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Sweet Valley River #1

Finding My Heart


by Brenda Ashworth Barry

Finding My Heart by Brenda Ashworth Barry After receiving devastating news regarding her health, Starla Holloway leaves town, taking a road simply marked with an old, handmade sign that says Highway to Heaven. Finding herself lost with a broken down car, she feels it’s really the Highway to Hell, until a handsome man on a Harley shows up and lends her a helping hand.

Stranded in Secret Valley River, a town so small it’s not even on the map, Starla soon realizes that things are not always as they seem. Secrets, beauty, and light live in Secret Valley River, and she learns quickly that where there is light—there can also be shadows of darkness.



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Release Date: August 28, 2018
Genre: Contemporary | Series

~ Pink Satin Romance ~


Excerpt

Some days were just meant to be rotten and today was one of them. Starla sat in her Honda Fit, on the side of some godforsaken road outside Bardstown, Kentucky, watching the steam fly from her vehicle. What in tarnation had she been thinking, taking a road she didn’t know, just because a wooden sign said Highway to Heaven? Now, she was up shit creek without a paddle. One would think the light on her dash turning orange would have given her a clue. Most people had knowledge of such basic information. She could blame it on being upset after meeting with the doctor, but that would be a lie.

It had taken eight days to find out the lab results. So, the whole week had stunk to high heaven.

As far as car issues, this sure as heck wasn’t her first rodeo with being stranded. She was always forgetting to check things. How often had she ran out of gas and had to call someone for help? Too often to count.

Glancing in the mirror left no doubt—her brown eyes were filled with pure foolishness.

Maybe it wasn’t a brilliant idea to leave on the first of May, it was always busy, but the walls had been closing in on her. The memory of Dr. Langley’s words, yesterday, kept smoldering in her brain, no matter how often she tried to push it away. Her thoughts wouldn’t turn off.

This was supposed to be a vacation. A time to put all worries away and try to relax, but that was something else she wasn’t any good at.

After she left the doctor and went to work, she flew off the handle at two of her employees. That was the minute she knew it was time to take a break. However, being at home only made her feel worse. Since it was Friday, she packed up her bag and left for Bardstown, it was one of the most beautiful cities in Kentucky. All of America, for that matter.

No map, no plan, just the grand idea of an adventure and vacation. She picked up her cell, dialed information, and got them to connect her to the nearest towing company. The connection sucked, but all that mattered was getting someone out on this road to help her. It hadn’t been on the map she had studied before she left. And of course, she hadn’t brought it with her, so she hoped and prayed someone knew where it was. The phone pinged with the number from the operator. It was hard to hear, but at least she got the text. Why didn’t they put the name too, instead of just the number? She looked down at her phone and dialed.

“Hello...” Static-static. “...Ed’s Company.”

“I’ve broken down and was wondering if you could tow me into town?”

“Where are...?” Static-buzz. Just like with the operator, she couldn’t hear much.

“I saw a sign before I broke down that said Valley Freeway, but there was this other sign that said Highway to Heaven.” She heard more crackling. “Hello?”

Static. “I’ll be right there.”

Then, there was nothing. No sound and no connection. What kind of town was he coming from and why was the connection so bad?

“Heavens to Betsy.” This was a pain in the… she had to wait and hope he showed up soon. She scolded herself mentally and continued complaining.

Why in God’s name would she leave Interstate-64 in the first place, then take a road she’d never been on? Which now seemed like a highway to hell, not heaven. Wasn’t there a song about that? She tried to remember the words.

She stepped out of the car and the air fanned its way around her. At least the temperature was nice, she mused, scanning the horizon. The place presented beautiful pink trees with lush greenery and a gentle breeze. A large bird of some type caught her attention as it squawked and landed on an evergreen. Dear Lord, it was staring right at her. She shuddered—it was a little bit creepy, the way it stared at her.

