Excerpt: The Gift of Hope

Chapter 1

Adam Doyle walked to the well-worn diner counter. The bell ringing overhead at his entrance still tinkled in the quiet surroundings. Where were all the people? Even on most Tuesday evenings, they had a few diners. But not this one.

What was happening to Angel Mountain? His home?

So many people had left, especially the high school graduates fresh out of classes and eager to seize the world. They wanted more than a faded old town, more than the low wages most area businesses offered, and some younger families even took their elders with them.

Few wanted to stay. The ones who did struggled to make a decent living. Doyle could barely count how many of his former classmates or their families remained.

“Gone. Just like that.”

The swell of helplessness and loneliness nearly choked him.

He swallowed it down as he slid onto a stool, the surface cracked and slick from wear, and glanced around for the owner slash cook at the very least.

Finally, the door between the kitchen and the diner burst open.

“Hey—” He stopped short. That wasn’t the older man wearing a cook’s apron he’d expected coming through. The bubbly blonde soon lost her smile when she saw him. Her blue gray eyes widened. He gulped. It’s her! His chest ached. “Becca.”

“Well, Doyle, don’t be so happy to see me.” Her forced cheer said more than words could. Automatically, she grabbed a tall glass and poured cool water from the metal pitcher and then set it before him. Her usually sure movements were stiff and her hand shook.

“My brother said you stopped by the shop today.”

“Yeah.” She bit her cute bottom lip while avoiding his direct stare. “Truck’s acting up. Again.”

Dread slipped down and plunked in his gut. That deathtrap needed more than a few repairs. She shouldn’t even be driving it. “I can take a look at it tomorrow morning for you. Drop it off and he can give you a lift back home or here.” He shrugged, but his shoulders barely moved at the tension building there.

“I’ll check my schedule…” She cleared her throat and offered him the colorful menu she held up.

“The special is fine.”

Her half laugh, raw and quick, pierced the air. “Why did I know you were going to say that? You always get the special. So meatloaf and mashed potatoes it is then, with green beans.”

Relief shot through him. At least it was something he liked this time. “And chocolate milk.” Now that was his favorite.

Shaking her head, she sashayed away. “So predictable.”

Predictable? What was so bad about that?

Doyle did not want adventure or excitement. Nice, steady living suited him just fine. He’d had more than enough drama last year when his brother and he made a bet to see who could cut down as many Christmas trees in fifteen minutes for their seasonal part-time job.

Losing focus with wayward thoughts caused him to miss that knot in the tree. The kickback from the chainsaw proved nearly deadly. The huge gash in his leg, twenty-two stitches later, and his hospital stay taught him a valuable lesson: do not daydream, especially about Becca Shaw.

During his long recovery, she brought him meals from the diner. It wasn’t the food or the kind gesture that bothered him. Her being so near had. Once, sometimes twice, a day, she’d show up with her perky self and infiltrate his private space. Disturbing. Unnerving.

She’d press for more interaction and conversation while he retreated until he remained silent and aloof most visits.

The memory of the well of hurt shining in her eyes grabbed him by the throat even to this day. He didn’t want to cause her such pain.

It was for her own good; she wouldn’t like what she discovered. Nor would Becca ever be happy in this little town or with him. Why fool themselves of what was surely to come in the end? She’d leave again. He’d be left behind. It’s the way it always played out.

His calf ached just thinking about the accident. He’d blamed it on the colder weather, but he’d be dang sure it had something to do with seeing her this evening. Never lose your wits again.

Earl’s screams still echoed in his nightmares, along with the feel of the sticky blood seeping out of him and staining the white snow beneath him.

Doyle sucked in a long, shaky breath and swiped away the beads of perspiration on his forehead.

The bell over the door jangled, thankfully diverting his attention. Relief bounced through him at the man who walked in. “Yo, Gabriel.”

“I saw your truck outside, so I thought I’d stop in to discuss the fields of Christmas trees to cut down this season. Want company?” Gabriel Angel glanced around and frowned.

He laughed. “Sounds funny coming from you.” Doyle nodded to a nearby booth. “That okay?”

“Fine by me.” He shrugged off his coat and slipped it on the hook at the end of the booth.

Taking his untouched water glass with him, Doyle swung around on the stool, got off, and then joined Gabriel. “What, no Holly and Josh with you?”

His smile came easy, something no one in town would have ever believed this time a year ago. “They’re trying out for Angel Mountain’s Christmas play.”

