Emilia Hudson pulled up to the little cottage she was renting for the week. The last time she’d set foot in Silver Ridge, her name had been Hailee Howard, and she’d just lost the only two people who’d ever loved her like their own, Papa Jack and Mama Cam.
She let out a deep breath and turned off the ignition of the rental car and sat in the tiny hatchback for a few minutes. Oh, how Emilia missed her grandparents. Eighteen years had passed since a drunk driver crashed into their minivan, killing them both instantly. She’d fled the town that took them away and never looked back.
So many raw emotions flooded through Emilia that it made it difficult to get out of the car. The moment she’d driven onto the main street of town, her entire world had spun in front of her. She remembered eating ice cream with her high school boyfriend on the sidewalk, buying her prom dress at the clothing store on the corner, and picking up pies at the bakery owned by Martha North. She wondered if Martha still ran the little bakery or if the Norths still owned half the town.
Probably yes on both counts.
The thought stung a little. The North family was nice, but they often felt untouchable, as if they were in some other league that she’d never understand. Even when she dated their cousin all the way through junior high and high school, she felt like she didn’t belong.
She rolled her eyes at the last thought. Boy, she was glad she was no longer a teenager. Life seemed so impossible at that age, and now she knew better. Life was impossible at any age.
Emilia chuckled a little at the last thought as she reached for her phone to see two messages come across her screen, both from men she’d recently gone on dates with.
She touched the screen and brought the first message up from Daniel. He was a nice guy—a software developer working on some medical record app—who desperately wanted a family before Easter. Being that Christmas had just zipped by, that didn’t give him much time, and the thought gave Emilia cold chills. Her eyes fell to the screen, and she let out a tiny groan.
Hey, Babe. I can’t stop thinking about you. Hope your travels treat you well but not as well as I want to treat you when you get back. You are coming back, aren’t you? Do you know when you’ll be back in town? There’s this great restaurant I want us to try that just opened up. Let me know, and I’ll book a reservation.
“Us,” she muttered out loud. “There is no us. We went out once.”
She moved on to the next text and groaned even louder as she read Richard’s text. Now, he wasn’t a nice guy. He was a bona fide creeper. He came on strong but for a completely different reason. He didn’t want a relationship. He only wanted sex.
What are you doing tonight? I thought I could swing by later and give you a taste of the Richard.
“Ew. Please don’t,” Emilia muttered, her stomach churning at the thought. “It’s no wonder eighty percent of my readers have stopped dating.” She looked at her reflection in the rearview mirror and grinned. “And now you’ve officially begun having conversations with yourself, so that’s great.”
She took in a deep breath and grabbed her oversized purse before bounding out of her car. This week was going to be good for the soul. She needed closure after eighteen long years, and the fact that an email for dating help landed in her inbox from someone in this tiny town was a sign.
It was a sign that Emilia needed to face this part of her life head-on and close that chapter. A lot had happened since her grandparents had passed away. In fact, she’d even rekindled her relationship with her parents. After decades of struggling with addiction problems, they’d both managed to overcome their demons. Emilia decided it was better late than never and even celebrated Christmas with them.
She opened the hatchback and grabbed her suitcase out of the back and set it on the fresh coat of snow on the driveway before glancing around the quiet neighborhood. As with most neighborhoods in Silver Ridge, the housing was mixed with tiny houses like the cottage in front of her scattered among the large estates she’d only dreamed of living in when she grew up here.
Emilia looked around and saw a dog bounding toward her down the driveway followed by someone she never expected to run into right off the bat.
Joel North was calling after his dog, but it was too late. The dog had already bowled over her suitcase, and both front paws sprang to her thighs as she petted the furry beast and wondered if Joel would recognize her.
Probably not. Emilia had ditched the dyed brown hair, glasses, and braces decades ago.
