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Strawberry Summer

By Melissa Brayden

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Melissa Brayden

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Strawberry Summer

Just because you’re through with your past, doesn’t mean it’s through with you.

Margaret Beringer didn’t have an easy adolescence. She hated her name, was less than popular in school, and was always cast aside as a “farm kid.” However, with the arrival of Courtney Carrington, Margaret’s youth sparked into color. Courtney was smart, beautiful, and put together—everything Margaret wasn’t. Who would have imagined that they’d fit together so perfectly?

But first loves can scar.

Margaret hasn’t seen Courtney in years and that’s for the best. But when Courtney loses her father and returns to Tanner Peak to take control of the family store, Margaret comes face-to-face with her past and the woman she’s tried desperately to forget. The fact that Courtney has grown up more beautiful than ever certainly doesn’t help matters.

Praise for Melissa Brayden

First Position


“Brayden aptly develops the growing relationship between Ana and Natalie, making the emotional payoff that much sweeter. This ably plotted, moving offering will earn its place deep in readers’ hearts.”—Publishers Weekly

First Position is romance at its finest with an opposites attract theme that kept me engaged the whole way through.”—The Lesbian Review

“You go about your days reading books, thinking oh, yes this one is good, that one over there is so good, and then a Melissa Brayden comes along making everything else seem…well just less than.”—The Romantic Reader

Waiting in the Wings


“This was an engaging book with believable characters and story development. It’s always a pleasure to read a book set in a world like theater / film that gets it right…a thoroughly enjoyable read.”—Lez Books

“This is Brayden’s first novel, but we wouldn’t notice if she hadn’t told us. The book is well put together and more complex than most authors’ second or third books. The characters have chemistry; you want them to get together in the end. The book is light, frothy, and fun to read. And the sex is hot without being too explicit—not an easy trick to pull off.”—Liberty Press

“Sexy, funny and all around enjoyable.”—Afterellen.com

Heart Block


“The story is enchanting with conflicts and issues to be overcome that will keep the reader turning the pages. The relationship between Sarah and Emory is achingly beautiful and skillfully portrayed. This second offering by Melissa Brayden is a perfect package of love—and life to be lived to the fullest. So grab a beverage and snuggle up with a comfy throw to read this classic story of overcoming obstacles and finding enduring love.”—Lambda Literary Review

“Although this book doesn’t beat you over the head with wit, the interactions are almost always humorous, making both characters really quite loveable. Overall a very enjoyable read.”—C-Spot Reviews

How Sweet It Is


“‘Sweet’ is definitely the keyword for this well-written, character-driven lesbian romance novel. It is ultimately a love letter to small town America, and the lesson to remain open to whatever opportunities and happiness comes into your life.”—Bob Lind, Echo Magazine

“Oh boy! The events were perfectly plausible, but the collection and the threading of all the stories, main and sub plots, were just fantastic. I completely and wholeheartedly recommend this book. So touching, so heartwarming and all-out beautiful.”—Rainbow Book Reviews

Kiss the Girl


“There are romances and there are romances…Melissa Brayden can be relied on to write consistently very sweet, pure romances and delivers again with her newest book Kiss the Girl…There are scenes suffused with the sweetest love, some with great sadness or even anger—a whole gamut of emotions that take readers on a gentle roller coaster with a consistent upbeat tone. And at the heart of this book is a hymn to true friendship and human decency.”—C-Spot Reviews

Just Three Words


“A beautiful and downright hilarious tale about two very relatable women looking for love.”—Sharing Is Caring Book Reviews

The Soho Loft Series


“The trilogy was enjoyable and definitely worth a read if you’re looking for solid romance or interconnected stories about a group of friends.”—The Lesbrary

Strawberry Summer

© 2017 By Melissa Brayden. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-8689-7


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: April 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Lynda Sandavol and Stacia Seaman

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Waiting in the Wings

Heart Block

How Sweet It Is

First Position

Strawberry Summer


Soho Loft Romances:

Kiss the Girl

Just Three Words

Ready or Not

Acknowledgments

I’ve always been fascinated by how important our formative years truly are. Humans are living longer these days, and reaching age 100 is no longer as shocking as it once was. Yet the years between age fourteen and twenty continue to be our most memorable and influential. This is the time when we decide who we are or who it is we want to become. We learn a variety of life’s lessons, take risks, and have our hearts broken, much to our own gut-wrenching surprise. These experiences stand out in our memories like no other—raw, wonderful, and vivid. I very much wanted to explore those formative years when I set out to write Strawberry Summer, and oh, what a nostalgic journey it turned out to be!

Thank you: Bold Strokes Books for giving my voice a home and being a great place to cultivate creativity; my fantastic, patient, and wise editor, Lynda Sandoval, for continuing to push me in the best way; my copy editor, Stacia Seaman, for making me look good and being so seamless to work with; my friends: Rachel, Nikki, and Georgia, for being you; Carsen Taite and Barbara Ann Wright for sitting in a tiny cabin with me and being great cheerleaders as I hammered out the middle section of this book; to my family for making me feel like I’m awesome (whether I am or not); my dogs (Apple and Ryder) for snuggling up to me while I write; and Alan for being my rock and keeping the world at bay when I need it to be.

For my first love.

Now


Courtney Carrington was the last person on Earth I wanted to see.

Yet, there she stood. Big blue eyes, sun-streaked blond hair, and even more gorgeous than the last time I’d laid eyes on her—five years and three months ago, to be exact. Not that I’d kept track. God, what was she doing back in town anyway? I hadn’t planned on this, on the Courtney effect, but here it was. My palms felt clammy and I wasn’t sure which words to choose, stripped of that ability. Damn her for that.

Courtney seemed almost as uncomfortable as I did, which was something. As my eyes landed on hers, it felt as if the world around us paused. The everyday sounds dulled and everything went intricately still. Uncomfortably still, in response to the history we shared. If it weren’t for the acute pain that slashed in my chest at merely the sight of her, I would have thought this moment a dream.

