With every beat of the heart comes a memory of what could have been…
Ten years ago, Cole Covington was just another rich kid who got everything he wanted—including young and trusting Mia Galdon. Then one night everything changed, and two hearts were shattered. Cole buried his guilt in the military, where love was just part of the past. Now Cole has come back home, emotionally damaged, guarded, and unprepared for what’s waiting for him…
At the urging of Cole’s sister, Mia has returned to the Covington family’s coastal home in Wilmington as a private nurse to help Cole recover. With her uncertain personal life at a crossroad, Mia doesn’t have the luxury of saying no to the job. And she soon finds out that the attraction is still alive. So are memories of betrayal. But Mia will discover more than the power of resilience. She’ll discover a secret Cole has held for years, one that will force them to confront the past and give new meaning to letting go, forgiveness, and a future worth fighting for.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The sand beneath his hand didn’t feel like the soft grains from the beach outside his Wilmington, North Carolina, home. This sand was packed, as firm and unforgiving as the region.
Okay, backtrack. Try to think.
He blinked and focused. There should be pain. That was an IED they drove over, right? He should be in pain.
Cole Covington was flat on his back, the goddamn unforgiving Iraq sun scalding his retinas. God, how he hated this place. He’d kill to see rain again. To smell the salt spray off the Atlantic in Wilmington again.
The last thing Cole remembered was heading back to camp. They were in the Humvee, bringing medical supplies to the unit just the other side of Samarra. Finn was driving. He had insisted after Cole nearly flipped the jeep on the last run.
The pansy ass wuss. He smiled. He might not like his life here, but he liked the guys he served with. He hoped they were okay. Panic started to form in his gut.
“Finn?” He couldn’t hear his own voice. He cleared his throat and shouted out to his commander again. Nothing. Come to think of it, he couldn’t hear anything. What the . . .
He tried to roll, but something was sprawled over his chest. Something heavy. His pack was pressing into his spine. Cole lifted his head, expecting a piece of the truck or part of the cargo.
Instead, Donny lay on him. Donny was almost bigger than the truck and just as stupid. Cole loved him to death. When they got out of there next month, he planned on keeping in contact with him. Donny was talking about signing up again. But hell, three years on this tour was enough for Cole. He was going home. Screw the U.S. government. He’d done his duty.
“Hey, man. Get off. Help me up.”
Still no sound. The blast must’ve shot his hearing. Donny didn’t budge.
Cole sighed and geared up to move the lug. He was probably knocked out. Wouldn’t be the first time. He hoped Finn wasn’t, ’cause no way in hell could Cole carry Donny alone.
He raised his arms and froze. Blood. A lot of it. Everywhere.
His chest tightened. He ran his hands over his arms, smearing the blood, trying to find the wound.
Where? Where was it?
No scratches. No gashes. And it didn’t hurt. It wasn’t his blood.
Oh no. Donny?
He wheezed in air, pressing his hands over Donny’s shoulders to push him off. Donny rolled surprisingly easy, flopping to his right.
Cole edged up onto his elbows and looked in the direction of the Humvee. From forty yards away he could tell the supplies weren’t salvageable. The truck lay on its side in flames, a crater next to it where the IED went off. So much for being safe by taking the same route back.
How the hell were they going to get back to base? There was nothing out here. In a couple hours night would fall. They’d be exposed. Three years here and he still wasn’t used to the frigid nights, the blistering days. Third realm of hell, this country was. In more ways than one.
Hoping Finn had his portable radio on him, Cole set his hands down to stand and go in search of him. His hand slipped, causing him to flop face-first over Donny’s prone body. All the damn blood. So sticky.
Cole lifted his head slowly, his gaze raking over Donny’s round, boyish face. The kid’s mouth hung open as if he needed to scream but couldn’t. Blue eyes stared blankly into the sky, fixated on the heavens above that he prayed to every night, like the good, God-fearing Southern boy he was.
Cole’s hands shook as reality sunk in. His gaze darted down over Donny’s body. Down, down. Past his chest, his stomach, and to his waist, where he stopped. Literally stopped. Donny’s entire lower half was gone.
Cole scrambled to back up but got nowhere.
No. No. No.
“Come on, Donny boy. Wake up, man.” He grabbed Donny’s vest and shook the kid for everything he was worth. Donny’s head rolled and drooped back, bobbing like a fishing float in the Cape Fear River back home.
A claw of terror ripped the beat from his heart. Oh God! His fingers relaxed and dropped to the dirt.
Cole ran a shaking hand over his face and tore his gaze away. The other half of Donny was near the crater. He saw it now. Him now. Him. Donny was a person. Even in two pieces.
Finn. Where was Finn? Cole called out again, but even if Finn called back, he couldn’t hear him through the vacuum in his ears. His gaze searched the expanse of desert surrounding their location.
There! A hundred yards in the opposite direction was . . .
A leg. Part of an arm. More blood.
Adrenaline had him surging up. Searing pain reared him back down. Losing his leverage, he sprawled on his back again.
Fire. He was on fire. His whole left side burned in agony. His hands coursed over his chest. No. His face. No. Over his arms. There. His left shoulder. Marred layers of black flesh riddled the muscle of his shoulder and arm. So much pain.
Okay. Okay. Just the arm. You’re fine, man. Get up. Breathe through.
Fuck. And his leg.
His hand instinctively clutched for the pain and couldn’t reach it. He sucked in a breath and lifted his head. His uniform was shredded and burned, the tatters flapping in the wind. More blood.
His head flopped back down with the exertion of moving too much. He closed his eyes, counted to twenty, and tried again. Half of his left thigh was . . . gone. Muscles and tendons protruded like a morbid plate of spaghetti.
His stomach recoiled. His breakfast MRE came back up. He wretched and heaved until there wasn’t anything left of the ready-to-eat crap.
His head slammed back down, his pack digging farther into his spine. He probably had a broken back. He was in pieces, too. How had he survived when Finn and Donny . . .