“Hey, Oscar. Knock it off. Where are your manners?” Joel clapped his hands together and called back his dog. “I’m so sorry about that. It’s like when the snow falls, he thinks all the rules are out the door and being that we live in the mountains…” Joel cringed and didn’t finish his sentence.
“I love dogs,” Emilia assured him, glancing at the handsome man in front of her. “It’s no problem.”
“You need any help?” Joel asked as his dog sat next to him.
Emilia stared at Joel for a split second and realized he had no idea who she was, which made life a lot easier.
“No, I got it. Thanks, though.” She smiled, feeling relief trickle through her.
All she’d hoped for during this trip was to get in and out of town without running into anyone who might know a little too much about her past. Emilia didn’t want to dredge up the drama that had haunted her entire childhood. She wanted to say goodbye to the people who’d made her the woman she’d become since she’d never had the chance before.
“If you need anything, let me know. I just live down the street.”
“Oh, okay. I’m sure I could reach out to the cottage owner and—”
“That’s me.” He grinned and patted his dog’s head.
“Of course it is.” She shook her head, unable to hide her grin.
Why wouldn’t a North happen to own the place she rented? Her phone buzzed with another text, and she glanced down to see another text from Richard.
Should I take this as a hint or are you just busy tonight?
Emilia grimaced, and Joel’s laughter filled the air.
“I don’t know what came over your phone, but you look like you want to lose your lunch.” Joel was still smiling when her eyes locked on his.
There was no doubt about it. Joel North was as good-looking now as he was in high school. She highly doubted any of the North men had aged for the worse, and compared to Daniel and Richard, they looked like Greek Gods, which only made her wonder a little about their cousin, Josh. He had all the North brothers beat in the looks department back in high school, and that was saying something. It was why she’d fallen hard for him so long ago.
“Just a bad date that won’t go away.” Emilia shoved a piece of her strawberry blonde hair behind her ear.
“Oooh.” He shook his head. “That can be like an itch you can’t scratch.”
“Or if you do, it’ll fester and make it worse.” She laughed.
“That’s an image I don’t want to think about. Boy, I don’t envy you.” He winked.
“I wouldn’t. It’s awful out there.” She reached for her suitcase, and Joel’s eyes narrowed on hers.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” he asked.
Her entire body stiffened. She thought she was off the hook.
“I doubt it. Unless you go to Oregon a lot.”
“We do spend a fair amount of time there.” Joel gave a quick nod. “But I’m probably only imagining things.”
“I have one of those familiar faces.” Emilia was in absolutely no mood to wander down memory lane with anyone from her old high school, especially when that someone was related to her high school sweetheart, which was one of the many reasons she’d stayed away from Silver Ridge for so long. “I’m sorry to rush away, but I have a blog post I need to post before meeting someone in town.”
“No worries.” Joel smiled, and his bright blue eyes signaled complete understanding. “I’m the nosy landlord. Holler if you need anything.” He gave a quick wave before turning around with his dog and heading back down the street.
When he was no longer in earshot, Emilia let out a deep sigh of relief. She wasn’t actually lying about needing to get a post up. She was already behind today, and while her dates always gave her plenty to write about, she wasn’t sure she had much to say.
The dating world was exhausting, and blogging about it was even more so, especially with so many women depending on her as if she actually knew what she was talking about.
And the truth was that she had absolutely no clue.
Emilia glanced at her phone and realized she only had about an hour before she was supposed to meet with one of her readers. She picked up her small suitcase and crunched along the snowy path to the front door of the quaint little cottage. Once she got today’s meeting out of the way, she could relax. It had been a long time since she’d let herself unwind. Although, she felt like she was on pins and needles knowing how difficult it was going to be avoiding the North family.
It figured the Norths owned the vacation rental. She really doubted there was much in town they didn’t own since more than a decade had gone by. As she punched her key code into the door lock, Josh popped into her head and she forced him right out.
Now was not the time to start wondering about a teenage crush she’d run far away from. Pushing the door open, her entire body relaxed once she got inside the safety of the cottage. The interior was as cute as the exterior.
