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Ryan's Return

Ryan's Return

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"RYAN'S RETURN is a superlative novel that proves everyone can indeed go home again." Debbie Macomber

Famous photojournalist Ryan Hunter has come back to a family torn apart by mistrust and resentment—to the father who disowned him, to the brother who betrayed him, to the little boy who shares his features. Ryan, the charismatic "bad boy" son, has returned—stirring up past conflicts like a whirlwind, and throwing Kara Delaney's fragile, passionate heart into turmoil.

Kara has struggled back from a disastrous marriage to build a new life for herself and her little girl­—a peaceful existence now jeopardized by vicious, small town politics, by her daughter's fanciful ghost stories, and by Ryan's return. Now nature's impending fury threatens to expose long-buried secrets. Kara must join with the enigmatic, misunderstood Ryan to discover the truth that will save their families...and to explore a dangerous, irresistible love as mighty and enduring as the onrushing river.


"Barbara Freethy delivers strong and compelling prose in RYAN'S RETURN." Publishers Weekly

"Rising contemporary star Barbara Freethy hammers home deep and complex emotions in RYAN'S RETURN, a wonderful and powerful book." Romantic Times Magazine

"I couldn't put this book down. The characters where brought to life as the pages turned. A truly moving story. Ryan is courageous, smart, hot!!" Krystal - Goodreads Review on Ryan's Return

"This book kind of has a Nora Robertsish feel to it for me, I really enjoyed it. It has romance, family drama, small town politics, and even a little paranormal aspect thrown in. If you're looking for a sweet, tug-at-your-heartstrings, easy read this is it!" Shannon - Goodreads Review


His bed was on the sidewalk!

Ryan Hunter slammed the door of the cab, tossed a twenty-dollar bill at the driver, and ran across the busy Los Angeles intersection, dodging cars and honking horns. As he reached the sidewalk, two men emerged from his three-story apartment building with a bookcase.

"What the hell is going on here?" Ryan dropped his overnight bag on the ground, taking more care with his saxophone case and camera bag.

The moving men set the bookcase down on the sidewalk. The younger man, who wore white coveralls with the name Craig embroidered on the pocket, grinned. "Oh, hi, Mr. Hunter. Your lady's moving out. Third one in a row, isn't that right?"

"Yeah? Who's counting?" Ryan grumbled.

The older man, Walt, reached into his pocket and pulled out a bill. "I do believe you're our best account, Mr. Hunter. Shall we put this on your tab?"

Walt and Craig laughed in unison as they picked up the bookcase and set it in the truck.

Ryan surveyed the furniture strewn around the sidewalk and the steps leading up to his apartment building with a weary sigh. He had spent the past thirty-six hours on three different planes, traveling through three different time zones. All he wanted to do was sleep—in his own bed. Only his own bed was now in a moving van.

The men loaded the easy chair next, the one perfect for stretching out with a beer. Behind the chair was the big-screen television.

"Not the TV." Ryan groaned. He gave it a loving pat as the men walked by him.

Craig laughed. "You don't have much left up there, Mr. Hunter, just that old sofa with the springs sticking out, a couple of crates, and a fan. Maybe instead of getting a new woman, you should buy yourself some furniture."

"Thanks for the tip, Mack."

"The name is Craig, and you're welcome."

Ryan stalked up the steps. He met Melanie on the landing just inside the front door. She wore her usual aerobics gear, a pair of hot pink Lycra shorts, a midriff tank top, and tennis shoes. Her blond hair bounced around her head in a ponytail. She was the perfect southern California woman, tan and fit—great body, great in bed, and great furniture. Sometimes life sucked.

Melanie stopped abruptly, her bright pink lips curving downward in dismay.

"Oh, dear," she said. "I thought I'd be gone before you got home."

"Where are you going?" he demanded.

"I'm moving out, Ryan."

"That's obvious. Without saying good-bye, without offering a word of explanation?"

"Ryan, honey, you've been gone seven weeks."

"I was working."

"You're always working."