“Sweet Home Alabama” had been blaring in the Humvee’s CD player. Finn and Donny were arguing the semantics of whether it was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best song. Cole was in the back, laughing at their absurdity, trying not to take sides. That was how he survived. He was in the back. Protected.
Finn had a wife and kids at home. Donny a mother and a sister. Why’d Cole make it? He had . . . nothing left to go home to.
Pain flared again, stealing his breath. Fire and ice, pulsing and pounding. He wouldn’t be alive for long either. He’d lost a lot of blood. He was a mangled wreck. He wasn’t aware of anyone who knew they were out there. By the time the base discovered they hadn’t gotten back on time, it would be too late.
Cole swallowed. The cold sensation of shock set in, very different from the empty cold of the past ten years. It settled in his bones before the tremors started. He’d seen guys go into shock more times than he cared to count. No, it wouldn’t be long at all.
Alone. He was gonna die alone.
Once, he almost had it all. Even now, he had more than most. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was going out with a rifle in his hand. He’d give it all up to have her back again. To go back to that day he’d told her to walk.
Tremors turned into violent convulsions as he lay there. So cold. His fingers crawled over his chest to get to his breast pocket. That’s where Mia was. In his pocket. In his memory. The only two places he could have her.
He slid the photo out and raised it. The sun washed out any distinguishable characteristics. All except her eyes. He didn’t need a picture to remember those. As turquoise as the waters near Cozumel, and just as warm.
He’d wanted to take her there once, back before he sucked all the hope out of her. Wanted to show her how the beauty of the Caribbean couldn’t hold a lick to her.
For a moment, warmth enveloped him again, as he remembered.
What he’d give to take back that day again . . . He’d do it all different. He wouldn’t be a coward the second time around. If only she knew how much guilt he lived with, how there wasn’t a day that went by when he didn’t think of her and wish he’d been a better man.
Spasms almost made him lose her. Well, the picture of her. It was the only personal item he had brought from home. He fisted the photo in his fingers, grasping it as long as he could.
His eyes were so heavy. The sun so bright. It wouldn’t hurt anything to close his eyes and sleep. Maybe he’d die that way instead of in a heaving pile of pain, fighting to live. Survival was a basic human instinct, but even he knew there wasn’t much for him to hold on to anymore.
He drifted in and out of consciousness, losing track of the blackouts after the fourth episode. Disappointment reared each time his eyes reopened. Still alive. Still here. He had no idea how much time had passed, but the sun was dipping lower now. The air was colder.
And then, without so much as a warning, sand kicked up, plastering his face. Damn sandstorms. He’d be buried. They’d never find any of their bodies. Finn’s and Donny’s families deserved the closure of burial. He struggled to cover his head with his arm as the grains cut at his skin like glass. Just as quickly, the wind died down, only to return moments later.
He was going numb. His limbs were blocks of ice. Not much . . . longer now. He was oddly at peace with dying. He’d atone for his sins to God. Maybe then he could forgive himself.
Just one more look at her first.
Shadows spun overhead, splitting the sky. Black, white. Black, white.
A helicopter propeller. Someone had found them.
He wished they’d leave him here to die. Hell, it didn’t matter. He’d never make it as far as the medics.
Someone shoved his face in front of Cole’s, a blurry mass. The face reared back, mouth moving with no words. The guy turned, waved an arm their way, and then the face was back in his. Cole didn’t recognize the soldier, but he was one of theirs. His helmet had the U.S. flag on the side. Good ole Stars and Stripes.
He couldn’t feel anything. Didn’t even know if he was still shaking. Still breathing. The heli blades spun slower, until all that remained was the black. So this is what the end felt like. A void. No white light. No tunnel. No angels beckoning from beyond. Maybe he was going to hell. Except, he could’ve sworn that was where he’d been the past ten years.
Cole opened his eyes, and with the only strength he had left in reserve, he grabbed the soldier’s sleeve and opened his mouth. “Please, tell her . . . I’m sorry.”
• • •
Mia dropped her keys on the entryway table and kicked off her heels. Another interview a bust. This one had had potential, too. Head of nursing at Ridgeway Home. The salary would have been enough to make things a tad more comfortable.
Instead, she got the same story she had at the last ten interviews. She didn’t have enough experience for a department position and they didn’t have enough money in the budget to add another RN. Though there was a nationwide nursing shortage, not many were being hired. A testament to the economy.
She moved deeper into her apartment and plopped on the couch. It was the only item she’d taken from the trailer after Mama died. The only thing worth taking. Now it was falling apart, just like everything else in her life.
Mama wasn’t worth spit when she was alive, but she was worth even less dead. The disability checks stopped coming a year ago. Mia was barely getting by before that. Now, being out of a job, she wasn’t going to have the money to pay for Ginny’s school.
She didn’t know what she was going to do if St. Ambrose kicked her sister out. There weren’t many decent options for severe Down syndrome teens. Her sister had been thriving there, finally getting the education, therapy, and social skills she’d never gotten at home. The public school system had already failed her, as had the state programs.
Mia stared at the stack of bills on the coffee table. After living in her car through most of college, she refused to be a victim of her circumstance, of her past. Because of the cost of Ginny’s private school, Mia hadn’t been able to put much in savings, but she did have a small cushion. She’d worked hard, made something of herself. She was a good surrogate mother to her sister and tried to give her everything. If they could survive on love, they’d be rich.
Didn’t matter. She’d get through this. She was a great nurse with an excellent track record and several recommendations. The hospital’s closing after the merger and Mia losing her job were just minor setbacks. Lord knew she’d been through worse.
She rose, aiming toward the adjoining kitchen. A cup of tea before she headed to the library to check job postings was in order. A computer just wasn’t in her budget right now. She reached inside the canister and came up empty. Out of tea. She opened the cabinet to see if she had any instant coffee. All that lay inside was half a box of generic Wheat Thins and a can of tuna. She mentally added grocery shopping to today’s to-do list. Since the layoff, she’d only been buying what was truly needed until she found another job.
She closed the cabinet and pressed her forehead to the aged, scarred pine.
