After losing her husband, her job, and her sanity, single mom Lola Sommers needs a plan. It's time to get back on track, and the tiny all-American town of Hope River seems like the perfect place to do it. But when Lola decides that fixing up her aunt's dilapidated house sounds more inviting than fixing up her life, she faces a new complication-the bossy and delicious Matthew Dawson.
Protective of his hometown and its people, Matt is used to fixing everything for everyone. When he finds himself facing the stubborn and independent Lola, he's not sure if he's annoyed or aroused. The dark-haired beauty has a way of getting under his skin-and sneaking into his heart-and Matt isn't sure if this city girl is worth the hassle. But when the meddling residents of Hope River decide to take action, Matt finds he has little choice but to give Lola a chance. Together, they discover that fixing a broken life sometimes means taking a risk on love... and that one life-altering event can change everything.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.76(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Bonnie J. James
BALBOA PRESSCopyright © 2012 Bonnie J. James
All right reserved.
Chapter One"A fire truck!" Sam cried. The young boy leaned out his window and pointed toward a brick fire station as they slowly drove by. One of the firemen beside an old pumper truck lifted his head and waved.
"He waved, Mom!" Sam shouted, bouncing in his seat. "That fireman waved to me!" Below his feet, a fat Boxer pup named Goliath wiggled in his bed of blankets. He whined and lifted his ears in momentary interest.
Lola Sommers smiled as she smoothed her son's hair. The soft breeze caressed her cheeks through the open car window and she turned to see the fireman's gaze follow them down the street. The taxi crossed over a wide iron bridge that straddled the river and they rounded the corner, losing sight of the station. Sam turned fully in his seat to watch it disappear out the back window.
"How much longer?" he whined as he faced the front again.
Lola patted his knobby knee and smiled at the way his little legs were not yet long enough to bend over the seat.
"Only one more minute," she answered quietly. She tilted her head to get a better view out the front window. Searching the road, she nudged Sam with her elbow and pointed past a row of houses as they neared the other end of town. "It's tucked in there," she said, gesturing past a grassy field and into a small patch of forest.
Childhood memories flooded Lola's heart. She could see them, feel them as if they'd happened yesterday. There were summers of freedom and sunshine and dandelions, swimming with new friends and the feel of silky cold water licking her sunburned skin. There were endless days of riding bikes, running wild at the tiny county fair, and celebrating the fourth of July under a shower of fireworks.
Lola nibbled her lip as the taxi slowed and turned onto a gravel driveway. They rumbled down the lane, over an old wooden bridge that shuddered beneath the car's weight. A lazy creek moved through the forest and sparkled from the sunlight. Moving around one last bend, the taxi stopped in front of a haunting white house.
"This is it," Lola whispered. She peered out the taxi window at a leaning red shed and a rusted classic truck that melded with the earth it stood on. Laughter bubbled from her throat. "It hasn't changed one bit."
Sam burst from his side of the taxi, nearly falling in a heap on the dirt below him. Goliath bound from his bed and wiggled out the open door, falling in the same fashion.
Moments later the taxi barreled back down the driveway, leaving a heap of luggage, a wide-eyed boy, and a very exhausted Lola in its wake.
"Don't go near the water," Lola warned as she watched her son zip past her, heading to the back yard to explore. "The rocks in the creek are slippery and if you fall you'll get a concussion." Sam offered an indulgent nod before running off.
Lola glanced anxiously at the spacious yard and patch of forest surrounding her. With a sigh she dragged two heavy suitcases, nearly the same weight as she was, onto the enclosed wooden porch of her aunt's home. She dropped them on the creaky floorboards and bent to pull a key from beneath a potted plant. A small pumpkin-colored tile leaning against the plant blazed the word Namaste.
"Hello, Aunt Louise," Lola whispered, touching the glossy tile for a moment. She wondered where her aunt's wanderlust had taken her today. Perhaps she was meditating in an ashram or wandering an ancient city. Lola sighed. She could really use a hug from Aunt Louise. She'd always been so good at listening, truly listening, to Lola's troubles.