"Did you see my photographs from Israel?"

"Yes, they were on the cover of Time. Very impressive. Excuse me, but I have to go."

"Melanie, wait."

She shook her head. "Ryan, we've been living together for three months, and you've only spent ten nights in that apartment with me."

"It has to be more than that," Ryan said, truly surprised by the number.

"It's not. I should know. I had plenty of time to count." Melanie sighed wistfully. "You're a great guy when you're around, but you don't love me."

"I don't?"

"Seven weeks, Ryan." She poked her fingertip into his chest. "No phone calls, no letter, not even a postcard."

Melanie was right. She was a nice woman and fun to be with, but he didn't love her. He didn't love anyone. It was not an emotion that he wanted in his life. Love was too complicated, too messy.

Ryan touched Melanie's cheek, feeling genuinely sad at her departure. "I'm sorry. I hope I didn't hurt you."

"I'll live," she said with a regretful smile. "I just wish I knew what you were running from or running toward." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the lips. "Whatever it is, I hope someday you find it."

Ryan watched her walk down the steps. The movers closed up the van, and within minutes a big part of his life disappeared—again.

He retrieved his bags and saxophone case from the sidewalk and walked slowly up the stairs to his apartment.

The door stood halfway open. He walked inside and stared at the emptiness. His old sofa bed stood against one wall next to the lamp with the tilted, yellowed shade. The wooden crate with his antiquated record collection featuring jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, as well as an eclectic mix of rock and roll artists like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and the Grateful Dead, spilled out onto the beige carpet.

A card table had been opened up in one corner of the living room. On top of the table lay his mail, piles and piles of it. Ryan walked over to the table and spread the envelopes out so he could see what he had—electric bills, telephone bills, and sales offers. Dismissing most of the mail as junk, Ryan's gaze came to rest on an ivory-colored oversize envelope with his name engraved on the top. The return address caught his attention. For twelve years he had hoped for a letter with that postmark. To get one now was unsettling.

His hand shook as he reached for the card. He told himself not to be a fool, to throw it away. But he couldn't. Sliding open the seal with his finger, he pulled out the card.

Serenity Springs invites you to attend its Centennial Celebration, February 20-23, a three-day festival of parties, games, and arts and crafts to celebrate 100 years of history. In tune with this theme, a special dinner will be held Thursday evening in honor of Serenity Springs' own Ryan Hunter, award-winning photojournalist.

What the hell!

Ryan picked up the accompanying letter. Ms. Kara Delaney, president of the Serenity Springs Chamber of Commerce, wanted him to be the guest of honor at their kickoff dinner. Because of his world-renowned photographs and reputation as a photojournalist, Serenity Springs considered him their hometown hero and hoped he would be able to participate in the festivities. Jesus! His father must be pissed. Either that or dead. Ryan couldn't imagine Jonas Hunter allowing the town, Jonas's town, to honor his youngest son. And his brother, Andrew, was probably beside himself with jealous rage.

Ryan shook his head as he read the letter again. There was no way he would go back to Serenity Springs, a small river town a hundred miles north of San Francisco. As a successful freelance photographer, he could choose his assignments. He didn't have to go anywhere he didn't want to go.

Ryan tossed the invitation in the trash basket and pushed the button on the answering machine. Message after message came across. Two magazines wanted to send him on assignment, one to New York, the other to Hong Kong. His dry cleaning had been ready for three weeks, and he had just been named a finalist in the Holiday Travel Sweepstakes. Yeah, right.

The last message was from Camilla Harper, a woman he had met on the plane from New York to L.A. She wanted to see him while she was in town.

He didn't feel like calling her back. He was tired of the dating game, tired of women moving in and out of his life. Tired of long airplane flights, no furniture, and fast food. Most of all Ryan was tired of feeling so damned tired.

He had a good life. He was thirty-three years old and had plenty of money, plenty of jobs, and plenty of hair. He smiled to himself as he ran a hand through his thick, dark brown hair. A few strands of gray maybe, but at least he wouldn't be going back to Serenity Springs as a balding, paunchy, overweight nothing. Not that he was going back.

