Becoming Bella

#2 GHOST FALLS

 

Chapter 1

 

Bella cranked the volume on Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols until it carried into her yard. Let all of Ghost Falls hear that Bella Erikson was busting out of her mold and coming out. Not out-out, but out as in letting her freak flag fly. Besides which, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without the Binger.

She wanted—no, invited—her neighbors to peep out their windows to see Bella, the new and improved version, taking charge of her life. Timer and lighting cord—ready. Rechecking the length, she made sure she’d bought the right one. Normally, Dad did this, but Bella had taken control, starting with Christmas, and these suckers were going up with her putting them there.

Ladder propped up against the side of the house, extension cord curled up like a forest-green snake beside it, she got down to item one of her “Spending Christmas Alone” checklist: decorate.

 “You’ve got this.” The ladder loomed above her. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” And heights. Heights made her knees shaky. No, heights used to make her knees shaky. This Christmas Bella laughed at heights. She climbed ladders in stiletto heels if she wanted to. Bing hit the chorus and Bella joined in.

 “Pick a focal point.” She consulted the pamphlet she’d picked up from Lowe’s when she bought her string of warm white Christmas lights. Reading it out loud to the tune of “Silver Bells” made it less daunting.

With a telltale squeak, her neighbor’s door opened, and Liz Gunn stepped onto her matching porch. Bella waved and, this being the holidays, gave her voice a dollop of goodwill to mankind. “Hi, Liz.”

Liz, known as Headlights Gunn throughout Ghost Falls because of her propensity for pointing her surgically enhanced chest at anything with a penis, tugged her cardigan over her painted-on sweater and nodded. “Whatcha doing?”

“Hanging Christmas lights.” While Bella didn’t like the nickname, Liz did always have her perfect double Ds rounded up and pointing.

Liz stepped off the porch onto the dried winter grass of her lawn. “On the house?”

“Yup.” Waving her pamphlet, Bella tried to sound more competent than she felt. “It’s easier than you would think.”

Apparently, you still had to test the lights even if they were new.

“You’re going to hang lights on the outside of your house?” Liz crossed the small strip of driveway separating their lawns.

“Yup!” She tossed Liz a chipper little smile. “It’s Christmas.”

“So I can hear.” Toeing the dark green box of new lights, Liz stopped next to her and stared at her house. “You didn’t hang lights last year.”

“No, I didn’t.” Because last year she had spent most of Christmas, like so many Christmases before, wallowing in the bitter knowledge she would spend another Christmas single and stuck in her rut. This year there would be no more wallowing, no more pining, and definitely no more bemoaning her single state. As for her rut, today she’d hauled herself out and it all started with Christmas lights. “I’m getting into the holiday spirit.”

“Aren’t you spending Christmas with your family?” Liz peered over Bella’s shoulder at the pamphlet. Those breasts stuck straight out and Bella moved her arm out of the way.

“No.” She stomped on the residual all-alone pang and forced another smile. Being alone for Christmas didn’t mean being miserable. “My family went to Florida and I stayed behind to look after the store.”

Liz looked vaguely skeptical. “They left you here.”

“I’m fine with it.” Actually, she was more than fine. Not that she’d admit this to Liz, or anyone, but escaping Nana’s gruesome turkey dinner didn’t hurt in the least. Her plan for Christmas started with these lights and ended in a glorious new epoch in the life of Bella Erikson.

Liz eased the pamphlet out of her hand. “It says here you have to check the lights, even if they’re new.”

“I’m about to do that.” Bella took her pamphlet back.

“You need to plug them in.”

“I know that.” Plug in hand, Bella marched over to the outside power outlet. Three years she and Liz had lived side by side, barely speaking a word to each other after the incident with the tree—which Bella still didn’t quite believe hadn’t been deliberate—and now Liz wanted to chat. Still, it was Christmas, which meant goodwill, peace on earth, and all that. She shoved the plug into the outlet. Her lawn lit up in a magical sprinkling of warm white. Bing provided the soundtrack and she loved it. “Did you need something, Liz?”

Liz bent down and connected another string to the lit string. More warm white sprang to life. “Looks like these are fine, too.” She flicked her Christmas-themed nails at the ladder. “Why don’t you get up there and I’ll connect the lights?”

“Really?” Liz wanted to help? Maybe the magic of Christmas had gotten to Liz too.

“Why not?” Liz shrugged. “I’ve got nothing better to do.”

Bella’s guilt monitor crackled. “You staying here for the holidays?”

“Like I have anywhere to go.” Liz waggled her head and jammed her fist on her teeny-weeny hips. “Are we going to hang these lights or what?”

“We’re going to hang these lights.” Bella put her foot on the first rung. She needed a little mantra reinforcement first. Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will. Gripping the higher rungs with both hands, she climbed. First one rung, then two, and away she went. This really wasn’t that bad, and before she knew it, the gutter came within easy reach. “Hand me those lights.”

“Aye aye, Cap’n.” Liz grinned up at her.

When she smiled like that, and not the coy lip smirk she did whenever a man wandered into view, Liz looked really pretty. An opportunity to bridge the gap with Liz opened and Bella took it. “Maybe when we get done here, we can hang lights over at your place,” she said.

Liz pulled a face. “I don’t do Christmas.”

 “Why not?” Everybody did the holidays in some way or other.