“Maggie,” Courtney said. The statement hadn’t come with any additional words. Instead, Courtney eased a strand of hair behind her ear. It’s what she did when she was nervous. I hated that I knew that. I hated how much I used to love it.

Somehow, I’m still not sure how, I found my voice. “What are you doing here?” I managed to say. “You weren’t at the funeral, so I didn’t expect—”

“No. I’m sure you didn’t.” She shifted uncomfortably at the reference to her father’s service and adjusted the leather attaché that matched perfectly with the designer suit and jacket combo. I hadn’t glanced down, but I was fairly confident there were designer shoes to complete the ensemble. Courtney always had been too sophisticated for this town, and looking at her now, it was clear that the divide had only increased with time.

“Hey, Maggie, you okay?” my cousin Berta whispered from her spot at my elbow.

“Hi, Berta,” Courtney said and offered a small smile. “It’s really good to see you.”

“Courtney.” Berta nodded back, then softened because Berta had a huge heart. “I’m sorry about your father.”

“Thank you.”

I discreetly reached to the side and gave Berta’s hand an “I’m fine” squeeze, grateful she was there for this absolutely fantastic moment in my life. Sigh. She and I had met for lunch at Drew’s Deli that afternoon, one of those quick drive-by lunches people have in the middle of the week before racing off to work again. In our cases, Berta to her salon and me to the McAllister property. I was scheduled to show the home three times that afternoon and had no intention of being late for the first appointment. Unfortunately, Drew’s had been down a counter guy and lunch had run long, which was why Berta and I were scurrying across the square at the precise moment Courtney approached from the opposite direction. Sometimes the universe was a cruel, cruel place.

“The store is in disarray,” Courtney explained. “Someone needed to take the reins and put things back in order. So here I am.”

“And out of everyone at Carrington’s, they chose to send one of their vice presidents?” It wasn’t likely and we both knew it.

“Of course not.” Courtney glanced at the ground, then met my eyes again, the connection making my stomach tighten. How could she still do that after all this time? Damn it. “I volunteered to come back to Tanner Peak. Carrington’s is an important fixture in this town, and I wanted to make sure that doesn’t change. As you know, this particular store is very important to my family.”

“Very noble of you,” I said.

She closed her eyes briefly. “Please don’t. I wanted to come back.”

“I’m sure the town appreciates your concern, but I’m late for a showing and better run.”

Courtney backed up as I moved forward. “I don’t want to keep you, but I thought maybe we could find a time to talk. Over coffee, perhaps?”

“Uh, yeah, I don’t think so.” My own uniquely developed code for hell no. “I’m not sure talking is necessary.”

“Isn’t it? Maggie, I have a lot—”

“Margaret. My name is Margaret.”

Courtney closed her eyes briefly at the insinuated formality. “Fair enough. Margaret, I’m only asking for a few minutes.” She passed a quick gaze to Berta and back to me, dropping her tone. “There are things I want to say, if you’ll just give me that chance.”

“Yeah, except I’m swamped this week unfortunately. I’m booked with showings and we’re at the peak of—”

“Summer harvest,” Courtney finished. “I remember. I also ran into your father this morning. He invited me to help pick the leftovers. Said it was a really good year for the strawberries.”

“It was,” I conceded. “We were lucky. Fewer freezes. But I think we’re good on help, actually, so don’t go out of your way.”

“Too late,” Courtney said. “I already told him I’d be there Saturday.”

Fantastic news. The afternoon couldn’t get any better. Truly. “Awesome,” I said flatly.

Courtney attempted a smile in the midst of all the awkwardness. “I’ll let you two get back to what you were doing. Think about that coffee, Margaret. If this week is bad, then maybe next. I’m here for a while.”

And just like that she was gone.

I stood there in disbelief, my heart beating out of my chest in traitorous thumps. Courtney Carrington was back. Right here in Tanner Peak. Really? This was happening?

Chapter One

The first summer


When you’re approaching the end of your junior year of high school, Fridays become the beacon of light you crawl toward on your hands and knees throughout the rest of the school week. I lived for Fridays, dreamt of them, wanted to have their children and not care about who judged us for our love.

However, today was not a Friday I was looking forward to, which said a lot about its potential for suckage. I was a less-than-popular kid at Tanner Peak High School who was about to get up in front of her entire U.S. history class and give a much-dreaded presentation. When it was over, I could cling to the promise of a weekend of reading, swimming, and working outside under the big blue sky.

I repeat, when it was over.

First, however, my worst fear would be realized in living color.

The topic of my presentation, the tactics of persuasion Abraham Lincoln employed on his cabinet members in an effort to abolish slavery, was one I was actually interested in. I didn’t mind the research or the speech writing or even the rehearsal period. However, getting up in front of my classmates, who already found me boring and uninteresting, sounded about as enjoyable as a root canal on my birthday. Tanner Peak was a small town, and once you were deemed a “farm kid,” your social calendar remained relatively open. Wide open. I’d always done my best to be friendly but stayed out of the line of teenage fire. So far, so good. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I didn’t have any enemies either, and that was key.

“Margaret, you’re scheduled to start us off today,” Mr. Blankenship said from behind his overly ornate oak desk. I still wasn’t sure how he’d gotten it through the door of the classroom to begin with. I thought on it often. That desk was ridiculously large. “Margaret?”

Right. It was now or never.

“Yeah. I’m ready.” I stood and took a deep breath, reminding myself that in six short minutes this whole thing would be over, and in a couple of hours I’d have the weekend stretched out long and luxuriously in front of me. Maybe I’d take a dip in the creek later. The temperatures had been climbing.

I walked to the front of the room, already self-conscious but doing my best to mask it. I’d spent the better part of my week selecting what would hopefully be a non-offensive outfit for this very occasion with the goal of simplicity. As hard as I tried, I was no fashionista, and my style seemed to fall about a year too late to be trendy. However, it’s difficult to screw up jeans, a slim-fitting maroon T-shirt, and Chuck Taylors. So that’s what I went with. I’d pulled my hair into a clip so it wouldn’t do something stupid like fall into my eyes.