She couldn’t let Ginny down. Mia had to be the mother she herself never had. Someone had to love and care for her sister like no one had for Mia. The bubble of tears formed. She sucked in a breath and straightened. Tears were useless. Feeling sorry for herself was useless. Both had gotten her mother nowhere but an early grave. She looked at the phone on the counter. The answering machine light blinked. More bill collectors. More job rejections. Maybe good news?
Needing a pick-me-up, she dialed to check on Ginny. It was a bit earlier than she usually called, but hearing her voice would clear away the sadness and remind her what there was to lose if she gave in to pity.
Ginny’s favorite teacher, Faith Armstrong, picked up on the second ring. “Oh, she’s having a pretty good day today. Do you want to talk to her?”
“Yes. Thank you, Faith.”
“I’m supposed to tell you when you call that her tuition is due Friday.”
Mia pressed a hand to her forehead. The tuition would eat nearly the rest of her savings, but at least she would have another month to find a job. “I know. Thank you.”
The slur of Ginny’s voice came on to greet her and Mia nearly wept. She remembered when Mama came home from the hospital with her, just a bundle of pink blankets. She made squeaky noises and smiled when she pooped.
“Hey, pretty girl. Did you have art class today?”
“Uh huh. I made a bird.”
Mia smiled. Before St. Ambrose, Ginny was almost completely nonverbal, never mind able to wield a crayon. Mia had worked with her as much as she could back then, but she worked two jobs and went to college to make a better life for them. And she had. “You did? What color?”
“Green. It flies.”
“I’ll bet it’s beautiful. I’m so proud of you.” Every chance she got, Mia repeated the words she would’ve given anything to hear. Just once. From anyone.
“When’re you comin’ to see me?”
St. Ambrose was clear on the other side of Charlotte and so was the home Ginny resided in. Mia was trying to save on the expense of gas so she only visited once a week. It killed her. “I’ll come on Sunday, like always. I promise. I’ll be there.”
She never broke promises to Ginny either. Promises had been empty words for her growing up. They wouldn’t be for Ginny. Ginny would know she was loved.
As always, Ginny hung up before Mia could say good-bye. She held the receiver and stared at it before setting it in the cradle with a smile.
The answering machine reminded her of reality. As long as it kept blinking, there was hope her résumé had gotten a hit.
She pushed Play and turned to fetch a glass of water.
“Ms. Galdon, this is Mark from Credit Services about—”
“Hello. This message is for Mia Galdon. This is Faye from Human Resources at UNC. I wanted to thank you for your résumé, but we’ve hired internally for the position.”
She turned on the faucet and began filling the glass.
“Mia? This is Lacey. Lacey Covington.”
The glass fell out of her hand, shattering in the sink.
“I know it’s been a long time. It took me a while to find your number.” Mia’s gaze whipped to the machine and stared as Lacey’s voice paused. “I . . . need to talk with you. Please. It’s important. I know you probably don’t want to hear from us, but . . . Oh, Mia. Please call me back. My number is . . .”
Mia’s hands shook. Her mouth grew as dry as cotton.
She rewound the message and played it back twice more until her fingers were no longer numb. Until it sank in that the call was real. Until she was capable of writing down the number.
Covington. She hadn’t heard a Covington voice in ten years. She’d never expected to again.
What could they possibly want with her now? She wasn’t some seventeen-year-old kid with stars in her eyes anymore. She wasn’t a doormat for them to wipe their feet on. They’d made it quite clear what they thought of her the last time she saw them.
She should ignore the call. She should grab her pocketbook and march right out to check on more jobs.
Lacey had been decent to her back then. At least more so than the rest of them. She sounded upset. Distraught. What had happened that she needed to contact Mia? What was so serious they resorted to calling her?
She was scraping the bottom of the barrel, but she still had her dignity. It had taken ten years to get that back. One phone call, one voice, and all that vulnerability returned. All the pain and embarrassment.
She looked at the door and then the phone, caught between the past and present. Between curiosity and common sense.
Her eyes slammed closed. Who was she kidding? They were the Covingtons. There was no choice.
• • •
Mia gave the hostess her name and waited. Garden View Country Club was full of Charlotte’s elite, even in the middle of the Friday workday. She smoothed a hand down her yellow sundress, feeling underdressed and inadequate.
She hated this feeling. Like every eye in the place was on her. Silly, because no one in Charlotte knew her past. She’d moved here right out of high school to attend nursing school. No one in this city recognized her as the white trash girl from Wilmington.
No one but the Covingtons. She was an idiot for answering Lacey’s call. For putting herself through this again.
“Your party is waiting for you,” the hostess said. “If you’ll follow me, please?”
Her party? Oh no. No, no. It was just supposed to be Lacey. Her feet followed the hostess through the dining room and out onto the balcony overlooking the golf course, while her stomach flopped like a worm on concrete.
Even amid the privileged members, Mia could pick out a Covington. Lacey sat at a cafe table for two with her back to the door. Alone. Thank God!
At the hostess’s indication, Lacey rose and took Mia’s hands, kissing each cheek. “Mia, so good to see you again.”
Not trusting her voice, Mia nodded and sat across from her. Lacey’s hair was the same champagne blonde and her eyes still just as dark brown as her brother’s. Her face had thinned, making her look more mature. Her outfit clearly could’ve paid Ginny’s school tuition for three months.
A waiter came by and unfolded a cloth napkin in Mia’s lap. “What can I start you off with?”
Anything on the menu would hurt the remainder of her bank account. She glanced at Lacey. “Just coffee for now, please.”
When he left, Lacey reached across the table and patted her hand. “It’s been so long. Look at you! You cut your hair.”
Mia ran her fingers through the short black strands by her nape. She had cut it all off years ago because the length drove her nuts working in the ER. She’d kept it short because it was less fuss. “I did. Keeps me cooler in this humidity.”
Lacey tilted her head. “It suits you. Very chic.”
Mia almost laughed. There was nothing chic about her.
Lacey sat back, her posture that of purebred, old Southern money. “We must catch up. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
Up to? Really? Lacey didn’t call her to catch up. She wanted something. Covingtons didn’t socialize with lower classes unless they needed something.
