A hometown sweetheart gives a returning baseball hero a second chance!
Matt Dawson has returned to Harmony Springs after ten years of pitching in the major leagues. His father thinks he’s a screw-up who should have joined the Army instead of playing ball. His old buddies think he’s a hero with a bottomless bank account. But Matt knows he’ll never be a hero, not like his brother Jon, who recently died in Afghanistan.
Emily Barton once dated Jon but their break-up was brutal, made even worse when Matt tried to intervene. Years later, Emily remains trapped on an emotional treadmill, regularly changing her apartment, her job, and her boyfriend in a futile attempt to regain her earlier success.
Matt, determined to give back to Harmony Springs, opens an American Discount thrift store. But Emily recognizes a threat to the downtown shopping district and she organizes a grassroots campaign. Will she succeed at driving the American Discount out of town—and Matt out of her life—forever?
Previously released as Just One of Those Things.
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Over the hill.
Holy crap, look who’s thirty!
I’m not 30, I’m 29.95 plus tax.
Thirty and aged to perfection.
Emily Barton groaned at the signs slung across the front room of The Corner Bar. The nearby tables exploded with laughter as she called out, “Thanks, guys! Just the way a girl loves to be remembered.”
Kevin Sinclair pulled a tulip glass from the rack over the bar and siphoned off a pull of apple cider. “I hear it’s your birthday,” he deadpanned, passing her the nectar of the gods. “On the house.”
“Thanks.” She drank deep, because there had to be some benefit to a birthday that ended in a zero. “Looks like a full house for a Monday.”
“I’m not complaining,” the bartender said. “But Rachel will be, if you don’t get your ass over to the front booth now. They’ve been nursing drinks for almost an hour.”
Emily smiled her thanks at the warning and approached the Yoga Night crowd. “Ladies,” she said, toasting them with her cider.
“You would be late to your own funeral!” came the quick retort from her so-called best friend, Rachel Lacey.
“You’re just cranky because you can’t drink.” Emily nodded toward Rachel’s baby bump as she slid onto a chair at the end of the table. “Anyway, what would my mother have said if I’d walked out on my own birthday dinner?”
“If you’d walked out on your mother’s hummingbird cake, more like it,” Rachel grumbled.
Emily grinned. She’d always been a sucker for the traditional southern cake, kept moist by pineapple and bananas in the batter, smothered in brown sugar icing. These days, her mother rarely baked traditional classics, and Emily wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to indulge in childhood favorites.
Emily studied the debris on the table. Loaded Tater Tots. Bacon-Wrapped Dates. Kevin’s secret-formula Spiced Mixed Nuts. “It looks like you ladies didn’t suffer in my absence.”
Tammy Yeager, the usual host of Yoga Night, raised her beer mug in salute. “Namaste,” she said.
Emily touched her glass to Tammy’s. The first rule of Yoga Night was: There was no yoga at Yoga Night. Instead, Harmony Springs’ most eligible bachelorettes (and a few married alumnae) got together in Tammy’s Main Street shop every Monday night at eight. The combination beauty salon and yoga studio was most definitely not open for business as they drank cheap white wine and snacked on whatever random treats people happened to bring. Week after week, they gossiped about men, work, men, family, men, clothes, men, men, and men. Emily was honored that the usual gathering had moved from Namastyle to The Corner Bar in recognition of her arrival on the door step of old age.
Rachel bounced up and down on the booth’s upholstered bench. “We’ve been waiting forever!”
“Seriously. This time it isn’t my fault,” Emily said.
“Yeah, yeah.” That was the problem with best friends. They knew all your faults.
“Really!” Emily fortified herself with another sip of cider. “I purposely drove to Mom’s instead of walking just so I’d get back here on time. And I left her place at five to eight.” Give or take ten minutes. Okay, take. But that was “on time” for Emily. “When I got back to the shop, though, someone was in my space. I had to park two whole blocks away.”
“Wait a second,” Rachel said. “Let me get this down for Wednesday’s front page of The Herald.” She mimed typing. “Emily…Barton…is…late…as…usual.”
“Smartass,” Emily said. Rachel always threatened to use her editorial powers for evil and not for good.
“Who took your spot?” asked Megan Sartain. The lawyer’s tone was so serious that Emily thought she might run over to the courthouse and file suit against the perpetrator then and there.
