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Authors: Barbara Freethy

Tags: #Contemporary Romance

Ryan's Return

BOOK: Ryan's Return


Copyright 2011 by Barbara Freethy
All Rights Reserved


No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



For information contact:
[email protected]
Chapter One



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, sales letters, and a couple of checks from his latest photo assignments.

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. MCI wanted him to switch from AT&T, 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.

Ryan rewound the tape. 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 protegee who could play the music that he longed to hear.

Unfortunately that protegee 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."

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