Antique wooden skis hung over the stone fireplace, and a beige leather couch centered the great room, along with some well-placed rocking chairs. The kitchen had an old-fashioned mint green refrigerator and an eating nook, which was plenty for her, and a hall led down to the bedroom where she rolled her suitcase to and plopped it on the ottoman at the foot of the bed.
A basket filled with chocolates and a bottle of wine with two glasses had been placed on the nightstand. This probably would be a great place to stay as a couple. Not that she would know.
Emilia plucked the card out of the basket and read a greeting from the Norths welcoming her to their cottage. There was no doubt about it. Everything the Norths did was a class act. Just like their cousin. She let out a groan and rolled her eyes. The reminiscing with herself was already wrecking her plan.
She checked her reflection in the mirror and decided to quickly change into a jumper, cardigan, and her favorite pair of slouchy boots before braiding her hair into two loose braids and calling it good.
The reason she wound up in this small town again was that she’d gotten an email from Anton, who was the assistant to a wedding dress designer named Dina Romano, who desperately needed dating advice, or at least her assistant seemed to think she did. Anton was a cute twenty-something who felt his job was on the line if he couldn’t get his boss to see that love was right in front of her. And Emilia had to admit, everything that Anton described made the guy sound like he was a keeper.
All she had to do was send in Daniel or Richard to prove that point. Both were desperate but for very different reasons. She glanced at her phone and decided to write a quick opening paragraph for today’s blog post before she forgot what she had to say. A reader had sent in a question to her blog, Emilia’s Love Pursuit, and it had been driving her nuts all morning.
Emilia turned on her laptop and looked at the reader’s question once more before responding.
I’m beside myself. Here’s the problem. I’ve been on three to four dates a week for the last year, and NONE OF THEM WORKED OUT. I NEVER get a second date. Not once. How is this possible? The only thing I can come up with is it’s me. Pure and Simple. All Me. I’m at the point where even if I wanted a one-night stand, I couldn’t get one. And isn’t that the easy part? Getting a guy to sleep with you? I swear I can see the dust swirling behind their tracks before we even completely part ways. What gives? What am I doing wrong?
Utterly Not Amused,
Cranky and Single in Sacramento
Emilia tilted her head to the left and pictured her reader snuggled on her couch in Sacramento beating herself up, which wasn’t acceptable in Emilia’s book. Her blog was about positivity, so she began typing to get this poor woman back on track.
Dear Cranky and Single,
What if you really are the problem when it comes to dating? What if you’re the one who is actually too picky and it comes out while you’re on your dates? What if the men can sense that you despise what they stand for? Or they can sniff your desperation? What if you’re forever doomed and should just hunker down for the duration with about twenty cats and as many Chihuahuas? What if it’s you who sets too many unrealistic goals for your soon-to-be exes? Could that be?
The answer is no.
Don’t ever believe that you’re the problem! Be glad they’re not calling again. If you start worrying that you’re the problem, you’ll never be the real you, and you’ll never find someone who likes the real you—twenty cats and Chihuahuas included. If you’re too honest and say something that the guy doesn’t want to hear, too bad. If your laugh is too loud for their taste, move on. Why would you want to hang out with someone a second time who doesn’t get a kick out of you for being you?
What you need to do is to turn it around in your head. It’s not that you’re scaring them away after the first date. It’s that they can’t handle you on a second because they’re not man enough. You’re all woman, and they’re still just little boys. Once you find a real man who understands you, life will fall into place in the love department.
Being genuine is key to finding love. If you don’t act like yourself around him from the start, you never will. So don’t start changing who you are to get to date number two.
Emilia let out a sigh and started to write one more sentence that she knew would never see the light of day when it came to posting.
But what do I know? I’ve never been in a long-term relationship. Dating is anyone’s best guess, and pure love is even more of an aberration than anything, so good luck with that!