“Doesn’t seem much point.” Liz fed her the string of lights. “With just me on my own.”

Bella clipped until she ran out of reach, then came down the ladder again. She’d never thought of Liz as lonely. With her flashy clothes and brassy attitude, Liz didn’t strike her as the sort to have vulnerabilities. But then, everybody had a soft underbelly somewhere. Even if they kept it buried beneath a titanium exterior. “I’m on my own.”

“It says here you need to make sure they’re all either pointing up or down.” Liz squinted at the gutters.

“Are they?”

“Yup. Pointing down.”

“Okay, then.” Bella moved the ladder across. “Let’s keep at it.”

Talk about weird. Her and Liz hanging Christmas lights like they didn’t spend most days giving each other tight-lipped how-are-yous from safe sides of their yards.

They fell into a rhythm that took them all along one side of the house and into the front. When they reached the porch, the focal point, Bella stepped back and eyed the sloping gutter line. “We need to do something different here.”

“Like what?” Liz stood shoulder to shoulder with her.

“A focal point.”

“Huh..”

“We could wrap the lights around the poles holding the roof up.”

Liz scrunched up her face. “Nah! They’re too skinny. A wreath would be nice.”

“A wreath?”

“Yeah, hanging in the center there. Do you have one?”

A wreath would be great. “No.”

“I do.” Liz nodded. “I’ll run next door and fetch it.”

“I thought you didn’t do Christmas.” Bella raised her voice as Liz dashed across the lawn.

“I don’t.” Liz turned and trotted backward. “But I used to be married and we did Christmas. I got the Christmas decorations. He got a twenty-three-year-old blonde who looks like she should be decorating the top.”

Ouch. She’d known Liz was divorced, but the younger-woman thing must bite.

“And these.” Liz pointed to her chest. “Can you say alimony?”

Bella laughed. Turns out spending time with Liz didn’t suck. See, this was what came of opening yourself up to new experiences.

Liz reappeared with her wreath. “If you wrap lights around it, you can hang it in the center there,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Bella took the wreath. “We could always hang it over at your house.”

“I’m sure.” Liz pursed her lips. “Are we gonna stand here all night or get this shit finished? It’s so cold out here my nipples are gonna break through any second.”

Bella blushed. She couldn’t help it. Nobody in her world spoke about nipples or boobs, or—God spare them—down there. Even in her head the phrase came with Nana’s wide-eyed, furtive glance southward.

Daring to go where she never had before, Bella said, “Mine too.”

Perched on top of the porch overhang, leaning forward to hang the wreath, Bella made the mistake of looking down. The ground rushed up at her, dipped and heaved to the side, taking Bella’s stomach with it.

“What are you doing?” Liz peered up at her.

“Umm...”

“Hang the wreath and then we can get a glass of wine.”

Wine would be lovely. “Err...”

“Bella?”

“I’m stuck.”

“No, you’re not.” Liz moved to right beneath her.

“Am too.”

Liz’s eyes widened. “Are you scared of heights?”

“Yup.”

She crossed her arms. “Then why didn’t you let me go up the ladder?”

Because she hadn’t exactly planned on freezing and sticking to her roof like a demented icicle.

“Edge back.” As if directing traffic Liz waved her hands. “Move away from the edge and you’ll be fine.”

“I can’t.” Was the ground getting closer? Or was she leaning even farther over? A whimper escaped her and she shut her eyes. Dear God, that was worse. She popped them open to find Liz frowning up at her.

A smile suddenly spread over Liz’s face. “You’re really stuck?”

“Yup.”

“As in can’t move?”

“Yup.”

“You know what this means?” With glee, Liz whipped out her phone. “I’m going to have to call the sheriff.”

“Don’t.” It came out in a breathy hiss. The idea of Nate Evans having to rescue her off her roof burned through her. Ghost Falls would have a field day if that happened. She could hear them all now.

“Did you hear Nate Evans rescued Bella Erikson from her roof?”

“What was she doing up there?”

“Waiting for him to rescue her.” Snicker, snicker. “Is that girl ever going to wise up and realize she’ll never catch Nate Evans?”

She had wised up—mostly—and she could do this. All she had to do was edge back the tiniest bit to where she couldn’t see the ground anymore.

“Hi, Sheriff Evans.” Liz purred into her phone. “This is Liz. Liz Gunn.” She growled. “Liz Gunn from Grizzly Drive. I have a problem.”

One, two, three...edge back. Nope. Bella’s hands refused to let go of the roof lip. Years of limiting contact with Nate and now this.

“No, it’s not like that time.” As she spoke, Liz paced beneath her. “Actually, it’s not me. It’s my neighbor.”

From up here, Bella could see the darker roots of Liz’s platinum do. Nowhere in her grand visions of conquering Christmas had she needed a rescue.

Liz nodded. “That’s right, Bella.”

Oone...twooo...and three. Oh God, she was going to fall. She knew it.

“She’s stuck on her roof.”

All she had to do was release the edge of the roof and scooch back. This time, her butt scooched, but her fingers stayed stuck.

“Hanging Christmas lights.” Liz hummed and glanced up at Bella. “Right now, she looks a bit like she’s twerking on her roof.”

