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Where I Belong

CHARLENE

BRIGHT

_________________

 

Where I Belong

 

A Brook Haven Romance Novella

Where I Belong

Copyright © 2017 by Charlene Bright

 

All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without the express written permission of the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

Books by Charlene Bright

 

Canton County Cowboys

A Cowboy Worth Loving

A Cowboy After Her Heart

Dare to Love a Cowboy

Captivated by a Cowboy

 

Cowboys of Courage

Courage to Follow

Courage to Believe

Courage to Fall

 

Cherish Cowboys

Cherished Love

Cherished Moments

Cherished Embrace

 

Wild at Heart Cowboys

Like a Cowboy

The Cowboy in Me

Cowboy Casanova

 

Cowboy Nuptials

To Have and Hold a Cowboy

To Love and Honor a Cowboy

To Cherish and Keep a Cowboy

 

Christmas Romance

I Saw Mommy Kissing a Cowboy

Snowfall Kisses

 

Where I Belong

Sophie Michelson has always been serious. Even as a little girl, she knew what she wanted out of life. And unlike other little girls, that definitely wasn’t a husband and children. Sophie has a head for business and a burning desire for one thing: to own a bed and breakfast, just like the one she stayed at as a child. It will take everything she has, and she’s prepared to do anything to realize her dream.

Now, after years of hard work, the time has finally come. With her brand new—okay, so maybe a little old—bed and breakfast in Brook Haven, Vermont, she is set to become the successful business owner she was always meant to be. There’s only one thing standing in her way: renovating the run-down B&B in time for Brook Haven’s annual Harvest Festival and the official start of the tourist season. Lucky for her, her mother is there to guide her through it and keep her life distraction free.

Soon, though, the renovations get delayed, and Sophie starts to wonder if her B&B will ever be ready to open. The only solution is to call upon Brook Haven’s best carpenter to speed construction along. But as it turns out, Drake Tanner is exactly the kind of distraction she doesn’t need.

Drake has spent his entire life in the quaint town of Brook Haven. Everyone there knows he’s the one you call when you need a hand. When he meets Sophie Michelson, he thinks his search for love might finally be over.

As the two grow closer, Sophie learns that sometimes feelings can’t be denied no matter how hard you try, and she eventually has to admit to hers, just before a tragic accident threatens to tear them apart. Soon, she’s faced with a choice: follow her head, as she’s done all her life, or finally trust her heart.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Sophie stood outside in the crisp morning air and stared up at her dream. It felt almost surreal to her, like it had happened so fast. In reality, it had been a dream in the works for almost twenty years.

When she was about eight years old, her parents took her on a trip to New England where they stayed in a bed and breakfast. The old house with the comfortable, warm furnishings and all of the kind people had made such an impression on her that it became her dream to own one of her own.

When she got home from that trip, she’d set up her Barbie Dream Home to emulate the late 1800s house they’d stayed in as well as she could, and then she set about convincing all of her dolls and stuffed animals to come and have a stay. She became such a good hostess to all of her friends that there was rarely a weekend she didn’t have company.

Just a few weeks before graduating high school, she saw a Help Wanted ad for a bed and breakfast off the coast of Maine. It had always been her intention to go to college but even at such a young age, she already knew that no amount of studying could rival experience. She applied for the job, got an offer, and, to her mother and her best friend’s chagrin, she took it. Her father was supportive—he always was—but it took him quite a few months to stop calling her every night and reminding her to lock her doors.

She worked for a middle-aged couple with three children for three years. She loved it, and the family loved her back. She might have stayed there until she was able to afford a place of her own, but tragedy struck her family. Her father had a heart attack and died unexpectedly.

Sophie’s mother, Brenda, was devastated by the loss. They’d known each other their entire lives, and she liked to tell Sophie the story of her father proposing when they were only ten. He made her promise she’d only marry him. Though they had each dated different people in high school and in college, they found each other again when they both returned home from college to Carolina Beach. Brenda told her the first time she saw him in town, she knew she’d almost walked away from her destiny. They were married a year later and, as far as Sophie knew, were still just as happy after thirty years of marriage as they had been as newlyweds.

She rushed home to be near her mother and spent months nursing her out of her deep depression. Her mother eventually came back around to being herself. Sophie suspected that it had been more for her daughter’s sake than anything. She’d told her in one of their late-night conversations that the loss of her one true love had left a hole not only in her heart, but in her very soul.

