Road To Cedar Valley Falls
Copyright © 2023 by Kimberly Hanson. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying without written permission of the publisher or author. The exception would be in the case of brief quotations embodied in the critical articles or reviews and pages where permission is specifically granted by the publisher or author.
Although every precaution has been taken to verify the accuracy of the information contained herein, the author and publisher assume no responsibility for any errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for damages that may result from the use of information contained within.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarities to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
I was given permission by Kimberly Hanson to put this on our blog.
Dax Marshall sat in front of his computer, staring blankly at the screen. He’d been working on the latest software update his customer for over an hour, but he couldn’t seem to focus. The screen in front of him blurred, his mind thinking of anything but what he needed to.
Frustrated at his lack of progress, he took off his black-rimmed glasses and threw them on his desk, rubbing his eyes.
The thrill of the holidays were long gone, and in its place held a sadness that only the middle of January could have. The dreary winter was no longer made beautiful with the Christmas lights. Cheery holiday gestures were replaced with sullen moods. All the excitement replaced with credit card debt and cold nights.
Not that the holidays held much joy for Dax. Since leaving his hometown of Cedar Valley Falls ten years ago, he’d only made the mistake of returning home twice. Mistakes he wasn’t in a hurry to repeat any time soon.
Now his holidays were mildly better, consisting of takeout food and movie marathons with his best friend and business partner, Mitch Brown.
“Hey, man. What are you still doing here?” Mitch asked as he popped into Dax’s office. The man himself stood in his doorway, arms crossed as he leaned on the doorframe. “I thought I was the only one of us that stays here until it’s almost time to start again.”
“I’m beginning to wonder that myself. I’m not getting much done on the Johnson project.” Dax pushed his rolling chair back, giving him room to stretch out his legs.
“Then go home and try again tomorrow. You still have a while before the deadline.” Mitch walked into the office and took a seat in a chair across from Dax. “What’s really going on with you? You’ve been off since before Christmas.”
“I don’t know.” Dax swivelled his chair around to look at the sweeping skyline before him. They had managed to find a small office on Vancouver’s waterfront, and while it might be on the industrial side with the less than picturesque views, it still gave Dax a sense of pride. A feeling they had made it from their little small town and were successful in ‘the big city.’
So then why am I so unhappy?
“Do you miss Rachel?” Mitch asked.
“No,” Dax replied with a chuckle. “She hasn’t even crossed my mind.” He was truthful in his answer. He knew Rachel wasn’t going to be long term. They both did, but neither wanted to admit it. Instead, they waited until Dax was able to save her from going to her company Christmas party alone, and they parted as friends.
“Then what is it? Don’t tell me you’re homesick.” Genuine concern crossed Mitch’s face at the thought.
“Definitely not.” Dax’s phone rang as if on cue. He didn’t hold back the groan as he looked down at the screen. “It’s like she knows we’re talking about home.”
“Are you going to answer it?” Mitch asked after sneaking a glance at Dax’s screen. He leaned back in his chair, resting his hands behind his head as he donned a smirk on his face. Dax knew that Mitch only wore the expression because his only relative back in Cedar Valley Falls was an uncle that didn’t care if he never returned to their small town.
Dax, on the other hand, had a family that seemed to call and try to lure him back to the town he hated every month.
Knowing that if he didn’t answer the call, his mom would just keep trying until he couldn’t avoid it any longer, he grabbed his phone and hit the answer button. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so glad I caught you.” His mom’s voice sounded a little more frantic than normal, but still had the same pleading tone as usual when she wanted him to come back to Cedar Valley Falls.
He loved his mom, he really did, but he couldn’t go back to his hometown. Not after what happened.
“What’s going on?” Mitch moved to get up, but Dax waved him back down, anticipating he would be able to get his mom off the phone as quickly as normal with a few assurances he was fine and not falling into the ‘dark side of the big city’ as she put it.
“It’s your dad. He’s taken a fall.”
Dax sat up straighter, locking eyes with Mitch, who responded with a raised eyebrow. “What happened?”
“He was up on a ladder taking the Christmas lights off the house when he missed a wrung and fell from halfway up.” His mom’s voice shook as if she were fighting off tears. “He’s in the hospital, Daxy.”
“Is he okay?” Dax’s concern for his dad outweighed his irritation at the use of his childhood nickname.
“He will be. He broke his leg and bruised some ribs.”
“Why didn’t Bryce do it? Wasn’t he home for Christmas?” Dax knew if his brother had been around, he would have at least helped.
“He left a day early. He had to get back to Kelowna. Something about a business deal or a client or something. Anyway, that’s beside the point. I need you to come home.”
“What?” Dax sat up straight. He couldn’t help the panic that coursed through his veins at the mention of going to his small town. Mitch mimicked his movements, his questioning look turning to concern.
“Your dad will be coming home from the hospital today, but he’s going to be on bed rest for weeks and I can’t run the store and look after him.”
The store. Of course. Part of the reason that he left town.
“Can’t Bryce help? He’s closer.”
“No, he can’t come back until the Spring.” His mom’s voice went quiet, and he heard a soft sniffle on the other end of the line. “Please, I know I ask you to come home a lot, and that’s because I miss you. Seeing you in the city isn’t the same. But this is different. We need you here. Please?”
Dax pinched the bridge of his nose with his free hand, knowing what he had to go, no matter how much it might cost him, both financially and emotionally.
“Let me talk to Mitch. I’ll call you back tonight.”
“Oh, thank you, Daxy!” his mom said excitedly. “You have no idea how much this means to me!”
With further assurances he would call her later, he hung up and threw his phone on his desk.
“What was all that?” Mitch asked, now sitting on the edge of his seat.
“Looks like I’m going back to Cedar Valley Falls.”
“Are there any updates on flight 276?” Callie Griffith asked as she walked to the desk at the gate of the Vancouver International Airport. It was the third time since she’d been waiting to board the plane she’d had to ask for an update.
“Sorry, not since the last time you asked,” the airline employee said with a tight-lipped smile, looking up only briefly from her computer to let Callie know she was getting on her nerves.
“Surely they must know if the plane is on its way here and when it’ll arrive.” Callie tried her best not to let her frustration get the better of her, but she needed to get on that plane.
Coming to Vancouver had been a colossal mistake. She didn’t know why she ever left Kamloops. She loved the Okanagan region with its amazing summers, lakes, and rivers. She had her friends and her job. She had the coffee shop on the corner of Lansdowne and Third that she went to every morning with baristas who all knew her order. Kamloops might not be a big city, but it was her home, and right now, that’s all that mattered.
“We will let you know of any updates as soon as we can. In the meantime, please take a seat.” The gate agent didn’t bother looking up from the screen that time.
“Thanks.” For nothing.
She walked back to her seat and flopped down, sighing as she went.
“I take there’s no updates,” a deep voice said from the seat beside her. In all her frustration, she hadn’t noticed the seat had been occupied while she was up.
“No. You’d think they would have something to tell us since our flight was supposed to leave three hours ago, but nope.”
