Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sneak Peek ~ Chapter 1 ~ Crossroads by Cathy Bryant, © 2015

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Enjoy this sneak peek into Crossroads by Cathy Bryant ~ Book six in the Miller's Creek Novels ~


Out of pure reflex, Mara stiffened her right leg and stomped the brake pedal to the floor, tires a-screech against the asphalt as the undeniable odor of burning rubber reached her nose. She gritted her teeth, her breath in rapid spurts, and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. Her clenched jaw relaxed just enough to spout words that had conglomerated in her sour-tasting mouth. “Please don’t let me run over this stupid animal.”
   Just who did she think she was talking to? She shrugged. No one. Nothing. Thin air. Her salty lips had simply taken on a life of their own without permission. The new-to-her Cadillac Escalade finally bounced to a halt, and her body echoed the move.
   Once her brain stopped sloshing around in her skull, Mara jerked her head to the left to see the armadillo–almost the exact color of the pavement–waddle nonchalantly through the bar ditch and under a barbed-wire fence. The squatty body animal disappeared behind the thick growth of mesquite, cedar, live oak, and clumps of prickly pear cactus.
   She brought a trembling hand to her throat and willed her shallow breaths and racing heart to a slower pace. Yet another thing to adjust to in the small back-roads country town of Miller’s Creek.
   She sniffed at the still form of a black and white pile of fur in the road next to her. The rancid smell of squished skunk–who hadn’t fared as well as the armadillo–stung Mara’s nostrils, bringing tears to her eyes and wrinkles to the bridge of her nose.
   Yeah, she’d experienced rural Texas before, but it had been years, her childhood a murky fog that took up residence in the distant recesses of her mind. Had she blocked out painful memories by imprisoning that part of her life behind lock and key?
   Her gaze flitted to the dashboard clock, and set her into instant motion. “Oh no. Please no.” This couldn’t be happening. Not on a day when she actually had a prospective customer to help pay her bills and feed her family. She quickly released the brake and pressed the accelerator, the horses beneath the hood rapidly roaring to life and charging down the road.
   Now she’d never make her four o’clock appointment with Carter Callahan. Of course it wasn’t as though he’d given her ample time to find him a house. He’d called right before lunch and said he needed a house, and then promptly ended the call with some mumbled excuse about being on duty and without giving any details as to what kind of property he wanted. Fearful that as a policeman on duty he had more important matters to deal with, she’d opted not to call back. Instead she’d spent her afternoon viewing possible properties to show him.
   Mara quelled her anxious thoughts with a sip of warm and non-fizzy Diet Coke, the flat and tepid liquid leaving the after-taste of artificial sweetener on her tongue. She made a face and clunked the can into the console drink holder. Was this her third one today, or her fourth? She inched the accelerator closer to the floor.
   At five minutes after four, she pulled up outside the building she’d leased from Otis Thacker, more proof of the number one rule in real estate. Location, location, location. Nestled between recently-renovated turn-of-the-century buildings on the picturesque town square, and boasting creamy-white Austin stone, cinnamon-colored cedar posts, and rustic tin roof, the place screamed central Texas. The perfect store front for her new business, one that needed to turn a profit. And soon.
   The unlocked seat belt slipped from her fingers and clanked against the door as she scooped up her purse and manila file folders. She climbed from the SUV, glanced down the thick slab of elevated sidewalk, and slammed the door.
   No sign of Carter Callahan.
   Had he come and left already? More than a little disgruntled at the missed appointment and chance at a potential sale, she trudged to the door. At some point, she’d just have to bite the bullet and hire a receptionist for times like these, but with money so tight, it was hard to justify the expense.
   Mara moved across the large open space dotted with office furniture she’d purchased at a hotel sale, and into her office, where she plunked the folders atop the granite-looking counter top behind her desk. Next she slung her suit-case-sized purse–an ironic microcosm of her hectic life–onto the desk, contents spilling from inside. She snatched up her eBay iPhone, and fingers ablaze, punched in Carter’s number, scrawled on a nearby pink sticky-note. The electronic beeps from her phone bounced off walls and oak floors.
   “Police department.”
   A disgusted sigh whooshed from her lungs. Not exactly who she’d hoped for. “Ernie? Is that you?”
   “Yep. Mara?”
