Former wild child Helena Wheeler was happy to leave behind her hometown—and her sordid past—for Atlanta twelve years ago. But when her grandmother suffers an injury, Helena has no choice but to return, even if it means facing down all the people who have shunned her.
Ryan Tanner went from being a football legend in high school to Magnolia Beach’s young, hot bachelor mayor. As a teenager, he never wanted anything to do with a girl like Helena. But when she hires Ryan to do some construction in her grandmother’s house, he finds that she’s grown up into a different person—one he quite likes.
For Helena, confronting her past has its share of surprises—and falling for the resident golden boy was definitely not on her to-do list. But will her reformed ways be enough to get her back in the town’s good graces, or will her reputation keep Helena and Ryan apart for good?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
SOMETHING TO PROVE
If I’d known I was going to attract this much attention, I’d have worn lipstick.
Forcing herself to smile, Helena Wheeler waved at the elderly couple frowning down at her from their porch swing. Mr. and Mrs. Riley had been ancient twelve years ago, and though she assumed they’d been long dead by now, she realized they might be living proof that time really did stand still in Magnolia Beach, Alabama.
The Rileys weren’t the only ones staring and muttering. Grannie’s house sat three blocks off Magnolia Beach’s main drag, and at least a dozen people had done shocked double takes as she’d passed. In a way, it was almost gratifying. She must not have changed all that much, which was heartening for someone staring down her thirty-second birthday and beginning to pay a bit more attention to those commercials talking about fine lines and wrinkles. The flip side, of course, was the hushed whispers that came after those double takes. She didn’t have to hear them to realize that folks rather expected her not to have changed at all.
As Grannie would say, though, she was merely reaping what she’d sown. She couldn’t really expect anything else.
They probably have the high school on lockdown already. She snorted. Like she even knew where to find a pig these days.
Well, she certainly couldn’t terrorize the town on the weak cup of instant decaf she’d gulped this morning in an effort to fool herself into waking up. Her first stop would be the diner for coffee. Then, and only then, would she have the strength to tackle the mile-long to-do list that was tucked into her purse.
Magnolia Beach was just a small coastal Alabama town, with the geography—Heron Bayou on the west, Heron Bay on the south, and Mobile Bay on the east—forcing pretty much everything into one central location. That was part of its charm, the community’s easy accessibility and friendly layout as much of a tourist attraction as the white sugar-sand beaches of the Mobile Bay side and the marina of the Heron Bay shore. Helena was immune to that “charm,” but it did make today’s errands much easier because she wouldn’t have to drive and park.
Turning right onto Front Street from Lister Street—officially the place where Magnolia Beach’s residential area became the so-called business district—Helena stopped and took a deep breath to ready herself for the next leg of this gauntlet. Then she smiled to herself. She’d forgotten how pretty Magnolia Beach was from this exact point. From here, it was a straight shot to Heron Bay, an unobstructed, perfect view all the way to where the Gulf’s green water met blue sky at the horizon.
To her left, Grace Baptist still squared off with First Methodist—a name both hopeful and ridiculous at the same time since it was still the only Methodist church in Magnolia Beach. Grace Baptist had the Bible verse of the week up on its sign, and out of habit, Helena began trying to mentally rearrange the letters into something else. When nothing came to her, she realized that particular skill had gone rusty from disuse. Pity. I used to be really good at that.
The Frosty Freeze was shuttered, its picnic tables empty, but that would change once school let out for the day. There were more people on Front Street than cars—mothers with babies in strollers and toddlers following behind, old women doing their grocery shopping, men with rods on their shoulders heading to fish off the jetty, and the occasional tourist with camera in hand, taking pictures of the small-town goodness of a modern Mayberry.
In other words, Front Street looked much the same as it always had. Sure, there were a few new stores and fresh coats of paint on some of the buildings, but otherwise . . . Helena was certain she’d still be able to get through town blindfolded.
She reached for her sunglasses. It was truly a beautiful day—sunny and warm, with just a hint of cool in the breeze to remind her it was actually September. It was exactly the kind of weather that Yankee snowbirds came south to the Gulf to experience.
And Magnolia Beach . . . Those blue skies, the occasional white puffy cloud overhead, the tidy main street with American flags hanging off the buildings . . . If she were designing the travel brochure for the town, this would be the picture.
In a way, she’d missed it. Not Magnolia Beach, of course, but she’d missed the water, the smell of salty air, and breezes off the ocean. As much as she loved Atlanta, she was still a beach girl at heart. Maybe one day, she’d relocate back to the coast—not to Magnolia Beach, but maybe someplace down along the Florida panhandle.
But those were plans for a different day.
The bells dinged as she pushed through the front door of Marge’s Diner, triggering a Pavlovian-like craving for Ms. Marge’s three-berry pie. Habit nearly sent her to the big booth in the back corner—assigned seating so Ms. Marge could “keep an eye on her” from the kitchen—but she angled to the shiny, stainless-steel counter instead. The breakfast rush was over, and only a few tables with their classic red-and-white checkered tablecloths still had customers seated at them. She kept her sunglasses on and her head low. Fortunately, Magnolia Beach’s beaches and the marina attracted enough tourists that one lone woman wouldn’t draw much attention—until someone recognized her and decided to speak to her at least. And she really needed coffee before that happened.
The bored-looking young woman behind the counter barely seemed old enough to be out of high school, and she glanced at Helena without a glimmer of recognition.
“What can I get ya?”
Helena thought longingly of the fabulous coffee shop right across the street from her place in Little Five Points, and the craving for one of their special double espresso hazelnut lattes nearly brought her to her knees. She pushed the thought aside. This was Magnolia Beach. “Just coffee, please. Black.”
The coffee wasn’t the best, but it was hot and strong, and her brain perked up the minute it hit her tongue.
And so it begins.
Swiveling on the stool, she located the voice and found herself looking at a tall, lanky man who was staring back at her with surprise—not judgment. There was something so familiar—the shock of dark hair, the bright blue eyes. . . . “Tate!”
Tate Harris caught her as she launched herself off the stool and lifted her off her feet in a hug that squeezed the breath out of her.
