Believing Love

 

Chapter One

June Esperanza was crouching behind the old wooden bar that dominated the empty taproom of the Country Time Bar and Grill putting away some napkins when she heard the tavern’s front door open and quick, light, footsteps echoing across the antique planked floor.

What the hell? They were closed for an­other hour, and the door should have been locked. Hannah must have forgotten to secure it again when she’d gone to get some stuff for the party they were hosting later that evening.

June stood, ready to throw out the intruder, but hesitated when she saw an elderly woman standing in the middle of the room looking around with a vague expression. Her white hair was cut in a short, stylish bob, and she was clutching a large purse to her thin chest. She looked familiar, although June couldn’t quite place her. She just knew she didn’t belong there.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said, leaning her forearms on top of the bar. “We’re not open.”

The woman turned, chocolate brown eyes wide and confused in an oval face, and June drew in her breath.

Eva Hardy in the flesh, by God. Unofficial queen of Hardy Falls, the little, pissant, whitewashed, Pocono Mountain tourist-trap town where the Country Time was located, and where June had, for some inexplicable reason, lived for the last sixteen years or so.

“Mrs. Hardy,” she said, straightening away from the bar. “What are you doing here?” Her voice was cold, but she couldn’t help that. She hadn’t spoken to Eva in years—hadn’t even seen the woman in at least three—and could happily have gone a while longer without re­newing their acquaintance.

Instead of giving her the confident, superior, smile June remembered so well, Eva appeared even more confused, her dark brows furrowed over her thin nose.

“Do I know you?”

“Yes,” June said slowly, belatedly remembering that Eva had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It had appar­ently gotten significantly worse over the past year, which was why Calvin had moved back to town three months ago.

Calvin Hardy. The only child of Ronald and Eva Hardy.

And an asshole.

“No, I don’t. I don’t know you.” Eva threw back her shoulders, the habitual movement emphasizing how thin she was now. “Where’s Fred? I’m looking for Fred,” she demanded querulously.

Fred? Was she talking about Fred Frederickson, Hannah’s father? Yeah, he used to own the Country Time, but he’d been dead for more than two years. Hannah ran things now.

“Ah, he’s not here,” June said, trying to think of what to do. She moved cautiously out from behind the bar and walked toward the other woman, not wanting to say or do anything to upset her more. Did people with Alzheimer’s get violent? June didn’t think so, but she didn’t want to find out. All she’d need would be for Chief Kline to arrest her for getting into a smack-down with Ronald Hardy’s fragile, little wife.

But how the hell was she going to get her out of there? Christ, was Eva still driving? If she’d driven, June would feel obligated to make sure she got home, which would be the freaking cherry on top of her freaking day.

Eva frowned. “But Fred told me to come. We made arrangements to meet here.”

Interesting. June hadn’t known Eva and Fred were that close.

She considered the other woman for a moment. Even with the ravages of her disease imprinted on her face, she was still lovely and had probably been quite a babe when she was younger. For his part, Fred had been one hell of a good-looking man. Heck, June had actually given some thought to the highly inappropri­ate proposition he’d made to her when she’d first started working for him, even though he’d been a good twenty-five years her senior.

In the end, she’d decided against it. He hadn’t been married—Hannah’s mother had been killed in a car crash a few years before June blew into town—but there had still been too many complications to make it worthwhile.

Fred sure hadn’t liked it when she’d turned him down, though. Over the years, she’d discovered that most women came running when Fred showed interest.

Had Eva been one of them? She’d certainly been a Country Time regular back in the day, spending many an evening here at the bar talking to Fred after bowl­ing with the leagues next door at Murphy Lanes. If June remembered correctly, Eva’s husband had rarely joined in the discussions.

“I’m sorry,” she said, taking another step toward the woman. Eva pulled her handbag closer to her chest, as if afraid June would steal it.

Yeah, because that’s just what I would do, huh?

Stop it, June ordered herself. She doesn’t mean any­thing. She’s old and scared and confused and doesn’t even realize she knows you.

“Fred isn’t here now,” she said, trying to be kind. She was usually better at slapping sense into a person, but she could be kind if she felt like it. Hannah would attest to that. “Do you want to sit down and wait for him? Maybe have some coffee?” If she stalled until Hannah got back, she could dump the whole situation on her. After all, she was the one who’d forgotten to lock the door.

Still clutching her purse like a security blanket, Eva glanced around the room, at the small wooden tables gleaming with polish, the stained glass lanterns hang­ing above them, and the flat-screen television over the bar.

“It’s…nice in here,” she said hesitantly, putting a hand to her forehead.

“Sit down,” June said, and this time the kindness was natural. “Come on. I’ll get you some coffee, and we’ll talk.”

“Okay.” Eva sounded heartbreakingly young. She tried to pull out one of the sturdy wooden chairs at a nearby table, and June hastened forward to help when it looked like the effort might cause her to topple over.

Once seated, the older woman looked up and smiled a beautiful smile, clean and clear and bright. June blinked. Eva Hardy had never smiled at her like that before.

“You’re very nice,” Eva said. “Do I know you?”

June drew in a deep breath. “No,” she said. “We’ve never met.” Because she had never met this version of the woman.

“Oh.” Eva beamed. “I hope we’ll be friends.”