Walking into the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator. Melanie had cleaned him out there, too. The only things left were a jar of pickle relish, a carton of milk, and a bottle of Gatorade.

Ryan closed the refrigerator door and returned to the living room. He sat down on the couch, wincing as one of the springs pinched his leg. He wanted to relax, soak up the silence. Only there wasn't silence. The couple next door had "Wheel of Fortune" blaring on the television set. The tenant upstairs was doing step aerobics, pounding the ceiling over his head with a relentless rhythm that matched the pounding in his head. And somewhere in the City of Angels a siren blared through the night.

He had been an ambulance chaser all his adult life, fleeing to every newsworthy event with his trusty Nikon, ready to record someone's bleakest or happiest moment. He had seen the bulls run through the streets of Pamplona, caught the last lap of the Indy 500, and watched the winning horse cross the finish line at the Kentucky Derby. But he had always been a spectator rather than a participant, traveling the world, trying to find his place in it.

In fact, he had no place, just an apartment that was little more than a stopover, sometimes furnished by the woman in his life—sometimes not. Melanie thought he was running away. Maybe she was right. He had always felt the need to keep moving—just like his mother.

Ryan's gaze returned to the garbage can. How could he go home? His father had told him to leave and never return. The last words Ryan had heard from his brother were "Good riddance."

So many angry words. So many bad memories. Yet the only family he had was in Serenity Springs. Ryan rolled his head around on his neck, feeling tense.

He was no longer a small-town guy. He liked the city with its traffic, malls, and twelve-theater cineplexes. He liked walking down a street full of strangers.

So what if he was a little lonely now and then? It was by choice, his choice.

With a sigh he reached over and took his saxophone out of the case. He blew into the instrument with passion, frustration, and restlessness. He didn't need written music or even a song, because he played by ear, by touch, by emotion, knowing instinctively the right notes to play. The music filled the empty spots in his soul, giving him an outlet for emotions that could not be expressed with words.

When he left Serenity Springs twelve years ago, he had taken nothing more than a couple of pairs of jeans, his camera, and the saxophone handed down from his grandfather, to his mother, to him. At the time, he hadn't needed anything more. Now—now he wasn't so sure.

Ryan set the instrument down on the floor and looked around the empty apartment. Maybe it was time to go back if only to reassure himself that he had made the right decision to leave. Just a couple of days, he thought. In and out like the breeze. No big deal.

Ryan got up and took the invitation out of the trash. His gaze dropped to the signature line, Kara Delaney. He wondered who she was and how she had the guts to call him back to a place where so many people hated him.

Ryan reached for the phone, suddenly curious to know the answer.

* * *

Kara Delaney struggled to hit the right keys on the piano, stretching her fingers as she had been taught, searching desperately for the rhythm that escaped her. The last two keys went down together, a screeching sound that echoed through her living room, finally ending in total silence. Kara stared down at the keys, afraid to turn her head, certain she did not want to see the face of her instructor, Hans Grubner.

Hans was in his early seventies, retired from a celebrated career as a concert pianist. Originally hailing from Germany, he had married a beautiful young American and spent forty years traveling through Europe. When a car accident crushed the fingers of his left hand, Hans and his wife, Gillian, retired to Serenity Springs, the town where Gillian had been born and raised. For the past ten years Hans had taught piano to almost every child in town, still hoping to one day find a protégée who could play the music that he longed to hear.

Unfortunately that protégée did not appear to be her. Slowly Kara turned to face her instructor.

Hans looked grim, his small black eyes haunting his long, pale face. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He waved his arms. Finally the words came out.

"You are killing me, Mrs. Delaney. You are torturing the piano. Your fingers are like clumsy elephants. The birds in the forest cover their ears when you play."

"I thought I was a little better," Kara said with a hopeful smile.

Hans threw up his hands in frustration. "Three-year- old children play better than you. Please, you must give this up. You are simply—how do you say it—no good."

