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Summary



Jordan Simón returned home to West Virginia five years ago and opened her restaurant. She seems to have it all…except a life. On the verge of her fortieth birthday, she doesn’t know which will devour her first—the regret and emptiness of living a lie about her sexuality or the agony of past transgressions. As she struggles internally, she meets Emmy. Desire builds with each encounter, but another painful secret from the past is eating away at Jordan.

Emmy Russo is visiting her Aunt before moving to Washington DC. Confident and bold, she’s always been an achiever. After losing her wife six years ago, no one has piqued her interest until she meets Jordan. Yet being in a closeted relationship is the last thing she wants.

Can Jordan find the strength to face her conservative neighbors and family members and overcome the secret from her past? Will they be able to live in an open and loving relationship, or will the country’s politics set them back? Falling for Love is not just a romance, it’s about family, friends, and forgiveness.





falling for love
a winter romance






falling for love
a winter romance






addison m. conley







Sapphire Books

Salinas, california



Falling for Love - A Winter Romance

Copyright © 2017 by Addison M. Conley. All rights reserved.


ISBN EPUB - 978-1-943353-98-9


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, events or locales is entirely coincidental.



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without written permission of the publisher.



Editor - Nikki Busch

Book Design - LJ Reynolds

Cover Design - Treehouse Studio



Sapphire Books Publishing, LLC

P.O. Box 8142

Salinas, CA 93912

www.sapphirebooks.com


Distributed in the United States of America

First Edition – November 2017


This and other Sapphire Books titles can be found at

www.sapphirebooks.com



Dedication


To M&M. Thank you for helping me become my true self.



Acknowledgments


This book would not have been possible without the assistance and kind support from many people. Thanks to the editor Nikki Busch and the folks at Sapphire Books Publishing. Most of all, thank you, Isabella – CEO Chris Svendsen – for your dedication to GCLS mentorship and bringing me into the Sapphire family. A big shout out to Ann McMan for an incredible cover.


To the instructors and classmates at the Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) Writing Academy, thank you for the inspiration and sisterhood. And Karelia, thanks for the extra advice. We may be from different parts of the country, the world, and professions, but our passion for writing unites us. Also, I never would have joined the writing academy if it had not been for Karen R. talking up a storm and introducing me to the amazing Beth B. – thank you.


To all the wonderful authors I’ve met at GCLS, particularly those that participated in Rehoboth Beach from 2012 to 2015 Women’s Fest – too many to name – but you all were the first to open my eyes to GCLS and the broader world of LesFic.


Thank you to my beta readers: Loretta HK and Tracy S. Your feedback was invaluable. Special thanks to Loretta HK for going the extra mile, having faith in my writing, and not sugar coating anything, but most of all, for being an ally to myself and others.


To Kaitlyn and Justin, you’re always in my heart.



Chapter One


The dull throb in her head, a dry throat, and tired muscles made Jordan feel like a cardboard figure going through the motions. Searching the desk drawer for the draft of her new menu, her fingers touched the book she had long ago forgotten. Gingerly pulling it out, a Polaroid picture fell to the floor. She picked it up and wiped off the dust. A tear ran down her cheek. No matter how much success she achieved and how hard she tried to focus, the screams of the past lurked in her brain, reminding her there was no running away.

She cringed at the sound of a metal tray hitting and rattling on the other side of the door, and a sharp jab behind her left eye added to the pain. Tucking the picture back into the book, she carefully slid it from sight. After wiping her eyes and taking a few deep breaths, she left the office and displayed the best cheery persona she could muster.

It took a few moments to adjust to the glare of the kitchen lighting, but her eyes cleared as she stepped into the dining room with its warm glow of candles. Laughter, the clanking of glasses, well wishes, and playful shouts echoed throughout. She mingled with her customers long enough to be polite and rushed through a couple of encounters—the frequent patrons who either hit on her or tried to fix her up with a friend or relative. They never gave up, especially when fortified with alcohol. Spotting a family friend, she changed directions and vowed to make this the last table.

“Good evening, Betty Jean. Pleased to see you’re feeling better.”

“Why thank you, dear. The canelones are incredible, but against the better judgment of my doctor, I ordered extra spices and garlic.”

Jordan noticed a half-eaten bowl of her favorite chicken stew across from Betty Jean. It had been hours since she ate, no doubt adding to her fatigue and mood.

“Betty Jean, are you on a date?” She propped her hand on her hip, flicked her eyebrows up, and widened her smile.

Between a rumble of laughter, Betty Jean said, “Don’t I wish.”

Out of nowhere, Jordan caught the hint of lilac—springtime, wet blossoms. Her eyes briefly fluttered.

The touch of Betty Jean’s hand snapped Jordan back to the present. “I’d like you to meet my niece, Emmy Russo. Honey, this is Jordan Simón, the chef and owner of the restaurant.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Simón. I never expected to find delicious authentic Spanish cuisine in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. The dish was prepared to perfection.”

“Welcome to La Vida Al Máximo, and the pleasure is mine.” Jordan extended her hand. The woman’s grip was firm yet gentle, and there was something about her accent, perhaps British. Jordan was instantly drawn to her and equally embarrassed that she noticed the low-cut neckline of the teal blouse, which revealed ample round breasts.

After several minutes of conversation, Jordan excused herself back to the kitchen. The smell of lilac lingered in her senses. Hesitating at the door, she glanced back. Emmy was watching her.


****


The woman had a gorgeous face, but Emmy savored the view as she walked away. The sway of the hips and the long black ponytail contrasting against the crisp white chef jacket were alluring.

“Your eyes seem to be popping out of your head, dear.”

“Why, whatever do you mean, Auntie? And why the whisper?” Emmy turned and smirked over her teacup before taking a long sip.

Betty Jean eyed her before saying another word. “I think you’re looking in the wrong direction.”

“Looking doesn’t hurt. Besides, you said yourself there’s always been a liberal element in town. I’m merely interested as to how much Oakville has changed since my last visit a few years back.”

“A few years. It’s been closer to ten.”