“Too bad,” he said in a tone that made it sound like he was anything but sad the flight hadn’t left. She looked over to find a flop of dark hair looking down at a book.
“You don’t sound bothered by the fact we have been stuck here for hours.”
“Because I’m not,” he said, not looking up from his book.
She was getting really upset by people talking to her without actually paying attention to her. Reaching over, she placed her hand on his book, forcing it down on his lap. She was rewarded by having him look up at her, but then found herself momentarily stunned by a pair of stunning blue eyes behind black-framed glasses.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
Callie gave her head a small shake, breaking the momentary hold his stunning eyes had over her. “No, sorry. I guess I’m just anxious to get out of here.”
“Right.” The stranger held her gaze for a breath longer before picking his book back up, letting her hand fall from where it had rested.
Raising her hand back up, she closed her eyes and ran both her hands along her thighs, rocking a little as she went. She could feel her body temperature rising, an anxious feeling rising in her chest. She needed to get out of the city. Needed to get back home and as far away from Maxwell Gladwin as she could.
“Are you all right?” The man beside her asked.
“Yup,” she said with a weak smile as she opened her eyes and looked at him. She held her body still, even though it felt like she’d had ten cups of coffee. “I just really want to get going.”
“I’ve never seen anyone this excited to go to Kamloops,” he mused, the corner of his mouth lifting.
“I guess you don’t know the right people from there, then.”
“Attention everyone at Gate C30 with Flight 276 to Kamloops. We apologize but the flight has been cancelled,” the gate agent announced over the loudspeaker. Everyone at the gate groaned, some standing and yelling, drowning out what else the agent had said. Most rushed to the gate desk.
Callie sat, shocked, as she looked up at the scene in front of her.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Really?” Callie turned to the man next to her, who was patiently packing his book in his carry-on bag.
“No, I can’t say that’s how I saw my day going, but it is what it is.” He looked down at his phone as it lit up, the screen showing an incoming call with ‘Mom’ listed on it. He didn’t hesitate before answering. “Hi, Mom. Yes, we just found out our flight was cancelled. How did you…? Right, of course you did.”
He looked over at Callie, who had been caught staring and overhearing his conversation. Her face flushed as she leaned back in her seat and looked away, embarrassed she had been caught.
“I mean, I can see if I can get another flight. No, of course. Mom, you know that’s not… I can’t control the flights, Mom. No, I understand. Fine. Yes, love you, too.”
He hung up and picked up his bag as he stood. “Well, good luck, I guess.” He said as he gave her a nod, flung his bag over his shoulder and walked off.
Callie had no idea why this man had such a hold over her. Sure, he was handsome with his black-rimmed glasses, green eyes and hair that was slightly too long but styled in a way that reminded her of 90s heartthrobs, but there was something else about him that she couldn’t put her finger on.
She was knocked out of her thoughts as people started lining up in front of her, some knocking into her and her bag. Looking at the long lineup of angry people trying to find a way out of Vancouver, she knew if she stayed any longer she wouldn’t be leaving for at least a day. She had already been scheduled on one of of the last flights out that day. With no other choice, she picked up her bag and headed toward the exit.
Dax had never been so happy he hadn’t checked in a bag.
He couldn’t imagine would a headache it would be to try to get anything back from the airline in all the chaos. In the walk from his gate to the baggage collection area, he overheard at least another three flights being cancelled. From what he gathered, some were due to weather, some from staffing issues, all that mattered to him was getting out of the airport as fast as he could.
He hoped he could delay his trip, but his mom had tracked his flight online and knew the moment it had been cancelled. Her call stopped him from being able to use any excuse to turn around and head home.
Standing in the line for rental cars, he tapped his fingers on the strap of his bag, wanting to do anything other than drive the five and a half hours, at night, from the airport to Cedar Valley Falls, but he didn’t have many other options.
The line was moving quickly, which was good because there were a growing number of people behind him.
Once he got to the front of the line, the lone employee working behind the counter looked as if they and lived about a month in the span of their shift. His eyes had dark circles, his hair dishevelled and shoulders slumped. “How can I help you?”
“I’d like to rent a car. Whatever you’ve got is fine.” Dax reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out his wallet.
“You’re in luck. We have one car left.” The agent typed on his screen before looking over at him. “Can I please see your driver’s licence and I’ll get this started for you?”
Dad handed over this license and let the man enter all the information, answering all his questions and going over all the paperwork. After more time than Dax would have expected to be there, he was given the keys and asked to wait out front while they brought the car out for him.
The agent put out a sign that said they were out of cars, much to the yelling and groans of the people in line behind him.
Dax walked out into the cold, windy night, blasted with a burst of freezing air as the left the warm airport.
“Hey!” A shout came out from behind him as he stood at the curb.
Dax shoved his hands in his pockets and craned his neck, trying to see if his car was coming.
“Hey, gate guy!”
That got his attention. He turned to find the frustrated girl from the gate running up to him, her laptop bag falling off her shoulder and pulling a roller bag behind her.
“Gate guy? I have a name, you know.”
“Well, obviously,” she said with an eye roll as she came to a stop in front of him. “But I don’t know what it is.”
“It’s Dax.” He turned back around, looking down the corridor of cars coming and going, hoping his car would be there soon.
“Well, Dax, I’m Callie.”
“Nice to meet you, again Callie.” Dax wasn’t trying to be rude to the woman, but he was freezing, tired, and wanted to do anything other than driving.
“So you got the last rental car,” Callie said as she stood next to him at the curb.
“Looks like it.”
“And we were both on our way to Kamloops.”
“So, I was wondering if maybe I could get a ride with you.”
“You can’t be serious.” Dax pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Of course I am. I don’t just walk around asking strangers for rides all the time.”
“I sure hope not,” he muttered under his breath.
“Please? I wouldn’t be asking if this wasn’t important. I need to get to a Kamloops.”
“Then talk to the airline. Get on the next flight.” Dax rocked on in the balls and heels of his feet.
This car needs to hurry up. Now.
“They aren’t rebooking anyone. They basically told us we are on our own until at least next week. Please?”
Dax looked down at the woman, really looking at her for the first time. She was a good foot shorter than him, shoulder-length blonde hair tucked under a red toque. Her big blue eyes looked up at him, pleading with him to take pity on her.
“How do you know I’m not some serial killer?”
“Well, are you?”
“No, but you don’t know that.”
“Let’s just say you were. I highly doubt you’d be taking an airplane from the largest airport in the province to another city. That wouldn’t be a great place to run from the authorities. Now, maybe if you were leaving the country, that would be a different story.”
“You put a lot of thought into that answer.”
Callie shrugged. “My sister listens to a lot of true crime podcasts. I guess some of it has worn off on me,”
“It’s still not safe for you to just ask random men to take you in a five-hour car ride.”
“And if I wasn’t desperate to get out of the city, I wouldn’t. Now please, will you take me with you?”