The door creaked open and Lola gave it an extra push with her foot. It was dark and cool inside. Every shade and curtain was closed, but tiny rays of sun leaked in through uncovered spaces on windows. Dust floated through the air, carelessly riding the waves of movement in the room.
Lola dropped the bags and wrapped her arms around herself as more memories flooded in. It was here on the cool tile floors that she learned to dance the Polka with her aunt, around and around the room until they were both dizzy and breathless with laughter. She smiled at the small wooden table where she used to sit with her Uncle Gilbert and play cards in the evening, sometimes by the light of the lantern as a summer thunderstorm raged outside. She could still smell the spicy scent of soup made from fresh vegetables and the comforting aroma of warm bread straight from the oven, sliced and slathered with salty butter.
Lola turned a circle in the kitchen and caught sight of her reflection in a small mirror on the wall. Disappointment swept over her. Who was the woman staring back at her? Deep shadows hung beneath her dull brown eyes and lines were etched permanently into her forehead. She touched a finger to her cheeks that sunk from losing too much weight and trailed the tight line of her lips. Stepping across the room, she pulled the mirror from the wall and shoved it in a cupboard.
Moving through the kitchen, Lola opened curtains and windows and felt a fresh breeze rustle the stale air. She slipped into the darkness of the next room that was filled with plush couches and chairs. Rows of shelves were stuffed with colorful books and albums. An old record player was the only sign of technology in the space. She kneeled over the couch and pulled back the heavy curtains, wrenching the windows open to let the dust escape.
The view gave Lola goose bumps. Stands of pine and maple trees stood tall beside the trickling creek. Purple wild iris bloomed beside the water. A striking crimson cardinal landed nearby and hopped on the ground, glancing up with a sideways stare as if to greet the newest guest of the forest.
"Mom, there's a tree house in the back!" Sam cried as he ran past the window. Lola winced at his words. Images of Sam falling from the tree, a broken arm, sprained ankles ... it was disaster waiting to happen. But her worries quickly evaporated as she watched Goliath bounce behind Sam, tripping over his own huge paws and wriggling with so much excitement that he couldn't follow in a straight line. It made Lola laugh, the sight of her son and his puppy, exploring a new place with so much excitement and pleasure.
It was going to be a good summer, Lola reassured herself. Even with all of her worries, she could feel it in her bones that this was what she and Sam needed. They could take a break, reenergize and get focused again. Just take some time to breathe.
Breathe, Lola repeated as she gulped the fresh air that whispered in through the open windows. It was ripe with pine and moisture and sunshine. Surrendering herself to the peace, she flopped onto the chair she'd been kneeling in. Dust exploded from the cushions, and Lola sneezed.
"All set!" Matt called as he wrapped the last of the fire hose into the pumper. He banged on the side of the town's oldest fire truck to get the driver's attention. Stepping back, Matt watched Gabe's reflection in the huge side mirrors as he maneuvered into reverse and backed the old beast into the station garage.
Brushing his hands together to get the last of the soap and dirt from them, Matt glanced toward Main Street and grinned. The whole town seemed happy today, content with the simple pleasures of life. People strolled down the sidewalk, wandering in and out of local shops, more to gossip and catch up than to shop. Children rode by the station on their bikes, lollipops in their bulging cheeks and colorful flags whipping behind them as they enjoyed the freedom of summer vacation.
"I better head home," Gabe announced as he reached Matt's side. The tone of his voice made a huff of laughter burst from Matt's chest. He surveyed Gabe with a grin. The man may have had a beefy, powerful frame and an intimidating air, but he turned to mush at the mere mention of his family.
Matt watched his best friend cross bulging arms over his chest and eye the town carefully. As the county's juvenile detention officer, Gabe always seemed to be searching for signs of trouble.
"Rena wants to go shopping before the game tonight, so I have the rug rats to myself," Gabe said, still scowling out at the town.
"Think you can handle them for that long?" Matt teased. He squinted into the sun and waved to old Mrs. Matthews as she crept by in her rusty blue Oldsmobile.
Gabe glanced at Matt with uncertainty. "I don't know. They're a handful when the boss isn't around."
