At Home on Marigold Lane
Book 5 in the Highland Falls series — September 27, 2022
USA Today bestselling author Debbie Mason delivers a touching romance where one woman gets a second chance with her first love.
True love deserves a second chance.
For family and marriage therapist Brianna MacLeod, moving back home to Highland Falls after a disastrous divorce feels downright embarrassing. Bri blames herself for missing the red flags in her relationship and worries she’s no longer qualified to do the job she loves. But helping others is second nature to Bri, and she soon finds herself counseling her roommate and her neighbor’s daughter. Bri just wasn’t expecting them to reunite her with her first love . . .
Caleb Scott knows his failed marriage has been tough on his stepdaughter, so he’s grateful she’s found someone to confide in . . . even if it’s Bri MacLeod. Seeing Bri brings up feelings he’d thought were long buried. He knows it’s not the right time for either of them to be rekindling a relationship, but being with Bri feels right—like coming home. He’ll just have to convince her that risking her heart again might give them exactly what they both need . . . a second chance.
Brianna MacLeod’s heart began racing the moment she turned the truck onto Main Street. The pastel-painted wooden storefronts of downtown Highland Falls blurred before her eyes.
It felt like a hummingbird was trapped in her chest, its wings beating frantically against her rib cage in a futile attempt to escape. She couldn’t breathe. It didn’t matter that rationally she knew that, if her heart was beating, she was still breathing.
There was nothing rational about a panic attack. The symptoms didn’t respond to reason. They snuck up on you out of the blue when you were performing the most mundane of tasks. Like driving to the grocery store on a bright blue September afternoon.
She needed a distraction and willed her fingers to loosen their white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. But instead of searching her bag for her phone and clicking on a meditation app, she turned on the radio. It was set to the local news. She went to switch to a station with music—soothing music instead of droning voices—but a familiar name snuck past the panic holding her hostage.
“Dr. Caleb Scott has once again been named Hometown Hero of the Week. Today, while out for his early morning run, Dr. Scott came across a tourist who’d suffered a heart attack while attempting the Blue Mountain Trail. As most locals know, this is not a trail for beginners.” The female hosts talked about Blue Mountain’s steep slopes and narrow trails before moving on to how Cal had revived the man and then carried him down the mountain. Bri knew the trail as well as she knew Highland Falls’ Hometown Hero. He’d saved her life too. Only she didn’t think of him as a hero.
When the hosts went on to rhapsodize over Cal and his heroics, Bri switched off the radio and tried an affirmation instead. It was one she’d prescribed to her anxious clients at her marriage and family therapy practice over the years.
“No situation is good or bad.” Her pulse continued to race as she turned into the grocery store parking lot. “It’s how you react to it that matters.”
Apparently, her heart had decided that the appropriate response to the number of vehicles parked in the lot was to knock against her ribcage at a nausea-inducing speed.
“Breathe, just breathe. In for four, hold for seven, breathe out for eight.” She repeated the pattern as she parked the truck beside an SUV. She shut off the engine and dug in her bag for her phone. Gripping it in her sweaty palm, she pulled up a meditation app, praying it worked its magic.
This shouldn’t be so hard. She had a headful of positive affirmations and breathing exercises. Two of the very things that her clients had assured her worked well for them. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? If last year had proven anything, it was that she had no business holding herself up as an authority on anxiety-reducing techniques . . . or on relationships.
How could she help someone else when she couldn’t help herself? Her clients had probably been protecting her feelings when they told her the affirmations and breathing exercises worked. She had amazing clients. Used to have, she reminded herself. She’d closed her practice late last year.
She glanced at the customers going in and out of the store, and her pulse, which had begun to slow, began racing again. She couldn’t do this.
Frustrated with herself yet relieved at the same time, she shoved the key back in the ignition and started the engine, about to pull out of the parking space. But then her mind inconveniently reminded her of the conversation she’d overheard that morning, and she rested her forehead against the steering wheel. She absolutely had to do this. It was part of her plan to convince her sister Ellie that she was fine and that Ellie didn’t have to worry about her or protect her anymore.
