Breaking Free (Fully Invested Book 2)

Breaking Free cover

Small town contemporary romance
Series: Fully Invested (A Wildlife Ridge Romance) – Janelle and Aaron
72k words (novel)
Release Date: 11/20/20
Digital: Amazon * Google Play * iTunes * Kobo * Nook * Booktopia *
Trade Paperback: Links coming soon
Extras: Pinterest board

When Janelle comes to Wildlife Ridge for her best friend’s wedding, she’s not expecting to fall for the little town. Or it’s newest resident. But Aaron Romero is full of charm once he comes out of hiding and he’s set his eyes on Nell.

Aaron’s happy in his new home, working on his art and ignoring the town outside his gate. Until his car breaks down and Janelle and her grandmother stroll over for the rescue. Now he can’t get her out of his mind and he’s willing to brave the whole town and a wedding to see where things might lead.

Excerpt

When Janelle had been told her best friend Rose’s wedding would be in mid-April, she’d foolishly assumed that meant a decently warm, sunny day. The fact that she’d spent most of her life in California, with frequent trips to family in Hawaii, had clearly skewed her perspective on April weather.

No matter how much she checked her weather app as she packed for her trip to Wildlife Ridge, Colorado, her brain had a hard time accepting that she needed to be prepared for rain, snow, and sun. Giving in to the inevitable, she called her mom and asked if she could borrow her parents’ big suitcase. A wedding event wasn’t the time to not have the right clothes, and Wildlife Ridge didn’t have any clothes shops that she could recall. It was a charming and tiny town, and she was looking forward to returning, but she wasn’t planning a shopping spree.

She checked her watch. Her parents lived in Westwood, less than five miles from her house. If she tried to make the drive during commute times, it would take about forty minutes. But right now, on a Saturday afternoon, she bet herself ten dollars that she could do it in fifteen. 

Grabbing her purse, she locked up her guesthouse and walked the half block to her car. She liked her little rental, but the one thing she would change, if it wasn’t stupid expensive to do so, was her lack of a parking spot.

Weaving in and out of traffic with the ease of someone born and raised in Los Angeles, she quickly pulled into her parents’ driveway and checked her watch. Fourteen minutes.

“Yes!”

She pulled out her phone and made an entry in her budgeting app, pulling ten dollars from her discretionary category and moving it into her treats category. Then she frowned. The stupid category was up to one hundred and eighty dollars. 

She had a…well, could you call it a bad habit? Maybe. She had a habit of letting the treats category fill up and not actually treating herself to anything. Now that Rose had moved away, she and Naomi had fewer excuses to celebrate with dinner at a nice restaurant. She made a mental note to decide on something special for herself once she got home from the wedding weekend.

When she walked into the house, she smelled incense and stuck her head around the corner into the den. Her parents were there, in front of the open butsudan, eyes closed, chanting. 

While she’d fallen out of the Buddhist habits she’d been raised with, seeing her parents in their peaceful moment made her happy and a bit nostalgic. They’d had the same butsudan, the alter where they kept the gohonzon and offerings, since she was a kid, and the same routine. Plus, it meant that they’d also bet she’d be at least twenty minutes in her drive, giving them enough time to go through their process, and they had lost.

Grinning, she jogged up the stairs. When she got to the top, she stopped, turned round, went back down, turned around, and jogged back up, panting a bit as she reached the top. She’d read this was a good exercise technique for people who didn’t want to specifically plan a time in their day for working out. Every time she encountered stairs, she was supposed to do them twice. 

So far, she had discovered that there were actually very few staircases in her day-to-day environment. Who knew?

She pulled the suitcase out of the closet and headed back down. Was it cheating to leave the suitcase at the bottom on her return trip up? There hadn’t been a rule about what she was carrying. Panting more substantially by the time she got back up, she turned and walked down, smiling at her parents as they stepped out of the study.

They exchanged hugs and moved to the living room to chat.

“I’m sorry I missed dinner last night, my boss decided to go to Mumbai and it was a bit of a scramble at the last minute.”

Her mother frowned. “That boss of yours.”

“True, but I got a raise last week, so I can live with his bad time management for a little longer. And, this means he’ll be otherwise occupied for at least a few days while I’m in Colorado.”