“Ouch. Guess I deserved that.” She glanced over and saw Jordan paused at the kitchen door. Their gazes lingered a split second. Emmy smiled but there was no hint of a similar return from the beautiful woman.

“So tell me, why haven’t I met her before?”

“She moved to Spain after high school and returned about five years ago to open the restaurant.”

“Does she have a partner?” The words were spoken out of curiosity and partially to tease her aunt, but Emmy was not expecting the harsh glare that silently said, “Don’t even think about it.”

“She’s Gwyneth’s daughter and Elizabeth’s niece. You know, my best friends.”

“I’m only admiring the positive change in this quaint town.”

“And as I said, I think you’re mistaken. Try to stay out of trouble while visiting.”

“I promise to behave, but I have no intentions of hiding or avoiding anyone because of who I am.”

Betty Jean leaned over, and her eyes softened. “I’m not asking you to. It’s…some people around here have problems. Her older brother has become a religious radical. Be careful for everyone’s sake.”


****


The next morning, Jordan crawled out of bed half-asleep and stumbled toward the kitchen. Her body ached, almost like a hangover, even though she’d only had two glasses of wine the night before. Minutes later, curled up on the sofa next to the picture window and nursing a potent brew flavored with hazelnut, she gazed at the unique beauty of the forest.

The trees reached up to the gray sky. Their limbs were losing leaves fast this year. The landscape was scattered with boulders, and the mountain brook trickled by. It was beautiful, peaceful, and lonely at the same time. Soon winter would come. Just as nature had a way of turning, so did most things in life. The turmoil inside her had reached new depths. The lies and half-truths piled around her were like landmines that required precise navigation.

Her eyes fixated on the large solitary boulder. She was like that one: hard, isolated, and wearing down with the winds of time. No doubt to others, she appeared to have it all. If only they knew the truth.

Life in Madrid had afforded her freedom away from prying eyes and small-town prejudice. A space to grow. Yet, she had developed a nasty habit of ignoring her problems. It took the pain of her girlfriend cheating to make Jordan see that running and isolating herself were her go-to coping mechanisms. As much as the failed relationship had hurt, Jordan now admitted to being part of the problem. Still, not getting to meet Jordan’s family didn’t give Luciana a free pass to screw whatever walked by. When Jordan began to uncover the affairs, the women seemed to come out of the woodwork.

Moving back home had been an opportunity to reconnect with her family, come to terms with her past, and face internalized homophobia. Unfortunately, ingrained habits died hard. Adding to her emotional barrier and workaholic habits, she had begun to venture over to the wild side. Docile proper lady in her hometown, playgirl out of town. The meaningless hookups had only added to her misery.

This time, things had to change. Somehow, Jordan had to pull her shit together because she would soon turn forty. Ah, February the eighteenth. Raising her coffee mug in a toast, she shouted out to the empty room, “And happy birthday to you too, Cybill.”

She thought back on those years watching the Moonlighting TV show and how she had become a hard-core fan and enthralled with Cybill Shepherd. At first, she didn’t know why. Of course, having the same birthday as such a famous celebrity was part of the infatuation. And there was the cool detective work, jobs no other women she knew had. Yet as time went by, she discovered the other reason. She recalled those days when she first became aware that she was different.

On her twelfth birthday, her older brother Gerry gave her vintage magazines with Cybill on the cover. She relished them alone in her bedroom. As time passed, Jordan would imagine kissing Cybill’s lips. The newly discovered emotions were a swirl of pleasure, guilt, and shame. She recalled someone saying that homosexuality was a sin. Classmates called homosexuals “those people” and “sickening freaks” while others teased a few of the less popular kids by calling them lesbos or faggots. Was she a homosexual for wanting to kiss another girl? Why was it so bad?

Months later, she was cleaning Gerry’s room for some spending money and had been curious as to what his friend had hastily thrown under the bed the day before. After running the vacuum, she took a flashlight and looked. Stretching to grab something from the deep middle, she pulled out a couple of magazines. She gasped when flipping the pages. Alongside the motorcycles and cars were scantily dressed women seductively proffered. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart beat faster, and her body felt strange. Something about the pictures excited and at the same time appalled her.

The strange sensations rippling through her body told her to look more, but fear crushed her. She slammed the pages shut, quickly hid the magazines back under the bed, and crept down the hallway in shame. She locked her door, drew the blinds, and lay in bed trying to forget what she had seen. She couldn’t.

She rolled over and buried her face in the pillow. As she lay on the bed crying, a million thoughts raced through her head. One kept tumbling to the forefront. She was one of “those people.” A sinner. Sad and confused, she vowed to bury this secret deep.

Then there was high school. Karen. Lilacs in the spring. Fun. Love. Loss. Even after many years, the hurt lingered in the deepest pit of her soul.



Chapter Two


Jordan squeezed down the grocery aisle, mumbling under her breath, “I can’t believe I’m in the store the day before Thanksgiving, and there are no freakin’ carts or baskets. Damn, what a zoo.” On the hook for a specialty dessert her grandparents loved, she balanced the ingredients in her arm, barely paying attention. Hastily turning, she stopped short of colliding with Betty Jean’s niece.

“Um…sorry. It’s been a busy week,” Jordan mumbled.

A warm smile spread across the woman’s face, giving Jordan enough time to notice her lips and hazel eyes.

“I’m Emmy, and you’re Gwyneth’s daughter Jordan. Looks like you’re about ready to spill your booty.”

Jordan felt a blush creep up her neck and face. She had changed into her favorite comfy sweatpants before leaving the restaurant and now felt the fabric dip below her hips and the bottom of the T-shirt exposing a bit of her midriff. “Yeah. Kind of crazy to be in the store today.”

“Please, share my basket with me.”

“Thanks, but I don’t want to slow you down.”

“I insist, and I’d love the company.”

Jordan smiled and began to place items in the cart when she lost control of one. With each attempt to grab it, the box of tea danced through the air until Emmy caught it in front of her face.

“Good thing that was not a carton of eggs.”

Jordan liked how Emmy’s mouth turned into a wicked grin, and her eyes seemed to twinkle. They strolled along in no particular hurry, and Jordan began to relax with the light chitchat between them. Soon, they were standing in the monster checkout line.

