Her personal and professional life at a crossroads New York lawyer Melanie Holister returns home to small town Iowa for the Holidays, where she crosses paths with her high school crush, Kaeden McGrath. Can Kaeden and his bulldog Spike help Melanie find happiness in the hometown she once couldn’t wait to leave?
Home for the Holidays
Melanie Holister left civilization behind as soon as she got past Des Moines, carefully navigating her rented Dodge Charger on the road as a light dusting of snow fell from the sky. It probably wasn’t the best choice of car for winter in Iowa, but if Melanie had to go back to Mill’s River, she at least wanted do it in style. She still couldn’t believe she was returning to her hometown, twelve years after she’d left it behind for Columbia University and what she was sure would be greener pastures.
On the day she left, Melanie vowed she’d never be back. For twelve years, she’d managed to keep her promise, making sure family holidays were spent either at her place in New York City, or her sister’s house in Minneapolis. The latter was a compromise once their parents complained about the long travel to the Big Apple, and Melanie was happy to make it. She loved her family, and she even liked the city some referred to as the Mini-Apple. It was Mill’s River she couldn’t handle.
Yet here she was, headed home, and worse yet, with her proverbial tail between her legs. No boyfriend, and no job. Okay, that wasn’t technically correct. Melanie remained an employee of the prestigious Simmons Kline law firm, but she was just that. An employee. Not a partner, and no longer on the partnership track. For all the future she had at the firm, she might as well be unemployed.
As for the other, Randy had ended their nearly four-year relationship two days after the partnership vote, when he made it and Melanie didn’t. He needn’t have waited so long. Melanie saw the writing on the wall as soon as she’d learned her fate with the law firm. Randy’s wealthy family was all about status, and it would never do for L. Randolph Wentworth III to be in a relationship with someone who would never be worthy of that status. And if Melanie wasn’t good enough to make partner, she wasn’t good enough for Randy.
Truth be told, professional rejection hurt more than the personal one. Although she’d shared some good times with Randy, lately Melanie had begun to think something was missing. She didn’t feel the passion for him that she wanted to feel for the man she would choose to spend her life with. No, she probably wouldn’t miss Randy all that much. But not making partner at Simmons Kline? That one stung. Melanie had wanted to be a lawyer since her earliest childhood dreams, and being told she wasn’t a good enough one to be partner was a bitter pill to swallow.
Melanie slowed her speed as she exited the two-lane highway onto the county road that would take her to her hometown, and soon it appeared in her line of sight. Mill’s River, Population 1309, but that might have been a generous estimate. The population had been more than twice that when Melanie was a young child, but once the Mill’s River schools closed, consolidating with another nearby town, the population dwindled.
Now, as she drove through town, Melanie observed it to be even more downtrodden than when she’d left. There was a convenience store and gas station on the outskirts, and the bank was still there, though the name had changed. The old diner remained, as well as Hap’s Pub, because every small town had to have at least one bar. And there on the corner of Fifth and Main, at the only stoplight in town, stood McGrath’s Dry Goods, as it had for almost seventy years.
The light turned red, and Melanie stopped, turning her head in the direction of the store. Did the McGraths still own it? She assumed so, considering the name hadn’t changed. The door to the store opened, and a dark-haired young man stepped out, carrying packages for an older man, helping him place them in the back of his vehicle.
Oh my gosh, was that Kaeden? It had to be. Melanie would know him by the way he walked, always purposeful and confident. And darned if he wasn’t just as handsome as before, if not more so. After a second look, Melanie concluded Kaeden was, indeed, even sexier than when they’d graduated high school a dozen years ago. And sadly, he was still stuck in Mill’s River.
A horn beeped behind her and Melanie realized the light had changed. “Wow, are you in a hurry, buddy?” she muttered under her breath. “Bite me.” Sheesh. It was Mill’s River, Iowa, not Manhattan. Where did anyone need to be in such a rush? Couldn’t a girl even check out the view?
She stepped on the gas harder than intended, accelerating through the intersection. Yikes. Hopefully the town’s one cop wasn’t lurking nearby. The last thing Melanie needed was a ticket in her first five minutes back in town.
She turned on Elm, the street where she grew up, and pulled to a stop in front of her childhood home. The siding was new, and the lawn immaculate, which came as no surprise. Melanie’s parents had always taken great pride in their property. As she turned off the engine, the front door opened, and her mother came rushing out.
“Melanie! You made it. How are you?” Her mother gave her a hug. “How was the flight?”
“The flight was fine. Both of them,” she said, answering that question first. “And I’m okay, all things considered.” Her personal and professional life might be in shambles, but whatever. Plenty of people had it worse.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’m sorry we couldn’t pick you up at the airport, but you know how your father is about driving in city traffic.” Her mother rolled her eyes, and Melanie stifled a laugh.
Yeah. That Des Moines traffic is unbelievable. “It’s okay, Mom. I got a rental, and the drive
was fine.” She opened the trunk and heaved her suitcase out.
“How long do you plan on staying? You didn’t say when you called and told us you were coming.”
“No, I didn’t,” Melanie said. “To be honest, I’m not sure. At least through Christmas. Maybe New Years.” If I can stand it here that long. “I’m not in any rush to get back to New York. It’s not like I really have a job anymore.”
“What?” Her mother’s eyes widened. “I know you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, but you didn’t tell me they fired you. Oh, Melly...”
She held up a hand. “It’s okay. I didn’t get fired. I still have an associate position, if I want it.” It just didn’t lead anywhere, and Melanie had all but decided she was done at Simmons Kline. “Anyway, I’m here for a few weeks, at least.”