Bella lifted her left index finger. Then her middle finger. The index finger snapped back around the ledge. Darn! Bella did not get beaten by a roof. Bella, for certain, did not get caught twerking on her roof by Nate Evans.

“Right you are.” Liz keyed off her phone. “They’re on their way. Do you need anything?”

“A frontal lobotomy.”

Liz grinned at her. “Nate said to keep talking to you.” She stopped right under Bella. “So? How you doing?”

“Not so good.”

“I can see that. Let’s take your mind off the fact that you’re about twenty feet from the ground.”

“Erp.” Twenty feet? Her head went woolly.

“I know.” Liz cocked her head. “Let’s talk about our yummy sheriff.”

“Um...no.”

“Um...yes.” Liz tucked her hands into the pockets of her bright pink cardigan. “Just how long have you been in love with him?”

“I’m not...” Everyone in town knew anyway. “I did have a crush on him. For most of high school.” And a little bit after, but she wasn’t confessing that. “Well…it started in first grade, but it ended when he joined the police academy in Salt Lake.”

“Wow.” Liz winced. “That’s not what they say.”

Oh, Bella knew that, only too well. And Liz had no room to talk, calling Nate out at least twice a week and answering the door in her negligee. “And you?”

“Oh, I’m in lust, not love.” She waved a breezy hand. “I was married, remember. I don’t want anything more to do with love, but lust...” She chuckled like a bordello madam. “Now that I’ve got time for.”

Nipples and down there and sex—definitely sex—weren’t things Bella had been raised to talk about. Ever.

“You all right, Bella?” Mr. Powell from across the road stepped out onto his porch.

Her situation plummeted from bad to hideous as Ghost Falls’s biggest gossip followed her husband onto the porch. Bella was supposed to be launching her new epoch, darn it.

Bella put as much chipper into her voice as she could manage. She did not need the Powells coming over and getting a front-row seat of the action. “I’m fine, Mr. Powell.”

“She’s stuck on the roof,” Liz called out. “We were hanging Christmas lights, but Bella didn’t tell me she was scared of heights.”

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Powell came across the road toward them. “I had a cousin who was afraid of spiders.”

“Vertigo,” announced Mr. Powell as he led the charge. “Irrational fear of heights.”

That was acrophobia, but Bella was too busy having it to argue the point.

“Isn’t that a movie?” Mrs. Powell tucked her hands into her pockets.

“Hitchcock.” Liz scrunched her shoulders up around her ears. “Man, it’s cold. How you doing, Bella? Hang in there.”

Yes, dear.” Mrs. Powell’s face crinkled with concern as she gazed up at Bella. “I’m sure help is on the way.”

“Did you call Sheriff Evans?” Mr. Powell stared up at her.

“Sheriff Evans?” Giggling, Mrs. Powell smirked at her. “Are you sure you’re scared of heights, Bella?”

“Oh, she’s scared all right.” Bless Liz for coming to her rescue.

Mr. Powell took hold of the ladder and gave it a shake. “Just hop on the ladder, Bella. Seems sturdy enough.”

“Mike.” Mrs. Powell stood on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear.

Bella dug her fingers into the roof. She didn’t need to be clairvoyant to guess what was being said. Would Ghost Falls, for the love of everything, just let this go? She was not wasting away for Nate.

“Oh.” Mr. Powell scrutinized her. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, young lady?”

Maybe she should end it now and throw herself off the roof. Then again, they’d only whisper over her coffin how she’d killed herself for unrequited love.

“Sometimes a girl has to take matters into her own hands.” Mrs. Powell tossed her a conspiratorial wink. “It’s not like you have all the time in the world, dear. You can’t keep waiting for that man forever.”

“I’m not—”

“It’s a dreadful waste of taxpayers’ money.” Puffing out his chest, Mr. Powell stalked to the ladder and gave it another good rattle. “Now, buck up, Bella. You can’t call the sheriff out unless it’s a genuine emergency.”

“Really?” Liz examined her fingernails. “It’s one of the perks of living in this town.”

“Disgraceful.” Mr. Powell flushed. “The man is the representative of law and order in this town, not…” He sputtered and huffed for a bit.

“Man candy?” Liz looked smug.

Turning his back on Liz, Mr. Powell harrumphed and put his foot on the ladder. “I’m coming up.”

Dear God, save her that.

“Oh no, Mike, your back.” Mrs. Powell fluttered over to her husband. Small and compact, the top of her head barely reached his armpit.

“Perhaps you’re right.” Mr. Powell made a manful show of regret. “I would hate to risk her by dropping her.”

Mrs. Powell patted her husband on the chest. “That’s so like you, Mike, always thinking of someone else first.”

Liz looked up at her and rolled her eyes.

Bella stifled a giggle and then choked on it as blue and red flashing lights turned into her street.

Oh boy. Nate couldn’t be subtle about this, now could he? He’d delighted in tormenting her since first grade, when he’d dipped her waist-length braid in purple paint .

 

Chapter 2

 

Bella had a perfect view of the siren song to the ovaries that was Nate Evans as he climbed out of his SUV and sauntered across her front lawn. Her little audience parted like the Red Sea for him.

Liz swooned, Mrs. Powell looked wobbly at the knees, and Mr. Powell preened.

She might have gotten over her Nate thing faster if he didn’t look so fine. All. The. Time. Couldn’t he have developed a paunch, or maybe a tiny bald spot? She didn’t ask for much; maybe the wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled could have made him look saggy instead of grabbable.