“That’s good. Your grandmother is excited to be joining you.”

“Rose loves her, and it’ll be fun to have her there. And I know she’s really looking forward to going to the war memorial in Denver.”

“Honey, are you sure you don’t want a ride to the airport?” her father asked.

“Thanks, Dad, but no reason to drag you out to LAX. The company has a contract with a valet service. It’s one of the few company perks that I can actually use once in a while.”

Her dad’s lips twitched. “Getting fancy on us.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Yeah, that’s me, next thing you know I’ll be ordering a car service and sipping champagne while they drive me to my chartered jet.”

He leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Go big, buy the jet yourself.”

Laughing, she hugged them both again and headed out. 

With the larger suitcase, packing was much easier. She just threw in two-thirds of her closet and called it done. She ate a light dinner and set her alarm. She needed to be at the airport earlier than normal in order to meet her grandmother’s arrival. They would have time for lunch before catching the flight to Denver.

The drive to the valet service was easy, and she only had to pause at the curb for a moment as the driver jumped into her passenger seat. She gave the young man her company’s corporate info as she drove the rest of the way to the airport, and he filled out the form on his tablet. He was out of the car and waiting for her to pop the trunk by the time she’d shifted into park and detached her car key from the rest.

He had her suitcase on the curb and her receipt ready for her by the time she’s made it to the back of the car. Nice and smooth. She hoped the rest of her trip managed to go so well.

Three hours later, she and Grandma were settled into their seats and ready to go. She texted the update to Rose, who responded with a series of emojis that made Grandma laugh.

“How come you didn’t fly out at the same time as Naomi?”

Naomi, third best friend in her and Rose’s trio, had left two days earlier. “She was going to travel around and scout some rental properties she’s thinking of buying.”

Janelle didn’t add that she hadn’t been about to let Grandma make the full flight from Hawaii to Denver on her own when it was simple enough to coordinate the layover with her own flight from Los Angeles.

“I’m just amazed at what that girl has accomplished. How many buildings does she have now?”

“She has the triplex she started with, the one you visited. She moved out of that two years ago and bought a four-unit building, but so far that’s it. She’s decided that it’s silly to only invest in Los Angeles when she can get so much more for her money in other markets, so that’s what she’s looking at now. She liked Colorado when she was visiting Rose and figured she might as well look around. She has the money ready to invest somewhere cheaper, now, or she’d have to wait another year to be able to invest here.”

“Smart girl. I’m so proud of all of you, making your way on your own, not waiting for a man to get your life started.”

The plane started to taxi and Janelle held her grandmother’s hand. “Do you regret marrying Grandad so young?”

Grandma pursed her lips. “No, but it’s a different time now. I worried about your mother when she followed suit and married even younger than me. But that girl met your father and knew what she wanted and wasn’t going to waste any time getting it.”

“She had me when she was only twenty.”

“They were here in California by then, and she told me the only time she got weird looks was when her hands were swollen in pregnancy and she had to take off her wedding ring.”

“That, and people asking her if she was the nanny when she would take me to the park.”

Grandma looked at her solemnly. “She told you that?”

Nell gave her a wry smile. “She said I was a super-white baby, didn’t start getting my color until later. And there weren’t many other half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian natives in the neighborhood.”

“She told me she hoped California would be more progressive with a mixed marriage, but sometimes she wondered if she should have talked your dad into going back to Canada. But…”

Nell and her grandmother grinned at each other as they both mock shivered. “Cold,” Nell agreed. “And here we are, heading to Colorado. Have you ever been to the mountains?”

“Your grandfather and I took the kids to Park City, Utah, when they were in high school. Your uncle begged and begged for the chance to learn how to ski, and the girls said they would try as well. He took a couple of lessons and did okay, but he never asked again. Your mom did fairly well, and your Aunt Linda was too busy flirting with all the boys to give it a proper try.”

Nell grinned again at her grandmother as the flight attendant came by to offer them drinks. They relaxed and chatted for a while, until a nicely muscled Latino man moved down the aisle towards them, presumably on his way to the bathroom.

