Leaving Shadow Creek nine years ago was the hardest thing Molly Mayberry’s ever had to do…except maybe returning. She’s never regretted her choice, but a chance of a lifetime position at the local hospital means going home and facing her past, including her shrew of an estranged mother and the fiancé she ran out on. Ben Matthews is still the sexy, sweet man she left behind…and apparently still her fiancé.
Ben has been doggedly pursuing the position of fire chief since he was a teenager. There’s just one problem—he has to show his boss he’s ready to settle down. No matter how silly the condition, Ben will make it happen. And apparently so will his brother when he opens his mouth and decides to tell everyone Ben and Molly are engaged. Now the one woman he never stopped loving is living with him in a fake relationship, driving him crazy. Pretending only reminds him how right they were once, but if Ben gives in to the heat building between them, heartache is sure to follow.
Each book in the Shadow Creek, Montana series is STANDALONE:
* Christmas with the Sheriff
* The Baby Bombshell
* The Doctor's Redemption
* Baby on the Bad Boy’s Doorstep
* The Firefighter's Pretend Fiance
* A Christmas Miracle for the Doctor
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Nine Years Later
Molly Mayberry didn't really believe in happily ever after. What almost-thirty-year-old did?
She had grown up, was an adult, a successful pediatrician with no desire to ever get married or have a family of her own. Molly had found out how cruel life could be, how easily innocence could be ripped from a person. She knew this firsthand, and she knew this as a pediatrician who sometimes had to deliver shattering news to a parent. There was nothing that could prepare a person for sudden events or devastating medical news, which was why she had learned not to get attached to people. When you grew too attached to people you had the power to destroy them, and they could do the same to you. It was also why she'd stayed away from her hometown of Shadow Creek for nine years. She had hurt too many people there.
But now she was back to fill a one-year contract position at the new pediatric health center at their regional hospital. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. The new medical center was a state of the art, forty-million-dollar pediatric center that had attracted some of the best pediatric surgeons, oncologists, and specialists. It was desperately needed and would save thousands of children having to leave the state for specialized health care. When she was offered the position, she couldn't have turned it down. She could handle one year in Shadow Creek before embarking on a new chapter in her life and joining Doctors Without Borders in Mexico. Coming back had never been part of her life plan but excelling at her career was. She didn't like staying in one place too long anymore.
Her plan was not to socialize with anyone from her past. They weren't just ghosts that haunted her in her dreams; here they were alive, and they could judge and condemn her. It was impossible to hide in a town like Shadow Creek. So far, because of her crazy work hours, she'd managed to avoid most people on her top-ten list for the last month.
No one in small towns ever forgot, and small towns never changed. Well, some things changed, she thought as she stared up at The Chocolatiers shop sign that promised chocolate and coffee.
Molly peaked through the glass door, making sure her mother wasn't inside. Then she did a second scan to make sure the man she'd been almost engaged to — the one she'd broken up with abruptly — wasn't in there. It had been callous, but it had been her only choice at the time. He'd never understand; no one would.
It occurred to her she might not even know what Ben looked like now. Well, she could guess. He was probably gorgeous. And married. For sure married. Running into him and his wife would be a disaster for her because she'd never gotten over him. She would think of Ben without wanting to. Sometimes she'd see a young family and there would be something about the man that would remind her of him. He'd hold out a chair for his wife, or take her hand while she was speaking, or he'd be pushing a stroller and jogging; that's what Ben would have done. When she felt guilty, she'd wish that he'd gotten over her really quickly and found a lovely woman and had started a family. When it was really late at night and she was exhausted from work and lying in her bed, alone, she'd imagine herself with Ben. She'd imagine their house, their kids, she'd imagine him laughing and kissing her. Sometimes that was the only way she'd fall asleep. She'd imagine that nothing horrible had ever happened to her, that happily ever after had been in the cards for her. It was hard to picture that version of herself, the girl who actually wanted marriage and kids. But it was right for Ben; he would have made a great father and husband.
The door to the shop opened, and an elderly man held it for her. She smiled, the gesture forcing her back to reality. Stop thinking about Ben. Those days were long gone. They were barely adults back then. He probably hadn't given her a second thought.
The sweet aroma of chocolate and coffee doused her senses as she stepped into the charming shop. It was already bustling despite the early morning hour. She took her place in line and continued to admire the decor and the enticing display of handmade truffles, bags of locally roasted coffee, and baked goods.
"Oh my gosh, is that you? Molly, right?" a pretty and very pregnant brunette woman said from behind the counter when it was her turn.
Molly sucked in a breath and then smiled. "Gwen Bailey! How are you?" She and Gwen had grown up together despite a slight age difference. She also knew Gwen was now married to one of her new colleagues, Dr. Luke Thomson, at the hospital.
"Great. Really great, but crazy busy," she said with a laugh. "It's so good to see you. Luke told me you were back in town."
Molly smiled at her. "I am, I am. I'm happy to be here," she said, lying like a pro.
"The new pediatrics center is gorgeous and such a blessing for the community," Gwen said.