If Matt hadn't known better, he'd swear his burly best friend was scared of the two small children that awaited him at home. He was about to poke more fun when a yellow taxi rushed by, heading out of town.
"Jesus, can that asshole go any faster? Where's the Sheriff when you need him?" Gabe growled as he watched the bright car disappear down Main Street. "What the hell's a Pine City cab doing here, anyway?"
"It was headed east a few minutes ago," Matt said, nodding toward the bridge. "A little boy in the back seat waved to us." He didn't mention the woman sitting beside the boy, whose intense dark eyes were still etched into his mind.
Gabe scowled after the taxi and grumbled. He took a deep breath and nodded toward his truck.
"Good luck," Matt said, thumping Gabe's back. "I'll finish up inside." He watched as Gabe strode away, his shoulders bent in surrender.
"First thing I learned in teacher education classes," Matt called through his laughter, "don't let them see your fear or they'll eat you alive."
Gabe turned toward Matt before climbing into his truck. His eyes twinkled and a smirk played over the often serious look on his face. "Don't get too cocky, pal, or I'll pawn them off on you tonight."
Matt watched Gabe's rusty maroon truck rattle onto the street and disappear in the same direction as the little boy had gone earlier. He stood for a moment, staring out at nothing in particular, his mind chewing on the sight of the city cab and its passengers. Matt turned and walked slowly to the fire station.
It didn't bother him that they were strangers. New people often traveled into town, especially in the summer. Hope River was near some popular parks and trails, which often brought outdoor enthusiasts to the area. The town relied on these visitors in the summer months.
No, it wasn't that they were strangers.
Perhaps it was the fact that they came from the city. City people in general made Matt uneasy. They didn't seem to appreciate the relaxed pace of small towns. They were always in a rush, always trying to get to the next thing, never slowing down enough to realize that now was all they had, all they needed.
Ali had been that way, Matt reminded himself. He slammed the station door behind him at the thought.
It took quite a burst of energy to heft her suitcase onto the bed. Lola wiped her forehead and sighed. It had been a long day, traveling all the way from their little townhome in San Francisco to this big dusty house in Hope River, Minnesota.
Lola pulled back the bedroom curtains and opened the creaky window, leaning out to peer down at Sam. He sprawled on his belly in the front yard, unusually covered in dirt and dust as he collected bugs in an old plastic cup.
"Sam, don't get stung by one of those bugs," Lola warned. She looked across the yard to the creek that trickled over rocks and burbled past fallen branches. "And don't go near the creek," she repeated. There were only a few inches of water moving at a lazy pace, but she'd heard all the horror stories of children drowning in just one inch of water. Lola's heart thundered at the thought. She'd already had enough worry with Sam to last her a lifetime.
Turning to face the room, Lola took in the warm cream color of the walls and the plush bed. It looked so inviting after such a long day. She sunk her fingers into the handmade quilt, then lay down and stared at the ceiling.
What am I going to do? How can I fix us? She ran a hand through her long, dark hair and sighed.
It had been a couple of years since Travis' death. Slowly she had picked herself up, tried to piece their lives back together and be strong for Sam. She was doing okay now. The days were no longer as painful and lonely as they once had been. She had gotten back on her feet with a little job at the magazine and Sam, though often quiet and despondent, had been busy enough in kindergarten to keep distracted. But now the job was gone and an empty summer lay ahead for Sam. They needed to figure out what was next.
A light breeze blew over Lola and she sat up and stared out the window. She could still see Sam, sitting beside Goliath in the gravel driveway, now collecting small rocks and lining them up in rows. The cup of bugs lay beside him, tipped over as if the insects had orchestrated a courageous escape while their captor was distracted.
The breeze blew a little harder, making goose bumps spring from Lola's flesh. She lifted her knees to her chest and nestled her hands into the pockets of her jacket. Her fingers touched a crinkled note and she pulled it out and studied it.
It was a letter from Aunt Louise, dated two weeks ago. Lola flattened it against her knee, smoothing the wrinkles. She smiled at the graceful handwriting that filled the paper, the words that she had been so grateful to read.