“It really is you.” The blue eyes narrowed into a scold. “I can’t believe you’d come to town and not let me know.”
“I just got in last night. You were definitely on my list of folks to find as soon as I got settled in.”
Tate grinned. “I should hope so.” He gave her another squeeze. “God, I’ve missed you.”
Helena’s heart contracted a little. Although he was a year younger, Tate had always been her friend, defender, and partner in crime—the Boy Wonder to her Batman. But that awkward teenager was gone, and the intervening years had been very good to him. “Look at you. All grown-up.”
“And you’re as beautiful as ever. Welcome home.” Then the smile faded, and concern took its place. “Ms. Louise didn’t take a turn for the worse, did she?”
“Grannie is fine,” she assured him. “The doc says she’s healing well and should be able to come home in a couple of weeks.”
Tate guided her back to her stool and ordered a cup of coffee for himself. The waitress suddenly didn’t look so bored as she poured Tate’s coffee. He grinned at her, and she blushed before she went back to filling saltshakers and casting the occasional glance Tate’s way. “That’s good news. She gave us all quite a scare.”
“And me.” Guilt settled on her shoulders. Grannie had lain at the foot of the stairs for nearly two days with a broken hip, a broken ankle, three cracked ribs, and a concussion before her neighbor, Mrs. Wilson, had found her.
“So that’s why you’re here.”
“Yeah. I wanted her to come to Atlanta for a while after she’s out of the convalescent home, but she pitched a holy fit at the idea. And since there’s no way she’ll be able to handle everything herself once they do release her, I had to come here.” She shrugged.
He patted her arm. “You’re a good granddaughter.”
“I’m trying. I’ve got a lot to make up for.”
Tate snorted but didn’t say anything. He knew what she was up against.
“The Rileys and a few other folks have already given me the hairy eyeball today. I’m just hoping they don’t break out the pitchforks and torches.”
“It won’t be that bad.”
A spark of hope lit in her chest, surprising her. “You think folks are willing to—” She stopped as Tate shook his head.
“Jesus may forgive, but people don’t forget. You, Miss Hell-on-Wheels, are half local legend, half cautionary tale told to keep kids on the straight and narrow path.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” she muttered into her coffee.
“Uh, yeah. You were.”
She lifted her chin. “Those were merely youthful indiscretions. And it was a long time ago. People do grow up and change, you know.”
Tate nodded sagely. “That sounds like an excellent story. You should stick to it.”
She returned the nod as regally as she could. “I shall.” Tate grinned, and she leaned forward eagerly. “So tell me all about you. How’ve you been? Job? Wife? Kids?”
“Fine, yes, no, and no.” He checked his watch and drained the last of his coffee. “All the other details will have to wait because I’m about to be very late for work. But we should go to dinner or something and catch up.”
“I’d like that.” And she meant it. The fact she’d missed Tate landed on her chest with a thud that surprised her with its weight.
“Everything’s pretty much where you left it, but if you need anything while you’re getting settled back in, just let me know.” He scribbled a phone number onto the back of a business card and pushed it her way.
Helena did the same. “But I do have one thing you could help me with now.”
“You know what Grannie’s house is like—all those stairs—and my first project is to get someone in to do some renovations before Grannie comes home. She’s adamant that I call ‘that Tanner boy’ and get him to do it, but she didn’t mention which Tanner boy, and there’s so damn many of them.”
Tate nodded. “You want Ryan.”
Figures. Not that there was a Tanner in Magnolia Beach that she did have fond memories of, but why did it have to be Ryan? “Oh yay,” she grumbled into her cup.
Tate laughed. “What happened to growing up and changing?”
“I certainly hope that’s true in Ryan’s case.”
The grin got bigger. “Oh, this is going to be interesting. I don’t have his number on me, but if you run down to the mayor’s office, the secretary, Julie, can get it for you.”
Throwing a couple of dollars onto the counter, she followed Tate outside. “Why would the mayor’s secretary be keeping up with Ryan Tanner?” Magnolia Beach was a small town where everyone pretty much knew everyone else—and all their business—but even Magnolia Beach had limits.
“Because Ryan’s the mayor, sweetcheeks.”
It was a little hard to picture someone she went to high school with as the mayor, but she wasn’t really that shocked. Ryan certainly wasn’t the first Tanner to hold the office, and if his election to student body president was any indication, he’d probably swept into office in a landslide vote. He’d always been golden—not that it was hard for a Tanner to be popular in Magnolia Beach. They were the local family, with doctors, lawyers, business owners, and even a county sheriff hanging off the branches of the family tree.
“I gotta go,” Tate said, squeezing her hand, “but I’ll give you a call later. And, by the way,” he said, leaning in close, “I’d never say this within earshot of Ms. Marge, but if you want a good cup of coffee, head over to Latte Dah on Williams Street. It’s where the old yarn store used to be. Their coffee could fuel rockets to Mars.”
“Morning, Dr. Harris.” A lady Helena didn’t recognize spoke as she passed, and Tate nodded politely in reply.
“Bye, Helena. Welcome home.” Then, with a quick wave, he was gone.
Helena stood still for a moment, trying to process this new information. Tate Harris is a doctor? She fished the business card out of her pocket, and sure enough, Tate J. Harris had DVM after his name.
Grannie had told her Tate was working at the vet’s office, but she’d made it sound like he was a vet tech or something—not the vet himself. Good for him. He’d always talked about vet school, but the cost alone had made it seem like a pipe dream, at best. She didn’t know if she should be proud of him or for him, but it made her smile either way.
And Magnolia Beach had a coffee shop now? Wow. That was big news. She couldn’t quite wrap her head around the idea.
Grannie liked to give updates on life in Magnolia Beach—hell, Helena knew all about Mrs. Potter’s roses and that new high school teacher with the tattoo—but maybe she should start steering those conversations in more practical directions.
I wonder what else I don’t know.
The short walk to the squat brick building that doubled as the city hall and police station told her the answer to her question was “a hell of a lot.” There was a yoga studio tucked in between the barbershop and the post office now, and a day spa next door to Bryson’s Shoe Store with a menu of services that rivaled most Atlanta spas, only the prices were much more affordable.