Nate reached the ladder and looked up at her. Lion eyes, so deep a girl could drown in them. “Hey, Bella.”

 “Hi, Nate.” Her only excuse for the squeak that had taken over her vocal chords was the whole clinging-to-the-roof thing.

“You seem to be in a bit of trouble.” He flashed his rogue grin at her.

Nate owned an arsenal of smiles, smirks, mouth tweaks, and grins. This one got her in the knees every time. So sure of himself, but with a hint of little boy to soften the arrogance.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“Really?” Up went one eyebrow, a dark slash across his tanned face that matched the deep sable of his hair. Who looked tan in the middle of winter? Nate Evans, that’s who.

“She’s not fine.” Liz pranced up next to him. “She’s stuck up there.”

“Oh, now.” Mrs. Powell flanked him. “She must be frozen to death.”

On cue, Bing launched into “White Christmas.”

Nate climbed the ladder in about half the time it had taken her. His face appeared over the gutters. “Should I ask what you’re doing up here?”

“Hanging Christmas lights.”

He frowned, leaned back a bit and surveyed her work. “Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.” It came out a bit growly. She always got this way when Nate appeared in her day. Some kind of leftover reflex from middle school aimed at convincing everyone, him included, she was so over her crush on him. It hadn’t worked yet.

“Why didn’t you ask your dad to help you?” He rested his forearms on the roof.

“My dad is in Florida.” Someday she’d have a conversation with Nate Evans that didn’t feel like nails on a chalkboard. One day when she and Nate could laugh about her and her alleged twentysomething-year crush.

He cocked his head. “They left you alone for Christmas?”

She would die, right here, before she let him feel sorry for her. “It’s fine. I have a plan for the holidays.”

He looked doubtful.

“I do.” She put a decisive nod into it. “It’s going to be fun.”

“All right, then.” He shrugged. “How about we get you off the roof so you can put that plan into action?”

Huh! Funny thing. She’d almost forgotten she sat perched way, way, way off the ground. “I don’t know why Liz called you,” she said. “I can get down on my own.”

“Need any help there, Sheriff?” Mr. Powell stuck out his chest and strutted to the base of the ladder.

“I’m good, Mr. Powell.” Amusement flashed in Nate’s glance her way.

Mr. Powell tucked his thumbs into his belt loops and rocked from heel to toe. “Right you are, then. Just holler if you need me.”

“Actually,” Nate glanced down, “you might want to take Mrs. Powell back to the house. We don’t want to spook Bella.”

“We’ll be very quiet,” Mrs. Powell whispered, not keen to give up her information-gathering opportunity.

“Still.” Nate gave her his reassuring smile, the one that promised to rescue people from burning vats of lava. “Witnesses often increase the victim’s anxiety.”

Great; the victim in this scenario being her.

“Right you are, Sheriff.” Mr. Powell strode over to his wife. “Let’s give the man space to do what he does best.”

“I knew I could rely on you, Mr. Powell. A good man in a crisis,” Nate said.

Nate’s flattery was obnoxiously obvious, but it got the Powells out of her front yard and back into their house.

“Don’t even think about it.” Liz crossed her arms and cocked her hip. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Didn’t you say something about wine?” Bella planned to head straight for a bottle as soon as she got off this roof.

Liz hesitated, then nodded. “Wine is my specialty.”

“We’ll be right down,” Nate said.

Liz shut her front door behind her.

“Don’t see you around much.” Nate turned back to Bella.

He wanted to chat? Now? “I’m stuck on a roof.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” He stroked the side of his cheek. “The thing is, I got a problem here, Bella,” he said in his deep, rumbly voice. “We have a couple of options and I’m not sure which to go with.”

“Options?” She tucked her frozen fingers into her armpits to warm them up.

“I could climb up there and do the fireman lift down.” He eyed the roof and then her. “But I really don’t know how much you weigh and we might fall.”

“I don’t weigh that much,” she said. She shivered as a cold wind stroked the back of her neck.

“No, I can see that.” He smirked. “But the roof could be slippery and I don’t like my chances of hoisting you over my shoulder. Given the terrain.”

Neither did she. “What’s option two?”

“I can call the fire department and ask them to bring a cherry picker and we can pluck you off the roof.”

Nate, cherry, and plucked: three words her teen heart would have died to hear in the same sentence. “That means more people. What else have you got?”

“You could slide over a couple of inches and take my hand.” His large palm stretched over the roof toward her. His face grew serious and his gaze remained steady on hers. “Just a couple of inches, Bella. Then you grab my hand and we climb down together.”

Big, capable, and slightly callused, his hand lay on the shingles.

Bella slid a couple of inches over.

“That’s it, sweetheart. I’m not gonna let you fall. I’m right here.”

Bella kept their eye locked as she managed a few more inches.

He clasped her ankle. “I’ve got you now. A bit farther.”

Up her calf he slid his hand, then to her knee, and, finally, grabbed her hand and held.

His grip fastened about her hand, strong and sure. He kept talking in that soft purr that would have her stretching like a cat if she weren’t so terrified.

“A little closer,” he said.

She stopped in front of him, knees to her chest.

“Now comes the easy part.” Not forcing her to move, he squeezed her hand. “You reach your feet out and I put them on the ladder for you.”