Yet Mia played along. “I went to nursing school after high school. Other than that, just working. The usual.”
Lacey sipped her water. “I heard about your mom’s passing. Two years ago? I’m so sorry.”
Mia nodded. She just bet she was sorry. Strange thing though, Lacey sounded sincere. She looked sincere.
“Thank you. It was no secret. The years of drinking led to cirrhosis.” Mia refused to hide behind her mother’s shame. She was not her mother.
“And Ginny? How is she?”
Mia smiled. “Great. She’s been at St. Ambrose for a couple years.” Was this the part where she politely asked about Lacey’s brother? She couldn’t even say his name in her head. She wouldn’t ask how he was doing. She told herself she didn’t care if . . .
“I heard. Mother’s on the board of directors at St. Ambrose.”
Mia’s eyes narrowed. “They’re not kicking her out, are they? Please don’t punish Ginny—”
“Gosh, no. Oh no, Mia.” Lacey’s long, elegant fingers closed around Mia’s. “I just meant that’s how I found you. I used Mother’s influence to get your phone number from the school office. My parents don’t know I’m here or that I called.”
Mia removed her hands and folded them in her lap. She drew in a slow, deep breath and let it go.
The waiter came back and asked for their orders. Mia let Lacey handle it as Mia looked out over the manicured green. She didn’t belong here. Not making idle chitchat with Lacey or at a table eating thirty-dollar salads with people who pissed money away.
The waiter left their table.
Mia wanted out. “I was surprised to get your call.”
Lacey’s smile grew wistful. The expression reminded Mia of summers in their clandestine little area of Wilmington Beach, nicknamed Covington Cove by the staff. Her mother used to be one of those staff. But Mia and Lacey were friends once upon a time. She’d watch Lacey play on the expansive estate, dreaming of getting out, while Mia dreamed of getting in.
How foolish they both were.
“I don’t know how much you’ve kept up on with our family. Have you heard Father’s running for governor next term?”
Oh, yeah. Mia heard. How appropriate. John Covington had presided as state senator of North Carolina for the past eight years. He could lie straight through a smile. A perfect politician.
“Mother has her hands full with several charities.”
Mia nodded, not giving a damn about Kathryn Covington either.
“And Cole . . .”
At his name, Mia flinched. Lacey paused, staring her down with something close to sympathy. Mia took a sip of coffee, hating how her hands shook when she set the cup down.
“Did you hear he joined the army? Four years ago.”
Mia’s gaze whipped to hers. “Is that a joke?”
Lacey shook her head and stared at the table between them. “I wish it was. The ultimate punishment for our parents. Something they couldn’t control. We kept it out of the papers, but it leaked out a couple years ago when a reporter looked into why he hadn’t been seen at his usual hot spots. Dad spun a positive angle to the story. We’re patriotic and wanted to do our duty.”
Mia tried to picture the Cole she knew crawling through trenches and dodging enemy fire. The image wouldn’t form. “I hadn’t heard.” In all honesty, she went out of her way to avoid press about the Covingtons. What did all this have to do with her?
“He was injured over there.”
Mia’s gaze searched Lacey’s as her throat closed. She might have wished a lot of things on that family through the years, but not that. The seventeen-year-old girl inside her demanded answers. Remembered how much she once cared for Cole. She struggled for the calm she didn’t feel. “Is he okay?”
Lacey shook her head, tears forming. Mia’s heart sank like lead. The Covingtons didn’t show public emotion. Not unless it served a greater purpose. If Lacey was crying, Cole was hurt bad.
Lacey sniffed and dabbed her eyes. “He was with two men from his unit when they drove over an improvised explosive device. I guess they’re everywhere in the Middle East. The other two men were killed.”
Oh, God. “Lacey, I’m sorry.”
“They got Cole stable enough to fly to Germany. He spent a month there before he was well enough to come home. He has an honorable medical discharge.”
Lord knows Cole had no business being over there in the first place. What was he thinking? He’d never had to wash a dish, take out the trash, or do anything else for himself a day in his life.
“At least he’s home now.”
“That’s the reason I called.” Lacey looked Mia in the eyes with what she could only decipher as a plea. “He’s locked himself in the Wilmington estate. He won’t see anybody, won’t go to therapy.”
Mia focused on the first part of Lacey’s statement before she even tried to adjust to the second. “I thought your parents sold that estate.”
“They did. They wanted nothing to do with . . .” As Lacey trailed off, Mia didn’t have to ask why. “Anyway, it was a closed sale. Cole came into his trust fund that year. He purchased it outright. They didn’t know he was the buyer until afterward.”
Why would Cole want that house? Sure, there were plenty of great summers but, in the end, he wanted out. The bad outweighing the good. Nothing could replace the memory of that last tragic summer.
“Okay, and pardon me for being rude, but what does this have to do with me?”
Lacey reached down and then slid a manila envelope across the table. “Don’t look at this now. Hear me out and read this at home later. Think about it and then decide.”
Lacey’s mouth firmed into a thin line. “You don’t have a lot left in savings since your layoff. You haven’t made payment at St. Ambrose yet this month—”
Mia stood, knocking her chair backward.
Heads turned their way.
“You have some nerve. You know that? Some nerve looking into my personal affairs.”
Lacey never flinched. Not even a blink. “It was wrong of me, I know. But, as I said, hear me out.”
Mia grabbed her pocketbook. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” She turned to leave.
“Will you listen to me for Cole?”
She stopped, turned. Her gaze darted around the terrace, at all the faces looking at her.
“Sit, Mia. Please. I don’t want to fight with you. I need your help.”
A war waged inside. Part of her knew she never should’ve come. The other part knew she couldn’t stay away. The Covingtons were her kryptonite. Always had been. She sighed and righted the chair, sitting back down. She’d listen and leave.
“I had to know I could still trust you, Mia.”
“You didn’t trust me back then and I sure as hell don’t trust you now.”
Lacey swallowed. “I had a background check done on you, too.”
Mia’s teeth ground. “You’re not helping your cause.”
