Read an Excerpt
"Just when the caterpillar thought life was over, it became a butterfly." Anonymous
Twenty years later
"You can do this." Perspiration dotted Gabrielle Coombs's forehead as she aimed her fountain pen at the papers on the desk in front of her. "You have to do this."
Clutching the pen so hard her knuckles turned white, Gabby forced her shaking hand toward the real-estate document that would put her business, Honey Comb's Barbershop, up for sale. Her heart quaked as much as her hand. She'd only worked in one place her entire life, and it was right here in this century-old, brick-walled storefront.
"'One cannot look into a bright future if her eyes are filled with tears from the past,'" she quoted aloud, pressing the quivering ballpoint to the signature line, but her fingers refused to move.
Spouting insights was easy. One of the signs in her window read "Haircuts$10. Wisdompriceless." Her grandfather Max had started the custom of sharing philosophical quotes with his customers over fifty years ago. When he'd passed Honey Comb's to Gabby, she'd gladly picked up the torch. She must have had hundreds of quotes packed into her brain by now. But talk was cheap unless action backed it up. Actionthat was the hard part.
"Life is like crossing a set of monkey bars. You have to let go to move forward." She muttered one of her grandfather's favorite sayings, and taking one big deep breath, scrawled her name.
Wide-eyed and perspiring, she looked at the page. "Oh, my God, I'm really doing it."
Unexpectedly, a chunk of anxiety fell away like rusted armor. Refusing to give herself time to chicken out, she quickly penned the date then signed on the other lines the real-estate agent had indicated.
For as long as Gabby could remember, she had planned to do two things with her life: Run Honey Comb'sthe coziest, warmest place on earth, and marry Dean Kings-leythe coziest, warmest man on the planet.
"'The best laid schemes of mice and men do often go awry .'"
Despite the fact that Dean had never been anything other than friendly and kind, Gabby had convinced herself that he would fall for her when she was thinner, prettier, funnier. When she figured out how to keep her red hair from frizzing in the summer, or when she'd read all his favorite books. His love was going to be the chrysalis that changed her from plain, awkward Gabby Coombs to confident, graceful butterfly.
Dean had screwed up her great plan by falling in love with someone else. Someone who had been a stranger to all of them until only a few months ago. Now the man she'd dreamed about for twenty years (twentyaaaaaagh!) was married with a child on the way, and Gabby felt like an old train that had rattled too long on the same dusty route, never veering from its chosen course but expecting the scenery magically to change.
Well, not anymore.
"It's time for me to say goodbye, Poppy." She lifted her gaze to the framed black-and-white photo of the man who had given her this barbershop on her twenty-third birthday, nearly one decade ago. Despite her firm conviction (it really was firm), tears filled her eyes. "I hope you understand."
Her benevolent grandfather smiled down at her, leaning against the striped barber pole that, to this day, swirled like a dancing peppermint stick out front.
Six weeks earlier, on a whim, Gabby had applied for a job that would take her far from her hometown of Hon-eyford, Oregon. Three days ago she'd received an offer of employment from Rising Sun Cruises. The next morning she'd accepted the offer, and yesterday she had visited the real-estate agent to put her business up for sale.
Bold moves, every one, which was exactly what she needed right now. Bold moves to create a brand new life.
And a brand new Gabby.
When a knock rattled the barbershop's glass door, she realized she was several minutes past opening, something she couldn't recall ever happening before. Jumping from her stool behind the small front desk, she headed for the door.
Wiping the moisture from beneath her eyes, she smoothed a hand over the kinky hair that inevitably escaped her ponytail and turned the key in the lock. She plastered a smile on her face as she swung the door open, but words of welcome died on her lips. Surpriseand the stirrings of something that felt like dreadtensed every muscle.
June sunshine silhouetted a tall man with square shoulders. As Gabby's eyes adjusted to the light, she saw that he was gorgeousstill gorgeousin a way few males in Honeyford were. An edgy, mysterious, dangerous kind of gorgeous.
"Hi, there. Can I get a haircut?"
The lump of emotion filling Gabby's throat all morning doubled at the sound of his voice, which was deeper, more gravelly than it had been fifteen years earlier when Caleb Wells had been an eighteen-year-old farmhand bound and determined to make something of himself.