“They couldn’t convince you to go along with them?” He poked fun at his winter-time boss.

“I drove them. That’s enough for me.”

Doyle chuckled. Gabriel’s smile inched up, but never made it to a full-on one. “Progress, I’d say.”

“For me.” He waved a hand back and forth between them. “This is stretching it.”

“I’ll say.”

Gabriel’s stare took in the diner. “Everyone must be at the tryouts.”

Becca stormed out of the kitchen, yelling over her shoulder. “Wake up, we have live bodies now.” As she halted beside the booth, she eyed them. “Gabriel, where’s your better half and the cutie patootie?”

“At the church.”

“My mini-me is there, too. Oh, I get it. You wouldn’t want to ruin your reputation if you happened to show up in that sacred place, right?”

“Becca, good to see you, too.”

“Do you need a menu? Or are you like this guy over here who only ever orders the special and chocolate milk?”

He leaned over slightly, checking out the board around and behind her.

Doyle turned and followed his gaze. He knew some, but couldn’t put all the letters together. They jumbled, pointing in different directions, and looked like those hieroglyphics he’d heard about.

Swinging back around, he schooled his face to not show his growing embarrassment. What kind of man was he if he couldn’t read? He swallowed hard, keeping his eyes glued to the tabletop.

His shameful secret remained hidden, buried deep ages ago. Even his younger brother had no idea the extent of it.

Being quick to pick up on things, listening intently, and doggedly following along in his classes got him through to graduation and into a tech school. That and retaining every little detail to memory. He was a whiz at fixing things. Most of his mechanic exams were tearing down a part and building it back up again.

Over the years since, he’d managed to sidestep paperwork. He hired someone to handle the tiny office in his garage, another local lady to do his books, and his brother’s business courses at the community college were proving helpful.

Doyle managed. Just barely.

“I’ll have the pot roast with apple pie for dessert.”

“There’s apple pie?” Doyle perked up.

Becca chuckled. “Adam Doyle, you have a one-track mind. It’s written clear as day right there on the board.” Her sigh, filled with exasperation, hit him in the chest.

He gulped and glanced over his shoulder again. Nothing made sense. “Must have missed it. Distracted.” He tried to brush it off.

“Men! Hardly see anything that isn’t in front of their faces. And even then…” She shook her head and trudged around the counter. She shoved the paper in the slot. “Order!”

“I’m right here, Becca You don’t have to yell!” Daryl, the owner, stuck his head out of the opening between the cook station and the warming shelf as he rubbed his ear. “I haven’t gone deaf yet. But you keep that up and I will.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Good ol’ Daryl. Same as he always was. My uncle Thaddeus and he would go round and round every time.”

Doyle joined in; relief at not being found out washed through him. Phew! Escaped that one.

She muttered something unintelligible and marched to the back.

“Nothing changes.” Gabriel tilted his head to the duo.

“And everything changes.” Doyle nodded to the empty seats around them.

“In a few weeks, this place will be hopping again. Christmas on Angel Mountain.”

“What, no sarcasm from you, the original Scrooge?” But he’d seen the welcome changes in his friend these last ten months and was happy for him. Holly and Josh had done wonders for the once reclusive heir to the town’s founding family.

“Shocking, isn’t it? Strange for me, too.”

Measuring his words, Doyle dove in to the sore subject. “Angel Mountain comes alive over the holidays, but what about the rest of the year? Gabriel, two more businesses shut down at the end of summer. No more ice cream shop and no more candy store. Families move. They can’t sustain themselves…here…year after year.”

That gurgling, bubbling sensation gripped him in his chest and windpipe; the voiced words gave life to his worst fear.

Someday there wouldn’t be an Angel Mountain to call his home.

Chapter 2

The truck chugged once, twice, and then came to an undignified halt. In the middle of nowhere. Becca Shaw cursed under her breath. As she tried to start it several times, she came up empty. The whirling sound mocked her. She shoved it into park, turned the key to off, and then slammed her hand on the steering wheel. “Good for nothing—”

“Mommmm.” Her daughter pointed her index finger at her. “You said you wouldn’t cuss anymore.”

Chagrinned, Becca turned her head fully. Scrunching her nose, she gazed at her child. “How old are you again?”

She tsked.

The morning sun beamed through the dinged windshield of her old jalopy and bathed her little girl. The light bounced off her blonde curls, her cheek, and her tiny bow lips, now uplifted in a genuine smile.

