A Love From the Heartland Novel / Perfect, Indiana #1
October 23, 2012
Available in: Audio, e-Book
Far from Perfect
Steal away on a journey to the heartland, where a wounded soldier meets the one woman who could be his new beginning…
Noah Langford narrowly survived the roadside bombing in Iraq that cost him his leg and forever his peace of mind. When his stepbrother Matt dies in a car accident, the loss feels like the final blow to Noah’s shattered soul. But then he learns about the girlfriend and baby living in Perfect, Indiana who Matt had never mentioned, and suddenly Noah has a new mission…
Ceejay Lovejoy was nineteen and pregnant when her boyfriend walked out. Since that day, Ceejay has devoted herself to giving her daughter a better life, avoiding any man who could threaten that security—until the day Noah Langford shows up on her doorstep in Perfect. His gentle spirit has an unexpected effect on Ceejay’s guarded heart, tempting her to take one last chance on love. But when a painful secret comes to light, it threatens to break the fragile bond growing between them…and to destroy a love powerful enough to heal them both.
Chapter 1 excerpt
One for the basket of colors, one for the basket of whites. Ceejay sat in the middle of the living room floor and sorted through a mound of dirty laundry. While most people abhorred this kind of chore, she found a soothing cadence in all things mundane. If only navigating her way through life were this simple—one for the basket of colors, one for the basket of whites.
“Babe.” Matt sauntered into their tiny living room. “Toss me your keys. I’ll pull your car around and meet you out front.”
Her heart tap-danced against her rib cage. Maybe it would be best to wait a few more days before telling him about the baby. She glanced up at him. “Why don’t you carry the laundry, and I’ll pull the car around?”
“You’re not done sorting yet, and I’m itchin’ to go.” Reaching out a hand for her keys, he flashed his dimples, a sure bet for getting his way. Faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt emphasized his lean, muscular frame, while his chestnut waves and sexy brown eyes made him look like he’d just rolled out of bed. Matthew Wyatt looked like her downfall.
“You know where my latest issue of Motor Sport is? I wanna bring it along.”
“It’s on the bedside table, right where you left it.” Ceejay snatched up the rest of the whites and shoved them into one of the baskets. Rising from the floor, she pulled her keys out of her back pocket. “Here.” She nudged the basket toward him with her foot and dropped the keys on top. “Take this one with you so I don’t have to carry both. I’ll get the magazine on my way out.”
“Thanks.” He leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek, and a moment later the apartment door shut.
She hefted the remaining basket to her hip and retrieved the racing magazine from the table next to his side of the bed. Grabbing her purse from the couch, Ceejay slung the strap over her shoulder and made her way downstairs to the exit. They rarely locked their second-floor apartment. Crime was mostly nonexistent in their small town. Besides, who in Perfect, Indiana, would want their secondhand crap anyway?
Maneuvering through the heavy doors to the street, she noticed the basket of laundry Matt had taken sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. She scanned the street for her old Honda Civic and frowned. Her boyfriend and her car were nowhere to be seen. Ceejay placed her load next to the other basket and sat down on the concrete steps in the hot July sun to wait.
Matt had probably run into one of his buddies in the parking lot. Most likely he’d forgotten all about her in his rapture over a discussion about motors and racing. What a relief it would be once he gave it up. Her insides always knotted up when he raced, and she couldn’t relax until he emerged unharmed from whatever souped-up late-model stock car he raced around the oval track.
Sweat trickled down her left temple. Lifting the damp curls off the back of her neck, she got up and moved closer to the street to sit in the shade of the large boulevard oak. The tick-tick- tick-tick-whirr of a sprinkler across the street marked the passage of time, and the electric hum of a cicada in the still afternoon heat made her edgy.
What could be taking him so long? Ceejay glanced at her watch. Nearly twenty minutes had passed. Fuming, she left the laundry and walked around the building to the parking lot in back. Matt wasn’t there. Neither was her car.
Ceejay walked all the way around the block, peering down every street for a glimpse of him, until she’d come full circle. The two baskets of laundry caught her attention, and dread lodged itself in the pit of her stomach. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk while her mind ran through all the possibilities, coming at last to an unhappy conclusion.
No, Matt wouldn’t do such a thing. He wouldn’t. Ceejay dug through the baskets until clothing, towels, and sheets were strewn all over the lawn. Other than a pair of raggedy jeans, some briefs, and a worn T-shirt, none of it belonged to him. Why hadn’t she paid more attention? Oh, yeah. Because she had other things on her mind, like an unplanned pregnancy.
She tore back into the building, raced up the stairs and through their apartment to the cramped bedroom they’d shared for the past six months. There were two small closets in opposite corners of the room. One was his, the other hers.
Ceejay approached his closet as if it harbored all the dreaded monsters from her childhood nightmares. Her hand froze on the doorknob. It took a supreme effort to open the door, and once she did, she regretted the act. All that remained of their love story were a few empty hangers and a pile of old racing magazines on the dusty floor. Well, not quite all. She took a few steps back and placed her hand over her abdomen. He had left her with something to remember him by. Only he didn’t know it.
Replaying the past few weeks in her mind, she searched for clues. Why would he leave? It had been his idea to move in together, not hers. She’d never put any pressure on him other than to suggest he quit racing and find a real job.
Another sinking feeling hit her, and she dashed back to the living room. Falling to her knees in front of their ratty old couch, Ceejay slid her arm underneath to where the lining hung loose from the wooden frame. Frantic, she reached around in all directions. He’d taken it. All the money she’d saved for nursing school, her way out of Perfect, gone.
Crap. He was halfway to somewhere else by now—with her car.