   “Yeah, it’s me. Sorry to bother you. I’m trying to reach Carter Callahan. Is he there by any chance?”
   “Nope. Just left. Said he had a couple of errands to run.”
   Hope ignited in her chest. Good. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten her. But how much longer would she have to wait? “Did he happen to say what errands?”
   “Something about paying the electric bill and stopping by the post office to mail a package.”
   Her spirits instantly deflated. Okay, so maybe he had forgotten her. “If you happen to see him would you have him call me at the office?”
   “Okey-dokey.” Ernie drawled out the words, Texas-style, right before the line went dead.
   Mara eyed the clock. How could he be so inconsiderate of her time? Yeah, she’d been late too, but she’d dropped other things to get there as soon as possible. As the second hand of the clock ticked off the ever-fleeting time, she ticked off her to-do list for the rest of the day. Pick up Ashton from the daycare by five. Cram down a few bites of leftover goulash before the Miller’s Creek Talent Show rehearsal. Follow up on a few leads and hopefully line up showings for the next day. The rehearsal should be over by seven or seven-thirty, which would give them ample time for outdoor play, Kindergarten homework, and Ashton’s nightly bath before story time and bed. Then…
   Her thoughts strayed to yet another evening by herself, and unexpected loneliness landed like a lead blanket. A solitary sigh escaped. She’d known being a single parent would be difficult. Had known moving to a new place to start a business would be challenging. But one thing she hadn’t taken into consideration was the mind-numbing isolation of interminable nights.
   Mara gave her head a gentle shake, careful not to dislodge the rock hard hair-sprayed bun she’d crafted early that morning to keep her naturally curly hair in check.
   Snap out of it, Mara.
   Life in Miller’s Creek was certainly better than living with the man who no longer loved her. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. No use dwelling on it. Giving in to the Black Abyss would be counter-productive and foolish. She had to find a way to distract herself from the depression that threatened to swallow her alive.
   From outside her office the front door bell buzzed, announcing a visitor. Carter hopefully?
   Mara stood, wiped sweaty palms against her polyester skirt, pasted on her most brilliant business smile, and moved to the main office, her high heels clicking against the wooden floors. She extended a hand toward the larger-than-life man silhouetted against the backdrop of front plate-glass windows. “Hi, Carter. I’m Mara Hedwig. So nice to finally meet you in person.”
   He engulfed her hand with both his bear paws, an equally large grin splayed on his scruffy-but-handsome face. “Hey, Mara. Sorry I’m late. Blame it on my crazy life.”
   His crazy life? He had no idea what crazy was until he’d experienced just a fraction of the la vida loca she lived. She bit back a retort. “Well, we’d best get a move on it if we’re going to get to these houses I’ve lined up for us to see. Let me get my things.” She clicked back to her office, sipped a quick drink of her fourth Diet Coke, and grabbed the folder with Carter’s name scribbled on it, along with her purse and keys.
   A few minutes later they stood outside on the sidewalk in the humid-hot dog days of a sizzling Texas summer as Mara locked up the building and moved toward the driver’s side of the Escalade. “We’ll go in my car.”
   Carter released a low whistle as he folded his over-sized frame into the leather passenger seat. “Business must be good.”
   Not exactly. But definitely the impression she wanted to make, and the reason she’d purchased this way-too-expensive gas-guzzler. According to the latest real estate how-to book she’d read, potential clients were drawn to perceived success.
   Rather than responding to his comment, Mara smiled politely, clicked her seat belt into position, and cranked the engine to a gentle purr. Two minutes later they pulled up outside the first place, a tiny frame house within easy walking distance of the town square and Miller’s Creek police department. She glanced at her expensive-looking knock-off wristwatch as she parked. If she could get him in and out of here in five to ten minutes, she might just be able to keep her five o’clock deadline. “Here’s our first listing. A one-bedroom, one-bath, detached home with a carport.”
   Carter’s dark eyebrows met in the middle. Not a positive sign. “Don’t think this one will be big enough for me and my daughter.”
   “Daughter?” Mara’s frozen smile melted from within, her stomach churning up bitter acid in response. “Sorry. You didn’t really give me a chance in our phone conversation to find out what you were looking for. I assumed you wanted a place for just you.”
