Spiritual malaise permeates the hearts of the residents of a scenic small town with a troubled past, tenuous present, and an uncertain future.
Perrin Stafford, a war hero, has based his life on the ideals of his father and pursued a livelihood in the realm of stonework and masonry. Returning to Sterling Lakes, he discovers an unexpected truth about his past.
CC Cogshell has started a new life in Sterling Lakes but will that move lead her to places she’s never dreamed of going?
Revised and re-issued
Ebook and Print versions available exclusively from Amazon:
GENRE: Contemporary Inspirational Romance ISBN ebook: 978-1-922233-47-9 Print: 978-1-922233-48-6 Word Count: 21, 911
When she heard the steady pounding again, CC Cogshell realized it wasn’t the bass beat of the Christmas music blaring in her earphones. She pulled them off, leaving them looped around her neck, to hear someone knocking on her front door.
“Be right there,” she called, dusting her hands on her favorite holiday apron, albeit her most stained one. She contemplated taking it off for a moment before dismissing the idea as impractical, since she wasn’t done working. Impatiently, she brushed her disarrayed ponytail of blond curls away from her face the way she had for the last several hours of nose-to-the-grindstone cookie-making.
Who could be visiting her? she wondered, still humming “Winter Wonderland” as she moved out of the open kitchen. She wasn’t expecting anyone. Since moving into her cozy house in Sterling Lakes a few months earlier, she’d hardly had time to get to know anyone in town.
Yet another visitor looking for Patty O’Malley’s? The Sterling Lakes Bed & Breakfast was just around the bend and a bit further down the pine-laden road from CC’s cottage.
“We have company, Bella.” On her way past, she gently rubbed the head of her elderly black and white cat, reclining lazily on a bar stool at the counter. “Mind that icing for me, will you, old lady? You know it’s for the cookies later on so don’t even think about it.”
Bella had left behind the days when she would jump on the counter and CC would return to find her licking away at the icing as if dinner was served. Now, the feline glared in scorn at her accusation, nonchalantly groomed her paw as if anything else was beneath her.
“I still remember the face full of frosting I used to come back to, Little Miss, so don’t give me that look.”
Bella stood and turned her back to her with a look of pure disdain that had CC laughing her way to the front door.
Once there, she peered through the sheer curtain on the sidelite window to see who was outside. In the fairytale snowfall beyond stood someone tall with a broad back wearing a sheepskin jacket and a knit hat.
Frowning, she squinted around the drive in front of the house for a vehicle, but she didn’t see one. Her cell phone rang, and she pulled back quickly to retrieve it from the pocket of her apron. Caller IDed Patty O’Malley.
“You busy, CC?” the older woman asked when she answered.
“Still making the cookies for the potluck supper. And getting the door. There’s a strange guy outside.”
“Well, you’re the detective. Who is he?”
“I’m technically not a detective anymore. And I don’t have a clue!”
“Are you getting repairs done on the house?”
“Is he cute?”
The teasing note in Patty’s voice made her smile and shake her head while she peeked out the curtain again. “Hard to tell. Looks like he might have nice shoulders,” she reported.
“Maybe he’s your Christmas present, showing up a little early.”
“I just turned twenty-six. I’m single, and I’m loving it.”
Patty’s hearty laugh rang out so CC had to pull the phone away from her ear, wincing. “Methinks thou dost protest too much. See you later at the potluck. I’ll be getting to the church in a little while.”
“Okay. Talk to you later.” After hanging up, CC slipped her phone back into her pocket. The man still stood on the front steps, but he’d turned to face the door now. His breath made steam vapor clouds against the crimson December twilight.
When he leaned forward to ring the doorbell, she opened the door, offering a small smile. “Hi. Sorry I took so long. In the middle of something. Can I help you?” She sounded friendly, and he responded in kind.
“Hello. No problem. I’m intruding.” He removed his hat and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
CC caught her breath. Snowflakes danced and swirled around him, settling on his dark hair and longer-than-legal eyelashes. He seemed about her age. Okay, Patty wasn’t wrong. This guy’s the walking definition of gorgeous. If he can’t be in my Christmas stocking, showing up at my front door is the next best thing.
With his smoldering eyes dancing with energy and intelligence, the strong lines of his clean-shaven face, and an aristocratic nose, he made her think of a classic knight in shining armor from fairytale reading days.
“Are you looking for Patty O’Malley’s?” she managed to ask, mentally kicking herself for letting her voice sound so breathless.
His chocolate brown eyes seemed strangely sentimental. He shook his head. “Actually, I’ve found what I’m looking for right here.”