Emily shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a black pick-up truck, big enough to tow a house. Looks brand new.” In retrospect, she was lucky to have driven to her mother’s house. Otherwise, that monster truck might have pulled into her spot and crushed her Ford Fiesta into a rusty pile of dust.
“Probably leaf-peepers, slumming for the night.” Lexi Taylor said. Dressed in a long-sleeve blouse and a floor-length skirt, she’d obviously come straight from her year-round Christmas boutique. She tossed her mane of tawny curls over her shoulders, nodding toward the back of the restaurant. A bunch of guys filled the last booth, their group overflowing into half a dozen chairs. Their voices were loud enough to spike the energy in the rest of the room.
Emily rolled her eyes. Cidiots. She thought the epithet but didn’t say it out loud. Instead, she said, “Tourists. Love ’em or get ready for bankruptcy court.”
“Love them and get ready for bankruptcy court,” Lexi said, making some attempt to drown her bitter tone in rum and Coke.
“Ouch,” Emily said. “Another bad week at The Christmas Cat?”
Lexi shrugged. “Maybe things will pick up now that it’s fall. It’s Chris I’m really worried about. I think he’s going to pull the plug on the bookstore.”
Emily clicked her tongue in sympathy. Summer had been a lean season for too many Main Street merchants, courtesy of unusually rainy weekends and daily high temperatures that had shattered records. Lexi’s brother’s store, three blocks off Main Street, had fared even more poorly than the average. Chris had been hanging on by his fingernails for over a year.
Lexi shrugged. “He says he’ll stick it out. But you know he’s always toyed with becoming a chef.”
“Maybe what Harmony Springs needs is a bookstore café.”
“What Harmony Springs needs is a reason for people to shop downtown.” Lexi turned to Rachel. “Is there any more news about that American Discount store? It looks like they finished construction last week.”
Rachel shrugged. “No one’s called The Herald to take out any ads. My guess is the Grand Opening is at least a few weeks off.”
“Just what we need,” Emily said. “Another outsider siphoning off Main Street business. It was bad enough when that Residence Suites opened, out on the highway.”
“Residence Suites hurt the General Washington Inn and a few B&Bs,” said Tammy, with an aggressive tone that was distinctly at odds with her usual yoga-studio calm. “American Discount will hurt all of us. Goodbye sales of makeup and shampoo.”
“At least they can’t teach yoga classes,” Emily said loyally. Inside, though, she winced. American Discount was certain to carry crafting supplies, including the yarn and needles that were the core of her sales at Harmony Skeins.
And just like that, a familiar itch started at the back of her mind. It was just a hint, a bare suggestion of a possibility of an inkling of an idea. But once the thought formed, she had difficulty pushing it away: It was time to move on. Time to leave Harmony Skeins and find her next job.
She didn’t need to look at a calendar to know she’d been working at the knitting boutique for a little over a year and a half. The familiar tug of wanderlust wrapped around her heart and she made a birthday promise to herself. She’d give notice to Theresa by no later than the first of January. That gave Emily three months to find a new job, and the owner of Harmony Skeins would have the slow winter period to train a new salesclerk.
The urge to roam faded to a dull tickle.
“Stop it!” Rachel cried, as if she knew what Emily was thinking. “This is supposed to be a birthday party, not a funeral!” As if to prove her point, she dug into a brightly colored gift bag by her side. “Come on, Birthday Girl. You need to put on your tiara.” She produced a sparkling mass of plastic.
Emily snorted. “I am not wearing a tiara.”
“Then you won’t get any presents,” Rachel wheedled.
Laughing, Emily shoved the gaudy crown onto her head. “There,” she said. “Satisfied?”
“Very.” Rachel produced a beautifully wrapped box from her bag. Silver ribbon shimmered above delicate gold paper. “We went in on these together, all of us at Yoga Night. You’d better appreciate our thoughtfulness.”
Emily looked around the table, spying the barely suppressed grins among her sisters in arms. “I can’t wait,” she said, ostentatiously crossing her fingers to cover the lie. Then, she took the present and opened it meticulously, treating it like the treasure it might have been if she’d had different friends.
Beneath the golden paper was a pristine pasteboard box. Pulling off the lid, Emily discovered a blanket of soft cotton. Under the cotton was an indeterminate shape, swaddled in white tissue paper.
And inside the tissue paper was a paint brush. A three-inch, long-bristled paint brush.