Becca’s heart tugged, hard and sharp. Tears smarted the back of her eyes. How did I get so lucky?

“I can call Doyle for you.” She fished around for the ancient cell phone in Becca’s ungodly huge red tote bag crammed with every little thing and then some. “Here, you should take better care of this.” Her daughter plucked out her new inhaler and then went back to search. “Ta-dah!” She raised her hand with the prize. In seconds, her girl flipped it open, found the saved number, and pressed the button with her little fingers painted with neon-green polish.

“Did I say yes?” But a part of her welcomed the reprieve. Somehow, some way from grade school to now—some twenty years later—the quiet, intense boy, who’d been held back a few times, grew into an even more introverted man who seemed to like everyone but her.

“Mr. Doyle, please.” She held the mouthpiece away. “The nice lady is getting him.”

Blowing out a hot breath, she steeled herself for the conversation to come. Why did he make her jumpy? And, she gulped hard, why was she bound and determined to change his view of her?

So she took her one shot and bolted for the city the day after graduating high school. She had hopes and dreams, didn’t she? Getting out of their hick town was high on the list. Making something of herself came mighty close to it, too.

So she waitressed at night to work her way through college. So she sailed through her courses, making the dean’s list her first year. Studying and getting good grades came easy to her, always had. And so she was like most lonely, needy freshman who paired up with a rowdy crowd, including a really hot guy who’d been just another jerk all along…

Her daughter’s urgent plea broke through. “Mom! He wants to talk to you.”

Her throat constricted as she took the phone and held it to her ear. “Hey, about stopping at your garage—”

“Where are you?”

His curt question made her stomach clench. “Smooth, Doyle.” She winced. Nice way to start mending fences with this guy, Shaw!

The heavy sigh whistled over the line.

“Patience is a virtue, remember?”

“I’m not virtuous, Becca. You’re alone with a kid stuck on the side—or is it the middle?—of the road. It’s cold out.”

She gulped hard. “We’re at the base of the mountain road, just shy of the pass.”

Doyle swore.

Cringing, she clamped her eyes shut for a second. “Oh, that’s bad.”

“You’re trying to go up Angel Mountain and you knew your truck was acting up?” He made a low grumbling sound.

“Mom, tell him you’re sorry already.” Her daughter demanded, shaking her head.

Biting her tongue, Becca pressed her lips together to hold back her retort to the man’s obvious disgust at her poor mothering style. She wasn’t going up the big mountain itself exactly, but she had no desire to continue to try and explain herself to him. “Sorry?”

“Never mind. I’m on my way.”

The connection went dead. Her belly hurt.

Becca blew out a breath. Way to go! But how do I swallow my pride and tell Doyle I don’t have the money to pay for any repairs? Christmas was less than two months away and she wanted to buy her sweet daughter something special.

“He’s coming, right? ’Cause Doyle never lets anyone down, even us.”

Even us? “He’ll be here. And you’re right, he’s one of the good guys. Always was.” Polite. Manners. Helps anyone in trouble.

Shifting around, her daughter knelt as she peered behind the seat at the large boxes. “They’re going to be all right, aren’t they, Mom? I mean, the food won’t go bad, will it?”

Reaching out, she touched her daughter’s back. “No, sweetie. We can heat the meals up when we deliver them.”

“Phew!”

“Come here.” She drew her little body close, hugging her, and rubbed her arm with her hands. “You getting cold?” Not waiting for an answer, Becca shrugged off her faded blue jacket and wrapped it around her little girl. “Better?”

She nodded and snuggled against her side. “But you’ll get cold.”

“Moms have this special power.” We’d give up everything just for our babies.

Giggling, she grinned up at her, and then nestled in closer. “SuperMommy!”

“You know it!” She pressed her face in the soft curls and dropped a kiss on the top of her daughter’s head. “You and me, kiddo.”

“Just us? Maybe someday I can have a daddy, too. Look at Josh—he found his. Oh, and could I have a little brother, too?”

Thick, heavy emotion clogged her throat and clamped it shut. Tears prickled her eyes.

“Mom?”

Her heart ached for both of them, but most of all for her child. “Maybe.” How could she explain? There weren’t many single men in Angel Mountain under thirty. None were interested in her, especially with her illegitimate daughter to raise. And dang if she was going to expose her child to the wackos of the world and the haters.