“I’m a dual British and American citizen, but I find Thanksgiving to be a uniquely American holiday that’s both happy and sad.”

Jordan cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, in what way?”

“It’s a day for everyone to enjoy family and friends. I’m driving Betty Jean to our cousins in Leestown tomorrow, which should be loads of fun. But if you think about history, the day essentially celebrates an Anglo-Saxon invasion of a country that already belonged to someone else.”

Jordan felt her jaw drop and glanced around to see if anyone had an adverse reaction to the statement. The town had always been a mix of city transplants, artists, and rednecks. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay attention. That was good because somewhere in the store was the owner of the pickup truck parked in the lot, with a six-foot Confederate flag flying from a makeshift pole.

“True,” she said, looking back into Emmy’s eyes. “For sadness, I was thinking more of the pain-in-the-ass relatives.”

Emmy’s dead-serious face broke into a wry smile, followed by a chuckle. “What do you like about Thanksgiving, Jordan? Tell me the happy part.”

“I donate to the food shelter. The holiday season is always a time to give a little more. As for the restaurant, we close early the day before and don’t reopen until Saturday. For the past three years, I’ve allowed a couple of employees to host a dinner for their friends who don’t have anywhere to go. I pick up the tab. In return, they help distribute the donated food, work the Thanksgiving lunch at the shelter, and of course, clean up the restaurant afterward.”

“That’s generous. And your relatives? I know Betty Jean is close to your mum and aunt.”

Jordan grinned. “I spent most of my time last year at the restaurant, but my mother threatened my life. Mom’s large family gathers for dinner at Grammy and Poppa Lange’s farmhouse. I’m close to my younger brother Carter and his family.” She leaned in closer to Emmy. “Aunt Elizabeth is sweet, but her kids—” Jordan quickly waved her hand through the air. “And my older brother Gerry, somewhere along the line, turned obnoxious. Other relatives live far away, including my father’s small family. That’s about it.”

They reached the cashier, and Jordan was relieved by the distraction. She did not want to discuss her family further; in fact, she’d probably already said too much. As they walked out to the parking lot, her mind and emotions transformed her back into the tongue-twisted recluse, until a full panic consumed her at Emmy’s car. Emmy was making her goodbyes, but Jordan was frozen. Say something.

“Ah…I’ll see you around. The restaurant gets crazy during the holidays, but please, stop by. We can chat longer. You’re in town for a while, right?”

“Yes. I’m visiting for several months, and I’d love to.”

Jordan hesitated, wrestling with the conundrum of what to do next. She had never been comfortable with hugging nonfamily members, and the Food Lion parking lot was not the place to begin snuggling with an attractive woman she barely knew.

“Sorry. I have to run.”

Jordan’s hand was barely in front of her when Emmy reached out as if to shake then instantly covered it with her other and did not let go. The warmth was inviting.

“The next time, we can exchange invasion stories,” Emmy smirked.

Jordan released a small laugh and withdrew her hand. She waved and walked to her SUV.


****


The next day, Jordan arrived late for Thanksgiving dinner. She loved Grammy and Poppa Lange. Large family gatherings, not so much. They usually turned awkward at best and messy at worst, and this holiday would be a particular challenge since the state’s same-sex marriage ban had recently been ruled unconstitutional. Expecting the worst with the rigid views of her brother Gerry and a few other cousins, she braced herself and took a breath before walking into the house.

When dinner finished on a pleasant note, she felt grateful. After helping serve dessert, she joined her brother Carter and his wife, Angie, in the downstairs rec room with a few easygoing relatives. Her grandparents and mom remained upstairs. Unfortunately, the peacefulness did not last long when Gerry walked in with several conservative family members. She only acknowledged them with a slight nod.

The one who got under Jordan’s skin the most was a lawyer who passed himself off as a good ole’ country boy. She cringed when he said, “Letting the lower courts uproot state marriage law is unjust. We’re going to fight it.”

Gerry agreed. “Yeah, this year’s been a horrible disappointment. I’ll be happy to see 2014 end.”

The cousin slapped Gerry on the back. “With any luck, the US Supreme Court will come to their senses and uphold the constitution.”

“Congress should pass an amendment to defend the sanctity of marriage, but I’m not sure I have much faith in the government.”

“Don’t worry, Gerry. You might want to join the Family Research Council. We have a chapter opening up nearby.”

Jordan’s stomach lurched, and her skin prickled and tingled as if thousands of nanometer-sized insects were crawling all over her. The FRC was slick, but its extremist agenda had won them a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Group list of hate groups.

“Why do they have to publicly display that lifestyle? It’s disgusting,” another cousin said loudly. “I don’t want to see it!” She casually sipped her coffee and took small bites of pie with no clue to the impact of her words.

“Yeah, it’s unnatural,” Gerry added. “People are turning away from God these days.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Jordan saw the vein in Carter’s neck bulging, and he looked as though he would explode. “Not everyone agrees with your views on politics and religion,” Carter calmly said. “I didn’t come over for a sermon.”

Jordan’s mouth dropped when another cousin whose leanings seemed ambiguous said, “I think we have more important things to worry about in this country than who someone chooses to love.”

Before the situation became worse, Angie stood. “I’m going to check on the kids.”

Jordan jumped up to take advantage of the opening. “I’ll join you. Besides, I promised to drop by the employee dinner.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll leave too.” Disdain rolled off Carter’s tongue as the two brothers glared at one another.

Before they could make their exit, Aunt Elizabeth stood in the doorframe. They faced her like three ducks in a row, but her scowl fell upon the others.

“What the heck is going on in here? This isn’t a political rally. Change the topic. Now. For heaven’s sake, can’t you just talk football or something happy? What about music?”

Jordan suppressed a smile and thought, Yeah, I could talk about Taylor Swift and imagine her singing to me. Instead, she said, “I really do have to get going. Take care, everyone.” She waved and tried to edge past, but Aunt Elizabeth wasn’t budging.

“Your mother’s not going to be happy that you’re sneaking away to work.”

