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Nurse practitioner Jade Phillips never believed in fairy tales.
The mere idea of a helpless princess waiting to be rescued angered her beyond reason, because Prince Charming and knights in shining armor didn’t really save those who wouldn’t save themselves.
She’d learned that lesson the hard way at fourteen when unspoken signals for help to teachers and counselors went unnoticed.
Desperate, Jade confided in her best friend, Thomas McAvoy, about her situation at home. She thought he would give her a safe place to stay.
Instead, he called the police.
After her mother and stepfather were taken away, child protective services called her stranger of a father, Harlan Carter, and put her on a plane here, to Montana, where she’d finally grown up with a parent who truly cared about her.
And now, he was gone.
A crisp morning breeze danced in through the open living room windows, bringing in the sweet smell of summer wildflowers into the bare kitchen as Jade packed up the last of the cookbooks. The top one caught her attention. The one her father used almost constantly.
A binder that had “Food” written across it in black Sharpie pen.
The worn edges and ripped cover brought a sad smile to her face as she remembered her dad opening this very book to make her dinner the first night she arrived over fifteen years ago.
“Man, was I angry for being here.” Her fingers gently ran down the short list of ingredients for French toast before seeing her father’s secret ingredient written in the margin—vanilla creamer. “I think this is all I ate for four weeks and he made it every time I asked.”
During the first months of her life in this mountain town, she quickly discovered Harlan’s wonderful sense of humor, his good nature, and his loving heart. Her gentle giant father could bring an adversary down with a strong discussion. If that didn’t work, he had an incredible, rarely used, right hook.
He empowered her by teaching how she could defend herself, use a gun with pinpoint accuracy, and drove her to therapy sessions as she learned to trust again.
When the weather allowed it, they’d hike the beautiful trails of Copper Mountain without a compass where he taught her how to pack, navigate, and survive on every level.
He’d not only been her protector and teacher, but a strong example of what a good man should be and the only reason she had ever healed.
So why had she chosen so poorly when it came to a husband?
Make that late husband.
“Spaghetti and meatballs.” Instead of answering her own question, she flipped the pages of the binder, focusing on the happy memories of the meals eaten in this very kitchen. “Practically perfect pancakes. Italian wedding soup. Macaroni, cheese, and bacon. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. Potato soup with bacon, James’s favorite.”
Along with her father, she lived with her older brother James, who was a carbon copy of their dad and younger brother, Junior, whose devil-may-care attitude always landed him in trouble.
Even though it had been well over a year since her father’s death, rereading more examples of how hard her father worked to be a good parent both warmed and broke her heart.
After coming here there was no more worrying about her mother’s lies and denial.
No more sleeping with one eye open, waiting for her stepfather to visit her during the wee hours of the morning.
Her life here became normal. Comfortable. A sanctuary.
A few tears dotted the recipe pages, but she defiantly wiped them away with her hand. “Enough, Jade. He was hurting. It was time.”
Being a nurse practitioner, she’d seen her share of death. In her practical mind she knew heart disease had made her dad a shell of a man from who he had been, but every day, she missed him.
On days like today, she missed him even more.
Picking up the business card, she sighed. “Okay, Maddie Cash, Realtor. Let’s see what you can do.”
As she texted the property and house information to the woman who said she could sell the property before the first flakes of snow hit the ground in the fall, a happy bark outside the house brought a smile to Jade’s face, a much needed lift in her day.
Fred, the hound mix, always brought her joy, even in her most melancholy moments. After bringing him home six months ago, Jade quickly learned the dog loved to bark at everything from butterflies to the groundhogs that would pop their heads up just long enough to gain his interest. She watched him out the window, running aimlessly as his attention span sat between that of a gnat and a blink of an eye.
“He’s going to be so bored living in town.” The small yard of the rental house she’d moved everything to wouldn’t be much room for him to run, but Jade didn’t have a lot of residential choices right now. After trying to fulfill her father’s dying request to repair the one-hundred-year-old farmhouse and keep the property in the family, she’d practically spent her last nickel. “If you’d paid your property taxes for the past three years, Dad, I might have had an easier time getting things in order. Ugh, I should have listened to Thomas and sold this place months ago.”
Still, guilt ate at her. Her father had done so much for her and she couldn’t complete his final wish.
A thumbs-up emoticon from Maddie flashed across Jade’s screen, followed by “I’m on it” with a smiley face.
Maddie’s enthusiasm made the weight of obligation lighter, but guilt still held on, especially as she flipped through the cookbook. “Fried chicken. We ate that every Sunday.”
The mix of pepper, salt, flour, and powdered sugar he made to coat the chicken, always ended up all over this very counter. She’d help him soak the pieces with thick layers of farm fresh eggs before plunging it into the flour mix and handing it to him. He’d fry them to a perfect golden brown and Jade never thought she’d ever eat her fill.
Her stomach remembered as well. “I need some breakfast.”
Fred ran in from the open front door and barked at her to join him.
“Having fun, buddy?” She absentmindedly placed the binder on the counter before scooping up the last box to take to her car. “Find any groundhogs?”
He cocked his head as a long string of drool hung from his floppy jowls.
“Oh, I bet you’re thirsty. I’ll get you some water here when we get into town. I’m almost done.”
