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Next Time I Fall - Signed

Next Time I Fall - Signed

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"I absolutely loved Next Time I Fall, it is an incredible love at first sight love story. Barbara Freethy has once again shown that she is an amazing storyteller. It was impossible to put it down. I loved every moment on every page." Patti – Goodreads

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"I am always ready for a return trip to Whisper Lake. I love the small town and the friendly people who live there. Barbara Freethy is a master of suspense and romance. She makes her characters come to life on the page." NJ - Goodreads

After three years of being a single mom, café owner Chloe Morgan is finally ready to take another chance on love. She's found the perfect man in Joel Bradshaw. He checks all her boxes when it comes to stability, commitment, and accountability.

And then Joel's best friend, Decker Hayes, comes to town…

Decker is attractive, sexy, and great with her kid, but Decker is a self-avowed wanderer. He doesn't make plans. He doesn't think long-term. He's not someone a woman should count on. Decker is exactly the kind of man Chloe doesn't want.

And Chloe is exactly the kind of woman Decker doesn't want. Coming from a broken home, Decker is not a family man. He isn't even sure what family really means. Chloe is also dating his friend, which makes her off-limits.

But as Chloe and Decker are thrown together during a house remodel and the unraveling of an old family mystery, they find themselves falling for the absolutely wrong person.

Neither one wants to risk another broken heart, but when love shows up, anything can happen…

Don't miss this irresistibly heartwarming and humorous contemporary romance by #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Barbara Freethy! For fans of Jill Shalvis, Robyn Carr, Debbie Macomber, Rachel Gibson, and Brenda Novak.

NOTE: The Whisper Lake Series is a heartwarming and humorous small-town romance series. Each book can be read as a standalone. There are no cliffhangers! Popular storylines in the series include grumpy sunshine, runaway bride, second chance at love, enemies to lovers, family secrets, blind date, and opposites attract.

CHAPTER ONE

"Did you know your tenant was a hoarder?" Hannah McKenna asked.

Chloe Morgan stared in shocked silence at the living room of her family's rental house. The room was filled with so many towering piles of stuff that she could barely see the furniture. "I had no idea. Eleanor never let me in the house. On the few times I stopped by, she met me on the porch with homemade cookies. She always said everything was fine."

"Are we having cookies?" her son Leo asked, tugging on her hand.

She shook her head at the hopeful look in his four-year-old eyes. "Not now."

"Can we have cookies later?" 

"We'll see how good you are," she said vaguely, as he let go of her hand to look at a train that appeared to wind its way along a track from the living room to the dining room. That made little sense. Eleanor Johnson had been in her eighties when she'd passed away two weeks ago, and she hadn't had any children living at the house. Nor had she had any family, so why did she have a train? That was only one of a thousand questions running through her head.  

"Maybe you should tell your parents that this is their problem."

"It's not their problem; it's mine," she said. "My parents want to sell the house and, in return for my help, they'll split the profits with me. That's a huge chunk of money that would make a difference in my life." 

"This is going to be an enormous job, Chloe. The paint is faded. That ceiling looks like there have been some leaks." Hannah waved her hand toward the spotted ceiling in the dining room. "And who knows what other horrors are under all this mess?"

"It's probably not as bad as we think," she said, trying to stay optimistic. "It can be cleaned up. Let's check out the upstairs. Come on, Leo."

"Can't I stay here and play with the train?" he asked. 

She hesitated. "All right. But don't touch anything else and don't leave this room. Understand?"

He nodded and went back to pretending his stuffed turtle was taking a ride on the train. She led the way upstairs.

"I just don't understand how anyone lives like this," Hannah said, as they stepped into the master bedroom. 

"It's sad," she agreed. The sight of the unmade bed and the lingering scent of perfume in the air made her feel even more depressed as she thought about how Eleanor had spent some of her last weeks on earth surrounded by this mess. "I wish I'd known. Maybe I could have helped Eleanor while she was alive."