“It’s not work. It’s just some friends who have nowhere else to go. And Jo’s mom is sick right now. You all have each other.”

“We gotta check on the kids, and I promised to build a Lego spaceship,” Carter rattled off.

Elizabeth stepped aside. “You three go. The rest of you, tone it down for heaven’s sake.”

When Jordan made her final round of goodbyes, she expected an earful, but Aunt Elizabeth must have said something because Mom, Grammy, and Poppa let her go without much grief. Hopping into the vehicle, she cranked up the radio. Despite the distraction, her muscles remained tense, and her arteries thumped more rapidly than the beat. Speeding down the gravel road, a plume of dust swirled behind her. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Part of her original plan in returning home had been to eventually come out. Delaying was more than an unwillingness to move outside her comfort zone. Living in this part of the country meant picking your fights, and the fear of possible vandalism and memories of Karen were unshakable. But the damned balancing act was getting old, and lately, her internal panic attacks threatened to spill over into public view. She needed and wanted to change. It was simply a matter of timing. At least, that’s what she told herself.



Chapter Three


Relaxing in the coffeehouse, Jordan was in no hurry this morning as pleasant thoughts of Emmy filled her head. It had been two weeks since they spoke. Despite chance encounters or the casual wave as they drove past each other, Jordan wanted more, yet, how did she go about getting more? Sipping her coffee, she wondered if she needed to take fate by the throat and shake it in her favor. The ding of the door made Jordan glance up. Fate had just walked in, and she was followed by her aunt.

Betty Jean grabbed a to-go cup, placed a peck on her niece’s cheek, and left. Seemingly unaware of Jordan’s presence, Emmy removed her coat and scrolled through her phone while waiting for the order, giving Jordan time to get lost in thoughts of admiration.

Jordan’s pulse quickened as Emmy’s slender fingers tucked a piece of wavy blond hair behind her ear, and when Emmy responded to the barista with a soft laugh, Jordan tingled with anticipation. She watched her carefully balance a full cup in one hand and her coat and a couple of books in the other while making her way to a table. Jordan jumped up to assist.

“Looks like you need some help.”

“Fancy meeting you here,” Emmy said with a mischievous glint in her eye.

“Please, join me.” Jordan took Emmy’s cup and managed to not spill a drop despite the zing that went through her body when their fingers brushed together. As Emmy settled into the seat, Jordan noted the light makeup over her creamy skin followed by lovely hazel eyes. They appeared greener today.

Jordan held out the plate. “Scone? It’s delicious, but I probably shouldn’t have another.”

“Thank you. How did your invasion celebration go?” Emmy winked.

Pushing away the disturbing thoughts of her bigoted relatives, Jordan said, “I finished the evening at the employee dinner with plenty of laughter.”

“Laughter’s good for the soul.” Emmy took a bite of the scone, and her hand flew up to catch some crumbs.

“And how were your relatives?”

Emmy’s hand now was trying to cover a smirk. “Enjoyable. Although we had to spend the night. I drank too much. Nothing crazy, but we did kill a bottle of Irish whiskey that I brought them.”

“Sounds like a good time was had by all. You mentioned dual citizenship the other day. Will you go back to the UK after your visit?”

“I’ll be working in Washington DC for a couple of years since snagging a part-time position at our US headquarters. Most of my career was spent in London, but I recently completed three years in India. I’m sick of traveling, and honestly, work. Part of the deal was the bank allowing me a four-month sabbatical. I also do private consulting, which can be handled anywhere with an internet connection.”

The thought that instantly zipped through Jordan’s mind was, She’s available, followed by, Oh God, I’m in so much trouble.

“You look surprised.” When Jordan didn’t respond immediately, Emmy said, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Oh…I…um…good.” She wanted to crawl under the table as Emmy intently studied her over the coffee cup rim. Finally, Jordan found her voice. “Your aunt will be happy, and I would love to see you again.” Did I really just say that out loud? A flush ran through her, and she hurried to change the topic. “Tell me about your parents.”

“Well, as you know my father was Auntie’s brother-in-law. He went to university in England, became a British citizen, then worked as a banker in London. My mum was a teacher from Leestown. They met in Paris. My mum was on holiday, and my father seemed to be in the right place at the right time. They fell in love, married, and I was born in London. We lived throughout Europe, and I spent occasional summers in America with relatives. So, you can see my background is different from most people’s.” Emmy’s broad smile faded. “Unfortunately, my mother died over twenty years ago and my father passed last year.”

“I’m sorry. My dad died when I was a little girl.”

“Was your father from Spain? Betty Jean said you lived there for several years after graduating from culinary school.”

Jordan bit her lip. “Yes.” She reached for her cup and accidentally knocked it over. The last dribbles of the coffee spilled over Emmy’s books. “Shit.”

They both grabbed napkins, sopping up the liquid frantically.

“No harm,” Emmy said. “The smell of coffee will remind me of you while reading.”

Jordan froze when she saw Philip Simmons’s book. While Emmy continued to wipe down the books, Jordan softly said, “Have you read it?”

“I just bought the mystery.”

“No, I meant Learning to Fall: The Blessings of An Imperfect Life.”

“Oh, almost finished. What an inspirational piece. Simmons’s humor and ability to stop and point out the beauty in life were a gift that he left for us all. I’m not sure I could be brave in his position.”

After a few silent seconds, Jordan looked up. “The essays he wrote were nothing short of amazing. Lots of quotes to live by.” She swallowed hard and quoted from the book. “When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go…we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom.

Emmy reached out and placed her hand on top of Jordan’s. In that instant, Jordan wanted to crumble. The gentle warmth of Emmy’s hand felt good, and her eyes revealed trust, but fear caused Jordan to retract. Leaning back in the seat and sipping her coffee, she recalled the night she first met Emmy. The night she found her missing copy with the Polaroid tucked in the middle.

The awkward silence was soon interrupted by Betty Jean’s booming voice. She sauntered to the table, carrying a small shopping bag, and wrapped Jordan in a big hug.

“Well, twice in one month. That’s a record. We should come here with your mom and Aunt Elizabeth. We don’t get to see one another as much as we used to.”