Helena felt like a tourist in her own hometown.
The glass doors on the front of the city hall building displayed the Magnolia Beach seal and all twenty of their weekly office hours. Helena paused with her hand on the door.
She’d never been in through this entrance before. Now, the side entrance into the police station was a different story. . . . She felt oddly grown-up. At the same time, she felt seventeen again.
One of the problems with coming back to Magnolia Beach was all the people who never left, many of them people she didn’t really want to see. While that list was certainly a long one, Ryan Tanner sat firmly in the top ten. While they hadn’t been archenemies, they certainly hadn’t been friends. Popular football players from “good” families didn’t exactly hang with delinquents and those from the wrong side of the tracks—not that Magnolia Beach was big enough to really have a “right” and “wrong” side of the tracks, but the idea was the same.
I’m not going to him for a favor. This was a business transaction, and she was an adult now. They didn’t need to be friends or anything else for her to hire him.
With one last deep breath, she pulled the door open.
A petite blonde sat behind a desk, her fingers clattering over the keyboard. She looked up as Helena entered, a big smile on her face. “Hi. Can I help . . .”
The words trailed off as the smile disappeared and her eyes widened. The woman visibly pulled back as her eyes darted side to side.
Good Lord. You’d think I’d walked in here with a snake wrapped around my neck. The nameplate on the desk said JULIE SWENSON, but Julie Lane probably had a laundry list of grievances against Helena dating back to kindergarten. The “Swenson” told Helena that Julie had married her high school boyfriend, Mike, and the rumors about Mike and Helena at homecoming—she repressed a shudder at the thought—probably fueled part of Julie’s reaction as well. Oh, honey, I’ve never been that drunk.
She tried for a neutral, friendly tone. “Hi, Julie. You look great.”
“This is a surprise, Helena. In town for a short visit?”
There was such hope in the question that Helena took a little pleasure in squashing it. She might have been horrible to Julie, but thinking back, she remembered that Julie had deserved much of it. “Not too short. Grannie will be well enough to come home soon, and I’m going to be looking after her. I’m not really sure how long I’ll be staying.”
Julie looked like she had something nasty-tasting in her mouth. “That’s very kind of you. I hope Ms. Louise heals quickly.”
She hadn’t planned on rekindling old animosities on this trip, but it seemed inevitable. “You and me both.” She forced a cool smile. “And that brings me to why I’m here. I need to get in touch with Ryan Tanner about some work to be done to Grannie’s house before she comes home. Tate Harris said you could get me the number?”
“Well, well, well, the rumors are true. If it isn’t Hell-on-Wheels.”
Helena spun toward the amused baritone. She was getting much quicker at putting names to faces, but she wouldn’t have needed any help matching the twenty-year-old Ryan Tanner with the version standing in front of her now. Sun-streaked blond hair, strong jaw, green eyes with cute little crinkles from being outside . . . There was something just so damn wholesome about him that he could be the centerfold for Cute Boys Next Door magazine. In jeans, a black polo shirt, and work boots, he certainly didn’t look like he belonged in the mayor’s office, but it did give him an almost edgy sex appeal—not hurt at all by the way the sleeves of his shirt strained against his biceps.
Under different circumstances . . . hummina. But that mocking “Hell-on-Wheels” comment had her hackles up. “It’s just Helena these days.”
“I’m sure the chief will be glad to hear it. He’s new and all, but he’s very committed to keeping Magnolia Beach orderly and peaceful.”
And there it was. She’d rather hoped that Ryan had outgrown his holier-than-Helena attitude. Be an adult. Let it go. “I doubt I’ll have time to make his acquaintance, but please pass along my regards.”
Ryan walked around Julie’s desk and pulled some papers out of an in-box. “What brings you to the mayor’s office? I don’t think even you’ve been in town long enough to cause any trouble.”
Don’t take the bait. “I’m looking for you, actually.”
Ryan’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Then maybe we should step into my office.”
“It’s not official Magnolia Beach business. I need to talk to you about my grandmother.”
His attitude changed. It was subtle, but it was there all the same. Ryan indicated she should go into his office anyway. Somehow, she’d been expecting it to be dated and stuck in time, but it was modern, with nice but not-too-expensive-looking furniture. Ryan’s eyes were concerned as he asked, “How is Ms. Louise?”
There was something very heartening about how much everyone seemed to care about Grannie. Her hospital room had remained full of fresh flowers, and she’d had a steady stream of visitors at the convalescent center. That knowledge had helped mitigate her own guilt at not being able to be there every day.
Growing up, Helena never understood why Grannie loved living in Magnolia Beach, but then again, Grannie had never done anything to irritate the people. Well, besides having a hellion for a grandchild, of course. But even then, everyone had considered Helena to be Louise’s personal cross to bear and kept Grannie as a permanent fixture on the church’s prayer list for her patience and attempts to rein Helena in.
“She’s chomping at the bit to be released.”
“I’m not surprised. When will she be coming home?”
“Two, maybe three, weeks. That’s why I’m here.”
“So you’ll be staying awhile?” Ryan’s eyebrows went up again, as if he were calculating the cost of adding an additional officer or the possible property damage. Helena reminded herself not to be annoyed.
“A little while.” She sat in the guest chair in front of his desk. “Grannie is going to need a lot of help when she comes home. Which brings me back to you. She can’t come home until the house is ready for her. I need ramps built and one of those walk-in bathtubs installed downstairs. We need some grab bars, stuff like that throughout the house, because I don’t want her falling again.” Just the thought put a sick feeling in her stomach. “Grannie wants you, specifically, to do the work.”
Ryan leaned against his desk. “Tell Ms. Louise that I’m flattered.”
“But . . . ?” she prompted.
“No but. I’ll be happy to do it.”
“Great. That’s a big relief.” And it was. The construction on the house was the biggest weight on her shoulders right now. And since she really didn’t have the time to vet a parade of contractors, she’d go with Grannie’s assurance that he was the best in Magnolia Beach. “I have some errands to run this morning, but I’ll be home after that. You can come by anytime this afternoon or tonight to take a look and give me some estimates.”