Kara's shoulders stiffened at his turn of phrase. It was too familiar. "I'll practice more."

"All the practice in the world will not help. You can't do it."

"I can do it. I will do it. I want to play the piano for my guests in the evenings. My aunt Josephine always played the piano here. The Gatehouse is known for its nightly entertainment."

"Perhaps your aunt could play for you."

"The arthritis in her hands is too painful now."

"Then I suggest you buy a CD player."

Kara frowned as she looked down at her hands. Her fingers were long and slender. She should be able to master a simple instrument like a piano. "I'm not giving up," she said. "I've given up too many times in my life. No more."

Hans sighed as he reached for his hat. "I can no longer teach you. It pains me to hear you play."

"I'll pay you double."

"It is not the money."

"Please," Kara said. She looked into his eyes, willing him to understand. "I want to do this. I need to do this."

"Why? There are other instruments besides the piano. Perhaps the flute would sing for you."

"No. I want to play the piano." Kara ran her fingers lightly along the keys. "My fondest memories are of my aunt playing this piano every night before bedtime. My mother and father cuddled in the love seat. I sat on the floor at their feet. Everything good in my life happened right here, with this piano. I want to feel that joy again. I want to bring it back for my daughter, for my guests."

Hans's face tightened with his own remembered pain. "Some things cannot be recaptured, not for any amount of wishing."

"I can't give up now. I'm so close."

Hans gave her a pitiful look. "It is difficult to say no to someone with so much passion, misplaced though it may be. I will give you another month. Now I must go."

Kara walked Hans to the front door. "Say hello to Mrs. Grubner for me," Kara said. "I can't wait to hear her sing at the centennial. You two must have been really something. Your music, her voice."

"A perfect duet for forty-eight years now."

"Forty-eight years? What's your secret?"

"Apple strudel," he said.

"Excuse me?"

"Gillian hates to cook, but I love apple strudel."

"I don't understand."

"Some day you will." He tipped his hat. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Delaney."

"Good afternoon." Kara leaned against the door as Hans walked down the front steps of the old Victorian, along the cobblestone path that bordered the green lawn and the carefully tended vegetable and herb garden. She had spent the past six months refurbishing the Gatehouse and revitalizing the gardens, investing every cent of the small inheritance she had received from her mother. She was now ready to turn the Gatehouse into a profitable inn that combined the warmth of home and the seclusion of a romantic getaway along with the amenities of a five-star hotel.

She just hoped she could pull it off. As Kara closed the front door, she admitted to herself that romance and realism rarely went together, except perhaps in the Grubners' case. Forty-eight years of marriage. She couldn't even imagine such a thing.

Her own marriage had lasted ten years, a lifetime by some standards, but not by her own. She had wanted to live the happily-ever-after life. Unfortunately her husband, Michael, had not cooperated. They had separated a year ago, and six months after that separation Kara had returned to the place of her birth, determined to make a home for herself and her daughter, Angel, in the small town, away from the pressures of the city, away from the lying smiles of her ex-husband.

Kara walked down the hall, taking pride in the shine of the hardwood floors, the scent of freshly picked flowers, the proud gleam of the grandfather clock that chimed out the hours with relentless predictability. Looking around, she knew she could count on this house, on the things she had surrounded herself with. She could be happy here.

Kara passed by the living room, the formal dining room where she served breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening, the alcove where she set up cocktails at dusk, and the carefully carved staircase that wound up to the second and third floors, a pattern of diamonds and hearts decorating the railing.

At the back of the house was a large country kitchen with an adjoining breakfast room on one side and a sun porch on the other. The kitchen, with its oak cabinets, large center island, and decorative brass pots, was where she spent most of her time, filling the house with the scents of ginger and cinnamon.

Kara had just entered the kitchen when she heard the front door open then slam shut, characteristic of her eleven-year-old daughter. But it wasn't Angel who called out to her.

"Kara?" A man's voice rang through the house.

