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Wishes At First Light

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«Wishes At First Light» - Джоанна Рок

Starting over, one wish at a time…Gabriella Chance has devoted her life to helping others overcome traumatic events. Now it’s her turn. Gabby's come home to Heartache, Tennessee, to finally face her past. She finds solace in an unlikely ally, her high school crush, Clayton Travers. But while Clay wants to be Gabby’s refuge, he’s returned to Heartache to face his own demons. With so many painful secrets in their past, can they hope to wish for a happy future…together?
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Starting over, one wish at a time...

Gabriella Chance has devoted her life to helping others overcome traumatic events. Now it’s her turn. Gabby’s come home to Heartache, Tennessee, to finally face her past. She finds solace in an unlikely ally, her high school crush, Clayton Travers. But while Clay wants to be Gabby’s refuge, he’s returned to Heartache to confront his own demons. With so many painful secrets in their past, can they hope to wish for a happy future...together?

“Is there anything I can do for you to make this easier?”

Gabby locked on his gaze, taking comfort in knowing he was there for her. With her. Holding his hand made the years they’d been apart disappear. Made all the unsettling nightmares that she was about to face in that courtroom fade in significance.

It was just her and Clay. The guy who’d always had a way of making her feel special.

The words leaped out before she had a chance to measure them, a true wish from her heart: “Just keep holding my hand...”


Welcome back! I’ve been eager to share the next story in the Heartache, TN series with you. It seems that once I started pulling at a thread in this town—uncovering the awful things a local villain had done over the years—I discovered a lot of people hurting because of it.

Gabriella Chance thinks she has a good handle on her past, and her efforts with a website for victims of cyberbullying have been healing for a lot of people. But when she returns to her hometown for the trial of the man who hurt her, she runs into someone else who has another sort of claim to her past: a man she never forgot.

Clayton Travers would have never returned to Heartache if not for the news of his half sister, but as soon as Mia is settled with a new foster family, he’ll gladly put small-town Tennessee in his rearview mirror. Gabriella Chance is an unexpected reason to stick around, but a sizzling attraction might not be enough to overcome their different views about what’s best for his troubled teen sibling.

Happy reading,

Joanne Rock

Wishes at First Light

Joanne Rock


Four-time RITA® Award nominee JOANNE ROCK has penned over seventy stories for Harlequin. An optimist by nature and perpetual seeker of silver linings, Joanne finds romance fits her life outlook perfectly—love is worth fighting for. A former Golden Heart® Award recipient, she has won numerous awards for her stories. Learn more about Joanne’s imaginative Muse by visiting her website, www.joannerock.com, or following @joannerock6 on Twitter.

For Bernice and Ernie Rock, the most wonderful in-laws I could have ever imagined.

Thank you for treating me like family from the very first time I sat down at your dinner table as Dean’s girlfriend. Little did I know back then how much I would come to look forward to those meals and evenings spent at your house for many years to come.

When I count the reasons I’ve been blessed in life, you are always on my list.



Back Cover Text


Dear Reader

html#ub21d87cf-bbc2-5a55-b77c-b2b393f48fd0" id="back_ub21d87cf-bbc2-5a55-b77c-b2b393f48fd0">Title Page

About the Author

























THERE SHOULD BE a limit on the number of times the same dream could haunt her.

Even knowing she was dreaming didn’t rob the memories of their power as they flickered to life behind Gabriella Chance’s closed eyes again. Each image burning. Hurting. Opening old wounds that had never healed.

The day unfolding in her mind was so familiar by now, every moment etched in her memory. How many times had she dropped into that buttery leather office chair in front of her father’s big desktop computer in the house where she’d grown up? How many more times would she secretly open a chat window to talk to the boy she had a crush on, the thrill of doing something forbidden giving her almost as much pleasure as imagining Clayton Travers on the other end of the chat window?

Been thinking about me?

In the dream, she typed the words one key at a time, mindful of her older brother’s best friend nearby. Samuel Reyes seemed far older than his seventeen years. He was Mr. Responsible, and determined not to let her have any fun, somehow deciding to be her watchdog anytime her older brother wasn’t around. So Gabby typed quietly and quickly when Sam wasn’t looking, desperate for company from a boy who would gaze at her with heat in his brown eyes.


