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Make a plan. Work the plan. Adjust when necessary.
Olivia Scott had rescued countless companies from financial ruin with that particular strategy. Why not use the same winning formula in her own life?
No more excuses. No more waiting for the perfect moment to come along. With only six months before she turned the Big 3-0, and nothing tying her to her old life, this was her chance to strike out on her own.
"If not now, when?"
Her bold words echoed in the empty kitchen of her childhood home, disappearing beneath the hum of the refrigerator.
Olivia squared her shoulders, refusing to allow any more darkness in her heart this morning. Losing her job didn't have to be a bad thing. Nor did she have to regret finding out her ex-boyfriend only thought of her as a convenience. Better to know before she agreed to marry him, instead of after.
Olivia dropped her forehead to the kitchen table, squeezed her eyes shut and drew in several long, calming breaths.
Moving back to Colorado from Jacksonville, Florida, could be a blessing in disguise. The very nudge she needed to stop dreaming about opening her own tearoom and start making it happen.
Step one: make a plan.
Olivia lifted her head, turned on her laptop and looked around the kitchen while the machine booted up. Nothing had changed. The white enameled sink still had the long crack in the middle. The golden handles on the dark cabinets were original, as was the terra-cotta tile floor at her feet. This had been her mother's domain, where she'd taught Olivia natural ingredients were always the best.
She really missed her mother.
Sighing, Olivia turned her attention back to the computer screen, clicked on the Village Green's Chamber of Commerce official website and scrolled through the registry of businesses.
Some were new. Most had been around for generations.
She clicked on the link to a chocolate shop, frowned when she saw it had gone out of business six months ago and sat back in her chair. Wasn't that interesting?
She returned to the search engine, typed in the words Colorado and Chocolatier and-
A wet nose nudged her hand.
Looking down, she steeled her heart against large, pleading brown eyes. "No, Baloo, I can't go for a walk right now."
Leash clamped between his teeth, her brother's ancient black Lab shivered from head to toe. "No, really, I can't. Maybe later, I'll "
Well, why not?
What better way to organize the ideas swirling around in her head? It wouldn't hurt to avoid her two brothers, either, or their questions concerning her sudden arrival last night.
Losing her job had only been the first painful loss she'd endured before coming home. She hadn't planned to bunk in her childhood bed, in the house she and her brothers had inherited when their parents died in a car crash ten years ago. Yet here she was.
A canine whine pulled her thoughts back to the present. Olivia made a face at the fifty-pound dog. "I'm not fooled, you know. I just let you out a half hour ago."
The dog danced sideways to the back door, gave a pitiful swish of his tail, then pawed at the wood.
"All right, O impatient one." Olivia drew the leash from his mouth and snapped it into his collar. "Let's go."
Once outside, instead of heading toward Main Street, she turned south. She wasn't in a talkative mood. The fewer people she ran into this morning, the better.
It was an idyllic summer morning, in a small town straight out of a 1950s television show. Flowers bloomed in the tidy lawns along the lane. Birdsong filled the air. In the near distance, the majestic Rocky Mountains punched their craggy peaks into the clear blue sky.
She breathed in the smell of pine and fresh Colorado air.
"You're not in Florida anymore." That, she decided, was another blessing from her job loss.
Delighted to be outside, Baloo trotted next to her, head high. A few blocks later he stopped to sniff the base of a blue-and-white rectangle sign. Olivia didn't have to circle around to the other side to read the words scrolled across the silhouette of a church with a tall steeple. She knew them by heart. Village Green, Colorado. Founded 1899. Population: 15,902. Elevation: 4,984.
After ten years of school and work and clawing her way up the corporate ladder, she was back where she started. A little shattered, a bit heartbroken, but not beaten.
In no particular hurry now, Olivia let the dog take the lead. He sniffed a tree, paid avid attention to several bushes, all the while tugging her in the direction of a bubbling, three-tiered fountain at the center of Hawkins Park, named after the town's founder, Jonathan Hawkins.
Seemingly tuckered out by the time they arrived at the marble monstrosity, Baloo settled at her feet, then shut his eyes and set in for a short nap.
Olivia was about to sit on the fountain's ledge when a puppy shot past her at lightning speed. The furry missile crested a small hill to her right, spun around, then sped back toward her.