“I don’t get it,” Emily said.
“It’s a heavy duty makeup brush!” Tammy exclaimed.
Emily groaned and threatened to beat the hairdresser about the head and neck with the gift. But Rachel only shoved another package in front of her. That one held a dozen clothes pins—“Snore stoppers!” announced Heather March. As town librarian, she supposedly had a special claim on enforcing silence. There was a package of Ben-Gay as well, and a battery-operated plastic fan—for hot flashes, Rachel clarified. Heavy-duty sandpaper was included to remove age spots, and a truly disgusting bag of tooth-shaped gummy candies were “dentures.”
“Thanks, guys,” Emily said, laughing. “You shouldn’t have.” She gulped the last of her cider. “You really, really shouldn’t have.”
Rachel reached into her bag again. This time, she pulled out a heavy glass bottle, festooned with a dozen different shades of curling ribbon. “Maybe a little bubbly will help you to forgive us.”
Emily eyed the champagne approvingly. “Okay. Maybe I don’t have to get a whole new set of friends.”
“Especially when you open this!” Rachel rescued one more package from the bag. This one was discreet, wrapped in plain red paper, no ribbon, no bow.
Emily eyed it warily. “I can’t imagine anything else I could possibly want.”
“Oh, you’ll want these,” Rachel said.
Emily could have stood her ground, refusing to be the butt of any more over-the-hill jokes. But she knew Rachel well enough to be certain her best friend would never relent. Emily might as well take her medicine and be done with it. Tugging the cuffs of her Madelinetosh sweater over her fingertips, she braced herself to play along.
Picking up the box, she shook it beside her ear. Whatever was inside shifted back and forth, sounding a bit like a deck of cards. But the box was larger than playing cards. Heavier, too.
Emily slipped a fingernail under the tape on the gift-wrap. Every woman at the table leaned closer. This was going to be great.
Emily made short work of stripping off the paper and opening the box. And she felt her cheeks grow red as she stared at the contents: a black box with lurid neon purple lettering: “Pleasure Parade Mini Vibrator,” it said.
“Waterproof.” A plastic window in the packaging showed a disturbingly fluorescent toy. And it wasn’t very mini. Nestled next to it was a package of condoms—ultra thin, lubricated, and ridged for her pleasure.
The table exploded with laughter as Emily slammed the lid down on her gift. Rachel smiled her most angelic smile and said, “Play by yourself, or with others.”
“Thanks, ladies.” Emily frowned as she looked at each of them. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you.”
Tammy had a look of tantric ecstasy on her face as she passed a serene hand over the box. “We women hold such power in our second chakras.”
“I’m sure we do,” Emily said. But it was impossible to keep hold of her scowl as her friends hooted.
Rachel said, “Here’s the deal, Em. You’re thirty now. And you haven’t been on a third date since high school.”
“Hey!” Emily said. “That’s not true.”
Her best friend cocked an eyebrow—the same expression the newspaper editor used when Mrs. Delancey called the paper to report yet another UFO hovering over her cornfield.
Emily grudgingly clarified. “I went on two dates with Mick Callahan, just last year. Then one more, six months later.”
“That was a booty call,” Rachel clarified, as if she were teaching a toddler a new word.
Emily couldn’t argue. She’d had fun with Mick. But her two-date rule was a virtue, not a vice. Two dates, max, and it was time to move on. Just like she never spent more than two years in an apartment. Two years in a job. That way, she never got too attached. Never built up unreasonable expectations. Never had her dreams come crashing down around her, when someone, some guy proved he couldn’t be trusted.
“That’s fine,” Megan said, but the lawyer’s tone made it clear Emily was committing some third-degree felony. Of course Megan would think that. She was the married mother of a nine-year-old kid. Emily felt like a child herself as Megan waved her hand over the gag gifts. “But our little girl is all grown up now. It’s time to stop playing the field. Time to settle down.”
“Hello,” Emily said, allowing a little exasperation to color her tone. “Queen Victoria called. She wants her chastity belt back.”
Tammy took over the assault. “We’re just saying you need to expand your awareness,” the yoga teacher said with perfect bliss. “Allow your inner self to experience freedom from prior restraints. You need to give yourself a chance, Em. And that means meeting new men.”
“In Harmony Springs?” Emily laughed. But the rest of the table wasn’t laughing.