Betty Jean’s jovial character usually lightened everyone’s mood. Jordan only felt relief that Emmy didn’t have time to pepper her with questions. She heard herself say, “Yes, it would be fun,” and hoped the lack of enthusiasm went unnoticed.

“So, you two getting to know one another?”

“Gradually but surely,” Emmy said.

As Betty Jean rattled on, Jordan found it impossible to pay attention. She stood. “Betty Jean, why don’t you sit closer to the fire? I have to get over to the restaurant.”

“Oh, but so soon? It’s early. Won’t you stay for a few minutes longer?”

“I’m sorry. We’re extremely busy this time of year. Christmas is right around the corner. It’s been lovely seeing you.” She hugged Betty Jean again and held out her hand to Emmy. “And nice to enjoy your company again.”

“Likewise.” Emmy wrapped both hands around Jordan’s. “I enjoy our discussions. We’ll have to get together again. Soon, I hope.”

Jordan sensed strength and determination in Emmy’s touch and saw the sincerity in her smile and eyes, but she had to get out of there. “Yes. Well, enjoy your day, ladies.” She slid her hand out from Emmy’s and waved goodbye.

Somehow, Jordan managed to walk out of the coffeehouse. Glancing back inside, she saw Emmy once again watching her. Instead of the devilish smile like the night before, the smile seemed to acknowledge the vulnerable moment they had shared.


****


Betty Jean tried to include Emmy in a conversation she had struck up with a friend who passed by the table, but Emmy’s mind was on Jordan. The tall, dark woman was a mystery. Beautiful and talented with a killer smile. Yet, that smile and the sparkle in her eyes sometimes clouded over with worry and sadness. Shortly after the coffee spill, Jordan looked hurt and was aimlessly turning her pinky ring over and over while staring at the book cover.

Learning to Fall was one of the most powerful and uplifting books Emmy had ever read but impossible to complete without crying because it was written while Simmons was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Emmy was drawn physically and emotionally to Jordan. Hopefully, whatever made Jordan sad was in the past.



Chapter Four


The town was strangely quiet, and lunchtime had slowed to a crawl. Jordan needed to loosen up.

“Robby, I’m heading off to the gym.”

“How about working out for me, too?” He grinned.

“You should get a membership. Thirty minutes a day, three days a week would do you some good.”

“I walk. Sorry, never been into lifting weights or working on any machines. You enjoy.” Scolding, he added, “Also, you might want to take a long weekend or vacation. There’s got to be more than work and doing gym time.”

“Has my mother been coaching you?”

“Nope. Just want you to know I care, too.” He kissed the top of her head before continuing with dinner preps.

Jordan had met Robby shortly after the opening of her restaurant. His connections to wealthy and influential people helped the struggling restaurant thrive, even with the heavy competition from Sherry’s Café and the Lost Dog Saloon. Snagging him as her sous chef was a lucky break. Fortunately for her, Robby was sick of the Washington DC traffic, and his wife wanted to be closer to her aging parents.

“You could walk with me for some exercise and then return.” Jordan poked him in the ribs. “Come on. The sun is peeking out of the clouds. Jo can handle things on her own until you get back.”

“No, thanks. Besides, I’m waiting until you’re gone to eat some leftover dessert.”

If there was one thing Robby overindulged in, it was sweets. She laughed and jokingly shook her finger at him while heading out the door.

Jordan breathed in the crisp air along the way. The gym improved her mood. It was like a mini vacation, even if only for thirty minutes. She liked the peace and quiet from Monday thru Thursday and avoided other busy times. Fiddling with her earbuds in one hand and her iPhone and bag in the other, she entered the locker room and collided with someone.

“Pardon me.” Jordan looked up, right into Emmy’s eyes. Her breath caught in her throat.

“No, my apologies. I was rushing.”

Jordan eyed Emmy’s tight-fitting T-shirt accentuating ample breasts and shorts that hugged nice hips. Embarrassed, she stepped aside. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “Ah, I’ll see you out there.”

Emmy wasn’t flustered in the least and nodded. As she glided past, their upper torsos touched. Jordan sucked air into her lungs and breathed in Emmy’s scent. Oh my God, she can have me any way she wants. After putting her things into a locker, Jordan sat on the bench for a moment. She had always been the cool, calm, collected pursuer. Around Emmy, she felt like the prey. The kind that wanted to be gobbled up. She filled her lungs again then walked out to the machines. Emmy was waiting for her.

“How about we work together? I could use some encouragement and help with the equipment,” Emmy pleaded.

“Sure.”

After stretching, Jordan started at a fast pace. Emmy was no slouch. She had a muscular, stocky build that screamed strength, and Jordan shivered at the thought of feeling those arms and thighs wrapped around her.

Emmy must have picked up on Jordan’s gaze. “Although I’ve been a serious tennis player most of my life, my thunder thighs and arms are courtesy of genetics from the women on my mum’s side.”

For a split second, the tennis reference brought memories of Karen to Jordan’s mind. She brushed it aside. “You’re beautiful.”

“Why thank you, Ms. Simón. Did anyone ever tell you what a lovely, mischievous grin and cute legs you have?”

The open flirting left Jordan speechless.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable.” Emmy moved to the stationary bikes while casting a sly look over her shoulder.

After standing with a slack jaw, Jordan caught up to her and steered the conversation to a safe subject: movies. She was delighted to hear that Emmy liked sci-fi. Jordan’s favorite was The Matrix while Emmy’s was Star Wars.

Within no time, the gym hour flew by. “Okay. I can see you liking drama but never thought you’d be a sci-fi fan,” Jordan said as they strolled toward the locker room.

“Why not? Lots of intelligent, cute, and take-charge women in sci-fi. Carrie Fisher was the first badass princess. And since you’re a Matrix fan, have you read any of the books talking about philosophy and The Matrix?”

“We have to dig deeper next time and talk literature.” Jordan rattled on but soon realized that Emmy was not by her side. She turned around and raised her brows, forgetting what she was about to say next.

Emmy stood shaking her head. She reached out and squeezed Jordan’s shoulder. “Okay. I was only testing your geekiness, and you are definitely off the scale.” She was now chuckling. “Let’s stick to movies for now. What’s your favorite romance, Jordan?”