She slipped back inside her car. What was going on in her life? Why was everything going wrong? Had she brought this on herself? A tear trailed down her cheek, but she brushed it away. No way was she going to sit here and have a pity party.

Glancing down at her watch, she sighed, it had been fifteen minutes. Just great. She tapped her steering wheel. “Where the hell is the guy?”

* * *

Connor opened the folder on his desk and wondered how they’d fallen two weeks behind. His stomach took a dive thinking about his clients being jammed in that small trailer for an additional two weeks. The Owens were not thrilled, to put it mildly. Nobody could blame them. Being stuck with three children in such a tight space had to be tough.

Wait—he knew one thing he could offer. Nobody was in the office on the weekends. He glanced around at the beige walls and Berber carpet. The waiting room had two couches and a TV. The kitchen was small, but it had everything they’d need.

Better yet—why couldn’t he just move the paperwork into his home office, so they could stay here? After all, his house was right next door and he had remote forward on his phone. There wasn’t a bed, but there was a bathroom with a shower and commode. Plus, he had two air mattresses, or they could use their trailer as their bedroom. He had plenty of outside plugs. The little backyard was fenced and would give their dog a chance to play outdoors. He’d stop by and talk to them today.

Whelan Construction had a reputation to maintain. In a small town like Secret Valley River, where the population was less than twenty thousand, word of mistakes seemed to travel fast. Although, nobody was ever mean about it, he still wanted to do great work and in a timely matter. Most important was to keep his customers happy.

They’d push extra hard to get done, and he’d throw in some extra upgrades. Like carpeting and the refrigerator, they wanted. He could use some of his own money and surprise them. With a deep, lingering breath, he pushed the stress out of his mind. It was early, and he needed to relax and chill. Even though that was easier said than done. At least he’d planned on a small ride today. He needed to feel the wind against his face and enjoy all the nature around him.

Truth be told, age thirty-six was telling on him. He was plum tuckered out from working his ass off at the gym at o-dark-thirty, this morning. The day before, he’d been out in the field, helping his crew. Tommy hadn’t been feeling well this last week, and that was one reason he was behind. Although, Connor suspected the guy had been burning the candle at both ends with his new girlfriend.

Damn. Connor felt his muscles tighten. He got up, stretched his arms over his head, and moved his shoulders. That was when his stomach reminded him that he’d skipped breakfast. It rumbled and practically shook the entire office. It was past time and he was starving for a good home-cooked meal. He had a great idea. He’d head out to Logan’s Grill and order some of those biscuits and gravy with bacon and eggs. Hell, he’d just order the biggest meal on the menu. Just thinking about it made his mouth water.

He pulled his jacket off the hanger and slipped it on, then grabbed his helmet. It was a nice day, but in May, the breeze could get a little chilly, especially before noon.

The minute he stepped outside, he saw Megan heading in his direction. By the look on her face, she wasn’t happy.

“Uncle Connor.” She ran and threw herself in his arms. “Can you talk to my daddy, please?” She burst into tears. “I got asked out to the prom by Eli, but Daddy said I can’t go. I’m fifteen, and all my friends are going with boys. I’m going to be the laughing stock of the entire town.”

He stuffed back a laugh. “I’m sorry, sweet pea, but you know none of your friends would do that. That’s not how the people around here act.” One thing he loved most about Secret Valley River was that they had zero tolerance for bullying.

“I’m not sure if I can change your daddy’s mind, but I reckon I could try. Why aren’t you in school?” He brushed the blonde curls out of her face and watched more tears fill her pale blue eyes.

“Teachers’ day or some nonsense like that. It’s just an excuse for them to get the day off.”

“Is there something about this Eli boy that your daddy doesn’t like?”

“No,” she said. “Eli is wonderful. He makes good grades and runs track.” She sniffed. “Oh, Uncle Connor, Daddy says I’m too young to go to a dance with any boy. That I can only go with my girlfriends.” She swallowed hard. “Please talk to him.”

“All right, I’ll give it my best shot.” He winked and watched a tiny smile appear in the corners of her lips.