“I’m not sure I can.”

“Sure you can,” he said. “I’m gonna be right here the whole way down to the ground.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” He gave a tiny tug. “Come on, Bella. I’ve seen you take your lunch money back from Skyler Falks, and he was two feet taller than you. You’ve got this.”

“It wasn’t my lunch money.” Bella pushed one leg out.

He gripped her ankle and put her foot on the top rung.

Her ass slid down the roof and she froze.

“No?” He moved his hands to her hips. “Flip onto your belly. What was the money for?”

Bella flattened her chest to the roof. “For my cheerleading uniform.”

“You weren’t a cheerleader.” Guiding her down, his hands cradled her hips.

 “I so was.” She glanced over her shoulder.

He guided her second foot onto the ladder. Her knees shook and she gripped the shingles. The ladder would never hold her.

“No, you weren’t.” His arms pressed into her sides, sandwiching her between them. “Step down with your right foot.”

“I was a cheerleader. You didn’t notice because you were too busy boning Blythe Barrows,” she said as her left foot joined her right.

“Boning?” He snorted right beside her ear. Warm breath tingled over her nape. “That’s a very rude word for you, sweetheart.”

“I know lots of rude words.” Okay, a few, but she didn’t like using them.

“You do?” Heat radiated from his chest at her back. “Let’s take the next step together. I’m right behind you.”

“Just because I don’t say those words doesn’t mean I don’t know them.” To spite him, she took two rungs.

He chuckled, a low, dirty, ovary-tingling sound that made her take another step. “Tell me another one.”

“Nate Evans.” They took another rung and then another together. “I’m not going to turn into a potty mouth so you can sweet talk me off a roof.”

“It’s working, though,” he said. “We’re halfway there.”

“We are?”

“Don’t look down.” He pressed her sides with his arms. “I’ve never heard you swear; it might be fun.”

“Isn’t there a law against swearing at a sheriff?”

“I hope not,” he murmured. “Or half the folks in this town are going to end up in jail.”

“Only the ones you stop for speeding.” Her right foot hit the ground and then her left. Bella’s head spun. “You did it.”

“Nah.” He turned her to face him. “You did it.”

It had been years since she’d been this close to Nate Evans.

Thankfully, he stepped back before she gave in to the insane urge to fling herself against his broad, manly chest and stay there. “Thank you,” she said.

“You are most welcome, sweetheart.” He smiled at her. A nice smile, without any hidden meaning. “And stay off that ladder.”

“What about my lights?” She couldn’t leave the job half-done. She had a Christmas plan on the go, followed by a big life change. Big. Life. Change.

“I’ll hang them after I get off work.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.” She’d fueled the gossip engine enough for one day.

“You didn’t ask.” He turned and strode back to his SUV. “See ya, Bella.”

Wine bottle clutched to her chest, Liz trotted out of her house in time to intercept Nate before he climbed into his car. “Won’t you join us?”

It wasn’t fair. Liz hit on Nate all the time and Ghost Falls hadn’t turned that into their local soap opera.

Nate ducked around Liz. “Thanks, but I can’t.”

As Nate’s SUV cruised down the street, Liz stood next to her and sighed. “He’s so hot.” She hefted her wine bottle. “Let’s have a drink.”

Bella entered her house, Liz on her heels.

Stopping inside the door, Liz looked around her. “This is nice.”

Bella was proud of her home. She’d put it all together herself. Painted the walls throughout in a warm biscuit color and carefully selected each piece of furniture. She liked earth tones around her, with bright splashes of reds and oranges to give it life. Here, at least, she didn’t have to consult Nana about what she chose.

“Thank you.” She led the way into her cheerful kitchen.

“I expected more pink,” Liz said as she took the bottle opener from Bella.

“Yeah.” Bella pulled a face. “The colors in my store are not my choice.”

She couldn’t remember seeing Liz in her clothing store more than once. Pity, because now that she really looked at Liz, she would love to add a touch of elegance to her.

Liz shrugged out of her coat and draped it over the table.

Yup, all that skintight could do with a little toning down. Liz’s jeans looked like she’d spray-painted them on this morning. Across her breasts, emblazoned in sparkles, scrolled “Flirt.”

“So.” Bella handed her the wineglasses, not sure what to say now that they stood in her kitchen. Hard to believe this was the first time they’d voluntarily spent time in the same room. “That was humiliating.”

Liz snorted and poured the wine. “Please, that was nothing. Although Mr. Powell could have done the entire thing on his own.”

Bella snorted a laugh. She risked letting her bitch show. “He’s a giver. Except for his bad back.”

“Except for that.” Liz seated herself at the kitchen table. “It’s funny how his back never stops him from standing on a ladder pretending to trim his hedges so he can look in my bathroom.”

“Eww.” With a shudder, Bella joined her at the table. “He does that?”

“All the time.” Liz sipped her wine. “It’s about the only action I get these days.”

That made two of them. Bella took the seat opposite Liz. “Maybe he didn’t mean to see into your bathroom.”

“Honey,” Liz rolled her eyes, “nobody’s hedges need trimming that much.”

All she’d really seen of Liz in the past was the mass of platinum hair and too much makeup. It tended to obscure the inherent sweetness of her face. In her youth, Liz must have been one of those girl-next-door types. “Well, so much for Christmas lights.”