   He shook his head. “No. My teenage daughter Chloe lives with me now. The apartment complex we’re in isn’t ideal, and we’re beyond over-crowded.” His gaze focused somewhere down the street. “Didn’t know one teen-age girl came with so much paraphernalia.”
   “Oh.” Mara pursed her lips, her brain clicking through options like a line of people at a Six Flags turnstile. “Well, if this one’s too small, we won’t even bother with it.” At least that would save some time. She opened his client folder and whisked through a few papers, quickly spotting the information she sought. “The next house I lined up is a two-bedroom, two-bath, probably more suited to what you’re looking for.”
   Carter grinned to reveal even white teeth that practically sparkled against his tanned skin. He scratched his chin whiskers. “Sounds more like it. Definitely don’t enjoy sharing a bathroom with a teen-aged female. Don’t get a whole lot of mirror time anymore.”
   Mara laughed as she pulled away from the curb. Like he needed mirror time. “Just so you know, I’m pretty sure the teenage girl doesn’t like sharing a bathroom anymore than you do.”
   His charming smile and deep chuckle set off a strange twist in her stomach.
   Okay, back to business. Now would be a great time to ask a few questions. “Other than the two beds and two baths, is there anything else you’re looking for?”
   “Not really. All comes down to space and budget.”
   Mara released a semi-silent sigh of relief as she turned a corner. Good. He’d brought up the money issue first. “How much are you wanting to spend?”
   “I’d like to keep it close to what I’m paying for the apartment. Seven hundred a month.”
   Quick calculations erupted in her head. Thirty year mortgage, twenty percent down. He’d be able to afford over a hundred thousand with no problem. A smile flickered inside and worked its way to her face. Which meant that after splitting realtor’s fees with the listing agent she could plop at least three grand in her almost-depleted bank account. “I’m sure we can find you something very nice for that amount.”
   Carter’s eyes widened. “Really?” His tone held shocked surprise.
   “Really.” Mara pulled up in front of house two and grimaced inwardly. Ugh. The old bungalow had definitely seen better days and was well under what he could afford. But this wasn’t a good way to impress a new client. Oh well, at least she could see what he liked and disliked about the place, info that would make further research all the easier.
   They stepped from the vehicle at the same time and made their way down the narrow and crumbling sidewalk to a small stoop of a porch. Mara retrieved the key from the lock box with fumbling fingers, painfully aware that Carter used the time to scan the declining neighborhood. Rats! Yet another minus to add to his list of negatives about the place.
   He stepped up beside her. “Well-established neighborhood. I like that. We don’t get too many calls from this part of town. I like that even better. Mostly older folks around here.”
   Mara swung the front door open, filing his comments within compartments in her brain to add to her files later that night. “So you’d rather have friends for your daughter in the neighborhood?”
   Carter’s face took on an indiscernible look. “Not really, but I guess it depends on the friends.” His tone held a trace of sarcasm.
   Her eyebrows climbed despite her attempt to keep them down. Over-protective dad? Poor Chloe. Mara held one hand toward the tiny living space.
   “This, of course, would be your main living area, and it leads to an eat-in kitchen.”
   Carter sauntered across the stained and tattered carpet to the kitchen, his eyes roving over every square inch. “More outdated than what we’re used to, but it’ll do.”
   This time Mara locked her eyebrows in down position and forced her lips into a placid smile. Hello. Could he not see how horrible this kitchen was? No telling how many layers of grease coated the mustard-gold stove or what kind of creepy-crawlies lurked in darkened crevices. Not to mention the musty smell. Yeah, time to move on. “The bedrooms are this way.” She took off down the hallway, then flattened herself against the wall to allow his brawny build to pass by. “The first doorway on the left is the second bedroom, and across the hall is a bath.” If you could call the postage-stamp-sized bath a room.
   He poked his head around the door frame of the pink-tiled bathroom and grimaced. “It’s a bit tight for me. And pink’s definitely not my color.” His gaze roved to the low shower head. “I’d have to chop myself off at the knees to fit under that thing.”
   “This isn’t the master bath. Maybe it’s more your size.”
   He scratched his head. “Maybe, but I’ll probably give Chloe the master. Trust me, she’ll need it for all her stuff.”
   Mara traipsed to the master bedroom with the en suite bath. It wasn’t much bigger than the first.
   Though Carter didn’t speak, she could tell by the turn of his lips that it wasn’t to his taste. “How big is the back yard?”
