Return To Love

Excerpt from chapter 1

Kyle Cavanagh’s dream was officially over. As he disembarked the plane that had brought him home to Oregon on a drizzly January day, the sour taste of failure in his mouth stung his tongue as much as it stung his pride.

After the injury to his ulnar collateral ligament that had damaged his left elbow nine months before, and resulted in a surgery that had kept him off the field for the rest of the season, he knew he’d lost his chance of ever getting to play baseball in the Major League.

Only nine months before, on the dreadful day that changed his life, his coach with the Colorado Springs Starlings had told him the Milwaukee Jaguars in the MLB had been showing interest in contracting Kyle at the end of the season, and that they would be watching him play that day. He’d been on the Minor League team for five years, ever since graduating college, and he loved playing for them, but Major League Baseball had been his dream ever since he discovered the sport. He’d been so excited at the news, he’d given his all, focused on being the best he’d ever been—until that throw that ruined his rising career. The excruciating pain had been mild compared to that caused by the knowledge that his chances of becoming a Major League player had officially evaporated.

Just like he’d thought, he never heard from the Milwaukee Jaguars about that offer. He was lucky the Starlings had paid for his medical expenses and rehab, and that they’d kept him on their roster—at least for now. He had one more chance to make it, if he could join the rest of the team on spring training in March, after passing a final physical.

While he’d been benched, a younger player had temporarily taken his spot on the roster, and the manager had flat out told Kyle that if he didn’t pass the physical, they had the right to terminate the contract and the guy would take Kyle’s place permanently. Although Kyle wasn’t sure six weeks would be enough to get back in shape, he was determined to work hard while he was home. Even if he couldn’t start the season with the others in March, he could be included in the extended spring training, which would at least buy him some more time to let him start the season in June. Even half a season would be better than nothing.

He stared at his sneakers as he pulled his carry-on behind him, through Southwest Oregon Regional Airport in North Bend. He’d had his biggest suitcases couriered home the week before, so his small luggage made it easier to navigate through the airport and reach the exit at a faster pace.

He walked out with his head hanging down, a Starlings cap shading his eyes. He wasn’t the kind of famous that would create a fuss if someone recognized him, but his face had been plastered all over sports websites, the sports section of newspapers, and on TV for a while after the game that changed his life—he didn’t want to risk someone recognizing him and asking when he’d be back in the game.

“Yo, baby brother!”

Kean’s voice made him look up from the ground. His eldest brother had his hand up in the air, a Seattle Mariners cap on his head covering his dark curls, and a huge grin on his unshaven face. Despite the pain squeezing his heart, Kyle smiled back—a real one, not one of those he’d had to put on in front of journalists these past nine months. A part of him was happy to be home. He and his brothers had always had a strong bond, even after Kean and Adam went off to college. They were close enough to home that they would come back often, and he and Lauren had visited a couple of times too. Things had changed when Kyle went to college in Colorado, and even more when he started playing in the Minor League. They’d been in touch via text messages and phone calls, but it just wasn’t the same. He hoped that now he was back, they would go back to being as close as they used to be. He needed his brothers’ support more than ever.

Being the baby of the family—Adam was three years older and Kean five—his brothers had always been protective of him, even when he was old enough to look after himself. Both Kean and Adam had flown off to Colorado to visit and offer support when he was in the hospital in Denver. And when Kean offered to pick him up at the airport, Kyle had accepted, even though he would have preferred to take a cab so he’d have more time to put on his mask and pretend coming home didn’t make him feel like a failure.

“Thanks for coming,” he said, when Kean pulled him into a hug. “I hope it didn’t mess up your schedule. Mom said work’s keeping you busy.”

“I’ll never be too busy for my baby brother.” Kean chuckled and rubbed his knuckles on Kyle’s hat. “Even though you’ve been too busy to come celebrate the holidays with your family.” He threw the words over his shoulder as they walked to his red and silver work pickup. Though his tone was teasing, Kyle didn’t miss the underlying hint of scolding.

“I was busy with rehab,” Kyle replied automatically, using the lame excuse he’d given his family when he told them he wouldn’t be coming home for Thanksgiving or for Christmas.

