There were few things in life that Holly called perfect. But after a lonely childhood spent hiding from the camera, and an adolescence peppered with failed relationships, she was almost ready to use that word. As she stared at the man sitting across from her, she was filled with hope. Hope that maybe things were finally turning around. That she could close the book on the chapters in her life that hadn’t turned out the way she wanted and rewrite the ending.
Teddy Douglas, whom everyone just called Dougie, was different from her in a lot of ways, to be sure, but over the last week or so, what they had in common had not only become more evident but more important. He’d been her rock when she’d needed one the most, and they’d fallen into dating almost naturally.
“I can’t believe Tiffany and Israel get to bring home their son tonight,” Holly said as Dougie signed the receipt for the check and placed the black folder on the table. The restaurant had emptied since they’d finished dining, and only a soft hum filled the air now.
He stood and offered his hand to her. “It is exciting. He’s been talking about it for weeks, and he had the nursery done months ago. Of course, Chance was the same way with Colin and Eliza.”
“That’s true.” Holly couldn’t believe how much things had changed in the last few years. Not only had her best friend Merribeth married her old boyfriend Chance, but they’d added two new members to their family bringing the total to five. Her former roommate, Tiffany, who ran the childcare center at the resort, had married Israel and though Tiffany was unable to have children naturally, they were finally getting the child they had long prayed for. Maybe that was another reason Holly and Dougie worked. They were the last two single friends in their small group of six. Well, Holly had been in a short disastrous engagement but she didn’t like to remember it. “Tiffany should be texting any minute now to let me know they’re home. You’re planning on going too, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Plus, it means I get to spend more time with you.” He pushed open the door of the restaurant and turned toward the park. Because they both worked in Courage, they’d decided to dine in the nearby town of Graham for a change of scenery and because it had a beautiful park with a fountain that was lit up at night.
Thankfully, the night was dry though the scent of coming snow hovered in the air. Holly smiled and snuggled closer to Dougie. A part of her wanted to shout from the rooftops, to tell the world that she was pretty sure she’d finally found the most amazing man who treated her well, but after dragging everyone through her last failed relationship, she was being a little more cautious this time.
She didn’t know how she had gotten so lucky, but she planned to savor every minute she had with Dougie. With their long hours at work, it was challenging for them to get together, and even when Holly did manage to spend time with him, her mind was focused on the restaurant and the recent publicity nightmare — the phone calls, the flyers. Trying to clear her head to focus solely on him was like trying to corral cats. “I definitely enjoy time with you too.”
When they reached the fountain, he pulled her closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m really glad we finally did this. Of course, if I’d had my way, we would have done this over a year ago.”
She punched him playfully. “Yeah, yeah, rub it in. I’m sorry it took me a little longer to figure it out.”
“A little longer?” He chuckled, the sound deep and melodious and one that Holly could get used to hearing more often. “A few weeks would have been a little longer. I’ve been waiting for ages.”
“Well, they do say the best things in life are worth waiting for.” And while Holly believed that, she did wonder how different her life might have been if she’d chosen Dougie that night instead of…Nope, she was not going to think about him. Not tonight, of all nights.
“That they do.” He brushed a strand of hair behind her ears, and the touch of his fingertips sent shivers down her spine. Then his smile faltered, and his concerned expression appeared. “Have the calls stopped?”
Holly sighed and shivered again, but for a very different reason this time. She liked that he showed concern for her, but she didn’t want to think about the calls. She simply wanted to enjoy this moment with him. “For now. I hope for good. I just don’t understand how people could be so cruel, and I don’t know what they think they’re accomplishing. I’m not going to shut down.” Being from New York, she didn’t back down easily, but she’d be lying if she said the calls didn’t unnerve her a little.
“I hope so too. At least the record is open, just in case.” The concern had slipped into his voice, making it sound tight and pinched.
“Yeah, I wish there was more the police could do. I’ve never agreed with harassing but I had no idea how awful it really was.” Harassing calls were generally harmless, which was why the police couldn’t do much about them, but that didn’t make Holly feel any better. She dreaded every ring of the phone now, and that was no way to run a business.