"I'm sure she didn't want anyone to know."

"Probably not. Eleanor never complained about anything. She always sent her rent check on the first day of the month. When something broke, I'd send someone over to fix it, but I never came into the house. She always wanted to handle things on her own, and I respected her privacy."

"It makes sense."

"But now this house, my parents' investment, is in really terrible shape. My grandmother would turn over in her grave if she could see this place." The house had originally belonged to her grandmother, but after her death nineteen years ago, they'd rented it to one of her grandmother's friends, a widow named Eleanor Johnson. She'd lived here ever since. "I need to make this right," she added. 

"You have a business to run and a kid to raise," Hannah pointed out. "Do you have time to make this right?"

"I have to make the time. Thankfully, I might get some help. Joel has a friend who's a contractor. Apparently, he's at loose ends after a job got postponed, so he's coming to Whisper Lake." She glanced at her watch. "He's supposed to meet me here in half an hour." 

"Well, that's good. But you might need someone who lives here. This job could take some time."

"Unfortunately, everyone who lives here is booked. Now that the snow is melting, everyone is diving into their construction jobs. Joel assured me that his friend is really good and is interested in picking up some work."

"Joel seems to come up a lot in conversation," Hannah observed. "What's going on with you two? I thought you said you were just friends."

"It's moved beyond that. We're dating, but we're taking it slow."

"Why?" Hannah asked with a laugh and a sparkle in her brown eyes. "Fast can be fun, Chloe."

"I have a child to think about. I have to be careful who I bring around."

"I get it. Maybe you should bring him around your friends more, so we can tell you what we think about him." 

She smiled at that. "He doesn't need to be interrogated, which you will all do if I give you the chance." 

"That's what friends are for. So, tell me more about Joel. What do you like about him?"

"Well, he's a good guy, and he checks a lot of my boxes."

"Like what?" Hannah persisted.

"He wants to live in Whisper Lake. That's a big one."

"Are you sure about that? I thought he was just here while his company develops the property on the west shore. I know that's at least a two-year project, but what about after that?"

"He's staying. There is so much land available for development in this area, he could work here for years. He's been in New York City most of his life, and he finds the quiet here very appealing." 

Hannah didn't look like she completely believed her, but for once, she kept that opinion to herself. "What else do you like about him?"

"He's ready for a relationship. He wants a family. He wants children, which is important." She paused. "I like that he's a normal guy. He's not addicted to danger. He doesn't need an adrenaline rush to feel alive."

Hannah gave her a pointed look. "Now, you're talking about Kevin."

"It's hard not to compare everyone I meet to my ex-husband," she admitted. "But I'm trying not to do that. Like I said, it's early days. We'll see how it goes. I'm not very good at dating. I fell for Kevin when I was sixteen. And I was married a long time."

"It's been three years since the divorce."

"And I have gone out with a few guys, but they were not anything close to right. And I need to be careful. I can't make another mistake." 

Hannah frowned, concern in her gaze. "I understand. But I have to say one thing." 

She steeled herself for whatever was coming. "What?"

"I don't want you to run so far away from the kind of man Kevin is that you pick someone for the wrong reasons. Just because someone isn't like Kevin doesn't make him the best match."

"I know that. But I've had a lot of time to think about what I want in a future husband and what I don't want."

"Okay, I had to say it."

"I know you're being protective, but I can take care of myself." She paused as she looked around the room. "But first I need to take care of this house." 

Hannah suddenly squealed and grabbed her arm, pointing across the room. "Maybe you should take care of that first. Or we could just back away and never return, not until you get someone in here to clean up."

At first, she didn't know what Hannah was talking about. Then she blinked at the sight of an enormous spider moving across the floor. She wasn't a big fan of spiders, but clearly not as scared as Hannah was. She was already inching her way to the door. "I can't believe after all the things you see as an ER nurse that you're turning pale at the sight of a spider," she chided. "I thought you were the brave one."

"Not when it comes to creepy-crawly things. Let's get out of here." 