Sophie had done a lot of soul-searching after that and decided that she was better off investing thirty years of her life in something that couldn’t die and leave her alone and wounded. She put the small amount of money her father left her into a mutual fund and got back to the business of working toward her dream.

She got a job at a B&B right on Carolina Beach facing the ocean. She worked the front desk, did light housekeeping, and eventually became in charge of arranging activities for the guests like bike tours and clamming nights with bonfires on the beach. She worked there until she was twenty-six, and along the way she lived a pretty simple and—some might say—uneventful life. She still held on to the friendships she’d had since early childhood, but she didn’t go out much. She kept her focus on the endgame … being the proud owner of her own B&B someday.

Sophie had one boyfriend during all of this that she might term “serious.” He was serious anyway, and he talked about marriage and children. Sophie had to admit to him that she wasn’t ready for any of that, and she wasn’t sure she ever would be. She didn’t want to hurt him, but she also didn’t want him wasting his time thinking he would convince her otherwise. Once she’d set her mind to doing something, she knew she would move heaven and earth to see that it happened.

When Sophie wasn’t working, she started taking classes at the local junior college, eventually getting a degree in business with an emphasis on general management. She also took cooking and baking courses. Her mother had done a good job of teaching her how to cook, but she wanted to have special skills for her B&B. In her imagination, she’d always have baskets of home-baked goodies ready for the guests in their rooms to surprise them when they arrived.

She learned how to make her own soaps, and she’d even taken a gardening class in case the place she bought had room for a backyard garden. She never lost sight of what she wanted, and one morning while having breakfast with her mother, she saw the ad that would change her life:

Bed and Breakfast in Brook Haven, Vermont. Family owned and operated for over eighty years. Home and five-acre property for sale. Pet-friendly inn with hardwood floors and wood-paneled ceilings. Bathrooms all have tiled showers and original fixtures.

The Lounge & Tavern boasts a large open space for couches, televisions, and pool and video games. There is a large dining room and a beautiful outside wooden deck with killer views on a sunny morning. The kitchen is spacious and equipped with both commercial and residential equipment. Two rooms on the ground floor are perfect for a spa and storage, and the basement and garage can be used for storage and laundry as well.

It’s located on a small farm that has been equipped for horses and chickens. There is also a small pond surrounded by a grassy knoll area that is an ideal spot for weddings. The owner’s quarters consist of an open multi-use living area and bath and extends the full length of the third floor. There are two smaller guest houses on the property that both sit about a mile from the main lodge, perfect for use as a mother-in-law house or employee quarters alike.

“This is the one, Mom!” she’d said excitedly. “I can feel it! This is the one I’ve been waiting for!”

Brenda looked at her like she’d lost her marbles until Sophie sat the paper down in front of her. She skimmed through the ad, and when she looked back at her daughter, she forced a smile and said, “This one does sound like it’s calling your name.”

“You know it!” Sophie immediately knew this was what she’d scrimped and saved for over the past nine years. Two days before her twenty-seventh birthday, she signed the final paperwork. She was the proud new owner of a bed and breakfast. It had taken some doing, but she finally talked her mother into selling the house in Carolina Beach and going with her. Brenda would live in one of the guest houses and Sophie would take the top floor of the main house. It was perfect … almost.

The first thing Sophie noticed when she arrived at her dream was that “original fixtures” actually meant original. They came with the house when it had been built almost a hundred years ago and were sorely in need of replacing. The “commercial” equipment in the kitchen had been replaced at least once—the last time in the 1950s. The gorgeous wooden banister that led to the upper two floors of the house was scratched, dinged, and missing barrier pieces, and there were two places on the stairs she’d nearly fallen through.

The outside was overgrown and the fences all needed mending, but none of that discouraged her. If there was one thing Sophie wasn’t afraid of, it was hard work. She still had enough savings left after putting the down payment on the property to do the major repairs. The minor things could be tackled even after the place was up and running. The thought of all of that work didn’t dampen her excitement at all. She had done a lot of research into the quaint little town that she hoped to become a part of soon, and ultimately she’d decided that September 22nd—the day of the Harvest Festival—was the day. That gave her two months to get the inn ready for its grand opening.

She’d seen the signs for the Harvest Festival as she drove through the picturesque little town for the first time. She passed the community bank and a cute little restaurant painted blue called “Huckleberry’s.” There was a small clothing store and a five-and-dime and what looked like a family-owned grocery store. There was a small bar with a wraparound porch that was surrounded by giant maple trees. The leaves were still green, but Sophie could already picture it when they turned the bold orange and crimson colors that New England was famous for in the fall.