“You need financial security. I need your help. I’ll set up a trust for Ginny’s school, payable for the next two years until she finishes and then an account to pay for her care until she dies. She’ll be comfortable for life.”
If she could move, her jaw would’ve been on the clean white linen tablecloth. “In exchange for what?” My soul? He already took that, ten years ago.
“In exchange for your help with Cole. You get him therapy. You get him back to normal. You rehab him until he resembles my brother again.”
“You’re not serious.”
Her gaze softened. “I am serious. Over the past two months he’s fired every PT and nurse I’ve hired. He refuses visitors, including my parents and me. The only person he’s let stay is Rose Wendler, our former maid.”
Dear, dear Rose. Mia hadn’t seen her since Mama died. “For argument’s sake, let’s say I agree to this. What makes you think he’ll let me in? Let me help him?”
Lacey glanced out across the terrace before looking at her hands. “He will.”
“I’m not as confident as you.” And there was a damn good reason for that.
Lacey tapped the folder. “Look at the file tonight. Call me tomorrow.”
Mia shook her head. “You have more money than God. You could hire a nurse every hour if he fired them that fast. Why me?”
Why make me relive this again? Why make me consider ripping my heart out again? Ten years and it still felt like yesterday. Yes, she had grown up. Yes, she had moved on. She had made something of herself. But some things you just couldn’t forgive. Forget.
Lacey dug into her pocketbook and withdrew something, setting it down on the table in front of Mia. “He had that on him when he got injured.”
Mia turned over the small photo. She gasped and threw her hand over her mouth.
It was her on the Covingtons’ private beach in Wilmington, the last day they spent together. The edges were worn, the picture wrinkled and faded. It had been cut to wallet size, framing her face. Ten years and he carried this around? Why?
Lacey cleared her throat. “He never forgot. He never stopped blaming himself.”
Summer: Fifteen Years Before
Cole’s arms slapped the water, one after another after another. Swimming his strokes, lap after lap, until the anger began to drain. His freakin’ mother. Again. Never satisfied. If it wasn’t his grades or his attitude, it was his posture, his clothes, his hair.
He swam until a slow, steady burn lit his muscles. Until he was sure the sun had kissed his skin too long. Until he couldn’t hear Mother’s incessant criticism anymore.
Gliding to the edge of the pool, there was a girl walking hand in hand with a baby toddling beside her. The girl had long, sleek black hair. Her eyes rounded as she noticed him. Eyes the deepest blue he’d ever seen.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude,” she stammered. “Ginny was getting fussy. I was just walking her so she wouldn’t disturb Mrs. Covington’s brunch.”
He emerged from the pool and grabbed a towel, angry all over again that someone had seen him all worked up. “It’s rude to stare at people, you know.”
Her head shot down, avoiding his glare. “I’m sorry. You’re just a really good swimmer. I never learned.”
He glanced at the toddler and back to her. She was a couple years younger than him. Perhaps fourteen? What was she doing with a baby at her age? “Who are you, exactly?”
“Gloria Galdon’s daughter. She’s one of the day maids. Mrs. Covington said it was all right for her to bring us during the summer, as long as we stayed out of the way.”
Gloria. He knew her. Mother had had her on staff a long time. The rest of the staff seemed to cover for her as of late. He remembered overhearing them talking about her having another daughter last year. A disabled one. He recognized the signs now. Down syndrome.
“Well, you’re in my way.” God, he was being a jerk, but his mother had just spent the morning belittling him again and he wasn’t in the mood for company.
“I won’t do it again. I promise.” She grabbed the toddler’s hand and walked toward the back of the estate.
He toweled off, watching her go, feeling terrible for treating her the way he did. She seemed like a nice girl. She’d be beautiful once she grew into her body. Long, lean frame. Smooth, tanned skin. And her eyes. Yeah—wow.
Between the house and the mimosa grove, the toddler threw herself on the ground, screaming and kicking her legs. The girl looked around frantically before kneeling in front of the baby. Even from thirty yards away, her voice penetrated. Lilting. Every ounce of Cole’s residual tension fled in the ocean breeze. The toddler stopped screaming instantly and tilted her head to listen as the girl sang.
“Hey.” He walked toward them. He had the strangest sensation in his gut, like the atmosphere was shifting.
Her eyes rounded again. Wide. “I’m so sorry. She’s just a baby. I’m calming her down—”
“No, it’s not that.” He waved his hand. “I’m sorry for what I said back there. I was a jerk. Bad day, you know?”
Except, now he didn’t know why he walked over. Several seconds ticked by as the sun beat down on them. Cicadas buzzed in the neighboring trees. Sweat beaded on her brow, trailing a path from her temple down her cheek.
“Bring a swimming suit tomorrow. It’s hot out here. I’ll teach you to swim.”
“Really?” Her eyes lit to an electric, cosmic blue. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
He swallowed. “It’s no bother.” No bother at all. His mother was gonna love this. Fraternizing with the help. Or the help’s daughter, be that as it may. Not that it was his reason for inviting her.
“But, Ginny . . . I have to watch her.”
“Bring a suit for her, too.” What was he doing? “What’s your name?”
“Mia.” She smiled.
That sensation from earlier morphed into a painful, wonderful ache. “Mia, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mia swung her legs over the side of the bed to fetch her book and knocked the manila envelope to the floor. The solution to her temporary money problems. A guarantee for Ginny to be taken care of should anything happen to her.
Mia hadn’t read the file after lunch with Lacey. She’d made up her mind not to get involved. Yet she brought it to bed. Could she do it? Could she risk reliving all that pain and humiliation again?
For Ginny. Just look at the file for Ginny’s sake.
Reading the contents didn’t mean she was agreeing to help. She picked up the envelope and pulled out the file. Knowing charts were typically in reverse chronological order, she flipped to the last page first. The dictation from a medic in Iraq was short.