   “Fairly large, actually.” She moved to a window and peered out the dust-covered blinds, then stepped aside for him to look. “It would give you plenty of space for entertaining.”
   One side of his upper lip curled. “Yuck. Yard work. And just so you know, I’m not much into entertaining. Just need enough space for the dogs.”
   She should’ve seen that one coming. He was definitely the dog type, which meant he definitely wasn’t her type. Not that she was on the market anyway. “So you’d rather have a small yard?”
   “Definitely. Don’t mind yard work, but my free time is next to nil.”
   She nodded. “I totally understand.” Understatement of the millennium. “Are you interested in this one at all?”
   “Maybe. How much?”
   “Well under budget at fifty-five.”
   A puzzled expression clouded his face. “Fifty-five?”
   “Yes. Fifty-five thousand. Is that a problem? I’m sure you’re pre-qualified for more than that.” She hesitated. “Aren’t you?”
   His chuckle broke lose along with a sheepish grin. “Uh, I’m looking for a place to rent. Not to buy.”
   Steam built in her ears and threatened to explode out the top of her head. Well. He could’ve at least asked if there were rentals available when he called. All this time she’d assumed he was looking to buy. And she’d make next to nothing on finding him a rent house. Her smile slipped, but she ducked her head and headed to the front door without comment.
   Once she’d turned off the lights and secured the house, Mara hurried to the SUV with Carter right behind. She inched the speedometer needle a hair above the speed limit as they made their way to the final house for the day. What was the best way to broach this subject of rental houses? She cleared her throat and assumed her best business voice. “You should know that the next house I have lined up is also for sale. Sorry about the miscommunication, but my business revolves around sales. Since you didn’t mention rent houses, I assumed you wanted to purchase a home.”
   “You don’t do rentals?”
   She sent an apologetic smile. “Not at this point. And quite honestly, I think you might have trouble locating a rent house in a place the size of Miller’s Creek. Most people only rent when they become desperate and can’t sell their house.” She peered in the rear view mirror as she slowed to a stop at an intersection.
   A heavy sigh sounded from the other side of the car. “Problem is, I don’t wanna buy. Chloe graduates next May, so I’ll more than likely move to a bigger place where there’s better pay. Need the extra income to send her to college.”
   Mara pulled the SUV onto the shoulder of the road and braked to a stop, then turned to look at him squarely. Might as well end this now so she could get on with the next portion of her day’s crazy agenda. “So you don’t want to see the next house?” She sent a quick glance to the dashboard clock. Hopefully he’d take the hint. Already she was late in picking Ashton up from the daycare.
   “You need to be somewhere?” One dark eyebrow cocked upward, reminding her of the furry caterpillars that had already made their appearance in the trees outside her front door.
   “Not if you’re interested in buying this house.” Sometimes bluntness was the only thing that got through to this kind of guy. She bit back the urge to tell him how he’d wasted her time. Time she wanted–and needed–to spend with her daughter.
   He considered her words. “I have an idea. Let’s swing through the Dairy Queen drive-thru so I can pick up a burger. I missed lunch, and my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut. Then we’ll hop on over to that other house. Maybe I just need to bite the bullet and buy a house.”
   His first words had generated an automated response of ‘you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me’ in her brain. Had he not followed them with the hint of a possible purchase, she’d be dropping him off and pronto. She gulped deep breaths of air to squelch her growing frustration at his devil-may-care attitude. Okay, she could do this. After all, she was a mom, right? She’d grab some chicken nuggets for Ashton at the DQ to save time. Not the healthiest meal, but on their tight time frame it would have to work. Another plan hatched in her mind, and a triumphant grin landed on her lips. And the daycare was on the way to the next house, so she might as well pick Ashton up on the way.
   Ten minutes later, the SUV now flooded with the smell of fast food–Mara pulled back onto the highway as Carter noisily dug around in the bulging white paper sack. He pulled out a small white box with red lettering and sat it on the console between them. “Here’s your chicken nuggets.”
   “Oh, they’re not for me. They’re for my daughter. Her day care is on the way to the next house, so I’m going to pick her up. Do you mind?”
   “Not at all.” He spoke the words through swollen cheeks, much like a squirrel during nut season, his voice muffled by the wad of burger in his mouth. As they pulled up outside the daycare, Carter stuffed in the last morsel of his double-patty burger with bacon and cheese and licked his fingers with a slurping sound.