Ryan pulled out his phone and checked something. “Sometime after five okay?”
“That’ll be great.” She started to offer the address, but caught herself. “I think you know how to get to the house.”
“That I do.” There was that smirk again.
Helena was desperate to ask him what was so damn funny, but she restrained herself. “Then I’ll see you this evening, Mayor Tanner.” She stood and hitched her bag over her shoulder.
He nodded, and Helena showed herself to the door. “Welcome back to Magnolia Beach, Hell-on-Wheels,” Ryan called from behind her. “Stay out of trouble, okay?”
She had to bite her tongue to keep from taking the bait this time. With a nod to Julie on her way out, she pushed through the glass doors and into the sunshine.
Lord have mercy. If this morning was the baseline for what life was going to be like for her the next few weeks . . .
Magnolia Beach had a lot of new businesses. She sincerely hoped one of them was a liquor store.
* * *
Ryan watched as Helena left in what could best be called a mild huff. Maybe he shouldn’t have needled her like that. It wasn’t his best move, but since the other choice had been to drop his tongue to his toes, he’d probably made the better choice out of self-preservation.
Helena had been the stuff of teenage fantasy: pretty, but not unapproachably beautiful, wild and possibly dangerous, inspiring fear and envy and disdain at the same time. She ran with a crowd of mostly older boys—many of them delinquents themselves—giving her a scary-sharp edge and a mouth that could cut you down to size without missing a beat.
The combination had been both alluring and detracting, much talked about in locker rooms and over illicit beers on the beach. So while Helena might have inspired the fantasies and starred in the dreams of many Magnolia Beach boys, very few had had the courage to act. They all knew she was way out of their league. Hitting on Helena seemed like a good way to have your head handed back to you.
He’d managed to stay out of her direct line of fire—most of the time—mainly because they’d run in different social circles. And though those circles didn’t overlap, they did grate against each other pretty regularly with the expected antagonistic results. He knew Helena hadn’t cared for him back then, but any chance he might have ever had to change her mind had ended when she up and left with a deckhand from one of the charter boats.
She never came back. Until now.
That allure should have faded over time, so the fresh rush of temptation had rocked him back on his heels. She’d certainly grown up pretty—the big brown eyes and dark hair were just as he remembered, but there was something . . . softer about her. More approachable.
She’d been casually dressed—jeans, a V-neck tee that just hinted at cleavage, minimal makeup—but that didn’t have a girl-next-door effect. And the spike in his blood pressure wasn’t adolescent at all.
Julie stuck her head around the door. “Well, she’s back. Can you believe it?”
“You thought she wouldn’t come home?”
“I’m just surprised. Lord knows, she hasn’t set foot in town for anything else. Not that I’m complaining, mind you,” she added, “but it seems like she just fell off the face of the earth.”
That was somewhat true. Helena’s legendary status had only grown in her absence—mainly because it was a complete absence. Ms. Louise was always quick to mention a gift sent by Helena, and her neighbors had given her rides to the Mobile airport for what she called her “girl trips,” but for the most part, even Ms. Louise had stayed silent about Helena’s life after Magnolia Beach. “I think an injured grandmother who needs care trumps everything else.”
“Ms. Louise has friends and neighbors who would be happy to help.”
“It’s not the same thing as family.”
Julie shook her head sadly. “And even there the poor woman hasn’t had much luck, has she?”
In a town the size of Magnolia Beach, where everything was everyone’s business and fence-row gossip was the local pastime, it was considered a real shame that someone as well-liked and good as Ms. Louise had been dealt a rather poor hand: widowed young, then left to raise Helena on her own after her son died and Helena’s mother ran off. Not that anyone would say that to her face, though. People shook their heads over Helena but maintained that Ms. Louise had done the best she could, considering the circumstances. “I don’t think Helena is a bad grandchild, only one who lives far away.”
It wasn’t uncommon or anything; Magnolia Beach was a small town, and many of its young people left, never to return. As mayor, though, he was working hard to make Magnolia Beach a place they’d want to come back to.
Julie merely shrugged.
“Well, Helena’s here now, when it counts, so give her credit for that much.”
Julie’s mouth twisted, and Ryan bit back a smile. Old grudges died hard, it seemed. Everyone knew about Mike and Helena at homecoming, and Julie obviously wasn’t ready to let that go just yet.
“No one ever accused her of lacking nerve—that’s for sure. Anyway,” Julie said, her tone changing the subject rather nicely as she put a folder on his desk, “there’s not much happening here today. Just a few things you need to sign.” She left, leaving the door open behind her.
A few moments later, he heard the clatter of her fingers flying over her keyboard and figured e-mails were pinging into in-boxes all over town, heralding Helena’s return.
Shaking his head, he flipped open the file. A couple of permits, the winners’ certificates for the school’s spelling bee, the minutes from the last council meeting. An average day and the reason this job was only part-time at best. Magnolia Beach was a good place, with good people, and it pretty much rolled along without much hassle or drama.
That was part of its charm.
And since he sincerely doubted Helena would find time to set fire to the football equipment shed again, he could enjoy the minor shake-up she’d cause by being here.
His mayoral duties completed for the day, he had a full half hour before he needed to be anywhere else, so he logged on to check his e-mail. With nothing important awaiting him there, either, he went online to Google Helena’s name.
Seconds before he could, though, Julie stuck her head around the door. “Your brother just called—”
“Adam or Eli?” he asked without looking up.
“Adam. He said to let you know that your uncle Dave just left his office and will be here in about one minute.”
Damn it. He quickly closed the search window and stood. “That’s not much warning.”
“He said it would give you enough time to prepare yourself but not enough time to escape,” she said with a smirk.
Hard on her words, he heard the front door open. Julie shrugged a halfhearted apology and stepped aside as his uncle Dave’s burly frame filled the doorway.
“I was just out for my walk and thought I’d stop in to say hello.” Without waiting for an invitation, Uncle Dave came in and sat.