Her gaze rose to his chestnut hair. Thick, wavy and glittering with deep bronze-and-gold highlights, it had obviously been expertly styled.
"You don't need a haircut," she said, her voice hoarse with shock. "You look." She hesitated.
As a teen, Cal had been whipcord lean, perpetually hungry looking. Now in his thirties, he impressively filled his designer suit. As sharp as three points of a triangle, the chin and jaw that used to sport a light shadow were smooth and whisker-free.
"You look good," she concluded, feeling her face flame.
The right side of his mouth curled just a bit in response.
He turned his head, glancing into the barbershop. "May I come in?"
Gabby hesitated, apprehension tingling throughout her body.
One of the signs in her window warned, "No Shoes, No Shirt, You Better Get Your Hair Cut Someplace Else," but Cal looked more like the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company than a small-town kid who'd once struggled by on odd jobs and church handouts. Since she couldn't justify keeping him out, Gabby stepped back and got a whiff of expensive cologne as Cal brushed past her. Whatever he'd been doing all these years, he'd managed to effect a complete transformation.
How ironic, she thought dazedly, feeling as if she were having an out-of-body experience, that Cal Wells, of all people, should reappear again now, when I'm about to take the biggest risk of my life.
A decade and a half ago, he had been the biggest risk she'd ever taken. And that time she had concluded she'd made an awful mistake.
As Cal entered the barbershop, his gaze moved to the wall of black-and-white pictures that framed the large mirrors above Honey Comb's two cutting stations. The photos, most of which she'd taken, were the only things that changed in the shop on a regular basis.
While Cal moved closer, studying her work, Gabby busied herself opening the blinds and flipping the sign that said, "Shut Till We're Not," to the side that announced, "Come In Already."
Several times she glanced over her shoulder, until Cal caught her gaze in the mirror and raised a brow.
"Your photos?" he asked, indicating the display.
Again he gave her that flicker of a smile. "You're good. I knew you would be."
Her heart stuttered a little in response. "Thanks." How many times had she taken photos of him while he'd worked on her family's farm? Hidden from view, she'd snapped candid shots, using the rough and beautiful Oregon landscape as the perfect backdrop for Cal's untamed looks and solitary personality. Her family had praised the many photos she took of them all, but only Cal had truly studied her work, commenting on the light and the composition. Telling her that her work showed "passion."
"So how about that haircut?"
Slowly she shook her head. "You don't need it."
Still looking at her in the mirror, he ran a hand over the thick waves. "I do. It's too long."
Because his hair was trimmed neatly above his ears, the comment surprised her. "It's shorter than I've ever seen it. It was way past your shoulders the last time" With the nature of their last encounterand its aftermathfilling her mind, Gabby fumbled. "the last time I saw you."
Cal turned toward her, pinning her with the unwavering hazel gaze that had always hidden more than it revealed. "I haven't tried to wear my hair like a rock star for years, Gabrielle. It's time for a trim. And you were always the best." When she continued to stare without speaking, he pressed, "It wouldn't make you uncomfortable, would it? Now that I think about it, cutting my hair used to make you pretty damn nervous."
"No, it didn't." Automatic and defensive, her denial made Cal grin.
A real grin, not the partial, inscrutable smile characteristic of him. This one was full and beautiful, which was strange since the boy Gabby had known came from a home life that hadn't offered up many reasons to smile. She felt slightly woozy now, trying to remember when she'd last seen unreserved enjoyment on his face. Then he said, "You haven't changed, Gabby," and her stomach plunked to her feet.
"I resent that."
The brow arched higher. "Why?"
"Why?" Because fifteen years ago she had looked like little Orphan Annie on steroids, and he damn well knew it!
Since Cal had left town, she'd shaved off twenty pounds and had grown out the curly hair she used to control by keeping it shaped like a spongy football helmet around her head. Sadly, she was missing a fashion chromosome, so her wardrobe had transformed only to the extent that she now bought smaller size jeans and tucked in the blouses she wore to work. Still, she had made a true attempt this past decade and a half to look better, and it was beyond frustrating to discover that her makeover made no impression at all on someone who hadn't seen her since shortly after she'd turned in her high school cap and gown.
