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Chapter two is called:
Cole walked back to his patrol car shaking his head, wondering how a routine stop turned into a morning of remembrance. Morning of remembrance…that thought killed his manhood, making him think of Celeste and her whimsical thoughts.
Still, little Rene Buchanan was living in Lake Placid. Imagine that.
He really hadn’t recognized her. Not without her big thick glasses or braces. And that hat she had on, it was more equipped for his head than hers, continuing to fall into her eyes regardless of the number of times she pushed it back.
It’d probably been years since he’d seen her last, now that he thought of it. Had to have been the summer before he went into the Air Force.
She came to visit that summer, like she did every year. She and Nick had driven up without their parents. Her brother Nick was close to four years her senior and in college then, but they always made time to visit their grandmother.
He had fond memories of Nick growing up. A few years older than him, but with their grandmothers as friends, they’d spent time together hanging out. Then again, Cole was always bigger than most, so many thought he was older than Nick when they went out.
Not Rene, though. If she wasn’t hiding in the house reading a book, then she was getting into trouble. By trouble, he meant falling and getting hurt, or getting picked on by other kids. There might not have been a bigger klutz in his memory than Rene.
He remembered the first time he noticed her. One summer, he and Celeste were at the schoolyard, playing dodgeball with other kids. Had to have been elementary school for sure. Nick came waltzing up; he was already in junior high, though shorter than Cole, with Rene tagging behind with a book in her hand. Nick jumped in the game, but Rene sat on the grass and ignored everyone, focusing on the story in front of her.
Until Bobby Ridle decided it’d be funny to throw the ball at her, knocking the book out of her hand and her glasses off her face.
Cole got to Bobby before Nick could take one step. Lifted the pimple-faced twerp up by the collar, his feet dangling several inches off the ground, his eyes bugging out of his head as Cole snarled at him.
Rene had gotten up and ran over, grabbed his arm, and said, “It’s okay. I’m sure it was just an accident. I’m fine.” But Cole knew it wasn’t an accident and Bobby was just being a prick. He’d put Bobby down while Rene looked at him with admiration in her gaze. Then the next time he and Bobby played…well…if Bobby walked funny from a stray dodgeball, oh well. “It slipped,” Cole had said, laughing.
Celeste had taken Rene off to the side, talking with her, then slid Rene under her wing like a lost little puppy, the way Celeste gravitated toward anyone who needed a hand. Nothing seemed to help Rene, though. Shy, timid, and never wanting to be around him for some reason. He wondered if Rene thought he was a bully after that.
He drove in silence to his sister’s B&B and parked behind her boyfriend’s truck. Correction, fiancé. He had to stop grinding his teeth in that matter. It was partially his fault Celeste was engaged now.
He sighed. He had to keep telling himself that wasn’t the case, either. Deep down, he’d known all along that Caleb was the one for Celeste, but he refused to admit it to anyone.
Opening the back door, he saw Celeste dishing up what looked to be waffles for Caleb.
“How’s my favorite brother?” Celeste asked, all bright eyed and cheerful.
He pulled a seat out at the table, turned it around, and straddled it quickly. He really didn’t have time for a sit-down breakfast. “Where are your guests?”
“They’ve already eaten and gone on their way skiing for the day. It’s just Caleb and me. There’s plenty if you want a fast bite.”
It sure did smell good. What could it hurt? “Sure. I’ll take a muffin for the road, though. That’s what I was really angling for.”
Caleb sat there quietly eating. He looked up and smirked at Cole, then went back to his food. Caleb was an all right guy, he supposed. If he could wrap his head around the fact his sister was getting married to a recluse millionaire. At least they were going to stay on the property, building a new house next door for the two of them. Had Caleb picked Celeste up and moved her away, then there’d be hell to pay.
“You’ll get your muffin when you leave, like you always do,” Celeste said.
She filled his plate and set it in front of him, so he shrugged his jacket off and turned the chair around to eat properly. This was his grandmother’s house, handed down to Celeste. He knew darn well her spirit was still here and if she were able to, she’d reach out and smack the back of his head with her hand for sitting that way at the table.
“How are the roads?” Celeste asked.
“Fine.” He cut off a big piece of waffle and shoved it in his mouth. “Ran into an old friend this morning whose car spun off on the side of the road.”
“Really?” Celeste said, sitting down and joining them for breakfast after she’d fixed his coffee just the way he liked it. She was a born caregiver. “I hope no one was hurt. Who was it?”
“Rene Buchanan. Remember her? I didn’t even know she moved to the area.” He noticed her stricken face and quickly added, “She’s fine. Driving this big as—” Celeste sent him a stern look. “Big SUV that she has no business being in. Didn’t even have it in four-wheel drive and slid off the road.”
“That’s good. I mean, good that she’s fine.” Celeste turned to Caleb. “You remember Rene from Nick and Mallory’s wedding, right? She’s Nick’s younger sister.”
“Everyone’s faces ran together that day,” Caleb said, picking up his coffee and smirking at Cole again when he caught his eyes going to Celeste’s diamond. Did Caleb have to buy something big enough to knock a few teeth out? Maybe, Cole was thinking, he shouldn’t have been in such a mood last week on Christmas morning when Celeste showed up wearing it.
The mood wasn’t because of the engagement, not really, but more for the fact that the night before, Cole had dreamed about the engagement and had seen the ring verbatim in his mind. He was more rattled than anything. Those were things Celeste experienced, never him. Things that caused people to say she was silly and frivolous, so he never admitted it also happened to him from time to time.
Celeste reached over and lightly pinched Caleb’s arm. “The girl who caught the bouquet.”