Grandma nudged Janelle’s arm. “You haven’t told me about any dates lately. You could go stand in line for the restroom, you’ll have a few minutes to chat, see what he’s like.”

“Ah, come on, don’t you have enough grandkids by now?”

Grandma put her hand on Nell’s arm. “It’s not that, my darling. It’s that I want to see you happy.”

“I am happy. And maybe I’ll get married and have kids, maybe I won’t. But I promise you, I’ll be happy either way. I enjoy my life. Dating is fun. But I haven’t met anyone that…I don’t know, makes me excited to see them after the first date.”

“No quiver in your loins?”

“Grandma!” Nell laughed. “I mean, I’m not saying I’m not having fun now and then, but no, I haven’t found anyone who makes my loins quiver with excitement at the idea of seeing them.”

Grandma frowned. “But you’re happy? Working a job you don’t like, playing with cars in your spare time, and having occasional fun with dates?”

“It’s not my job I don’t like, just my boss. The work is fun. And the cars are fun. I sold that Porsche I fixed up for a nice profit, and I had a great time doing the work. I know I’m thirty-six and you already had all three of your kids by my age—”

“No, don’t go by that, it was a whole different world for women. My mother got married at the end of the war, and she was twenty; her parents were afraid she was already too old. But she insisted on waiting for my father to come home.”

“And you got married at twenty, too. Did you think you were getting too old?”

“No, I just felt ready.”

“And you found a Hawaiian boy, who wasn’t Japanese. Were you worried about bringing him home?”

Grandma smiled, her gaze going fuzzy with memory. “No, it might have been different if it hadn’t been for the war, but after…I guess they didn’t hold on to many of the old traditions. I can’t even speak Japanese anymore. I wanted my children to learn, but it wasn’t taught in the school, and I didn’t know it well enough. I tried to get my mother to speak it to them, but it didn’t really take. I’m glad your father taught you his French.”

“Me, too. And mom followed tradition and got married at twenty.”

“She was ready to get off the island. Which was funny, because your father wanted to stay.”

“And surf.”

Grandma laughed. “Yes, and surf. That’s why he’d come, after all. But your mother was smart enough to know he wouldn’t want to stay forever, and once he was ready to go, she would have her chance.”

“Couldn’t she have gone away for college?”

“Yes, but—and you must never tell her I told you this—she was too afraid to go off on her own. She didn’t have your independence. With your father at her side, she was ready to dare anything. But on her own, she would not have left the island. At least not for several years.”

“That’s okay, she made it work.”

“She did, yes, and he was a good match for my oldest. He lets her be brave, and she not only gives him family, but the need for family.”

“Yeah, his parents weren’t nearly as awesome as you and Grandpa.”

“Well. Few are.”

Janelle laughed. “And at least two of my cousins upheld the tradition of marriage at twenty.”

“Ah, those two. They both should have waited. Maybe not as long as you, though.”

Grandma’s phone beeped and she picked it up to check the message. Janelle leaned over as she sighed.

“What now?”

“Your aunt received koden from her old neighbor and she’s deciding how many stamps to send in the thank you card.”

Janelle’s aunt’s father-in-law had passed away several weeks before. The Japanese had a tradition of sending money to grieving families when they experienced a loss. For reasons that weren’t clear to Janelle, Japanese American families on the mainland had then added to the tradition by sending postage stamps in their thank you cards. The number of stamps was determined by how much money had been sent. That amount of money was also important, to avoid giving insult. Grandma Yuki had a list of how much she’d sent, who she’d sent it to, how much she’d received, whose loss she’d received it for, and the corresponding number of stamps. Janelle found the whole thing fascinating, but was kind of hoping it would die off with her generation.

“Sometimes I wish this stamp tradition had been kept to the mainland,” Grandma grumbled as she waited for her daughter to respond. “This wasn’t something my mother had to deal with.”

“But then you wouldn’t be able to help Aunt Linda with her family and neighbors in Michigan.”

Grandma gave her the side-eye. “Cheeky.”

Janelle just grinned as the phone beeped a response.

Grandma typed out another message and hit send, then leaned back, looking pensive.

“You didn’t know him, did you?” Janelle asked, gently.

