What she’s not used to is catching the eye of the local mechanic Clint Walker whose gaze lights up every time he sees her. Or the way he listens to her every word and brings her little gifts to brighten her day.
When they both end up visiting the beach town of Indigo Bay to help with a Christmas fundraiser, will it become a chance for them to step outside their tired old roles and discover something new—together?
And what will Maria do when Clint slowly begins to win her heart despite her best intentions not to fall in love again?
This second chance romance is part of the Indigo Bay Christmas Romance series and can be read as a standalone. It is also a spinoff of Jean’s upcoming new series the Cowboys of Sweetheart Creek, Texas.
ebook price $3.99 in most countries
(paperback also available)
Enjoy a sneak peek!
Maria Wylder sat in the Longhorn Diner in Sweetheart Creek, Texas, and let the hubbub swirl around her. Everyone wanted to chat about her sons Myles and Ryan, and their high school football team. Since they’d begun coaching a few years ago, they’d taken several runs at the state championship, and this year was no different. It was exciting, but the way the playoffs extended their season so close to Christmas left everyone exhausted. Or was that only her?
Christmas carols played on the local radio station, creating a seasonal backdrop to the diner’s usual sounds of clattering dishes and neighbors chatting about their cattle.
Maria’s friend Fiona Fisher hoisted a full pot of coffee from her spot behind the back counter. “Top up, hon?” She poked at her teased, bleached hair with her free hand.
“I’m good for now, thanks.”
Maria shook her head and Fiona watched her for a second before moving along. The waitress was good at picking up on her moods, the two of them having served as each other’s rock since elementary school. Maria didn’t want to count the years. She winced as her mind completed the mental math despite her wishes at avoidance. Close to a half century.
Half a century.
Could she feel any older?
“Did you hear he got a clean bill of health?” Fiona asked a few moments later as she hurried past with the empty coffeepot and a dirty plate. There was no doubt in Maria’s mind why her friend stayed so slim. She probably logged twenty thousand steps as she served tables each day.
“Who got a clean bill of health?”
At the mechanic’s name, Maria’s heart picked up its pace. Clint Walker was a sweetheart. One of the few good ones. He’d gone out of his way since her semirecent divorce to make her feel special, beautiful and wanted. If they were younger, she’d consider dating again.
But they were well past the age where idealistic hopes and dreams for the future had a place in their lives. There were ranches and businesses to tend to, and families to care for. After Roy, her husband of thirty-seven years, had asked for a divorce a year ago, Maria had moved off the family ranch and focused on herself, like everyone said she was supposed to.
She’d been bored, and after Roy had moved into town as well, their sons had struggled with running the family ranch while keeping up with things such as meals. Her boys had needed her there, supporting, helping, guiding. And since she’d moved back a few months ago, they’d been doing better and she’d been happier, full of purpose. She didn’t have time to date.
“I didn’t realize he was having health issues,” she said to Fiona.
“Just a scare. We’re getting to that age.”
Seriously? How had she become this old without noticing? Maybe if she had grandkids it would feel okay to be staring down fifty-nine, knowing the big six-O was waiting right behind it.
“Well, I’m glad he’s okay.” Maria ran her fingers over one of her long feather earrings and shivered. She didn’t spend much time with Clint, but would have missed him had his health scare been more than that.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” said a rich, deep voice as a man took a seat two down from Maria. Garfield Goodwin smiled at her, his dentures big and white. The smile warmed, reaching his eyes, when Fiona turned to look at him.
“Hello, Garfield,” she said, fussing with her hair again as color brightened her cheeks. “The usual?”
“Yes, my dear.”
She thrust out a hip. “What have I said about using terms of endearment?”
“Come on, Fiona,” he said, his tone low and coaxing. “They make you feel young.”
The waitress rolled her eyes and set about preparing his muffin and coffee.
Every day Garfield came in, flirted with Fiona and left a tip so big she always protested. Garfield was single. Fiona was married—not quite happily—but Maria worried Garfield wasn’t entirely harmless. She often found herself wishing he would take a hint and leave her friend alone.
A man with flyaway hair sat down on Maria’s other side, and she groaned internally. It was her ex-husband’s uncle, the town grump, Henry Wylder. Why couldn’t she have lost him in the divorce?
“I’m having a Christmas party, and y’all are welcome,” Henry announced, his words coming out more like a challenge than an invitation anyone might jump to accept.
“That’s nice,” Maria said, reminding herself to be pleasant. Always be pleasant. In a small town you never knew when you might need to rely on your enemy, so it was best to not have any.
“Good for you, getting into the spirit of things,” Garfield said. “Only took you about ninety years.”