Dax didn’t know what came over him, be he had the urge to help this woman out. He didn’t know if it was pity, the small town chivalry that had been instilled in him, or what, but he knew he couldn’t leave this woman stranded.
He took a deep breath and watched as it formed a cloud in front of his face as he exhaled. “Fine. But there are rules.”
“Yay! Thank you so much!” Callie jumped on the spot as a sedan pulled up in front of them.
He just prayed he wasn’t going to regret his decision.
Callie stared out the window as Dax drove along the dark highway. Cars rushed past them as they made their way out of the city and entered the valley. He hadn’t said a word since he loaded the car with their luggage and started driving.
He hadn’t turned on the radio, which left an uncomfortable silence between them.
Had she been too pushy? Maybe. But she needed out of Vancouver, and fast.
Her ill-planned trip to surprise who she thought was the man of her dreams had turned into a nightmare. Now, she was stuck in a silent car with a grumpy stranger and it was all her fault.
Needing something to make her forget the actions leading to her current situation, she reached over and clicked on the radio, thankful for the latest pop hit to fill the car.
“No. Absolutely not,” Dax said as he clicked the radio off.
“You have to give me something.” Callie turned in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest. “We can’t spend the rest of the time in silence.”
He glanced over at her for a moment, his eyebrow raised before turning back to the road.
“Fine, if you won’t turn on the music, tell me about you.”
“There’s not much to tell.” His tone let her know he wanted to talk less than he wanted to listen to the Ariana Grande song on the radio.
“Why are you on your way to Kamloops?”
“I’m not,” he replied flatly.
“But you were about to get on a plane going there.”
Dax sighed and snuck a quick glance at her. “I’m heading to Cedar Valley Falls. Kamloops is the closest airport.”
“I think I’ve camped there once,” Callie mused as she relaxed back into her seat. “It’s pretty.”
“If you say so,” he muttered.
“You don’t sound like you want to go there.”
“And you sound like the person who asks a lot of questions.”
“If I’m going to be in a car with someone for over five hours, it would be nice to get to know them.” Callie couldn’t help but get her defences up as she spoke with Dax and started to see that maybe getting a ride with a stranger wasn’t a great idea.
“Maybe I should instil a new ‘no talking’ rule,’” he said under his breath, but Callie heard.
Callie huffed and leaned back in her seat, looking out at the road in front of them. The road was complete darkness except for their headlights, which made her disoriented along the stretch of highway. As they passed through farmland, there was nothing but them, the road, and the night sky.
This was not how Callie saw her day going. Her week, if that.
“I’m sorry,” Dax said, not taking his eyes off the road. “It’s just been a really long day.”
“I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have asked you all those questions. I shouldn’t have even asked you for a ride, but I didn’t have any other choice and I couldn’t stay there.”
“You’re not in trouble, are you? I mean, you have knowledge of those true crime things. I’m not going to be your next victim, am I?” he asked as he snuck a glance her way with a smirk.
That smirk made her stomach fill with butterflies. Butterflies she had no business feeling, especially for a man she wouldn’t see again by morning.
“No, I’m not in trouble.” Depending on the definition of trouble. “As for the serial killer part, I haven’t decided yet. It depends on how the next hour goes.”
Dax laughed, filling the car with the rich tone. It was a sound she could get used to. One she could find herself craving.
“Well, I guess I’ll be on my best behaviour, then. But, seriously, are you in trouble? You seem like you’re in a hurry to leave the city.”
Callie sighed. She didn’t know how much to tell him. Or maybe it was good she wouldn’t see him after today because then she could spill everything and not have the embarrassment of knowing she’d have to face him again.
It would be nice to tell someone everything.
“Do you promise not to laugh?” Callie asked, not sure if she was making the right decision.
“I promise,” he answered, and she believed in. She didn’t know why. He was a stranger, but there was something about him that made her feel like she was safe with him.
“I had a boyfriend in Kamloops. He moved to Vancouver in the fall for his work. I couldn’t leave right away because of my job, so we agreed to stay long distance until I could figure out a way to move to the city with him. We even talked about getting married.”
“So, what happened?”
“I’m an Office Manager for a law office and we’ve been working on a really big trial. I wasn’t able to fly down and see him over the holidays, but we ended up getting an unexpected break and I thought it would be a good time to surprise him. And it was a surprise, all right.”
“What did he do?” Callie noticed Dax’s hands gripped the steering wheel harder, his knuckles turning white in the soft light from the dash.
“He’s dating someone else.” Callie couldn’t stop the hurt from her voice. She was so embarrassed to think that Maxwell would have done that, or that she believed him when he said that it was only her.
“I’m sorry.” Dax’s words were soft, but there was anger behind them.
“I thought it would be fun to surprise him by flying down since we haven’t seen each other since the end of November. I worked through the holidays and we hadn’t been able to do more than the rare video or phone call. So, I hopped on a plane and flew to the city. When I showed up at his door hoping for a warm welcome, I was met with him having dinner with his new girlfriend.” Callie wiped the tears as they fell down her face.
She snuck a glance at the stoic and silent man. His hands continued to grip the steering wheel tightly. The reflection of the lights off his glasses made it hard to see what expression they held, but she could tell by his clenched jaw he had an opinion on it.
“Why aren’t you saying something?” Callie asked, nervous about what he might say.
His silence was making her regret saying anything. She was naïve to think Maxwell would have wanted to date her while she was stuck in Kamloops. Looking back, she could see she had invested more into the relationship than he had, and he had put distance between them not long after he moved. She just didn’t want to see it, and that left her feeling heartbroken and embarrassed.
“I’m trying to think of something to say that would be appropriate. Most of all, I want to say I’m sorry he put you through that.”
“Thank you, but you don’t need to apologize for him.”
“I know, but…” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I know what it’s like, and no one should be put into that position. So for that, I’m sorry. I’m also sorry that he wasn’t man enough to tell you how he felt and lead you on.”
For the first time in a long time, Callie felt like she was truly being heard and understood. She sagged back into her seat, feeling as if an enormous weight had been lifted off her chest. Maybe telling this stranger the most embarrassing story of her life might not have been as bad as she thought.
Hearing the events of Callie’s trip had Dax on edge. It was too much like his own story with McKenzie. The long, dragged-out process of thinking they were each other’s forever, only to find out that the thought had only been on-sided. Bringing up thoughts of her had only created more stress about his trip back home.
Instead of dwelling on those it, he focused on the road ahead of him. Snow had started to fall and stick to the roads, making it hard to see.
“You’ve gone through this too?” Callie’s unsure voice came from across the console, sniffled hidden behind the sleeve of her jacket.
“Similar, yes. It’s actually why I’ve been avoiding going back to Cedar Valley Falls.”
“I had a girlfriend from high school and through most of college. She went to school in Kelowna while I went to Vancouver. It was fine for the first couple of years, until we both come home for Christmas one year and I find out she’s engaged to someone else.” It may have been almost ten years since it had happened, but it didn’t make it any easier to talk about, especially since McKenzie and her now-husband moved back to Cedar Valley Falls.