“Why were you so determined to hang lights?”

Not wanting Liz getting all judgy with her, Bella hesitated over her answer. “It’s part of my Christmas plan.”

“You have a Christmas plan?” Liz chuckled.

“It’s not my plan.” It came out sounding very defensive. “It’s this thing I found on the internet about what to do if you’re alone at Christmas.”

“Really?” Liz looked genuinely interested, not wearing that what-the-hell expression.

“Yeah.” Bella went over to her fridge and took her list from under her If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door fridge magnet. She put the list in front of Liz. “See, it’s a list of ten things to do if you’re alone over Christmas. Number one is decorate. So, I was decorating.”

“You did the inside already.” Liz took a long, slow look around her. “It looks nice. Very festive.”

“Number two is volunteering.” Bella read over her shoulder. “I’m not sure where yet, but there have to be plenty of places that need volunteers.”

“Number three says to go out and do things you wouldn’t normally do.” Liz tapped her red and green nail on the article. “We could do that.”

“Together?” Bella wasn’t sure she and Liz liked the same things. Hanging lights and sharing a glass of wine in her kitchen seemed a long way from actually hitting the town together. “Like where?”

Liz shrugged. “I dunno, but I tell you what: You find somewhere for us to volunteer and I’ll take care of number three.”

Talk about bungeeing right outside your comfort zone. “Okay.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Two pints of chocolate ice cream, her download of Dr. Childers’s Guide to a More Authentic You, and her laptop, and Bella was ready for the next phase in her plan. Things had gotten off to a rocky start, what with the need for a rescue and all, but that didn’t mean she had to quit.

Patti from Nebraska poured her story out over the speakers on Bella’s laptop.

“I looked at my life, I looked at my three kids and my empty bank account, and I thought it couldn’t get any worse.” Bella agreed wholeheartedly. “Then I heard about Dr. Childers and at first I didn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. How could I own the pain caused by my cheating, lying dirtbag of a husband?”

Understandable. The man had walked away without a thought for his family.

“That ain’t right, I thought,” Patti said. “He left me and his children and a pile of debts higher than the roof of our mortgaged home. But I guess when a body’s gone about as low as they can go, there’s only one way and that’s up.” Patti’s shrill chuckle filled Bella’s dining room. “I took my pain and I hugged it tight to me, and I said this is my pain, my hurt. I own this.”

Ping went the light-bulb sound they played every time someone reached that point in their story.

“Own your life.” Dr. Childers’s raspy voice washed over Bella. “Say it with me. This is my life. Nobody has the power to steer my destiny but me.”

“This is my life,” Bella said. “Nobody has the power to steer my destiny but me.”

Except maybe for Nana and her constant interfering in the store. Well, Nana was sweating through endless mah-jongg games in Florida, and by the time she got back, there would be nothing she could do about it. Even the thought made Bella a little breathless.

Bella opened her web browser and found her site. Her brand-new, beautiful site where she planned to yank Bella’s Boutique into the age of online shopping. She’d dropped boutique from the name, and it felt right. More like hers, despite the fact that it had been named after Nana, the original Bella. Of course, if life had gone the way it should have, it would be the twins, Bella and Gina, working side by side in the store. Bella liked to believe Gina would have wanted to freshen and update as well.

Regardless, tonight she took her baby online.

Wheeler Barrows had designed the site for her and saved her a ton doing it. Unlike the rest of his family, Wheeler had determination and ambition.

Bella traced the large white orchid on the right top corner of her screen. Simple, elegant, and tasteful, and so right for where she wanted to take her store—out of the eighties and straight into the now.

Patti’s story murmured on in the background, but she’d heard most of it before, so Bella tuned it out.

Her finger poised above the Enter key, mouse arrow hovering over the Publish icon.

Click.

The room spun, then righted itself. The earth didn’t open under her feet and a lightning bolt straight from Nana didn’t strike.

She’d done it.

The empty kitchen nearly popped her bubble of excitement. No, she couldn’t allow that. Tonight, she’d taken a huge step forward and she should celebrate hitting what Dr. Childers called a keystone moment.

Light shone from Liz’s kitchen window. She could go over and invite Liz to share her triumph, but their acquaintanceship felt too new for that. Her good mood hovered on the edge of an anticlimax. What would Dr. Childers do? She would open her own bottle of wine and toast her own success.

The doorbell rang as she pulled the bottle of wine out of the fridge.

Maybe Liz had decided to come over and say hi.

Levering herself onto her toes, Bella spied through the clear glass diamond in the center of her front door. Her heart thudded and she jerked back. Nate Evans stood on her doorstep.

“Hey, Bella,” he called. “You gonna let me in?”

God, how her sixteen-year-old self would have died to hear that. She checked her smile in the entranceway mirror. She managed friendly, welcoming, and not idiotic before she opened the door. “Hey, Nate.”

He stepped back and jerked his head upward. “Just wanted to tell you I’m going to finish hanging your lights.”