Broke, alone, and left pregnant, Becca dropped out of college halfway into her sophomore year and returned to her hometown; it was all she knew. She’d gotten her old job back at the diner and moved in to a tiny room at the boarding house.

People may have gossiped behind her back—and some, even in front of her—but, over time and after the baby was born, they’d pitched in and given her diapers, formula, and cute little clothes. After all, she was one of them and they took care of their own.

It wasn’t what she’d wanted from life. Not a shabby little town or a shabby little job. However, it was what landed in her lap and she’d made the best of it. Now their cramped apartment over the empty storefront suited them just fine. Her waitress job and the tips she made covered their expenses and a tad more. Not much.

Becca snuggled her daughter closer. No regrets. Not with all that I’ve been blessed to have here in my arms.

The roar of an engine flying up the road grabbed her attention.

“He’s here!”

Gazing in the rearview mirror, Becca’s heart beat triple fast at the sight of the red tow truck. She got out of the cab of her rusty green truck, helping her daughter jump down to the ground.

“Mr. Doyle!” In Becca’s bulky jacket, she shoved up the sleeves and ran to him as he exited his vehicle. He patted her on the shoulder.

Funny how her daughter could make him grin; even a grim one seemed better than the dark frown he shot her as he walked toward her. Becca gulped, hugging herself.

He shrugged off his dark blue mechanic’s jacket and handed it to her. “You’re cold.”

“I’m good.” Her teeth chattered.

“Ah, Becca.” He sighed, leaned over and then wrapped it around her shoulders, gently lifting her blonde hair out of the collar. “Stick your arms through.”

The gruff command should have bothered her. It didn’t. Warmth enveloped her as she gave in, accepting his coat and the heat his body had left behind. She had a difficult time avoiding looking at his broad chest and lean form in his soft-blue Henley and in worn jeans hugging his powerful legs. It seemed like he hesitated to pull away. Jerking her gaze up, she encountered that slightly puzzled look in his light brown eyes.

The slight breeze rustled his dark brown hair. The stubble on his jaw only added to his rugged appeal. Those chiseled features, so endearing, caused a flutter.

“When did you begin to hate me?”

The bottom of her belly dropped. “What?” She shook her head; shock rolling through her. Hate him? Is that what he thought?

Doyle pulled back sharply. “Pop the hood.”

In ten short minutes, he tinkered with the cables and hoses while asking her to try to start it, to no avail.

He slammed the rusty hood down and wiped his hands on a towel he withdrew from his back pocket. “Towing it in. Could be the fuel filter, alternator, and possibly the battery now since it won’t start.”

Bad news just got worse. Becca calculated the growing costs. Her dribble of savings just took a major hit, wiping her out and then some. Dread pooled and fear nibbled on its heels. How could she manage?

“I’ll give you a lift back.”

“But…the meals. You’ve got to deliver them first.” Her daughter looked up at him with huge, wide eyes.

His frown came down hard and quick.

“The last three to deliver today—”

Dawning cleared his dark brow. “That’s what you were doing at the base of the mountain with a bum truck.”

“Mondays and Wednesdays every week. This one has a teacher’s day, so she’s my helper today.” Why explain? “Can you bring us to the Angel Mountain senior apartments and then back to your shop? I’ll cover your tab next time you’re in the diner.” That’s all she had; she got free meals when she worked. Becca would skip hers that afternoon or night, whenever he came in.

“A few minutes won’t do any harm. No charge.” He cleared his throat. “You two can pull out all your things, including the meals, while I swing my ride around and then hook yours up.”

“See, Mommy, he’s not mean at all.”

***

In spite of her daughter’s occasional chatter, Becca sensed the mounting tension between Doyle and her as he rounded the corner in the parking lot of the quaint little one floor, attached senior apartments to their last stop. She groaned inwardly. Why had she said that in front of her child a few weeks ago?

He’d been brisk and standoffish, more so than usual, at the diner during lunch that day after she’d pointed out he should read the paper and keep up with what’s going on in the world. When they passed by his shop on the way home, Becca sounded off, feeling snubbed and bruised. Again.

“Is he home?” Her daughter tilted her head up from where she sat, stretching to see if their favorite person was there.

“Car’s here, so he must be.” Becca pointed to the older cream-colored sedan.

“Oh, goodie!” She clapped her hands. “You coming in, too, right, Doyle?” She sent him an angelic smile.

“Ah, you want me to?” His gaze skittered to a halt when he caught Becca’s stare.


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