I surveyed the room made up of twenty-four teenage faces. Mark Osgood was laughing at something Alexis Windell had just whispered to him. The cluster of cheerleaders already wearing their uniforms blinked back at me with mild tolerance. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears and wanted desperately to sit back down again, but that wasn’t really an option. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, the door to the classroom swung open and Vice Principal Hendricks entered and held up a hand.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Blankenship, but I’ve brought you a new student.” On cue, twenty-four heads swiveled in unison as a striking blonde entered the room. We didn’t get a lot of new students. This was a big deal. “This is Courtney Carrington, who is joining us from Chicago.”

“Wonderful. Courtney, you can take that desk there,” Mr. Blankenship said, indicating a desk near the front of the room. The girl smiled confidently as she passed my classmates en route to her new desk. The desk next to mine.

Perfect. Another ultra-popular girl who thought the world existed to make her feel superior. Just what I needed.

With a wave, Mr. Hendricks departed the classroom and all eyes were back to me. The new girl, Courtney, looked up at me expectantly. I was, after all, standing in front of the classroom as if I had the floor. Except I was rattled now and trying to remember what it was that my presentation was about exactly. What I did notice was that the new girl’s skirt fell slightly above the knee and was made up of navy and maroon plaid. Instead of heels or sandals, she wore lace-up gray boots. I’d never seen lace-up boots look like that before. A skirt and boot combo would have never occurred to me in a million years.

“She ever goin’ to say anything?” Travis Oakham asked loudly. He was the wide receiver on the football team and thereby everyone’s favorite human. That was beyond unfortunate for a myriad of reasons.

“Allow me to begin,” I said quickly in response, vamping as my pulse accelerated to a pace I didn’t stop to analyze. Allow me to begin? Did I actually say that in front of my classmates? Kill me now. Notify my family it wasn’t pretty.

Travis made a sweeping gesture with his arm and then accepted a note passed his way from the gaggle of cheerleaders at the back of the class. The cheerleaders lived to pass Travis notes. He smirked at its contents and I attempted to focus.

Time to get my A in spite of it all. I came here with a goal, and I’d achieve it if it killed me.

“Abraham Lincoln was more charismatic than Travis Oakham,” I said with confidence. All eyes shifted to Travis and then back to me. It wasn’t the opening I’d planned on, but I went with it. “And we all know Travis is charismatic. Like Travis, Lincoln knew how to hold court. People listened to him.” The confused look on Travis’s face let me know that I had his attention, and for the remaining five and half minutes of my presentation, I held on to it, along with the rest of the room. I wasn’t a rock star up there by any means, and the applause when I finished was tepid at best, but I felt steady on my feet when I returned to my desk. I hadn’t crashed and burned, which was everything. I’d remembered my material and Mr. Blankenship seemed pleased as he jotted away on his legal pad. The jury was still out on how my opening comments about Travis had been received, but I’d worry about that later. One lily pad at a time, I reminded myself.

“That was really good,” the new girl whispered as I sat down. “Truly. I’m not just saying that.

“Thanks,” I said, briefly meeting her eyes. She was unfortunately even prettier than I’d thought and apparently polite. I didn’t trust it but was brought up with manners. “Welcome to Tanner Peak.”

Her smile widened. “Thanks. This is my fourth school in five years,” she whispered with a weary smile and then crossed one leg over the other, lace-up boots and all, as she focused on the next presenter. She would do well here. Travis and his flock would scoop her up and place her square in the world of the elite and sought after. It was only a matter of time.

Flying high on my not-a-failure of a morning, I floated into the cafeteria following fourth-period geometry and dropped my brown bag lunch on my standard table. My cousin Berta, also a junior, smiled at me. “And? What was the verdict?”

“I didn’t choke. I almost choked. Then didn’t choke. It was a record save.”

“Proud of you,” she said. “You earn a strawberry tart made from your family’s very own awesome fruit.” Berta tossed a Saran-wrapped tart in the air and I caught it handily.

“Score. Oh, and we got a new girl,” I said. “Yet another—”

“Is anyone sitting here?”

I glanced up, stunned to see Courtney Carrington holding a lunch tray and smiling nervously down at us. I passed a glance to Berta, who smiled back at Courtney. “Uh, no,” I said. What the hell was happening?

“Great.” Courtney took the seat next to me, and I marveled at this turn of events because why wouldn’t Courtney sit with Melanie Newcastle or Travis Oakham or all the other Kens and Barbies? Didn’t matter. They’d recruit her soon enough. “I’m Courtney,” she said to Berta and extended her hand across the table. Interesting. You didn’t see a lot of teenagers shake hands. She carried herself with a certain maturity I wasn’t used to.

“Roberta Wicks, but everyone calls me Berta. You must be new.”

“It’s my first day,” Courtney said and hooked her thumb at me. “We have history together. It’s Margaret, right?” I cringed a little. I hated my name. Always had and probably always would.

“Yeah.”

“What’s your last name?” Courtney asked.

“Beringer,” I supplied.

“Oh, like that strawberry farm on the way into town. There’s a cute hanging sign in the shape of a strawberry.”

“Yeah, that’s my family’s place.”

“Seriously?” she asked, sitting up a little straighter. I was reluctant to answer due to my whole farm-kid status. It hadn’t been easy. Tanner Peak was a small town in the hills of California made up of roughly twelve thousand people. Within that, the makeup was divided into those who lived in the center of town and those on the berry farms that made up its perimeter. I’d heard the term “dirt under her nails” used as a shorthand one too many times. Nevertheless, I nodded.

“I’ve lived there all my life. On that farm.”

Berta looked my way. “The Beringers are one of the largest producers of strawberries in probably a hundred miles.”

“Wow,” Courtney said. Again, this girl was making an effort.

I inclined my head. “Berta is my cousin, I should point out, and thereby predisposed to say that.”

