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Deputy Mayor Gwen Olsen paced in front of her desk, her high heels clicking on the recently restored hardwood floor in her office in city hall. The walls were utilitarian white. The desk and chair serviceable. The only nod to making the space her own was the trio of white orchids sitting on top of the gray metal file cabinets and the picture of her and her baby sister taken last year when Wynne was down for a visit.
Gwen loved Angel Point. She’d grown up in the Oregon coastal town. Except for one small blip, she was happy here. And someday, after Mayor Kingston retired, she hoped to be elected mayor.
Stuffing her hands in her suit jacket pockets, she stopped at the window that overlooked the brick chamber of commerce building across the shared parking lot. The wood trim had been freshly painted last fall. The grounds were prepped for landscaping that would happen as soon as the winter rains eased off a bit.
As much as Mayor Kingston’s efforts and the other plans he had in the works had put the town on the tourist map, there was still something she could do to put her own stamp on the continued growth of her hometown. All she had to do was convince the mayor her idea was a good one. If she was going to do that before he left for his conference, she had to stop dithering and get her booty over to his office.
Shaking out her hands, she grabbed the notes from her desk and, with a deep, reassuring breath, headed down the short hall. She knocked gently on the doorframe, and the mayor looked up from slipping papers into the leather messenger bag he always used when traveling.
“Russ, do you have a second? I need to talk to you about something.”
He gave her a quick look. “Better make it quick. I have to get on the road in five minutes.”
That wasn’t much time, but she would take what she could get. She stepped farther into his office. “Three-day mayors’ conference, right?”
“Four days. In Portland.” He nodded, placed his laptop in the bag, and buckled it closed. “At the last minute, a mentor workshop was added on Saturday that I want to attend. I’ll be back Monday. So, what’s up?”
“I have an idea for a Valentine’s Day project I think will marry well with your plan for Angel Point’s centennial.” She held out the short proposal she’d typed up.
Slinging his bag over his shoulder, anchoring the cross-body strap with his free hand, Russ quickly scanned the single page. “I’m not sure, Gwen. Valentine’s Day is only a month away. That’s not a lot of time to put an event of this scope together.”
Gwen knew where he was coming from. He’d been planning Angel Point’s centennial celebration for more than a year now. “If you’ll approve the project, I know I can do it.”
“Okay, let me think about it. If you flesh it out more, I’ll look at your proposal more closely while I’m in Portland. And I’ll need firm numbers.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Russ had appointed her as deputy mayor nine months earlier and, despite her degree in political science and a long stint with a nonprofit, this was the first time she felt like she had an idea for Angel Point’s betterment that he might sign onto.
“I can do that.”
“Great.” He folded the paper and stuffed it into the side pocket of his bag. Heading out of the office, he suddenly stopped. “Shoot. I forgot to tell you. While you were on vacation last week, I hired a fire chief to take over for Kevin Wessley. His name is Carson Loman. Do you remember him? I think you two went to high school together.”
Remember him? They’d only been best friends since the fourth grade. At least they were up until the night of their senior graduation party.
“Um . . . I sort of remember a guy with that name.” And really wished she didn’t.
“Good. Well—” Russ patted his pockets. “He’s staying at his parents’ old place. The address is somewhere on my desk. If you’ll stop by and make sure he’s settling in okay, that would be great.”
“Sure,” she said, this time with a lot less enthusiasm. She didn’t need to rifle through Russ’s desk. She knew the address by heart. Even after all these years. He walked backward for a step or two. “One more thing. I was supposed to go to Sheriff James and Doc Adams’s wedding on Saturday. I need you to go in my place. I told the sheriff you’d be my plus-one. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind.” The mayor had certainly been busy while she’d gone to Whidbey Island to see Wynne.
“All right. I’m out of here, then.”
Made speechless by the bombshells he’d thrown at her, Gwen barely managed a “Have a safe trip,” which he probably didn’t hear.
She returned to her office and slumped into her chair. Carson Loman was back in town. And she’d just promised Russ that she would check up on the man she hadn’t heard from in how many years?
