Then The Stars Fall
Wesley Ryan’s fond memories of the small Ozark town of El Dorado Springs gives him the confidence to leave his city life and failed relationships for a new start. Seeking a safe place, Wesley moves into his grandparents' old home and takes over the local veterinary clinic.
Travis Bennett perseveres in raising his three children and managing his business, but the death of his wife four years earlier has left him a shell of the man he used to be. Every day, every minute, is an aching emptiness. Finding love again seems far out of reach, not that Travis would even considering looking.
When an early morning visit from Travis and his dog stirs feelings in Wesley, pushing them away is the safest course—the last thing Wesley needs is to fall for a man with baggage.
Life, however, has other plans.
Please note: This is a re-release of a previously published version with a new cover. No substantial changes were made to the text of this novel.
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A few of us read this book back when it was first published, and we've linked two of them for your perusal.
Wesley Ryan tugged on his sage green cashmere scarf, loosening the knot. It had been colder when he’d gotten dressed that morning, but the day had warmed up to the midfifties, and between the leather jacket and scarf, he was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic. He’d parked by the hardware store at the south end of downtown on Main Street; he wished he’d taken the time to shed some of his layers before walking through the park.
This was exactly what he remembered from when he was a kid and would spend the occasional weekend with his grandparents. He’d loved Mom and Pop Mitchell. It hadn’t hurt that he’d been their favorite grandchild. It wasn’t his fault, or theirs. His older brothers had loved their mom’s parents, but they both preferred staying with Grandma and Grandpa Ryan in Kansas City.
By the time Wesley had been in high school, he would come down at least one weekend a month to stay with Mom and Pop. Those weekends were memories he held on to with every fiber of his being, especially lately. However, those memories weren’t the ones that made him love El Dorado Springs.
His most loved memories were from much further back, when Mom and Pop would bring him to the park and watch as he played on the rickety play set and gigantic slide. The fiery orange of the oaks and brilliant yellows of the black walnut trees would blend together in a watercolor smear as he zoomed down the dipping slide.
Wesley’s disappointment over the playground’s updating had surprised him, as had his relief when he’d discovered the rejuvenation had only fixed the massive slide instead of replacing it. He hadn’t realized what comfort and happiness he’d associated with the spot until it was nearly gone. Now, with the trees turning their reds, oranges, and golds, he felt ten again. He could feel Mom and Pop watching over him, just out of sight, maybe unpacking the basket on the old picnic tables under the wooden shelter. He could almost hear Mom’s voice as she called him from his playing, announcing the chicken salad and grape sandwiches were ready.
The sensation offered only a momentary melancholy, which quickly gave way to peaceful relaxation. This had been the right decision. Maybe not forever. Actually he was quite certain it wasn’t forever. He was a city boy, just like his brothers. Just like his mother, who couldn’t believe her youngest son wanted to live in the childhood home she’d been so desperate to leave.
But for now? It was perfect. He had no bad memories here. He looked around at the small-town beauty, just able to see the top of the bandstand from where he stood at the apex of the hill. How could there be bad memories in such a place? He was smack dab in the middle of a Norman Rockwell painting. Able to see them or not, he was certain Mom and Pop really were watching over him.
Peace. He needed some peace. His brain hadn’t had a moment’s rest in years. Let alone his heart. As soon as his convertible Miata had passed the El Dorado Springs, population three thousand and something, city limit sign as he sped down Highway 54, a calm settled over him. He’d taken a deep breath. He hadn’t been able to remember the last time he’d breathed. Not really.
He whispered a barely audible, “Thank you,” as he turned from the playground and began walking down the steep sidewalk into the heart of the park. He wasn’t sure who he was thanking. Maybe Mom and Pop. Maybe God. Maybe the trees.
The feeling of gratitude intensified the lower he descended, stepping deeper into the picturesque park. Hope. Not just gratitude, but hope. A laugh escaped him at the realization. He’d given up on that particular emotion.