Bri gritted her teeth and leaned over the middle console, making a grab for her cane. The muscles in her right thigh spasmed, twisting into agonizing knots that had her sucking in a sharp breath. She hadn’t thought this through. Her physiotherapy session today had been particularly brutal. Probably because, as her therapist had pointed out several times during the hour-long session, Bri hadn’t been doing her exercises.
No matter what her physiotherapist said, her very legitimate reasons for not doing them weren’t simply excuses. As far as Bri could tell, the exercises weren’t helping. They were also painful and demoralizing. But after today’s session, she’d promised to put in the effort. Mostly because she was afraid her therapist would tell her sister if she didn’t. That was the trouble with living in this small North Carolina mountain town. Everyone knew her family, and Bri’s sordid business.
Another excellent reason not to venture into the grocery store and out of her comfort zone. She’d put her plan into action tomorrow. She glanced at the oversized black hoodie, black leggings, and furry black Ugg booties she wore. She wasn’t exactly dressed to be out in public anyway.
Just as she was about to pull out of the parking space, her cell phone rang. It was a ringtone she knew well. Her sister’s. Bri glanced at the time, pulled back into the parking space, turned off the engine, and answered her cell. If she didn’t, Ellie would worry.
“Hi. What’s up?” Bri knew exactly what was up. She hadn’t gone directly home after her PT session.
“Where are you? Are you okay?”
At the worry in her sister’s voice, a flicker of resentment flared to life inside of Bri. She loved her big sister. She didn’t know what she would have done this past year without Ellie’s support. Except sometimes, like now, Bri felt . . . smothered. Worse, she felt like Ellie didn’t trust her to take care of herself. After what had happened with Bri’s ex-husband, she supposed she couldn’t fault her sister for feeling that way. But knowing Ellie had a legitimate reason for being concerned didn’t make it easier. Bri had her own doubts to deal with.
She glanced at the grocery store entrance. Two birds, one stone. Forcing a smile on her face hopes that it would come out in her voice, she said, “I’m fine. My session went really, really well.”
She rolled her eyes at her upbeat tone of voice. She sounded downright cheerful. “So well in fact, that I decided I’d make us a special dinner to celebrate. We’ll celebrate you and Nate finally rebooking your honeymoon while we’re at it.” They were scheduled to leave for Scotland next week. Except Bri had overheard them this morning talking about once again postponing their trip. Because of her.
“I thought I’d cook up some traditional Scottish fare. How does cock-a-leekie soup, oat cakes, and trifle for dessert sound?”
“Good. It sounds really good. And so do you,” her sister said with what sounded like a frown in her voice. Ellie probably found this cheerful, upbeat version of Bri confusing.
“But I’m not sure now is a good time for me and Nate to go away,” her sister continued. “You—”
Obviously Bri hadn’t done as good a job selling this new, improved version of herself as she’d thought. “I’m doing great! Fantastic, actually. So stop worrying about me.”
“I can’t. Stop worrying about you, that is. You died in front of me, Bri. I thought we’d lost you.”
Bri worked to keep the images of last year’s near-fatal fall from playing out in her mind. She didn’t remember much, but the memory of that day—of running from her abusive ex, her desperate attempt to escape from him—had the power to send her spiraling into another panic attack. She was barely out of this last one. She didn’t need to go there again. Not now.
She cleared her throat. “But you didn’t.”
“Sometimes I feel like we did,” Ellie said quietly.
“I know.” In a way, Bri had died that day. She wasn’t the same person she used to be. She wasn’t sure she liked the person she’d become. And as much as she knew her sister loved her, she thought Ellie might feel the same way. “I’m working on being the sister you remember. You just need to give me a little time.”
Ellie could justifiably say she’d given her all the time in the world and it hadn’t made a difference. Bri had been recovering from her injuries at the family’s inn on Mirror Lake for more than a year now.
She didn’t give Ellie a chance to respond. Instead, digging deep for the girl she used to be, Bri infused her voice with the spirit of her once optimistic, fun-loving self. “Now off to the grocery store I go. Text me if we need anything else.”
