace was spent ushering an endless stream of neighbors into the living room where her father rested on an overstuffed chaise lounge. By the end of the day, she had grown tired of telling visitors what she did in Los Angeles—“freelance creative design”—and promising to convey their best wishes to her mother. Everyone chastised her on staying away for so long. She apologized but made it a point not to promise to return more frequently.
The sun was setting when she saw the last visitor, Mrs. Metcalf, to the door. The rotund woman trotted down the path, relieved of the massive strawberry shortcake she had brought for the Langfords.
Noelle sighed with relief, but her smile did not slip. She had forgotten the inherent kindness that formed the undercurrent of small communities. The refrigerator swelled with prepared meals, and the kitchen counter was invisible beneath trays of lasagna and containers of chicken soup. She returned to her father’s side. “Can I fix a plate for you?”
“Not just yet.” He leaned his head back. His voice drooped. “Come sit with me. Tell me about how you’re really doing.”
The doorbell rang.
Noelle rolled her eyes as she marched to the door. She flung the door open. Her irritation dropped away in a flash. “Dr. Bradley.”
“Connor. When I hear Dr. Bradley, I look over my shoulder for my dad.” His smile dug a dimple into his cheek. “May I come in?”
As he shrugged off his leather jacket, she caught the oddest whiff of scents—aftershave and antiseptics—but it suited him.
“How’s your father doing?” he asked.
She jerked her head in the direction of the living room. “Take a look for yourself.” She was about to close the door when her sister walked up the path. Noelle leaned against the door to keep it open, surprised by the happy thrill of seeing the ones she loved doing something as mundane as returning from work. I’ve been too long away from home.
Holly smiled as she stepped into the house. “How was your first day back?”
“I think the entire town stopped by to say hi. I amazed myself by the number of names I did remember.” Noelle grinned.
Holly tilted her head at the low murmur of voices in the living room. “Is that Connor with Dad?”
“How did he do today?”
“He did just fine. I bet the visits wore him out more than anything else.”
Holly walked into the kitchen and shrugged the tote bag off her shoulders. She surveyed the spread of food. “I see we won’t have to cook for about a month. Did Mrs. Cutter bring brownies?”
Noelle chuckled. “You bet she did. She brought French Vanilla ice cream too. Good thing no one in this household is actually diabetic.” She glanced up at the sound of the front door closing.
“Oh, shoot.” Holly scurried to the door but Connor had already left.
“What’s the problem?” Noelle asked as her sister returned to the kitchen with a hint of a frown on her face.
“I wanted to send some of this food with him.”
“Lots of lasagna and chicken soup to go around. Just make sure you keep the desserts here.”
Holly laughed. “I bet little Grace would like some desserts. I don’t suppose Connor would think of things like that.”
“Like what? Dessert for his kids? His wife—what’s her name—probably has it covered.”
Holly’s eyes widened.
“What?” Noelle spread her hands. “What did I say?”
“Millie, his wife, passed away a year ago on Christmas Eve.”
Noelle’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“There was a complication at childbirth. They saved the baby, but she died.”
“Women in America actually die in childbirth?”
Holly glared at Noelle. “Rarely, but yes, they do. He called the baby Hope.” Her smile quivered. “She’s a beautiful little child, just like her mother.”
“So who’s Grace?”
“His elder daughter. She’s in my first grade class. She’s…had a rough year.”
“She’s a holy terror,” Noelle translated.
“She wasn’t always like that.” Holly shook her head. “She’s transitioned from sad to withdrawn to angry.”
“So what’s the next step in her recovery plan?”
“I don’t know,” Holly said. “Prozac?”
“I don’t know how Connor deals with it.”
“Not well, obviously, or you wouldn’t be calling for Prozac.” Noelle searched the pantry for a food cooler. “Why don’t you chill and hang out with Daddy? I’ll bring some food to Connor’s house. Did he take over his parents’ house? The blue two-story just around the corner?”
“It’s white with dark green trim now, but yeah, the same house.”
Noelle repacked lasagna, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and chicken soup into smaller portions. She also included brownies and strawberry shortcake in the cooler before walking out the door. The night was frigid to a thin-blooded Californian girl such as she now was, but the walk took her past houses bedecked in Christmas lights and lawns covered with decorations. Glowing reindeer frolicked next to the pavement. Massive candy canes loomed over both sides of the cobblestone pathway leading up to the neighbor’s house. On the lawn across the street, elves and gingerbread men engaged in a snowball fight.
The doctor’s house, however, was lit only by a light over the entryway.
If Holly hadn’t told her about Millie, her first thought might have been “Grinch.”
As it was, Noelle’s heart tugged on his behalf as she marched up the steps and pressed on the buzzer. Moments later, the door opened. Connor’s jaw was tense, his teeth gritted. This was no calm, professional doctor. This was a man driven to the edge of endurance. She blinked, startled by the jolting shift in her perspective of him.
Connor stared at her blankly for a moment. “Noelle.” He seemed to recall himself. “Is your father all right?”