Courtney nodded. “Cousins, huh? You know, there is a slight resemblance, now that you mention it.” And there was. Only the boring brown straight hair on my head was curly and fun on Berta’s. What was more, Berta always seemed to know how to tame it into a cute and sassy style, a talent I lacked. Berta’s eyes were brown. Mine have always been described as more hazel.

Courtney looked thoughtful. “It’s amusing that your family is known for berries and your last name is Beringer.”

“Trust me,” I said. “The irony is lost on no one.”

“So where are you from, Courtney?” Berta asked as we dug into our lunches.

She took a minute to finish her bite of salad. “Originally, Chicago, but my family moves a lot. My father’s line of work. It’s not the easiest, moving so often, but I’ve been told that we’re settling down for good this time. I guess we’ll see about that.”

“What does your dad do?” Berta asked.

“He owns a chain of department stores.” Courtney took another bite and Berta and I froze. I played back her name in my head. Courtney Carrington. Of course. I was an idiot.

Berta set her cream soda down in shared shock. “Are you talking about Carrington’s Department Store? You’re that Carrington?” For the past four months, it was all anyone in town could talk about. We had three stoplights, a handful of restaurants, and finally the town was getting its very own department store. This was huge. Monumental. There would be no more forty-minute drive to Westover for school shopping. No half-day commute just to buy a decent birthday present. In only a few short weeks, we could shop for clothes or appliances right here in town. It was still hard to imagine.

“Right,” Courtney said. “My father grew up in Tanner Peak, so it was important for him to open a store here at some point. I guess ‘at some point’ means now.”

“I just can’t believe it,” Berta said, shaking her head in awe. “You realize you’re a celebrity. At least to people like us.”

Courtney laughed. “Trust me. I’m not.”

“It’s cool of your dad to bring a store here,” I told her, remembering what my parents had said on the topic. “It’s going to bring a lot of jobs to Tanner Peak and probably make it more attractive to outsiders looking for a place to land.”

Courtney inclined her head in thought. “Well, I’m sure it had to be a favorable investment as well, if I know my father. Plus, my grandmother still lives around the corner from the school, so there’s also a personal connection.”

Berta pointed at me. “Netta!”

It all came together in my head. “Oh my God. Netta Carrington.” The woman gave out whole Snickers bars on Halloween and was practically a grandmother to everyone she met. We just never realized she was the department store Carrington. And why would we? She was Netta to us.

“Yes!” Courtney said. “You guys know her?”

“Everyone knows her,” I said. “She’s awesome, so I’m guessing your dad must be.”

“Oh, let’s not get carried away.” There was an almost eye-roll that came with the comment, indicating that she didn’t think her dad was so great. My intuition steered me past it.

“So what’s there to do around here?” Courtney asked. “I’ve been here ten minutes and haven’t really had time to explore.”

I opened my mouth and closed it, looking to Berta for help because there wasn’t much. “We have a movie theater,” she said, offering up our two-screen Cineplex.

I nodded. “And a pretty okay sandwich shop.”

“There’s a park.”

“And a kick-ass Laundromat,” I said. “I spend most of my Saturday nights at the Laundromat. Everyone who’s anyone is there.” Horror slashed across Courtney’s face and I held up a hand in reprieve. I may have been a low-ranking high school socialite, but I wasn’t a lost cause. “Just a joke. I’m kidding, which I tend to do a lot. Probably a nervous thing. As is announcing to others when I’m nervous. Just a heads-up for you.”

Courtney relaxed into a grin. “Helpful tip. Thank you.”

“Don’t worry,” Berta told her. “There’s plenty to do, especially when you add in school activities.”

“I play tennis,” Courtney said, brightening.

Of course she played tennis. I mean, of course. Instead of rolling my eyes at the cliché, I decided to be helpful. “We have a team. There’s only a few weeks of school left, but you could maybe see about practicing with them.”

Berta joined in. “Official tryouts happen in August for next year. You’ll want to hit up Coach Barnhart.”

Courtney scribbled a note in her spiral. “Barnhart. Got it. This is awesome. Thanks, guys.”

“Anytime,” I said.

“Hi, there. We haven’t met yet,” Melanie Newcastle purred as she landed alongside our table. And here we go. Pretty much right on time. Courtney stood and offered her hand with a smile.

“We haven’t. I’m Courtney.” Instead of accepting Courtney’s hand, Melanie did what she and her friends always did and pulled Courtney into an embrace, the multitude of bracelets on her wrist cling-clanging along. This time I actually did roll my eyes.

“And I’m Melanie. We’re so glad to have you. How about I introduce you around?”

Courtney’s smile doubled in wattage. “Oh, I’d love that.” With Melanie’s hand on Courtney’s shoulder, they headed off in the direction of the beautiful and sought after.

“We’ll catch up later,” Courtney said over her shoulder. She held my gaze and nodded sincerely. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be until that sincerity was replaced with the sugar-coated niceties germane to the elite.

“Bye, Margaret. Bye, Berta. You two enjoy the rest of your lunch,” Melanie said in a friendly / false farewell. Yeah, kinda like that.

I sighed and smiled at Berta as we picked up the remains of our lunch and headed to the trash can. The new friend possibility had been nice while it had lasted.

Onward and upward.

Chapter Two

The afternoon sun beat down gloriously over the farm, making the green seem extra vibrant and the color on the strawberries pop for days. I snagged a ripe one on my way into the farm and bit into it, closing my eyes at the burst of sugar and fruit that filled my mouth. Nothing like it on the planet. The sea fog from the Pacific had rolled off for the day and in its wake had left a mild afternoon, maybe even warm enough for that swim in the creek if I was lucky.

“What’s up, Scrapper?” my brother Clayton asked, approaching from the cooling rooms. The nickname he’d given me from childhood had stuck. What could I say? It was better than Margaret, and I wore it as a badge of honor. I’d always been tenacious about proving myself on the farm. Scrappy I could cop to.

“Well, I’ve survived another week of public education and have returned home at long last.”