"I'm in the kitch--”

Andrew Hunter threw open the kitchen door before she finished speaking. A tall man in his mid-thirties, Andrew was attractive in a clean-cut way with short brown hair, matching brown eyes, a smoothly shaved face, and neatly pressed clothes.

Andrew was a nine-to-five kind of man, one who would never take an extra minute for lunch, never call long distance on a company phone, and never kiss a woman unless he asked first. Kara found that trait comforting, as safe and warm as the house and the town she had come to cherish.

But Andrew also seemed to be a man who thought too much and said too little. Kara suspected that one day the words would burst out of him and his emotions would spill forth like the river after a nasty rain. She just hadn't anticipated being the target.

"I can't believe it," Andrew said. "I can't believe you asked my brother to come to the centennial. Are you out of your mind?"

Andrew ran a hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes reflected anger and uncertainty. He looked like a man who had just found out a murderer was being released in his hometown.

Kara took a step back from him and placed her hands on the cool brown-and-white tiles of her kitchen counter. She had expected Andrew to be upset, but she hadn't expected to see such a look of betrayal in his eyes.

"Andrew, calm down," she said. "This isn't personal. It's business. I think Ryan can help us."

Andrew looked at her in amazement. "My God, Kara, you don't know what you've done." Andrew sat down at the oak table in the breakfast room. He rested his head on his hands, no longer angry but defeated.

The other members of the centennial committee had warned Kara that Ryan Hunter could be a problem, but the advantages of inviting him to participate had seemed to outweigh the disadvantages. At least until now.

She knew Andrew and Ryan had been mixed up with some woman years ago. Rumors of the old love triangle still made their way around town in between the daily gossip about Loretta and her fatherless baby, Aunt Josephine's true hair color, and who had spiked the punch at the high school dance.

But Ryan had left town twelve years ago. There had been a lot of water under Tucker's Bridge since then.

After a moment Kara joined Andrew at the table. "Think about it," she said, putting a hand over his. "Ryan is a celebrity. He's just the draw we need to sell tickets for the centennial dinner."

Andrew lifted his head and looked her straight in the eye. "Ryan is a troublemaker. You should have told me, Kara. I thought we were friends—more than friends."

Andrew's gaze challenged her to reply, to admit the feelings they had yet to discuss. But that was the problem. They didn't talk about their feelings, about what mattered to them. Maybe that's why she was holding back on an intimate relationship. She wanted to be with a man who would tell her everything.

Kara reminded herself that Andrew was a good man. As a single father he knew the challenges she faced in raising a daughter on her own. Plus, Andrew was content to live in a small town, to work on the newspaper with his father. He might not be the most passionate man, but she knew she could count on him.

"We are more than friends," Kara said slowly. "I didn't tell you about Ryan, because I knew what you would say."

"If you knew what I'd say, why did you do it?"

Because her desire to restore Serenity Springs to its former glory had superseded Andrew's feelings. Saving Serenity Springs had become synonymous with saving herself. If she could make the centennial a success, if she could revive the town, then she'd be that much closer to having the home she had always wanted.

Kara lifted her chin, knowing that even though she disliked confrontation, she could no longer avoid this particular showdown. "I'm president of the chamber of commerce, Andrew. It's my job to create interest in Serenity Springs. Harrison Winslow, the developer I told you about, is interested in building an expensive resort in the north woods. If we can show him a nearby town with the charm of the old country and the sophistication of a big city, he'll be completely won over. Think about what that would mean for all of us—our town featured in premier travel magazines, touted as a popular destination for world-weary travelers."

"I'm sure it would mean business for the Gatehouse."

"That's right, it would. And if I don't get more business, I can't stay here, Andrew. Don't you see what's at stake? It's not just me and my home that's in jeopardy. Your newspaper needs news to stay afloat."

"What does any of this have to do with Ryan?"

"Ryan is news, Andrew. Some of the people in town have been threatening to boycott the centennial, afraid that we're trying to turn Serenity Springs into New York City. But I think if Ryan comes to the party, they'll be more interested in seeing him than in causing trouble."