In an effort to preserve some dignity, she kept her tone instructional rather than plaintive. "No thirty-three-year-old woman wants to be told she seems the same as she did at eighteen."
Cal walked toward her. "I liked you fine at eighteen."
He kept coming until they were inches apart, and Gabby felt every nerve sizzle.
"Remember the first time you cut my hair?" he asked, his voice softer than it needed to be given that there was no one else in the shop to overhear them. "You'd been practicing on your brothers. You made them sit through three haircuts each before you agreed to work on me. And then you only did it because they took off like rockets the second they saw you coming."
"Well," she said, wanting like crazy to back up a couple of steps, but refusing to divulge how nervous he really did make her. "I thought I should practice on family first."
Though she hadn't thought of it in ages, the day he mentioned popped vividly to mind. She could picture the way
he'd leaned against her mother's kitchen counter, drinking lemonade and eating shortbread while her brothers squirmed and complained about the dishtowels around their necks and their fear that Gabby might scalp them. Having just turned fifteen, but seeming years older, Cal had stood silently, observing, until finally she'd run out of siblings. Then he'd pushed away from the counter and announced, "My turn."
Now those strange, translucent eyes of his narrowed slightly, and she realized she might have hurt his feelings by suggesting he wasn't "family." Throughout his teens, he'd practically lived at the Coombses' farm, hanging out with her brothers and being as helpful to her parents as one of their own children. Maybe more. Her mother had lived to feed him, because unlike her own sometimes picky kids, Cal had always eaten two helpings of everything.
Only Cal and Gabby had never quite bridged the gap between friend and family.
"We're not kids anymore," he said. "I think we can both handle a haircut. Don't you?"
Challenge filled his expression.
No. Absolutely not. I am a sissy.
Cal's eyes flickered with what Gabby suspected was amusement. Swallowing the last of her reticence, she nodded toward one of the two old-fashioned barber chairs. "Have a seat. You'll probably want to take off that fancy suit jacket, though. You can hang it on the coat tree by the front desk. I've got to go in back to get a cape."
He nodded. "Sounds good."
Leaving him, Gabby headed to the rear of the shop and the laundry bag she'd brought with her this morning. Extracting a clean stack of neatly folded capes and a pile of white washcloths, she moved with the sureness of someone who had performed this task literally thousands of times. Inside, however, she felt like grape jelly.
How could she casually cut his hair after what had happened the last time they were together?
Detouring into a small restroom with a single overhead lightbulb, Gabby yanked the cord that illuminated the room.
She winced as she peered into the mirror. The red curls she typically bundled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck looked like a nuclear blast in Technicolor. Escaped tendrils provided fallout all around her head.
Setting aside the capes and towels, she quickly reassembled the 'do, scraping her feral hair into something more managed. She didn't need to look attractive for him. But she would like to exude confidence and self-possession, two qualities that had been in short supply fifteen years ago. Digging a tube of lip balm from her front pocket, she swiped it over her dry lips.
There was a whole river of white water under the bridges she and Cal had burned, and frankly she hated to churn it up, especially now. On the brink of personal change, she wanted to feel confident and boldnot to be reminded of one of the most awkward moments in her entire life.
It's been fifteen years, Gabby.
To Cal, what had happened the last summer after their senior year in high school was probably nothing more than a dim recollection. Maybe an anecdote. He was a guy, after all. He'd walked away from Honeyford, from her family and from his best friends that year. One sexually inexperienced young woman desperate to discover what she was missing in life was unlikely to hold a place in his long-term memory.
The fact was that with a father, three brothers and a grandpa who owned a barbershop, Gabby had considered herself fairly comfortable around men (the ones she wasn't hoping to marry). But Cal Wells, with his silent stares and inscrutable expressions, had always been the exception. Cal had thrown her off-kilter and that one evening, anyway. excited her.
Hardening her gray eyes at the mirror, she made her reflection a solemn promise. "That was then, this is now. The old Gabby may have been a fuzzy caterpillar, but the new and improved Gabrielle Coombs is a butterfly, graceful and free.
"If he can act as if nothing happened, so can you." Gabby gave herself a smile. Shoulders back, chin high, she collected her capes and towels and returned to the front of the shop.