The messaging program lit up with a new icon as a response popped up.

You’re all I think about.

The butterflies in her stomach went crazy. Wings fluttered at hyper-speed, her nerve endings jumping to life at the thought of Clayton sitting in his foster family’s den, thinking about her. Usually he wasn’t on the computer at the same time as she was, so there would be a delay in their chats. But tonight it was like he was sitting there just waiting for her to type something.

The butterfly flutter in her belly took on a dark, foreboding chill. But Gabriella knew that sensation was just a product of the dream over time. When that first message had popped up on a bright blue chat window a decade ago, she’d simply been thrilled that Clayton was thinking about her. She hadn’t had a clue what was about to happen.

Or that she hadn’t been talking to a sixteen-year-old boy at all.

Legs tangling restlessly in her covers, she fought the onslaught of nightmare memories. The conversation had taken a heated turn that had been confusing but exciting at the time.

Afterward she’d understood how thoroughly twisted it all had been.

Are you wearing a dress?

How short?

The chill in her belly spread, encompassing her hips and freezing out her sensuality. That chill had happened later, too—the past and the present getting all mixed up in the dream world. At the time, she’d been warm and excited about the things Clayton—she’d thought it had been Clayton—had said to her. Things that should have been merely a hint of the forbidden coming from someone in her high school. Not anything dangerous. She’d been excited to see him, her teenage exuberance tinged with her immature sexual feelings.

It had all been delicious—a welcome distraction after the hell she’d gone through with her family earlier that year. Her father had been carted off to jail. Her mother had defected emotionally from the family, caring more about Gabby’s dad than her two teenage offspring, leaving Gabriella feeling like the world’s biggest outcast.

Those chats with Clayton had distracted her with happier thoughts, and that night’s talk had been the best yet.

He wanted to meet her.

But that natural sensual awakening had been terrified out of her by a brute who threw her down in the woods later that night. A big, hairy grown man who knew where she’d planned to meet Clayton. Not an innocent teenage flirtation at all. The man had been masked. He’d ripped the short dress. Called her names that still haunted her even more often than the dream.

Slut. Whore.

Screaming at the injustice of the words, the attack, the loss of emotional innocence if not her virginity, Gabriella punched her attacker in the face. Again and again. That part only happened in her dreams, since in the real-life episode, Samuel Reyes had come to her rescue and been the one to pound her attacker into submission long enough for them to escape.

Now she took her defense into her own hands, pummeling the masked face while she cried.

Only then did she finally awaken, crouched on her knees on the sagging mattress in a motel cottage off Interstate 65 in Tennessee. The pillow she’d been thrashing was now wedged between the headboard and the box spring while her knuckles throbbed where she’d scraped them against the wood. Face wet with tears and chest heaving from fear and exertion, she levered herself out of the bed and padded across the hotel carpet in sock feet.

Gabriella turned the squeaking metal knob for the faucet to splash cold water on her face and wash away the last vestiges of the dream. Toweling off with the threadbare white cotton cloth draped over a thin silver rack, she stared at her face under the harsh flicker of greenish fluorescent lights. Her skin was pale beneath the red irritation around both eyes. The best of her family’s genes had gone to her older brother, Zach, leaving Gabriella with hair that could only be described as dishwater blond, and plain features that benefitted from makeup or candlelight. Preferably both.

But that was okay. Because Gabriella Chance’s beauty didn’t come from the sum of her outer parts. And it sure as hell didn’t have anything to do with the length of her skirt. Her jaw flexed, the muscle working as she ground her teeth at the old memory.

No. Any appeal she held radiated from her strength of character, evident in her burning, raw knuckles and her clear blue eyes that saw the world for what it was.

A dangerous place, yes. But a place she had survived. She forged on, slogging through the endless loop of her nightmares to fight another day. More important, she survived to help other victims of cyber stalking to move on with their lives. If that was as much as she accomplished in her life, it was something to be proud of.

Yet, as she sidestepped her suitcase on the floor on the way back to her bed, Gabriella couldn’t deny a small part of her heart longed for more than that. No matter how many times that dream reminded her of her past, she couldn’t stop longing for a normal life. A normal love. A man who would recognize her real beauty and strength, and help her find it on the days when she forgot where she’d hidden it.

