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Illusions Unveiled (Ardor Creek #2)

Illusions Unveiled (Ardor Creek #2)

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Main Tropes

  • Second Chance
  • Single Mom
  • Reformed Hero
  • Steamy Small Town Romance


USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Hefner writing as Ayla Asher

Sometimes you squander all your second chances...

At the tender age of seven, Peter Stratford fell in love with the only woman who would ever claim his heart. But Carrie represented Ardor Creek, the town Peter detested. Determined to make something of himself in New York City, he leaves her behind, breaking both their hearts.

Carrie Longwood accepted that Peter would never love her enough to stay. Embracing her inner strength, she married another and had her precious boys before her messy divorce. Alone in Ardor Creek, she builds her life around her small family unit.

When Peter returns to Ardor Creek, battered and broken from addiction, he begins to heal, knowing Carrie will never forgive him. But Carrie kept her own secrets, and whether they're ready or not, all their illusions will be unveiled...

Intro Into Chapter 1

Peter Stratford observed the stunning woman throw her head back and laugh at something Scott Grillo said. His buddy was quite serious and not at all witty enough to elicit such a visceral reaction, and Peter felt himself scowl. When was the last time Carrie had laughed like that with him? Searching his memory, he realized it was most likely decades ago. Although he and Carrie had repaired their relationship immensely, past hurts and mistakes would always linger between them.
That was to be expected between two people as connected and entwined as Peter and Carrie Longwood—the only woman he’d ever loved and the one he’d hurt so vehemently.
Features softening, he recalled the first time he’d ever spoken to her. One look into those sparkling green eyes and he’d given his seven-year-old heart to her, never to reclaim it again.
“Are you hurt?” a soft voice asked.
Squinting into the sun, he saw the girl’s silhouette. “No.”
Kneeling, she lifted her hand, gently stroking his rapidly swelling neck. “Jonathan threw the ball really hard. It was mean.”
“I hate dodgeball,” Peter said, kicking the dirt with his sneaker. “I wish Ms. Jones wouldn’t make us play.”
“I hate it too.” Her button nose wrinkled, the skin pale under a smattering of freckles.
“You should probably go before Ms. Jones sees us. I always hide here but she eventually finds me. You’ll get in trouble.”
“I don’t mind,” she said, relaxing into a cross-legged position. “Daddy always says we have to look out for our neighbors. It’s what Jesus wants.”
“My dad says Jesus isn’t real,” Peter muttered. He’d never really talked to Carrie Longwood but knew she was the preacher’s daughter. In their small town of Ardor Creek, Pennsylvania, everyone knew Pastor Longwood.
“I think things are real in your heart sometimes, even if you can’t touch them.”
“Maybe.” Shrugging, he trailed a stick through the dirt. Glancing up, he asked, “Why did you follow me here?”
Her eyes were clear as she studied him. “You seemed sad.”
Lowering his gaze, Peter nodded. He’d been sad a lot lately. His dad always drank a lot of beer when he came home from work, and yelled at his mom almost every night. It frightened Peter, which led to him withdrawing at school. He didn’t have a lot of friends but that didn’t really bother him. For some reason, Carrie was being nice and he decided to return the sentiment.
“I was sad until you came over.”
Pink lips formed a sweet smile and Peter’s heart clanked in his chest. It was a profound moment he’d always remember, for it was the moment he began the slide into deep, abiding love for Carrie Longwood.
“Whatcha daydreaming about over here?” the object of his musings asked, a grin on her gorgeous face.
“Just lost in memories,” he said, sliding his arm across her shoulders. Holding her was as natural to him as breathing. “Did you like the ribs?”
“The new sauce was amazing. The first spring barbeque is definitely a success.”
“I like having everyone over and it’s been pretty warm for April. Glad you liked the brine.” Squeezing her, he released, mourning the loss of her lithe body against his.
“Mom, can we go Ashlyn’s and Scott’s and see the new chair they got for Sally Pickens?”
Brushing her son’s hair off his forehead, she nodded. “We can stop by on the way home but I don’t think it’s new. I think Scott just painted it a different color.”
“Yep,” Scott said, walking over with Carrie’s younger son slung over his shoulder. “The old paint was chipping so we figured we’d give Sally an upgrade.” Setting Charlie on the ground, he ruffled his hair. “You’re getting really good at soccer, buddy. Nice job.”