Two young girls wearing matching white shorts and red T-shirts raced after him. "Samson, stop right now," one of them yelled while the other girl shouted, "Come back here."
Ears flat against his head, stubby legs pumping hard, Samson darted right, then left, then right again. In their haste to catch him, the girls tumbled over one another, landing in a heap. "Samsoooooooon."
Ignoring the call, the animal whizzed past the pile of tangled arms and legs, his bubblegum-pink tongue flapping in the wind.
Before Olivia could grab him, the puppy took a flying leap. He cleared the fountain's ledge and splashed down with a belly-busting splat.
He sank to the bottom like a stone.
Weren't dogs supposed to be able to swim?
With the girls' panicked shrieks in her ears, Olivia scooped the puppy out of the water. He came up wriggling and twisting, little legs running in the air.
"Calm down," she ordered.
Samson continued his antics, jetting water in every direction, including across the front of Olivia's shirt.
Laughing despite the impromptu bath, she held on tight and studied the animal through narrowed eyes. Seriously cute, she decided as she took in the plump belly, short tawny fur and adorable black face.
When he stopped thrashing she put him on the grass. Mindful of his earlier behavior, she kept her hands on his back, poised to snatch him up again if he attempted an escape.
He shook off the excess water, and immediately instigated a wrestling match with Baloo. The good-natured dog obliged the little troublemaker by rolling onto his back so Samson could climb up.
Olivia shifted her attention to the two young girls skidding to a stop beside her. By their height and size, she guessed their age to be somewhere around eight or nine years old. Nearly the same age as her ex-boyfriend's daughter, Kenzie. The thought brought such pain Olivia had to close her eyes until the moment passed.
"You saved Samson," one of the two sobbed.
Tears wavered in the other girl's eyes. "We were so worried we wouldn't catch him. He got away really fast."
Even without the identical clothing, Olivia pegged them for twins. They had the same long, pale blond hair, pretty features and arresting golden-brown eyes.
Something about those eyes sparked a memory, one that shimmered just out of reach.
Olivia glanced around. Where were their parents? The girls were too young to be in the park alone. She plucked the puppy off Baloo and held him out. "Looking for this?"
"Oh, thank you." Blinking away her tears, the girl on Olivia's left took the dog, uncaring he was still wet. Now that the puppy was no longer harassing him, Baloo rolled back to his stomach and continued his nap.
"You look familiar." The girl holding the puppy angled her head. "Do we know you?"
"I don't think so. I've only just-"
"Megan, Molly," a deep, masculine voice rang out from the hilltop behind the girls. There was a note of concern in the rich baritone, one Olivia hoped she alleviated with a brief wave of her hand.
His steps quickened, eating up the ground in long, sure strides. A thousand thoughts collided together in her mind. She knew that purposeful walk, that handsome face, that wind-tousled hair the color of sandy, Florida beaches.
Connor Mitchell. Dressed in cargo shorts and a faded blue T-shirt.
What was her brother's partner in their family medical practice doing here, in the middle of a workday?
Olivia's gaze met Connor's across the lawn, and she immediately recognized the similarity with the two girls standing beside her, especially around the eyes. Even with his worried gaze, that was one good-looking man heading her way, as athletic and self-assured as she remembered.
Connor had been her brother's best friend since before she could remember. He'd always been confident, kind and so blissfully unaware of his masculine appeal. During high school, Olivia had found herself weaving secret teenage dreams, with him playing the starring role.
That had been a very long time ago.
Yet memories took hold of her. Stupid, girlish hopes and dreams for a boy far too old for her-a full five years- who hadn't noticed she was alive. He'd been too stuck on his childhood sweetheart, a woman he'd married right out of college. Shelly, Sheila, something like that. She'd died several years ago, leaving Connor a widower. And-as evidenced by the two girls standing beside her with those same striking Mitchell eyes-a single dad.
Relieved to find his daughters safe and the puppy no longer running loose, Connor let out an audible whoosh of air. The girls had darted away so fast he'd lost sight of them for a few terrifying minutes. Anything could have happened in that amount of time. The possibilities made him shudder.
Thankfully, nothing bad had occurred.
No doubt the woman standing beside the twins had played a large part in that. Gratitude nearly had him stumbling over his own feet.
He locked his gaze with hers and felt the blow of shocked recognition like a punch to his gut. His feet ground to a halt far too close to her. He took a step back. "Olivia?"