Kean got into the pickup and reached for his seat belt. “That’s what you told Mom, yes.”

Kyle fidgeted with his own seat belt. Although he’d always looked forward to spending the holidays at home with his family, he just didn’t want them to see him in the poor state he was in and pity him. To say he’d been depressed ever since the injury would be the understatement of the year. At twenty-seven, he would have had at least another five or six years before he’d have to think of retirement—before he’d have to put plan B into motion and use his coaching and sports science degree to keep working in the professional baseball field, though no longer as a player. And maybe in that time, he would’ve managed to play in a Major League team. It didn’t matter which one—he’d go anywhere to live his childhood dream. He wasn’t ready to quit yet.

“It’s the truth. If only I’d damaged my right arm instead, I would’ve probably recovered faster. But being a lefty has made things worse,” Kyle said with a shrug, his tone defensive. He was still sulking over the whole issue and over how a stupid throw had damaged his career forever.

He’d nearly grasped the chance of playing in the Major League, and now it was all over before he’d even gotten a taste of it. Life wasn’t fair. Then again, in the grand scheme of things, he could’ve been dealt worse cards. Adam had lost his wife at twenty-six and had been left with a six-month-old daughter to raise. Kean had nearly ended up in jail five years before because of a mistake his boss made and blamed on him. Eventually, they’d both found their happy place, though. Adam had gotten married to Ellie last year and was now the proud father of twins, and Kean had found his perfect match in Charli and was about to open a B&B with her, in the ranch house they’d all grown up in. From what Kyle had heard after his last call home, both brothers were living their dream lives with their partners and enjoying every minute of it. He could only hope that, now that he’d hit rock bottom, something good would come out of returning to his hometown. Even though he doubted he’d get his happy ending with his high-school sweetheart, since she was now dating a firefighter.

Lauren had been his whole world, his best friend, and his first and only love—until she broke up with him, out of the blue, leaving him heartbroken and lost. Even before he’d realized he was in love with her, he’d known they’d always be together, if only as friends. After their first kiss, he knew nobody would ever mean as much to him as she did. He loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Too bad she didn’t seem to have the same idea about their future.

 “Ready to meet the welcome committee?” Kean broke into his thoughts, as he turned the key in the ignition. “There’s been a bit of excitement in the air these past couple of days. You’d think Mom’s expecting the Queen of England to come visit by the way she’s been cleaning and baking and being fussy. None of us is jealous, you know.” His wink and grin told him otherwise, and Kyle couldn’t help smiling back.

“Not my fault I’m her favorite,” he said, shrugging as Kean pulled out of the parking lot. Kean gave him a playful shove and laughed.

“Adam and I will make you lose that brazen attitude in no time, kiddo. We’ll show you who’s boss before we send you off again.”

Kyle bowed his head and laughed. He’d missed his brothers’ teasing. He stared out the window as they drove down US-101 highway, heading south toward Spring Harbor, and for the first time in eight years, his heart warmed at the thought of being home again.

 

* * *

 

Lauren Ellsworth walked into her studio, right above the office of Spring Harbor’s newspaper, The Gazette, and a sense of peace pervaded her. The first class of the day would start in twenty minutes, so she had enough time to do a couple of sun salutations by herself and let yoga help her come to terms with the fact that Kyle Cavanagh was home. She’d known for a couple of weeks that he wouldn’t be starting in the Major League Baseball this year and that he’d be coming home to complete his rehab, but she didn’t know when. Until she’d walked into Spring Delights, the bakery and café owned by her mother and Kyle’s mother, and Enya Cavanagh had broken the news about her youngest son coming home yesterday. Yesterday. Lauren wasn’t ready to face reality just yet, or to face him.

It wasn’t because she doubted her feelings for her boyfriend. She was sure she loved Nate. He was the perfect boyfriend—caring, romantic, and handsome as a bonus—and she had no doubts about their relationship. They’d been together for two years and things were perfect between them. She just wasn’t sure how to act normally around Kyle. The last time she’d seen him, a year ago at Adam’s wedding, he’d been distant. Whenever their gazes had met, he’d looked away, and he’d stayed as far away from her as possible. Since Nate had been her plus one at the wedding, she’d thought Kyle had kept to himself to avoid creating an awkward situation. His cold behavior had hurt her, though she’d made sure to not let it show.