Soldier arrived at 2100 by airlift. Patient was unconscious upon arrival. Suffered third degree burns on anterior of left shoulder and second degree burns on left side of neck. X-rays show compression fractures of C6 and C7 vertebrae. Patient was taken into surgery to assess necrotic tissue in left quadriceps. A muscle bypass was performed to save the leg and restore blood flow. Burns were treated in surgery by a skin graft from tissue of right buttocks. No complications from surgery. Patient will be placed in a medical coma for four weeks and given oxygen therapy.
Mia glanced over the nursing and physician notes after but found nothing useful. Cole had been hurt bad. A muscle bypass would mean severe to moderate pain for the rest of his life in that leg and limited mobility. Even with her nursing background, the pictures were hard to look at.
He was transferred to a German hospital while still in the induced coma four weeks later. There he got intravenous rehydration and was woken. He also got two more skin grafts before returning to the States. He refused cosmetic surgery for the burns and did just enough physical therapy to be released. The psychiatric notes showed severe PTSD. He was leaning toward the numb side of the scale versus anger, according to Dr. Melbourne, the psychiatrist at the VA in Charlotte. Since Cole was uncooperative, the doctor was unable to determine any triggers or offer decent treatment. He’d tried cognitive behavior therapy without success. The nursing notes stated Cole had frequent nightmares, resulting in cold sweats and screaming through the night. Dr. Melbourne prescribed fluoxetine and clonazepam before releasing him. Cole hadn’t returned for a follow-up.
Mia closed the file and leaned back against her pillows. The Cole she knew was pretentious but funny. She remembered how sweet he could be when someone bothered to look beneath the surface. He had a wicked streak of rebellion his parents barely sequestered. He didn’t raise his voice. He rarely took anything seriously. Apparently the war and ten years had changed him.
It broke her heart all over again.
Things had ended terribly between them, but a lot had happened since then. Maybe she could help Cole. The nurse in her wanted to do just that. A man was hurt, in need, and she might be able to do something. She strove to set a good example for Ginny, to be a good person. What did it say about her if she refused?
Plus, she was between jobs at the moment. She wouldn’t be giving anything up or putting anything on hold if she was to take Lacey up on this offer.
Besides, she could make things right with Cole and bring some peace back into her life. Back then she would’ve given anything for the chance. Now it lay before her. They were adults. No longer playing in fairy-tale dreams. Why had the Covingtons and that summer set the course for her life? They were just kids back then and had made some terrible mistakes. Yet, in some ways, she continued to let them rule her life. Maybe going back would help her realize those feelings weren’t as strong as she thought, that the misguided notions she formulated about her past didn’t have to be all there was to her life.
She hadn’t thought about the Covingtons in a long time, wouldn’t allow herself to. She’d told herself she’d forgiven them, forgiven herself, but obviously she hadn’t or these thoughts wouldn’t be on her mind now.
She bit her lip. Was she a bad person if part of her wanted to show them she’d made something of herself? She had finished college, gotten a degree, and become a great nurse who took good care of people. She sighed. She shouldn’t care what they thought.
Sitting upright, she set the file aside and headed toward the kitchen. Sucking in a deep breath, she dialed Lacey’s number before even realizing she had made the decision. Ginny’s future would be secure, which, in the long run, was all that mattered.
• • •
The thirty-foot wrought iron gate buzzed open the moment Mia’s car pulled up. Lacey was to tell Rose that Mia was coming, but the plan was not to tell Cole until she arrived. Lacey wouldn’t be here to greet her as Lacey thought her presence would only infuriate Cole more.
The gate closed in her rearview mirror and suddenly Mia was trapped. She forced her gaze ahead, pulling the car forward down the long, palm-lined drive. She breathed in the salt spray from the ocean. The surf pounded the sand as her tires crunched over the crushed-oyster-shell drive.
The lane ended in a paved circular driveway and the sprawling mansion came into view. The Covingtons’ estate in Pineville near Charlotte was bigger, but even after all these years, she still thought this one was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
A stick-built home, the house was contemporary, and despite its size held a cottage feel. At the same time it was ostentatious. Two stories, five bedrooms, four baths, a library, weight room, four-car garage, swimming pool, and guesthouse, right on the beach, overlooking the Atlantic. The exterior was white stone with cobalt accent shutters. The previous owners had made sure the roof was metal and the windows double-paned to withstand a hurricane.
Once she’d dreamed of living in such a place. Now it made her sick to think how immature she was then and how cruel the world could be. Money didn’t buy anything but loneliness.
She pulled around the twenty-foot decorative fountain toward the guesthouse to park. Part of her agreement with Lacey was that she didn’t stay in the main house. Lacey had complied with that easily, along with giving her Sundays off so she could drive the four hours back to Charlotte to visit Ginny. She hoped her car survived the extra miles.
Leaving her bags in the trunk, she drew in a breath and exited the car. The humidity from Charlotte was gone, replaced with a sea breeze and slightly cooler temperatures. The small white flowers from the loblolly-bay and the orange red blooms of the gaillardia checkered the edging of the front walk. Yaupon holly bushes lined the front of the house up to the pillared front door.
The place looked exactly the same. She’d bet the wild sea oats were still at the base of the porch facing the ocean, to prevent erosion, swaying unceremoniously with the sea grass.
As she stood by the foot of the front steps, the door opened. Rose Wendler filled the doorway, wiping her hands on an apron tied around her round frame. Her dark black skin was sheened with sweat, same as Mia remembered. Mia nearly wept. Rose had always been more of a mother to her than her own. She’d taught her, bathed her, and fed her. Showed her the beauty in life when ugly things emerged.
“Come here, child. Let me look atcha.” She smiled and opened her arms.
Mia climbed the steps, walked into her embrace, and, for a minute, forgot her unease and fear. She was home. Mia backed away and shook her head. “Rose, I missed you.”
Rose’s assessing gaze traveled down the length of her. “You’re still too skinny. I’ll put meat on yo bones.”
Mia laughed. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Rose wasn’t the Covingtons’ cook back then, but she’d often brought Mia and Ginny a meal at their trailer, since they all lived in the same trailer park on the other side of town. The woman made cornbread to die for. Rose’s skin was still beautiful, her nails trim and short, but around her whiskey eyes the wrinkles of time had set in, showing her almost seventy years. There was more white than black in her fitted bun.