"I'm not going to let a spider run me out of this room. I'll take care of it." 

She moved across the floor, lifted her leg, and smashed her boot down on the spider. She hit the spider dead on, but she raised her foot and smashed it again, just for good measure. As she did so, she heard a loud cracking sound and suddenly the floor fell out from under her. 

She flailed her arms as she fell, then grabbed on to the leg of a nearby dresser to stop her slide, but at that point, she was up to her waist, with rough edges of boards cutting into her skin between the gap of her sweater and leggings. 

"Mommy?" Leo shouted. "I can see your legs."

"It's okay," she yelled. She turned to Hannah, who was staring at her in shock. "Go downstairs and get Leo out of the house. I don't want the ceiling to come down on top of him."

"What about you?"

"I'm okay. Just get Leo." As she finished speaking, the doorbell rang, followed by the sound of a man's voice. 

"Hello? Anyone here?" he called out. 

"My mommy is up there," she heard Leo say. "Those are her legs."

"Hannah, go," Chloe said. 

"I'm on it," Hannah replied. "I'll call 911 after I get Leo."

Chloe gripped the leg tighter, feeling the pull of gravity. She really did not want to fall any farther. Through the slats in the broken floor, she could see Hannah's dark-red hair. 

"Leo, come here," she heard Hannah say, following up with, "Who are you?" 

"Decker Hayes," a man replied. "I'm supposed to meet Chloe Morgan. Is that you?"

"No. Chloe is upstairs."

"Chloe is my mommy," Leo interrupted. "She's stuck in the ceiling."

"I can see that," the man said with humor in his voice. "Nice legs."

She flushed at the comment, thanking God she was wearing leggings and not a dress. 

"I'm calling 911," Hannah said. "Come on, Leo. We're going to wait out front."

"Hang on. I can probably get her out without calling the fire department," Decker said. "Are you hurt?" he yelled. 

"I'm fine," she shouted. "I just don't want my son to get hit by falling wood."

"They're going to wait outside," he replied. "I'm coming up." 

She blew out a breath, not thrilled about that, but she'd rather have him try to help her than have the Whisper Lake Fire Department rescue her. That would be juicy gossip that would go around town for weeks. 

A moment later, the man entered the bedroom, walking carefully across the room. He stopped a few feet away, a smile crossing his very attractive face. He was a tall man with thick brown hair and green eyes. He wore jeans and a navy sweater that clung to a very broad chest.  

"I'm Decker Hayes," he said.

"I figured. Chloe Morgan. Do you think you can get me out?"

"I'll give it my best shot." He cautiously moved forward. "Can you let go of the dresser?" 

She was a little reluctant to let go of the only thing preventing her from crashing through the floor. "And do what?" she asked.

"Grab my hand."

She looked at his now outstretched arm. "I don't know if you can pull me out."

"I can do it," he said confidently. "Trust me."

"I don't even know you."

"Joel does. You trust him, right?" 

She really didn't know Joel that well, either, but this guy was his friend, and he would probably do everything he could not to drop her through the ceiling. Plus, she didn't have any other choice. "Okay." She took one hand off the leg of the dresser. 

Decker's fingers wrapped around hers, his grip strong and warm, and she could feel the power in his body. His eyes met hers with encouragement. "I've got you," he said. 

An odd, shivery feeling ran down her body at his words. It had been a long time since she'd felt like anyone had had her back. She'd been going it alone for so long. A rush of emotion made her eyes water, which was completely stupid. She could not cry now. She had enough problems. 

Blinking the tears away, she said, "Okay. I'm letting go." 

As she released her grip, he grabbed her other hand and pulled her up and out of the broken floor. At the sound of more breaking wood, she scrambled to her knees, then to her feet, as he pulled her toward the doorway. 

When they got into the hall, she looked back at the floor. A few more pieces of floor had fallen through the hole, making it another foot bigger. If he hadn't gotten her out of there when he had, she might have ended up in the dining room. 