She nodded. As a pediatrician, it was a dream come true to work at the new facility. Being offered the position as head of the department was her crowning career achievement, especially at her age. She'd only had to sacrifice her adolescence ... her dreams and entire adulthood to reach it. But she loved her career. She loved the babies, the children. "I'm really blessed to be working there. They have state-of-the-art operating and delivery rooms, and the staff have been so welcoming. Especially Luke. He's made me feel right at home. And he talks about you and the baby nonstop," she said with a smile.
Gwen laughed. "He's becoming slightly unbearable, but I can't complain. He's already said you're the best around, and when this little baby decides to make her appearance, you're the only one he's trusting as our pediatrician."
Molly smiled. "Well, I'd be honored."
"He mentioned you're also working at the new women's shelter."
Molly nodded again. She didn't like getting into that too much. People thought of it as a big deal that she was visiting mothers and children who didn't have insurance. She saw it as her duty. On some level, she thought that maybe it was therapeutic. Maybe even a penance of sorts, but she didn't let herself dwell on that, because it had the potential to derail the life she'd put together for herself. "It's not a big deal. I'm happy to help ... I hate to cut this short, but I know you have a big lineup, and I need to get to the hospital. Could I get the largest coffee you have and maybe one of those chocolate croissants I see your husband eating all the time?"
Gwen started pouring coffee. "Coming right up! He can eat and eat and never gain a pound," she said over her shoulder.
"It's a guy thing. Totally unfair," Molly said, tapping her fingers on the gleaming white marble counter.
"I know," Gwen said with a sigh, placing a white paper bag and white takeout coffee cup on the counter.
Molly handed her the correct change and picked up her cup, aware of the long line. "Sorry to have chatted your ear off!" she said, backing up.
Gwen waved a hand as she helped the next customer. "No way. Great seeing you, Molly. Welcome home."
"Thanks. Take care of yourself. I'll see you soon," Molly said, walking away. She added cream to her coffee at the far end of the marble counter, contemplating the welcome home. Home. She hadn't thought of Shadow Creek as home in over a decade, and she wasn't exactly sure how she felt about making it her home again. Nine years ago, everything had changed for her, including her relationship with her family. Being in Shadow Creek meant running into her mother often. Her sisters were long gone as well, and she missed them. It was for the best though; she'd hurt them.
She snapped the lid on her coffee, deep in the black hole of family problems, and didn't even notice her mother standing in front of her. Molly inhaled sharply as she almost bumped into her. Her mother stood there, looking as though she hadn't aged a bit, but even worse, she looked as though she hadn't softened, either. There wasn't an ounce of emotion in her overly made-up face. "Hello, Molly. I would have thought you would have had the courtesy to at least call me and let me know you were back in town."
Molly wrapped her hands around her coffee cup and tried to keep her temper in check. "Hello, Mother. I've been busy. I believe you stopped keeping tabs on me a long time ago."
Her mother's eyes flashed. "I heard you were offered the prestigious position as head of pediatrics. You must be pleased with yourself. You are the youngest doctor to have ever achieved that at the hospital."
Molly stiffened as her mother spoke. Even though it was a small town and news traveled fast, her mother knew a few too many details for her own comfort. Of course, it was always about prestige with her mother. Some things never changed. "I'm happy and honored," she said, stepping to the side of the now- crowded bakery. She wanted out of here. It felt too loud, too noisy, too hot for her liking. "I need to get to work now."
Her mother reached out to grasp her arm and Molly paused. "Molly, things don't have to be this way. It pains me that you've distanced yourself from me."
Molly looked away from her mother's sharp stare. She gently withdrew her arm from her mother's grasp. "I don't need to be guilted. You know why I don't call or come home. Stop pretending nothing happened. What happened will never magically go away, as much as I'd love that. It just won't. I'm here for work and nothing else."
Her mother pursed her lips, and Molly ignored the stab of guilt she felt. She didn't need this. It was too early in the day for family drama. This was why she'd hesitated for a long time before accepting the position. Her mother always manipulated everyone to get what she wanted. Nine years ago was the last time she'd allowed her to do so. "Well, I can see you are still my most stubborn child. Thankfully, your sisters don't feel the same as you. They are coming home for Christmas as they always do. Now that you live here, I expect you will be joining us."
Her cheeks were burning. Christmas wasn't even on her radar; it was months away. Somehow, her mother always found a way to get what she wanted. Even though she wasn't close with Melody and Addie anymore, she knew she couldn't avoid them if they were in town, but it didn't make things easier for her. She'd treated a lot of people very poorly in order to protect them. "Fine. See you in three months," she said, walking away, trying to weave through the crowd before she ran into someone else she knew.
"Wait, Molly," her mother called after her.
She paused and turned around, not wanting to cause a scene, and waited for whatever else it was her mother needed to say.
"Do you need help finding a house? I just signed a gorgeous listing with a view of the mountains. It's a newly built home, very large, with all the bells and whistles."
She tried to keep her snarky comments to herself, even though she was tempted to say something. Her mother, in addition to being mayor of Shadow Creek, was also a realtor. Her priorities had always been work, money, and letting the town know she had plenty of both. "I don't need large, and I don't need bells and whistles. I'm not sure I'm buying anything, because I'm leaving in a year and won't be staying here permanently."