“First unmarried guy who walks up to the bar tonight,” Rachel said, and Emily realized her best friend had been thinking about this for a while. “You’re asking him out. And you’ll go on three dates, no matter what.”
“Even if he’s an axe murderer?”
Rachel shook her head. “No trying to weasel out of this. Three dates. And a new guy every month, until you find someone who sticks.”
Rachel shook her head. “We’re just worried about you. And don’t give me that look. If you haven’t found anyone by the end of a year, then I’ll never say another word again. None of us will. That’ll be our thirty-first birthday present to you.”
Emily looked at the Yoga Night crowd. Tammy sat upright on the edge of her bench, her spine gracefully erect. Lexi’s wild grin stood out in stark contrast to her high-necked Victorian garb. Heather leaned close to her girlfriend, Olivia Park. Megan stared at Emily with slightly narrowed eyes, as if the lawyer were appraising Emily’s willingness to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Each of them looked expectant. Each of them was certain she’d agree. Each of them yearned to live vicariously, even if they didn’t have the collective nerve to ask out even one guy.
But it was Rachel who knew best the way Emily’s mind worked. Rachel understood exactly how to force the issue. “Truth or dare?” her best friend asked.
And just like that, the Purr started in the back of Emily’s mind. Low and insistent, the hum of competition jangled her nerves, pushing through a dose of adrenaline that reminded Emily she never backed down. She never passed up a chance to win. And she’d never chosen Truth in her life. “Dare,” she said, with grim determination.
“I dare you then,” Rachel said. “First unmarried guy at the bar.”
Emily sighed. She’d do anything once. Twice.
Just not three times.
“You’re on,” she said, and the Purr roared in approval. To prove she meant her vow, Emily slipped out of her chair and headed toward the bar. She might as well have a fresh glass of cider when the man of Yoga Night’s dreams made his appearance.
* * *
So, it turned out, you can go back home again.
Because Matt Dawson was home. And so far, everything was going according to plan—every single step he’d mapped out over the past eighteen months.
Yeah, the TV was on in The Corner Bar. But this year, it didn’t hurt to watch the Rockets’ post-season play. Not the way it had last fall, when every pitch thrown by another guy had reached down Matt’s throat and ripped out his balls.
With another year of retirement under his belt, he didn’t even mind cheering with the rest of the crowd as Tyler Brock rounded second at a flat-out run. Matt leaned forward as the kid ignored the stop sign put up by the third-base coach. He held his breath as Brock lowered his head and sprinted for home, dropping into a perfect slide ten feet out.
The Rockets were up three-two, bottom of the eighth. Matt didn’t need to think; he just knew it was a quick game. DJ must be dealing on the mound.
October baseball. Playoff games. It never got old.
Except the players got old. And they tore up their throwing arms for a second time. And then they left the game whether they wanted to or not, moving on to the next chapter of their lives.
“Hey, Mad Dog! Will the Rockets do it again this year?” That was Joe Henderson, the guy who’d caught Matt shoplifting a pack of baseball cards from his gas station convenience store twenty-five years ago. No hard feelings, though. Joe had never told Matt’s folks. He’d let Matt pretend a normal second-grader wanted to mop those filthy gas station bathrooms every afternoon for a month.
Now Matt found himself the focus of eight pairs of eyes as he turned back to the crowded table. He smiled and shrugged, dropping into an easy drawl. “They’ve got better bats than we had two years ago.”
“But not the starting pitching,” Coach said loyally from the far side of the table.
Matt raised his glass in acknowledgment. “Life moves on,” he said. And then, because he’d come to the bar to get some business done, he said, “That reminds me. I was surprised to see the new traffic light west of town.”
Jake Presley said, “Chief Carter pushed hard for it. Said we need to calm traffic those first few blocks of Main Street. I think it was a waste of good taxpayers’ money.”
Jake kept his chin up as he made his criticism, but when no one agreed, he started picking at some of the scarred graffiti on the old wooden tabletop. He’d become a partner in his old man’s hardware store four, maybe five years back. Thirty-five years old, and it looked like he was still waiting for the rest of the guys to accept him at the grown-ups’ table.
Good thing to know.