Nausea hit her hard. She pushed herself up from the floor and dashed to the bathroom. Once nothing was left inside to come up, she rinsed her mouth and grabbed some tissue to blow her nose. Turning to toss it into the trash, she spotted Matt’s reason for leaving.
There it was. Mystery solved.
The early pregnancy test she’d taken the day before lay on the bottom of the empty can, dead center with the +yes facing up. No mistaking that message. He must’ve found it when he took out the trash. While she’d been waiting on tables at her aunt’s diner, he’d freaked out and packed up.
Sinking down to the cool tile floor, she stared at the plastic wand for a long time—long enough for all of her dreams to sputter out like a wet match. How could such a tiny piece of plastic have such an enormous impact on her life?
She got up and dragged herself to the phone. Once her car and money were reported stolen, all the sad, sordid details of her bad judgment would be a matter of public record. Might as well rent a billboard, because the news would be all over town by tomorrow noon.
“Warrick County Sheriff’s Office. How may I direct your call?”
“Hello, Inez. This is Ceejay Lovejoy. Is Sheriff Maurer around?”
“Hold on a minute, Ceejay. I’ll put you right through.”
A bad Muzak rendition of “Free Bird“ filled her ear. And here she thought her day couldn’t get any worse.
“Hey, Ceejay. How’s your aunt?”
“Oh, she’s fine, Sheriff. I’m calling to report a theft.”
“A theft? Hold on a tick.” The sound of a drawer opening and paper shuffling came over the line. “All right, tell me what’s missing.”
“My boyfriend, five thousand dollars in cash, and my car.”
The other end of the line went quiet. “Sheriff Maurer?”
“Where’d you get that kind of money, Little Bit?”
“I’ve been saving all my tips from the diner and everything I earn selling beadwork at the craft fairs.” She fought hard not to cry. “It was for nursing school. I’ve been accepted at the University of Evansville. Classes start at the end of August.”
“Why on earth didn’t you keep your money in the bank?”
“That’s a very good question, Sheriff, and if I had it all to do over…” Her voice went wobbly, and the sheriff cleared his throat as if he were the one choking up.
“Did you and Matt have some kind of fight? Maybe you’d like to wait awhile. Could be he’ll cool down and come on home tomorrow.”
“No. We didn’t have a fight, and he’s not coming back.” The image of the pregnancy test flashed through her mind. Ceejay bit her bottom lip to keep from blurting out the real reason her boyfriend had hared off.
“You’re certain this isn’t just a misunderstanding?”
“I’ll need the year, model, and make of your car and your license plate. Do you have the VIN number?”
“I do. Hold on, and I’ll go get it.” She set the phone on the kitchen counter and ran back to the closet, where she kept the cardboard box full of important documents. Ceejay returned with her car registration, gave him all the pertinent information, and then hung up. Her mortification complete, she made for the one piece of furniture worth squat in their entire apartment—the rocking chair that had once belonged to her mother. The mother she barely remembered.
Setting the chair in motion, Ceejay started counting the cracks in the living room ceiling. As long as she focused all of her attention on the numbers, she could ignore her breaking heart and pretend she wasn’t pregnant, alone, and scared shitless. When the light began to fade, she counted the forward and backward movements of the rocker.
Footsteps in the hall brought her to a halt. Sucking in her breath, she went still. He’d come back. Matt had come back for her. She listened and watched. The knob turned, and the door opened a crack.
“Ceejay, come on now. Let’s go home.”
“Aunt Jenny?” Disappointment pressed her hard against the wooden spindles of the chair. “How did you know?”
“I had a feeling.”
“Huh.” Ceejay blew out shaky breath. “Sheriff Maurer called you, didn’t he?”
Jenny switched on the lights and came toward her. The pity in her aunt’s eyes forced her to turn away and start the chair rocking. Where had she stopped? Oh, yeah, 299, 300, 301.
“Gather some of your beadwork and whatever else you need. We’ll send your cousins over tomorrow for the rest. I picked your laundry up off the lawn and loaded it into my car. Did you know you left your purse right there in the middle of the sidewalk?”
Her aunt stopped the chair’s motion with a hand on the frame. “Come home, Little Bit. I never did understand what you saw in that boy. He rolled into town from God knows where, and after a year, you still don’t know much about him. I swear you were just wearing that boy for his looks.”
“He was good-looking.” Hysteria rose like a bubble, bursting out in a laugh that took a turn for the worse. “He stole my money.
He…he took the money I saved for school.”
“I know.” Jenny nodded. “I’ve been thinking—”
“When did you have time to think about this?” Ceejay’s eyes flew to her aunt. “It just happened.”
Jenny patted her shoulder. “You have your job at the diner, and once you get too far along in your pregnancy to wait on tables, you can take over the register.”
Ceejay’s eyebrows shot up. “You…you know about…?”
“You think I didn’t notice those quick trips to the restroom with your face all pasty green? I’ve decided to turn the carriage house over to you. If you clean it out and fix it up, maybe you can find a renter. Along with the craft fairs, it’ll give you a little extra income.”
Not enough for college. Not nearly enough to make her dreams of leaving Perfect come true. Ceejay started counting her heartbeats. The plans she’d made for the future slipped through her fingers like water through a rusted bucket. “You’ve…you’ve already done so much for me. I can’t accept it.”
“Nonsense. You’re family.” Her aunt circled the room, picking up her basket of beadwork and other small items, tucking them into the basket as she went. “You and the baby will live with me in the big house, of course. It’s way too much for one person, and I don’t like rattling around in that big old monster by myself.”
“Oh…Jenny…” Pushing her hand against her mouth, she tried to hold herself together. No use. Grief spilled out in great, gasping sobs.
back to Top