“What are you looking for?”
Do I know him somehow and just don’t recognize him?
She was almost certain she couldn’t have forgotten that face. “Do we know each other?” she asked without waiting for him to answer her first question.
“No, we haven’t met yet. I’m Perrin Stafford.”
When he offered her his hand, she instinctively reached to accept it. His hand was large and rough, but she found it more than a little pleasant against her much smaller, softer one. “Cydney Cogshell–CC to my friends.”
Movement at her feet startled her, and then Bella was scooting out the door and racing headlong into the front yard. Not only was she defying her age but also her usual unwillingness to get anywhere near the cold white stuff.
“Oh no–Bella! What are you doing, old lady?”
“I’ll get her,” Perrin said, darting after the tracks her cat had left in the snow.
Moving out to the porch without her jacket, CC watched with her arms crossed, shivering. Perrin crossed the snow-covered ground toward the huge oak tree where Bella had scampered. As if baiting him, Bella lifted one paw in the air.
“Careful, she’s skittish,” CC called to Perrin once he’d closed in on the feline. She didn’t want to bother the Sterling Lakes Fire Department tonight with a ‘cat up a tree’ call.
In one smooth motion, Perrin scooped Bella up in his arms and strolled back to the front stoop. Unpredictably, Bella snuggled up against his chest, just as warm and cozy as could be. “This one has a mind of her own,” he commented with a grin once he reached the porch.
“That she does. It’s part of what I love about her.”
“You call her ‘old lady’?”
CC laughed. “It’s a long story. I call her that affectionately, I assure you.”
“I love it,” he said, chuckling.
Their hands brushed in the exchange when he handed Bella over. He noticed how cold she was while she noticed the exact opposite. They laughed again, and she said, “Thanks for getting her. She must be getting senile in her old age. I don’t know what that was about.”
From inside the house, she heard something that’d been going on in the back of her mind for the last few minutes. She recognized it then as the oven timer. “My cookies! Come in!”
She rushed inside to save the last two batches, leaving him to follow at her thrown-over-her-shoulder invitation. She set Bella back on her favorite stool and grabbed two potholders.
Only when both pans of cookies were out did she breathe a sigh of relief. “Saved ’em!” she said when she turned back to see him standing at the edge of the kitchen. “So, are you a neighbor? I just moved to Sterling Lakes. I only know Patty O’Malley and a few others in town so far.”
“Honestly, I used to live in this house when I was growing up. I haven’t been back to Sterling Lakes in a long time, but I’m passing through now. I had a crazy impulse to see the old homestead again for old times’ sake.”
His gaze roamed lovingly across dark wood beam floors and up newly painted walls to crown molding on the high Victorian ceiling in the entryway. “Lots of good memories. Like I never left.”
“A house can do that, especially if you were happy here.”
He seemed sincere, but the former detective in her never took anything for granted. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember any owners named ‘Stafford’ when she’d been researching the house, intending to buy.
“I’ve only lived here for a few months.” She glanced at her watch. “The thing is, I’m making these cookies for a potluck at the church and I really need to get going…”
“I get it. Thanks anyway. I knew it was a long shot when I had the impulse. But I’ll be in town for a couple days. Any chance…?”
“Where are you staying?”
He told her Patty’s, and she said, “Okay. Well, we’ll see.”
Smiling, he nodded, accepting her vague response and the offer of one of the cookies she’d frosted earlier. After slipping his hat back on, he said goodbye, adding, “I can see myself out. I know you have to get the rest of these cookies frosted. Thanks for this one.”
“Nice to meet you,” she called when she could get hold of herself for all the questions bombarding her mind. She found herself following him, but he was already out the front door.
Snow swirled in the porch light outside and starlight twinkled against the glistening snow beyond. CC saw a solitary figure in what could have been a snow globe, hunched against the cold, clearly munching on her cookie.
When she turned, telling herself she had to get going and didn’t have time to primp her appearance first, she found Bella standing in her path, giving her a reproachful look.
“You’re acting very strange, old lady,” CC told her warmly, shaking her head. “What in the world has gotten into you?”
Transformed into a winter wonderland, with decorated fir trees and artificial snow, the basement of St. Luke’s Church bustled with activity for the annual pre-Christmas potluck supper.
“There you are!” Patty O’Malley greeted CC the minute she walked in, taking the bags of frosted cookies from her so she could shake the snow off her coat and scarf.
CC did a double-take, noticing Patty’s sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks. “You look great, Patty.”
“But there’s something different about you.”
Patty shrugged innocently. “Not really.”