“You’re so dramatic.”

“I am not. I’m what you call a realist. My existence is a struggle.”

“It is not. Your nose has been in too many damn history books. You’re not one of the oppressed. You’re a middle-class kid living in Southern California. This is the time in your life when you should be soaking it all up, enjoying yourself,” he said, wiping down the windshield of his pickup. “High school is the best.”

Well, yeah, it certainly had been for Clay, who had graduated three years ago with titles like quarterback and prom king and favorite student in all of the universe. Girls lusted after him. Guys wanted to be him. Strangely, I hadn’t received the same adoration during my time in high school.

“I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on the whole high school high-note thing,” I said. “But it’s fine. What’s going on around here? Need any help?”

“Nope. Knockin’ off for the day. The guys are laying the last run of plastic to the northern fields. Pop’s out there with them now, wrapping up. Berries are looking good this year, kiddo.”

“Tasting good too. We were lucky. Not too many storms.”

He whistled. “I’ll take that luck again next year.”

We were easing out of peak season, in which everyone on the farm had to put in immense amounts of overtime. There were still plenty of strawberries on the plants to harvest, but the bulk of the work was behind us. Kinda nice to see my brother breathing a little easier as we moved into the summer months. My father would now shift his focus to some of the administrative tasks it took to keep the farm up and running as Clay focused on replanting the fields for the fall harvest. My brother had taken over a good chunk of the responsibility on the farm in the last year. At least the parts my father was willing to relinquish to him. Beringer’s had belonged to my grandfather first, passed down to my father, and one day would belong to my brother and me. Something Clay took very seriously.

He tossed the hand towel into the truck bed. “You just missed your buddy on the refrigeration truck.”

“Oh yeah? How’s Jimbo?” I was sad to have missed him. Jimbo happened to be my favorite of the drivers. Quick witted. Smart.

“He left a book for you. Something about Hemingway’s life. I put it on the kitchen table in the big house.” The big house, where I lived with my parents, stood on the southern end of the farm, closest to town. Clay occupied the smaller cottage a few fields over to the east. It gave him space for…extracurricular activities.

“He knows I’ve been on a Hemingway kick.”

Clay laughed in disbelief. “Whatever bookworm gene came your way by birth certainly skipped my hard head.”

“Whatever. You just prefer the outdoors, and I can’t say I blame you.” I rolled my shoulders and stared skyward. It sure was a nice afternoon.

Clay walked to the driver’s side of his truck and called to me over his shoulder. “Headed to town for beer and Oreos. Coming or not?”

“Coming.” I’d been following Clay around religiously since childhood. He pretended to tolerate me, but I knew he enjoyed the company. I ran inside, dropped my backpack on the kitchen table, and scurried back out to the truck.

“Margaret Eileen Beringer, get back in here!” I froze at the sound of my mother’s voice, held up a finger to Clay, and headed calmly back inside.

My mother stood in the entryway with a hand on her hip. Her hair was a shade lighter than mine, closer to Clay’s blond locks, and cut to her shoulders. I’d always found my mom pretty. “Yes, ma’am?” I asked, already aware of the infraction.

“I know my only daughter did not just race in this house and then out again without a word about how her history report went when I’ve been waiting to hear all day, checking the clock.”

I grinned. “I’m very sorry. I’m a thoughtless daughter ready to make it right.”

“And? How’d it go? Were you nervous? Did you forget anything?” My mom had always been my biggest cheerleader.

“Petrified as always, but it went really well. Best part of all? It’s over and I don’t have to agonize over it ever again.”

“That’s great, sweetheart. I’m so proud of you. I knew you’d ace it. Now, where are you running off to like a crazy child?”

“Klein’s Grocery with Clay. He’s craving beer and cookies. He might be pregnant.”

“Well, he should lay off the beer in that case. Wait a second.” She walked to her purse and found a ten. “Please pick up some white vinegar. The coffee machine’s been going nuts and I can’t work if I can’t caffeinate.”

“Will do. Back soon.” My mother, believe it or not, was a romance writer. As in, the torrid kind of sexy romance you see in the checkout lines at the grocery store. The ones with the shirtless man with rippling muscles on the cover that make you feel embarrassed to be alive. She chose to write under the pen name Bella Charmed but would happily talk about her work to most anyone who asked, and those who didn’t, for that matter. While I found it slightly embarrassing where my classmates were concerned, I was also really proud of her and all she’d accomplished.

I kissed my mom on the cheek, tore out of the house, and jumped in the truck just in time for Clay to pull away. “Turn it up,” I said, and he blasted the Beach Boys, as we were nothing if not throwbacks. With the windows down, “Fun, Fun, Fun” on the radio, and the entire weekend laid out ahead, I didn’t think the afternoon could get much better.

The parking lot at Klein’s was overflowing when we arrived, typical for a Friday afternoon when the weather was nice. Various barbecues, picnics, and get-togethers would certainly be taking shape. But it was the blonde sitting in the rocking chair in front of the store that snagged my focus. Courtney Carrington, still wearing the plaid skirt and the boots, sat there writing something in a notepad. No, wait, drawing something. She’d glance up briefly and then go back to her page, biting her bottom lip in concentration. Her long hair was now pulled into a side braid that rested on her shoulder. She looked infinitely more relaxed than the last time I’d seen her, as if in her element. I stopped to watch her draw for a moment, captivated by the serenity of it all.

“You coming in?” Clay asked way too loud. “Or are you gonna stay out here and weirdly stare at strangers some more?”

Damn it. I wanted the ground to swallow me up then and there. Overhearing the comment, Courtney’s gaze snapped to mine and I felt the warm blush hit my cheeks without delay. I turned red at the slightest embarrassment. Probably the lamest thing about me.

Courtney, however, smiled, which eased the mortification. “Well, hey there, Margaret Beringer.”

“Hey.” I made my way up the three wooden stairs to the store’s porch. “What are you doing out here?”