She was almost in love with the town before she had even made it out past the rows and rows of gorgeous apple orchards and up to the bed and breakfast, where she met with the realtor and toured the property. It was love at first sight when she saw the house, but one look at the breathtaking views of the Green Mountains cemented the deal.

She knew that it would be a lot of work, but her heart told her she could take this old place and breathe new life into it. She made an offer that very day and then drove back home. For the next three weeks, she prayed a lot and kept her fingers crossed, and the day they called her to let her know her offer had been accepted had been the happiest of her life.

“What are you looking at, honey?”

“Oh, Mom! You startled me.” Her mother had stepped up behind her, jostling her out of her reverie. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt from 1990 with Van Halen on the front of it. Sophie couldn’t help but smile. Her mother’s true loves had been her father, her, and classic rock music—not necessarily in that order. “I was just thinking about how lucky I am,” she told her.

Her mother smiled and brushed a lock of Sophie’s dark hair back over her daughter’s shoulder. “This place has nothing to do with luck. This is all you, baby. You have worked so hard for this, and I’m so proud of you.”

Sophie put her arm around her mother’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Thank you, Mom. I’m proud of me too.” She couldn’t stop smiling.

“What time is that carpenter coming by?” Sophie had contacted the only carpenter in town by phone about starting on some of the repairs. She immediately liked the sound of his voice. He was coming by today to have a look at what needed to be done and give her an estimate.

“He should be here in half an hour or so.”

Her mom nodded. “Okay, I’m going to head in and start scrubbing that kitchen.” The inn had been vacant for almost three years, so besides the repairs, it was going to take a lot of elbow grease to clean it up. She was grateful for her mother’s help, but she knew her mother was just as grateful to have something to do. She had been a hands-on mother and wife for thirty years, and even her active circle of friends couldn’t seem to fill the void that her daughter leaving home and then her husband dying had caused.

Sophie was heading back inside the house when she heard the sound of a pickup approaching. She stepped up on the front porch, which was also in need of repairs, and watched the old green Ford come toward her up the rutted dirt road. The driver parked in the small lot, and as he stepped out, Sophie’s breath was actually taken away for a few seconds. She was glad it would take him a minute to reach her so that she could put her composure back together. She rarely lost control and even more rarely over a man, but this one … she was openly gaping before she caught herself.

He was all hard angles and sharp lines with the most beautiful, long-lashed brown eyes that she’d ever seen. He had on a ball cap with the words The Fix-It Man, and warm chocolate waves of thick hair peeked out from underneath it. His work shirt molded to his broad chest, and his biceps swelled out of the short sleeves. He had long, jean-clad legs, and as he strode toward her, his handsome face broke into a wide grin.

His teeth were white, but not exactly perfect, which made him even sexier in Sophie’s eyes. Perfect people are boring people, she’d always thought. Imperfect ones had much more character. He had full lips and they looked soft. She shivered a little as her mind went to a place it rarely did the first time she met a man: What would they taste like?

When she was about three feet away from him, she told herself to get a grip, sucked in a shaky breath, and forced what she hoped passed for a non-lecherous smile.

“Hi, I’m Drake Tanner,” he said in a silky, masculine voice. He held out his hand and Sophie took it. It was big and warm and she felt jolts of lightning shoot all the way up her arm.

She held the smile and was grateful when her voice didn’t come out shaky. “Hi, I’m Sophie Michelson. Thank you so much for coming so quickly, Mr. Tanner—”

“It’s Drake,” he said, “And it’s not a problem.” He looked up at the house and said, “I used to come here a lot when I was a boy.”

“Really? You grew up in Brook Haven?”

“Born and raised,” he said. “My best friend’s parents ran this place for a while. The owners lived in Rhode Island, and they paid them to live here and take care of the place.”

“Oh, how nice. I think I fell in love the first time I saw it.” She was staring up at the house again and caught herself. She probably had that goofy smile she got on her face every time she thought about being the owner. She checked herself and glanced over at Drake. His chocolate-brown eyes were on her face, and she suddenly felt warm all over.

CHAPTER TWO

Drake woke up to the sound of Hooter barking his fool head off … again. He looked at the lit-up numbers on the clock radio next to the bed: 3:22. He mumbled a curse under his breath. Hooter had the worst timing. Drake had been immersed in a dream about a dark-haired angel with ice-blue eyes. Her name was Sophie, and he hadn’t been able to get her out of his head since he’d met with her the afternoon before.