But now that a whole decade had passed without giving her any peace, Gabriella knew that wasn’t going to happen. She’d returned to the city of the assault—her hometown of Heartache, Tennessee—to witness her assailant finally go to jail. While she was here, she planned to check on a local bullying victim she’d helped through her support group online—sixteen-year-old Mia Benson. But once she’d taken care of the at-risk girl and she had the satisfaction of seeing her own attacker’s face while he was sentenced to life in prison for a whole string of crimes since he’d hurt her, then Gabriella would close this chapter of her life forever.

Flipping over the lumpy, squashed pillow in the motel outside Heartache, she knew that she was almost done with the past. The nightmares had been slowing down in the last two years. It was only because she’d heard that actual Clayton Travers was back in town that she’d traveled the dream path again tonight. She’d never told him what happened that night, and a short time later she’d fled town with Samuel Reyes and her older brother, Zach. She’d built a different life after that.

But sometimes she wondered what Clayton had heard about her or what he thought had happened. No one else knew that Gabriella believed she’d been chatting with Clayton online before her attack. There’d been other times that year when they’d exchanged messages for real, and she hadn’t wanted Clayton to get in trouble for the content of those notes if the police looked back at them.

Clayton had been in the foster system, and those messages might have put him at risk of being booted out of the Hasting house where he was happy. So Gabriella had said nothing, a silence that had always weighed on her.

And now, completely by accident, she’d learned Clayton Travers was back in Heartache.

As she closed her eyes to try and fall back asleep, Clayton’s return was the one thought that filled her mind. She couldn’t help but wonder if she talked to him, told him about what had happened that night, would it finally stop the dream once and for all?

Damn it.

It wasn’t what she wanted. But given that her attacker was finally going on trial two days from now, his conviction certain since the police finally had damning evidence, and yet the night terrors remained as potent as ever, Gabriella needed to think about other ways to address the fears of her subconscious. This was no way to live—caught in an endless loop of bad memories. And if speaking to Clayton might give her the peace to keep moving forward, she’d damn well try.

* * *

AS A TEEN, Clayton Travers would have given his left nut for the chance to set foot inside Gabriella Chance’s home.

Ironic that now he’d been sleeping there for a week.

After spending the last nine years in Memphis, Clayton had come back home to the small town of Heartache for a reunion of his foster family planned by his foster brother, Samuel Reyes, who was now the town’s sheriff. Since Clayton had a private investigations business, he had done Sam a favor by staying in the Chance household, which was now occupied by Zach, Gabriella’s older brother and also the mayor of Heartache. Zach had needed some extra eyes on his fiancée, Heather Finley, after the woman was the target of an attempted kidnapping. Clayton didn’t mind collecting a paycheck while he was in town, so he’d gladly taken the easy gig for a week. But now, with the threat confirmed to be behind bars, Clayton would find somewhere else to stay until the Hasting family reunion later that week. He packed his duffel at dawn to leave the Chance house, his eyes lingering on an old photo of Gabriella on the sleek, mission-style dresser in the bedroom where he’d slept these last six nights.

She stood in front of a big pink castle in a California theme park, her arm around a huge stuffed panda that must have been a game prize. She wore a long dress too big for her, making her look sort of lost inside it. Wisps of blond hair from her ponytail blew in a summer breeze as she smiled, but there was something off about the photo. It wasn’t a real smile—not like the ones he remembered from the few times they’d ended up staying after school together. She’d been a math genius, helping kids as a student tutor, and she’d been cool about it, too, even though Clayton had been taking algebra when everyone else in his grade had moved on to calculus or trig. It wasn’t that he was totally clueless, he just switched homes and schools too fast to patch together the right credits. He’d fallen behind trying to learn math from teachers who’d taught it with really different methods. Gabriella never made him feel like the flunky foster kid.

Far from it.

Too bad she hadn’t lived in Tennessee for the past decade, walking out of this very house one long-ago summer and never looking back, leaving Clayton to finish his senior year by himself. Sam, the foster brother he’d roomed with at the Hastings’ house, had left town the same time as Gabriella and her older brother. The only way Daniel and Lorelei Hasting, Clayton and Sam’s foster parents, had avoided a full-scale child protective services investigation was that Sam turned eighteen shortly afterward, making him an independent adult.

