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Whoever said you couldn't go home again had clearly never been to Copper Ridge. The place hadn't changed. Not in the ten years before Sadie Miller had left town, and not in the ten years since. It probably wouldn't have changed much in another ten years.
Well, it would change a little bit now. The population sign would increase by one, adding back the resident she'd taken away when she'd left town at eighteen. And it would also contain at least one more bed-and-breakfast.
So, in an unchanging landscape, she would be responsible for two changes in a very short amount of time.
She deserved a medal of some kind. Though she doubted anyone in this town would ever give her a medal. She was just the wild child from the wrong side of the tracks. Not many would be welcoming her with open arms.
But that was fine with her. She wasn't here for them. She was here for her.
She looked across the highway, at the ocean, barely visible through the trees on her left. She could remember walking there as a kid. A long hike in the sand, through gorse and other pricklies, around the lake and across the road.
A walk she and her friends had always made without their parents. Because the main perk of getting out for an afternoon was getting away from their parents, after all. At least it had been for her.
It was strange to see something familiar. She'd spent so many years moving on to the next new place. She never went back anywhere. Ever. She went somewhere new.
This was the first time she'd ever been somewhere old. And she wasn't sure how she felt about it.
She looked at the gas gauge on her car and sighed. The little yellow light was reminding her that she hadn't made a pit stop since she'd gone through Med-ford, nearly three hundred miles ago. She was going to have to stop somewhere in town before she went out to the ranch. She wasn't exactly sure where the Garrett ranch was, just that it was on the outskirts of Copper Ridge.
She'd never been invited onto the property before.
The fact that she was leasing a business on it now would have been funny if she didn't just feel horrible, stomach-cramping nervousness.
But then, she figured facing past demons was supposed to be scary. She wouldn't know for sure since she'd spent years avoiding them. Six months ago, that had changed.
Working with people dealing with grief and loss was always impactingthere was no way around it. But one very grumpy older woman who'd lost the house she'd been in since the 1940s had forced her to think about things she'd always avoided.
"Home is wherever you are," Sadie had told her.
Maryann, whose every decade on earth was marked clearly in her snow-white hair and the deep lines etched in her face, had scowled at her. "Home is where I raised my children. Where my husband breathed his last breath. I don't know who I am outside those walls."
"You're still you. I've spent a lot of my life moving from place to place, and I take my essence, my soul, or whatever you want to call it, with me wherever I go."
The other woman had waved her hand in dismissal. "You can't know, then. You're a vagrant in your own life. If nothing matters to you, how can you sit there and tell me that something I poured the past sixty years of my life into is meaningless?"
And that was when she'd realized
as a crisis counselor she'd helped so many people deal with loss. Either the loss of a loved one, the loss of a marriage or, very often, the loss of a home, and she'd realized that all that advice had been thin. Rootless, because she was.
Because nothing was permanent in her life. Because not one thing had the kind of deep resonance and meaning for her that Maryann's home had for her.
She'd never before been quite so conscious of the transient nature of her life. But in one blunt sentence her patient had reduced the past ten years to a tumble-weed in her mind's eye, while Maryann's own past had risen up like a redwood. Towering, significant. Rooted.
After that she'd felt so aware of how alone she was. That she'd let every friendship she'd left behind wither on the vine and die, that she'd done a crap job of making new friends since she'd moved to San Diego. That her last boyfriend, Marcus, hadn't been missed from the day she'd rolled him out of bed and out the door for the last time.
Those revelations had led to online perusals of Copper Ridge. Which had led to an ad she hadn't been able to get out of her head.
Long-term lease. Perfect for a private residence or bed-and-breakfast.
From there, she'd examined her savings, done estimated profit and loss based on exhaustive research of similar businesses, and before she'd quite realized what she was getting herself into
she'd committed. Committed to leaving the career she'd spent more time in school for than she'd spent actually practicing.
For the first time in ten years, she'd agreed to an extended time frame in one location. And for the first time in ten years, she was headed back to the one place she'd ever called home.