"They won't have to cause trouble; Ryan will."

"There's another reason, too." Kara paused, hating to rub Ryan's success in Andrew's face, but she didn't seem to have any other choice. "Ryan is a terrific photographer. His work is seen all over the world. If he takes photos of the centennial and sends them off to a national magazine, everyone will see how special this part of the country is. The bottom line is that this celebration, and hopefully Ryan's attendance, will mean more business for everyone, for Aunt Josephine's antiques shop, for Ike's barbershop, for Loretta's bar."

"Progress could ruin this town."

"It could also help it. I don't want our kids to grow up and leave. I want them to grow up here and stay, because there are opportunities."

"Opportunities to destroy what makes this town special—its smallness."

Sometimes Andrew could be so damned stubborn. "I don't think this is about progress; it's about your brother. I know there are bad feelings between you and Ryan, but surely after all this time..."

"You don't know anything about me and my brother."

"Then tell me."


Kara sat back in her seat, taken aback by his blunt answer. "How can you expect me to understand if you won't talk to me?"

"I guess I can't. It's not just me though. A lot of people in this town don't like Ryan. He was always breaking things, always screwing up, always causing trouble."

"Maybe Ryan has changed."

"I doubt it. Who else knew about this?"

"The centennial committee, Loretta, Aunt Josephine, Hannah Davies, Mayor Hewitt, Will Hodgkins, and myself."

"Loretta's probably still pining after him. Your aunt Josephine would do anything you say, and Mayor Hewitt's new in town." Andrew shook his head. "Old Hannah loves Ryan's photos, practically has a shrine set up at the library, so she wouldn't say no. But I don't understand why Will didn't put a stop to this. He's my friend."

"Will only had one vote."

Silence fell between them. "Ryan won't come," Andrew said finally. "He didn't come back when my son was born. Not even when my wife sent him a note. I told Becky Lee not to bother. But she just—just couldn't forget him."

"You can't forget him either, can you?"

"I was doing just fine until you sent that invitation. Some things are better left dead and buried."

"But Ryan isn't dead."

"He is to me."

The phone rang. Kara stood up, suddenly tense. "That's probably Angel." Andrew didn't move. The phone rang again. She picked up the receiver. "The Gatehouse. May I help you?"

"Is Kara Delaney there?"

The man asking the question had a deep, melodious voice that went down as smoothly as a cup of French roast coffee. Kara swallowed hard. She knew who it was. Deep down in her gut, she knew. "This is Kara Delaney."

"Ryan Hunter."

"Mr. Hunter. Hello." Kara turned away from Andrew.

"I just got your letter. I accept your invitation."

"You do? I mean, that's great." Kara twisted the phone cord between her fingers. Never had she imagined that he would actually attend. Now she didn't know if she should be relieved or worried.

The kitchen door slammed so hard a picture fell off the wall. She turned her head. Andrew had left. Problem number one. They were off and running. She turned her attention back to the phone.

"So you'll come?" she repeated.

"Don't make me say it twice. When do you want me?"

Kara cleared her throat. "The banquet is Thursday night, February twentieth. If you can get here the day before, we can go over the schedule."


"Do you need accommodations? Or will you be staying with—friends?" Silence greeted her question. "Mr. Hunter?"

"I'll need a room."

"You can stay here. At the Gatehouse."

"Crazy Josephine's place?"

"Mrs. Parker—actually it's Mrs. Kelly now—is my aunt."

"Your aunt? Kara Cox?" Ryan let out a long, curious whistle. "I haven't thought of you in years."

Kara stiffened. "Why should you? You couldn't possibly remember me. I was only seven years old when I last lived here. And you were at least..."

"Nine. But I do remember you. We have something in common, don't we, Kara?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Are you telling me you don't know?"

"Know what, Mr. Hunter?"

Ryan didn't answer for a long moment. "It's not important. Mrs. Delaney, is my father still alive?"

"What a strange question. Of course he's alive."

"Then hell must have frozen over."