Matt had studied Jake Presley. Jake and Chris Taylor and Simon McCall. Each of the guys ran a store in town—hardware for Jake, books for Chris. Simon had inherited the old Mercantile from his father about eight years back, changing the name to McCall’s General Store. He’d changed the name but not anything else. Hell, he’d had plenty of time to figure out what men actually wore in the twenty-first century, but the window displays looked pretty much like they had when Matt was a kid—the same no-name jeans, the same Western-style plaid shirts with fake pearl buttons over the pocket flaps.
Matt knew exactly what Simon was doing wrong. Matt had to. Because Simon’s mistakes were at the heart of the thesis Matt had turned in six months ago, the cornerstone of the MBA degree he’d earned fresh out of the big leagues. To get his business degree, Matt had analyzed Simon’s mistakes along with all the other Harmony Springs merchants who were trapped one, two, three decades in the past. Not one of them had a clue what would hit them when Matt opened his American Discount store in three weeks.
A shout went up from the crowd, and Matt’s attention whipped back to the game. Greenie was slow-walking to first, shaking his left arm and waving off the trainers. The guy got hit by more pitches than any other player on the team. He crowded the plate, but he got the job done.
Matt was doing his own crowding, here in Harmony Springs. He was leaning in to the guys on Main Street, forcing them to up their games or pay the consequences.
It wasn’t about tearing down the stable base of his hometown. He didn’t need to do that. He could have taken his money and stayed away for the rest of his life, forgotten about all the crap at home. He didn’t need to see his mother’s clothes straining across her shoulders, tight from the comfort-food weight she’d piled on. He didn’t need to watch the flashpoint anger in his father’s face, the cords of his throat looking like they might snap any minute. He didn’t need to see the grave in Harmony Gardens, the earth still rough, like the grass was waiting until his brother’s tombstone was set before it grew back.
Yeah. He didn’t need any of that shit.
Except he did. He needed to prove he’d made the right choice. Even if he’d started out by screwing around for four years at University of Richmond, spending a hell of a lot more time with buckets of baseballs than with books in the library. Even if he’d broken with Dawson family tradition and taken a job—a dream job, pitching for the Rockets—instead of serving in the Army like the oldest son was supposed to, like his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather had done. Matt needed to prove that a life in the majors and a post-pitching-career business degree had been worthwhile.
Matt was going to save Harmony Springs from itself. His American Discount store would keep the town afloat into the next century.
Chris Taylor broke into his thoughts. “So you really bought the old Marshall place, huh?”
Matt knew what came next. The guys would laugh about breaking into the old man’s barn, about setting up their stupid secret clubhouse in the worm-eaten horse stalls. And someone would remember Jon, how he’d dared them all to jump from the hayloft.
Because everyone had loved Jon. Jon had been loud and funny and he’d had a mouth that would make a trucker blush. Sure, he’d knocked up Kaylie Putnam. And he’d skipped town when he found out. But he’d made that work too—he’d joined the Army that Matt had avoided and landed a regular pay-check, never missing a child-support payment back home.
Jon was a saint. At least, he had been, till an IED ripped through his transport in Afghanistan last Christmas Eve. He’d been on a fucking humanitarian mission to get through to a remote village after a landslide.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Matt should have been the guy in the Army, not his kid brother.
Just thinking about it made Matt long for a pen in his hand and a copy of The New York Times crossword puzzle. That’s how he’d shut down the nagging voices of doubt when he used to take the mound. He could put things in order before a game, solve the puzzle with straight-forward horizontal and vertical clues, record his answers with a rhythm that slowed his pulse and calmed his mind.
But this wasn’t baseball anymore. This was his new life. And he could either listen to the guys reminisce about Jon at Old Man Marshall’s place, or he could buy another round.
“Hold that thought,” he said. The guys cheered as he walked to the bar.
Sinclair was pulling a cider, slow and smooth. The guy looked like he’d been born behind the bar. He’d do fine after Matt’s store got established. All the bars and restaurants in town would. The services too, the veterinarian over on Washington Street, the real estate agents and insurance guys and bankers. And Matt would give the residents in Harmony Springs the easier life they deserved—the consumer goods they needed, cheap and close by, no more making the two-hour round-trip drive to Winchester for necessities every week.
Matt waited until Sinclair handed off the cider, and then he said, “Another round for the guys at the back table.”
“The conquering hero returns! What brings you back to Harmony Springs, Matt Dawson?”
Before Matt could force a stiff grin past the word “hero,” he found himself soaked in ice-cold apple cider.