Ryan believed in an open-door policy, and there was a high level of casualness to the position of mayor of Magnolia Beach, but this was no spur-of-the-moment drive-by visit. His uncle had been mayor for too many years and had never quite let the job go. He was just lucky Uncle Dave deigned to sit in the guest chair instead of behind the desk. These casual “just stopped in to say hello” visits had led to the last two mayors severely limiting their terms.
It hadn’t taken Ryan long to understand why, but he had it worse than his predecessors. It was different when it was family. As his uncle liked to remind him when he protested, someone who’d changed his diapers was not going to be put off easily. And that basically included an entire generation of Magnolia Beach residents.
At least Uncle Dave didn’t beat around the bush. “Word has it you’re going to sign off on that new cell tower.”
Not again. “I am aware of your objections, but it has to be done. We’re trying to attract people to Magnolia Beach, and folks just don’t like to go places where they can’t get a good cell signal. They don’t like to be disconnected from the world.”
“I think it would be a selling point. To really get away from it all. That is the purpose of vacations.”
“You said the same thing when we put in the town Wi-Fi, and it’s proven itself a good investment.”
“It’ll be an eyesore.”
“So are many necessities of modern life. But you’ll be glad to know that the council chose a site specifically not to mar the view.” The cell tower itself wasn’t the problem, and Ryan knew it. The real problem was that the new cell tower was another step in his larger plan to improve Magnolia Beach, and that made some people nervous.
Uncle Dave began mumbling about how it would give them all brain cancer, and Ryan crossed that topic off his mental list. They could now move on to the prospects of the football team, people flying flags improperly, and, his perennial favorite, the length of his hair. Ryan furrowed his brow and pointedly gave his watch a worried look, hoping he would take the hint.
No such luck. Uncle Dave sat back in the chair and got comfortable. “I hear Hell-on-Wheels rolled back into town today. And that she was looking for you.”
He hadn’t been expecting that particular topic. Good to know the Magnolia Beach grapevine is in full working order, though. “I hear she prefers to just go by Helena these days. And, yes, she found me. There’s some work that needs to be done on Ms. Louise’s house, and I’ve agreed to do it. Hopefully Ms. Louise will get to come home soon.”
“Glad to hear it. It’ll be good to have her back. I’m looking forward to seeing how she turned out.”
Ryan had only been half listening, nodding along, pretending to be busy, but that last bit had his head snapping up. He thought Uncle Dave had been talking about Ms. Louise. “How who turned out? Helena?”
“Of course Helena. I remember when the sheriff hauled her and that Paul Chatham in, both of them soaked to the bone, covered in mud, and madder than wet hens. . . .” He trailed off into chuckles. “He knew they’d been up to something, but he just couldn’t prove what. The man was half-crazed for weeks trying to find a crime to fit the suspects.” The chuckles morphed into full-belly laughs that had tears rolling down his cheeks. “Definitely a pistol, that girl. Always loaded and no safety. She kept everyone on their toes.”
Ryan thought he was doing an admirable job of keeping his jaw from dropping open. “Yet you’re the one who hauled her in front of the town council over the water tower incident.” Uncle Dave certainly hadn’t found that quite so amusing at the time.
Uncle Dave shrugged. “It had to be done. I thought it might put the fear of God in her before she got into some kind of real trouble.”
Who is this man, and what has he done with my uncle? “Real trouble? Defacing town property wasn’t real trouble?”
Uncle Dave waved him off. “It was just teenage mischief, and not even maliciously done. And, anyway, I’d been trying to get the council to approve the funds to repaint that tower for months. Helena helped me along. Once she painted over her artwork, the rest of the thing looked so bad, the council had to release the money.” He raised an eyebrow. “Speaking of which . . . it’s looking like it could use a fresh coat again.”
Ryan was still stuck at the dismissal of Helena’s petty-crime spree as “teenage mischief,” so it took him a second to catch up to the conversation. “I’ll add it to the list,” he managed.
“Good.” Uncle Dave pushed himself to his feet. Now that he had said his piece, his visit was over. “And when you see Helena again, you tell her I said welcome home.” With a wave, he was gone.
Ryan sat back in his chair and scrubbed a hand across his face. This had been the oddest morning.
But he didn’t have time to mull it over, as his phone was buzzing and he had to stop for supplies before meeting his crew at the Jones place. And he didn’t have the time now to look up Helena, either, as curious as he was, and that annoyed him more than he expected.
He stopped by Julie’s desk to return the signed papers, but Julie merely nodded and waved, her attention more focused on whoever was on the other end of the phone balanced between her ear and shoulder. Her voice was low, but he still heard “Helena” and “unbelievable.”
He smiled. He could get supplies, go to the Jones place for a while, and then stop by the post office in a couple of hours. By then, the grapevine would have done its job and Anna Grace would have all the available information on Helena Wheeler, down to her shoe size, ready to share.
Living in a small town had its perks.
Helena cursed as the download failed again and reached for her beer. Grannie might be able to function with a dial-up modem that dated from 1996, but Helena was going to have to get the cable guys out here with some technology from this century. She always bragged about how she was fortunate enough to be able to work from anywhere—assuming that “anywhere” had high-speed Internet access. But that wasn’t Grannie’s.
Frustrated, she shut down the laptop. Tomorrow, she’d go in search of somewhere with free Wi-Fi. Maybe that coffee shop Tate mentioned would have it.
Leaving the laptop on the table, she took her beer to the front porch. Pretty much all the houses looked the same here, all built in the mid to late sixties after Hurricane Betsy flooded the area in 1965. The beach-style clapboard bungalows had wide porches and postage-stamp-sized yards, and only the paint colors and different flowers in the beds made it possible to tell them apart. There were children playing ball in the street while parents washed their cars in the driveways, and she could smell hamburgers grilling not far away. Idyllic. Charming. Monotonous.
I miss my life already. She’d only been away from it for a day, but the long weeks she’d spend here, in Magnolia Beach, stretched ahead of her like a desolate desert highway.
Oh, there were other things she could be doing—she had a nice, long list—but she closed her eyes and set the swing in motion instead. It was hard to dredge up a real sense of urgency when she was still pitying herself for having to be here at all.