“Engaged? Wow! She never mentioned anything to you?” Callie shifted in her seat, her voice stronger.
“No. She said she didn’t think we were ‘exclusive’ and assumed I had moved on. Apparently, we had very different definitions on what a ‘long-distance relationship’ looked like.”
“That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.” Callie put her hand on his arm. It shocked him how much his body responded to her touch. The skin under her hand lit up like it was on fire, even though there were layers of clothing between them. He had to stop himself from jumping at her touch. Not because it wasn’t unwanted, but because it was unlike anything he’d ever felt before.
“Uh, yeah.” Dax cleared his throat and straightened in his seat. “So I haven’t been back to town in a while.”
“So, why now?” Callie asked, placing her hand back in her lap.
“My dad fell and there’s no one else him run the family store.” While Dax’s relationship with his dad was—strained—but he didn’t wish him any ill will. Just because he had no desire to run the family store, or have any interest in selling hardware at all, didn’t mean he didn’t care about his family or the business.
His dad had started the store when he and Dax’s mom were first married. Dax grew up in it. He just wished his dad had understood his love for computers and didn’t make it a source of argument every time his job came up for discussion.
“Wow, that’s nice of you to drop everything and come back home.” Callie’s soft voice drew him out of his thoughts. Some might see this as an honourable act of a son, but really, it was motivated by guilt.
“Well, I didn’t have much of a choice,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“My mom.” Dax felt his anxiety rising in his chest as he thought back to the original phone call with his mom. It took everything in him not to take his hand off the steering wheel and rub his sternum, but he needed to focus and have two hands on the wheel as the snow started falling harder around them.
“Ah,” Callie mused, turning to face him once again. “Is that who you were talking to on the phone?”
“When you eavesdropped?” Dax joked as he snuck a glance at her.
“I did not!” Callie gasped as she playfully swatted at his arm. “You were right beside me.”
“Sure.” He laughed. “But, yes, I was talking to my mom. She saw our flight had been cancelled and made sure I wasn’t just going to turn around and go back to my apartment.”
“She sounds like she really misses you.”
Dax wanted to believe Callie’s words, and knew that his mom did miss him, but he also knew that it was more than just a mom missing her son. It was the loss of a life his parents thought he would have with them. They never understood the his draw to the city, or his love of computers and programming. Instead, they skirted around it and acted like if they pretended like it wasn’t a long-term move, it wouldn’t be.
“I’m sure she does, but they need someone to run the store, and that’s why she’s in a hurry for me to get home.”
“You don’t have any brothers or sisters?”
“One brother, but he works in Kelowna and had to rush back.”
“I see,” Callie said, her gaze focused on the road ahead of them.
They were quiet for a while, Dax conceding and letting Callie turn on the radio. She chose a country music station, which surprised him as she hummed along to a Jason Aldean song. Dax tapped his thumbs to the wheel to the beat as the comfort of the silence surrounded them.
He liked that even with her million questions, she could find peace in silence. That she didn’t have to talk to avoid it like most of the other girls he had dated did. He found the more they were silent, the more he had questions for her. He wanted to know more about her. Mostly, he wanted to know why she was with the jerk for so long.
“I didn’t take you for a country girl.” He looked over, taking in her black leggings and grey parka lined with pink fake fur.
“Just because I don’t dress is jeans and plaid every day doesn’t mean I don’t like to get my country on.” She replied with a laugh. “And being from Cedar Valley Falls, I thought you’d be more of a country boy. Where are you hiding your truck?”
“No truck. Well, not anymore, anyway. I sold it once I got settled in the city.”
“Why?” Callie asked.
“No need for it there. I live and work downtown. I rarely leave and if I do, I can take transit or get a cab. It didn’t make sense for me to keep it. So, instead, I rent out the parking space in my apartment building and make some extra money.”
“That’s smart, actually.”
Silence fell over them again. Dax concentrated on the road as the snow began covering the lanes. The pitch black sky didn’t help visibility. His bright headlights reflected off the quickly falling snow, making it even harder to see where he was going. He focused on the disappearing road in front of him, trying his best to go off memory for any curves or bends along the way.
This was another reason he didn’t visit back home very often. You never knew if you were going to hit a random snowstorm on the highway.
After a while, he looked over to find Callie slumped against the passenger window, hands curled under her head and she slept. He wouldn’t dare risk taking his eyes off the road for more than a second, but was enthralled by how peaceful she looked. She no longer appeared to be the stressed out and frustrated woman at the airport gate, or the overly inquisitive, unexpected passenger. She looked beautiful with her blonde hair poking out from under her toque. It looked like a peace he hadn’t felt for a very long time.
He didn’t know why, but look at her sleeping made him feel a fraction of the stillness he used to feel. A peace he thought he’d found in McKenzie. He never put much stock in finding someone that could do that to him again, but having spending time with Callie was making him think maybe it was possible.
“Callie.” A distant voice called her name, trying to lure her out of the most wonderful dream she was having. She had felt the warm sun’s rays on her face as she ran along the beach into the ocean. Laughed, as her long hair trailed behind her, running playfully from the man behind her. She ran into the water as they laughed, the man catching up to her and putting his arms around her, jumping in the air as they both crashed into the wave coming to shore. She turned and saw the man was Dax, smiling and laughing as he looked back down at her, his stunning green eyes no longer hiding behind the black-rimmed glasses.
“Callie,” the voice said again, this time followed by a gentle shake of her arm. The warmth of the beach faded away, and instead she was met with a cold car and a pain in her neck from sleeping against the car door.
“I fell asleep?” she asked groggily as she sat up, stretching out her aching muscles.
“Yeah, around Chilliwack. We’re stopped in Merritt. I’m going to get gas if you need to go in and grab anything.”
Callie looked around at her surroundings as he got out of the car. She couldn’t believe she’d been asleep for almost two hours. Climbing out of the car, she hurried into the gas station, wrapping her coat tighter against her body to shield herself from the brutally cold winter wind. The snow had picked up while she was sleeping. She was thankful Dax had been driving with how much had piled up.
After running to the bathroom quickly, she grabbed a variety of snacks and drinks, not knowing what Dax would like. Callie very much believed that any good road trip included a stop at a gas station for snacks. Filling up on chips, chocolate bars, and pop, she paid and made her way back out to the car where Dax was waiting. He looked over at her and her full arms as she climbed back in and raised an eyebrow at her.
“What’s all this?” he asked as he helped her unload her goodies from her arms.
“I bought us snacks.” Callie rearranged the toque on her head before grabbing a bag of chips.
“I see that,” Dax said, rummaging through the remaining items. “You know there’s only about an hour left of the drive, right?”
“Yes,” Callie said as she grabbed a bottle of pop and twisted the cap off. She took a long chug of the sugary drink, letting it wash away the salt from the chips. As she lowered the bottle, she saw Dax staring at her with a shocked expression on his face. “What?” She wiped the sides of her mouth, thinking she’d made a fool out of herself by spilling her drink all over her face.