“Dude, don’t tell me you’re packing up?” Zach Chance appeared in the bedroom doorway, a cup of coffee in one hand and a phone in the other.

Besides being mayor, Zach ran his own digital security firm and was probably worth a small fortune, but Clayton wouldn’t have guessed it if he hadn’t seen the downstairs office full of high-tech equipment and dozens of computer screens. Zach had opened his home to him like they were old friends, making it all the more awkward now that the guy had caught Clayton gawking at a photo of Zach’s sister.

“I am.” He tossed a pair of socks into the duffel and zipped it. “Freeloading isn’t one of my services, even though it’s tempting when the hospitality is this good.”

Leaning a shoulder on the doorjamb of the spacious suite, Zach shook his head, keeping his voice low.

“And that hospitality is all because of Heather. It’s been great having her live under the same roof as me.” He sipped from the steaming cup before continuing. “I hope she doesn’t get the idea she should move out, too, once she sees you’ve left.”

Zach had convinced Heather to stay with him while there were threats circulating around town against people who might testify against Jeremy Covington, the guy who’d tried to kidnap Heather.

“I think she digs you, Mayor,” Clayton assured him, shouldering the duffel while the scent of coffee filled the room. “You’ll think of something to keep her here.”

“I hope so. With the Covington trial starting tomorrow, we’ll be staying in Franklin for at least the first week to be closer to court.” He sipped his coffee. “This house is going to be empty anyway and Sam said there have been some break-ins around town lately. Now that the Covington trial is set, he’s going to start looking into them more closely.”

“I heard about the break-ins,” Clay said, ready to move on despite the offer. “But you’ve got the most kick-ass security system in town, I hear.”

Zach chuckled. “I’d better, right? It’ll put me out of business if my house gets robbed with a company name like Fortress. Even if my business is more digital security than anything.” He straightened a rumpled throw rug in the hallway with his toe. “But what about you? Are you going to stay at your foster mother’s house?”

“No. There’s a lot of activity over there and I don’t want to be underfoot.” He remembered what it had been like at Lorelei Hasting’s foster home. Fun and noisy with kids coming and going, the house had been a refuge for people like him for almost fifteen years. He didn’t want to crowd the place this week with one more body. “I’m thinking I’ll grab a nice little motel on the outskirts of town so I can play my guitar where no one will hear me.”

“That good?” Zach grinned.

“I only play for the love of it.” And to keep his stress level down. Strumming a tune—even if it wasn’t pitch-perfect—helped dial back his agitation faster than any of the meds they’d tried putting him on as a kid. With his biological dad in and out of the hospital and asking to see him, Clayton was going to need all the self-help he could wrangle this week to face the old deadbeat who’d shit all over Clayton’s life. “I think there are some places out on the interstate that should fill the bill.”

“For sure. If you don’t want to do the Heartache B & B, the motels on the highway are your only options. That is, if you’re really sure I can’t convince you to stay?”

“I’ve heard your fiancée play a guitar.” Clayton grabbed his own instrument, which he’d never even taken out of the soft-sided case since arriving in town. “No way am I going to start banging out tunes in front of the local music teacher.”

Zach backed out of the doorway, leaving Clayton a clear path.

“She’s a talent. There’s no denying that.” Zach followed him into the kitchen toward the back door where Clayton’s bike was parked.

Clayton waved off offers of coffee and breakfast, ready to move on. The domestic bliss of the Chance household with new lovebirds Heather and Zach might have been charming if Clayton hadn’t been so decidedly single and in a dark place right now. He looked forward to the Hasting fosters’ reunion, but he dreaded seeing his biological father as much as pulling out a sliver embedded under a fingernail. He wouldn’t do it if not for the fact that his dad had another daughter—Clayton’s half sister—still living with him. Clay hated that he hadn’t known about this sibling, Mia Benson, until two weeks ago when his father called with a request that Clay pay him a visit. Clay had about blown a gasket—with his dad for failing to mention yet another kid he hadn’t taken care of. But also with himself for not keeping better track of the old man’s offspring. Then again, like most of Pete Yancy’s kids, the girl didn’t bear his name and hadn’t spent much time in his household.