Pausing just for a moment, he looked at the panorama of the park and the stretch of the old buildings of Main Street behind the rock wall. In his mind’s eye, they appeared in the sepia tones of an ancient postcard he’d seen as a kid. It had been a photograph from the very perspective he currently occupied. The circular domed bandstand off to the right, the steps leading down to the spring near the center, an elaborate gated fishpond over to the left. Each structure covered in hand-sized round stones. Masses of trees dotted the sloping hills. Peering through their branches, he could see the lavish stores lining Main Street over the rock wall and people milling about in a blur. Almost out of frame on the left side of the postcard stood a slender brunette woman, her hand resting on the wrought iron bar as she peered into the fishpond. She wore a long white Victorian dress, dripping in lace, and a matching hat.
The image faded, returning Wesley to the present, where the trees shone in their mid-October hues and the buildings in the background looked worn and unloved.
Home. He was home. Even as the sensation hit him, he thought it odd. This had never been home. Not really. At least not in name.
Barely able to refrain from skipping, Wesley walked the rest of the way down the sidewalk, then paused by the curved steps leading down to the spring. He looked down and saw the two rusted pipes from which the orangish water still spouted before rushing down a small stream covered by a narrow grate and disappearing once more somewhere under the park. He started to descend and take a drink, like he had a hundred times before, but suddenly the pleasant feelings began drifting away and the melancholy that had threatened earlier began to set in.
Picking up his speed, he passed between the fishpond and bandstand and made his way up the sidewalk that led to the opposite side of the park and through the iron arch marking the entrance into downtown.
Three elderly men sat on the edge of the sunken rock wall, feet firmly planted on the sidewalk, oblivious to the dangers of falling backward to the park nine feet below. Wesley lifted a hand in greeting and smiled toward them. The men only stared, as if trying to figure out what sort of creature had just emerged from the park. One of them even turned to look back over his shoulder toward the bandstand. Wesley had heard some sort of cave was under the park. Maybe the old man thought Wesley had crawled up from its depths. He knew his designer clothes didn’t blend in with the town, but he didn’t think he deserved quite the reaction these men gave him. Finally, long past the time it would have been appropriate, the most wrinkled of the men lifted his chin in a minuscule greeting.
Wesley almost stepped closer to speak to them, then thought better of it. If they couldn’t even wave in his direction without such a reaction, trying to start up a conversation could have disastrous results. Better to simply let things be.
Though Wesley had been in town a couple of weeks and had visited the park before the leaves had started to turn, he hadn’t walked along the storefronts. He’d been nervous for some reason. Judging from the men’s reaction, maybe the concern hadn’t been misguided.
On his visits with his grandparents, they hadn’t spent much time downtown outside of the park and the annual Founder’s picnic each July. For three days Main Street was overtaken by food trucks, carnival rides, and B-list (more often than not, C-list) country music stars. Other than that, the downtown wasn’t much more than a worn-out backdrop.
The melancholy that had started to nip at him as he left the park sank its teeth in deeper with every store he passed. Most of them were closed up long ago, windows covered or broken. A couple of the lots were empty, the buildings burned down in a fire some time ago. Wesley couldn’t remember if they’d still been there when he was a kid or not. A relatively new gun shop took up half of the block, and considering the downtown was basically two blocks long, four if you counted the east and west sides of the street separately, that was a large percentage of ammunition. A sign bigger than himself stretched over the doorway—Mark’s Gun Emporium.
Wonderful. Just what every town needed.
Wesley hated guns.
Across from the gun shop—oh, emporium—on the east corner of Main Street and Spring were three stores in a row that appeared in good shape. Two of them Wesley remembered, though he’d never been in them, and both seemed to still be in business—Mei-Lien’s jewelry store and Rose Petal’s Place. Both of these seemed to have recently been updated, each with a fresh coat of paint. The jewelry store was done in tasteful, neutral tones, but Rose Petal’s Place nearly hurt his eyes. The combination of red, pink, purple, and silver paint came together in a truly terrifying effect. If those old men sat on the rock wall across from this eyesore every day, it was a wonder they were able to see at all, let alone pass judgment on his appearance.
The presence of those stores lifted Wesley’s spirit slightly. At least something was left of his childhood. He darted across the street, thinking he might go into the stores. He wasn’t sure what he’d say if he went into the jewelry store; it wasn’t as though you could just browse around for wedding rings. He’d played with Mei-Lien’s daughter a couple of times as a child, but that was over twenty years ago. No way Mei-Lien would remember him.