“It looks like you bought half the store, Callie,” he said with a smirk.
Relief flooded her. She didn’t spill her drink after all. Just impulse bought too many snacks.
“Well, I didn’t know what you’d like,” she answered sheepishly. “I mean, I don’t know if you’re a salty or sweet guy, so I just bought a little of everything.” She stopped as she looked at him, panic rising through her body. “Oh my gosh, you’re diabetic, aren’t you? Food allergies? Am I going to kill you with one of these snacks?”
Callie grabbed the snacks, searching through until she found the peanut butter chocolate cups and trail mix with nuts. Dax placed his hand on hers, stilling her actions.
“No, no medical concerns here. I guess—I guess I’m just not used to anyone being that concerned about what I liked, or didn’t like, or even buying snacks for me at all.”
“Really?” Callie asked. “No one?”
“Well, I have my friend and business partner back in the city that picks me up the occasional coffee or lunch, but no, I can’t say I’ve had anyone that’s done that for a very long time.”
Callie’s heart sank. While Maxwell wasn’t the best boyfriend—especially with recent events—when it was good, he’d brought her coffee or treats. He would surprise her with things he knew she’d like just because. Even her friends would load up her favourite snacks for a day out or a road trip. It was sad to think that someone as wonderful as Dax hadn’t been able to experience the same.
She placed her hand on top of his, which still rested on her arm. Looking up into his deep green eyes, she wanted that to change for him. What shocked her the most was she wanted to be that change for him.
“I’m so sorry, Dax.” She didn’t know what else to say that wouldn’t sound trite or impersonal.
“It’s all right.” They stayed like that, staring into each other’s eyes.
Callie felt swept up in the magic of the moment. As if they were making a true connection. A connection of what? She didn’t know, but she knew she felt something.
“Anyway,” Dax said, clearing his throat and turning to grip the wheel. “We should get going if we want to make it before we get snowed in here.”
“Right, we wouldn’t want that.” Calle turned in her seat, focusing on the bag of chips on her lap. “Help yourself to whatever I brought. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t eat before the plane was supposed to take off and I’m starving now.”
Dax laughed, and Callie once again relaxed at the sound.
“Now that you mention it, I am.” He grabbed the chocolate peanut butter cups and tore into them, smiling widely as he bit into the sweet treat. “I rarely have these, but whenever I do, I love them. I don’t know why I don’t have them more often.”
“Maybe you should indulge yourself a little more often,” Callie added, enjoying how much he was letting himself relax.
“You know, maybe I should.” With a smile, he finished the last chocolate cup and started driving back on the highway.
When the night first started, she couldn’t wait to get back to Kamloops. Now that she was close to being home, she didn’t want the night to end.
“So tell me about McKenzie.” Callie’s question startled him. Maybe it was because, with his family or Mitch, she was a topic that was never to be brought up. He would rather talk about his lack of desire to run his dad’s store than talk about her. Except his mom. For some reason she includes it with all the town gossip whether he wanted to hear it or not.
“What do you want to know?” Dax tried to keep his voice level as he focused on the road. The snow was lightening up, which he was relieved about. He didn’t want to admit it to Callie, but there were a couple times on the highway up while she had been sleeping that were a little more dicey than he would have liked. The Coquihalla Highway is fantastic in the summer, but steep climbs and windy curves can make it treacherous in the winter.
“Why are you letting her stop you from going back home more often?”
“Wow, right to the point, huh?” He asked, taking a hand off the wheel to rub his sternum. It was a habit he’d developed young. Almost as if the physical act would help with the built up pressure of anxiety on his chest.
“Sorry, I can be blunt. I just, I mean, I guess I get it. I wouldn’t be thrilled if Maxwell decided to move back to Kamloops with his girlfriend.”
“Yes, but imagine Kamloops being a fraction of the size and everyone in town knows everyone else’s business.” He couldn’t stop the bitterness from coming out of there. That was another reason he tended not to go back to Cedar Valley Falls. Everyone knew everything. They all knew he didn’t want to run his dad’s store. They all knew McKenzie left him for David. They all knew he ran because he didn’t want to deal with it.
“Okay, now I see it.”
“Plus, uh, her husband is now the mayor.”
“He’s what?” Callie exclaimed from her seat.
“Yeah, elected a year or so ago. From what my mom tells me, after they moved back to Cedar Valley Falls, he set up a real estate office that did surprisingly well for a small town. He focused in on the vacation properties and got into rental management or something. Built up a real name for himself in the town.”
“Now I can see why you don’t want to go back. That must be…”
“Frustrating,” Dax finished for her.
“That’s one thing, yes.”
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a decent name for myself in the tech world in Vancouver. Mitch and I built a decent small company and we’re growing every year, but it’s…” Dax’s voice trailed off, not knowing how to explain what he felt at the situation.
“Frustrating.” Callie finished for him.
“Yeah, that.” He gave her a smirk while keeping his eyes off the road. He knew if he snuck a glance at her, he’d be lost, and he didn’t want to crash the rental car in a snowfall.
“But you could avoid them the best you could, can’t you? You don’t have a reason to hide or anything, but maybe more like feigned indifference?”
“I would, but it’s also the Winter Festival.”
“Sorry, the what?” Callie asked, the shock in her voice had returned.
“It’s something he Cal started when he became mayor. He said it would ‘help the morale of the town’ after Christmas was over. So he started a weekend festival in the middle of January to rekindle some of the Christmas cheer. I haven’t been, but there’s a market, apple cider, and some sort of contest.”
“Interesting,” Callie mused. “I think you should go.”
“Sorry, what?” Dax looked startled at her, eyes wide, until he realized he needed his attention back on the road.
“I think you should go to the festival. Show that you aren’t intimidated—or frustrated—by them. Show them you’re back and just how great you are.”
Just how great I am, huh?
“I dunno.” The thought of showing up, alone, working at his dad’s store just like he always vowed he would never do didn’t sound like a great way to make his big homecoming.
“Come on, there’s no reason for you to hide away.”
“I’ll think about it,” he grumbled.
“Is it because you’re single?” she asked.
“You really aren’t holding back tonight, are you?” Dax asked, rubbing his sternum.
“I mean, I just assumed you are. Because you were going alone. I mean, of course you aren’t.”
“No, I am. I just, wait, what do you mean ‘of course you aren’t?’” He glanced over at her, noticing the pink in her cheeks as they passed under a streetlight.
“I just mean—uh—well, you’re good looking and obviously smart. I just assumed…”
Dax felt himself blush. He knew he wasn’t the worst looking guy, usually, but he’d always been placed in the ‘computer geek’ category with women. Only talking to him if they needed help with technology and flirted only if there was some way they could help him. Or they thought he was rich and weren’t interested any longer when they found out that was far from the truth. “Well, thanks? I am single and if I’m honest, that is part of the reason why I don’t want to make a big deal about me coming back home. Alone.”
“What if I came with you?” Callie shot back.