“Oh.” One summer she’d spent most of it imagining Nate arriving on her doorstep, laden with gifts. Sometimes he brought flowers, other times chocolate or a book she liked, and on one doozy of a fantasy day, he’d brought a puppy. The words were always the same, though: Hey, Bella. I’ve just realized that you really are the love of my life and rushed right over to tell you. She couldn’t totally blame the town for the legend when she’d done her fair share to build it. But that was over, starting tonight. “You don’t have to do that,” she said to the real Nate, standing at her front door and looking a bit wary at her long silence. “I’m sure I can get someone else to do it.”

He frowned at her. “I said I would.”

“Right.” He had, when he’d talked her off the roof.

“It’s mostly done.” He stepped back and surveyed the roof. “Just this one more string on the other side of the door and then around the other side.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“No worries.” He winked at her. And how he could wink and make it not creepy she had no idea.

She stood in the doorway.

He stood on the lawn.

Somebody had to break the silence, so Bella said, “Um...maybe you’ll let me thank you when you’re done.”

He glanced at her.

God, that sounded like a proposition. “I meant with a beer.” Her voice came out all shrill and stupid. “I meant a beer, not anything else.”

“Like what?” He raised his brow.

“Well, you know, like...I meant...” She caught the naughty gleam in his eye. “You’re messing with me.”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “And a beer would be great.”

“Great.” God, she sounded like he’d solved world hunger. She tried to tone it down a light-year. “I meant, if you have time. I’m not doing much anyway.” Now she sounded plain sad and desperate. Best she shut up. “I’ll see you after.”

Bella slammed the door and leaned her back against it. Sweat coated her palms and she rubbed them on her jeans. Clearly, she and Dr. Childers needed some more quality time together.

“He’s just a man,” she said. A smoking-hot, make-your-knees-melt, good-looking man, but he put his pants on over that fine ass one leg at a time like everyone else. Her imagination had built him into something he couldn’t possibly be.

The ladder scraped against the gutters, followed by dull thuds from the roof.

Her heartbeat sped up. As puberty had set in, some of her Nate fantasies had gotten a bit naughtier. She was fairly sure one had started with a ladder outside her bedroom window. However, she hadn’t been wearing her oldest jeans and a tatty old sweatshirt in any of them.

Too late; he’d already seen what she was wearing. Changing now would look desperate, or more desperate than usual.

Bella dashed to her bedroom. A little subtle makeup couldn’t hurt. Everyone said men didn’t notice specifics.

No. She stopped herself, mascara wand in hand. Getting hold of her life meant moving on. Not prettying herself up in case Nate had a sudden attack of Bella lust over his beer.

Everyone wore mascara. It didn’t mean anything. And look at that? It was already on her lashes, so too late.

Gloss?

This stopped now. She forced her reluctant feet back into the kitchen and sat down in front of her laptop. Wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans, she opened her browser. Her new site was so pretty. Browsing it almost kept her mind from the thumps on the roof and what they meant. Should she bake something? Except she couldn’t bake worth spit.

“This is my life,” she said to the computer screen. “Nobody has the power to steer my destiny but me.”

By the time he tapped on the kitchen door, for the most part she had it together.

Nate stepped into her kitchen. Forget together; please God, let her not make a fool of herself over jeans that clung to his butt and muscular thighs. He carried his coat in one hand and his long-sleeved Henley had a love affair going on with the sculpted planes of his chest and abdomen.

Could life do her a solid here and just once, could he not look like he was on his way out of or in to someone’s bed?

“All done.” He smiled. “You should come and see.”

“Really?” Kill her now for that squawk alone.

Nate followed her outside and stood next to her as they stared at the house.

Bella looked and looked at the neat row of twinkly white lights marching across her eaves and pushing back the early dark of winter. A bit more snow and she’d have Christmas in her yard. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“No worries.” He slung an arm over her shoulder.

The lights must be made of fairy dust. Bella tensed all her muscles to stop them from melting into Nate.

“Now.” He gave her a small shake. “How about that beer before I freeze my balls off?”

Bella nodded and ducked away to hide her flushed cheeks. Nate could always make her blush, and from the chuckle that followed her into the kitchen, he knew it too.

She buried her head in the fridge for a second or two longer than it took to locate the longnecks on the bottom shelf.

“What’s this?” Nate’s voice came from behind her.

Bella brought his beer to the table, not even bothering to ask if he needed a glass. They’d grown up in a small town together, so she knew how he drank his beer, that he liked coffee with lots of cream and sugar, that he hated brussels sprouts and considered chicken a vegetable. All stuff her mind had hoarded away in case she might need it.

Nate stood by the table, his gaze on her laptop.

She handed him his beer and picked up her wineglass. Earlier, she’d been looking for someone to celebrate with; why not Nate? They’d been friends, of a sort, before he went away. “Actually, I’m celebrating.” The website felt like a big step in the right direction. “I started a website for Bella’s.”

“You did?” He glanced at her over his bottle. “You did this?”

“Well, not all of it.” Bella joined him at the table. On the screen her new baby sent a thrill through her all over again. “Wheeler Barrows did all the technical stuff, but I chose all the images and the stuff on it.”

“Huh.” He clicked the link to formal dresses and went quiet for so long Bella ended up drinking half her wine. He thought the site was lame. That must be why he wasn’t saying anything. “You sell these?”

“Yup.”

“Huh!”

“I changed some of the inventory when I took over. Actually, I’ve slowly been changing most of the stuff we sell.” His silence unsettled her. “Nana had lost touch with what today’s women want. So I started replacing a few of her items with others, and...” It was time to shut up.