This was the third night this week the dog had woken him in the middle of the night. The other two times, he was tired but only mildly annoyed. Tonight, he’d been just about to kiss the angel in his dream when the shrill sound of the dog’s barking pierced the night. He and Hooter had been together since they were both kids and he loved the old dog, but after tonight, he wasn’t sure the relationship could recover.

He waited a few minutes to see if Hooter would stop barking on his own and when he didn’t, he forced his tired body up out of the bed and slipped into his boots. Grabbing his hat and a light jacket off the hook next to the door and a flashlight that sat up on the shelf in the kitchen, he stepped outside onto the porch. He shone the light around and caught the glint of yellow off Hooter’s shiny coat, then held the light steady and saw his canine friend standing at the end of the driveway facing away from him.

Drake put his fingers in the sides of his mouth and whistled. Hooter gave him a cursory over-the-shoulder glance and then went back to his incessant barking. For a few seconds Drake considered going back inside, popping in a pair of ear plugs that he used for target shooting, and going back to sleep. However, he could see out of the corner of his eye that the light in his Uncle Mac’s little house up the road had come on and he knew there’d be no going back to sleep for him. With a grumble and a curse, he set off down the long dirt road to where Hooter stood, expecting to find him with a snake or a possum cornered against the mailbox.

Drake lived on his family’s old farm. His grandparents had owned it first and then Drake’s parents after that. He was a late-in-life baby for his parents. Before that, they’d taken care of his mother’s brother Mac for several years after he’d been in a bad car accident. He was a paraplegic and had to go through a lot of extensive therapy before he was able to live on his own. By the time Mac was doing well enough to spend more than a few hours a day in his own house, his mother and father were both well into their thirties.

Drake’s mother told him once that his father had tried to discourage her desire for a baby then, but she wasn’t having it. She’d just turned forty when she found out she was expecting. As it turned out, his father was as happy, if not happier, than she was when he found out about it.

Drake was born on his mother’s forty-first birthday, and his parents both doted on him. His father taught him how to hunt and fish and work on cars. He was also the reason Drake did what he did for a living – his father could build or fix anything, and although he wasn’t technically a handyman, the neighbors all seemed to call him when they needed something. His father never said no, and Drake loved following him around and watching him work.

His mother taught him more than he could list, but mostly he had her to thank for his easygoing attitude about life. She was an animal lover and a nature enthusiast, and she instilled her love of those things into her son. She also had a big garden on the farm where she grew fresh vegetables. Every Sunday morning, she’d pick whatever was ripe and in season and then wash and package it all up in plastic containers so that it was ready to eat. Then she’d load it all into the back of the old pickup that Drake still drove today and take it into town to sell at the market. Mostly, what she did was hand it out for free to those in need. She had a regular spot out in front of the church, and she came to be known in town simply as the vegetable lady.

She didn’t just hand out the vegetables. She also had a section of her garden where she grew herbs, which she’d use to make salves and lotions. She would sit for hours and just talk to anyone who seemed to need it at the time. She handed out advice when she was asked for it, and she never judged.

Drake still kept the vegetable garden growing, and he still took the vegetables into town on Sundays to the market. He also had his mother’s recipes for the herbal salves and remedies, and he’d taken to making them too because he’d gotten so many requests. Sometimes his Uncle Mac would go into town with him and sell statues and carvings he made in his shop.

Sundays were the only days Drake refused work. To him, going to the market was a way to keep his mother’s memory alive. To the people in the community, it was a service many of them had come to depend on.

When he made it to the end of the road, he tried once again to get Hooter to hush. The dog gave him another quick glance but kept one eye on whatever was in the grass underneath the lilac bushes at the edge of the road. Drake saw the bush wiggle slightly and he heard the rustle of the deep grass. Whatever Hooter had found was still alive.

Drake wished he’d grabbed his rifle just in case. The last thing he’d shot was a timber rattlesnake that had somehow found its way onto Uncle Mac’s back porch. Shooting things, however, was contrary to his very nature, and he’d only done it when the situation had demanded it.

With a deep breath and a small prayer that whatever it was wouldn’t snap off his arm or inject him with venom, he reached down and moved the bush. Two sets of eyes glowed up at him. Reluctantly, he lowered his flashlight so it illuminated the frightened faces of two baby red foxes. One of them had what looked like a dog bite on his hind quarters, and the other looked more than a little bit reluctant to leave the injured one to fend for himself.