“As what? The girl that begged me to give her a ride?” Dax joked.
“No, silly. I could pretend to be your girlfriend.”
Dax had to stop himself from slamming on the brakes at her words.
“Pretend to be my girlfriend.”
“I did it again, didn’t I? Spoke without thinking. I do that sometimes. I’m sorry.”
Callie fidgeted with her hands in her lap, her gazed focused on them intently. Dax reached over and placed his hand on hers, stilling her movements.
“No, it’s not that,” he said carefully. “I, uh, well, how would that work?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think it through that far.” They both chuckled as they looked at each other bashfully. “Is that something you’d be interested in? Would it make you feel more comfortable going home?”
Dax thought about it for a moment. His mom would have a million questions about why he kept a relationship secret, and would pester him with questions about Callie that he’s sure he couldn’t learn the answers to in the short time remaining on the car ride. But on the other hand, he wouldn’t have to show up and face McKenzie and Cal alone. He wouldn’t have to face the town alone, and that is a major plus.
“I think it would.”
“That’s great,” she said, her smile falling instantly. “I mean, would I even be someone you would want everyone thinking you’re dating?”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean, I know I can be—abrupt. I don’t always have a filter when I talk. I ask more questions than I should.”
“Then you’re perfect. You could take some of the heat off of me,” Dax said with a joke. His chuckle fell when he realized Callie wasn’t laughing. “Hey, I’m serious. I don’t see why anyone would have a problem dating you. Fake or not.”
“Well, this last day or so would suggest otherwise.”
Dax hated how small her voice sounded, and how she folded in on herself in the seat next to him. He might not know her well, but he knew she deserved more than that. “What would you get out of it?”
His question snapped her out of her thoughts and made her sit up in her seat. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I get to put on a face and greet the town with you on my arm. What do you get out of it? Why do you want to help me?”
“I don’t know, as a thank you for driving me up here when you didn’t have to? As a way to distract myself from Maxwell and his harsh rejection?”
Dax thought about it for a moment. There was some peace in knowing that he would have to face the town alone, but he didn’t want to put Callie through everything that would come with it. Especially not the questions from his mom, and possibly McKenzie, who he no doubt had been kept up-to-date on what was happening with him over the years.
“Please, Dax. I want to help you.” The softness in her voice was the deciding factor. He wanted to have someone that would take care of him. Be there for him. Even if it was fake and only for a short period of time.
He knew everything about that night had been a crazy blur. Something that he never would have thought up in a million years, but it was where he had found himself. In a car, with a stranger he met at the airport, who was currently asking to be his fake girlfriend. What was even crazier were the words that were about to come out of his mouth.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“What do you mean, you just asked him for a ride?” Callie’s sister, Meg, asked as she stopped her coffee mug mid-air while going to take a sip. “You can’t just do that to people, Callie! Do you learn nothing from those podcasts I send you?”
“It wasn’t like that, Meg. Dax isn’t a serial killer.” Callie rolled her eyes at her sister’s antics. After hearing Callie made it back to town, Meg had invited herself over to get the full story of what happened in Vancouver and provide support. As they sat around the island in Callie’s kitchen drinking coffee, she was happy the conversation had shifted away from Maxwell. She would be happy to never relive that again.
As her thoughts moved to Dax, a swarm of butterflies flitted through her stomach. Since he dropped her off at home in the early hours of the morning, they had been texting about what to do with their fake relationship. The Winter Festival was starting in Cedar Valley Falls and they needed to make plans on now they were going to pull it off.
“There’s something you aren’t telling me.” Meg raised an eyebrow at her. Callie loved her sister, but hated how she could read her like a book.
“We, uh, sorta agreed to fake date,” Callie said, talking more into her own mug of coffee than to her sister.
“Sorry, repeat that again,” Meg demanded, placing her own mug on the countertop between them.
“Well, he’s had it rough going home to Cedar Valley Falls. He had an ex like Maxwell, she was actually much worse, and he has to face her now that he’s home.”
“And you fit into this because…?”
“Because he saved me, Meg. I would still be stuck in Vancouver if it weren’t for him.”
“You act like Vancouver was a war zone. He gave you a ride. He didn’t save your life.”
“It was an emotional war zone,” Callie muttered.
“What else is there?”
Callie remained silent, suddenly finding her cooling coffee very interesting.
“He’s good looking, isn’t he?” Mary exclaimed.
“What? No, I mean, yes, but that has nothing to do with it.” Callie felt her cheeks warm at the mention of how attractive Dax was. Which he was, in the dark hair, piercing green eyes, and dark-rimmed glasses. She never found the ‘intellectual looking’ guys to be her type before, but Dax was definitely changing what she thought she knew about herself and what she wanted.
“Okay, so walk me through how this happened.”
Callie told her about the Winter Festival and his ex. Meg sat riveted, like she was watching a soap opera. “So, I couldn’t just leave him to face all of that by himself in a place he didn’t want to be in. Not to mention, I looked him up and he’s successful in his own right, he just doesn’t see it. For whatever reason, he thinks that this Cal guy is better than him, and I don’t know why.”
“Have you seen it from his perspective? I mean, how would you feel if you had to come home to a small town and face Maxwell and his new girlfriend knowing that he was ruling the town that was yours? Is this Cal guy even from Cedar Valley Falls?”
“No, I don’t think so. It sounded like they met at school.”
“There ya go!”
“Wait, I thought you were just telling me what a bad idea it was for me to go to Cedar Valley Falls and pretend to be his girlfriend.”
“Well, things change. Now that you know he’s not going to end up on one of those podcasts, you need to help him out. Plus, I haven’t seen you this smitten with a guy for a long time. Not even with Maxwell.” Meg shrugged her shoulders and grabbed an oversized muffin from the box she’d brought with her that morning.
Callie opened her mouth to respond when her phone chimed. She looked down at the screen to find it a text from Dax.
Dax: All set for tomorrow. See you at the town square at 11?
“You’re blushing! Is it from him?” Meg asked as she tore around the island to look at her phone.
“Yes, it’s from him, and no, I’m not blushing.” Callie brought her hands to her face, immediately feeling the heat.
“Liar,” Meg joked.
Callie ignored her as she sent a text back to Dax.
Callie: Yup. See you then! 🙂
“Wow, exclamation mark and a smily face. You have it bad,” Meg joked as she playfully knocked their hips together.
“Oh, stop,” Callie said, but wondered if there were some truth behind her sister’s words.
The next day, Callie showed up at the Cedar Valley Falls town square at eleven o’clock sharp. Booths had been set up into aisles along the grassy area. People milled about as they stopped from table to table, buying trinkets and baked goods. The smell of apple and cinnamon wafted from nearby, making Callie’s stomach rumble.
“You made it,” a familiar deep voice said from behind her, instantly bringing a smile to her face.
“I did.” She turned and faced him, looking at him awkwardly. She didn’t know what to do or say next. Did she hug him like they were dating? Was this only for his ex and her husband? Of all the details they went over like their favourite food and childhood basics, they didn’t discuss situations like the one they were in now.
