Shannon Stacey

What It Takes

The Kowalski Family, A Reunion Novel
Carina Press
February 28, 2017
ISBN-13: 9780373004553
ISBN-10: 0373004559

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Revisit all of your Kowalski favorites while falling in love with a brand-new romance in this reunion novel from New York Times bestselling author Shannon Stacey.

Laney Caswell is looking for a change. A decade’s worth of less-than-happy matrimony behind her, she wants peace—movies, books and, best of all, a new job at the Northern Star Lodge in Whitford, Maine. Spending the summer living in a camper is her chance to rediscover what makes her happy, and a perfect transition to her new life.

Being a paramedic in Whitford is nothing like Ben Rivers’s city life, but when Josh Kowalski offers him the job, the lure of his hometown is too much to resist. Also too much to resist: Laney Caswell. Ben always thought he’d have a wife and kids, a happy family like the Kowalskis have all built, but he never made time in his life. Now he’s found a woman who draws him like no other and helps him dream again—and the last thing she wants is a husband.

When the annual Kowalski family camping trip is moved to the Northern Star, both Ben and Laney are surrounded by the kind of happiness they’ve always wanted but never had. It just might be theirs—if they can put aside the past and reach for it together.

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Chapter One

Nothing good ever came of a half-assed plan.

Ben Rivers stood with his arms folded across his chest, staring down at the mangled four-wheeler lying on its side about twenty feet down a pucker brush-covered hill. Though a half-assed plan was still better than no plan, he had to admit.

“The handlebars are going left and the wheels are going right,” he pointed out.

Matt Barnett—who was with the Maine state warden service—and Josh Kowalski both shrugged, but it was Josh who spoke. “Yeah, you’ll have to figure out how to compensate for that.”

“Me? Who decided I was going down there?”

“I’m running the winch,” Josh said, pointing to his ATV with its spool of heavy-duty winch cable bolted on the front.

“And I’m in charge of the investigation,” Matt said, “so I can’t risk breaking my paperwork hand.”

Ben snorted. “And I’m the paramedic, so I should probably stay up here and be ready to patch up whichever of you idiots draws the short straw.”

“Hey, I’ve had first aid training,” Matt protested.

They laughed because they all knew Matt was a guy you’d definitely want around in a crisis, but his first aid training didn’t exactly match up to Ben’s years of being a paramedic in the city. That was why Drew Miller—Whitford’s police chief—and Josh, both of whom Ben had known his entire life, had called and offered him a job back in his hometown. Now that their part of the state had become a vacation destination for ATV and side-by-side enthusiasts, they needed somebody who could ride a four-wheeler, knew the area like only a native son would, and could offer advanced medical care while victims were slowly carted out of the woods to a waiting ambulance or helicopter. Ben had fit the bill and his phone had rung at a time he was staring down the barrel of burnout and looking to make a change.

“If Matt wasn’t here we could just push it off the tree it’s hung up on and let it roll the rest of the way down the hill into the pond,” Josh said.

“We’d never get the equipment we’d need for extraction down there,” Ben said.

“That’s between the owner and his insurance company.”

“We’re not pushing it into the pond,” Matt said firmly. “Do you want the lecture on water contamination, wildlife impact and EPA fines or can we just go with because I said so?”

Josh groaned. “Hell no, I don’t want a lecture. And you know I was kidding, but since you won’t let us do it the easy way, we’ll watch you do it the hard way.”

Matt looked at Ben. “Rock, paper, scissors?”

“I saved the rider. You save the machine.”

The game warden snorted. “Saved the rider? You cleaned the scrape on his elbow and gave him a Band-Aid.”

“Hey, infected wounds are no joke.” He managed to say wound with a straight face, but it wasn’t easy.

The rider had bailed when the machine started to roll, throwing himself free. He’d skinned his elbow when he hit the ground and he’d be finding new bruises for a couple of days, but he’d been lucky and Ben’s services hadn’t really been needed. Unfortunately, the information that the rider wasn’t still on the ATV when it rolled over and went off the trail and down a hill wasn’t relayed to the dispatcher right away and hadn’t been relayed to Ben at all. So he hadn’t saved anybody, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying to pawn the physical labor off on one of the other guys.