“Anything going on? Is it you and Elwood?”
Patty nodded. “He’s the man of my dreams! Details later. Too many eyes and ears here now.” Her tone was conspiratorial.
Elwood Stewart was one of the wealthiest widowers in the area. Patty had hinted to CC a few times that they’d hit it off over the summer.
CC looked around the kitchen crowded with Women’s Guild workers and volunteers. Definitely not a place for divulging something interesting that could have the whole town talking the next day.
“Let’s set these cookies up on the dessert table.”
“Sure thing.” CC took the decorative plates Patty handed her while she carried the cookies over to the dessert table set up against the far wall.
Someone tapped her shoulder in the crossing. Turning, CC saw Millie Humboldt in her signature gingham dress and beehive hairdo. As head of the St. Luke’s Women’s League, she was feared by all as far as CC could tell from her few short months of attending Mass at the church. Fascinated by the woman’s frozen smile, she almost missed what she was saying. “Hi, Millie. What was that? Sorry but I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said I was glad you could make it tonight, CC. Did you make those cookies or buy them?”
“Homemade. Baking is one of my hobbies.”
“Really? I wouldn’t think a Boston detective would have much time for hobbies.”
“I’m not a detective anymore. But I guess it’s like anything–if you’re interested in something, you’ll make time,” CC answered as good-naturedly as she could. “Have a good time tonight!”
Moving past her, she joined Patty and began arranging cookies. This hadn’t been the first uncomfortable exchange she’d had with Millie since moving to town. Apparently, lots of folks in the parish had experienced run-ins with Millie and her nosiness.
“Elwood proposed to me,” Patty whispered since they had a moment where no one was nearby.
Clearly, she’d been about to burst with this news, and CC hugged her, saying, “I knew something was different. I’m thrilled for you.”
“I’m thrilled for me!”
Once they finished putting out the cookies, Patty glanced behind her. “Hey, look who just walked in.”
CC pivoted to see who had caught the other woman’s attention. “That’s the guy who was at my house!” she whispered urgently.
In surprise, CC watched him move through the crowd in the auditorium. Men shook his hand, women embraced him, and children danced gleefully at his feet.
He’s more popular than Santa Claus.
“Perrin Stafford was at your house?” Patty asked.
“That’s why I was late. Do you know him? I mean, beyond that he’s staying at your B&B?”
“The guy’s a national hero.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s a war veteran, CC. He served in Afghanistan and was decorated for bravery.”
“Well, now I feel like a heel for not trusting him.”
Patty laughed, waving her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. You didn’t know him from Adam. I’m sure he understood. Besides, I’ve heard…well, let’s just say, he gets around with the ladies. Look at him. That’s not hard to believe, given how gorgeous he is and coming from California. But that’s just a rumor.”
“Sounds scandalous.” CC couldn’t help shaking her head benevolently. “But I don’t pay attention to rumors, Patty. If I did, I’d make sure I always had a camera and a gun at hand when I’m on the phone since, supposedly, detectives get distracted while talking on the phone and that’s when the bad guys trip us up.”
Perrin looked up from his conversation across the room, and his gaze met hers. She smiled, and his expression warmed. A moment later, he was moving toward her. CC couldn’t seem to take her eyes off him. His whole persona, from his tall, muscular physique to his personality seemed to radiate a relaxed approachability she found irresistible.
“What’s he back in town for anyway?” CC asked quickly, glad that at least she was capable of speaking out loud instead of standing, paralyzed, waiting for Perrin to arrive.
“He’s working on the renovations of St. Luke’s Church.” As soon as she told her, Patty scampered away.
CC felt her cheeks turning bright red for no reason whatsoever. Feeling silly, she said quickly when Perrin was standing in front of her, “Imagine seeing you here.”
“I wasn’t actually planning it, though it probably looks like I was.”
He moved past her to the dessert table and plucked up another of her frosted sugar cookies. “These are delicious. I’ve been craving another since I had the first.”
“Good. We probably won’t run out anytime soon. I made enough to feed an army.”
Letting her glance linger on him, she waited for what he might say next, but he didn’t seem to be in any particular rush to keep talking…although he enjoyed the second cookie thoroughly while he stayed mute. “So…you weren’t planning to come here?” she asked him.
“No. I wanted to take a walk and you mentioned St. Luke’s. I went to church here with my family when I was a kid. The rest of it was serendipity.”
CC glanced over at him, frowning with a small smile of uncertainty. “Serendipity? How so?”
He polished off the cookie, then looked down at her. “Because I was hoping I’d see you again.”