A Change of Heart

A Love From the Heartland Novel / Perfect, Indiana #3
November 26, 2013
Montlake Romance
ISBN-10: 1477849041
ISBN-13: 9781477849040
Available in: Audio, e-Book, Trade Size

A Change of Heart

Emotionally shattered, a soldier slowly repairs her life in the picturesque town of Perfect, Indiana…

Cory Marcel worked tirelessly over eight grueling years to develop a successful military career. After her commanding officer violently assaulted her, she lost everything—especially her trust in people. Despite the emotional damage threatening to sink her, Cory agrees to accept a new job at a furniture store in Perfect—a job that could offer the fragile brunette the chance to start over.

Ted Lovejoy cofounded Langford & Lovejoy Heritage Furniture, but lately he feels like an outsider in his own business. When he meets Cory, Ted realizes his company can do more than just build furniture—it can also help rebuild lives. He longs to help Cory recover from her pain, yet every time he gets too close to her heart, she pushes him away.

While Cory can’t resist her attraction to Ted, she fears the demons haunting her will drag down both of them. Could this kind, soft-spoken man help her finally bury the past…and unlock a future full of hope and happiness?

Chapter 1 excerpt

Silt. No, make that sludge. Cory’s blood had turned to thick, muddy sludge in her veins, and all the internal heaviness left her immobilized. Cracking an eyelid, she peered around the room. Nothing had changed in twenty-three years—not the worn blue bedspread with the white fluffy clouds or the mismatched dresser and desk. Not even the saggy twin mattress and box spring on the bare metal frame. Nothing. Her days in the double-wide on the south side of Evansville, Indiana, were supposed to be behind her. Yet here she was right back where she started, living on the fringes of the seedy side of town.

No career. No future. Trailer trash.

A single tear slipped down her cheek. She’d fought so hard to become something else, something better—like her dad, the decorated war hero she barely remembered. Eight years of her life devoted to a military career—brutally stolen. Gone, with nothing to show for it but this suffocating, sludgy misery pressing her down into a lumpy old bed. Another tear followed the first, and she pulled the bedspread over her head.

“Cory, baby.” Her mother knocked on her door. “Brenda Holt is here to see you.”

“Tell her I’m not feeling well.” She couldn’t face anyone. Not now. Maybe in a week or two the heaviness would lift, and she’d be able to figure out the rest of her life…or at least the rest of the afternoon. “Tell her I’ll give her a call…sometime soon. Real soon.”

The door creaked open. “You haven’t been out of this room for more than half an hour at a time since you’ve been home.” Her mom’s voice scraped along her frayed nerves. “I’m not leavin’ this spot until you agree to come out and say hello. Brenda made the effort to visit. Now you’re gonna make the effort to haul your butt outta that bed. You hear?”

She knew that tone. When Claire Marcel made up her mind, nothing could sway her. She’d stand in that doorway all day if she had to. Cory groaned. Hopefully a fifteen-minute conversation would satisfy her mother. Then Cory could crawl back into her black hole and sleep away another day. “Fine.” She threw the covers off and sat up. “Give me a few minutes.”

“Good. We’ll be in the livin’ room.”

The door shut, and she dragged herself out of bed to the army-issue duffel bag on the floor. She found an almost clean pair of sweats and pulled them on over the oversize T-shirt she’d slept in. Her hair hung in a lifeless mess to her shoulders. Not bothering to pull a brush through it, she snatched a rubber band off her dresser and pulled it back into a ponytail. Maybe she could manage a shower today. Or not. Who cared whether she bathed, brushed her teeth, or washed her hair? What difference did it make to the four walls of her childhood bedroom?

She forced herself down the hall to the living room. Her mother and Brenda sat on the couch huddled over her mother’s scrapbook of the media frenzy surrounding Cory’s court case. The humiliating history of her total annihilation lay open on their laps. Her stomach hit the floor. Dammit. How could her mom show that to anyone? Why would she want to? Bile burned the back of her throat. She turned around and headed back to her room.

“There you are,” her mother called. “I was just tellin’ Brenda how proud I am of you.”

“Proud of me?” She leaned her head back and shut her eyes. “For what? Letting my guard down—for being careless?” It’s not like she hadn’t known better. Stupid, stupid, stupid mistake.

