Coming Home (Fully Invested Book 1)

Three best girlfriends who made a pact to work their way out of the rat race and into the freedoms that being financially independent can bring them.

Coming Home Cover

Small town contemporary romance
Series: Fully Invested (A Wildlife Ridge Romance) – Rose and Ethan
59k words (novel)
Release Date: 9/25/20
Digital: Amazon * Google Play * iTunes * Kobo * Nook * Booktopia *
Trade Paperback: Amazon * IndieBound *
Extras: Pinterest Board, Promo Graphics

Rose never expected to return to Wildlife Ridge after she graduated high school, but here she is, sixteen years later. She wants to spend some time focusing on her new life as an entrepreneur, away from the big city rat race, and her quiet hometown in the mountains seems like the perfect place to do that. She’s excited to spend some time with her parents and has barely given a passing thought to seeing Ethan again. Really. Hardly at all.

Ethan hasn’t seen Rose on her infrequent visits home. He’s never forgiven himself for cancelling out on taking her to prom at the last minute. His life hasn’t panned out the way he expected, but he loves his town, and he’s hopeful she’ll love it enough to stick around for awhile, give Wildlife Ridge a second chance. And maybe give him a chance to make it up to her after all this time.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Rose watched her friend Naomi walk back to the car, swinging a grocery sack of snacks, and switching her hips from side to side. She grinned, glad her friend had taken the time to do this road trip with her. Leaving Southern California, where she’d been so happy the last several years, was going to be tough. Moving so far from her two best friends, Naomi and Janelle, was going to be tougher still.

The gas pump clicked and she took the nozzle out of the car as Naomi climbed inside. She twisted the gas cap into place and grabbed the receipt. This would be their last stop before they reached Wildlife Ridge, Colorado, population 2,235, last time she’d looked. The town she’d grown up in and never expected to return to.

“This is Bell Valley, the last big town before Wildlife Ridge. We’ve got about forty-five minutes to go,” Rose told Naomi. “They reworked the highway and it’s much better now. When I lived there it was a little over an hour to get here. This is where I’ll come if I want to go to the movies or hit a Target.”

Naomi looked around. “Forty-five minutes, huh? How many Targets do you think we passed in the first forty-five minutes after we left Los Angeles?”

Rose laughed. “Probably ten. It’s a different world out here in the mountains.”

She flashed a grin at Naomi, who had queued up one of their favorite songs, which came blaring out of the radio as soon as Rose started the car. They hit the highway with the windows down, their voices high and her heart full. She would miss living in the same city as her friends, but they wouldn’t lose their closeness. It had been obvious for a while that none of them were going to stay in Los Angeles long term, it just happened to turn out that Rose was the first to make the move.

When the song ended, Naomi turned the volume down a bit and checked the GPS. “Okay, so you have to go nearly an hour for a movie theater. Tell me there’s a Starbucks in the actual town.”

The horrified expression on her friend’s face had Rose laughing. “Of course there is. And a McDonald’s. An old-fashioned diner. A barbecue place. At least, last time I was there.”

“Hmm. You know, I looked up the numbers. There are about the same number of people in this town as there were in my high school graduating class.”

“Ha! My graduating class had fifty-four. If you count Donna Calender, who was held back to the next year.”

“That’s…I mean, I can’t even…there’s probably more people at my grocery store at any given time than there were in your whole senior class.”

They busted up laughing, then turned the radio up for another favorite song. Naomi pulled a package of gummy worms out of her sack and handed a couple over.

“So, am I going to be the only person of color in this entire town for the duration of my visit?”

Rose threw her a sheepish look. “No, but it is like ninety-two percent white. Or, it was.”

Naomi rolled her eyes. “I kind of already figured.”

Chomping on a worm, Rose considered. “I realize I was probably an ignorant white kid, but I don’t remember there ever being any racism in town. I mean, I’m sure there must have been, but definitely not systematic. My mom’s best friend was—is—Black. And, okay, there was only one Black guy in my graduating class, but I was supposed to go to prom with him, and I never even thought twice about that.”

Naomi flicked a worm in her direction. “Supposed to?”