“I agree, but until then, promise me you’ll be careful. There’s been an increase in crime overall as well — not the same as what you’re dealing with, but still. I know some of this is the current culture, but I sure hope it changes soon.”
“Me too.” Holly lifted her face to Dougie’s and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. You’re so busy and you still took the time to help me out.”
His hands moved from her cheeks to cup the back of her head. “I was glad to help, but I do know of one way you could thank me.” Though she knew he still worried about her, she was glad to hear the teasing tone return to his voice.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Her lips pulled into a mischievous grin because she knew exactly what he was going to say and she would be happy to thank him with kisses for the foreseeable future. Though their first kiss would undoubtedly be the best, she had no doubt that every kiss with him would rock her world.
“Somehow, I think you know.”
She lifted onto her tiptoes and turned her head slightly to reach his lips. They were soft and perfect, and the feel of them against hers sent tiny pulses zinging through her body. She had not been wrong. This kiss would be one to remember, the best kiss she’d had in her life. Her hands pulled tighter on his neck, and his fingers got lost in her hair. She could feel herself falling for Dougie, really falling for him. And then, her phone began to ring.
“Mmm, ignore it,” Dougie whispered when she paused. His warm breath tickled her ear, and it took all her resolve to resist the temptation of melting in his arms.
“I would, but what if it’s Tiffany?” She was excited to meet the new baby, but boy did her friend have horrible timing.
He let out a soft growl but released his hold on her.
She smiled as she answered the call, but the smile melted from her face as the voice on the other end was not the excited voice of her friend, but the concerned voice of the woman who owned the shop across from her restaurant. “Holly? Can you hear me? Where are you?”
“I’m in Graham with Dougie. What’s wrong?”
Holly’s knees turned to jello as Becca continued to speak on the other end.
“Are you okay?” Dougie’s hands gripped her arms, and she was thankful for the support. She was finding it hard to stand, to breathe. She’d never had a panic attack before, but she wondered if she was about to now.
“No, we need to get to the restaurant.” Her voice felt detached, like it floated over her head instead of coming from her lips.
Dougie’s forehead furrowed. “The restaurant? What’s wrong?”
She looked at him with wide eyes, unable to even fully process the words coming out of her lips. “Evidently it’s on fire.”
“What? Let’s go.” With a speed she wouldn’t have thought possible with his large size, he ushered her back to the car, opened the door for her, and then jumped in the driver’s side. “Has the fire department been called?”
Holly nodded though her head felt heavy and awkward. “Yeah. Becca said she called them as soon as she noticed the fire. Who would do this, Dougie?” But she wondered if she didn’t already know that answer. Could the same people who had been threatening her have started the fire?
“I don’t know, but we’ll find out.” He threw the car in drive and peeled out of the parking space.
“What if they’re too late? What if I lose it all?” Holly couldn’t even wrap her head around that thought. Her restaurant was everything. It had been her first job when she’d moved here from New York, and she’d worked her way up till she’d bought the restaurant from the previous owners.
“Hey, you can’t think like that. It will be okay.” He squeezed her hand and glanced at her quickly before returning his attention to the road.
“You’re right. I’m going to pray it’s all right.” She closed her eyes to begin praying but as she did, her phone vibrated in her lap. Her eyes snapped open, expecting a text from Becca telling her it was too late, but this time it was Tiffany. “Oh no, it’s Tiffany. She says they’re almost home with the baby and want to know if we’re coming.”
“Tell her we can’t. It’s an emergency. She’ll understand.”
“But it’s her baby, Dougie. The one she’s waited so long for.”
He glanced her way again. “And the restaurant is yours. I’m telling you, she’ll understand.”
Holly nodded and sent the text back to Tiffany. Then she gripped Dougie’s hand even tighter. She’d been thankful for him being in her life a lot but never more than she was right now. His calm, take-charge presence was the only thing keeping her from crumbling to pieces at the moment, but she wondered if even that would be enough if they got back to Courage and everything was gone. What would she do?