"Hello, Connor." She gave him a slow, tentative smile that was a little shaky around the edges and yet devastatingly pretty. Ethan's baby sister was all grown up.
"Hello, Olivia." His voice sounded rusty and slightly stunned.
Who could blame him for his reaction? He had no way of knowing the shy, awkward teenager would become a woman of extraordinary beauty. How could he have known?
Olivia hadn't come home since taking a job in Connor couldn't remember where. Somewhere in the South, he thought, but the specific location escaped him. It was possible Ethan had never told him. His medical partner was a man of few words.
Therein lay the problem. If Ethan had told Connor more about his sister, he would have been better prepared. Instead, he was stuck staring, struggling to reconcile his memory of the girl Olivia had been and the woman she'd become.
Little Olivia Scott had become a very attractive woman. The doll-like features had matured considerably. Her thick, mahogany hair hung in loose waves past her shoulders now.
A snarl of multilayered, complicated emotions surfaced, urging Connor to turn around and forget he ever ran into her today.
"Daddy?" Megan moved to him, tugged on his hand. "You know this lady?"
Connor shook himself free of Olivia's gaze and focused on his daughter. Sometimes it hurt to look at either of the twins. Both girls resembled Sheila. They had her same small build, delicate features and light blond hair.
Their eyes, however, were all his. Mitchell eyes, a trait that had been passed down through several generations. Or so his mother always said.
That wasn't the point. What was the point?
"This is Olivia," he said at last, glancing back at her. "Miss Olivia Scott."
"Scott?" Molly's forehead creased in puzzlement. "Like Dr. Ethan?"
"That's right." Olivia answered his daughter before Connor could. "I'm Dr. Ethan's little sister."
Not so little anymore, he thought. Not only had the round, girlish features matured, but her voice had deepened since he'd last seen her. It was husky now, somehow softer, an appealing alto that made him think.
Feeling slightly ambushed, Connor took another step back. Away from the sweet kid who was no longer his best friend's off-limits little sister, but a grown woman.
It felt wrong even noticing.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Megan bobble the squirming puppy. Welcoming the distraction, Connor reached out, catching the reckless mutt midair before tucking him under his arm like a football.
"Olivia. These are my daughters." He angled his head to the right, "Molly, and-" he hitched his chin to his left "-Megan."
"We're twins," Molly told her with no small amount of pride.
Olivia nodded. "I noticed."
She gave the girls a warm smile, but Connor noted she wasn't as calm as she appeared. Her breath was coming a little too quickly. She seemed nervous.
Because of him?
He cleared his throat.
"And this scoundrel-" he jiggled the puppy, earning him a happy yip "-is Samson, the newest member of the Mitchell household. He slipped out of his collar, which, as you can see, is still attached to this." Connor lifted the leash in his other hand. "Apparently, I failed to cinch the buckle tight enough."
"Ah." Olivia reached out and scratched the puppy behind his ears. "I've never seen an animal this short and um round move quite so fast."
"He's fat but has lots of hidden moves." Most of which Connor could live without.
The puppy had been his daughters' idea and an added responsibility to his already full life, especially now that he and Ethan had discussed expanding their practice to include Saturday hours and two evenings a week.
Even without the added workload, as much as the girls tried to take care of their new dog, and they did try, they simply had no experience with pets. The bulk of the responsibility fell on Connor.
Dropping her hand, Olivia studied the puppy with laughing eyes. "I can only imagine what this little guy is capable of when you turn your back."
Connor could give her a dissertation on the topic. "You have no idea."
They shared a smile solely between them. For a brief moment, Connor felt the tension drain from his shoulders and the ache in his heart loosen just a bit. The sensation left him oddly shaken, as had this entire meeting.
He cleared his throat again.
Although the shyer of his two daughters, Megan moved in close to Olivia and tugged on her arm. "You're very pretty."
"Well, thank you. So are you."
"What about me?" Molly asked, squirming in next to her sister.
Eyes crinkling at the edges, Olivia pretended to consider the question carefully. "You are easily as pretty as your sister."
Both girls laughed.
Connor did, too. For the first time in days-months- he wasn't worried about tight schedules, or running late, or forgetting something important. The girls were safe. The puppy found. And Olivia Scott was back in town.