“And your grandmother let you?”

“Not quite.” Bella pulled a face. Not at all, in fact, and if Nana even suspected the extent of the changes she’d made, there would be war right here in this kitchen. “But it’s my store now, and I need to do things my way.”

He looked up and smiled at her. He clinked his bottle against her glass. “Well done, Bella.”

“Thanks.” Darn, there went her cheeks again.

“I don’t know much about women’s clothes.” He jabbed a thumb at her laptop. “But that stuff looks nice.”

“You think so?” He liked it, and that made her want to dance around the kitchen.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Thanks.” It took a moment for awkward to creep back into the room, and when it did, Bella took another sip of her wine. “And thanks, again, for hanging the lights and talking me off the roof.”

“No worries.”

“Thanks.”

“You said that already.”

“Yup.” She wanted to crawl under the kitchen table. For a split second there, things had felt normal between them.

“Actually, I’m glad this came up.” Nate surprised the hell out of her by pulling out a kitchen chair and sitting down. “It’s been a while since we spoke.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh.” His face dared her to lie her away out of it. “Most of the time, when I see you, you’re running in the opposite direction these days.”

“Well...” Bella took a seat before she fell down. Dr. Childers’s little ping sound went off in her head. A keystone moment. Recognize the moment, own the moment, engage the moment. Honest dialogue, Dr. Childers believed, opened the way to honest relationships. Bella scraped up her courage. “That’s probably because I’ve been avoiding you.”

Nate blinked at her. “You don’t say. Care to tell me why?”

“Not really.” Bella chugged the remainder of her wine. She didn’t have the backbone for a keystone moment.

Nate chuckled and topped up her glass. “Tell me anyway.”

“It’s embarrassing.” As if he couldn’t tell by how hot her face was.

“As embarrassing as the time I got caught without my pants outside the locker room?” His gold eyes gleamed, lazy and full of confidence, like a lion.

As she recalled the pantless incident, Nate had carried it off with a laugh and a shrug. Smashing her teen heart to bits when she found out his current girlfriend had stolen his pants in midtryst. She’d had enough of pining. It gave her the behind kicking she needed. “I’mtryingtoburythecrushthing.”

“Say what?” He raised a brow at her.

“Don’t make me say it again.” He needn’t think she wasn’t an expert on every one of his facial expressions. He’d heard her all right. Probably wanted to make her squirm saying it all over again.

“You had a crush on me?” He did his best to look surprised.

“Nate…” He needn’t pretend, especially as neither of them was convinced.

“Okay, then.” He pulled a face. “But you got over that. Right?”

“Yes.” It came out way too loud. “Years ago. Ages ago. Not since high school. It’s people in this town.” All the times she’d said this speech in her head, wasted. “People gossip and they still think… Well, you know what they still think.”

He nodded. “Is that why you avoid me?”

“Yup.” She pressed her lips together to keep them shut.

“Right.” Nate sipped his beer. “Yeah, that’s probably for the best.”

“It really is.” She slapped a bright smile on her face. “And for the record, I did have a thing for you, but it was more of a low-grade thing, not an all-consuming one like everybody said it was. I mean, I had boyfriends. I had a life.”

“Hey.” He caught her flapping hand. “I get it.”

It would be awesome if she shut her mouth now. “It’s not like I spent the last twentysomething years pining away for you or anything. That would make me pathetic and weird and—”

“Bella.” He squeezed her hand. “We live in a small town. People decide who and what you are and stick to it.”

Nate would know all about that too. From town bad boy to sheriff took a lot of attitude adjusting. The irony of Nate comforting her didn’t escape her, and Bella laughed. “You’re trying to make me feel better about this?”

“Hey.” He let go of her hand. “It was flattering, in a strange way.”

“Hmm.” She didn’t believe that, but this ease between them felt good.

“So, does this mean we can be friends again? No more running away from me?”

Was there a woman alive who could resist that smile? Not in this kitchen, at any rate. “We can be friends again.”

Nate shifted and cleared his throat. “In the spirit of honesty and friendship, can I ask you something?”

Knowing she might regret it, she still nodded and said, “Sure.”

“Why me? And why so long?”

“That’s two things,” she said, mainly to give herself time because she didn’t really have the answer. She’d asked herself those two questions enough times that she should know the answer, but she really didn’t.

Nate watched her and sipped his beer.

“Well, there’s the obvious.” Her face must be radioactive by now with all the blushing. “Your…looks…and all that.” God, how could it be so hard to tell him what they both knew? The man had a mirror, for the love of God. “But it was more than that. Like the time you punched Grady because he stole my pencil. Or the way we both loved the same movies and music.” She sounded lamer by the second. “I don’t know really. I guess I liked you as well. No matter how cocky you got, underneath I always saw how kind you were, and how hurt you were after your dad passed. You always had so much more about you than the obvious.”

Nate stared at her, his face blank. Then he took her limp hand in his. “You know, Bella. That guy, the one you had a crush on, that’s not me.”

“I’m pretty sure it is...was.”

He chuckled, gave her fingers a quick squeeze, and let go. “No, I mean, I’m not the man you think I am. I wish I was.” He stood. “But I’m really not worth a crush like that.” His smile seemed a little sad. “Not from a girl as sweet as you anyway.”