Misha, the friend who was keeping her plants alive in Atlanta, had taken on the role of life coach, earnestly encouraging her to use this time to both reconnect with her past and discover something new about herself. It had been all she could do not to laugh in Misha’s face. She didn’t want to reconnect with her past. Hell, that Helena felt like a completely different person, a stranger—self-centered, selfish, and really angry at the whole world. That wasn’t someone she’d like to get to know again. A lot of it had been relatively harmless adolescent trouble, the consequence of the dangerous mix of small-town boredom and a still-developing frontal lobe, but there was a line, and she’d been dancing right along it. No one wanted to be the one to send Ms. Louise’s granddaughter off to juvie, though—and she’d been smart enough not to do anything too damn dumb or felonious—so she’d done a hell of a lot of community service. So much of it that it was practically her first job. She could still remember that horrid orange safety vest she’d been forced to wear—and the mocking attitude of the deputy when he’d written Hell-on-Wheels across the back in black permanent marker.
She vaguely wondered if that vest was still around someplace. She snorted at the thought. They’d probably tucked it inside her permanent record.
Hence her avoidance of Magnolia Beach, a small town with an ability to carry a big grudge. The cards had been stacked against her from the get-go: Her mother had been an unknown entity, some wild thing her father found and knocked up on a trip to Jacksonville, and most people worried that even the influence of a God-fearing, good woman like Louise Wheeler might not be able to counteract Helena’s questionable DNA. Her mother hadn’t lasted long in Magnolia Beach after her father died, leaving when Helena was just a couple of months old, but those few months had made an impression on the local population—and not in a good way. The first time Helena stepped out of line, all her mother’s sins had been remembered and reexamined. And since everyone claimed apples didn’t fall far from their trees, most people assumed Helena was on the exact same path of trouble and bad news. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
She’d been lucky, though, getting it under control before her life became a cautionary tale suitable for an after-school special, but there was no pride or triumph in her story. She just wanted to forget it.
As for discovering something new about herself . . . That was a laugh. She’d been on that journey, thankyouverymuch. There was only so much introspection a person could do. Parental rejection leading to anger issues and attention-seeking behavior, blah, blah, blah—she’d done the therapy and had a shelf full of self-help books. She owned a business, paid her taxes, and donated to charities. She might not be respectable, but she was about as close as she was going to get. And that would just have to be enough for these people.
So, at best, she was going to discover how long she could survive being back in a town where the traffic lights went blinky at eleven o’clock—all three of them.
With a sigh and a strong mental shake, she drained the last of her drink. She could sit here and feel sorry for herself, or she could just deal. Since hosting a pity party wasn’t going to change things, she’d deal.
Just like she’d always done.
But one look around Grannie’s house, full of fifty-some-odd years’ worth of stuff, was almost enough to send her back for another drink or a hide under the covers. “Clean out the sunroom” seemed like a manageable-enough task on paper, but in reality . . .
The knock at the door seemed like a small gift from God. She could postpone without feeling like she was procrastinating. Getting estimates from Ryan Tanner would also count as being productive.
But it was Tate at the door, not Ryan, and he greeted her with another hug that lifted her off her feet.
“Someone’s been working out,” she teased. “Come on in.”
Tate looked around and smiled. “I haven’t been in here in so long. It looks exactly the same, though.”
She nodded. “Grannie’s not one for change. Can I get you a beer? Can you stay awhile?” She sounded desperate, but perhaps she was. Just being back here was messing with her head. Plus, it was too quiet: The sound of children playing in the streets was actually a little creepy for someone more used to the city and traffic noise of her neighborhood.
“I was actually going to see if you wanted to go get that dinner I promised you.”
That sounded divine, but . . . “I can’t. I’m waiting on Ryan Tanner to come by to give me some estimates.”
“Sometime after five.” She looked at the clock, saw it was five forty-five, shrugged, and went to the fridge. Tate shook his head when she offered him a beer, so she poured him a glass of tea instead. “He’s worse than the cable company.”
“Well, he’s got football practice, so there’s no telling what time he’ll get here.”
She leaned against the counter. “Isn’t he a little old for that?”
“Ryan’s one of the coaches now.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.” He probably runs a scout troop, too. Wonder what the adult equivalent of “teacher’s pet” is? It was a little scary how quickly she’d reverted to her seventeen-year-old self. She took a long swallow of her beer.
“Hey, now, we’ve been to the state championships twice since he started coaching—something that hasn’t happened since . . . well, since Ryan was still playing, probably.”
“Go, Pirates,” she deadpanned.
“Still not a football fan, huh?”
“I could not care less if I tried.”
Tate gasped, hand to his chest in fake horror. “That’s unnatural.”
She made a face at him. “I actually want to hear about you, and what you’ve been up to, Dr. Harris.”
“That’s really all I’ve been up to. I was in school forever, then came back here and took over Doc Masters’s practice when he retired last year.”
“I’m so proud.” He gave her a look, so she clarified, “No, I really am proud of you. That’s great.”
He accepted that with a nod. “And you?”
“I do graphic design. An online one-woman thing.”
“I knew you’d end up doing something artsy.”
“I’ve got pretty steady work, so I’m lucky. I love it and it pays the bills.”
“Perfect combo.” He tapped his glass against her bottle.
“Exactly.” She stared him down. “But you . . . no wife, no kids? What’s up with that?”
He nearly choked on his drink. “I could ask the same of you,” he said, deflecting the question.
She shook her head in mock sadness. “Alas, the state of Georgia won’t let me have a wife.”
Tate laughed. “Then we’ll just call that a topic neither of us wishes to discuss.”
“Good call. What about Ellie and Sam?” She was suddenly hungry for news, which was strange. She hadn’t even thought about most of these people in ages, and now that made her sad. And a little ashamed.
“Ellie’s in Mobile—married, two kids, happy. Sam got divorced last year and moved back here. I’m sure she’d love to see you.”
Tate had practically raised his sisters, and she could hear in his voice that he still adored them. “That’s great, and I’d love to catch up with Sam if there’s time.” Carefully, she asked, “What about your parents?”
“Mom’s still in the same place. The old man died about eight years ago,” he said flatly.