“Umm, you sound kind of manic. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Bri sighed. “You haven’t heard it in awhile, but that was my excited voice. I’m excited that you and Nate are finally going on your honeymoon, and I’m excited to make you a delicious meal to celebrate.” Just not so excited about going into the grocery store to pick up the ingredients.
“I haven’t heard that voice in a very long time, Bri. Not since—”
“Oh wow, you should see the gorgeous fall display outside the grocery store.” She cut off her sister before she uttered the name of the man who’d broken Bri’s optimistic heart and her fun-loving spirit a decade before. And it wasn’t Richard, Bri’s ex-husband.
She glanced at the apples, pumpkins, and sunflowers on display on the racks beside the store’s entrance. “I’ll grab a basket of apples and make a pie instead of a trifle. Sound good?”
“Ah, yeah, it sounds great. But Bri, you do remember I inherited Granny’s gift, don’t you?”
Bri gasped. Her sister was psychic. Something she herself hadn’t believed until last year. “You promised never to read my mind!”
“Unless I think you’re keeping something from me that puts you in danger. Stop sputtering. I didn’t read your mind. But I don’t have to, to know you’re in pain. I can hear it in your voice, among other things.”
“You know what they say, no pain, no gain.” Bri opened the truck’s door, focusing on the maple trees along Main Street instead of the ache in her leg. In a matter of weeks, the leaves would change colors, lining downtown Highland Falls in a blaze of Autumn glory.
“They also say stop putting off your appointment with Cal.”
Bri squeezed her eyes shut at the mention of Highland Falls’ Hometown Hero.
“It’s been more than a year since your surgery,” her sister continued. “You canceled both your follow-up appointments with Cal. Maybe something’s wrong and that’s why you’re in so much pain.”
Something was wrong all right. Her sister had brought up the one person guaranteed to wipe out Bri’s good mood, even if it was a fake good mood. Cal wasn’t only Highland Falls’ Hometown Hero; he’d once been hers. But he’d broken her heart when he’d broken their engagement almost a decade before.
Some people, her sister included, sometimes even Bri herself, thought it was past time she stopped holding that against Cal. Especially since he’d saved her life last year. But she’d spent the long months of her recovery trying to pinpoint exactly what had happened to put her on such a disastrous relationship path—a path that had led to her lying in a broken heap at the bottom of her condo’s stairs in Charlotte—and she’d come to the conclusion that Cal was to blame.
She’d loved him with every fiber of her being. She’d trusted him implicitly with her heart, with her very soul. Something inside her had broken when he ended their relationship with no real explanation, and it wasn’t just her heart.
“I have another doctor, remember?”
“It’s not the same, and you know it. Mallory is a primary care physician. And just FYI, she also thinks you shouldn’t be skipping your appointments with Cal.”
“You’re not supposed to be talking about me with my doctor. I’m not twelve, you know. I’m twenty-eight-years . . . ” She trailed off. She wasn’t twenty-eight. She’d lost over a year of her life trying to put herself back together again. “Almost thirty years old, and there’s this little thing called doctor-patient confidentially.”
“There’s also a little thing called love. As in I love you, and so does Mallory. We’re worried about you, Bri.”
Well didn’t that just put a pin in the bubble of self-righteous indignation expanding in her chest? “I love you guys too. You know I do. And I understand why everyone is so protective of me, but you have to trust me when I tell you I’m okay.” Now she had to start proving that she was because she didn’t need a masters degree in marriage and family therapy to understand why they’d have a hard time believing her.
“You’re right. We do.”
Bri smiled. That was easier than she’d expected. “Great. I won’t be long.” Tucking her cell in her bag after disconnecting the call, she stepped onto the asphalt, considering it a win when her leg didn’t buckle beneath her.
Leaning heavily on her cane, she closed and locked the driver’s-side door, and returned the keys to her bag. “You’ve got this,” she told herself, hefting the strap over her shoulder. She set off across the parking lot at the same time as a ninety-something woman who used a walker. The woman left Bri in the dust.
A car pulled into the lot, the driver waiting patiently for Bri to get out of the way. Her cheeks heated as she struggled to pick up the pace, nearly falling on her face when the toe of her bootie hit a pothole and she had to put her weight on her injured leg. She fought the urge to turn around and head home.
