Outside, sleet hammered the giant front store windows plastered with sale ads, drowning out her thoughts as Aurora walked past the single open check-out lane toward the entrance. Main Street was a slick ice rink, dark and foreboding. The ancient Ponderosa Pine — the one the founding fathers of Secret had planted and the one the town had grown up around—swayed precariously on the corner where Miles Market sat. The beefy four-wheel drive truck she’d borrowed from the ranch sat alone, a white blanket of snow and ice covering it even though she’d only been inside the store five minutes.
Option One: Grab a couple cans of cranberry jelly and kiss her job as Kate’s assistant goodbye, or, Option Two: drive the twenty-seven-point-two miles to Bozeman in a raging blizzard and die. For cranberries. “Option one sounds good.”
Becky Burkhart emerged from behind a magazine display, her red Miles Market work shirt a bit faded. She carried her coat, gloves and a hat and chewed a fingernail to the quick between smacks of her gum. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. I heard you done run off to California, brainiac.”
And good riddance. Aurora could almost hear Becky’s unspoken words. Becky sighed as her gaze shot to the automatic doors and the storm raging outside. “Bet you wish you’d stayed there, huh?”
You have no idea. Becky and Aurora had attended Secret High together where Becky, aka, Big Boobs Burkhart, had run the school. Aurora had been from the wrong side of the tracks and lived with her Nez Perce grandfather, whom Becky and her friends considered weird because he preferred horses over people.
In Aurora’s opinion, horses were the new black. “We don’t get storms like this in Burbank, that’s for sure.”
Becky gave her an irritated look. “Old man Miles said I could go home as soon as the last customer left. You buyin’ something or not?”
Aurora started to say, excuse me for keeping you. I’ll get out of your hair, but that was the old Aurora. The one who hid in the barn with her grandfather and the horses and tried her best to make everyone else in the world happy. The one who had never rocked the boat until she’d left Secret for a career in Hollywood, shocking everyone including herself.
Aurora Stillwater wasn’t that gal anymore. She didn’t have to make nice to BB Burkhart or care what the town gossips said about her. By four o’clock tomorrow, she’d be on a plane back to Burbank and her future job as co-producer of The Secret Ingredient. “Are the canned goods still in aisle six?”
Leaving Becky to smack her gum, Aurora hustled to the other end of the store, her Stuart Weitzman heels clicking on the old hardwood floors. If only she hadn’t traded in her cowboy boots for the four-inch platforms, she wouldn’t have skated across the parking lot on the way in. But cowboy boots were the old Aurora. Platform boots by fancy designers were the new one.
A trail of melted snow led right to aisle six. Aurora picked her way between the icy puddles made by deep treads of a pair of large feet. The only other customer in the store had to be in aisle six, probably buying the last cans of sauce like Mr. Miles had suggested. Whoever he was, he wore at least a size twelve. Regardless of the fact she was barely five-foot-six in her heels, if the other guy even looked at the canned cranberries, she was going to plant her platforms in his backside.
As she rounded the end of the aisle with a display of horse brushes, dog beds and Katelyn Karr’s Home For the Holidays cookbooks, all decked with red and green bows, Aurora stopped mid-step.
It couldn’t be. Anybody but…
Joel Campbell looked up, a can in each of his hands. His forehead furrowed under a wet lock of hair that made him look daring and adventurous. His dark eyes scanned her from head to toe and Aurora instinctively sucked in her stomach. Not that he could possibly see she’d gained a few pounds since heading to Hollywood. Her Rag and Bone car coat covered her from neck to thighs.
She started to smile and wave at him, but just as she lifted her hand, he glanced away. Seriously? He was going to pretend he didn’t recognize her? Or was he giving her the brush- off like he’d already forgotten her?
In the past twenty-four hours since she’d been back in Secret with the show’s cast and crew, most people in her hometown were eager to wave her down, say hi and ask how the big city was treating her. Not because they’d missed her, but because she was a borderline celebrity thanks to Kate and because nothing remotely interesting ever happened in Secret.
Several like Becky looked down their noses at Aurora just like in high school or acted like she’d moved to Mars instead of California. But that was to be expected. No one in Secret ever left, and in their eyes, California, specifically Hollywood, was Mars.