Glad to hear it, she thought, but said, “I didn’t know,” instead. She wouldn’t offer sympathy, and she knew Tate didn’t expect it. Mr. Harris had been an evil, hateful man who only got worse when he drank. And it was a well-known secret how he took it out on his kids. She wasn’t the least bit sorry the man was dead, and she wouldn’t mouth platitudes she knew Tate didn’t need or want to hear.
Tate quickly changed the subject. “So when are you going to let me take you to dinner and show you the sights of Magnolia Beach?”
“Magnolia Beach has sights?” she teased.
“A few. You’ve probably seen most of them, but we do have some nice restaurants now and a bar with live music three nights a week.”
“Goodness, when will we have time to fit it all in?” At Tate’s shrug, she added, “Well, my dance card isn’t exactly full these days, so pretty much whenever is good for you. I should probably wait to make any concrete plans until I hear what Ryan’s going to do and when he’s going to do it. . . .” On cue, she heard Ryan call her name from the porch. “Speak of the devil. Come on in,” she shouted as she headed back that way.
Ryan already had one foot in the door. Another difference between life here and in Atlanta. She’d already quit locking her door, and the only thing strange about a man letting himself into her house was that it actually wasn’t strange at all. That, and the fact she’d reverted back to old habits so quickly. Hell, that was downright disturbing.
“Sorry I’m running late,” Ryan said with an apologetic grin. “The boys were acting up, and there were laps that had to be run. . . .” He trailed off and cocked his head sideways. “Tate. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Tate’s nod was brief and quick. “Ryan.”
There was an odd moment of tension Helena didn’t quite understand. “What? Surprised there’s at least one person who’s glad I’m back?”
“Oh, there are several, I’m sure,” Ryan said wryly. “Some might even surprise you.”
She laughed. “Well, that would be a pleasant surprise, indeed.” Setting down her beer, she turned to Tate. “It’s my turn to cut things short. Sorry.”
“No problem. Thanks for the tea.” Tate set his glass on the table next to hers, then leaned in to plant a kiss on her cheek. “I’ll call you tomorrow about that dinner.”
With another of those brisk nods in Ryan’s direction, Tate was gone. Ryan watched him leave.
Helena picked up the list of work for Ryan she’d started earlier. “Okay, let’s start with the—”
“That was fast.”
“You’re back less than twenty-four hours and you already have a date with Tate Harris?”
That was so far out of left field that she laughed. “What—are you jealous or something?”
Ryan’s head snapped around. “Huh?”
“Unless you have a thing for Tate, why would you even care?” she asked.
“Tate Harris is considered quite the eligible bachelor in Magnolia Beach. You’ll make a whole new set of enemies if you poach him.”
It hadn’t occurred to her that Tate would be an “eligible bachelor,” but it did make sense now that Ryan mentioned it. He’d grown up to be downright adorable and successful. “I’m not ‘poaching’ anyone. And even if I wanted to poach, Magnolia Beach’s womenfolk could have him back in just a few weeks.”
An eyebrow went up. “Just a few weeks, huh?”
“Believe me when I say I do not intend to stay a second longer than absolutely necessary. I have a life in Atlanta, thank you very much, and I can’t wait to get back to it as soon as humanly possible.”
“Ah, well, that’s the spirit.”
The sarcasm grated. She held the list in his direction. “Shall we?”
He nodded at the bottle in her other hand. “Are you not going to offer me a beer first? Tsk, tsk, what’s happened to your manners?”
“The rest of the world doesn’t normally offer alcoholic beverages to random tradesmen, you know.” But even as she said it, she was already heading to the fridge.
Ryan accepted the bottle with a nod of thanks, and she held the list in his direction again.
This time, he took it, but he didn’t bother to look at it. “Let’s start at the front of the house.”
She followed him out the front door onto the porch, but before he could start talking, he was interrupted by a high-pitched yapping bark. A small black smudge jumped out of the open window of Ryan’s truck and ran to sit at his feet, growling a warning at her. She jumped back a step. “What the hell?”
Ryan inclined his head toward it. “And that’s Tank.”
Tank was quite possibly the strangest-looking dog she’d ever seen. He was one of those hairless breeds, which gave him a rather ratlike appearance. He had a bit of an overbite and the little-dog antsiness that made his toenails click against the wooden planks as he danced around Ryan’s ankles. He was tiny, maybe five or six pounds, tops, and he alternated between shooting her dirty looks and staring adoringly up at Ryan. “Tank?”
“Tank doesn’t let his size affect his ego. He thinks he’s bigger than he is.”
Tank couldn’t do her any real damage, but those teeth looked sharp nonetheless and would probably hurt if he got ahold of her. “He belongs to you?”
“I think I belong to him, actually. He just showed up on my porch one day, and when I opened the door, he wandered in like he owned the place.”
“That’s sweet.” Especially since Ryan seemed more like a yellow Lab kind of guy. “Hysterical, but sweet.”
“He comes with me to work sometimes, but he’s happy hanging under the truck in the shade. He won’t bother you. So, you’ll need a ramp. . . .”
Over the next half hour, Helena developed a grudging admiration for Ryan. He obviously knew his stuff—pointing out missing items on her list and coming up with different ways to solve the most obvious problems—and some of the not so obvious ones, too. For what seemed like the fiftieth time, she said, “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“This isn’t my first rodeo, you know. We have a lot of retirees down here, not to mention the snowbirds who arrive every October. Adaptations to accommodate an aging population are a booming business.” He looked at his notes. “Do you have a budget in mind?”
After a moment’s pause, Ryan added, “And that number would be . . . ?”
His attitude gave her great pleasure to be able to say, “Something we’ll discuss after I’ve seen your bid.”
“You think I’ll inflate the numbers?” Insult was stamped across his face.
She shrugged. “I think it’s unwise to tell anyone how much you’re willing to pay until you’ve seen how much they want to charge.”
“Wow. There’s some trust issues for you.”
“It has nothing to do with trust or the lack thereof. It’s just good business. Or didn’t they teach you that up at Auburn’s business school?” It was all she could do not to laugh at the look on his face. “I made a trip to the post office for some stamps. The new girl—Anna Grace?—is a true font of information.”