“Well, look what you found, Hooter. Hi guys. Where’s your mama?” As if Hooter understood, he once again began to bark and wag his tail the way he did when he wanted Drake to follow him. Drake let the bush fall back down gently to cover the babies and followed the yellow Lab three or four feet up to the road. It was an old country road that led to town in one direction and dead-ended where the forest got too dense on one side and the altitude too high on the other. Drake’s place sat about two miles from the forest, so other than mild traffic to and from his place, the road was hardly ever used.

Hooter pointed him toward what had agitated him. Drake shone his light onto the black asphalt and found the fox mama. She’d been hit by a car, and from the looks of it, it hadn’t been that long ago. Drake briefly wondered what someone was doing on this road in the middle of the night.

He spent some time walking back and forth to the barn to get what he needed to move the poor dead animal out of the road. He put her in a plastic container to bury her later, and then he went back to see about the kits. They were still there under the bush; they’d curled up together and gone to sleep.

Drake opened the cat carrier he’d brought back with him and with one big hand, he scooped them into it. They woke up as he did and before he closed the small door and latched it, they were both howling at him in an extremely annoying, high-pitched way. He tried making soothing sounds as he carried them back to the house, but they were agitated and having none of it. As he sat the small carrier down on the porch, he heard his phone ringing from inside the house. It was almost five a.m., way too early for anyone to be calling him except Uncle Mac.

“I’m sorry. Did Hooter wake you?” Drake answered.

“Nah, you know I don’t sleep much. I just wanted to make sure everything’s all right up there.”

“Hooter found a couple of baby foxes … their mother didn’t make it across the road.”

“Aw … ya know I almost called you about all that racket goin’ on out there.”

“Um … you did just call me, Uncle Mac.”

He laughed. “My legs don’t work, but my mind still does. I meant before, when that car or whatever it was kept racing up and down the hill. You didn’t hear it?”

“No, I guess I was sleeping pretty soundly.”

“You must have been. Sounded like a V-8 to me, and they had to be goin’ over a hundred miles an hour. They raced back and forth three or four times, and each time they’d get ready to turn around, they’d smoke the brakes. I think they may have even been hitting the E-brake.”

“Did you see the car?”

“Nah, from where the house sits, I can hear the road but I can’t see it.”

“Okay. It was probably teenagers, but I’ll keep an eye out.”

“You need any help with those kits?”

Drake looked down at the agitated little creatures, and in spite of himself, he thought about how cute they were. “I’m not sure what to do with them to be honest.”

“Well, the first thing they probably need is some hydration. Maybe you should call Sam. Are you working today?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to be over at the Harvest Moon Inn at seven.”

“Well, if you can’t get ahold of Sam, bring them to me and I’ll sit for ya.”

Drake laughed. “Sit for me, huh? So you think I’ve already adopted them?”

“I know you. You’re too much like your mama to turn those babies out on their own. The coyotes would eat them in a heartbeat. This farm used to be a menagerie of the animals my sister collected.”

Drake laughed. He knew that was true. As a kid, he could bring home any stray he found in the woods and his mother would never turn it away. He looked back down at the bloody back leg of the injured kit. “Yeah, it looks like one of them may have gotten a bite before Mama Fox hid them under my bush. She was headed back across the road. It makes me wonder if there’s more on the other side.”

“You’re gonna go look, aren’t you?”

“I might just take a peek for curiosity’s sake.”

Mac was laughing when he hung up. Drake checked the time again. It was closer to five-thirty. He put on a pair of thick gloves and reached into the door of the holder for the injured kit. It began howling and screeching as he pulled it out, and the little booger was even trying to bite him. He took him into the bathroom and washed and cleaned up his leg. He bandaged it with medical tape, the whole while struggling just to hang on to the wiggly little creature. After he finished cleaning him up, he called his friend Sam.

“Drake, what’s up?” Sam sounded groggy, like he had been awakened from a deep sleep.

“Hey, Sam, I’m sorry to call so early—”

“You forgot that I’m in California, didn’t you?”

“Oh, damn it! Yeah, I did. I’m so sorry. It’s a lot earlier than I thought. I can—”

“It’s okay, Drake, I’m up now. What’s going on?”

“Someone ran over Mama Fox and I found two of her kits.”

“Oh man. Do you have a syringe and a heating pad?”

“Um, I’ll have to look for them both, but I think so.”

Sam was the town veterinarian and had grown up in Brook Haven with Drake. He had told Drake he was going to California for a convention that week, but Drake had been so busy with work it had slipped his mind.