“That’s good. It’s been way too long.” Her mother lead the way up the front step. “I’m making beef stew for dinner. Lots of potatoes, just the way we like it.”
Melanie smiled. “That sounds great. You and Dad can fill me on everything that’s changed in Mill’s River.”
“That won’t be much,” her mother said with a laugh. “Oh, but Judy Barkley is looking for volunteers to help with town Christmas pageant. I told her you’d call her.”
“Mom, seriously...” Melanie sighed. “Why would you do that? I don’t want to run the Christmas pageant.” She just wanted to rest, lick her wounds from the past week, and figure out what to do next.
“You wouldn’t be running it, Melly. Just helping.” Her mother smiled. “Kaeden McGrath helps out every year, just so you know. And you always did like him a lot.”
Yeah, and he was never much interested in me. “Whatever. I’ll think about it, Mom. No promises, though.” Still, she had to admit that spending time with Kaeden didn’t sound too bad at all.
Kaeden heard the tires peel through the intersection as he helped his customer load his purchases into his truck. “Yikes. What was that?” He glanced up just in time to see a black sports car disappear down the street.
“Somebody’s in a hurry, I’d say.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Kaeden thought he knew every vehicle in Mill’s River, and he didn’t recall seeing one like that before. Probably some college kid thinking it’d be fun to race through a small town. With a little luck, the chief of police would nab him a few blocks down. “Thanks again, Gary.” He closed the car door after loading the last of the bags. “Always appreciate your patronage.”
The old man nodded. “My pleasure, Kaeden. I know things are tough right now, but I grew up here and have shopped at McGrath’s my whole life. That ain’t changing.” He smiled, revealing teeth yellowed from age and tobacco. “Donna always tells me I’m too old to change, anyway.”
Kaeden chuckled. “Maybe so.”
It was almost five o’clock, so Kaeden went back inside the store and locked the register and turned out the lights. He didn’t bother to run the receipts total. There hadn’t been much, anyway. With a Wal-Mart twenty miles away, most people did their shopping there.
Kaeden locked the door behind him and walked the block down to the pub. His high school buddy, Jon Barkley, stood behind the bar, and waved as he walked in.
“Hey, Kaed, how’s it going?”
“It’s going.” He pulled out a stool and sat down. “Glad the day’s over, though.”
Jon laughed. “And mine’s just started.” He selected a glass from underneath the bar. “Your usual?”
Kaeden nodded. His ‘usual’ was an IPA from one of Des Moines’ craft breweries, which, thankfully, Hap’s always had on draft. Kaeden knew that was the result of Jon finally taking over the pub from his old man. “Thanks,” he said, taking a drink from the glass Jon set in front of him. “This hits the spot.” He reached over and grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the counter. “Anything new around here?” If there was gossip in Mill’s River, the patrons at the bar would’ve surely filled Jon in.
“Yeah. You won’t believe who’s back in town.” Jon leaned forward, resting a hand on the bar. “Melanie Holister.”
“What?” Kaeden let out a dry laugh. “You mean hell froze over after all? Little Miss Hoity Toity decided to bless Mill’s River with her presence again?”
“It seems so.” Jon shrugged. “Don’t know the deets, just heard from one of my three o’clock regulars that works with her dad, said she was coming into town this afternoon.” Another customer came in, and Jon served him, before making his way back to where Kaeden sat. “You should look her up.”
Kaeden took a long drag of his beer, enjoying the hoppy goodness. “And why would I want do that?”
“Because Melanie’s hot, and she always seemed to have a thing for you,” Jon said.
Kaeden couldn’t deny it, but that didn’t mean he planned on going down that road. “Hot, yes, but a little too pretentious for my taste. Besides, doesn’t she live in New York now? Some big shot attorney?” He shook his head. “No way. I doubt she’s here for long, anyway.” After all, she couldn’t get away fast enough a dozen years ago.”
“Yeah, probably not.” Jon refilled the bowl of peanuts. “Next subject. Mom wants to know if you’ll help with the Christmas pageant again this year. You’re in, right?”
Kaeden let out a sigh. He didn’t particularly want to get roped into doing the pageant again, but he didn’t know how to say no, either. Maybe that was his problem. He was too damn nice. No wonder he was still single. Girls seemed to like edgier guys these days. Well, that and everyone wanted to leave Mill’s River. Everyone, that is, except Kaeden. “I suppose. I mean, I do it every year, right?”
Jon grinned. “Yep. That’s why Mom knows she can always count on you.”
Yeah, that’s me. Good old reliable Kaeden. He drained his glass and set it on the counter.
“Want another?” Jon asked.
Kaeden shook his head. “No, thanks. I’ve got to swing by my folks’ house, check on my dad, then get home and let Spike out.” He stood and fished his wallet from his back pocket, and tossed a five on the bar. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jon.”
“Yeah, see ya, buddy. Same time, same place.”
Kaeden laughed as he headed to the door. That was the thing about Mill’s River. It never changed. So why the hell had someone who claimed to hate the town come back? Well, it didn’t matter. Kaeden would be busy with the store and the pageant. He’d never have to cross paths with Melanie Holister, and that would suit him fine. He didn’t have time for anyone who thought they were too good for Mill’s River.
Michele Shriver is a National and International best-selling author of women’s fiction and contemporary romance. Her books feature flawed-but-likeable characters in real-life settings. She’s not afraid to break the rules, but never stops believing in happily ever after. Michele counts among her favorite things a good glass of wine, a hockey game, and a sweet and sexy book boyfriend, not necessarily in that order.
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