Ryan looked a little exasperated. “She takes after her aunt.”
Although she didn’t know why she cared, she still asked, “When did Mrs. Trunbill finally retire?”
“Just a few years ago.”
“Lord, she must have been eighty or something.”
Ryan shook his head. “Sixty-five.”
“Really?” That didn’t seem possible.
“People just look older when you’re younger.”
“I guess.” Old gossip popped back into her mind. “Is it true that Mrs. Trunbill sent letters to every male in town who had a Playboy subscription, threatening to tell their mothers about it?”
“She could have gotten fired for doing something like that,” he said, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“That wasn’t my ques— Oooh, not only is it true, but you got one, didn’t you?”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Something to Prove, had me from the first line of the book, which set the tone for its entirety. Kimberly Lang has spun a charming story that makes you want to pack your bags and move to Magnolia Beach. Helena Wheeler, a sassy, smart, independent former resident of this small, quaint beach town finds herself fighting the past when she returns home to help her grandmother. All her previous teen desires are served up on a silver platter in the form of Ryan Tanner. The former bad girl, now a success story, owns her own business, but can she find success in a small town that can't forget the past? You won't be disappointed in this funny, well told, heartwarming tale. I give it 5 stars.
Something to Prove is my first book by Kimberly Lang. Ms Lang has given us a well written book with lovable characters. Helena and Ryan's story is fast paced with plenty of drama, humor and spice. Something to Prove is a totally fun book to read. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more from Kimberly Lang in the future. Something to Prove is book 1 of the Magnolia Beach Series but can be read as a standalone. This is a complete book, not a cliff-hanger. I purchased a copy of this book at a book signing.
Small town romances happen to be my favorite setting in any romance book. I love that the characters have history and that everyone knows everyone else as well as their triumphs and tribulations. This is my first read by Kimberly Lang and she definitely delivers in this romance full of likeable characters, witty dialogue and a storyline with heart. I enjoyed the book and loved spending time in the town of Magnolia Beach. SOMETHING TO PROVE is everything you want in a contemporary romance: nosey townsfolk, villains, strong yet stubborn heroines, romance, redemption, laughter and a swoon-worthy hero who places his heart above his pride. I was completely satisfied with the story and I’m looking forward to the next book! ***I was gifted an eBook copy from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. All conclusions reached are my own***
Do you ever outlive the sins of your youth? Kimberly Lang’s new book asks that very question. Teenage hellion Helena Wheeler returns home to take care of her ailing grandmother. Since leaving town twelve years ago, Helena has grown up and is no longer the wild child she once was. However, except for her former classmate, now the mayor, Ryan Tanner, the town doesn’t seem to have forgotten her past. Lang does a great job of bringing the small town of Magnolia Beach to life. Her characterizations are spot on and the story flows smoothly. As they begin to get to know each other and not just their reputations, Ryan and Helena find that leaving the past where it belongs is not always easy, but in the end it is well worth it. This book is for anyone who has moved on from high school and the people we once were into successful adults. I can’t wait for the second installment in this great new series.
Something to Prove by Kimberly Lang is the 1st book in her new Magnolia Beach series. This was a nice sweet romance with a wonderful heroine, who returns home after many years, and tries to live down her wild past that still remains in the minds of the Magnolia Beach residents. Helena Wagner is our heroine, and I really liked her from the start. Having left Magnolia Beach after graduation, Helena returns home after 12 years to help her grandmother, who suffered a major injury. She dreads coming face to face with most of the residents, as she was always the wild girl they never forgot. While her grandmother is in rehab, Helena decides to fix up the house to be safer for her grandmother, when she comes home. Helena asks Ryan Tanner for help with the fixtures, and is shocked to find the former football legend golden boy is now the Mayor of Magnolia Beach. Ryan is our hero, and has always been Mr. Popularity, which has not changed. In their school days, neither of them hung around each other. Ryan stayed clear of the wild Helena, and she hung around a different and equally wild crowd. Helena’s grandmother has always been well liked in town, and everyone looks out for her, and Ryan accepts the job to make changes in the house. Ryan, as he spends more time with Helena, begins to see a different side of her, that slowly changes his opinion of the girl he avoided during their teenage years. Helena finds herself coming face to face with many townsfolk, and senses their continued dislike of her. But she holds her head high, and goes about doing everything she can to help her grandmother. Her friend Tate, who was her co-conspirator during those crazy days, is now the town Vet, and his past shenanigans were forgiven. He tries to get Helena to go out with him, which she does as a friend. She isn’t interested in anything more, as she plans to leave when her grandmother is better. But that is not all. She finds herself attracted to one person who can never be right for her, Ryan. Helena knows the town and his family would never allow him to become involved with her. Even some members of his family go to extremes to make sure this does not happen. What follows is a heartwarming story that shows Helena proving herself to many of the residents, especially with all the hard work she does when her grandmother comes home. She forces herself to ask for help, and in doing so, opens the eyes of others to her being a different girl. It was really nice to see some of those that hated Helena and how they treated her when she came back, to slowly change their opinions. Ryan sees the real Helena, and knows that the wild girl in the past was a façade to hide her own sorry life. He begins to fall hard for her, despite everyone trying to stop it. Helena herself does not want to ruin his career, since she feels the sins of the past will always come back to haunt them. Will Helena forgo her feelings for Ryan and leave town? Will Ryan allow the town’s hatred of the girl he is falling for effect his relationship with Helena? Something to Prove is a wonderful romance, with a storyline that had our interest from start to finish. Kimberly Lang has written a wonderful story that pulls on your emotions and never let’s go until the end. I look forward to reading the next book in this series, and suggest you read Something to Prove.
This was a lovely read from an author I enjoy. I fell in love with Ryan, an all around good guy, which may seem boring, but he really wasn't. Helena's journey when she returns to her small hometown where she was the bad girl to beat all bad girls and known as Hell on Wheels, was an enthralling one. She's straightened up her life, made something of herself and now has to face her demons, real and imaginary, from the past. Another great one from Kimberley Lang! I was given a free copy in exchange for an honest review, which was no hardship at all!