She blew out a small puff of air and raised her hands. “Not sure if I have a favorite. Maybe the romantic comedy Amélie. And you?”

“Umm…I’d have to say Desert Hearts.”

The title shot through Jordan’s brain. She wanted to raise a clenched fist in a victory and scream “yes.” Instead, she stared down at her shoes, bit her lip, and at last, looked at Emmy. “No denying, it’s a classic. You have finesse like Vivian, but I find it difficult picturing you as shy.”

“And you have an adorable smile when you let your guard down.”

Jordan felt like floating through air as they entered the locker room, yet a wave of unease soon struck her. The room was split into equal halves, each side with full amenities. The showers had curtains, but the dressing areas were open. She had no idea which side of the room Emmy had chosen. Jordan was having enough trouble keeping her eyes off her in clothing.

“Take care.” Emmy hugged Jordan. “I’m going to have to move fast and get out of here. I’m late picking up Betty Jean.”

The momentary embrace jolted every nerve in Jordan’s body. The softness of Emmy’s cheek, the fullness of her breasts, and the smell of lavender in her hair were an undeniable pull. At that moment, Jordan would have licked the glistening sweat off her body if Emmy had asked. She had to calm down, put her schoolgirl crush on hold, and control the heat creeping up her neck.

“That was fun working out. Enjoy the rest of your day and tell Betty Jean I said hi.”

“Likewise.” Emmy paused. “I’d like to see you soon, but I’m going out of town for a few days. I’ll come by the restaurant when I get back. Maybe we could do something this weekend. I know you’re busy, and it’s going to go nuts with Christmas.”

Jordan could not hold back on her warm, gushy feelings. “I look forward to seeing you again.”

“Splendid.”

Emmy briskly walked to her locker, and Jordan had to force her eyes away as Emmy stripped off her T-shirt. At least, it was the opposite side. Emmy was different, and Jordan wanted to take her sweet time.

She hustled over to the other side of the wall. Within minutes, her muscles were relaxing under a hot shower. All but the facial ones that were curled up in bliss.


****


Jordan was still in a happy daze as she strolled through the gym and out the front door. Her elation was cut short when she saw a suspicious guy leaning against a beat-up truck, blatantly watching her every step under dark sunglasses.

The crazy guy was not wearing a coat as if he wanted to show off his bulging muscles. His physique didn’t match his long hair, shaggy beard, and sloppy clothes. He looked like a redneck, and she regretted not exiting from the back and taking a long way around. Now, she had no choice but to walk past him.

“Nice day we’re having. You going back to work?”

The last thing she wanted was to talk to this guy.

“Yep. Busy. Have to run.” She could feel his eyes still upon her even after lengthening her stride. At the bottom of the hill, she glanced back up. He hadn’t moved. Out of all the men who had ever glared at her like meat, he was the spookiest. What especially made her skin crawl was a feeling that she somehow knew him from somewhere.


****


Emmy thought Jordan’s demeanor sliding from a poised woman to a shy playful creature was endearing. She laughed to herself, Jordan certainly was not shy when checking me out. She also wondered if Jordan understood her own beauty. In the short time she had been in town, she had noticed it wasn’t only men who fawned over Jordan. Women stole sideways glances, ogling Jordan with either envy or hidden desires. Who wouldn’t?

She liked Jordan’s rich dark brown puppy dog eyes and quirky smile. Somehow, her mouth could curl up in the corners in a way that was so freaking cute. Her slim athletic body had the right amount of curves and her breasts were the perfect size for hands to explore. Emmy wet her lips thinking again about Jordan’s attempts at flirtation. Emmy would bait her and turn up the heat with every adorable attempt. And Jordan’s attitude was a big turn-on. She was confident but not cocky. It was refreshing to meet a beautiful woman who was down-to-earth and didn’t let success go to her head.

Yes, Jordan spiked her interest from the moment they first met, and desire grew every time she ran into her. There was only one thing in the back of Emmy’s mind nagging at her. She had been proudly out for many years, and one of her steadfast rules was not to get involved with a woman hiding her sexuality.

Maybe Jordan was not entirely in the closet. If not, Emmy hoped that would change soon. Besides, it wouldn’t be long before others noticed. Whether Jordan realized it or not, her reaction to Emmy was becoming more sassy and bold. Yes, she wanted to know Jordan a lot more.

As Emmy pulled up to the Humane Society, Betty Jean had just walked out of the office. Her hands were firmly planted on her hips.

She had barely gotten out of the car when Betty Jean said, “Where did you go? You’re late.”

“Sorry, I was at the gym. Besides, you love this volunteer work.”

“Yes, dear, but five hours is a tad too long for me, and my replacement has been here for over an hour.”

Emmy walked up and wrapped her in a hug. “I’m sorry for losing track of time. I’ll be more considerate next time.”

“Apology accepted. I know you’re a dog person, but I think those kittens took your heart the other day. Maybe you could spend more time than a few hours here.”

“Are you laying a guilt trip on me, Auntie?”

“Yep. Is it working?” A grin now replaced Betty Jean’s scowl.

In the car, Emmy turned to look over her shoulder to safely back up and saw Betty Jean eyeing her. An inquisitive sparkle in her eye matched the grin.

“As they say around this part of the world, Auntie, what’s that look on your face?”

“She’s gorgeous, isn’t she? I could see the sparkle in your eyes.”

“What? The cat?”

“Jordan. I imagine she looks even better in gym shorts.”

Emmy was floored. “How the hell do you know I saw Jordan at the gym?”

“Honey, I wasn’t born yesterday, and I’ve got eyes and ears. You do recall us running into Gwyneth the other day, correct?” Betty Jean wiggled her eyebrows. “I saw you perk up when she said Jordan goes to the gym nearly every afternoon around two except on weekends. Now isn’t it a coincidence that it’s a Monday and you happened to go at that same time?”

Emmy put the car back into park. “I have no idea what you’re thinking but whatever it is, stop. I’m an adult.”