“Yes.” She held up the cooler. “I came over to bring some—”
“I hate this chicken!” a young voice shouted from inside the house.
A muscle ticked in Connor’s cheek. He turned toward the sound, and Noelle realized that she had been forgotten, summarily dismissed.
“I want something else!”
“Just eat the chicken.” He strode toward the kitchen, leaving Noelle to follow.
“It’s old and yucky.”
“I bought it yesterday, and I reheated it.”
“I don’t want this. I want pizza.”
“There is no pizza.” He enunciated each word clearly, as if the deliberate effort would help him hold on to his temper. “Eat the chicken, eat the vegetables, and—”
“I hate broccoli and I hate carrots.”
Noelle peeked around the wall of Connor’s back. The kitchen, with wooden countertops and brickwork over the oven and stove, possessed old-fashioned charm, and was large enough to accommodate a small dining table and four chairs. A young girl knelt on a chair, scowling at the plate of food in front of her. Her blond hair was a wispy mess around her face, and she wore a sweater a size or two too large for her.
Across from the girl, a tiny toddler in a high chair lunged for anything and everything within reach. Cheerios and cracker bits lay in a circle on the floor around her. She met Noelle’s eyes and cooed. Her smile displayed eight little teeth.
The girl looked up at the baby’s coo. Her blue eyes narrowed, and her scowl deepened. Her gaze shot back to her father as her chin lifted. “I hate this house!”
Connor expelled his breath in a sigh.
“I don’t want to be here. You said we were going to see Grandma and Grandpa. You said I could see Mickey Mouse and the castle.”
“And we will, just not right now.”
“I want to go now. I don’t want to be here. I told you; I hate this house. It’s ugly. Everyone else has lights and a Christmas tree and—”
“I’ll put up decorations.”
Tears rushed into the girl’s eyes. “I don’t like your decorations. I like Mama’s decorations.”
Connor’s breath escaped through clenched teeth. “Mama’s not here anymore, but I’ll take care of the decorations. It’ll be just like before.”
“No, it won’t. You can’t make it like before.” Her furious voice cracked. “I hate you.”
Grace’s glare flashed to her happy little sister. “And I hate you!” She grabbed a piece of broccoli off her plate and threw it at the toddler.
“That’s enough.” Connor dragged Grace off her chair. “I’ve told you. You never throw anything at your sister. Go to your room. Stay there.”
Grace stood her ground. Her jaw jutted out pugnaciously, daring her father to hit her.
He glared at her. His hands tensed, fighting the compulsion to curl into fists.
Hope stared at Connor as if he had suddenly morphed into a monster. Her eyebrows drew together, and her expression crumpled into distress. Her pitiful whine shredded the silence battle of wills between Grace and Connor.
Grace stalked out of the kitchen, her head held high, but Noelle heard her steady step falter halfway up the stairs, before condensing into the rush of feet and culminating in the slamming of a door.
The sound jolted Connor out of his semi-dazed state. He shook his head like a man coming out of a nightmare. “It’s all right,” he murmured as he moved toward his younger daughter. The anger melted out of his voice to reveal a solid foundation of love, though scarcely visible beneath the exhaustion. “I’m not angry. Not with you. Not with Grace.”
Hope hiccupped. Her yogurt-smeared fingers patted her father’s cheek as he touched his forehead to hers. The corners of her mouth turned up in a ready smile.
Noelle felt like an intruder—the awkward, silent witness to a family in crisis, in pain. She moved past Connor to set her cooler on the kitchen island. She was aware of his weary gaze as she unpacked the trays of food and placed them in the refrigerator.
“I’m sorry you had to see that.” Connor’s voice was quiet.
She shrugged, not knowing what to say. “The food should last a couple of meals.” It seemed easier not to talk about Grace’s tantrum. “And other than the soup, there’s no chicken in there, so that should please Grace.”
“Yeah.” A perfunctory reply. He sounded tired to the point of not caring.
The sharp ache in her chest made her breath catch. “I’ll see myself out. You have a good night.” The words slipped out before she realized how cruel they sounded. Noelle hesitated at the door and looked over her shoulder.
His back to Noelle, Connor raised a spoonful of yogurt to Hope’s mouth. The toddler pressed her lips together and swiped the spoon away. Yogurt splattered on the floor.
Connor set the cup of yogurt down and sat unmoving in his chair, amidst the clutter of his kitchen and the ruins of dinner. Noelle followed his gaze to a darkened living room. No fire crackling merrily in the hearth. No brightly lit Christmas tree. No presents.
Hope babbled happy sounds, but he did not react to her. He even seemed to have forgotten that Noelle was there.
His shoulders slumped on the quiet sigh that whispered out of him.
The sound cracked her heart. With tears stinging her eyes, Noelle let herself out of the house and closed the door behind her. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. She was only here until her father recovered. Connor’s problems weren’t hers to solve. Connor’s problems were too big to solve.
Yet even with impeccable logic on her side, it took everything she had to walk away.
Pre-order GRACED today and receive it on November 10th, 2015. Available at Amazon and at all other major retailers.