“I, uh, brought you coffee.” Dax handed her a white to-go cup smelling of heavenly coffee and cinnamon.
“You remembered,” she said as she took a sip, savouring the creamy coffee mixed with a hint of sugar and cinnamon.
“Of course. Along with your favourite sushi, which unfortunately Cedar Valley Falls doesn’t have any of, and gas station snacks. That I can get you if there are any more last-minute road trips,” he joked as he took a sip from his own cup.
She couldn’t help but stand there and smile at him like a love-sick puppy. She knew in her mind this was all for show. But her heart? It wanted to believe that he remembered these details because he wanted to, not because he needed to.
“Thank you.” They stood in between tables, looking at each other as people walked by. They were lost in their own world.
Callie didn’t know what to do. They were in this limbo of not knowing if they should act like a couple. They didn’t talk about PDA, how they felt about hugs, kisses, or hand holding. Callie was beginning to see that she really didn’t know what she was getting into.
What did she feel comfortable with? What did she want?
Him. I want it all with Dax.
The thought stilled her as it crossed her mind. Was that truly what she wanted? Her mind wasn’t sure, but her heart was giving her a resounding ‘yes.’
“Thank you again for helping me out, Callie. You didn’t have to drive all the way out here to do this.”
“Dax, I wanted to.” Callie placed her hand on his arm, feeling the same warmth spreading through her body at their touch.
Dax lifted his free hand and pushed a stand of Callie’s hair behind her ear. The movement was so subtle, so innocent, but yet it meant the world to Callie.
“Dax Marshall? Is that you?” A high-pitched voice sounded behind Callie, breaking them out of their bubble of just the two of them.
Callie turned to find a tall, blonde woman with curled hair and heavy makeup walking toward them.
“Here we go,” Dax muttered under his breath as he stepped beside Callie, placing his arm over her shoulders and hugging her into his side.
Callie wanted to close her eyes and take in his outdoorsy scent of sandalwood and smoke, but it wasn’t the time. She needed to pretend like she was used to being tucked into this side, surrounded by his scent. She needed to pretend that his touch was familiar and didn’t set her heart racing. Most of all, she needed to pretend like Dax was her everything.
That was when she realized she really did want it all with Dax Marshall.
Dax’s heart raced as he held on to Callie tight. Not only was it the anxiety of seeing McKenzie walking toward him, but also because having Callie hugged tight to his body gave him an unexpected reaction, and he didn’t know what to do about it.
Normally, the thought of seeing McKenize would have him rubbing his sternum, trying to calm the building pressure within his chest, but other than the rush of the current events, he felt calm. There wasn’t the telltale sign of building nausea or rising panic. He didn’t want to look for the closest escape or find some way to duck and pretend it wasn’t him that McKenzie saw. Instead, he was able to stand tall and face what was about to happen.
“Hi, McKenzie,” Dax said, giving Callie a squeeze.
“My goodness, it’s been a long time,” McKenzie said as she looped her hand through the man’s arm, a fake smile plastered on her face. Even after all this time, he could still tell when she was smiling just to put on a show.
“Yup, it’s been a while.” He looked down at Callie, who had a bright smile on her face. This one wasn’t fake. There was nothing about Callie that could be. She was in such a different realm than McKenzie, and he was happy for it. “I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Callie Griffith.”
“Girlfriend?” McKenzie said, rolling her eyes over Callie from top to bottom. “Your mom didn’t mention anything about you having a girlfriend.”
“We were keeping it quiet for a little while. You know how my mom is. I tell her we’re dating and the next thing I know she’s sending invites to the wedding,” Dax joked, hoping to diffuse any further discussion on the topic.
“Right,” McKenzie said unconvincingly, before turning to Callie. “It’s nice to meet you, Carrie.”
“Callie,” she corrected with a beaming smile.
“Sure.” McKenzie’s tone was flat before she turned to the man at her side, patting him on his chest, the large ring on her left hand shining in the winter sun. “This stunning man here is my husband. Daxy, I’d like you to meet Cal Smith.”
Cal stuck his hand out to Dax. “It’s nice to meet you. Welcome back to Cedar Valley Falls.”
“Thank you. And it’s Dax. I haven’t been called Daxy since I was a teenager.”
Cal nodded while McKenzie gave them a fake laugh. “Oh, Daxy, what’s a nickname between friends, right?”
“It’s Dax, McKenzie,” Dax said firmly.
“And what about that friend of yours, Mitch? What’s he up to these days?” McKenzie continued, as if Dax hadn’t corrected her.
“He’s still in Vancouver, running the office while I’m here.” Dax’s eyes shot around the crowd, looking for any way he could get Callie and him out of spending any more time with McKenzie than he had to.
“You two always were inseparable.”
“And you still are, aren’t you?” Callie said, looking up at Dax with a wide smile. “You should hear the things these two get up to in the city. Isn’t that right, Dax?”
“Yeah,” Dax chuckled. He didn’t know where Callie was going with this, as she had never met Mitch, but he trusted her.
Callie hugged him tighter, and Dax felt himself relaxing at her touch. He’d been skeptical at first but at that moment, he was glad he took her up on it.
“Oh, hey, is that the spiced apple cider table you were telling me about? I can’t wait to try one,” Callie said, pointing to a spot past McKenzie and Cal.
“That’s the one,” Dax said. As he looked down at her upturned face, he could only describe her expression as one of love. He knew it was fake, just like their facade of a relationship between them, but he let himself believe it was real. Just for a moment.
And it felt wonderful.
“Well, I guess we’ll leave you to it, then,” McKenzie said, drawing his attention away from Callie.
He didn’t know how long they took there looking at each other like that, but it wasn’t long enough.
“Yeah, I guess we’ll see you later.” Callie answered dreamily. He could tell he felt something, too. Or, at least, he hoped she did. He didn’t know if he could stand putting himself out there again, especially if he had started to get feelings for Callie. Some very real feelings.
Realizing they were now alone, Dax looped Callie’s hand through his arm and rested it in the crook of his elbow. He led her through the crowd, nodding his head hello, or stopping to chat with the people in town as they went. Normally, this amount of interaction would lead him to want to run, but he didn’t feel that with Callie on his arm. She was polite and witty, and started to collect quite the following of the older citizens of Cedar Valley Falls.
After throwing out their now-empty coffee cups, they made it to the tent with the apple cider.
“Dax Marshall? Is that you?” Agnes Miller’s eyes opened wide in shock from across the table. “I didn’t know you were back in town!”
“Really? My mom didn’t broadcast it across the town square?” Dax joked, but he knew his mom was most likely one step away from doing just that when he walked through the door.
“She mentioned you were heading home to help out, but I didn’t know this quickly. Welcome back!” She turned her attention to Callie. “And who is this you have with you?”
“This is my girlfriend, Callie. Callie, I’d like you to meet Agnes Miller. She makes the best apple cider you’ve ever tasted.”