She couldn’t back out now. If she did, Ellie would never agree to go on her honeymoon. She’d never believe that Bri was okay. Besides, all she needed was a couple ingredients. Ten minutes tops, and she’d be out of the grocery store. Unless she met someone she knew, especially her grandmother’s friends. They liked to talk. They were also nosy.
As Bri entered the store, she pulled her hoodie over her head, tucking her long blond hair underneath. She glanced at the shopping carts on her right and decided to take one. At least she’d have something to lean on. Hooking her cane on the handle, she folded her arms, resting her full weight on the cart. It felt so good that she might have stayed right where she was if not for the whoosh of the doors sliding open behind her.
She pushed her cart into the store, admiring the brightly colored produce in the bins lining the center of the aisle. The smell of pumpkin spice tempted her to stop at the nearby coffee bar but balancing the to-go cup while carrying out a bag of groceries was beyond her so she kept moving.
It felt kind of nice doing something on her own for a change, and she found herself humming along to Taylor Swift’s “Mr. Perfectly Fine” coming through the store’s sound system. Maybe this had been a good idea after all. She felt almost normal.
She transferred a basket of apples into her cart, spotting the leeks and onions across from her. As she went to push her cart toward the veggie display case, a familiar deep voice stopped her cold. Praying she was wrong, she snuck a peek over her shoulder. The tall, exceptionally well-built man in green scrubs was as familiar as his deep voice.
Cal was here.
In the grocery store.
Less than twenty feet away from her.
Searching for her cell phone in her bag, Bri used her body to push the cart toward the end of the aisle. She called her sister, whisper-shouting the moment Ellie picked up, “I can’t believe you did this to me!”
“What are you talking about? Did what?”
“Called Cal and told him where I am!” She glanced over her shoulder. He had his back to her, talking to a young mother, who was clearly as entranced by him as her children—not surprising, the man was a golden-haired Adonis.
“I wouldn’t do that. But maybe this is a sign that you should—”
“It’s a sign all right.” A sign that she should have gone straight home after her PT session. “I have to go.” She disconnected.
Shoving her phone back in her bag, she leaned halfway across the cart. She needed as much weight and forward momentum as she could get. Her already overworked leg muscles screamed in protest when she picked up her pace but she couldn’t stop now. The last thing she wanted was to run into Cal. Mr. Perfect was happily married and living his best life while she’d made an absolute mess of hers.
Bri glanced at her leg as it began to drag. “Don’t fail me now,” she pleaded, leaning as far as she could over the cart to take more weight off her leg as she rounded the corner.
The cart wobbled and veered to the right. She looked up. Oh no! She’d taken the corner too wide and was heading straight for a display tower of toilet paper. She tried to get both feet firmly on the floor tiles fast enough to stop the cart but it was too late. She careened into the toilet paper tower, an avalanche of jumbo-size packages sliding and tumbling toward her.
Surrounded by a mountain of toilet paper rolls, she looked around. No one had seen what she’d done. She felt bad leaving the mess for someone else to cleanup, but desperate times called for desperate measures. She had to get out of there ASAP.
She went to steer the cart around the packages but her path was blocked. No amount of shoving through the mound of toilet paper rolls helped. Holding onto the cart with one hand, she leaned over and began tossing them out of the way.
From the next aisle over, she heard two women discussing the benefits of one fiber cereal over another. Their voices were getting closer. She didn’t have time to pick up the last package blocking the front wheels of her cart. Grabbing onto the shopping cart’s handle with both hands, she gave it a hard shove in hopes of running up and over the toilet paper rolls. It worked. Only it worked a little too well.
The hard jolt and forward momentum caught Bri off balance, and she tripped over the squashed package of toilet paper, the cart’s handle slipping from her sweaty grip. She reached for the shopping cart in an effort to regain her balance but her hands grabbed air instead. And that was the moment her leg called it quits and gave out.
Bri, who had become something of an expert tumbler over the past year, leaned back at the last second, falling onto a bed of toilet paper rolls instead of onto her face. She lifted her head and groaned. Her shopping cart was headed for a display rack of jams and jellies in pretty glass jars.