She gestured to the gas pump out front with her chin. “There’s this little bird just below the pump having the best time with the gravel. Picking it up and tossing it around. I just had to capture him.” It wasn’t something I would have noticed on my own, and the fact that Courtney had didn’t fit with my initial characterization of her. Wasn’t she destined to be superficial and shallow? The guilt kicked me swiftly in the gut.

“You didn’t mention you were an artist.” I peered at her drawing. It was really good.

“We didn’t get to talk for that long,” she said. “Unfortunately.”

“That’s right. You were whisked away to the land of…” I abandoned the sentence, hearing how it would sound out loud and a little tired of my own rush to judgment.

“The land of?”

“Never mind. I should find my brother.”

“That or stare weirdly at more strangers.”

I laughed at the zing. Courtney was different than the average teenage fare around here. She was harder to predict. That had my attention. I held up my hands. “For the record, I didn’t mean to stare.”

“For the record, I’m not at all offended.”

My laughter was of the nervous variety. “Good.”

Courtney straightened. “What are you up to tonight? I’m bored and seem to have very few prospects.”

“Oh.” I paused, not really sure where to go from there. “I figured Melanie and her gaggle of girls would have you circling the square with them. It’s kind of what they do.”

“She did mention it.” The fact that Courtney hadn’t jumped all over that opportunity scored her additional points in my book. And she already had a handful.

“And you’re not joining them?”

“I considered it,” she said and flashed a smile. “But now that you’re here, I thought I’d see what you have going on.”

“Weighing your options.”

She tilted her head from side to side. “Something like that. So what does Margaret Beringer, heir to the strawberry throne, have in store for herself tonight?”

“Okay, um…” God, I wished I had something more exciting to offer. “I was gonna play it pretty low key, one could say. Maybe go for a swim later.”

Courtney seemed to perk up. “Oh yeah? So you have a pool?”

I suppressed a laugh. “No, but, um, there’s a creek down the hill a bit from the park.”

“A creek, huh?” Courtney seemed to mull over the concept.

“Yeah. If you follow the path just next to the pavilion, it leads down to the water.”

Courtney began to pack up her sketchpad and pencils. “Great. What time will I find you there?”

Wait. This was happening? This was a bad idea. “Oh. Probably a little after eight.” Damn it all! I was a betrayer of self.

“Perfect. I’ll see you at your hidden creek later,” Courtney said. “I’m up for moonlight swimming. We can hang, get to know each other.”

What had I done? I felt the dreaded blush again. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll see you later, then.” So we’d go swimming together. Me and Courtney Carrington. Who was very pretty. And who I probably had nothing in common with. Why not? So much for my relaxing Friday night. I was an idiot.

Searching for white vinegar and my wayward brother, I headed into the store. I found him near the bakery’s glass display case. Darlene, the doe-eyed baker, was chatting him up. She batted her eyes and swatted his bicep with a girly giggle. Subtle, Darlene. As I waited for the super stud to tear himself away, I reflected on the fact that I had actual plans of my own later. Not a big deal. Except it felt like a big deal. I had all this extra energy and my palms were itchy as I strolled the aisles of Klein’s in an attempt to shake it off. Only now, my stomach muscles tightened as I recalled the image of Courtney biting her lip thoughtfully while she sketched. What was that about anyway? Just a girl drawing. Nothing to ruminate on.

Only she was a beautiful girl.

Deep sigh to the gods above.

I considered calling Berta to join Courtney and me, take the pressure off the conversation responsibility, but remembered she was headed to Santa Barbara to visit the grandparents on her father’s side. No-go there. It would be fine, I decided, moving myself past it. We might even have fun together.

“You’re extra quiet for such a chatty kid,” Clay said on the drive home.

“I am? Just thinking, I guess.”

“You know that girl out front of Klein’s? I’ve never seen her before.”

“As of today, she sits next to me in history. Just moved here from Chicago. She’s a Carrington, as in the department store variety.”

Clay whistled low. “So, loaded?”

“I guess.”

“The prodigal son returns home after all. I’d heard the family might move back when the store opening was announced a few months ago.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. “The prodigal son.”

“Think about it. You ever hear Netta Carrington mention her son?” I shook my head. “Because he’s a moneygrubbing asshole who practically abandoned her. Hasn’t visited once in the last ten years is what people say.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“People talk to me, Scrap.” Right. There was that. “Plus, he and Dad went to school together. Never got along. Rumor has it Dad decked him in front of the school.”

“No way,” I said, shaking my head. “Dad wouldn’t hit anyone.”

Clay passed me a dubious look and my jaw fell.

“Seriously? Why have I never heard about any of this?”

“Probably because you’ve never struck up a friendship with the Carrington kid before.”

“Huh. Good point.”

We eased into the circular drive in front of the big house and I jumped out and carried my share of the groceries inside. My parents were both in the kitchen, a very common occurrence an hour before dinner. They tended to prepare the meal together and catch each other up on their respective days. It was sweet in a way. My father sliced a tomato and my mother read to him from her laptop. “Wordlessly, Jeffrey kissed her, and not softly. He owned her, every inch of her. He eased his leathery hands—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, holding up a hand. “Child in the room. Child in the room.”

“Don’t worry. It’s a short scene,” my mother said, waving me off.

I gaped in outrage at her dismissal. “I thought we had a ‘no reading sex scenes out loud before dinner’ clause. If not, we need one. I so move.”

My father raised his gaze from the tomato, his eyes thoughtful. “Wasn’t Jeffrey the crooked farmhand in the last book? I thought he stole a bunch of money and everyone hated him.”

“Yes,” my mother said, nodding. “That’s him. But Chastity has had a major influence on his view of the world and makes him want to be a better man. In more ways than one.” My parents locked eyes and tiny little parent sparks shot into the air all around them. Oh, man. Cute as they were, I just couldn’t.

“There’s also a ‘no flirting in front of your daughter’ clause.”

“There most certainly is not,” my father said sternly, but there was a twinkle in his eye. “Oh, Jimbo left a book for you.”