Of course, now she felt like she was approaching doom. Which she didn't think was at all dramatic. Since she was never dramatic.
Except for when she was dramatic.
From the backseat, she heard Tobias, more commonly known as Toby, let out a plaintive meow. The entire road trip had been endured with growing indignation by her cat. But then, she paid the rent, so he had to deal.
"Sorry, bud," she said. "I have the thumbs, I man the can opener. That means you have to stick with me. And if that means moving up the coast, it means moving up the coast. At least I didn't fly and throw you into cargo." Which, during their many moves together, had been a necessity on occasion. Toby wasn't a fan of air travel.
The cat didn't respond to her attempts at mollifying him. Which didn't really surprise her. In many ways, she was much more dependent on him than he was on her.
Sadie looked out at the expanse of evergreen trees that lined the road, a rich, velvet green that she hadn't found anywhere outside of Oregon. California was sun and palm trees, deep blue ocean and heat. It was beautiful, but in a different way.
Copper Ridge was all majestic mountains, shades of green and steel-gray sea. Not the kind of beach you hung out on in a bikini unless you were a local. The wind was cold and blew the sand up hard and fast, the grains biting into skin like little teeth.
It was its own kind of beauty, that was for sure. She'd been all over the United States. From the Deep South to the East Coast and back west again, and nothing had ever been quite like this. She'd never thought she'd be back.
But she was. And the dread was ever encroaching.
Suddenly, the car engine started to growl, and she pushed down the gas pedal, hoping to feel it rev again, only to be disappointed.
"Oh, frickety frick," she muttered as she pulled to the side of the road and the engine went totally silent.
Gas had apparently been needed sooner than expected.
She leaned forward, pressing her head against the steering wheel. "I knew it was doomed. I knew I was doomed!" She straightened up and looked backward at Toby. "Don't start. Don't get judgey."
Toby did nothing but stare at her with green eyes that were extremely judgmental despite her command. "You suck, cat," she said, reaching down and digging for her purse, then feeling around for her phone.
She pulled it out and saw one bar of service. Oh, right. Because that's what you got for moving away from civilization and settling in the absolute sticks.
She tapped her fingernails against the side of the phone and contemplated who to call. She didn't really know anyone in town anymore. Her own parents had moved away ages ago, and she wouldn't call them even if they hadn't.
Thankfully, she could get roadside assistance, but what a freaking pain.
She pulled up the browser on the phone and typed tow trucks into the search engine, then grimaced as she watched the little wheel up in the top left-hand corner of the phone spin, and spin and spin while it tried to grab hold of a satellite signal for long enough to pull up some results.
"Oh, Copper Ridge, you've bested me before, you aren't allowed to do it again." She kept her eyes on the phone and then growled at it, setting it on the passenger seat while she leaned over and pulled a stack of papers out of the glove box. She had to have a number for her insurance on hand at least.
Somewhere. It had to be somewhere.
A loud rap on the glass behind her shot a shock wave through her and she whipped around, releasing her hold on the stack of papers, sending them flying through the car, where they settled in both the front and backseats.
She looked around at the mess, then at the knocker. On the other side of the glass was a man in a tan uniform, a gold star on his chest, sunglasses over his eyes. What she could see of him was
well, hot. Which was the last thing she expected, because she'd been living in San Diego for a few years, the land of the beautiful, and rarely, if ever, was she so overcome by a man's face that all she could think was "hot." But maybe that had to do with the recent startle. She was just a little dazed, that was all.
He pointed downward, an authoritative gesture that took her a minute to attach meaning to, mainly because something was pulling at the back of her brain. A memory that was attempting to come to the forefront.
She blinked and tried to get herself together, tried to get herself back into the present. She pushed the button on the door and the window slid down, removing the barrier between herself and Officer Hottie.
"Hi," she said. "I'm out of gas. But I have roadside assistance so
I mean, I'm okay. Except I don't have very good cell service. So I was looking for
Well, anyway, did you stop for a reason?"
"To check on you," he said, the expression on his face strange. He looked like he had a memory tugging on his brain, too, and that made her own memory pull even harder.
distressed motorist." She looked around at all of the scattered papers. "Right. But I'm not really distressed. I'm fine."