Though jewelry wasn’t an option, he might come back another day to get flowers, maybe for Cheryl for giving him a chance to run her veterinary office. Moving on to Rose Petal’s Place, he angled for the doorway but couldn’t make himself go in. He glanced through the window; the colors on the inside were even worse than the exterior, and he was fairly certain he saw an entire wall of fake flowers. He didn’t even try to suppress a shudder.
The third store had a different feel. Even the large front windows were welcoming. It looked clean, cheerful, and bright. He glanced up at the massive wooden sign above the door. The Crocheted Bunny was carved in scrolling script—the words painted in cornflower blue over a white background. Wesley wasn’t sure what he would do with crochet supplies, but he was going to buy something. This store was the one positive spot that wasn’t trying to ruin every childhood feeling he’d had.
His eyes grew wide as he stepped into the store. The place was almost an assault on the senses. He wasn’t sure where to look first.
A warm laugh floated out from behind the long wooden counter. “That expression never gets old. Although it’s rare to get new people in here, so I don’t get the pleasure of it often anymore.”
He wasn’t sure how he’d missed seeing the woman the minute he’d walked in. She was a spray of color in an already vibrant store, but she managed to stand out. Long rich auburn hair hung in a tangle of spirals nearly to her waist. Ropes of turquoise stones hung over her puffy teal blouse. Dangling silver earrings grazed the tops of her shoulders.
Wesley couldn’t help but smile at her. She radiated kindness. He liked her instantly. “I think I might have just stumbled into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Just without the chocolate.”
She laughed again, louder this time. She had one of those voices that infused the listener with a sense of calm. “You just look around, hunny. There’s chocolate in here. I promise.”
“Thanks. Your store is charming.”
“Isn’t it?” The woman nodded in agreement. “Would you like a chai tea or anything? I just got a little coffee station from a new vendor and have been using everyone who walks in as guinea pigs.”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you, though.”
Her face fell slightly, and Wesley rushed to correct his error. “Actually that sounds really good. I for sure haven’t had enough caffeine today.”
She shone again. “Wonderful. You go explore, and I’ll bring it to you as soon as I remember how to work the darn thing.”
The Crocheted Bunny was much more than just a yarn store. The mother of all gift shops, it had a little bit of everything. Wesley felt as though he were in a huge garden, each new portion another patch of produce. The sensation was intensified by the little paths darting back and forth, forcing the shopper to meander about—not to mention the massive amount of clean, homey decorative choices. The effect reminded him of a Cabbage Patch coloring book he’d had as a child. The store had sections of jewelry, greeting cards, T-shirts with quippy sayings, a case filled with unicorn, fairy, mermaid, and dragon statues, a wall of crosses and Christian icons, arts and crafts supplies for kids, a corner full of candies and party mix packets, and a display of incense and crystals. Even a bin of pet toys. Sparkly Halloween decorations, all cheerful and fun, nothing grotesque, were spread throughout the store.
All remnants of his gloom evaporated, leaving him feeling somewhat like a child again. When she’d told him to go exploring, she’d chosen the right verbiage. Everywhere he looked he found a new discovery. While it was a bizarre mishmash, it all worked somehow. Quite well.
Behind a massive display of handmade aprons, knitted scarves, and mittens, a large rectangle of the floor was sectioned off by a miniature white picket fence. Wesley knelt to inspect closer. It was a tiny farm, complete with a red barn next to the wall, some type of fake lawn covering the ground, a small crate of real alfalfa sprouts, a bin of actual grass, and a clay water bowl that had been fashioned to resemble a shallow pond.
Wesley gasped when a movement from the barn caught his eye. From out of the darkness of its interior, a tiny lop-eared white bunny with large ginger patches shuffled out.
“Hey, little guy.” Without thinking, Wesley stretched out his hand and laid it on the fake turf.
Whiskers danced as the bunny sniffed the air, then trotted over, passing between the pond and the crate of hay, and rubbed up against Wesley’s fingers.
“Ah! Nutmeg likes you! That’s a good sign. She’s got a perceptive discernment of character.”