Betty Jean’s smile fell, and her tone grew serious. “I know it’s been a long time since Heather’s death, and it’s good to see you come back to life. Think about what you’re doing, though. It’s a small town.”

After Emmy had started to drive, she answered, “I understand your concern—”

“What if you’re wrong, and she’s not gay?”

Emmy snickered. “Oh, trust me on that one. There is no doubt.” She reached over and grabbed Betty Jean’s hand. “Stop worrying.”

Betty Jean cocked one eyebrow. “Okay. I’ll try.”

As Emmy drove, she thought about life after Heather. She had rarely dated anyone, and a couple of one-night stands turned out to be flops. She’d felt no intensity until now. And now was only a smile, a glance, flirting, and an immense physical desire. But there was more. Emmy saw strength and charm in Jordan.

She didn’t know where things were going, but they were heading in a positive direction, and she wasn’t about to let go. In an instant, she felt Heather whisper to her, Sweetheart, six years is a long time to mourn. It’s time to move on. I like her. You deserve some happiness. Live life to the fullest.



Chapter Five


After tossing and turning most of the night, Jordan woke early and couldn’t get back to sleep. She relaxed in her favorite chair, sipping a strong brew, and watched the sunrise. The splendor of the yellow and orange hues seeped through her body.

Despite her effort, she could not stop thinking about yesterday. The physical attraction was off the chart, and Emmy’s self-confidence and flirting were a hook that wouldn’t let her go. And the Desert Hearts comment. “OMG,” Jordan shouted to the empty room. “She had me there!”

Her cell rang. The ringtone identified the caller as her mom. “Shit, I forgot,” she mumbled, stretching to pick it up. “Morning, Mom.”

“Hi, honey. Are you done with my cordless screwdriver? Could you please bring it with you?”

“Yeah, sure, Mom. Um…” Jordan rubbed her forehead.

Gwyneth laughed. “Ten a.m. You have time. See you then. Love you, hon.”

“Bye, Mom. Love you.”

She had always admired her mother’s fortitude and feminism. A widow twice before the age of thirty, Gwyneth Lange-Simón was a striking woman who had raised three kids yet managed to get herself through college. Among her many talents was the knack of bringing out the conversation in people.

Her mother likely suspected she was gay but had never asked, and Jordan had learned a long time ago to steer the discussion to safe topics. Never any details about her intimate life. Of course, Jordan had virtually disappeared when living in Spain.

She didn’t think her mother would love her any less, but her brothers’ reactions would be sharply divided. Carter was not the concern. Gerry had somehow grown into an extremely religious and political nutcase, and his mouth flapped with judgmental harshness the older he got. She tried to stay away from him as much as possible.

Chugging the last of the coffee, she read some emails before getting ready.


****


Gwyneth thought of her second husband as her daughter hopped out of the SUV. They shared the same dark Latino features and business sense. Yet, she didn’t understand where Jordan had gotten the brooding side with an impermeable and aloof shell. Losing Karen had been a nightmare but getting into the Madrid International Culinary School after high school had helped, and Jordan finished with top honors. Yet Gwyneth never expected her to live in Europe for fifteen years. As Jordan unzipped her coat, Gwyneth gave her a crooked smile and held out a travel mug.

Jordan grudgingly accepted and shrugged. “I guess since it’s warmed up to a balmy thirty degrees.”

“Ah, you can’t let a little cold bother you.” Gwyneth may have looked like a fair maiden, but her morning walks were what made her hardy.

Jordan snapped her fingers. “Oh, the drill’s still out in the vehicle. Remind me to get it later.”

They walked along aptly named Cold Run Valley Road, their hoods pulled up to block out the occasional wind gust. She filled Jordan in on her latest adventure with Carter, Angie, and the kids.

As usual, Jordan remained quiet and moved on to a safe topic. “Are Grammy and Poppa still refusing to discuss assisted living?”

“Unfortunately, yes. You should visit more often. At eighty-nine and ninety-two, we don’t know how much time they have. The bout of pneumonia Poppa had last year was a wake-up call. He’s acted like he’s had something on his mind since then, but I don’t know what it is. He won’t talk. They’d love to see you, and it would do you some good. You know I’ve been worried about you.”

“How so?”

She could see Jordan’s jaw tightening but was damned tired of her detachment. “You work too much. When was the last time you had a vacation?”

“Well, the restaurant isn’t going to run itself.”

She stopped walking and made Jordan look her in the face. Jordan’s lips were pursed. “The restaurant is well on its way to success. You’ve pointed out how Robby is a valuable chef and manager. You recently hired Jo, who you say is following in both your footsteps. The other night, you complimented the rest of the staff.” She was exasperated with her daughter, and Jordan’s stone face didn’t help the mood. “You’re working yourself to death. You need to take some time off. And I don’t mean you taking time off from work to do accounting at home. Even taking two days at the National Culinary Convention and returning immediately to work is not rest!” She put her hand on Jordan’s shoulder. “When was the last time you went for the entire convention and spent extra time enjoying the sights? You need to have some fun like your last vacation.”

Gwyneth thought she caught the hint of a smile. Jordan shook away from her grasp and replied in a deadpan voice, “I’ll take that into consideration,” and casually walked away. Before Gwyneth could catch up, her cell phone rang.


****


With her mom busy on the phone, Jordan recalled her last vacation in Saint Croix. Yes, there were gorgeous, white, soft sandy beaches; beauty all around; and oh, what fun. She had uploaded pictures to her Facebook account, the one she kept public and open to her family. On that page, she raved about the hotel and how she was having fun scuba diving, relaxing on the beach, and meeting people. A few had teased her about grabbing a handsome, wealthy single guy while she was there. She teased back stating all potential dates wanted her to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, cooking only for them.

Her friends and family never caught the subtlety. Always about meeting people with little reference to gender and tons of neutral pronouns. Yes, plenty of fun in Saint Croix. She never mentioned the nightlife beauty. Never talked about the cool gay guys who knew how to party and the many cute lesbians she danced with. There was no mention of the shame Jordan locked away inside over her one-night stands.

Her mom caught up. “I’m serious. You need time off.”