“I’m still better,” Sebastian said, his lips forming a pout.
“You’re both excellent,” Carrie said, her tone stern but caring. She was a wonderful mother and Peter was so happy she had the boys. Carrie had wanted kids as long as he could remember and it was one of the many reasons he’d pushed her away.
In his youth, his greatest desire had been to escape Ardor Creek, with its unexciting small-town pace, and make it in the big city. Having a wife and kids was never a part of that package. Knowing Carrie craved them, he’d been cruel in an effort to push her away, hoping she would find another man to give her kids. Unfortunately, her ex-husband was an asshole of epic proportions, causing Peter to wish he hadn’t made those terrible decisions. But the past had been written, no matter how fervently he longed to change it.
“You want to come?” Carrie asked, auburn eyebrows lifted.
“To see a chair? Uh, I think I’m good.”
Breathing a laugh, she shrugged. “Your loss. If Sally haunts you at night just remember you didn’t respect the awesomeness of her chair.”
“I’m terrified.” Giving a playful eye roll, he noticed her cheeks redden. Carrie always looked so pretty when she blushed, which was quite often, and it always sent a deep rush of desire through his veins. “But we’re on for karaoke on Wednesday, right?”
“Sure are. I’ll be heading back from Sebastian’s appointment in Scranton so I might be a few minutes late. Kara is watching Charlie so the babysitting detail is already set.”
“Is Sebastian still having the headaches and stomach cramps?”
“Yes,” she said, glancing at her son as concern laced her features. “Dr. Stevens is a specialist and a board-certified surgeon so I hope he can help diagnose what’s going on. It’s so scary, Peter. When he looks at me and asks why it hurts, my heart just breaks.”
“I know, honey,” he said, clenching her hand. “You’ll get it figured out. I can always watch Charlie too if you need me. You know you can ask me for help.”
“I know,” she said, squeezing back before disengaging. “Okay, let me get these rug rats on the road. Can’t wait for Wednesday.” She waggled her fingers before trailing off and rounding up the boys, loading them in her SUV before following Scott and Ashlyn’s car down the driveway.
“Let me help you clean up, buddy,” Chad Hanson said, patting his shoulder.
“It’s pretty much done but you can help me take the desserts inside. Thanks, man.” They were both Ardor Creek locals and had known each other since childhood. Chad was now the mayor and one of Peter’s good friends. After packing up the remnants of the barbeque, they settled onto Peter’s couch for one last beer as they watched the game. When Chad left, Peter took stock of the silence. His mother had passed away in January, leaving him with no remaining family and a cold, empty house. Sighing at the emptiness that encompassed his life, he prepped for bed and pulled out his journal, determined to focus on the positives.
During his last stint in rehab, Peter’s therapist suggested he begin journaling. Although he thought it somewhat ridiculous and a bit new-agey for his tastes, he was determined not to hit rock bottom again and was open to trying new things. The journal was now filled with goals, intentions, musings, and statements of gratitude. It was a reminder that even though he’d squandered so much, there were still remnants of goodness in his life.
Flipping through the journal, he noted how frequently Carrie’s name appeared. The entire notebook was basically a love letter to her, detailing how thankful he was for her friendship and forgiveness. In another life, he would ask her for one more chance. One more attempt to love her in all the ways she deserved and ensure he didn’t blow it.
But this was reality and he was stuck in this lifetime, where he’d made so many mistakes and devolved into a junkie and degenerate. Although he was sober now, there was always the chance he’d fall off the cliff again, and he often wondered if it was fair to saddle Carrie with that baggage. Would it even be possible for him to be a proper role model for the two boys she loved so dearly?
Peter had no idea and, therefore, he lived with his abiding love for her and hadn’t pursued another chance. And if she fell in love with someone else? Peter figured he could clutch the pieces of his shattered heart and be content she was with someone whole. Imagining her happy brought him a small sliver of peace, even though the thought of her being with anyone else devastated his darkened soul.

Peter is back in town, and Carrie finally needs his help...


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