As soon as she hit the front steps, he ran out the door and took off around the large metal building. The Harlan and Sons Auto Repair sign still sat above the double entrance. A short-lived, but well-intentioned, business venture.
“Don’t go far, Fred. I don’t have time to chase you down today.” But the longer she stayed, the more tired the dog would be and he’d sleep. She would be able to spend the day unpacking without interruption at her new place, right across the street from Bramble Park. “Too bad there’s not a dog park over there.”
Placing the box in her back seat, Jade’s stomach uncomfortably twisted, knowing this would be the final walk through.
She double, triple-checked the four bedrooms and closets and closed the windows before leaving each space.
Sunlight highlighted the millions of dust particles lingering around as she moved from room to room, shutting the doors behind her.
The open living area floor plan had allowed them to easily walk from the family room to the kitchen. The broken, empty mantel over the blackened fireplace had been where her pictures and her father’s shotgun were once displayed.
He insisted his weapon be in full view of whoever would be brave enough to ask her out.
A giggle escaped her, thinking of that first boy who walked in here, seeing the mountain of a man that was her father, standing there in front of the fireplace. His gun mounted on the wall behind him.
Amazing, that guy didn’t run at the sight of it all.
Against that wall once sat the oversized couch where her brother James would pass out after working doubles at the local garage.
She’d position her favorite chair by the fireplace. One her father made with his bare hands in the workshop out back. She’d spent many winter nights curled up in the double rocker, reading about faraway lands, understanding good versus evil, and why a cat named Pete kept looking for a door into summer.
Straight across from her would be Harlan’s gaudy brown La-Z-Boy chair he so loved. He’d positioned it the perfect distance between the TV, fireplace, and the kitchen.
Sweet moments tumbled in her brain of how the home had once been filled with love, comfort, and laughter. But the house held more than memories. It had been her second chance when she’d escaped her mother and stepfather.
Her third chance when she moved back from the incident with her husband.
Correction. Late husband.
It had been a place to refuel and reorganize when life had tumbled out of control. A home where things made sense and her father could give her solid advice and a strong hug.
She shivered as a cool wind drifted in through the open windows before she shut them tight.
Tears pricked the back of her eyelids knowing the house and the buildings out back would for sure be reduced to rubble whenever the new owners, whoever they might be, bought the place.
Now she’d have to start over on her own.
No safe haven.
And, because her brothers were off either doing the most responsible or irresponsible thing, depending on which brother was being discussed, for all practical purposes, Jade was completely alone.
At that moment, her reality finally penetrated the thick layer of strength she’d pulled from these last several months. Her heart slammed hard against her ribs and the bitter taste of sadness danced up and down her throat.
Bracing herself against the kitchen counter, Jade stared out the last open window at the Copper Mountain range and the cloudless azure sky. Taking a deep inhale of the crisp air didn’t revive her today, but antagonized her angst of losing this place, this property.
Still, a nugget of excitement lodged deep in her gut. She could leave her past behind and write her own story. Only tell what she wanted people to know of her life outside Marietta.
Other than her best friend, Thomas, her brother, Junior, and her boss, Dr. Lucy Davidson, no one knew she’d shot and killed her husband in self-defense before returning to town last year.
And if anyone knew, I’d be the poster child for domestic abuse. No thanks.
Starting with a clean slate certainly sounded appealing and incredibly promising.
For a few moments, she allowed herself the long overdue emotional purge until a voice, sounding remarkably like her father, whispered, “You can do this, baby girl. You’ve started over before. This is just another life challenge.”
Closing her eyes, she listened to the silence, hoping to hear the voice whisper again, but instead of a voice, a quick chirp caught her attention.
A small golden bird sat on the windowsill.
“A yellow warbler. Daddy’s favorite.” Jade laughed through tears.
The bird chirped and hopped a couple of steps closer as if it wanted to engage her in conversation.
“What am I? Snow White, now?” She smirked, pointing to the binder. “Sorry, I only have this cookbook. No food today.”
Fred’s faint barks signaled he’d ended up behind the metal warehouse, next to her father’s woodshop.
“What did Daddy like to make? I’ll tell you.” She thumbed through the yellowed pages and the bird didn’t move. Explaining recipes to an animal with no opposable thumbs was nothing but projection. Nonetheless, it felt good to talk about her father’s perfect grilled cheese sandwich. “Sometimes he’d mix the cheeses like cheddar and Monterey Jack or American and swiss or pepper Jack and mozzarella.”
The bird hopped closer as though totally interested in what she had to say.
Her mouth watered at the mix of cheeses the recipe suggested as combinations. “Sometimes he’d add grilled tomatoes between the cheese slices and always used sourdough bread soaked in butter. Mmmm, so good.”
The bittersweet memory made her mouth water and her stomach growl. “Sorry, I didn’t eat breakfast yet.”
A couple more chirps before the quick feet of Fred came and went as the dog happily ran around the property, barking at random.
The noise startled the bird and it flew away.
“That’s where I am now? Standing in an empty house, talking to animals?” She snorted in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Orphaned. Almost broke. History of an abusive stepparent. I have all the makings of a princess in distress and it’s only eight thirty in the morning. My prince or knight in shining armor should be driving into town right now to sweep me off my feet to my happily ever after.”
End of Excerpt