In the end, both Matt and Ben ended up over the edge while Josh ran the winch. After they secured the steel cable to the frame of the ATV, they had to guide the ATV as Josh reeled the cable back in. It was slow work, and they had to constantly move to make sure they were never in a position to be swept down the hill on the odd chance the winch cable snapped.

By the time they had the four-wheeler back on the trail, Ben was sweaty and cursing himself for not leaving as soon as he’d slapped a Band-Aid on the machine’s rider. Instead, he’d hung around after Andy went back after a truck and trailer, the so-called victim riding behind him since Andy had a two-up, chatting. Then the chatting became a discussion of how to retrieve the ATV and here he was.

“Now comes the hard part,” Josh said, and Ben’s groan was almost drowned out by Matt’s. “We have to get it two miles to the closest spot Andy can get the truck and trailer to.”

“We’re not driving it, that’s for sure.” Matt was circling the ATV, taking pictures. He’d taken some while it was hung up on the hill, too, as well as a few of the marks on the trail leading up to the spot it rolled over.

It looked to Ben like the rider had simply caught a rut wrong and it was a straight-up accident, but that was Matt’s job.

“I don’t see why we don’t leave it and let the guy who owns it worry about it,” Ben said. “You’d have to be one tricky son of a bitch to steal it in the condition it’s in.”

Josh shook his head. “Because guess who’s going to get asked to bring him back out here and then get the machine back to the road? I’m here now. And you guys are here. I’d rather do this with you than a guy who managed to roll his machine on a dirt road.”

“There are ruts,” Matt pointed out.

“How are you planning to get it to the road?” Ben asked Josh, hoping they could move the process along so there was at least the hope of having lunch in the near future.

“It’s only a 500, so my machine can take the weight. We’re going to put the front wheels up on my back rack and strap the shit out of it. Then, nice and slow so I’m not doing accidental wheelies, I’m going to pull it out to the road.”

Ben laughed, shaking his head. “Sean and I did that once. He made me ride all the way back on the front rack of his machine to balance the weight of mine on the back.”

“I remember when you guys pulled in the yard. Worked, didn’t it?”

Ben looked at Josh. “We were young and stupid.”

“And now we’re older and wiser, so nobody’s riding on the front rack. It is going to take all three of us to get that front end up high enough, though.”

Matt snorted. “Aren’t you glad you took this job, Ben?”

He laughed, but he was glad he’d taken the job offer. Sure, he was sweaty and his arms were going to be sore and he could only hope there hadn’t been poison ivy or oak on that hill, but he had no regrets.

Coming back to Whitford had been the right decision and he had a feeling things were really going to start looking up.

* * * * *

Laney Caswell had been looking to make big changes in her life, and almost being able to touch both walls of her new home at the same time certainly qualified as a big change.

The camper was small, but it had a bed, a tiny bathroom with a tinier shower, and outlets for her coffeemaker and charging her phone. What more did a woman starting over in her midthirties need?

Today was the first full day of her new life at the Northern Star Lodge & Campground, she thought, feeling pretty damn proud of herself. The divorce had taken forever, but the papers had been signed and it was finally final. Throw in the camper’s hot water heater being just big enough to rinse all the soap and shampoo away, and things were looking up already.

A knock on the camper door startled her, and she would have laughed out loud at herself except she knew campers weren’t exactly soundproof and she was trying to make a good impression on her new employers. After setting her coffee mug on the small square of Formica that made up her kitchen counter, she opened the door to find one of those bosses smiling up at her.

“Good morning, Laney.”

“Good morning.” Laney guessed Rose Miller—who she’d been told to call Rosie, like everybody else did—was in her very late sixties, though she wouldn’t ask, of course.

“Now that you’ve spent your first night in the camper, I thought I’d stop by and see if everything went okay, or if there were any problems.”

It was awkward standing above the woman, so Laney stepped down onto the metal step and then the ground. After separating the two door panels, she closed the screen door and then folded the exterior door all the way back. There was a small hook bolted to the side of the camper that would hold it open. The camper had been closed up for a while and every little bit of fresh air would help.

“I didn’t have any problems,” she said. “Everything seems to work fine, the bed is comfortable and my coffeemaker went off at the time I set it to. Thank you for the welcome basket, by the way. The muffins were amazing, and the banana bread was the best I’ve ever had.”