Yep, this girl was already a master charmer. Her daddy did not understand how much gray hair he would have by the time she was eighteen. Or maybe he did, and that was why he didn’t want her to start dating.

“Thank you, Uncle Connor. Not only are you the most handsome uncle in the world, but you are also the best uncle ever.”

He touched her nose. “I see.” He laughed. “I’m fixing’ to go over to Logan’s Grill. I’ll call your daddy and see if he’ll join me. How’s that sound?”

“Awesomeness.” She gave him a giant-sized hug and released him, then walked away, but turned around after a few steps. “Thank you again, Uncle Connor.” She met his gaze. “I love you.” She also signed the words, and his heart melted like an ice cream bar in July under the summer sun.

“I love you, too.” He blew her a kiss, put his helmet on, and climbed onto his Harley. She sure reminded him of his baby sister at that age.

“Oh hell, what have I gotten myself into?” He shook off the worry and headed on down the road. It was a gorgeous morning, perfect for a bike ride. After he ate, he would take one.

Once he rounded the corner, he had to pull over and get a glimpse of Secret Lake. He cut the engine and watched a flock of ducks skimming gracefully until they touched down. The lake was flanked by an avenue of cedar trees, casting reflections across the water. The way the wind blew its breath from corner to corner made the ripples glimmer.

Connor observed people paddling their canoes and could hear the laughter. Mr. and Mrs. Pauls had on their hats and gave him a wave. He nodded and watched as they used the oars in perfect harmony.

“Hey, Connor!” someone yelled, so he turned, and saw Gary Cox honking and waving.

He waved back and realized how lucky he was. Not everyone had a connection of friends they’d known since childhood. Growing up here had been great. All the secrets and whispers of unusual happenings had always seemed mysterious.

Local legend was that the water out near the hot springs carried healing powers. One time, he’d hiked out there after dark and seen fireflies. Before he could get a closer look, they had flown up toward the nighttime sky. Truth be told, he hadn’t had much time to think about it.  He’d seen the Indian woman and her wolf but didn’t feel much like a conversation. He’d never gotten to know her, but his parents said she was a wonderful woman and a medicine one at that. The whole thing had sure as hell blown his mind, mainly because lightning bugs weren’t supposed to be around in the winter.

Rumors also said that the waters not only held powers to heal you physically, but also emotionally. He wondered if that would have helped with depression.

Two bees buzzed around his shoulder, he waved them away. “Okay, y’all need to take off and leave my shoulder alone.” And just like that, they were gone.

There was no pushing away the pain of the memories. These last six years, he’d dated a lot of women, if you called what he’d done dating. He had nothing to offer, except a night of fun.

He stared out at the lake and thought about his childhood sweetheart. When he first asked her to be his girl, it was on the banks of this water. She was only sixteen, not much older than Megan was, but at the time, she’d seemed all grown up, at least to him.

Connor had been the quarterback, a total jock, and she had been a drop-dead gorgeous cheerleader who kept her nose in books most days. They were in love and became inseparable. Everyone in town knew they belonged together. And the simple truth was they did. He thought he had his future all mapped out, but sometimes, things don’t work out the way they are mapped.

All the reminders still brought up a fury of emotions, which left a nasty taste in his mouth.

He reined in his thoughts, got off his bike, and pulled the cell phone from his pocket and dialed.

“Hello,” Duncan answered.

“Hey big brother, wondered if you had time to have breakfast with me at Logan’s?”

“I ate hours ago, but I could go for a piece of pie. Everything okay?”

“Yes, brother. I’m out here by the lake, just remembering things. How about we meet there? I’m starving.” He glanced out at the water one more time, and then climbed back on his Harley, still talking to Duncan.

“You sure you’re okay?” his brother asked again.

“I’m good, just wanted to see the lake. So, can you meet me?”

“Sure, sounds good. See you soon,” Duncan said.