"Well, still. Buy now and even if you have to sell, I'm sure you'll clear a tidy profit."
"I'm staying at the inn because it's easy and comfortable. If and when I look for a home, I'll call Julia Donovan."
Her mother's perfectly manicured and bejewelled hand flew to her chest. "You'd go with Julia Donovan over me?"
Molly resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I was friends with Julia in high school."
"I'm your mother."
"We both know you failed me when I needed you most," Molly said, backing up a step. She needed to leave. She had way too busy of a day to have her mother and their gruesome history railroad it.
"You have a selective memory. When the going got tough you called me first."
Molly shut her eyes. When the going got tough. What a callous way of putting what had happened to her. "Goodbye, Mother."
"Well, just to warn you, because I really do care about you, Ben Matthews is still in town. He's worked his way up to captain."
Molly wasn't surprised. That had always been his dream. "So?"
Her mother rolled her eyes. "Stay away from him so you don't make a fool of yourself. He's never forgiven you, and he's given me the cold shoulder ever since. I'm trying to spare you the humiliation of having him snub you."
She didn't know what her mother's angle was but looking out for her was not it. She didn't care enough to find out or to get involved in one of her plans. "Goodbye, Mother." This time her mother didn't call after her.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she opened the door and drew in a deep gulp of crisp, fall air as she stepped out onto the sidewalk. Luckily, she didn't even have time to dwell in the anger and hurt because her phone indicated she had a voicemail. She marched down the sidewalk, her phone in one hand and her coffee in the other as she glanced down at her screen to retrieve the message. Then she proceeded to walk into a wall.
The wall had a voice, a deep, very familiar voice. The voice was cursing. "Hell, I heard you were back in town."
Anxiety gripped her and she dropped her cup of coffee on the sidewalk. She didn't want to see him. She didn't want to talk to him. It was too much too soon — first her mother then Ben. She refused to think about the first time she'd spilled coffee on him, because this time things were different. Now he hated her. Back then he'd laughed and flirted, and it had been the beginning of the most amazing time in her life. Now she was filled with shame for the way she'd treated him.
She wasn't prepared to see him. She knelt down to pick up her cup, trying to get her emotions under control, and then stood, looking way up, past the well- worn jeans that hugged his athletic form, the coffee-stained T-shirt with the SCFD logo on the front that clung to a wide and solid chest, to the face that was even more devastating than in her dreams. She put on her professional serene doctor face and forced a smile, despite the churning in her stomach. "I'm so sorry, Ben. There must have been an uneven piece of sidewalk. Uh, nice to see you."
His jaw was tight, his eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses. "Sure."
She ignored the snub and blurted out the sentiment she should have said in a card or email when she'd heard about his dad passing a few years back. She clutched the shoulder strap on her Kate Spade purse, her sweating hands a pathetic testament to his effect on her still. "I'm sorry about your father ... I would have called but ... "
His jaw clenched and unclenched a few times, and she didn't know if he was going to answer. He pulled off his glasses and she felt so tiny, so insignificant, when his opinion of her shone in his eyes, louder and clearer than any words could ever vocalize.
Ben had the perfect family. He'd been raised by good people, and he and his brother had always been inseparable. They had followed in their father's footsteps and had both become firefighters. She'd heard about his father dying in a building while trying to rescue a child. The child had survived, but he hadn't.
Molly adored his mother and had spent many summer afternoons chatting with her on their front porch, sipping iced tea while waiting for Ben to come back from work. That had been the best summer of her life. She'd fallen in love for the first and only time, and her future had looked idyllic. She looked away from Ben's gaze for a moment. She hated thinking of what their opinion of her must be now.
"How are your mother and Finn?" she asked.
His dark eyes clouded over. "My mother is sick."
Her heart sank. "Oh, Ben, I'm sorry to hear that. Will she be okay?"
He gave a shrug. "We're not sure."
She didn't feel right asking for details. She'd love to visit Marjorie and be supportive, but she didn't think she'd be welcome after the way she'd treated her son. "Please let her know that if she needs anything ..."
He looked like he wanted to make a smart comment, but he just gave her a terse nod.
"I should probably get going. I have a full day ahead," she said.
"Wouldn't want to keep you from your priorities," he said, the bite in his voice hurting as much as predicted.
She forced a smile, determined to keep up the image she'd given him nine years ago. "Thank you. Nice to see you."
She walked away from him on legs that felt like they weren't strong enough to carry her away from him again.
* * *
Ben watched the woman who had once been the most important person in his life walk away from him. He had heard Molly was back in town, but today was the first time he'd actually seen her.
Molly was more beautiful than he remembered. Her blonde hair had been pulled back into a sleek ponytail and her dark skinny jeans and navy sweater had clung to her slender body. Her eyes had been the same Montana sky-blue eyes that held so many secrets. But he didn't need to find out what they were. He knew enough to stay the hell away from Molly. She'd made a fool of him; she'd broken his heart, and even though it was a lifetime ago, he'd never had a connection with a woman like he'd had with her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Firefighter's Pretend Fiancee"
Copyright © 2018 Victoria James.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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