“I’m only sixty-nine,” Henry grumbled. “You’re welcome to attend,” he said to Maria, his tone still gruff.
She shifted uncomfortably on her stool. “Thank you.”
She’d heard he was planning a party, and had hoped to avoid receiving an invitation, since she was fairly certain Roy would be there. Along with his new wife, Sophia.
“It’s this Saturday.”
“Day after the semifinals game. Go Torpedoes!” Garfield said, and nearby diners let out a whoop for her boys’ football team.
“I invited Roy, too.” Henry continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted.
“That’s nice,” she said mildly. She caught Fiona’s eye and pushed her empty coffee cup away so she could collect it. “Can I get a peppermint tea, please?”
Her friend frowned, but went to fetch her hot water.
“So?” Henry asked. “Are you coming?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What aren’t you sure about?”
Maria had nothing against Sophia, but she wasn’t prepared to go to Henry’s party and pretend to be happy about it. Especially with her ex-husband and his new wife kissing in the corner. It just felt… wrong. Too soon. She’d spent far too many years being the one Roy kissed at parties, and to see him kiss someone else still took her breath away, the feeling of betrayal too far ingrained to shrug off even though he was within his rights.
It was probably time for her to get used to the idea, since the divorce had been finalized last February and Roy had remarried in June. He’d stayed on the ranch until the wedding, then moved into Sweetheart Creek, population 4,123.
As far as she was concerned, that was too small for the two of them. It felt as though Roy and Sophia had taken over every corner of town. Back when Maria was still living in an apartment a few blocks from their new home and not having sunrise chores, it had all been too much. Luckily, the boys had welcomed her back on the ranch even though it had sent Roy into a tizzy he still hadn’t quite gotten over.
“Well?” Henry demanded, waiting for her decision.
If she went to his party, she’d be alone. Awkwardly alone.
But she didn’t want someone new. It took too much energy to face men coming and going, and ultimately leaving. And Henry’s Christmas party invitation wasn’t the only one coming up in the following week. There were several. And Roy would be at all of them, since his retired butt had nothing better to do.
“I was thinking I might visit a friend,” Maria said, hoping the fib wasn’t too obvious.
“I invited the boys,” Henry said, referring to her sons. “But Levi said he’s going to be out of town with that model of his.”
Darn her firstborn and his quick thinking. She’d bet he hadn’t had plans before the invitation.
“Her name is Laura,” Maria said, referring to Levi’s girlfriend. Her boys were getting to the age where, as her father-in-law had said, they were pairing up like there was an ark parked on Main Street and the rain had started. Levi and Myles were both in new, committed relationships, and she had a feeling that Ryan, her youngest, was getting pretty cozy with the ranch’s new neighbor,
She hoped her boys stayed the course and didn’t break any hearts, like men on both sides of the family had a tendency to do. Both Roy and her father had been heartbreakers, and she hoped that wherever her second-born son, Cole, was at the moment, he was being good to women’s hearts.
Maria shook her head, trying to find a happier mood. This would be the first Christmas where she’d be sharing her boys not only with their girlfriends and their families, but with Sophia, too.
How was any of that supposed to work?
“So? Are you coming?” Henry demanded. “I need to know how many people to expect and I don’t have time for wishy-washy replies. The party’s in three days.”
“No, I’m not, thank you,” Maria said, her tone more brusque than she’d intended.
Henry stilled, then turned to face her. “After all I’ve done for your library, and you can’t even come to my Christmas party?”
Maria inhaled slowly, struggling for calm. Henry hadn’t done much for the town library last month. It had been her son Myles and his girlfriend, Karen, who had done the heavy lifting to save the building. Meanwhile, Henry had practically thrown a barricade in front of their plans.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be away,” she told him, as a plan formed in her mind. An old friend, Kittim Lane, had been trying to convince her to visit her in Indigo Bay, South Carolina. She was busy helping with an upcoming fundraiser for the coastal town’s animal shelter, and had suggested Maria come let her hair down at the gala. She’d said no, due to the timing of the gala, as her boys’ team would be playing in the Texas football state championship game the day prior, but maybe Kittim needed some help leading up to the fundraiser.
Either way, getting away might be exactly what she needed right now. And not just because she’d avoid facing Roy at a million Christmas parties they used to attend together.
“Where are you going?” Henry demanded.
“Indigo Bay.” The prospect of spending time near the ocean while visiting Kit lifted her spirits in a way nothing else had recently. She and Roy used to take the kids to Indigo Bay each summer to see a cousin on Roy’s side of the family, play in the waves and take a break from the Texas heat and life on the ranch. It had been good for them all, and she hadn’t been back in years—not since his cousin Danny, who took over the ranch during their vacation—had passed away. “My friend Kittim Lane still lives there.”