Still, if Clay had known about the girl before his dad’s bid to win custody, he would have lobbied against the move. His father was just trying to soak up an extra assistance check for housing a kid, and the girl would be better off out from under the Yancy influence. Clayton credited any success he’d had in life to his foster family and their encouragement in settling him down.

Hunting for his missing half siblings had been the start of his PI career. To this day, reuniting families was his specialty. But he’d failed Mia Benson when he’d stopped looking for his own brothers and sisters, assuming his father was done sowing his seed. Apparently failing eight times over at parenthood—with five different women—hadn’t been enough for the old man.

After shaking hands with his host, Clayton walked out of the huge Craftsman-style house and fired up his motorcycle in the damp November fog. With his duffel strapped to the seat and his guitar on his back, he wasn’t the most aerodynamic of riders, but his old Harley wasn’t that kind of ride anyhow. Roaring out of the driveway and heading toward the interstate, he planned to play his six-string for as many hours as it took to unkink the knot in his gut.

He didn’t want to see his father. But he damn well wanted to know his half sister, if only to see with his own eyes that she was okay. The firstborn of Clayton’s parents had died of crib death while the two so-called adults drank themselves into a stupor. Their next kid was Clayton, and it had taken him half his childhood to get into the foster system, a golden ticket out that he’d only learned about after his drunken, jobless, abusive parents had birthed kid number three, a boy Clayton loved with all his heart. When Eddy was four years old, child protective services took him away after a neighbor called to complain about seeing him unattended on the playground.

Of course, Eddy hadn’t been unattended for any moment of the day when Clayton was around. But the neighbor probably hadn’t considered a seven-year-old brother to be adequate supervision. Why CPS claimed Eddy at that time and not Clayton remained the biggest injustice of Clayton’s life. It had separated them for the next twelve years until Clayton figured out how to find people. By the time he’d gotten himself taken out of his home—not that difficult to do, but still, there was a process—he’d bounced to a different foster home every year, finally winding up at the Hasting house, where he’d graduated school and aged out of the system.

His life had ended up better than Eddy’s. And on that sobering note, he ground his teeth together.

Now, with the wind plastering his jacket to his chest, he tried not to think about his brother’s fate, his long-dead older sister and the smattering of other kids his parents had brought into the world—some as a couple, others with equally crappy partners as parents. It bothered Clayton to think he’d missed Mia, but she’d lived with her mother until a two-year stint in foster care, during which she’d lobbied her birth father to spring her from the system. Somehow Pete had gotten clean and sober enough to fool the social worker into giving him one last chance to be a dad.

Mia was sixteen now, he’d heard, and had been living with their father for the last eight months, helping to care for the old man as he grew weak from cirrhosis and heart disease.

Clayton planned to make sure she knew she had a way out of her father’s house. That alone was worth going to see Pete Yancy—aka the negligent jackass—one last time. Clayton would have gone as soon as he’d arrived in Heartache, but he’d been tapped for bodyguard duty by his friend. He would put in an appearance at his dad’s place after school that day and cross his fingers she’d show up, too, so he could fulfill his obligations in Heartache and head back to Memphis once the reunion was done.

Steering his vintage low rider along the road that ran parallel to the interstate, Clayton slowed down as the Owl’s Roost came into view, a diner he remembered from when he’d lived in town. Nostalgia and hunger lured him off the road and into a parking spot to grab some breakfast since it was early to book a motel room anyhow.

The figure of a woman walking across the Roost’s front porch flagged his attention as he locked up the bike and his bag. Keeping the guitar strapped to his back, he turned to watch the slender form half covered by a big, black hoodie that hid her profile. He wasn’t sure what it was that caught his attention. The quick, sharp walk. Long, elegant legs that a pair of loose pants couldn’t fully conceal in the late-autumn wind.

Something about her made him pay attention.

So it happened that he was staring right at her when she stopped and turned to look out into the parking lot, her pale blue eyes landing on him.

The delicate features hadn’t changed. A wisp of dark blond hair fluttered across her cheek in the breeze.

“Clay.” She said his name softly.

Or he imagined she did. Her mouth moved with some comment before she raised her hand to cover her lips. As if she could retrieve whatever she had murmured.

“Gabriella Chance.” His feet were already heading toward her, his gaze not able to let her go. “I wondered if I’d ever see you again.”


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