"Looks like this job just got more expensive," Decker said. 

She turned back to him, suddenly realizing he was still holding one of her hands. She pulled it away, wishing her heart wasn't beating so hard or that her breath wasn't coming so fast. Licking her lips, she said, "Thanks for getting me out."

"No problem. There must be a lot of rot in that floor."

"And spiders," she said. "I was stomping one to death when I put my foot through the floor." 

"Well, I hope the spider is dead," he said with a smile. 

"I definitely got him, but at what cost?"

"Probably a high one. And Joel didn't mention that your tenant was a hoarder."

"Joel didn't know. I had no idea, either. Eleanor Johnson lived here for nineteen years before passing away two weeks ago. I haven't been inside this house in years. The home actually belongs to my parents, but they don't live in town anymore, and I'm in charge of getting this place ready to sell." She shook her head as she let out a breath. "It's mind boggling that someone could have been living here surrounded by so much junk. And I'm thrilled the floor didn't give way when my eighty-five-year-old tenant was in here." 

"That would have been bad."

"I should get downstairs, make sure Leo is okay."

"I'll look around and meet you outside."

"All right." She hesitated. "I'm almost afraid to take another step."

"You'll be okay going down the stairs."

"You should be careful in here." 

"I will be." 

She moved down the stairs and out of the house, feeling more than a little relieved to get into the fresh air. It was a sunny day in early April, and with Easter just four days away, it was feeling like spring in Whisper Lake. While there was still snow on the surrounding mountains, it had disappeared at lake level a few weeks ago. 

"Are you okay?" Hannah asked, her sharp brown eyes searching her face for the truth.

"I'm fine."

"No cuts that need tending to?"

"I'm fine, Nurse Hannah," she said with a smile. Hannah was not only her friend since childhood, she was also a nurse at the local hospital, and as a result, she'd taken care of more than a few of her cuts over the years. "See?" She lifted her sweater just to make sure she wasn't lying. 

Hannah took a closer look. "Not too bad, just some scratches." 

"Mommy," Leo said, interrupting their conversation. "Look what I found." He held up a long stick that he was dragging around the dirt in the neglected garden. 

"Be careful with that," she said, thinking again how grateful she was that Leo hadn't been hurt by any falling floorboards. 

"Where's your rescuer?" Hannah asked.

"He's looking around the house. He said the job just got more expensive."

"I can believe that. This house is a disaster." Hannah paused, giving her a mischievous smile. "But on a positive note, your contractor is pretty hot."

"I didn't notice," she lied. 

"How could you not notice?" Hannah challenged. 

"I was focused on not falling through the floor. And it doesn't matter how good-looking Decker is. I'm trying to hire him, not date him. He doesn't even live here. He's just staying here for a few months until his next project starts."

"All right. I get it. He's just passing through. And you don't date people who are just passing through."

"Exactly."

"Where's he staying while he's in town?"

She cleared her throat at that question. "Joel asked if Decker could stay in the apartment over the café."

Hannah laughed. "Above your café, huh? Well, that sounds perfect."

"Stop. He's just going to do some work for me. If he still wants to after he goes through the house. And if his bid isn't completely out of our budget."

"Looks like we're about to find out," Hannah said.

As Decker strode through the front door, Chloe had to admit he was a very attractive man in a rugged, doesn't-know-how-good-he-looks kind of way. His hair was a little long, a little tousled, and there was some dust now on his shirt, probably from the house, but there was power and strength and purpose in his stride, in his gaze, and her heart raced as that gaze settled on her. She tried to shrug it off. This was crazy. She was dating his friend. Her reaction was probably coming from too much adrenaline. It would pass. 

"What exactly do you want done?" he asked.

"Well, before I saw the place, we thought that the two bathrooms should be remodeled, that the house should be painted, and maybe some new tile or cabinetry in the kitchen. The floors, too, probably need to be redone."

"Definitely. You made sure of that," he said with another smile. 