“We met at the wedding, many years ago.” She reached over and patted Janelle’s arm. “I’m okay. Sometimes I forget how old I actually am. I don’t feel like I’m seventy-four, but then someone from my generation dies, and I remember that I won’t be around for much longer.”

“Grandma!”

“Shush, it’s a fact of life. But I want to be there for your special moments, and your cousins’. I want your mom and your aunt to be able to ask me how many stamps to send, or how much koden is appropriate, even if they argue with my opinion.”

The very idea of her grandmother not being around made Janelle’s heart ache. She loved the woman with her whole heart and knew that Grandma’s loss would be devastating for the family. To not be able to send a photo of her and Naomi trying on outrageous dresses in Beverly Hills, as she’d done last week, or just to call and get the latest news on life in Hilo. She was suddenly happier than ever that Grandma had decided to come to Colorado for Rose’s wedding.

Nell closed her eyes, her mind going back over their earlier conversation. As she’d said, she wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage, not at all. It was just getting harder and harder to imagine falling in love, wanting to tie herself, her future, to a man, but if she did, the idea that Grandma might not be there to see her married was too horrible to consider.

But here she was, on her way to a wedding. Seeing Rose and Ethan together had made her heart tingle in a way that her loins had steadfastly refused to do for ages. It made her incredibly happy to see them in love, and she had no doubt that theirs would last.

* * *

Janelle grinned as Naomi, meeting them at luggage claim, picked Grandma up in an enthusiastic hug.

“Grandma Yuki!”

Grandma’s expression tried to maintain stoic, but she lost the battle and offered a wide smile. “I’ve missed you, too, Naomi. You didn’t come to the island last year.”

Naomi carefully lowered the older woman to the ground and stepped back. “I wanted to, but the timing just didn’t work out. Next time.”

“Good. Now, where are our bags? I’m anxious to meet this Ethan our Rose has decided on, make sure he’s good enough for her.”

Janelle waited until they were settled into the rental car, then leaned forward from the backseat. “So, how are the plans going? Is it crazy yet? Has Rose morphed into a bridezilla? I can’t imagine it.”

Naomi scoffed. “Of course she hasn’t. She’s being chill, though now that we’re three days out, things have sped up a bit. For tonight, they’re staying in for a quiet dinner while we get settled in. First thing tomorrow, it’s on. There’s a list of things for each of us.”

“And tomorrow is the bachelorette party.”

“Yes. Anna has ordered the stripper, the decorations you shipped are in a box in Ethan’s office that he swears he hasn’t opened, and one of us needs to pick up the desserts at the bakery while we’re running around doing other things.” 

“Whew,” she said quietly, seeing that Grandma’s eyes had closed. “Sounds like everything is coming together.”

“Yes. Cal and Jin, Rose’s friends, had a nice dinner delivered from that restaurant we went to, Monarch?” She met Janelle’s eyes in the rearview mirror.

Janelle nodded. She definitely remembered their night out at the fancy restaurant when they’d come out to meet Ethan.

“The guys gifted it to them so they could have one last quiet night in before all of the craziness happens. Ethan was going to insist on driving to pick you up tonight, because it was snowing and I’m not exactly experienced with that. But it finally stopped and I convinced him I could handle it and he and Rose should have their night.”

“When do Jennifer and Brad get in? They’re staying at the same B&B as us, right?”

“Yes, and so is Pablo. All of them get in tomorrow early afternoon. Jennifer and Brad will wait for Pablo, and they’re sharing a car to get here, then Pablo and Brad will go away and leave the B&B to us for the bachelorette. We’re taking over the whole place for the party since it’s all just us.”

Ah, Pablo, another friend from their old college group, one she hadn’t seen in a few years. So much of the group had scattered after college, it wasn’t unusual for them to only meet up at weddings. “I kind of wish Jennifer and Brad were bringing the baby so we could see her, but it’s nice they’ll be able to have this time away, too. Cammie’s so cute, though it would have been weird to have a four-month-old at the bachelorette. And, wow, I haven’t seen Pablo in years. I guess since Samantha Carney’s wedding.”

“Didn’t he hit on you at her wedding?”

“Yes, but he was drunk.”

“And you were there with…” Naomi squinted at the road ahead. “Derek. No, Darnel.”