Blowing out an exaggerated huff, Jordan turned to her. “I’m looking at taking some time in March before the spring tourist season ramps up.”

“Good.”

They continued their stroll on the black asphalt road, sipping their coffee, with her mom doing most of the talking. Jordan was cold, and the gray overcast sky matched her mood.


****


Gwyneth was about ready to scream at Jordan’s silent avoidance. She was never one to stick her nose into her adult children’s business, but she was concerned. Jordan lived four miles down the road, and they hardly saw one another. She was the one who was always initiating contact.

Jordan didn’t appear to have any friends outside of the restaurant. That could not be healthy. What had happened in Spain? Jordan’s Spanish roommate, Luciana was always around when Gwyneth visited. There had not been one word from Jordan about this girl since returning home. Were they lovers? Had she crushed her daughter’s heart?

She had tried to wait patiently for Jordan to bring up the subject. Dammit. She’ll soon be forty, and I’m not gettin’ any younger. I don’t care whether she is gay, bisexual, pansexual, or whatever people identify with nowadays. All she wanted was her daughter back and not some stranger. Still, Jordan wasn’t the only one holding back. Pangs of guilt pierced Gwyneth’s heart.

“Perhaps you should see someone. There are some good therapists in Redington near the college. The one you saw after Karen—”

“Mom, I don’t need a damn psychologist!” Jordan kicked a rock and picked up the pace before stopping and lacing her hands behind her head and stretching her elbows out. “I’m just busy and tired. That’s all.”

They walked farther. Gwyneth couldn’t let it go. “Maybe the accident—”

Jordan whipped around. “Drop it, Mother! That’s in the past. Nothing’s wrong! Perhaps I have been working too hard. The restaurant is my dream. You don’t understand what it’s like to keep a business running in this sleepy little town.” Jordan marched away in a royally pissed-off huff.

Gwyneth’s phone rang again. She looked at the number. It was Dave. No one seemed to have put two and two together that they were a hot item. That was her surprise. She muted the ring and let it go to voice mail. When she looked up, Jordan had stormed ahead a significant distance with her long legs.

“Honey, please, wait up.”

Jordan kept her brisk pace while shouting over her shoulder, “I’m fine Mom. I know you mean well. Just stop worrying.”


****


“Err…” Jordan smacked her hand hard on the steering wheel, and the sting spread to her palm and wrist. She had driven to the lookout after departing. Luckily, no one else was around. This was one of her favorite scenic spots no matter what the season. Today, she vacantly stared out the windshield and didn’t bother getting out.

She rarely bickered with anyone, but her mother’s reference to the one year she had tried desperately to forget irritated the shit out of her. She hated that psychologist. He was sterile, clueless, and smug. Jordan told him exactly what he wanted to hear. She did what was necessary to get out of high school and out of Oakville. She never told anyone the truth. It was in the past, and she was determined it would remain in the past.

Resting her head in her hands, she chastised herself. “God, why was I such an asswipe to Mom?” It wasn’t her mother’s fault. She had only been trying to help. “I need to let it go.”

Jordan picked up her phone and did what she had to do. It rang and rang as she nervously tapped on the steering wheel. Finally, her mom picked up. Without giving Jordan a chance, her mom blurted out, “Honey, I’m sorry that I brought up the topic.”

The sincerity in her voice made Jordan feel even guiltier. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m the one who needs to apologize. I was an obnoxious jerk.” She tried to sound more upbeat. “I’m all right. Things have been going great, just hectic. Jo’s been goading me to go with her ski club to Pennsylvania. Apparently, about fifty members make this trip every year. And she assures me that alumni and professors attend, so I shouldn’t be the only one over thirty.”

Gwyneth chuckled. “That sounds like fun. Jo’s such an energetic soul. It was a smart move to hire her.”

“Yeah,” Jordan said, thankful for the diversion. “She’s been a tremendous asset to the team. She absorbs everything we teach her. Soon, she’ll be more skilled than Robby and me. Come by someday for lunch. I have to go now.”

“Thanks for calling. I love you, Jordan.”

“Love you too, Mom. Bye.”

She gently banged her head on the steering wheel. Situation resolved, at least for the moment. I need a spa day.

On the way to work, she pulled through the coffeehouse drive-through and ordered a lemon balm herbal tea. Her phone buzzed with a text message while she paid at the window. She pulled into an empty parking spot to put away her change and view the text.

Opening the phone, her heart warmed seeing a picture of Carter and the kids. They were decked out from head to toe in gear and standing next to the climbing wall at Mega Mountain Outfitters in Redington. They wore the widest grins.

Carter’s message: “They love it. I love it. Angie’s going to kill you. Thanks for the gift, sis!”

Snickering, she typed back, “Happy for you, but I didn’t tell you to buy a climbing package with the gift card. That’s on you, bro.”

He typed back, “Ah, what Angie doesn’t know won’t hurt her. It might hurt you. ’Cause I’m sticking to my story. Keep low for a few days.”

She closed the phone. Have to admit, I’m pretty lucky with Mom and Carter. She went to take another sip when she noticed a new design on the container. In colorful letters was the quote, “Live on the good side, the bright side, the true side of everything!” —Christian D. Larson. She rotated the cup around, and saw, “The best is yet to be.” —Robert Browning. Flipping on the radio, she caught the tail end of one of her favorite Olivia Newton-John songs, “Learn to Love Yourself,” and she paused at the words about love leading home.

Her body and breathing stilled. Time to move on.



Chapter Six


The Desert Hearts movie revelation kept playing over in Jordan’s head along with visions of key scenes. Thoughts of Emmy filled her like tumbling through a kaleidoscope. Nerves popped with excitement resembling alternating vivid colors. The thrill rolled up with hope made her feel giddy and balanced at the same time.

The wet snow that had been falling since late afternoon was hardly the dusting initially predicted. Instead of driving people away, the restaurant was busy all night, and the distraction did little to snap her out of daydreaming. She looked forward to going home and curling up with a book before bed. A nice collection of erotica would do.

“Hey, Jordan. What are you thinking about? That new menu can’t be the cause of that sinful smirk on your face.”


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