"Do you think all the floors upstairs are that fragile? Why would it suddenly break apart?"

"I suspect you have a leak in the bathroom that rotted the floor. It will take some discovery to see how far the damage goes. It's difficult to know if there are any other structural problems in the house. It will have to be cleaned out to be sure that there are no other surprises."

"So, what do you think?" she asked him.

"I think you need me." 

His gaze bored into hers, and she felt like there was a double edge to his words, one that made her go on defense. "I need the house fixed," she said, wanting to make that point clear. She didn't need him. She needed his construction skills. "I'll also need to see a price. My parents have a budget, and I can't go over that."

"I'll work up a bid. Joel said you might rent me the apartment over your café?"

"Yes. Do you want to see it now?"

"That would be great. I can get settled and then get started on your bid." 

"Well, I'm going to head to work," Hannah said, interrupting their conversation, a thoughtful gleam in her brown eyes. "I'm sorry I freaked out over that gigantic spider, Chloe. I feel a little responsible for what happened."

"You were totally responsible," she said. "How are you so afraid of spiders? You look at broken bones sticking out of people's arms and legs."

"That's different," Hannah said with a helpless smile. "The bones don't crawl toward me."

"Well, I'm sure we would have discovered the problem in the floor at some point."  

"By the way," Hannah said, turning to Decker. "We didn't actually meet. I'm Hannah McKenna, one of Chloe's oldest friends. I really appreciate you getting her out. You saved the day." 

"Happy to help," he said. 

"Well, I'm sure I'll see you around," Hannah said. 

"I hope so." 

As Hannah headed to her car, Chloe turned to Decker. "Shall we go?" 

"I'm ready." 

"Leo, come on. And you're not bringing the stick," she said, as he started toward her.

He gave her a sad look. "But it's the best one I've ever found."

She smiled at his dramatic words. "There are plenty of sticks in our backyard. This one stays here." 

Leo dropped the stick and followed her to the car, climbing into his car seat. Luckily, he was easily distracted by the stuffed dog waiting next to his seat. By the time she'd started the engine, he was already playing a new game. 

Sometimes, she was amazed at how adaptable her four-year-old was. His bad moods never lasted long, and while he pushed back sometimes, he rarely put up a big fight. He was eager to be good, to make her happy. And she wanted to make him happy, too. That wasn't always easy, since she had to be both mom and dad. 

Her divorce had become final three years ago, although her ex-husband had been gone a lot even before that. In special forces for the military, Kevin was often deployed overseas, sometimes disappearing for months at a time. He loved being a soldier, and, ultimately, he'd chosen his job, or his calling as he liked to refer to it, over being a husband and a father. She wanted to hate him for that, but it was difficult to hate someone who was being a hero in so many other ways. 

She knew she'd made the right decision for herself and even for Leo. He needed a stable home environment, and hopefully, one day, Kevin could spend more time with his son. Because in the past couple of years, he'd only seen him a couple of weekends a year. Someday Leo would have a lot of questions, but luckily, that day wasn't today. 

As she drove back to the café, her mind moved to another man, her gaze drifting to the rearview mirror, to Decker Hayes. With all the contractors in town busy for the next few months, she needed him to fix up the rental house. But there was something about him that told her he was going to be trouble—trouble that would be living in the apartment above her café.

Irresistible romance, compelling characters, heartwarming emotion, mystery, and drama await in the Whisper Lake Series. Set in the Colorado mountains, this small-town romance series features some of your favorite storylines including runaway bride, second chance romance, enemies to lovers and more... Along with the romance, you'll find secrets and family drama, because I love to complicate a good love story and send my characters on a life-changing journey.

Each book can be read as a standalone novel. No cliffhangers.

Don't miss any of the books in the series:

  • Always With Me
  • My Wildest Dream 
  • Can't Fight The Moonlight
  • Just One Kiss
  • If We Never Met
  • Tangled Up In You
  • Next Time I Fall