Nicki Latimer never expected to be back in her tiny Mississippi hometownmuch less running a store with a baby on her hip. But when her father falls ill, Nicki will do anything to save the family business even putting her dreams on hold. And she's found just the person to help her. Ethan Stone is strong and reliable, but also haunted by his past as a war photographer. He's convinced he could never be the man Nicki thinks he is. But with Ethan by her side, Nicki's dreams of love and family are closer than she thinks.
Home to Dover: A small town with a big heart
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Nicki, how long do you think you can keep this up? Running the store, taking care of a new baby, then going home at night to help your parents. You're wearing yourself out."
Nichelle Latimer could feel the disapproving eyes of her friend Debi Gordon on her back as she straightened the display of spiral notebooks in her family's office-supply store. They'd been friends since junior high, and Nicki knew the concern was sincere. Just not welcome at the moment.
"I don't have a choice. I'm the only one who can help right now. Mom has to focus on Dad's recovery. He's doing well after his kidney transplant. He doesn't need to worry about the store."
But Nicki was very worried. Since coming home to Dover, Mississippi, six months ago, she had willingly stepped in to help run Latimer's Office Supply. The work had kept her busy and focused on something other than the death of her husband and the legal and emotional trauma he'd left behind. It hadn't taken long to realize that business was slow and customers few and far between. But it wasn't until she'd returned to work after having her daughter, Sadie, and assumed management of the store that she'd realized the extent of the problem. If something didn't change soon, Latimer's Office Supply would be out of business.
The old brass bell over the door jingled, announcing the arrival of a much-needed customer. Nicki gave her friend a quick hug. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."
Debi gave her a skeptical frown before turning to leave. "Call me if you need me."
Nicki dealt with the customer, then reached for her cell phone to check on Sadie. She missed her so much. It was the first time she'd let her mother babysit, and that was only because she needed time alone to examine the store's accounting files.
As she did, her heart sank. If she didn't find a way to increase business soon, her parents would be ruined. They were counting on her. What she needed was a full-time employee, someone she could depend on. She'd placed a Help Wanted sign in the front window three days ago, but no one had even inquired. Strange, considering the bad economy. Surely someone needed a job. As soon as the store was closed, she'd draft an ad for the Dover Dispatch.
An hour later, the bell over the front door of Lat-imer's jingled again. Nicki glanced at the clock in her small office in the back of the building. There was still an entire afternoon to get through before she could close up and go home to Sadie. Weariness threatened to drag her down. She closed her eyes and sent up a prayer for strength. Not that God would hear her feeble plea. He'd stopped listening to her years ago when she'd turned her back on Him and stepped into a nightmare.
Walking out onto the sales floor, she put on a smile for the incoming customer. Her gaze landed on a tall, dark-haired man standing inside the door. She didn't recognize him. In a town the size of Dover, strangers stood out, and this man wasn't likely to be overlooked. With his broad shoulders, the dark stubble shadowing his angular face and his piercing dark eyes, he looked harddangerous, even. His dark chocolate hair lay in appealingly tousled waves, making his deep-set, black-coffee eyes even more noticeable. Those eyes narrowed slightly. He'd noticed her staring. She forced her gaze from his and to the object he held in his hand. Her Help Wanted sign.
"May I help you?"
The man smiled. Sort of. One corner of his mouth moved, which brought a faint light into his eyes. A small scar below his left cheek added intrigue.
He held up the sign. "Is the position still available?"
"Yes, it is. Are you interested?"
He handed her the sign. "Possibly. I'd like to know a little about the job." His intense gaze skimmed her length before looking her in the eyes again.
A rush of warmth filled her cheeks when she saw a glint of appreciation in his brown eyes. Mentally, she shook herself for such a ridiculous thought. She must be more tired than she realized. She swallowed and cleared her throat. "Stock work, to begin with. I'm going to be reworking the entire layout of the store, so there will also be a lot of physical labor."
A quick inventory of his well-developed chest, the muscles straining the sleeves of his shirt and the strong thighs encased in faded jeans confirmed he was more than capable of moving the displays. The man had slipped his hands into his front pockets, with his head slightly tilted, his dark eyes narrowed. She realized with a jolt that she was assessing him as he had her earlier. "Um, then if it works out, I'll need someone to work the sales floor."
The man nodded. "Sounds good."
"Are you looking for full time or part time, Mr .?"
"Stone. Ethan Stone. Either, but full time would be preferred." The corner of his mouth moved again, distracting her and revealing a deep crease in his cheek and tiny crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
"Do you have any retail experience?"
"I paid my way through school working at a big-box store. I did time in nearly every department."
A man who worked his way through school showed determination, but something about him didn't seem right. While he looked scruffy and hard, his words and his posture were that of an educated man. Not some down-on-his-luck drifter looking for a minimum-wage job. Too many years with her deceitful late husband raised her defenses. Why would an educated man want a job as a stock boy? She crossed her arms over her chest. "I have a feeling you're seriously overqualified for the job, Mr. Stone."
He raised his eyebrows, his dark eyes questioning. "Can anyone be overqualified for honest work?"