   Mara ignored his caveman manners, put the vehicle in park, and killed the engine.
   Carter lifted his gaze. “Hey, this is Mama Beth’s daycare.”
   “Yes, it is.”
   “Mind if I go in with you?”
   A wild chase of panic and frustration erupted inside. Would they ever get through this house showing? “Sure. Why not?” A dead-pan tone crept into her voice as she exited the Escalade and hurried to the front door to punch in her security code. A second later they entered the sprawling ranch house which had been converted to a daycare, each room set up for various activities especially geared to preschool-aged children.
   Dani Miller rounded the corner of the hallway, a baby on her right hip. “Hi, Mara.” Then she looked past her to Carter. “Well, what are you doing here, big guy?” She eased around Mara to give him a sideways hug.
   Carter laughed, a rich melodious sound that echoed through the space. “Mara’s showing me some houses, but wanted to stop and pick up her daughter. So I thought I’d come in and say hi.”
   A strange calculating twinkle developed behind Dani’s big blue eyes. “Ah, I see. Y’all follow me. The kids are outside.”
   A minute later they stood in the fenced-in play yard beside Mama Beth, who looked out over the handful of children yet to be picked up. Ashton leaned against the elderly woman’s right side.
   Mara knelt in front of her daughter and enveloped her in a hug. “Guess what I have waiting for you in the car?”
   Ashton smiled a tiny smile, the fatigue of the day resting in her eyes. “What?”
   “Chicken nuggets from Dairy Queen.”
   Instead of being happy about the uncommon treat of fast food chicken nuggets, her daughter pointed to Carter. “Who’s that?”
   Mara latched on to her daughter’s finger and pulled downward, then rose to her feet. “Don’t point, sweetie. It’s impolite. I’m showing Mr. Callahan some properties.”
   Mama Beth made eye contact. “Can I speak with you just a moment before you go?”
   Did these people not realize her stretched-to-the-max schedule? “Certainly. Go get your things together, Ashton. I’ll be inside in a second.”
   “I’ll help.” Carter winked at Ashton and elicited a contagious giggle from the little girl. The two headed inside where Dani still cared for the bed babies.
   Concern hovered in Mama Beth’s blue eyes as she laced her fingers in front of her. “I don’t mean to make you worry, Mara, but I’m a little concerned about Ashton.”
   Mara’s heart stopped momentarily, then resumed beating at a quicker pace. “Why?”
   “She’s just been so tired when she gets off the school bus. Today she curled up in a corner and went to sleep, even with the other children playing and making noise.”
   Mara kept a straight face. “Kindergarten’s a big change for her. I’m sure that’s all it is.”
   “Well, you’d be the one to know.” The woman didn’t sound convinced. “I just wanted to make you aware.”
   “Thank you.” Mara laid a hand on Mama Beth’s arm. “I appreciate you looking after her so well. I’ll definitely keep an eye on her.”
   This seemed to satisfy the older woman, so Mara said her good-byes and hurried inside.
   Carter and Ashton stood near the front door, unaware of her approach. With her typical child-like curiosity and grown-up demeanor, Ashton cocked her head to one side and looked up at Carter. “Are you going to be my new daddy?”
   “Ashton!” Mortified, Mara hurried down the hallway to her daughter’s side, grabbed the heavy backpack from her arms, and took hold of her hand.
   “Sweetie, let’s not ask people that question, okay?”
   “Why not?”
   Mara stepped outside to the vehicle, then opened the back door for Ashton to crawl in. “Because it’s not polite or relevant.” Once her daughter was securely buckled in, Mara slid into the front seat, unnervingly aware of Carter’s amused gaze latched onto her every move. Without giving him the satisfaction of acknowledging his amusement, she handed the box of chicken nuggets to the back seat, started the car, and backed out of the parking lot.
   The car grew more quiet and awkward with each passing moment. And even worse, it was becoming all-too-apparent that she was hopelessly lost. On today, of all days. Had she missed a turn?
   “Where is this place anyway?” Carter whispered the words, almost as though afraid of igniting her already-short and frazzled fuse.