“Well, the jerk canceled on me at the last second. He apologized, but I couldn’t get past it and kind of ignored him until I left town.” She glanced over. “But maybe he felt a little guilty, so that’s why he was willing to give me the lease on this apartment as six months, instead of the usual twelve.”

“Wait. You’re telling me prom guy is the apartment manager you’ve been emailing with?”

“Yep. We never brought it up, our conversations have been strictly about negotiating and signing the lease, and sending me the keys, but he didn’t fight me on changing the lease.”

Naomi gave her a high-five. “You should still make him do a little groveling when you see him. I bet prom’s an even bigger deal out here than it was for us.”

“On the one hand, yes. But on the other hand, I was already planning my move to college in California and ready to leave this place, so it wasn’t too big a deal. I really did like him though. Now that I look back, it was probably a good thing. I might have fallen head over heels and rethought my plans. He was going to college in Denver.” She accepted the offered gummy worm, chewed. “Huh. I never really thought about it that way before. We had gotten friendly and he’s a cool guy. I was so freaking excited when he asked me to prom.” She shook her head. “Wow, what a difference sixteen years makes. I think it will be nice to see him.”

“All right. So, we’ve got a Starbucks, a few restaurants, and at least two Black families in this town.” Naomi stretched her legs out, reclined her seat back a little more. “But I still don’t think this place is exactly in line with your plan to move somewhere with a low cost of living. Sure, it’s lower than Los Angeles, but still about average for the country. Average is not low.”

“That’s why I only committed to six months. I figured it would be good to reconnect with my parents a bit and get used to small-town living again, without it being too rustic. Besides,” she added, slapping her friend’s leg, “you’re the one who constantly reminds us that there’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap.”

“Fair enough.”

Naomi offered another gummy worm, but Rose waved it off. Her friend had a super high metabolism that required a lot of calories. It had taken Rose and Janelle a little time to realize that Naomi was just as self-conscious about being too skinny as they were about the opposite. Janelle hovered on the side of plump, and used to make herself miserable with failed diets. She was better about it now, but still denied herself a lot. Rose was luckier. She wasn’t thin by any means, and she’d probably need to start doing some actual exercise as she neared forty, but she’d reached a level of comfort with her body that neither of her girlfriends had managed.

She slowed down as they approached a logging truck. There were only two lanes on this stretch of highway, so she settled back to wait for a passing opportunity. Somehow, through sixteen years of living in LA, she’d managed to maintain her calm driving habits. Which made Naomi and Janelle nuts. They were especially disdainful of the fact that she always came to a full and complete stop at stop signs. Luckily, before Naomi had to bite through her lip to say anything, a passing lane appeared and she was able to zip past the truck.

Another favorite song came on, and she whooped as Naomi turned the volume back up. They danced in their seats, singing along at top volume, Naomi waving her hands in the air. The song had been a hit the year they’d been freshman at UCLA. She’d met her best friends there and been so happy. She never thought she’d be returning to sweet little Wildlife Ridge.

It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the town, other than it being so small and intimate. Everyone knowing your business, thinking they knew what was best for you all the time. But then again, they were actually there for you when you needed it. Mostly. And cared about what happened to you. 

She’d never been more ashamed in her life than when she’d seen an ambulance at her apartment building, and realized she had no idea the name of her neighbor being wheeled out on a stretcher. She wouldn’t have even recognized the man if she hadn’t seen what unit he was coming from. There were certainly things she’d miss about Los Angeles, but that level of anonymity wasn’t one of them.

They passed a highway sign letting them know they were fifteen miles from their destination.

“If you’re really considering moving here, not just staying for a while, I want to know more,” Naomi said. “Is it like, a mining town? Factory town? Tourists? How does everyone make their money?”

“First I want to concentrate more on surviving as an entrepreneur and worry about where I’ll land later, but Wildlife Springs is definitely in the running. It was a logging town way back when. Started by two brothers, with the last name of Rabbit. They didn’t want to name the town after bunnies, so they went the more exotic route. And that somehow led to the fact that most of the streets and businesses in town are named after wildlife, so it ended up being kind of cutesy anyway.”

Naomi snorted. “Nice.”