Wow, but he really was hot. Chiseled jaw, short dark hair. He created a response, low and deep in her body, that felt familiar in a very disquieting way.
He bent down in front of the window and she caught the name on his badge.
Oh, no. No no no no. There were not enough swearwords in the English language to express all of the bad in this situation. She was stranded on the side of the road, and she'd just encountered one of the chief demons from her past. In a uniform. The welcome committee from hell. Not that she'd imagined she'd be able to avoid him forever, considering her B and B was situated on his family's ranch, but she'd imagined she might avoid him for at least ten minutes after hitting the city limits.
She was not in the mood to deal with him. She was revising his nickname. Not Officer Hottie. Officer Stick-Up-the-Ass. That's who he was.
Not only that, he was a reminder of a whole host of things she would rather just forget.
And then his expression changed, and she knew he was catching up.
"Sadie Miller," he said.
"Well, damn." She smiled at him as best she could, but her palms were starting to sweat. Authority figures did that to her in general, and authority figures who had once fingerprinted her were an even bigger issue. "You do have a good memory."
"You never forget the first woman you put in handcuffs," he said, his voice low and firm, giving zero impression of a double entendre, and yet, it hit her that way.
Hit her and ricocheted around to parts inside of her that had gone ignored for a long time.
She cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders, trying to look arch and serious, and everything she'd spent the past ten years turning her life into.
Eli Garrett wasn't allowed to make her feel like a scroungy teenage girl, because she was not a scroungy teenage girl anymore. Similarly, he was not allowed to make her feel hot and bothered like he'd done back then, either, because
well, because she wasn't the same person she'd been then.
"Indeed," she said.
"What brings you back into town?"
He didn't know? She looked at him, studied him. He didn't know. Well, that was just peachy. Connor Garrett had neglected to tell his brother that he'd offered her the lease on the house. She had a feeling that was going to go down with Eli like a live leech in his breakfast cereal.
"Am I, um
am I being detained?" she asked, fidgeting in her seat.
"No," he said.
"Then am I free to go?"
"Where? You're out of gas."
Point to Officer Garrett. "Yes. I am. Maybe
maybe you could help me with that?"
His lips, which were far more interesting than they should be, didn't smile, didn't lessen their tension. They simply remained in a flat line. Uncompromising. Unfriendly. Like the man himself. "Just a second." He turned and walked back toward his squad car and she started picking up the papers she'd strewn all over the car.
Her heart was beating so hard she thought she might have a medical event. What were the odds that he was the first person she saw when she came back to Copper Ridge? It was a bad omen. A very bad omen.
Of course, her first thought, still, was that he was hot. She'd thought that at seventeen. But then, to a rebellious kid with an affinity for underage drinking, a man who was part of the sheriff's department was sort of the ultimate fascination. The ultimate no-go. So of course, even when she'd resented his presence, she'd gotten a little kick out of checking him out.
She let out a long breath. She'd sort of hoped that he'd gone on to law enforcement in another town. Or that maybe he'd given up wearing a uniform altogether and discovered a passion for pottery
maybe in the south of France.
But no. Eli Garrett had done what most people from Copper Ridge seemed to do. He'd found his place in the little community and stayed in his carved-out niche.
You should judge. Since you're back and all. Yes, she was back.
At this point in the game, Copper Ridge had seemed as good a place as any to give her demons the big middle finger.
And hey, she was facing one of them a little bit early. But, considering he had a gun strapped to his lean hips, she thought maybe giving him the finger wasn't the best idea.
"I put a call in for you," he said from over her shoulder.
"Gah!" She startled. "Could you not sneak up on me like that?"
"Do I make you nervous?"
"No. Why would you make me nervous?"
"Criminals do seem to get nervous around the badge."
She frowned. "I am not a criminal. I am a licensed therapist in eight
no, nine states."
"With a criminal record."
"I was a minor."
"No arrests since then?" he asked. "I ask again, am I being detained?"