   Mara yanked the steering wheel sharply to the right, careened the car off into the grass at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, threw the gear shift into park, and reached for her county map. How could she have been so stupid not to get the location firmly fixed in her mind before bringing a client? “I think we’re on the right road. And why are you whispering anyway?” The words belted out of her mouth as she slid her right index finger across the map to locate the road she needed.
   “Ashton’s asleep.” His voice still in whisper mode, he jerked his head and left thumb toward the back seat.
   She pulled down the rear view mirror. Sure enough, Ashton’s head lolled to one side, eyes closed, the unopened box of chicken nuggets clutched in her hands.
   Alarms rang in Mara’s head and heart, but she quickly pounded them into submissive silence. Nothing to be overly-concerned about at this point. She sent a weak smile Carter’s way. “Must’ve had a busy day at school. Probably just missed her nap.” Without waiting for his response, she turned her attention back to the map.
   “What road are you looking for? Maybe I can help.”
   Mara checked the folder for the address. “Um…County Road 2142.”
   A cheeky grin appeared on his face. “Other side of town.” He pointed to the map. “We should’ve turned left instead of right.”
   Ugh. Fifteen minutes in the wrong direction? Mara semi-folded the map and tossed it to the floorboard. “Sorry. I’m still learning these back roads.” She adjusted the rearview mirror to check for traffic, put the car in gear, and whipped around to drive the other direction, still battling panic at the sight of her sleeping daughter’s paler-than-normal face.
   “No prob. Maps can be confusing.” Carter’s sincere tone calmed her frayed nerves.
   Twenty quiet minutes later, they drove onto a dirt driveway of a small rock house. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed what Mara expected.
   Ashton was still asleep.
   Now what should she do? “Um, I can let you in the front door to look at the place while I stay outside with her.”
   A frown pulled his dark brows together. “Why don’t you just let me carry her? I don’t mind.”
   Mara nodded her okay and moved to the back door to release Ashton’s seat belt. Carter leaned in from the other side, his broad shoulders filling the doorway. He easily lifted her little girl from the seat. Ashton stirred momentarily, then rested her head on Carter’s thick shoulders, her strawberry blond waves bright against his dark shirt.
   Mara swallowed back a sudden onslaught of emotions and hurried up the front porch. Thankfully the lock box cooperated, and in a minute’s time they entered the house, soft snores sounding from Ashton. The living room, though large, smelled of dust from months of disuse. Mara wrinkled her nose. “A little smelly.”
   “Just needs to be aired out.” Carter’s dark eyes scanned the space as he carefully cradled her daughter in his arms. “Really hadn’t thought about a house in the country, but I like the space. And the peace and quiet.”
   “If your daughter drives, it would mean extra gas money each month.” She clasped her hands in front of the electric blue business skirt she’d donned early that morning. The one she couldn’t wait to exchange for a pair of sweat pants.
   He nodded. “Good point. But let’s go ahead and check out the rest of the house while we’re here.”
   “Of course.” Mara hurried him through the rest of the house, discreetly checking her watch as they entered the last bedroom. “You could use this for guests or a home office.”
   “You need to be somewhere?”
   Man, nothing escaped this guy. He must have eyes in the back of his head. “We have an event this evening, but business comes first.” She injected a happy sing-song to her words.
   Carter’s jaw clenched and pulsed. “Uh, no. Your family comes first.”
   “I know that, but this is more important than what we have scheduled for this evening.” Sort of.
   Without another word, and with disapproval oozing from his face, Carter strode from the room and down the hallway toward the front door, the old floors squeaking beneath his weight.
   Questions rolled in her mind, but Mara followed and quickly locked up the house as she glanced over her shoulder toward the SUV.
   With a soft tenderness Mara hadn’t expected from this over-sized, always-aware mixture of handsome jock and caveman, Carter gently set Ashton into the seat and secured her seat belt.
   Unwanted feelings unleashed inside, wreaking havoc with her stretched-out nerves. In many ways, Carter was exactly the kind of man Mara would’ve wished as a daddy to her little girl. Not that it mattered. Life had proved that road a dead-end.
   The trip back into Miller’s Creek was even more quiet than the trip out, this time with the added burden of Carter’s obvious disapproval sucking the oxygen from the vehicle. Anxiety-ridden thoughts pelted Mara’s brain, not just about Ashton, but about Carter Callahan. Had she somehow offended him?
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