“Logging has mostly died off in the area, though there’s still a saw mill on the edge of town. It’s not nearly as big an employer as it used to be, though. At some point Wildlife Ridge managed to become the county seat, even though there’s the bigger town we left a while back. This was before my parents’ time, but apparently there was drama. Maybe some fraud. That town got the small hospital, but Wildlife Ridge has the seat, whatever that really means. There’s the sheriff’s office, the Forest Service office and maintenance yard, that kind of stuff. There’s a big state park nearby, so they get people who work there, as well as tourists who are camping there and want to come to town to eat and shop. Tourists stopping on their way to other cities or campgrounds. It’s not a tourist town, per se, but there’s always some around.” 

“Seems like a lot for a small town.”

“Not when you’re there,” Rose laughed. “Let’s see. There’s the volunteer fire department, a Masonic Temple which rents their banquet hall out for all sorts of events, um…oh, the one funeral home is run by the guy who’s also the county coroner.”

“Of course he is.”

“There’s a ranch not far out of town. People stay there to go on long horseback camping rides in the mountains, or to train with horses, or have their horses trained. Or something like that. I don’t really know, but it does mean we get cowboys in town sometimes. And wannabe cowboys.”

“Could be interesting,” Naomi said.

They’d gained a lot of elevation in the last hour and Rose had to clear her ears so they wouldn’t pop. The mountains stretched up on either side of the highway, shades of green peeking out from blankets of snow. Since it was the middle of February, she hadn’t much trusted the weather reports, but they’d had clear skies the whole trip. As they finally took the exit for the little town nestled in the mountains, she looked at it with fresh eyes.

The exit curved to the north, directly onto Main Street. Off to the right was the ever-present plume of steam from the saw mill. There were no stop signs going her direction, and no stop lights in town at all, just a caution light at Dragonfly road, where she turned to get to the apartment buildings she was going to call home. There were two more apartment buildings further down Main Street, sister buildings owned by the same company. They weren’t really any nicer than Salmon Springs, but they were next to the park and lake, so they charged a bit more in rent, and Rose hadn’t seen the point in that. The little town was nestled in a valley surrounded by forest and mountains, so she would be in the middle of the gorgeous views just by walking out the door, no need to pay a premium. She pulled into the lot and looked at Naomi.

“Welcome home,” her friend said.

Ethan paused at the entrance to apartment 212. The door was wide open, likely for the cool blast of late-winter air. Music played, loudly but not too loudly, and the charming voice singing along had him pausing before he knocked on the doorjamb.

He’d wondered if he’d feel anything when he saw Rose again. High school was a lifetime ago, and he’d started to think some serious thoughts about her back in the day. But they’d been children, really. And he’d disappointed her, let her down. Story of his life. She’d grown up, he saw now. In all the right ways.

She did a little wiggle as she unwrapped some kind of figurine and placed it on the shelves in front of her, and he tried not to watch her ass. But he didn’t try very hard. Even though her back was to him, he knew it was Rose. They’d known each other since kindergarten, after all. In a small town like Wildlife Ridge, it was impossible not to know someone your own age. They’d played together as children, but they’d never been especially close. Not until those last couple of months.

She was not sporting a California-girl tan, might even be paler than he remembered her. Apparently she hadn’t turned into a beach bum during her life out in LA. Her previously long hair had been cut and shaped into a wavy brown mass that bounced on her shoulders and invited him to tug. He wanted her to turn around so he could see it framing her face.

Another voice joined hers in song, and he watched a long-legged Black woman dance her way down the hall to join Rose. They grabbed hands and circled around the room for a moment before Rose’s eyes landed on him and she came to an abrupt halt. 

He let his hand, knuckles still pointed towards the doorjamb, fall as she blinked at him from behind her glasses. That was another change. She’d almost always worn her contacts, once they got to junior high school.

“Hey,” he said, sounding lame to his own ears. “Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to bring you this, and make sure you have everything you need.” He held up a spider plant. “Welcome to Salmon Springs apartment building.”

She dusted her hands along her thighs and came to him, reaching for the plant. “Wow, that’s so sweet, thanks. It’s good to see you, Ethan.”