“Okay, so here is what you need to do.”

Drake spent another precious half hour on the phone with his friend. By the time he did what he needed to do and dropped the kits off with his uncle, he was running a half hour late already. In spite of that, he just had to stop and look around a little bit across the road. He didn’t see any signs of more kits. Unfortunately, that probably meant something else had already gotten them. As he drove through town on his way to the bed and breakfast, he was sorely tempted to stop at Huckleberry’s and grab a cup of coffee but decided he didn’t have time. He looked at his watch and told himself he was already late enough.

As soon as he drove up close to the house, he saw the beautiful owner kneeling on the front porch with a hammer that was so big he was surprised she could hold it up. He tried to shake off the remnants of the dream he’d had about her the night before as he stepped out of the truck. He realized it was to no avail, however, when she glanced over her shoulder at him and he got another look at those cool blue eyes.

“Good morning.”

“Morning,” she said. Her tone was a little short. He wondered if she was angry with him for being late. Maybe he should have called.

“I’m sorry I’m late—”

“It’s fine.”

There was no mistaking that she really was annoyed. “Really, I’m sorry. I had some unexpected company this morning—”

“It’s really fine. It’s just that my mother forgot about the rotten boards we talked about. She fell through the porch this morning—”

“Oh my God! Is she all right?” Now he really felt bad.

“Yeah, she twisted her ankle a bit, I think.” She began hammering a long nail into the piece of plywood she’d covered the hole with. As she hammered, the wood around the nail split further and he heard her mumble a curse.

“We should probably just replace most of this. It’s pretty warped and rotted.”

She brushed her dark hair out of her eyes and looked up at him again. Damn, she’s pretty, he thought once again.

“How much will that cost?”

“I’d have to call and get a price on the lumber, but I have a buddy over at the lumber yard that’ll give me a pretty good deal.”

Drake could tell by the way she furrowed her pretty brow that she was feeling stressed even before she said, “Am I being overly optimistic thinking this can all be finished and I can open in time for the Harvest Festival?”

“Optimistic is good,” he told her with a smile. “Hey, why don’t I call my buddy and have him get the lumber ready, then you can ride into town with me and we’ll get some breakfast?”

He couldn’t read the look on her face, but suddenly he wasn’t very optimistic. “I should really stay around here. I just have so much to do.”

“Okay … yeah, I understand. Well, I’ll call him and head into town. Can I bring you something from the diner?”

Again, there was that look. “No, I’ve had breakfast, but thanks. Will you be long?” The last was said with a little edge to it.

“I’ll get mine to go,” he said with a wink. Sophie didn’t look amused.

CHAPTER THREE

“Mother! What are you doing?” Sophie walked into the kitchen just in time to see her mother hobbling in through the other door.

“I was just going to put on a pot of coffee—”

“I told you to call me if you needed anything. You need to stay off that ankle.”

“Sophie, I’m fine, honey. It’s just a little sore. You need to take a breath and relax. You can’t fix everything all by yourself.”

“Well, it seems I might have to,” she said, pulling out a chair for her mother. “Sit.” Her mother rolled her eyes but sat down.

“I’m sorry, I’d be helping you but you’re the one—”

“Oh, Mom! I’m sorry. I’m not talking about you. It’s that carpenter/handyman I hired. He just seems so laid back about things. He was half an hour late this morning, and he’s been gone for over an hour now to pick up lumber and—get this—breakfast.”

Her mother smiled. “A man does have to eat, right?”

Sophie drew her eyebrows together and looked at her mother. “Don’t you think he should have done that before he came to work?”

“Well, things happen sometimes.”

“Why are you defending him?”

“I don’t know. Why do you want to be angry with him?”

“Want to be? Are you implying that I was looking for an excuse to be angry with him?”

“I just don’t really see that he’s done anything so bad. People live life at a slower pace in these small towns. I thought that was the whole point actually of buying the B&B here.”

“It is, and I understand that, but I have a deadline.”

“It’s a self-imposed deadline, and it seems to me that it might be putting a lot of undue stress on you. Would it be so bad, Sophie, if you had to open a week or two later than you planned?”

“Yes!” Sophie slammed the coffee pot down in the sink. It was only luck that kept it from breaking. She saw her mother jump slightly at the noise from the corner of her eye and felt bad instantly. “Jesus, I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m so thrilled to be here and be doing this, and not once in my life did I ever question my ability to succeed … until now.”