“Sixteen years,” she said to the empty room. “But who’s counting?”
Pushing back from the desk piled high with neat little stacks of the projects she was currently working on, she stood, then sat back down. Carson and their history together insisted on taking up residence in her mind. You’re not that naive girl anymore.
It’d been a harsh lesson, but she’d eventually moved forward, refusing to linger in the past like a seal floundering ashore on a wet, boggy beach of sand. Been there, did not fare well.
Grabbing her notebook from the desk drawer, she started making notes. The less she thought about Carson Loman, the better. Russ wanted firm numbers on the Valentine project. That was exactly what she’d give her boss. With only three days to polish her proposal, and maybe not even that long if she wanted to get his approval as soon as possible—whoever invented email should be awarded a medal—she got started.
Russ had hit the nail on the head. There wasn’t as much time as she’d like between now and February fourteenth to get the event organized. So yeah, she was cutting it close. But that wasn’t going to stop her from putting together the best event she could imagine.
Why in the heck had Carson come back to Angel Point after all this time?
She had not, repeat not, missed him the last sixteen years. Just because they’d made a pact and then kissed to seal the deal. Although on her part, she had to admit, by the time they started their senior year of high school, she’d been wondering for a long time what kissing her best friend would be like. Fireworks? The sun standing still, expanding and retracting in a blue-blue sky? A Ferris wheel ride that gradually stopped at the top so that the whole world stretched before them?
It was all of those things. Sweet. Perfect. Everything she’d dreamed it would be.
Then, after a brief note that said nothing about their pact and the kiss, he was gone. She wasn’t an ogre. She’d totally understood. With his father suddenly taken by an unexpected heart attack, he had to help his mom move to Chicago to be near her sister. But he’d promised to come back.
Sixteen years was a long time not to keep a promise. And she’d stopped caring, even given up waiting, a long time ago. Still, it didn’t escape her notice that he hadn’t rushed to see her the minute he’d returned, if not to pick up where they’d left off, then at least to tell his ex-BFF that he was back in town and how sorry he was they’d lost touch.
Under those circumstances, she might have tried not to hold his years-long silence against him, but at this point, she certainly wasn’t about to rush to his parents’ place with open arms, no matter what Russ had instructed her to do. She shrugged at no one in particular, except maybe that naive eighteen-year-old who’d swallowed Carson Loman’s promise hook, line, and sinker. Fortunately, she had bigger fish to fry.
By the end of the day, she had a good outline and a spreadsheet of the projected costs for the scavenger hunt to give to Russ. At the end, she added a note that there might be a second event for that weekend and every other number she could think of that would impress the mayor.
After attaching the finished proposal, she hit send, then shot Russ a text, alerting him to her incoming email. Calling it a day, she pointed her Bronco toward Hemlock Loop and the old Caldwell place, where dreams of her and Carson spending their lives together had secretly begun. The property had been in the Caldwell family for almost a hundred years. A little worn around the edges since Ms. Caldwell had passed on, the two-story cabin stood on an overgrown piece of land overlooking the ocean. The sunsets from the back porch were stunning, more than once wrapping her in peace when life edged more toward turbulent than she liked.
The first time she’d seen the place was just before their senior prom. Carson had taken her for a ride past the house—not the only ride he’d taken her on that spring and summer, it turned out. The place was so cute and well-kept back then, she’d started to dream about it being their home. Then he left. And that was that.
Periodically over the years, she’d driven by. Since Ms. Caldwell’s passing, she’d watched the house and grounds fade away, just like her dreams. So she’d made new dreams. Gotten jobs that eventually led to working for the mayor and buying her own place. A house in town that held no memories of her dewy-eyed, teenage dreams.
Too spent to make a welfare check on the new fire chief, Gwen decided to wait until the next day. When she saw Carson for the first time after sixteen years, she wanted to make sure she presented a successful, happy front, not one battered by old memories. She wasn’t. At least not before she’d found out her BFF had come back to town.
End of Excerpt