June didn’t know what to say to that, so she turned and went behind the bar where a massive coffee ma­chine sat on the back counter, a full pot simmering on its burner. She got a clean mug, poured coffee, then doctored it with a couple packs of sugar and the last of the half-and-half from the open carton in the refriger­ator under the bar. Sweet and light.

Moving with the ease of long practice, she took the mug of coffee to the other woman and put it down in front of her. Eva smiled that young smile again, then lifted it with both hands and sipped.

“It’s perfect,” she said, putting the mug carefully back down on the table. “You knew just how I like it.”

The comment made June pause. How had she re­membered that? She’d served an awful lot of coffee to an awful lot of people in the years since she’d last seen Eva.

She guessed some things just stayed with you, whether you wanted them to or not.

As if on cue, the front door slammed open, and a man came rushing in.

“Mom? Mom, are you…?” his voice trailed off, and he skidded to a halt.

Calvin. The bastard.

June had tried to prepare herself for the impact of seeing him again after fifteen years, but the reality still punched her in the gut. She stared at him—at the thick, dark hair, now liberally sprinkled with silver, the dark eyes, so like his mother’s, glittering in his hard face, the broad shoulders, and the long, muscled legs.

“June,” he said, his voice deep and soft, a velvet growl.

June forced herself to remain casual, arms crossed, chin up.

“Calvin.”

He swallowed.

“I—”

“Do I know you?” Eva asked primly from her seat at the table.

Calvin shook himself and switched his focus to his mother, allowing June to take her first deep breath since he’d burst into the room.

“Mom,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I’m sorry,” Eva said, folding her hands in her lap. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

The expression on Calvin’s face was easy to define—it was grief. He glanced at June quickly, as if embar­rassed.

“She’s been pretty bad today,” he said apologeti­cally. “Usually she recognizes my father and me.”

A twinge of sympathy had June speaking more gen­tly than she’d intended.

“She says she’s looking for Fred,” she told him.

“We’re meeting here,” Eva chimed in, smiling.

“I told her he wasn’t in,” June finished.

Eva frowned at her. “Did you? Do I know you?”

“Um, okay.” Calvin was obviously confused, but he knelt down next to his mother, his large hand on the wooden arm of the chair. “Fred called the house, um, ma’am. He can’t see you today.”

“Oh.” Eva’s smooth face creased with dismay. “Really?”

“Yes. Why don’t you come with me? I’ll make sure you get back home.”

“No. I don’t know you.” Eva looked at June. “Should I trust him?”

Not on your life. “I’m sure you can.”

As if that settled the matter, Eva nodded, then fin­ished her coffee. “How much do I owe you?” she asked June.

“On the house.”

Eva let Calvin help her to her feet. “I want to go home,” she told him.

“That’s where we’re going.” Calvin looked back over his shoulder at June as he led his mother from the room. “Thank you,” he mouthed.

June nodded.

Then they were gone, and she was alone again.

Calvin Hardy.

“Shit.” June sank down on the chair Eva had just va­cated.

She’d known she’d see him some time, she reminded herself. She’d heard he’d rejoined his old bowling league—God only knew why—and since most of the bowlers came to the Country Time to eat and drink after their scheduled matches, he was bound to show up sooner or later. It was actually kind of a miracle it had taken three months for them to run into each other.

June exhaled.

At least their first encounter was over now. She’d seen him again. They’d spoken. She’d survived. So, it would be easier next time.

Right?

Pushing herself to her feet, she went to the front door, locked it, then turned to look at the taproom. It glowed gold in the lamplight, with scattered patches of color decorating the tables and floor from the early af­ternoon sun shining through the old stained glass win­dows.

Back when she’d been twenty-two, the Country Time had seemed like just another dump. She’d never expected to stay longer than it took to save up enough money to hit the road again. No one had been more surprised than she when it had become home. No one had been more shocked that she’d stayed on in spite of everything.

Sighing, she walked back to the bar and continued with the preparations for opening. She wished to hell she hadn’t come in early to help Hannah get ready for the party they were hosting that night. If she hadn’t been working, she wouldn’t have seen Calvin again. She wouldn’t have seen Eva. And she wouldn’t have seen how delicate and frail the woman was, seen the hurt in Calvin’s dark eyes when she didn’t recognize him.

What must that be like—to have your own mother not recognize you?

June snorted. She got a clean rag from the stack under the bar and began polishing the wooden top un­til it shone, rubbing hard to erase any marks or bottle rings.

Hell, in her case it would’ve been a miracle if her mother had known who she was in the first place. By the time June had turned three, all Leila Esperanza had cared about had been her next fix. If June’s grand­mother hadn’t stepped in, she didn’t know where she’d have ended up. Child Protective Services, probably.

Too bad Grandma Rose had decided to correct the mistakes she’d made with Leila by regimenting every moment of her granddaughter’s life. June had been bound to rebel, hadn’t she? Guys and bikes, cigarettes and drinking. No drugs, though. She’d seen what it had done to her mother. Leila had been a walking skeleton, her whole life plunged into her veins along with the heroin. She’d died when June had been eight, but it had hardly mattered.

It had mattered when Grandma Rose died of a heart attack, but June had been seventeen and not about to go into foster care, thank you very much. Instead, she’d dumped school and hit the road.

Five years and a lot of miles later, she’d ended up in Hardy Falls with Fred and Hannah.

And Calvin.

Believing It

Feel-good, small town, romance.

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ISBN: 978-1-943725-03-8

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