Sophie could feel the sting of tears in the corners of her eyes. Her mother struggled to her feet and opened her arms. Sophie went over and melted into them. Her mother held her for a few minutes and ran her hand down the length of her daughter’s hair, and then she held her back so she could see her face.

“Sophie, it’s human nature to second-guess ourselves. But you can’t let it consume you. Changing your plans is not the same as failing at them. I know you can do this, but there’s something that you can’t lose sight of in the process.”

“What’s that?” Sophie asked while sniffling.

“The joy of the process. Keep that joy and enthusiasm. Hold on to it. Otherwise this place will become just a job to you. Be willing to be flexible, and don’t write things in stone just yet. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned for them to, but that doesn’t mean it’s a loss or a failure.”

Sophie nodded. She knew her mother was right. Opening for the weekend of the festival would be perfect, but opening after that would still be opening, and it would still be good. She just wished that knowing she was right was the same as feeling it. Sometimes, Sophie felt like she was wound as tightly as a clock and was afraid that one of the springs was going to suddenly snap. “I will try to think of it that way,” she told her mother. “Sit down. I’m going to make that coffee.”

It was another hour before Drake got back with the lumber. By the time he started pulling up the boards on the front porch, it was a little before noon. Sophie was doing her best to hold on to her patience with him but hot or not, he was making it difficult.

While Drake worked on the porch, Sophie busied herself with things that needed cleaning inside the house and trying to get her mother to stay off her feet. It was around four thirty when she heard Drake’s phone ring out on the porch. A few minutes later, he knocked on the door and said, “I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to take off. I’ll come back early tomorrow—”

“Take off? You’ve only technically been working for a little over four hours—”

“Sophie!” her mother said from behind her.

“I’m sorry,” Drake said. His face looked truly remorseful, and it was easy for Sophie to look into those chocolate eyes and want to forgive him, but at this rate, they’d never get things done. She was beginning to regret not hiring the bigger firm from the next town over.

Sorry isn’t going to get the work done around here.”

“Yes, ma’am. If it wasn’t important—”

“Just go, I’ll see you in the morning.” He turned to leave and she said, “Drake.”

“Yes?”

“I hope tomorrow will be a better day.”

“Me too,” he said. She watched him go and wondered for a second what the phone call was about. Deciding that it didn’t matter—or it shouldn’t if he was a professional—she felt angry again. When she met her mother’s eyes and saw the disappointment there, she felt just a little bit ashamed as well.

“Less than five hours, Mom.”

Her mother nodded but then said, “Just be careful, Sophie. You never know what someone is going through. He could be going through some hard times.”

“Everyone goes through hard times, Mom. It’s no excuse to slack on your work.” Before her mother could respond, Sophie turned and walked out of the room. She wanted to see how much he’d gotten done. When she opened the kitchen door that led to the front porch, she felt shock radiate through her.

The porch was twelve feet long and about four feet wide. Drake had completed all but about a two-by-four-foot spot in one corner … and it was beautiful. The wood wasn’t finished yet, but it was solid knotty pine, and Sophie could imagine just how beautiful it would be when it was. She suddenly felt like a terrible person. She went back inside and looked at her mother. “What’s wrong with me, Mom? I don’t treat people this way.”

Her mother smiled. “Nothing is wrong with you. You’re feeling stressed and pressured, but the simple fact that you feel remorseful means you are a good, decent person.”

“Well, maybe you know that and maybe I can convince myself of that because of how bad I feel, but I’d be willing to bet that Drake is thinking I’m a pretty terrible person right about now.”

“Then call him and apologize.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight if I don’t. Thanks Mom.”

Her mother kissed her cheek and said, “I think I’m going to head up to the house. There’s a program on television tonight I wanted to watch.”

“No, it’s too far for you to walk. I’ll drive you.”

Her mom laughed. “I’m not an invalid.”

“I just don’t want you to permanently damage that ankle.”

With a sigh and a smile, her mother agreed to the ride. As soon as Sophie got back to the main house, she found her phone and called Drake. The phone rang four times and went to voicemail, so she hung up. She didn’t want to apologize in a message. She called her mother instead. “I sent you home without dinner.”

Her mom laughed again. “What is this, role reversal? I have some leftover chicken from last night. I was going to have that.”

“Oh, I was going to run into town for something. Are you sure I can’t pick up something for you?”

“I’m sure, honey. I’m going to eat the chicken and turn in early.”