Wesley glanced up from his crouched position, taking in the shopkeeper. From this angle, she was truly larger than life. Even as he stood, and she proved to be shorter than him, his perception of her didn’t alter. She was fuller figured, well over two hundred pounds, but wore her curves well. Now that she was out from behind her counter, he could see her teal blouse was accompanied by a floor-length white broomstick skirt. Pink and white cowboy boots peeked out from under the hem. On a lesser woman, the outfit would have looked garish, or possibly like the conglomeration of insanity. Somehow, she pulled it all together, looking rather bohemian chic.
Wesley returned to his senses when she extended a large paper cup in his direction. He took it, the warmth pleasant against the palms of his hands. “Thanks. That’s sweet of you.” He motioned toward the rabbit with his chin. “She might be the cutest bunny I’ve ever seen. Nutmeg, you said?”
“Darlin’, she is most definitely the cutest bunny you’ve seen.” She bent, the full skirt billowing around her, and scooped up the tiny animal. “She’s the shop’s mascot.”
“And, hands down, this is the best rabbit pen of all time.”
She nodded, her smile beaming even brighter. “My oldest nephew, Caleb, made most of it for me. I just did the painting. He’s a sweet boy.” She shifted the bunny to one hand, resting it on her left breast, and stuck out a ring-incrusted hand. “The name’s Wendy, by the way. Don’t think I properly introduced myself when you came in. Sorry ’bout that.”
“I’m Wesley. Nice to meet you.” The calluses of her hand surprised him. She had such a soft, feminine appearance. He couldn’t help but be intrigued by her.
“It’s good to meet you too, Wesley. What brings you to El Do? I haven’t seen you ’round before. You just passing through or you got family here?”
“My mom’s family is from here. We’re all in Kansas City now. But I just moved back into my grandparents’ old house. Dr. Fisher is having me take over the veterinary clinic.”
Wendy’s blue eyes grew wide. “Kansas City! Have you eaten at Houston’s, there on the Plaza? They have the best chicken strips and cheesy bread I’ve ever had.”
He chuckled. “I knew I liked you. That’s one of my mom’s favorite places. Anytime there’s something special in the family, she makes a reservation. I don’t think she’d order chicken strips, though. She’s more of a prime rib kinda gal.”
Wendy’s long curls shimmered as she shook her head. “Well, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. They are just the best….” She furrowed her brows and titled her head as she inspected him. “Did you say you’re taking over for Cheryl Fisher?”
“Yes. Well, it’s not final yet. More like a trial period, on both our parts. It will probably just be for a year or two. I love it here, but I’m not really a small-town kinda guy.”
“You’re not what I expected at all.”
Suddenly Wesley felt as though the old men on the rock wall were scrutinizing him once more. “Oh? You’ve heard of me?”
She laughed, the cheerful sound making him feel at home once more, almost. “If you’ve spent any time here at all, you know that El Dorado is abuzz with wondering who the new person in town is.” She shrugged. “You took care of my brother’s dog, Dunkyn, a few days ago. Don’t judge me by my brother. He can be kinda gruff sometimes, and he was a little stressed when he met you.”
“Oh! Wendy, that’s why your name sounded familiar. Wendy Bennett. I saw your name in the computer next to him. You must have brought Nutmeg to Dr. Fisher at some point.”
“Yep. She had an awful case of ear mites a while back. Poor baby.” She dipped her head and nuzzled the rabbit before looking back to Wesley. “Dunkyn’s swelling has gone down quite a bit. It looks like the medicine you gave him helped.”
“Good. I’m glad. I hope it does the trick. I’m pretty convinced Dunkyn will need surgery, but I could be wrong. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Wendy’s eyes clouded, and her smile dropped away for the first time since he’d come into the store. “I sure hope not. I don’t know if Travis could take that.” She raised her free hand in a surrender gesture. “Not that you’re not a good vet or Dunkyn wouldn’t be fine or anything.”
“No need to explain. Like I said, I’m hopeful Dunkyn will be all right. He’s such a sweet old boy. It can be scary to have your pet be sick or realize they’re getting older. They’re such an important part of our lives.”