“How’s your family?” Mia asked.
Rose pulled a key from her pocket and passed it to Mia. “That opens the guesthouse and the main house.” She pointed. “Come on, let’s get you settled in.”
Mia’s stomach dropped as she followed Rose to the guesthouse. Just being back here had her nerves in a riot. Mia pulled her suitcase from the trunk and met her at the door. Rose unlocked the house and stepped inside.
It smelled like Pine-Sol and gardenia potpourri. The living room and kitchen, separated by an island, were tastefully decorated in sea-foam green. Conch shells and sand dollars were set on the white mantel over the small fireplace. Matching white wicker furniture was arranged in the center of the room, facing each other. Four paintings of the ocean at sunset hung, one on each wall, the colors nicely contrasting.
Lacey had painted those long ago, back when her mother sometimes allowed her to do frivolous things like indulge in hobbies. She had a lot of talent, even as a young teen. The brushstrokes and oil paint jumped off the canvas.
Excerpted from "Return to Me"
Copyright © 2015 Kelly Moran.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Not your typical poor girl/rich boy story. An emotional roller coaster ride I read in one sitting! Don't miss it!"—Carly Phillips, New York Times bestselling author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I discovered Kelly Moran when her site banner won the Who Wants to be Tangled Hearts Cover for a Week contest on Facebook. After some investigation, I bought a copy of RETURN TO ME. Good job, Tangled. Set on the picturesque North Carolina shore, it tells a tale of redemption and reclaiming lost love that really wasn’t lost after all. The tale unfolds in the present with a sprinkling of flashback scenes to tell the story of how these two lovers first met and discovered their love as well as the tragic way they are torn apart. Cole is a wounded veteran, recovering from serious wounds sustained in combat that are compounded by his return to his boyhood home on the Carolina shore, the site of his romance with Mia and a family tragedy. Mia is a hard-working girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’s struggled all her life to support herself and her disabled sister. Cole is the one man she wants and can’t have. It’s an emotional tale, heavy with feelings of regret, anger and despair and both sides. The plot is well crafted and draws the reader in. The characters are well-drawn with compelling tales to tell. Cole’s bouts with PTSD and his injuries are accurately described lending much realism to the story. Supporting characters add much, especially Cole’s sister Lacey and Mia’s sister Ginny. I found I did not want to put the book down; I was so intrigued. RETURN TO ME is the first of a series of books about Covington Cove. It’s a stand-alone novel and very worth your time.
This book has it all! From teenage love that has its misunderstandings to adult love that is not without forgiveness. You'll love this romance since it will make you feel a roller coaster of emotions. Definitely worth the money!!!
I absolutely adored this book, it had so many elements that I love in a story that there was no question in my mind that I wasn't going to fall in love with it and it's characters, a wonderfully written romance, with a heartbreaking storyline that will leave even the cold-hearted trying their best to not end up emotionally involved as we traverse through the past and present of Cole and Mia. I love a book where for some reason or other our couple have broken up under tragic circumstances when they were younger and then find themselves years later reunited, the fact that Cole was injured while serving his country makes for an even more interesting plot, when his sister Lacey hires Mia who became a nurse to look after him at home that's when the memories both painful and sweet are dredged up and living in such close quarters together they have no choice but to finally deal with their past and what really happened all those years ago. I'm not going to go into too much detail about the book, I want everyone to experience the storyline themselves, but let me just say that it involves a very wealthy family the Covington's, the father is running for Senator and their son Cole has fallen for one of the maid's daughters Mia, needless to say Cole's mother is not too pleased at the fact that he's spending time with a trailer trash harlot in Mia (her words), add in the fact that Mia's mom is an alcoholic and she's left looking after her younger sister Ginny who has down syndrome and the odds are against her ever impressing Cole's mother, and let's leave it at that! I shed quite a few tears whilst reading Return To Me, it's about second chances, first love and overcoming the physical and psychological effects of being a soldier at war, the guilt, the grief and the believe that you will overcome your injuries if you just believe in yourself. I cannot wait for the second book in this series, Kelly has got me so anxious to continue on with this story, I loved it, loved it, loved it. I can't recommend this highly enough.
Kelly Moran brings readers the first book in her new Covington Cove contemporary romance series, Return to Me. This is a great second chance love story that will grip the reader from the first page to the last. The author uses several different analogies to other classic pieces of literature to bring about a story that is both compelling and endearing. If you are looking for one of those books that makes you want to tear you hair out one minutes and cry your eyes out the next, this one is perfect for you! A great start to a new series! This is my first book by Kelly Moran and I'll have to say, I was impressed with several different things about this book. I liked the way Moran harkens back to stories like Cinderella, and Jane Eyre to give her novel both a ring of the familiarity, and a touch of that fairy tale like nostalgia. Mia is the daughter of the maid when rich boy Cole Covington meets her. Though the sparks fly and they become an instant couple, Mia doesn't meet the expectations of his family. Later on after several years have passed, Cole returns home from the military wounded in both body and spirit and Mia returns to care for him in order to pay the bills and take care of her sister. Definite parallels to both classic pieces. I loved that about this book. The characters were also so compelling and entertaining. From the very first chapter readers will fall in love with Cole and start to root for him to find his happy ending. It's obvious that the war in Iraq has taken his will to live and he comes across as a very tortured hero. I always like a hero that has a little more at stake than just finding Miss Right. Cole needs to mend his spirit as much as his body and that adds a totally different dimension to that part of the novel. Mia is also just a wonderfully developed and deep character. She is very selfless and takes good care of her sister. She sacrifices so much for her family that readers won't can't help but fall in love with her. Watching her care for someone she felt had betrayed her was a joy. She was still compassionate and caring in spite of what happened between her and Cole and I found myself really admiring her as a character. I think Moran did an excellent job with characterization all the way around and that made this just a really good read. Bottom Line: This is a book that will speak to a lot of people. I love a military hero and this was super special. I think readers will appreciate Cole's story and be able to relate to his reasons for betraying Mia in the first place. Doing what your family expects of you is a big thing and even though it screwed up his life, he was changed by that decision and it affected everything after. I loved this one. A great chance to get in at the beginning on a what will probably be a great series!