“’Course not.” Her mom’s tone carried a hint of exasperation. “I’m proud of you for standin’ up for yourself.”

“Hey, Cory.” Brenda took the dreaded scrapbook from her mother’s hands and set it aside. “It’s been forever since we’ve seen each other. Let’s go for a walk.”

“Outside?” Her heart raced, and dread spread like an oil spill in her chest.

“Unless you want to walk up and down the hall here.” Brenda’s expression filled with sympathy, and something else— concern? “Let’s go to the playground like we used to when we were kids.”

“What’s it like out there?” Cory frowned, assessing the risk.

Brenda raised a single, arched eyebrow. “Is that a rhetorical question?”

“No. It’s more like a weather question.” She averted her gaze and swallowed hard. Brenda must think she’d gone mental. She had. In fact, she’d been treading water in the deep end of the crazy pool for a while now, and it was getting harder and harder to keep her head above the surface.

“It’s like a typical late April day in Southern Indiana. The sun’s out. It’s going to get very warm, and you’re way overdressed.”

“I’ll be fine.” Baggy sweats had become her style of choice lately. Not only could she wear them in bed, but out of bed as well. Plus, they didn’t attract attention. A shudder ran through her at the thought of that kind of attention. Don’t need it; don’t want it.

She slipped her feet into an old pair of flip-flops by the door and followed her childhood friend outside. Hypervigilance and the prickly sense of being watched consumed her. Scanning the area, she walked beside Brenda toward the old playground where they’d spent countless hours as youngsters.

The slide had taken on a pronounced tilt to the right, and the heavy steel frame of the swing set had more rust than she remembered. Someone had tossed one of the swings over the top several times until it coiled with the seat a few inches from the crossbar. The rickety wooden fence separating their trailer park from the trucking company next door was covered in graffiti, and the grass hadn’t been mowed in weeks. Not much had changed here either.

The day promised to be warmer than average with a generous dollop of humidity thrown in to make everybody miserable. She must look odd in her long-sleeved sweatshirt and heavy sweatpants. Brenda, on the other hand, looked cool, fresh, and as gorgeous as ever. Her thick blonde hair had been done up in a French braid, accentuating her high cheekbones and big blue eyes. She wore a stylish outfit designed to show off her curvy figure.

What a pathetic contrast she must make to so much puttogether attractiveness. If she didn’t get her appetite back soon, Cory wouldn’t have any curves left at all. That suited her just fine. Who needs them? Easing herself down, she took a seat on one of the three remaining swings and did another perimeter scan.

“Claire means well,” Brenda said. “Your mom is proud of you. We all are, and it’s not because your image has been plastered all over the media for the past year either. It’s because you managed to do something few women in the military have been able to.”

Brenda glanced at her. “You’re kind of the poster child for—”

“Can we talk about something else?” Cory’s empty stomach churned, and she studied the stunted grass growing around the bare patch of dirt under her feet. “What are you doing these days? Last time I visited, you were in school.”

Brenda sent her swing into motion. “I graduated from cosmetology college quite awhile ago, and I work in a really nice salon in town now. I’m doing OK for myself.” She planted her feet to stop the swing. “Did you hear Wesley’s home? He retired.”

“No, I hadn’t heard.” Her eyes widened. “We were just little kids when your brother joined the Marines. I still remember the day he left for boot camp.” She shook her head. “Wow. Has it been twenty years already?”

“Yeah. Which leads me to my next question. What are you going to do now that your case is behind you?”

“It’s not behind me.” Hot, angry tears filled her eyes once again at the ultimate betrayal of her loyalty and trust. “The Yale Law School’s veterans legal clinic is working on getting disability benefits for me.”

“Is that what you want? Disability checks for the rest of your life, while you hide out in your mom’s mobile home? That doesn’t sound like the Corinna Lynn Marcel I’ve known since we were four.”

“That girl is gone.” Rage exploded into a flash-and-burn conflagration in her chest. Once she’d been happy, optimistic about her future and open to the possibility of meeting someone special. She’d even thought she’d marry and have a few kids some day. That dream was dead. Her breathing came in short, ineffectual gasps, and her heart lodged itself in her throat. Brenda reached out and touched her forearm. Cory jerked away. Touch, a basic human need, was no longer tolerable.