“You’re welcome.” Rosie smiled. “And you can’t ask for much more than a comfortable bed and fresh coffee in the morning. Andy’s off doing some chores and I thought maybe you’d like to take a walk with me and see a little more of the place.”

“Of course.” This was going to be her home until fall, and she was looking forward to exploring it.

“Your flamingo is adorable, by the way,” Rosie said.

Laney looked at the silly yard ornament she’d set into the ground next to her step and smiled. The wooden flamingo was bright pink and it had a funny, painted cartoon face. It also had thin plastic wings that would whirl if the winds were strong enough. It was something neither her family nor the Ballards—including her ex-husband—would have allowed on their lawns, and Laney loved it.

“Thank you. He’s definitely a cheerful guy.”

They walked around the campground area of the property. There were two cabins, and a dozen sites with sewer and electric hookups, not counting hers. Her site was closer to the line of trees between the camping area and the lodge, and had a view of the new pool.

When they walked past the field behind the campsites where the campers could park their ATV trailers, Rosie waved to her husband, who was mowing with a zero turn mower. He blew her a kiss and Laney swore she heard Rosie giggle.

During her very informal interview, which had been a conference call with Rosie and Josh Kowalski, Rosie had made a joke about being a newlywed and then explained to Laney that she and Andy had only been married for a couple of years.

Just thinking about it made Laney smile. If Rose could find true love and happiness at her age, that meant there was still plenty of time for Laney. She could take her time making her life into what she wanted it to be and then maybe, in the distant future, she’d be lucky enough to find a man who would want to share it with her.

First she had to figure out what exactly she wanted her life to be, of course. And that’s why she was here, in the middle of nowhere Maine, with nothing but her clothes, a few prized possessions, and a tablet loaded up with movies her ex-husband hadn’t wanted to watch and books she’d never gotten around to reading. She was going to live simply, consume things she enjoyed and find her true self.

She felt as if she was starring in one of those movies, invariably based on bestselling books, in which women went on epic treks of self-discovery to distant and exotic lands, except in Laney’s case, she’d trekked to Maine to live in a box on wheels for a few months.

The Northern Star Lodge & Campground was her distant and exotic land. Or distant-ish, since she’d started her journey in Rhode Island. But the difference between the decade she’d spent being Mrs. Patrick Ballard in a big house in Warwick and now couldn’t be measured in miles.

“Let’s go out front and I’ll tell you where we keep some of the things you might need, like extra propane tanks.”

Laney had already figured out that out front meant the lodge itself and the lawn and outbuildings surrounding it, and out back meant the camping area and field. As soon as they walked through the gap in the trees, though, she saw two guys—one of them being Josh—standing next to a trailer bearing an ATV that looked a little worse for wear.

“Who’s that with Josh?” she asked, knowing she’d be meeting a whole lot of new people in the days to come.

“That’s Ben Rivers,” Rosie answered. “He grew up in Whitford, but he moved away to the city years ago. Now he’s back, which makes his mama happy, let me tell you. Ben’s a good boy.”

Laney bit back a laugh at the idea of the man standing across the yard being described as a good boy. He looked about her age or maybe a little older, with dark hair and a scruffy jaw. He wasn’t as tall as Josh but Laney could tell he was at least a couple inches taller than her, so he was probably five-ten or five-eleven. Very faded jeans and a navy T-shirt hugged his body, and he was wearing battered work boots.

But it wasn’t his appearance that caused Laney to be amused by the word boy. Whoever Ben was, he carried himself with the kind air of confidence and authority that came from life experience and feeling secure in his place in the world.

Must be nice.

And then he turned his head to look at her, one eyebrow arched as if silently asking why she was staring at him. She felt her cheeks warm before his gaze shifted to Rosie beside her. He smiled, and his face lit up in a way that made Laney’s pulse quicken.

How ridiculous to feel as if she could burst into flames just seeing a man smile, and not even at her, she thought. It had been a very long time since she’d had that kind of reaction to a man and, while she was glad everything felt as if it was in good working order, she wasn’t here for that.

She was here to work so, as Rosie spoke to her, she tore her gaze away from the handsome good boy and tried to pay attention.

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