The glint she'd seen in his eyes was now a full-blown twinkle. Was he baiting her or manipulating her? She raised her chin. "You're not from around here."
"No, ma'am. I got into town yesterday afternoon."
His deep voice rolled along her nerves. "Where are you from?"
He shrugged and lifted the corner of his mouth a bit more. "Here and there."
"Where have you worked before?"
"Several places. Mainly out of the country."
He wasn't giving her much incentive to hire him. She opened her mouth to tell him she didn't think he would be a good fit for the job, but before she could speak, he took a step forward. She tensed, then relaxed when she saw his eyes soften, and the crooked grin lifted on the other side.
"If you need a reference, you can call Jim Barrett."
"Pastor Jim at Peace Community Church? You know him?" This changed everything. Jim wouldn't recommend any old vagrant.
Stone nodded, pulling his hands from his pockets and resting them on his lean hips. "I'm good friends with his brother Paul. We worked together."
"Oh. I see." She tried to find a reason to turn him down, but she was desperate and needed someone who could start immediately. The doorbell sounded again as several customers entered, triggering the urgency that gnawed in her chest every hour. She couldn't leave Dover until the store was in the black, and if she was going to save the store, she had to have help. "How soon can you start?"
He glanced over his shoulder as the door chimed again. "Now."
Moving behind the checkout counter, she pulled a sheet of paper from the shelf, then lifted a pen from the small container beside the register and handed both items to him across the counter. "Fill out this application, please. You can sit at one of the desks over there. When you're finished, we'll discuss your hours and pay."
"Will do." With a nod, he turned and strode toward the display of office furniture in the far corner of the sales floor.
Nicki watched him with an uneasy sensation in her chest. He walked like a man confident in his abilities.
A man who could handle himself in any situation. A soldier, perhaps. But even that idea didn't fit. He didn't have the high-and-tight haircut or the ramrod posture she'd seen in her marine brother. Something was off. She just couldn't figure out what it was.
Remembering she had customers in the store, she shoved the thoughts aside. She was being overly sensitive. She couldn't paint every man she met with the same brush as her late husband, Brad. Just because a man was reserved and private didn't mean he had something to hide.
She glanced at the man again. Despite her misgivings, there was something trustworthy about him. History had taught her to be cautious, but she had to start trusting her instincts again. Please, Lord, let this be the right decision, because I'll need his help and Yours to save the store.
Ethan wrote his name on the line, trying to remember the last time he'd filled out an employment application. He'd worked for TNZ News Network since graduating college. But that job had ended ten months ago. His years embedded with the troops as a conflict photographer had resulted in capturing one too many horrific images with his camera. The doctors had called it cumulative stress disorder. He called it an emotional meltdown.
Ethan blinked away the visions lurking in the back of his mind and wrote down Jim Barrett's name as a reference. Jim's brother Paul had been the lifeline Ethan needed after he'd returned from his last assignment in Afghanistan. He'd been wounded and emotionally traumatized, and the military shrinks hadn't been able to help him much. But then he'd returned to Atlanta, met Paul and joined his post-traumatic stress disorder group for civilians. Not only had the group turned his life around, but Paul had become a close and valued friend. When Ethan had been looking for a place to start his life over, Paul had sung the praises of his small hometown in south central Mississippi.
He was giving himself two months to see if Dover could be his new home. Having a job would help him settle in. Within a few minutes he'd filled in all the blanks with his scant personal information. He hoped she wouldn't press him for the background facts he'd left out. He carried the paper back to the front, waiting while the woman completed a sale to a customer.
She smiled and took the application from his hand. His heart did a funny little twitch inside his chest. She was a very attractive woman with her shoulder-length blond hair and eyes the color of cornflowers in summer. He guessed her to be a few years younger than himself. The top of her head was even with his shoulder, and it was hard to ignore her nice curves. There was a softness about her that intrigued him and reminded him of the delicate pink azaleas in bloom all over town.
She glanced at him, and he saw a wariness in her blue eyes. Not that he could blame her. He didn't inspire confidence with his two-day growth of beard and old faded shirt. He'd deliberately chosen to keep his appearance low-key, hoping to blend in and not call attention to himself. Had he realized the Lord would lead him to Latimer's Office Supply, and a job interview, he'd have done things differently.
The woman took a moment to look over his application. He braced himself for the question she would undoubtedly askthe one that asked for an emergency contact. The one he normally put his previous boss's name in. Not this time. He had no intention of letting Karen Holt know his whereabouts. She'd want him to come back to work. Out of the question. His life as a conflict photographer was over. As long as he stayed away from his camera, he should be okay. He had absolutely no intention of looking through that viewfinder again.
The bell over the door jingled again, preventing her question. She glanced briefly between him and the new customers. He saw the doubt in her blue eyes fade and knew she'd decided to take him on.
"Why don't you take a few minutes to look around the store, familiarize yourself with the merchandise? We'll talk as soon as I take care of these customers." She shoved his application into a drawer behind the counter and started to walk off. "Oh, I'll need someone who'll stay on the job for several weeks. Is that going to be a problem?"