A couple of Aurora’s former friends had been jealous of her good fortune. Now they acted like they didn’t even know her.
Maybe they didn’t. At least not the new her.
So when they’d averted their eyes and crossed the street to the other side, she’d shrugged it off. When they stuck their noses in the air and pretended they’d forgotten who she was, she’d gotten a little pissed. She’d become invisible. Even more than when she’d been the shy, smart girl in high school ten years ago.
But Joel couldn’t pretend she was invisible. Not after all the times he’d given her a ride in his FedEx truck. Not after all the times they’d sang along together to the radio and the talks they’d shared on the back roads of Secret. She knew the truth about his football career. The truth about his mother and his father.
Granted, she’d left without saying goodbye, which was really stupid, but she’d planned to explain everything on this trip home. Was he really going to stand there and act like he didn’t know her?
His large hands hid the labels of whatever he was buying. He frowned and seemed to weigh his options before he glanced up at her again. “Cranberry sauce with whole berries or cranberry jelly?” He held up the two cans for her to see. “Which one should I buy?”
No, hello, Aurora, how’ve you been? No, how could you leave without saying goodbye? Wow. Okay. Aurora glanced past his wide, running back shoulders to the shelf behind him. Two could play that game. She was sophisticated, and well, Hollywood-ish, and she knew how to act like she didn’t remember him, either…even though during the past six months he’d been all she thought about when she wasn’t working.
Even when she was working. During the Breakfast Bonanza show, the maple syrup Kate poured over her Gingerbread Men pancakes reminded Aurora of the color of Joel’s eyes. During football week, the jerseys they’d used as a backdrop to Kate’s tailgating cook-off shows had made Aurora nostalgic for Joel’s wide shoulders. Those shoulders had seemed like they could hold the weight of the world for her.
But the new Aurora wasn’t about to moon over a man like she had Joel in high school. Okay, so she’d still been mooning over him when she’d left Secret, but again, that was then. This was now. No, siree. No way would she convey with her eyes or any other body part that she’d dialed his number every day since leaving Secret, only to hang up before he had time to answer. Sure enough, the spot on the shelf behind him was empty. Not another can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce in sight. Damn.
“Neither,” she answered his question, a mix of desperation and irritation making her voice raise a notch. She marched forward, doing her best to keep the hurt out of her eyes, and snatched the cans from his hands. “But I’ll take them both. Thank you.”
She didn’t bother avoiding the icy puddles as she made a dash for BB Burkhart’s checkout lane. Behind her, Joel’s voice echoed between the rows of canned goods and instant potato boxes. “Hey, where are you going with my cranberries?”
His cranberries? Well, that’s what he got for pretending he didn’t know her. She almost chuckled at her cleverness as she rounded the end of the aisle again, her boot heels squeaking in the water he’d left behind.
But then one of her platforms slipped. Her ankle twisted. Her upper body went one way, her lower body the other, and the next thing she knew she was looking up at the brightly lit Miles Market ceiling, her head hitting the floor with a loud whack.
Her ears rang. The cans went flying, along with the breath knocked out of her chest. Black dots danced on the edge of her vision and she blinked hard to clear them away.
A face appeared above her, a crooked grin plastered on Joel’s face. The grin Aurora used to find irresistible and now found a tad obnoxious. The overhead lights created a halo around his dark hair. “Is that how they do it in Hollywood, Aurelia?”
An embarrassed flush warmed her cheeks. Her voice shook. “Did you just call me Aurelia?”
He held out a hand to help her up and gave her a chastised puppy look. “My bad. I meant Ariella. Or is it Arissa?” Slapping his head with his palm, he rolled his eyes. “Wait. It’s Arianna, right? I’m so bad with names.”
Liar. He knew everyone in the three-county area, thanks to his job with FedEx. The job he’d taken instead of the football scholarship in order to keep an eye on his father after his mother died.
The luscious maple syrup eyes that had always been kind to her stared down into her plain old brown ones and the cranberries and Hollywood and her new life away from this small town hell faded into the background as she realized the awful truth.
Joel Campbell truly had forgotten her.