“Yep, Darnel. We’d been together six months, but only lasted three after that.”

“He wanted to go to grad school in Nebraska.”

“I told him I wasn’t interested in Nebraska, but really it was more that I was tired of him moving from school to school rather than actually getting started in anything. I mean, if he’d had a realistic end goal, I could understand, but I really think it was just easier for him to keep being a student than to start paying his student loans.”

“You were not wrong, my friend.” Naomi glanced at her mirrors and moved lanes to pass a semi-truck. “Pablo seems to be coming single, and he was fairly attractive, as I recall. I want to say I’ve heard he’s a veterinarian now?”

“I think I heard that, too. But, I mean, come on. He’s a guy who hits on women who are in relationships.”

“Fair point.”

When they were an hour out, she called the pizza place in Wildlife Ridge, City Pizza, and told them when they expected to arrive at the B&B, prepaying with her credit card, including tip, and asking that the pizza arrive before they did. It had been a long travel day for Grandma, and she’d already told Rose that they would just head straight to the B&B and see her bright and early in the morning.

When she’d hung up, she sat back and watched the road race past for a few minutes. She’d been so excited, but also sad, when Rose had been the first of them to make a move, literally, by leaving Los Angeles and going to Colorado. Her plan had been to see if living there, in a lower-cost-of-living town than LA, would work, but really as a starting point to being able to live anywhere in the world. She dreamed of traveling while still supporting herself with her computer business. But she’d ended up falling in love with Wildlife Ridge, as much as she’d fallen for Ethan.

Still, she and Ethan were going to travel. Instead of a honeymoon, they were beginning a six-month stay in Spain. They’d bought a fixer-upper house in Wildlife Ridge that they were going to work on once they returned.

Janelle wanted to travel, but just for vacations. She wanted to find somewhere to settle down and be comfortable in her own place. Not that she wasn’t comfortable in LA. Exactly. Sort of. She liked being able to go to museums once in a while, liked that there were restaurants galore, but really, she was kind of a homebody. 

Those were once-in-a-while activities for her; there was no need to live in a big city like Los Angeles when you didn’t love going out to the theater or a fancy restaurant or a concert three nights a week. And it definitely wasn’t worth the traffic and crowds.

She’d taken a couple of vacations to small towns, hoping to find one that felt like home. So far, she had liked one, been annoyed by another, and had been indifferent to the third. The one she liked, in Eastern Washington, was a possibility, but she wasn’t really sure it would hold up for the long term.

But, then again, she wasn’t making a lifelong decision. If she moved once, she could do so again.

Naomi and Grandma were having a murmured conversation, and Janelle realized she’d let her eyes close. She opened them to find that they were approaching Wildlife Ridge. Time to stop worrying about her future and start enjoying her time with friends. 

One side of the highway was mountain, and the exit to Wildlife Ridge branched off the other side, nestling into a small valley that was backed by more mountains that she couldn’t really see at night. It was more of a feeling of their looming presence and a lack of light.

But the town was lit and inviting. Main Street was where nearly all of the businesses in this town of less than twenty-five hundred people were located. There was only the one gas station first thing off the exit, one two-story strip mall and then several restaurants, including a couple of fast food joints, a Starbucks, and other miscellaneous shops.

She remembered a library, a Masonic Temple—she wasn’t exactly sure she knew what that was—and a sheriff’s station from her previous trip. The elementary school, and the junior and senior high school were just off Main Street, as were several small neighborhoods and a couple of apartment buildings.

Very quickly they passed the end of Elk Street, a one-way road that they wanted to be on. Only a few yards down, they were able to turn left onto the street. Elk Street made a giant cul-de-sac and came back around to Main. The space formed by the road was a giant lawn dotted with several trees, a little amphitheater, and Town Hall. This is where the wedding would be held. 

When they had completed the loop and were most of the way back to Main Street, they turned right onto Glaring Road and made their way to the Columbine House B&B. 

She’d made the arrangements for their stay and for the bachelorette party with Bob Bares, the owner, who was quick to come to the door to greet them and help them with their bags. She was very glad to see that the photos online hadn’t done the beautiful house justice, and their rooms were excellent. Let the wedding weekend begin!