“Oh, you.” Agnes waved her hand at Dax. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Callie. And girlfriend? Another thing your mom didn’t mention to me on our knitting nights. I’m going to have to have a word with that woman. Keeping us up to date on everything but this!”
“It’s not her fault, Mrs. Miller. I kept it under wraps because it was so new. My mom hasn’t met Callie yet.”
“Well, she’s in for a lovely surprise.” Agnes grabbed two cups and passed them to Dax and Callie. “Here, take these and enjoy the festival a bit before your mom gets here. I bet once she gets a hold of you two, you won’t have a moment to yourselves.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Miller.” Dax said, grabbing a mug.
“Yes, thank you. I’ve heard only amazing things about your cider. I can’t wait to try it for myself.” Callie took the mug that was handed to her, letting Agnes cup her hands over Callie’s for just a moment.
“Thank you for bringing Dax back to us.”
“Oh, I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Callie stammered.
“I’m not just talking about him being in town, dear. He seems like his old self, before that whole mishap with the mayor’s wife. He hasn’t been here for so long, but he’s back here with you.”
“Oh, just to help his dad…”
“Thank you.” Agnes gave her hand another pat before she moved on to the next person waiting in line.
Dax could only stand and watch in awe at the conversation in front of him. How had he changed? What had the town seen in him, or thought of him, that the mere fact he was in town to help his dad had been since an amazing feat that it would be pointed out?
“Are you all right?” Callie asked, placing her hand on his arm and giving it a squeeze.
“Yeah, I—I guess I never thought much about my leaving. I didn’t think anyone other than my parents noticed.”
“I’d say they noticed.” Callie stopped and took a sip of her apple cider. “Oh my goodness, this is the best apple cider I’ve ever tasted.”
“I told you.” Dax grinned as he took a sip of his own. Fond memories of growing up in the town flooded him as the warmth of the spices and freshly pressed apples filled his senses. He would go to the local cafe as much as he could over the winter to get the apple cider. The cafe was now owned by Agnes’ daughter, but Dax smiled, knowing the cider had stayed the same. “Hey, there’s something else I want to show you.”
Dax grabbed Callie’s free hand and led her off to the far corner of the square.
Callie let Dax lead her through the crowd. Her heart raced at her hand in his as they strolled like a true couple enjoying the Winter Festival. Upbeat music played from a gazebo in the centre. People talked and laughed as they sat on benches and chatted.
“This place is wonderful, Dax.”
“Yeah, it has its perks,” he said with a smile as they drew closer to the corner of the square. With a look behind him over his shoulder, he tugged at her hand and pulled her through a hedge of cedar trees.
“Dax, what are you doing?” Callie exclaimed, laughing.
“I want to show you something.”
Once she was through the hedges, she was greeted by a beautiful garden. Most of the bushes were missing their flowers, and there was more brown than green from the plants. In the middle of the area sat a stone water well and a bench off to the side.
“What is this place?” Callie turned as much as she could without letting go of Dax’s hand, taking in the scenery.
“It’s a little garden at the locals like to keep to themselves. It’s surrounded by these hedges to keep the tourists out.”
“Do you get that many tourists in Cedar Valley Falls?”
“We do in the summer with camping and usually a bit more around Christmas. The town square is lit up and there’s another festival that happens the first weekend in December that usually gathers a decent crowd from the surrounding towns.”
“So why the hidden garden?” Callie asked as she took a seat on the bench. Dax sat down next to her, keeping her hand in his as they placed their cups at their feet on the ground.
“I don’t know the full reasoning behind it. I could ask my mom, but I think there was something that the people wanted to keep just for themselves. They’re happy to share everything about the town, but this place is special. I think it has to do with the founders of the town.”
“And the well?” Callie nodded to the stone structure in front of them.
“Oh, that’s the town’s original water source. Before everything was developed into what it is now, the people would come here to get their water. It’s why the square was built next to it. But the more tourists started coming, the more trash and things would get thrown down the well and the town wanted to protect it.”
“Why do you talk like you aren’t part of the town? People we talked to today clearly think you are.”
“I haven’t been here for a long time, Callie,” Dax answered, looking down at their joined hands.
Callie knew that there was more to the story, but it wasn’t her place to push. She wasn’t going to be here long; wasn’t going to be in Dax’s life for long. There was no sense in getting any more involved than she needed to be.
“Maybe you can be again? It seems like they would welcome you with open arms.”
“I’m sure they would.” Dax’s tone didn’t sound like he was convinced.
“Hey,” she said, getting him to look up at her. “Forget about them for right now. What do you want to do?”
“Other than go back home to Vancouver?”
“Is that what you really want, or do you want to run again?”
“Ouch, right to the point again, huh?” Dax placed his free hand over his chest and clutched dramatically.
“Only to those that don’t want to face the truth and answer the hard questions they like to avoid.” Callie didn’t want to push Dax, but in order for her to help him, she needed to understand him.
Dax sat quietly for a moment, staring at the well. Callie wondered if she had pushed too hard with her question. Just a moment ago she didn’t want to be too involved, and then she goes and asks questions like that.
“Maybe I was running,” Dax said after a moment, still not looking from the well.
“Why? You didn’t do anything wrong.” Callie squeezed his hand, reassuring him he had no reason to hide.
“Maybe not, but I was embarrassed. Who doesn’t know their girlfriend was dating someone else? Engaged to someone else?”
“More people than you think,” Callie whispered.
He turned suddenly, dropping her hand and cupping her cheeks in both of his. “I’m sorry, Callie. That was thoughtless of me. Of course you know what that’s like.”
They sat there, staring into each other’s eyes for a moment, joined together in their pain. Callie could feel his hurt mixed with her own. For that reason alone, she felt connected with him in a way she hadn’t felt with anyone else before.
“Callie, I…” His voice trailed off as he kept staring into her eyes.
“Yeah, Dax?” Callie’s voice was breathless as she tried to figure out what he was thinking.
She wanted to know why he brought her to the secret garden. Why he was cupping her cheeks and looking at her like he wanted to kiss her? Most of all, she wanted to know if he also felt like maybe this wasn’t all fake.
Because that’s how she was feeling.
Without a word, he leaned in and brushed his lips softly against hers. Her breath hitched as his fingers curled into her hair, holding her close. Callie placed her hands on his forearms as they pulled apart slowly, their foreheads joined.
Callie kept her eyes closed, letting the lingering rush of their kiss remain on her lips.
“Dax! There you are!” A loud feminine voice shocked Callie out of her bliss. Eyes wide, she looked at the smaller older woman with her arms on her hips. The expression levelled at Dax was a mixture of frustration and love.
Dax signed before taking Callie’s hand and standing, pulling her up with him.
“Hi, Mom. I’d like you to meet my girlfriend.”
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Kimberly Hanson always dreamed of being a writer.
Growing up on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada, she had dreams of making the stories in her head come alive.
Being a stay-at-home mom to her two children lets her explore her creative side, letting her characters and stories come to life in her novels.
You can find more from Kimberly on her website.