“You know Roy is happily remarried.”
“And you know my life in now officially none of your business.” Maria said, standing up. She resented the implication she was going to Indigo Bay to stir something up between Sophia and Roy. As far as she was concerned, Sophia could keep Roy.
Fiona arrived with the peppermint tea, her jaw dropping as she overheard Maria’s words.
“Put it on my tab, please.”
Fiona nodded quickly, but Maria knew the untouched tea would never show up on her running tally.
“Merry Christmas,” Maria said softly. She strode to the door, hoping her invitation to Indigo Bay was still open.
* * *
“Hang on. I want to get a muffin,” Maria said, reaching for her son Brant’s arm as he drove past the Longhorn Diner.
“They have muffins at the airport,” he protested, checking his watch. With a frown, he made a U-turn in the middle of Main Street and parked in front of the diner.
“The diner has the best bran muffins.” If she was going to sit on a plane for over four hours, she wanted something good to snack on.
“Better than yours?”
“Yes, and Fiona won’t share their recipe. They’re that perfect blend. Not so dry you feel like you’re eating sawdust,” she said, undoing her seat belt, “and not so moist it’s oily.”
“You make bran muffins sound so appealing.”
“It’s a skill.” She grinned and slipped out of his fully equipped veterinarian pickup truck.
“Like dodging Uncle Henry’s Christmas party. How did everyone get out of going except me?”
“It never occurred to you because you’re the best one out of all of us.” Due to her week-long Indigo Bay trip, she would miss tonight’s party. Maria gestured toward the restaurant. “Want anything?”
“Nope, I’m good, thanks.” Brant held up his insulated travel mug and took a sip of coffee. April McFarlane had a matching one, and Maria glanced at her son. April had grown up along with the boys, while her dad had worked as their ranch hand. April was a Wylder as far as the family was concerned, and they were all there for her now as she was going through a divorce.
Her marriage had been on the rocks practically from the moment she and Heath had uttered “I do.” But sometimes Maria wondered if Brant had had anything to do with its rockiness. He was a good friend to April, and as his mother, Maria was proud of him and trusted him to do the right thing. Yet she couldn’t help but wonder if some of April’s problems had to do with Brant always being around to support her and be the friend her husband couldn’t seem to be.
Shaking off those thoughts, Maria hurried into the diner, then tracked down Fiona at the back counter.
“You’re off?” her friend asked, looking up with a smile. She shifted, sending the white tassels on her pink Western blouse swinging.
“Yes. And I need a muffin to go.”
“You got it. Anything else?” Fiona handed her an already-wrapped bran muffin. “Pack your sunscreen?”
“And a hat.”
“Where are you going?” asked a familiar, smooth male voice, sending tremors down Maria’s spine.
She ran her fingers through the hair at the nape of her neck, ensuring tendrils hadn’t escaped the loose bun. She fought the smile that always seemed to appear when Clint Walker was around.
Maria turned to face him. He was fit for being fifty-nine, his shoulders broad and strong. No doubt those muscles came from having to work rusted old bolts off the wrecks people called vehicles out here in Texas Hill Country.
“Indigo Bay. Kittim Lane asked me to come help with a fundraiser they’re putting on for a local animal shelter.”
“Barks and Bows?”
“How do you know?” she asked in surprise, handing Fiona her debit card. “Can I clear my tab, too, please?”
“Not coming back for a while?” her friend teased.
Clint took a more careful look at Maria, who blushed and said, “What?” She felt inexplicably guilty. “I clear it every week.”
“My friend Jeff Brewster and I were talking about restoring an old scooter for the auction.”
“For the Indigo Bay gala?” she asked, feeling as though the world was a little too small at the moment for this to be purely coincidental.
“And are you going?” she asked.
The prospect of seeing Clint away from Sweetheart Creek thrilled her. But another part of her was scared of the thought of the two of them being free of everything that held them in their respective roles here in town.
“Brewster’s been working on it alone, as I haven’t been able to get away to help. I’m fixin’ to take an extra long Christmas break and head out there. I haven’t had a vacation in a long time.”
“You should go,” Maria said, starting to slip past him, and trying to avoid inhaling his wonderfully familiar scent of Old Spice and motor oil. “It’s supposed to be a great event.” She gave a confirming nod. “For a good cause.”
Clint turned as she went by, and his slow, kind smile made her heart flutter. “Maybe I will,” he said slowly.
Maria nodded again and tried to stop herself from scooting out the door, panicked that Clint might indeed show up in Indigo Bay. And that the real reason he did so might be because of her.
* * *
Copyright 2020, Jean Oram.
Get your copy and continue reading!
ebook price $3.99 in most countries