Nate knew about her high-school relationship with Kyle and how much she’d loved him back then. As a matter of fact, the whole town knew—perks of small-town life. It had taken her a long time to let herself open up to another man, and Nate had been patient and persevering while he waited for her to be ready to start a relationship.

He was the first man who’d made her believe she could have a future with someone who wasn’t Kyle Cavanagh, after all. And now her first love was coming home, and she didn’t know how she felt about it.

She rolled out her blue yoga mat, toed off her shoes, and stood in front of the mirrored wall, bringing her joined hands in front of her heart in a namaste pose. She closed her eyes and breathed evenly through her nose, focusing on her heartbeat and tuning out any other thought. There was no other sound but that of her deep breathing in the room. Kean had done a great job with the sound insulation of the room when he renovated it for her. This was her sanctuary, and she wouldn’t let unwanted thoughts invade it. Especially no thoughts related to Kyle.

She lifted her arms to the ceiling and started the sequence, her mind focused on each movement. Yoga had saved her life once and she trusted it would help her face Kyle’s return.

Nate loves me. And I love him.

She said the words in her head like a mantra, bending to touch her toes, her brow touching her knees. Then she repeated them throughout the sequence, each time with more force as if that alone would keep thoughts of Kyle out of her system. She could do this. She had survived once, and she could do it again. She was in charge of her mind, all the force she needed was inside her, and she would stand up tall against every adversity.

“I can do this,” she said to her reflection in the mirror once she was in the namaste pose once again. The woman who stared back at her was no longer that scared, heartbroken eighteen-year-old, who’d not only lost her boyfriend, but her best friend too. She had a beautiful life here in her hometown, she had a job that made her happy, and friends she loved spending time with.

A knock on the door startled her out of her meditation. The smiling face of Jared, her geeky friend, town journalist, and creative writing teacher peeked in, his hand still on the door handle as if he weren’t sure he could come in.

Lauren spun around and smiled. Just what she needed to keep her mind off things she didn’t want to think about.

“Am I interrupting something?”

She shook her head. “Come in. I was early and had time to kill.”

“I didn’t see you at the bakery and was worried.” He walked in and closed the distance between them, a pink paper bag from Spring Delights in one of his hands. It no doubt contained cinnamon rolls, his favorite treat from her mother’s bakery. “You okay?”

No, she wasn’t. And though she liked hanging out with Jared, they weren’t so close that she could share her worries with him. Since he was two years younger, they hadn’t spent much time together in high school, although they’d known each other for most of their lives. They’d become closer when Jared came home from college and started the monthly book club at the library. And he was also responsible for her first meeting with Nate. Jared’s best friend and Kyle’s cousin, Cayden Cavanagh, worked as a firefighter for the Spring Harbor Fire Department and one day, as she and Jared were having breakfast at the bakery, Cayden and Nate had walked in to pick up coffees for the firehouse. He’d waved Cayden over and Nate had followed, introducing himself as soon as he reached their table. Nate had been the first man she’d let close after Kyle, although it had taken him a few months to even be able to take her on a date.

“I think I’m just tired.”

His eyes narrowed behind his black-rimmed rectangular glasses. “You’re not a very good liar. I told you before.”

She smiled. She was a lousy liar, always had been. But now wasn’t the time for a heart-to-heart with her friend, especially since her mind was a jumble of thoughts.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, anyone I should beat up, you know you only have to say the words and I’ll be your knight in shining armor.” He grinned and she chuckled. “Unless it’s one of the guys at the firehouse. In that case, you’d have to find someone else to help you because they’re a little too burly for me.”

Lauren laughed. Jared was a good friend and he always brought a smile to her face. Yes, with the help of her friends and her love for Nate she’d be able to face Kyle with her head held high and no longer a heavy heart. She was strong enough. Or so she hoped.

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