“Rose. It’s been a long time.”

“This is one of my best friends, Naomi Washington. Naomi, Ethan Woodford.”

The woman who approached him was all city. At least, that’s what he chose to attribute the air of no-nonsense confidence to. He supposed she’d heard about him and was prepared to be unimpressed.

“Ma’am,” he said, as he offered his hand.

She blinked at him, apparently astonished. Then she looked to Rose. “Did he just insult me to my face?”

Rose’s lips twitched and she adjusted her glasses higher up her nose. “No. He was being sincerely polite.”

Naomi stared at her friend for a moment, then returned her attention to him. “It’s nice to meet you.”

He shook her hand, forcing back a grin. Yeah, she was all city.

“Naomi’s helping me move. She took a little vacation to drive out with me.”

“How was the drive?” he asked, leaning back against the doorjamb. 

“We broke it up into two days, but with the big push yesterday. Spent the night just inside Colorado. It wasn’t too bad.”

He nodded. “Be sure and let me know if I can help out with anything. I’ve got my toolbox, in case you haven’t unpacked that yet.” He nearly shook his head at how stupid that sounded. Her parents owned a hardware store, for crying out loud, surely she’d have access to whatever she needed.

She raised her eyebrows. “Thanks, will do.”

He nodded, backed up. “You have my cell, just call or text if you need anything. It was nice to meet you, Naomi.”

They said their goodbyes and he retreated, shaking his head in disgust at himself as he walked down the hallway. It wasn’t like he didn’t interact with women all the time, but somehow seeing Rose had set him back about a decade and a half. No, that wasn’t true. When he was in high school, he hadn’t had any trouble talking to girls. As the quarterback, he’d been one of the most popular guys around.

A lifetime ago.

He took the stairs down two at a time, made his way to apartment 114 and gave a loud knock. After a minute, he knocked even louder. This time, he heard movement and waited patiently for the door to open.

Mrs. Rubinski peered out at him through her thick glasses. She’d been his science teacher in seventh grade, and he’d thought she was ancient then. Her cat, Simone, wound herself through his legs, rubbing up against him as much as possible. He was convinced she did it so that when he had to go to Mr. Brown in 119, his dog Charlie would smell her scent all over him. Luckily, he had no intention of visiting Mr. Brown, or Charlie, today.

“You said your television wasn’t working again, Mrs. Rubinski. I came to help.”

Her green sweat suit was of the lime variety today. As long as he’d known her, Mrs. Rubinski and always worn green. All shades of green. Sometimes several different shades at the same time. Occasionally she would spice things up with a small bit of accent color. As in the orange turban she now wore. He tried not to stare.

She looked at her watch, but clearly didn’t actually check the time. “It’s about time, you said you’d be here ages ago.”

He sighed. He’d told her an hour ago that he’d be there before six, to make sure she didn’t miss the news. It had been four-thirty when he left his apartment to take Rose her plant, but he resisted the urge to look at his own watch or to correct her. It wouldn’t make any difference.

She waved him towards the television set and he picked up the remote that was sitting on the side table. It only took three clicks to get the TV running the way she expected it to be, three clicks he’d shown her dozens of times, three clicks he could press in the dark, he’d done it so often.

“Thank you, dear. I’m going to talk to my son about helping me get a new television. It’s a shame that this one breaks so often.” She offered him a cookie from a plate sitting on her dining room table. He accepted gratefully. She made amazing cookies, always had.

“I think the television is fine, Mrs. Rubinski. I’m going to see if I can find you a different remote, one that will work better for you.” One with a lot fewer options. “Thank you for the cookie, it’s delicious, as always.” He made his way to the door, but she followed him.

“I saw a moving truck. Who’s our new neighbor?”

“Apartment 212,” he told her. “Rose Chapman. You remember her, from my year?”

“Of course. Rose was always a sweet girl. We’ve hardly seen her back since she went away to college. Seems like she should have been visiting her parents more often than that.”

He’d avoided Rose the first time she’d come back, and simply missed crossing her path the other times. He didn’t offer any opinion on the matter and managed to extricate himself with only a few more swipes of cat hair to his pants and the thought, when might he see Rose again?