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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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Her Secret Valentine

Chapter One

“How long is this situation between you and Ashley going to go on?” Mac Hart asked.

Cal tensed. He’d thought he had been invited over to his brother Mac’s house to watch playoff football with the rest of the men in the family. Now, suddenly it was looking more like an intervention. He leaned forward to help himself to some of the nachos on the coffee table in front of the sofa. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Then let us spell it out for you,” Cal’s brother-in-law, Thad Lantz, said with his usual coach-like efficiency.

Joe continued, “She missed Janey’s wedding to Thad in August, as well as Fletcher’s marriage to Lily in October, and Dylan and Hannah’s wedding in November.”

Cal bristled. They all knew Ashley was busy completing her Ob/Gyn fellowship in Honolulu. “she wanted to be here, but since the flight from Honolulu to Raleigh is at minimum twelve hours, it’s too far to go for a weekend trip. Not that she has many full weekends off in any case.” Nor did he. Hence, their habit of rendezvousing in San Francisco, since it was a six-or seven-hour flight for each of them.

More skeptical looks. “She didn’t make it back to Carolina for Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s this year, either,” Dylan observed.

Cal shrugged and centered his attention on the TV, where a lot of pre-game nonsense was currently going on. “she had to work all three holidays.” He wished the game would hurry up and start. The sooner it did, the sooner this conversation would be over.

“Had to or volunteered to?” Fletcher muttered with a questioning lift of his dark brow.

Uneasiness settled around Cal. He’d had many of the same questions himself. Still, Ashley was his wife, and he felt honor-bound to defend her. “I saw her in November in San Francisco. We celebrated all our holidays then.” In one passion-filled weekend that had oddly enough left him feeling lonelier and more uncertain of their union than ever.

Concerned looks were exchanged all the way around. Cal knew the guys in the family all felt sorry for him, which just made the situation worse.

Dylan dipped a tortilla chip into the chili-cheese sauce. “So when is Ashley coming home?” he asked curiously.

That was just it. Cal didn’t know. Ashley didn’t want to talk about it. “Soon,” he fibbed.

Thad paused, his expression thoughtful. “I thought her fellowship was up in December.”

Cal sipped his beer, the mellow golden brew settling like acid in his gut. “She took her oral exam then and turned in her thesis.”

Fletcher helped himself to a buffalo wing. “Her written exam was last July, wasn’t it?”

Cal nodded. “But her last day at the hospital isn’t until January 15,” he cautioned. In a couple of days from now.

“And then she’s coming back home, right?”

That had been the plan when Ashley had left two and a half years ago to complete her medication education in Hawaii. Now he wasn’t so sure that was the case. But not wanting to tell his brothers any of that, he simply said, “She’s looking for a job now.”

“Here, in North Carolina.”

Cal certainly hoped so, since he was committed to his job at the Holly Springs Medical Center for another eighteen months, minimum.

“If she were my wife,” Mac began.

“Funny,” Cal interrupted, the last of his legendary patience waning swiftly. “You don’t have a wife.”

“If it were me,” Mac continued, ignoring Cal’s glare as he added a piping hot pizza to the spread, “I’d get on a plane to Honolulu, put her over my shoulder and carry her home if necessary.” His take-charge attitude served him well as the sheriff of Holly Springs, but his romantic track record hardly made him an expert on dishing out relationship advice.

“That John Wayne stuff doesn’t work with Ashley.” Never had. Never would.

“Well, you better do something,” Joe warned.

All eyes turned to him. Cal waited expectantly, knowing from the silence that fell there was more. Finally, Joe cleared his throat. “The women in the family are all upset. You’ve been married nearly three years now, and most of that time you and Ashley have been living apart.”

“So?” Cal prodded.

“So, they’re tired of seeing you so unhappy.” Dylan took over where Cal left off. “They’re giving you and Ashley till Valentine’s Day—“

Cal and Ashley’s wedding anniversary.

“—to make things right.”

“And if that doesn’t happen?” Cal demanded.

Fletcher scowled. “Then the women of the family are stepping in…..”

The Brides of Holly Springs Book Series by Cathy Gillen Thacker

Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.