JUST FINE WITH CAROLINE
Twenty five year old Caroline O’Connor is doing just fine, thank you very much. Four years ago and two semesters shy of her college degree, a little thing called life upended her carefully laid plans to leave small town shenanigans behind, and she found herself right back in the place she vowed to escape: Cold River, Missouri.
Cushioned amongst the Ozark Mountains, Cold River thrives on its folklore, town gossip, and the occasional jar(s) of moonshine. And it’s here that Caroline has carved out a simple, if uneventful life, helping to care for her ailing mother with Alzheimer’s and running the family business, a bait shop on the outskirts of town. Uneventful that is, until Navy veteran Noah Cranwell returns to Cold River, intent on restoring the infamous Cranwell legacy by rebuilding the family’s run-down general store—across the road from the bait shop.
Noah Cranwell has a chip on his shoulder only his grandfather Jep can understand. It wasn’t easy overcoming a troubled childhood and tumultuous teen years, but a stint in the Navy help straighten him out. Now seeking solace from his nomadic career, Noah returns to his boyhood home, the one place he ever felt at peace. Focused on repairing the general store, and his heart, Noah finds himself turning to Caroline—and her mostly deaf, three legged dog Yara—for support. Which for Noah and Caroline, starts to blossom into something more, making Caroline realize there could be much more to life than being ‘just fine.’ Yet Cold River isn’t without its closeted skeletons. And as secrets are discovered, will Caroline ultimately be able to forgive past sins and fight for a better future?
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Caroline O’Conner loved to fish. Her favorite tree sat on the bank of the Cold River, just perfect for leaning against with a fishing pole in her hand. She relished casting a line as the fog lifted sluggishly off of the water.
The best time to fish was during the early summer—when it was already hot, but too early for the summer rush of river rats. She would come in and open up The Wormhole, her family’s bait and tackle shop, and then sneak off for an hour or two to visit the river and her favorite tree. In fact, that tree was her favorite spot, not just on the river, but in all of Cold River, the river’s namesake and the town where she lived.
Cold River, Missouri, a town of about 8,000 people, was nestled in the heart of an area of the United States known as the Ozarks. At any given time you might hear residents of this southwestern part of Missouri refer to themselves as southerners or Midwesterners, but neither one was entirely true. The Ozarks, a place of rolling hills and flowing rivers, is a place where a person could disappear for days, months, years, or forever. The rugged terrain is rivaled only by the rugged people living there, a people happy to be tucked away from the rest of the world.
Everybody fished in Cold River.
Caroline’s father taught her to fish when she was six. He hadn’t wanted to. It had been an argument for days between her father and mother, something that she remembered even at that tender age. Caroline had known since she was old enough to ask about the “boy in the pictures” that she had a brother in heaven, at least, that’s what her mother told her, and her daddy didn’t fish anymore. But he wanted to, she could tell. He sometimes looked at the fishing poles in the hallway closet, shoved to the back behind the winter coats. He sometimes pulled a tackle box from off the top shelf and looked inside of it for whole minutes at a time and yelled at her when she asked if she could play with the toys inside.
That was when her mother started asking her father to, “please take Caroline fishing.”
The first time he took her it had been a disaster. He barked orders the entire time and they didn’t even catch a fish. But the next week was different. They caught fish and her father smiled. More fish brought more smiles, and over the years, it became the bond she and her father shared.
She was fishing with her father less and less since her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Most of his free time was spent taking care of her or taking extra shifts at the free clinic so he could have a break from her. His gear sat dejected in one of the hallway closets, and his waders had long acquired cracks in the rubber boots.
Caroline shook her head. It was too early for such thoughts. And she was starting to sweat. That meant it was time to pack it in and begin her trudge back up to the shop. As she walked, she noticed a car parked out in front of the old Cranwell Station across the road.
The “for sale” sign had been sitting out in front of Cranwell Station for months. Over the years, the Cranwell family had used the store for many different purposes. It had been a gas station in the beginning, a lively meeting spot for summer visitors to the Cold River during the 1920’s. It had also been a beauty salon, a five and dime store, a used car lot, and a pet grooming facility. Caroline’s parents had owned the little bait shop across the street from Cranwell Station since before she was born, and in the 25 years Caroline was born, the place had been all but empty. There just wasn’t enough traffic to the river anymore, especially since the new highway routed most tourists around the town of Cold River completely. When the eldest Cranwell brother died, the building sat unoccupied and unkempt, a source of hot debate for the remaining Cranwell family members, all four of them, none of whom wanted the responsibility of maintaining the property. They stayed to themselves down at Cranwell Corner and rarely came into town. Caroline couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen any member of that family.
Caroline watched as a man got out of the car and proceeded to walk up to the door of the station. It was a man she’d never seen before. He was wearing khakis and a crisp, white button up shirt that made his dark hair and tan skin stand out against the sunlight even more than they already did. He placed his palm against the glass and began to rub at the thick coating of dirt. After peering inside, he began to pull on the door handle.
Surely he’s not trying to break-in, Caroline thought. Who robs a place in the broad daylight wearing khakis? Besides, Cranwell Station looked like it was about to fall in at any moment. Maybe he was just lost and looking for direction. He sure looked like he was from a city, and people from the city began to panic when they cruised outside city limits and towards the river. These two buildings, Cranwell Station and her bait shop, were the last stop before leaving civilization.
She continued to watch him from a safe distance as he walked around the station, kicked at loose boards on the porch steps, and pulled at the door handle some more. Once, he went back to his car and pulled out a cell phone, but realizing there was no reception, shoved it into his pocket at commenced cursing at the air. It wasn’t until he picked up a rock and started towards one of the windows that Caroline made a move.
“Hey!” She hollered, charging towards him with her fishing pole. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Praise for Annie England Noblin:
“Just Fine With Caroline is all heart. Annie England Noblin knows how to make characters come to life. I was completely charmed on my trip to Cold River.”—Stephanie Evanovich on Just Fine With Caroline
“…Emotionally satisfying [and] turns an oft-maligned corner of Missouri into a welcoming, heartfelt setting. Noblin is a fine author of the cozy warm story.—The Current on Just Fine With Caroline
“Fans of Mary Kay Andrews and Mary Alice Monroe will enjoy Nolin’s lighthearted second novel. For many readers, spending time immersed in Caroline’s world might be just the ticket.”—Library Journal on Just Fine With Caroline
“Readers of Debbie Macomber will enjoy poet and nonfiction author Noblin’s first novel. It’s an enjoyable story full of laughter, tears, and just plain fun.”—Library Journal on Sit! Stay! Speak!
“Noblin’s fish-out-of-water story combines food, family, suspense, and romance into one delightful read. [… ] a comfort read that’s perfect for a summer night. A cozy read that’s full of dogs, romance, and small-town charm.”—Kirkus Reviews on Sit! Stay! Speak!
“Full of southern charm and colloquialisms, Noblin’s first novel explores the curious bond between man and beast. A warm, emotionally grounded story that will delight fans of Mary Kay Andrews and contemporary women’s fiction.”—Booklist on Sit! Stay! Speak!
“A must read for any animal lover.”—Fresh Fiction on Sit! Stay! Speak!
About Annie England Noblin:
Annie England Noblin lives with her son, husband, and three rescued bulldogs in the Missouri Ozarks. She graduated with an M.A. in Creative Writing from Missouri State University and currently teaches English for Arkansas State University. Her poetry has been featured in such publications as the Red Booth Review and the Moon City Review. She spends her free time playing make-believe, feeding stray cats, and working with animal shelters across the country to save homeless dogs.
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