“Yes. They are. Especially for my brother. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man love a dog so much. Or need one so much.” Her voice trailed off, her thoughts drifting somewhere out of Wesley’s reach.
Wesley hadn’t been able to get Travis and Dunkyn out of his mind since they’d come in the past Sunday. He’d almost called to check up on the dog. He did that with all of the animals he saw. He’d had the number half dialed before deciding against it. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen people upset about their pet being sick. It wouldn’t have even been the first time he’d seen some muscle-bound tough guy melt into a sobbing heap of tears, not that Mr. Bennett had shed a single tear. But there was something different to the pain he saw in Travis, about the anger that was barely contained. Wesley had been sort of worried the man was going to lash out and punch him if he’d said the wrong thing. He was willing to bet the dog would need surgery, and typically would have pushed for quicker action. Healing the animal was only part of the solution when dealing with pets, though. Travis Bennett seemed to be in as much pain as his dog. Maybe more.
Wendy bent and placed Nutmeg back in her miniature barnyard.
Wesley took a long sip of chai, and the warm spice of the drink pushed away some of the stress that shot up every time he thought of Travis Bennett. At least, he chose to believe stress was the feeling that thoughts of Travis brought up in him.
“Is the chai all right? The mix came with instructions, but I like to add a little bit more than it calls for.”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Bennett. It’s delicious. Just hitting the spot.”
She shook a finger in his face. “None of that business. I can’t be much older than you. What are you, thirty-seven?”
“Well, see, I’m only three years older. You cut that Ms. stuff real quick.”
“You! You are cheeky.” She gave him a flirtatious wink. “I like you.”
Oh hell. He hadn’t been thinking. It’d been a while since a woman had mistaken his easy-going manner for attraction. The first friendly face he’d seen all day, and he’d already messed it up.
“Travis mentioned you had a cute little car. A yellow something ’r ’nother. At least he thought it was yours.”
Wesley highly doubted the burly cowboy had referred to it as a cute anything. “Yep. That’s me. It’s a Miata.”
“Believe it or not, I’ve never ridden in a convertible before. Wanna take me for a spin? I did give you a free chai….”
How did he get himself into these situations? “Listen, Wendy, I didn’t mean to—”
She cut him off. “I’d actually heard about your car before Travis saw it. People are in and out of here all day, and a car like that doesn’t drive around El Dorado often. People have mentioned you have a sweet little dog sticker on the back. Makes sense since you’re a vet and all.”
Was she alluding to what he thought she was?
She smiled at him like he was a child. “Wesley, just because I’m a small-town girl doesn’t mean I haven’t been to the big city, hunny. When I get a hankering for chicken from Houston’s, sometimes I take myself dancing afterward at Missie B’s. I got divorced five years ago, praise Jesus, and don’t have any desire to ever marry again. And while I don’t announce it all over town, I sure do enjoy spending a night dancing in the city with all the pretty boys.”
It took several moments for Wesley to realize his jaw was hanging open as he stared at Wendy. Missie B’s was a gay club less than fifteen minutes from the Plaza. Dancing, karaoke, drag shows—about as far away from El Dorado Springs as you could get. For the vast amount of time he’d spent there, he hated that he’d missed the nights Wendy Bennett waltzed in with her cowboy boots and turquoise jewelry.
She patted his hand, making him spill a bit of chai in the process. “I can close up for half an hour or so. How about that ride?”
Wesley hadn’t planned on hiding any aspect of who he was, but he wasn’t naive enough to believe it would be a nonissue. His insides warmed up in a way that had nothing to do with the chai. He beamed at her. “You bet! Probably wouldn’t bring Nutmeg, though. That breeze wouldn’t be good for her ears.”
“Glad you mentioned that. Let me go get something to tie up my hair. I have a lot more important things to do than unrat this mess for hours this evening.”
About the author:
Brandon Witt's outlook on life is greatly impacted by his first eighteen years of growing up gay in a small town in the Ozarks, as well as fifteen years as a counselor and special education teacher for students with severe emotional disabilities. Add to that his obsession with corgis and mermaids, then factor in an unhealthy love affair with cheeseburgers, and you realize that with all those issues, he's got plenty to write about....
Find out more on his website.
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