I have a proposition for you, Lola-girl. It seems to me that you and Sam need a little peace and quiet to recuperate. The timing may be perfect, as your mother tells me that you have recently been released from your job.
Lola rubbed her eyes and sighed. That was one way of putting it. The job had been working out so well. Perfect hours as an assistant in the advertising department of a photography magazine. Perfect wage to help pay the bills so she didn't have to dip into Travis' insurance money. Perfect in every way except for the fact that the magazine went bankrupt last month, leaving her an unemployed single parent.
I can't believe that I've been traveling for nearly two months now. I'm having such a wonderful time that I've decided to extend my stay through the end of the summer. But my poor home has been neglected for too long already, and I'm in need of a house-sitter. Could our timing be any more perfect? Please go to Hope River and enjoy a vacation with Sam. It used to be your favorite place when you were a little girl, remember? Take a break from your worries in the city. I promise you won't regret it.
No, she knew she wouldn't regret it. Lola never had, even when she was a young girl and leaving behind a summer full of friends and adventures in the city.
Just as Lola had done so many years ago, she and Sam would make the most of their time in Hope River. They would recuperate, relax, and get back on their feet. They'd decide which direction to face and return to their family and friends in San Francisco with a new plan.
But first thing's first, Lola decided as she got to her feet and headed across the hall. It was time to settle into this place for a month or two. She would start by unpacking Sam's suitcase.
Sam had always been a little packrat, but this? No wonder his suitcase had felt ten times heavier than hers. While Lola's bag was stuffed with camera equipment, summer dresses, and more shoes than she'd care to admit she owned, Sam's was packed with Legos and toy cars in every available space. Even the inside of his baseball mitt was crammed with toys. She tipped the suitcase upside down and watched colorful bouncy balls roll onto his bed.
After Sam's clothes were all tucked away in closets and drawers, the question of storage for his endless toys sprang to mind. Lola looked around the room for an answer. It came in the form of a worn wooden desk in the corner, one her uncle had built for her the first summer she'd visited. She grinned at the memory.
The pine desk may have been twenty-two years old, but it had held up well. And if Lola remembered correctly, it also held her initials. With a little smile, she pulled the top drawer open to search for the tiny letters she'd etched years ago. They were covered by something that stole the breath from her chest.
It was an old journal, bound in brown leather, the texture soft and worn as a favorite old blanket. Her mother had given it to her before her last visit to Hope River.
The journal's spine crackled as Lola opened it. Her bubbly childhood handwriting filled the pages with dates, short notes, and doodles. Stuffed between the pages were old yellowed Polaroids of the creek, the house, trees and flowers, rocks and wildlife. There were blurry, awkward captures of birds and insects and random pieces of nature, a few photos of her aunt and uncle, and even a self-portrait of Lola. Each picture flooded Lola with sweet memories she had tucked away. She laughed quietly while she sifted through them, then stopped on the last one, her smile fading.
Excerpted from Just Breathe by Bonnie J. James Copyright © 2012 by Bonnie J. James. Excerpted by permission of BALBOA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Five Star Review from Ellen Hogan for Reader's Favorite: "Just Breathe" is a story that will tug at the strings of your heart. Bonnie J. James successfully pulls on the reader’s emotions with love, the pain of loss, the worry of making tough decisions, the worry of uncertainty, and the thrill of new love. "Just Breathe" demonstrates the joy of living in a small town where everyone comes together. This is a touching love story and so much more. You will laugh and shed a few tears. "Just Breathe" is one of those books that will linger in your mind long after you have read the last word.
This book was thoroughly enjoyable. The author's descriptive writing style kept me engrossed. Once I started reading it, I did not want to stop. In Just Breathe, we are reminded of the beauty and importance of wonderful relationships. It also serves as a good reminder to take the time to appreciate the simple joys in the world around us. I look forward to reading Bonnie J. James' next book!
I loved this novel of romance and new beginnings. The characters came alive and grew as the story progressed. The small-town rural setting was heartwarming and sweet. A must read for the romantic!