Return to Me is an incredibly sweet second chance romance. Mia is a wonderful character. She is strong and sweet, unassuming and kind. Cole has sacrificed time and again and now he is hurt and needs what only Mia can give him. These two have a second chance at love but will the things that tore them apart the first time do it again? This book wraps itself around your heart, sucks you in, makes you laugh, cry, ache and sigh. Well done Kelly Moran.
Return to Me by Kelly Moran is the 1st book in her new Covington Cove series. I decided to read this book, as I usually enjoy these sweet romances in small towns, as well as being family oriented. I am so glad I did, as Return to Me was a fantastic read, and much more than a just sweet romance. Our heroes in this story are Mia Galdon and Cole Covington. They were young lovers 10 years before, but they were on the different sides of the track. Mia was the daughter of the Covington maid, and Cole was the younger son of the wealthy and powerful Covingtons. Though they were in love, Cole shattered Mia’s heart without an explanation. Cole eventually joins the military, to get away from his guilt and his parents. In the present time, Cole is now emotionally, and physically damaged by the war, and has become a recluse in the family home he bought. He refuses to see anyone, with only the housekeeper to help him. Lacey Covington is Cole’s sister, and in her desperation, she reaches out to Mia, even though it’s been 10 years. Mia is a nurse, who is currently looking for a job, and her financial situation is getting difficult, since she takes care of her sister, Ginny, who as downs syndrome. Lacey begs her to come to Covington Cove to become his caretaker and help Cole. Mia wants nothing to do with Cole, but because Lacey makes her an offer she can’t refuse, paying in full Ginny’s tuition at the home she has been staying in, Mia accepts. Without giving out spoilers, what follows is a wonderful emotional heartwarming story of two people that must get past the damaging memories of the past, the betrayals, and move to the equally damaging present of war, tragedy, and emotional turmoil. But most important, Mia must find a way to get Cole out of his war terrors, and bring him back to his health. Cole has always loved Mia, will he tell her the truth of why he broke up with her? Can Mia trust her heart to Cole again? Will Mia be able to come face to face with Cole’s parents, who treated her like trash? Kelly Moran has created some wonderful characters; Mia was a fabulous heroine, who was smart, savvy, funny, dedicated and strong; Cole made a fabulous hero, as he not only was a hunk, but his love for Mia tugged on our hearts; Lacey, was a wonderful sister to Cole, and turned out to be a super friend to Mia. Return to Me is a wonderful story that blends a sweet romance, family dynamics, healing, with heart wrenching emotions throughout, which will stay with you for a while. Great book by Kelly Moran that is not to be missed.
This was a long awaited book for me and it was worth the wait! Return to Me is wonderful story with complex characters whom I felt very connected. Cole & Mia waited a long time to find each other again, and the telling of their past and present is fantastic. I am already anxious to read the next installment to the Covington Cove series!
Romance writer Kelly Moran returns to a familiar theme of two broken people coming together and learning to trust each other. Ten years after Cole Covington and Mia Galdon fall in love and are torn apart by Cole’s mother, they meet again. Cole returns from the war in the Middle East with post traumatic stress disorder. When he was severely wounded, his rescuers find him holding a picture of Mia. So broken is he by the loss of some of his men in combat and by nearly losing his life that he refuses to leave his coastal home near Wilmington. Cole’s sister contacts Mia and asks her to care for Cole in his home. Unsure if she wants to see the man who broke her heart, she finally agrees to nurse Cole back to health. Her job is to get him well enough to care for himself, leave the house and return to a functional life. Romance readers will enjoy the journey of the two main characters as they try to deny they still love each other. Moran renders familiar tropes with intensity and a fresh voice.
With two sons in the armed services and a family history of military service this book hit close to home more than once. Many tears were shed during the reading of this book as it was an emotional read. Return to me is more than just a love story. It's a story of self-sacrifice, perseverance, healing, and so much more. The story has taken me on an emotional ride that has left me with a book hangover. (That is a very good thing). The characters Cole & Mia were high school sweethearts but circumstances ripped them apart. Now they are reunited, but it won't be all sunshine and roses. I'm not going to tell you what the story is about because Kelly Moran does it so much better with her words than I could ever do. Just know that this is one of the best stories that I have read in years. I will be recommending it to all of my friends and readers. This review was done for the Literature Litehouse Blog.
Was given an ARC of the book from the publisher for an honest review. “Love me, remember me, forgive me …..........” “The edges were worn, the picture wrinkled and faded. It had been cut to wallet size, framing her face. Ten years and he carried this around? Why?” This should be a “must” read on everyone's list. A fabulous read that will keep you entertained from start to finish. You will find love, second chances, sacrifices and so many things that will keep you emotionally involved with the characters. As teenagers, Cole and Mia had a summer romance, but events tore them apart. Cole chooses the military to forget. Mia goes on with her life, graduating from college and becoming a nurse. Now ten years later, destiny is stepping in and they are meeting again. Cole returns wounded, tormented and needing help. At the urging of Cole's sister, Mia steps in to help Will the events from the past be there to destroy them or will fate lend a helping hand to bring them together? What will happen when a ten year old secret is revealed? This story will make you laugh and cry. As always, Kelly's words and characters bring the story to life. You will find yourself on an emotional low and high with this story. I highly recommend this read. You will not be disappointed. A great start to the “Covington Series”.
I received this book as an ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review. This book is amazingly sweet & romantic and even a little mysterious. From the beginning the author tells the story, with little bits & pieces of the past, telling the story of Cole & Mia's past and how they came to where they are now. If you love a good book that will make you laugh and even cry, then this book is for you! This is a story about a veteran's recovery after being injured in the military and how it takes a past unresolved love to help him recover while learning to get past his demons, Cole realizes his life isn't over. Will he make up for things that happened in the past? Will he win Mia back & prove that he still loves her?