Ten minutes later, Connor walked into the restaurant. The aroma of sautéed onions and garlic made his stomach rumble. There was also a hint of maple and cinnamon, which made his mouth water. The place was always busy for breakfast and the sound of clanking plates and light chatter filled the room. Ever since he could remember, Logan’s Grill had never changed its décor, even when it was named Lakeside Grill. It still had the same old knotty pine walls and hardwood floors. The glass case still revealed some of the best desserts in the world. Logan had won many contests with his various pies.

“Hey, Connor. Nice to see you here.”

He turned to see Logan and noticed Earl Rogers, the mayor, sitting at a booth talking to some young woman. He nodded, and Connor gave a short nod back.

“I know; it’s good to be here. I’ve been so doggone busy lately. Running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”

“Well, put your head back on and let’s get you some grub.”

“Duncan is headed this way too. I’d bet my Harley, he’s going to ask for a piece of your sweet pecan pie.” Connor laughed. “He always did love it for breakfast.”

“We can certainly accommodate that.” Logan picked up two menus, leading him to a booth close to the front door. That was perfect because he could see who came in and out.

“Thanks, Logan. This is great.”

“Let me get you and Duncan a good cup of brew. I’ll be right back.”

The buzz in the restaurant increased as the mayor got up and strolled out with the attractive lady. Something was being talked about, but since Connor didn’t keep up with the local gossip, he hadn’t a clue or maybe he did. He’d venture to guess it had something to do with the bleached-blonde woman holding Earl’s arm as they exited. The ink from his divorce paper hadn’t even dried yet, and the people of the town loved his ex-wife Georgia. From the look on some of the faces, he’d have to say they were downright disgusted.

His brother walked in and waved just before he stopped to talk to Logan. Connor had missed the last couple family suppers and knew darn well he’d better make the next one, or his mama would have his hide. She always said, supper is not just for feeding, it’s for nurturing her family.

Looking at his brother left no doubt in Connor’s mind how much they looked alike. Both had sandy-colored hair with steel-blue eyes. Only Duncan was a lazy-bones who never worked out and sat behind a desk instead of performing hard labor. He had always been good with numbers and opened his own accounting firm. He was a CPA and had many local business accounts.

Connor, on the other hand, didn’t like sitting around all day, and took pride in building up his body. His other brothers combined his mama and daddy. None looked like anyone other than themselves and everyone did their own thing.

But his only baby sister was a whole other story. Like their mama, she was tiny with long, blonde hair and deep green eyes. She was a southern belle, full of spice and trouble. Paige was living in Stanford California, going to medical school, and doing some type of residency program. Ten long years, she’d been gone. She didn’t get home often and said it was because of her schedule. Sometimes he thought she had escaped to get away from six big brothers. Looking back, he knew they were all overprotective. Boy, had there been drama growing up. She would get madder than a wet hen and had come after each of them more times than he could count. The funny thing was, she’d always threatened to beat the tar out of all six of them. One time, she’d cut off Hunter’s ponytail when he was asleep. He chuckled, thinking back to that morning and how pissed Hunter got over the whole situation. Now, he was in the marines and kept his hair short anyway.

He still felt bad for the one guy who had tried to date her. Even today, when her old boyfriend, Spencer saw any of them, he went in the other direction. The truth was clear, Spencer had been crazy for his baby sister, but they had made his life hell. Even now, he blamed himself for what happened on prom night. He had never found out the truth, it wasn’t his place. But his baby sister had been hurt and someday he hoped to find out why. His mother had warned all of them, to butt out, and they listened. You just don’t mess with his mama.

Spencer seemed like a good guy, drove a Harley, and held a good job. They’d wave to each other. But, Spencer steered clear.

Duncan arrived and sat down. “Okay, I know why you called me here. Megan confessed she came crying to you. So, don’t waste your breath, little brother, she’s not going out to some dance with a boy. She’s too young.”

“But...”

“No buts. I’m not changing my mind on this one.”


 

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