The determined lift to her chin belied the hopeful look in her blue eyes. His protective instincts stirred. The lady could use a hand, and helping others had been one of the things that restored his sense of purpose. "No, ma'am. I'll stay as long as you need me."
Ethan took a quick tour of the store while the woman waited on a customer. The first thing that struck him was the size of the place. It was too large for one person to manage alone. Which might explain her desperate need to hire the first person who walked in the door.
He made his way through the store, walking down aisles set in neat predictable rows and gazing at the merchandise one would expect in an office-supply store. The back corner held an assortment of office furniture. The area next to it displayed a small selection of outdated computers and printers. One thing was evident. Latimer's Office Supply was a basics-only store. In fact, it bordered on old-fashioned. But maybe that was the norm for a small Mississippi town.
Overall, it was a charming business. He dragged his hand along his jaw. Nothing here would trigger a memory. Nothing here would yank him back to the past. It was the perfect place to start over. No memories would be stirred. No old nightmares resurrected. He'd promised himself he'd learn to be a participant in life and not merely an observer.
Returning to the sales counter, he found the womanhe didn't know her name yetstaring at the departing customer. "Where would you like me to start?" Her gaze collided with his, the blue eyes wide and filled again with a shadow of doubt.
She smiled and raised her chin slightly. "The stockroom. But first we need to discuss your hours and pay."
Ethan started to tell her he wasn't concerned about wages, but she stated an amount before he could speak. "Sounds fair."
"Good. For now, you'll have Sundays off, but I'll be making a lot of changes, and I'd like you to come in on Mondays, too. At regular pay."
"Good. I've lost several employees, and I need to replace them quickly."
"Understood." He extended his hand. "I'm looking forward to working with you, Miss.?"
The woman's cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink. She tucked a strand of her wavy hair behind one ear. "Oh, I'm sorry. My name is Nichelle Latimer."
She grasped his hand. Her fingers were small and delicate and fluttered against his palm, sending a sweet jolt of awareness like a sudden sugar rush throughout his system.
"My family owns this store."
Questions erupted in his mind. Why wasn't her family here helping? She must have sensed his curiosity because she tugged her hand away and squared her shoulders.
"Which way to the stockroom?"
She pointed toward the back. Ethan nodded and attempted a smile, but all he could manage was a nod. Sometimes he thought he'd forgotten how to smile. He turned and walked toward the rear of the building. Nichelle. It was a lovely name for a lovely woman. But the guarded look in her eyes suggested she was protecting herself from something. The lady had secrets. But then, so did he.
The back hall was positioned on the east side of the building and led directly to the back door. On the right was an office, and tucked between it and the rear entrance was a kitchen and eating area. The stockroom was on the opposite side and extended along the back wall of the building. Boxes and packages were stacked on the floor and piled on the worktable, waiting to be opened.
The familiar surroundings eased the slight tension from his shoulders. The stockroom was a good place to start. He was comfortable here. He could do his job with little interference. One thing his new boss had mentioned made him uneasy. Waiting on customers. Dealing with people face-to-face had never been his strong suit. It was why he'd lived his life behind a camera lens. No chance for emotional entanglements that way. But he was jumping the gun. There would be time to worry about that later.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“His Small-Town Family” by Lorraine Beatty is the second book of her 'Home to Dover' series, but it stands alone perfectly without making a person feel as if they are missing something. Though it is the second book of the 'Home to Dover' the four books that Ms. Beatty have written all are centered around the wonderful town of Dover. I don't know what it is about the town of Dover but there is something that I just love, maybe it is how the name came about (the story is told over and over in each of her books so I wont ruin it) or what the name means. I just enjoy returning to Dover over and over again. Here is a story of two hurting souls and it is surprising how much these two souls have in common with their pain. Each one of them dealt with their pain in a different way which makes sense, since the pain they each suffer came from something different, but it was how that pain was affecting them that touched me. One was open and one kept things hidden until something totally unexpected happened. When that unexpected thing happened I was taken back and my heart broke. Nicki is a single mom who is trying to do it all, almost to the point where is she is close to the breaking point. She also has a wonderful heart for her family and friends, even with some misunderstandings that she have lived with over the years. There are things that she has to figure out for herself and she is given the freedom to do so with some wise advice from others, but ultimately she is the ones who thinks everything through and makes her choices. Ethan is a man who is trying to figure out what he is going to do now and with good reason. Ethan is a hard worker, not just on the job and that much is obvious but with his issues that he is aware of, for he doing what he needs to do in order to work forward. Ethan also has some pretty deep seeded fears that he needs to work through as well, and it is amazing how he does that. I found the working through their fears and other issues was something that made a lot of sense for these might be some common issues in this day and time but frankly people deal with those things differently. Taking risks is never an easy thing and I found it frustrating at times with how timid both Ethan and Nicki were at times when things were so clear, yet they didn't take the risk they should have. And then finally the moving forward was something special when the hurdles were overcome for it was done in complete freedom. I hope that all who read this book enjoy it and smile as they put the book down.