I grinned. “I heard. Hemingway!”

“What’s another word for thrust?” my mother asked.

I put fingers in my ears. “La-la-la-la-la. Please yell upstairs when you’re ready for me to set the table. Until then, I’ll be in my room saving up for therapy.” My mother grabbed me as I passed and placed a loud smacking kiss on my cheek. I couldn’t help but smile in the midst of my mock outrage. My parents, while annoying, were pretty great in the scheme of possible parents I could have been paired with. I was lucky that way.

Snagging the book off the table, I took the stairs two at a time and spent the next ten minutes thumbing through the description of Hemingway’s childhood, intrigued to read that his mother was said to have dressed young Ernie as a girl until he was four. He could join me in therapy. As hard as I tried, however, I couldn’t seem to lose myself in the book—a rare happening, as I was a voracious reader. Too keyed up, I decided. Maybe from the brief encounter with Courtney, a potential new friend. Maybe because I was nervous about us hanging out. Or maybe it was because I knew the actual underlying cause of my anxiety.

I was into girls.

This wasn’t a brand-new revelation. I’d known for a while, but this was the first time that a girl had made such a startling impression on me, and I’d only known her for a few hours. But Courtney was also a seemingly friendly and intriguing person. I didn’t know a ton of those. God, I didn’t want to do anything to make it weird. So for the next ten minutes, I did things like pace the length of my room, look over my swimsuits to make sure I didn’t choose a stupid one, and run my fingers through my hair just because. In other words, I behaved like a crazy person.

“Where are you off to?” my father asked an hour later as I stood from the dinner table with my plate in my hand.

“I didn’t say I was going anywhere.”

“Don’t have to.” He exchanged a look with my mother. “You got that look. Clay said you made a new friend. Is that where you’re headed?”

I took in the expectant expression on my father’s face and the amused one on my mother’s and then passed Clay a stare of my own that said, “Traitor, I will pay you back for this if it takes me until my dying breath.” He grinned happily and shoved a forkful of green beans into his highly offensive big mouth. Underneath the broad shoulders and sandy blond hair, he was just a big kid. I shook it off and aimed for nonchalance when answering my father. “I’m going to the creek. It’s finally warm enough to swim. I won’t be late, though.”

“Curfew is ten,” my father reminded me. “And make sure there’s no swimming by yourself after dark.”

“Yes, sir.”

My mother inclined her head in curiosity. “Who’s the new friend?”

“Oh. Her name is Courtney. She just moved here.”

“Well, then bring her by,” she said. “We’d like to say hello.”

“I’ll see if she’s available.”

“You forgot to mention her last name,” Clay said. He dodged my death glare by way of intense concentration on his obnoxious mound of mashed potatoes.

“Don’t you have some sort of hot but less-than-intelligent date to pick up?” I asked with a raise of my eyebrow.

“It’s seven thirty on a Friday,” he pointed out with a twinkle in his eye. “The night is young.”

“What’s her last name, then?” my father asked, his interest now piqued. Damn my brother.

I met his gaze. “Carrington.”

“Mitch Carrington’s girl?” my father asked, setting down the plate of spinach he’d just picked up.

“I believe so, sir.” I held my breath, hoping this information wouldn’t get in the way of my plans tonight.

My mother placed a calming hand on my father’s wrist. “Has to be. Bring her by after you swim. We went to school with her dad. Your father could put together one of his famous strawberry shortcakes for dessert.”

My father didn’t say anything.

“I’ll see if she’s free.”

My mother sat back, pleased. “Wonderful. We’ll hope she is.”

I thought about the exchange on the ten-minute walk to the creek’s edge, curious about my parents and their relationship to Mr. Carrington. What did my dad have against the guy, anyway? I passed through Town Square, waving politely to those I recognized, which, let’s be honest, was just about everyone in a town the size of ours. Some bluesy music spilled out from Lonesome’s Bar and the sweet smell of hamburgers frying permeated the air near the Berry Good Café.

And oh, good. There was Travis and Melanie and their dutiful followers, all gathered around Travis’s new car. He’d recently turned seventeen and had thrown one of the biggest blowouts the teenage Tanner Peak had seen in years. Berta and I had dropped in but were long gone by the time the cops arrived to bust it up for noise complaints and underage drinking.

“Beringer,” Travis said indifferently as I approached. He wore his letterman jacket, which in May seemed oppressive, but hey, it was a choice. It wasn’t as if we’d forget who he was or his laundry list of athletic accomplishments. As if anyone would ever allow that.

“Hey, Travis,” I said politely.

The group broke a little and I saw Courtney standing in their midst, laughing at something Melanie had said. Gone was the plaid skirt and in its place jean shorts and flip-flops. She appeared infinitely more casual and relaxed.

“Margaret, hey,” she said, catching sight of me and smiling. She gestured generically at the group. “These guys are talking about roasting marshmallows at Melanie’s house.” Cue Melanie looking instantly uncomfortable at the insinuated invitation. I had never really been a part of their set.

“You can come if you want,” Melanie said reluctantly with a shrug, averting her eyes.

“Oh, no. But thank you. For the invitation.” My gaze skated from Melanie to Courtney, then back to Melanie again. “I’m good, though.”

Melanie showed off the plastic smile, her claim to fame. “Have fun, then.”

“You guys, too.” I nodded and waved and headed off on my own path. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to hang out and roast marshmallows in the land of social people. It was more the stress of holding my own with those kids that had me heading the other direction. I didn’t say the right things, or know the right clothes to wear, or listen to the most popular music, and surely there would be a giant sign over my head that notified them. So I chose to remain on my own, and that would be just fine. I could convince myself of that anyway, if I said it often enough.

The last little bit of daylight clung to life as I arrived at the peaceful creek. The sky held glimmers of pink from the sun’s descent, and I took a moment to really appreciate its brilliance. The water lapped leisurely against the bank in serene accompaniment. This was my spot. I let out a relaxed breath at how at home this place made me feel.