“Hey, it’s just me.” Brenda set her hands back in her own lap. “Wesley is working at a custom furniture company in Perfect, a small town about forty-five minutes east of Evansville. The owner is a veteran who survived a suicide bombing in Iraq.”

“Oh.” Her mind was only half engaged. The other half floated from a distance, watching the conversation with disorienting detachment.

“Langford & Lovejoy Heritage Furniture only hires veterans. Wes told me they’re looking for someone to take over maintaining their social media, website and stuff like that.”

The pervasive sense of detachment spread. Time to go back to bed.

“He told the owner about you.”

“What?” Cory blinked back to full attention. “Why?”

“Because you have skills. You were an IT specialist, and you’ve always been a whiz kid with anything having to do with computers and electronics. You’re perfect for the job.”

Shit. “I’m not perfect for anything.” Not fit to serve and less fit to live, no way could she face a group of strangers inside an enclosed space. “I can barely get out of bed. I don’t think—”

“You can’t give up now, and spending the rest of your life in this trailer park is not an option.” Brenda shot up from the swing and came to stand in front of her. She grasped both chains of Cory’s swing and gave them a shake. “I won’t let you do this to yourself. I can’t stand by and do nothing while you slide down the drain a little bit more each day.” She glared. “In fact, I gotta tell you, I’m really pissed that you’ve been home for three weeks and you didn’t even bother to give me a call.”

“I’m sorry.” She blew out a breath. “I’m sorry, I…I can’t—”

“Nope. Stop.” Brenda shook her head. “This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to go take a shower and brush your teeth.

Please.” She waved a hand in front of her nose. “Shave your legs and pits while you’re at it.”

“Well, that was brutal.”

“You need brutal.” Brenda stared a hole through her. “I brought my equipment with me. Once you’re cleaned up, I’m going to cut your hair and put in some highlights. Then we’re going shopping for something to wear besides those raggedy old sweats and baggy army-issue cammies.” She canted her head to study her. “And makeup. You need makeup.”

“I don’t think I can do the shopping thing.” Her mouth dried up like a sponge left out in the sun. “And I’m positive I’m not doing the makeup thing.”

“You’re going to do both if I have to drag you kicking and screaming. I’ll be right there beside you, and if anybody messes with you, I’ll lay ’em out flat.”

A choked laugh broke free, and memories poured through her of the way she and Brenda had always watched each other’s backs. Their friendship had been like a flower growing through a slab of concrete—tough and resilient, thriving against all odds in a barren landscape. They’d fought the trailer trash stigma together all through school, shared their secrets and dreams, and been as close as twins. “I don’t have any money, Bren. I haven’t seen a regular paycheck since the army cut me loose.”

“I know. I’m floating you a loan, which I will not allow you to refuse. We’re just talking Target here, not Neiman Marcus. Jeans, a few pairs of shorts, blouses, T-shirts, shoes, and a few new necessaries. It’ll help you feel good about yourself again. I promise.”

“You’re still the same pushy bitch you always were,” Cory muttered affectionately.

“That’s right, and I’m going to help you reclaim your own inner bitch. Somehow you managed to get through your court case, testify before congressmen and senators, and have your picture and story plastered all over the media. You’re tough, my friend. Don’t crumble now.”

“Too late. I crumbled months ago.” Her jaw clenched. “I don’t know if I can do shopping, makeup, or a regular job. All of that stuff you mentioned I did? It was fueled by rage. Rage was my sole reason for getting out of bed each day. It’s done. I’m out of momentum and reason.” She crossed her eyes and twirled her finger by her temple. “In more ways than one.”

“Then it’s time to find a new reason to get out of bed.” Brenda’s face took on a resolute, dogged expression. “You have a job interview tomorrow afternoon, and I’m here to make sure you look your best.”

“What? No!” Her blood turned to ice water, chilling her to the sludge-filled center of her bones.

“Yep. Let’s go. Hup, hup.” Brenda pulled her up and pointed her toward home. “Right, left, right, left. March. You stink, and your hair is a greasy, stringy mess.”

“I like my hair this way.”

“No, you don’t.” Brenda gave her a gentle nudge. “Ready or not, here comes your new life.”

“I’m not ready.” Panic sent her heart racing, tightening her chest and robbing her of breath. “I’m not ready, dammit.” 

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