“Oh, the girl that got stuck with it when you stepped out of her way last minute,” Caleb said, winking at her.
Cole watched the byplay between them and bit back another sigh. This was what Celeste needed in her life and he was just going to have to get over it. She was heading here all along, and he should be happy she found someone as well matched as she did. Even if she and Caleb were polar opposites. He was happy his sister was so, well…happy. He wasn’t envious, not really. His decisions for the future shouldn’t be reflective of others.
“Yes,” Celeste said. “She’s working for Max now. Just moved here before the holiday and started a few days ago. I believe she’s staying with her grandmother, Trixie Miller.”
“She said she was,” Cole said. “All paranoid she was going to be late for work. I told her to relax, that Max would understand. Anyway, I didn’t even recognize her.”
Which was a lie, because once he read her name on her license, flashes of her pretty mouth in that tentative smile of thanks she’d given him so many times in the past flew through his brain.
“She looks the same to me,” Celeste said. “Well, I guess not. I mean, you were used to seeing her in glasses, but I’d seen her without them, so I recognized her easily enough. She blossomed into a beautiful woman, too. Not even shy or timid when I saw her.”
“I didn’t see that side of her. Could be she was still shaken over the accident.”
Or maybe it was him. She did seem to stutter and get all flustered once she realized who he was. Probably nothing more than the fact he always saw her that way.
He couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t helping her up off the ground when she’d tripped, or handing her glasses back to her when they’d fallen off her face. She was the quintessential damsel in distress as a kid. She made him feel like he could conquer the world back then. A Superman to her Lois Lane. Seemed she was a more mature version of Lois now. Hmm, wonder what she’d feel like in his arms if he caught her falling out of a building?
Why the heck was he thinking of that?
“It’s probably nothing more than that,” Celeste said. “I’ll see her again soon, I’m sure. Now that the holidays are over, the cottage is going to be filling back up so Amber or Dena will bring her over to get her acquainted.”
The cottage being the small B&B next door that Celeste managed for Max and his patients. His physician assistants, Amber and Dena—and now Rene—checked in on the patients during their stay.
“Let me know what you think of her,” Cole said as nonchalantly as he could, shoving another forkful of waffle in his mouth.
“Why?” Celeste said, eying him.
Because, though Rene shirked away from him as a kid, he’d always liked being around her. She made him feel good. Made him feel like he was important to someone back then. Made him feel needed without having to be asked. Or told…especially by his father.
He wished he’d kept his mouth shut now. The last thing he wanted was memories like that from his childhood. He’d done his best to push his father from his head. At least the thoughts that made him feel inferior, that he didn’t matter. That he never measured up to his father’s high standards.
It never seemed to matter to Celeste, though, because she saw more than he ever wanted her to see, felt more than either of them ever confessed to other people, and knew him better than he knew himself.
“Hmm. If you say so.” Celeste picked up her coffee and took a sip. “Everyone was surprised when she finally decided on this field of study.”
Cole wanted to ignore the conversation but couldn’t. At this point, if he pretended indifference, it would only throw up more flags.
“Yeah, it sort of threw me for a loop. I don’t remember her being able to do anything without planning it all out. I can’t see her reacting in an emergency situation well, or even fast.”
Slow and methodical was a good description for Rene. Even then, she still ended up on her butt half the time.
“I guess she’s not like that now. Or at least at work. She’s been in school for a long time trying to figure out what to do.”
“How do you know all of that?” Cole asked. Yeah, it was a small town, but Rene really wasn’t part of the town.
“Caleb and I had dinner with Nick, Mallory, Max, and his fiancée, Quinn, before the holidays. Nick and Mallory were excited over Rene’s move and talked about her. I think they were giving some more background to Max so he knew what to expect. Rene is nothing like Amber or Dena.”
“So what’s she been up to then?” he asked, finishing up his waffles and pushing back from the table, hoping to make a quick escape.
“She’s got a few degrees, different things. Literature degrees, things like that. English-type majors.”
“She always had her face in a book,” Cole said, slipping on his jacket.
He’d never forget that. Or how many times he had to pick up her books when she dropped them in his presence. Was it nerves that made her do that, or her wanting his attention? He always thought it was so he’d notice her, which he had, but when he tried to talk to her afterward, she’d freeze up and run away.
“Yep. Guess she liked the classes in college, but it was nothing she wanted to do with her life. I really have no idea why she chose this field, but it stuck. She graduated in May, met Max at Nick’s wedding, and one thing led to another. She flew back for an interview and the rest is history.”
Cole picked up the travel mug that Celeste had poured more coffee in, placed his dishes in the sink, then leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.
“Thanks for the information overload. I really just wanted a muffin,” he said, laughing.
She stood up and placed two in a bag and handed them off to him. “Here you go. Information feeds the soul, like food feeds the belly.”
Caleb snorted at the table, but Cole was wise enough to just respond with, “If you say so.”
“I do. Stop being a brat.”
“Last I knew, you were the brat,” he said. Then he turned to Caleb. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” Caleb said.
Cole saluted them both and jogged down the porch stairs. He was ready to open his door when he heard a bark and turned to see Caleb’s dog, Sparky, come running up to him. There was a day when Cole almost shot the dog when he thought Celeste was in danger. Now the dog couldn’t greet him fast enough.
“Hey, buddy. Keep an eye on my sister for me, okay? It’s your job when I’m not around.”
Sparky looked up at him, understanding clear, Cole knew. He had a way with animals, just like Celeste. Then he hopped back in his patrol car and pulled away.
Thoughts of shy geeky girls the furthest thing from his mind. Sort of.