Safe. Comfortable. Calm.

I stripped off the shirt and shorts I’d worn over my one-piece suit and slipped easily into the water, hissing as the cool liquid pressed to my skin. I pushed back from the edge with my foot and floated on my back, acclimating to the temperature. God, I loved the rush I got in those first few seconds. A surge of adrenaline that shouted, “This is too cold to live,” making it a moment I fully embraced. I liked living dangerously. Well, in small, controllable scenarios quite close to my own backyard.

“You weren’t lying. There’s a creek out here after all.” I righted myself abruptly and whirled around at the sound of the voice, surprised to find Courtney standing at the water’s edge. “Hey,” she said and offered a little wave.

“Oh, hi. I thought you were gonna—”

“Marshmallows don’t really excite me. Plus, I haven’t been swimming in I don’t know how long.”

“You came to the right place for that.” It was the stupidest sentence ever uttered, and I winced internally, willing it back. The turtles on the bank were cooler than I was.

Courtney seemed amused. “I appreciate the tip. So is there any kind of science to this?” She started to unbutton her shirt and at the same time stepped out of her flip-flops. A strand of hair fell haphazardly across her eye. “City girl and all.”

I played back the sentence because my brain had been otherwise occupied by the bright blue of her eyes. They sparkled when she smiled. “Oh. I think you just get in the water,” I said with a smile, focusing on the simplicity of the question. “At least that’s what I’ve heard.”

She shook her head and shrugged out of her shirt, revealing a light blue bikini top with a sidecar dip of noticeable cleavage. I swallowed. “Good thing I have you.”

“I do what I can for the city folk of the world,” I said, and swam a short distance away, giving Courtney some space. This also offered me a moment to deal with the butterflies that apparently had taken up residence in my stomach—you know, introduce myself and work out some sort of rental agreement.

I heard a splash behind me and turned. “Holy shit, that’s cold,” Courtney said, her eyes wide. She treaded water a few yards away.

“Give it a minute. Your body will get used to it.”

“Shit, shit, shit. Okay.” But she was laughing. “Let’s see what we can do to speed up that process.” Before I knew it, she dove headfirst beneath the water’s surface and I was left alone, listening to the quiet sounds of nature at dusk—and waiting for her to surface. I heard a splash behind me and turned.

“You okay?” I asked.

Courtney took a deep gulp of air and tossed her hair behind her. “This really gets your blood going! Wow.”

“It does. That’s the best part.”

“I could get used to this.” She was under again. This girl was an adventurous type. For the next few minutes, she explored the area, taking short little swims and dips beneath the surface like an audacious otter. I used the time to pep talk myself into relaxing a little. Courtney was just a girl from school. A very nice girl from school who was nothing like the other girls in town. A very nice, beautiful girl from school who chose to hang out with me on a Friday night rather than the infinitely more sought-after kids. There were those butterflies again.

“So, why Abraham Lincoln?” she asked.

“What?”

“Your presentation today,” Courtney said, swimming my way. “What made you choose Lincoln?”

“Well, he’s arguably one of the greatest speakers in the history of the country.”

“He is. You’re a pretty impressive speaker yourself. You realize that?”

“I’ve never really thought so, no. I was nervous and I screwed up the opening.” I looked away.

“You’re not astute at taking a compliment, are you?”

I considered the statement. “I guess I’m not.”

“Trust me when I say that the speech was really good.” I opened my mouth to argue, but she beat me there. “Don’t say another thing to discredit yourself. A thank-you is all that a compliment requires.”

“In that case, thank you.” And then I felt the blush hit my cheeks.

Courtney’s eyes met mine and she smiled. “You’re very welcome.” She held my gaze for a moment longer and then swam away again. I decided to take control of the conversation as she flipped onto her back.

“So what do you think of Tanner Peak so far?”

She seemed to ruminate on the question. “It’s definitely small.”

“Well, yeah.”

“And homey, though. Everyone seems to like it here.”

“Mostly true.”

“But despite the size, there also seems to be a lot to discover. Like this little creek, for instance. First one I’ve encountered outside of a Little House on the Prairie episode.”

“Oh, come on,” I said, laughing, and feeling a little defensive of my hometown. “I think we’re a little farther along than Little House.”

“I can agree with that. But things do move a little slower here.”

“That part is true.”

“But in a nice way.”

“I think it’s the most beautiful place on the planet,” I said before hearing myself and wincing. I pretended to study the sky then, embarrassed to have confessed what probably sounded like a really naïve declaration to someone who’d seen more of the world than I probably ever would. Courtney didn’t say anything, and when I stole another glance, I caught her watching me.

“What?” I asked, wondering if I had an errant strand of grass on my face, because that would be typical.

“Nothing,” Courtney said, and looked away.

“No, seriously. You can say it. I know I must sound small-town stupid to you.”

“What?” She had the decency to look outraged. “No. I definitely wasn’t thinking that.”

“Okay. Then what were you thinking?”

“That you light up when you talk about this place, and you’re really pretty when you light up.”

“Oh.” The comment landed hard, and I felt a little glowy. She thought I was pretty? Now, don’t get me wrong, I knew I wasn’t a hideous person, but outside of that, I’d always categorized myself as kind of average in the looks department. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

We swam some more as daylight slid away. The luminous moon took its place, providing plenty of light and reflecting off the water in intricate little rays. Crickets chirped nearby in a soothing chorus. The night couldn’t have been more serene.

“So when does it open?” I asked. “Carrington’s. Soon, right?”

“Ten days and eleven hours,” she said, doing the math quickly in her head.

“That’s specific.”

“I’m more than a little excited. The opening of a new store gets my blood going.”

I laughed. “Now who’s all lit up?”

She shrugged, giving in. “True. I’m pretty much obsessed with the department store world. I wish I could put my finger on what it is I love so much.”

“You could give it a shot.” I swam in her direction so I was close enough to really appreciate this explanation.

She grinned and looked away. “You’ll think I’m boring.”


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