“Okay. Mom, thank you so much for all of your help.”

“You’re very welcome. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Sophie headed for town feeling a lot calmer than she had during the day. She would apologize to Drake first thing in the morning, and she’d make sure to keep a lid on the irrational anger the stress had been causing her to feel all day.

The little town was only about ten minutes from the B&B. When she drove up in front of Huckleberry’s, the first thing she noticed was Drake’s pickup out front. She felt a wave of annoyance that he’d rushed out in what he’d presented as pretty much an “emergency” when he was out to dinner. She reminded herself that she was going to stop all that as she walked in the front door. She was greeted by a young lady in a blueberry-colored dress and a mile-wide smile.

“Well, hello there. I’m Rebecca. Can I get you a table?” Sophie’s eyes had already landed on the back of Drake’s head. He was facing away from her, but she could see his dinner companion. She was an attractive woman of about thirty, and she was laughing at something Drake had just said. “Miss … did you want a table?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, no. Just a take-out menu please.”

“Sure, I’ll be right back.” The girl went behind the counter and Sophie’s attention returned to Drake and his dinner companion. The woman had long blonde hair, and from where Sophie was standing, she looked tall and slim. Sophie was suddenly feeling another irrational emotion—jealousy. Why on earth would she be jealous over whom her handyman chose to have dinner with? She was suddenly embarrassed by her own private thoughts.

“Here you go, miss.” The girl was back with her menu. Sophie thanked her and sat down on the little bench seat to look it over.

She was trying to decide between the Tri-tip sandwich and the grilled shrimp when she heard, “Miss Michelson?” Her stomach had already clenched before she looked up into those chocolate pools. She forced a smile and hoped it didn’t look as nervous as she felt.

“It’s Sophie,” she said. “Hi, Drake.”

The young girl at the counter handed him a take-out container and said, “Drake, are you gonna be at the market on Sunday?”

He smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Oh good. I saw Wendy out in front of the market the other day and I told her to go out there on Sunday. She’s been having a hard time since Mitchell passed on.”

“You tell her to come see me,” he said. The young girl beamed at him. Sophie wondered what it was he was giving out at the market that made people so happy.

The blonde woman he was with appeared at his elbow. “Drake, I have to run. I’ll call you in the morning.” She was definitely tall … and slim … willowy even. She was beautiful.

“Okay, Brooke, thank you so much,” Drake said. She leaned in and kissed him on his stubble-covered cheek, and once again Sophie’s belly clenched.

“You’re very welcome. Thank you for dinner.” The blonde smiled at Sophie, and Sophie forced another smile she didn’t feel like wearing. Drake watched her leave and then turned his attention back to Sophie.

“I’m really sorry again about leaving so soon earlier. You see, those visitors I told you about—”

“It’s fine,” she said, cutting him off. This was her chance to apologize and tell him what great work he’d done—so why wasn’t she doing it?

“Okay … well … I guess I’ll see you in the morning?” It sounded like he was asking a question. Was he worried she was going to fire him? If he was so worried about it, why was he so quick to show up late and take off early?

“Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He started for the door, and that rush of self-loathing Sophie had felt earlier for her bad behavior returned with a vengeance. “Drake?”

He turned back toward her. She wished that her breath didn’t catch in her throat every time she looked at him. “Yes?”

“You did great work on the porch today. Thank you.”

He smiled then and—just like that—her insides turned into hot liquid. “You’re welcome. I’ll finish it tomorrow.” Sophie nodded at him and watched him go. She had no idea why this guy caused her emotions to go from one end of the spectrum to the other in no time flat.

CHAPTER FOUR

Drake stepped into his uncle’s small but obsessively neat house. Mac was unable to use his legs, but he was very good with his arms and hands, and he kept his house immaculate. He also had a little shop out back where he made hand-carved statues to sell at the market. The shop was as neat as the rest of the house.

“Hey, Uncle Mac, here’s your club.”

Mac rolled out of the kitchen and smiled at his nephew. “Thank you. You’re a good boy.”

“Well, I owed it to you after what my adopted children put you through today.” Drake sat down and Mac began unwrapping his sandwich.

Mac grinned. “It was a little touch and go there for a while. Did you talk to Brooke?”

“Yeah, she had dinner with me. I thanked her. I’m sorry I didn’t hear the phone the first few times you called. I must have had the sander on.”

Mac was chewing and just waved his palm at his nephew. He swallowed and said, “You were at work. I wouldn’t have even called, but I couldn’t stand the idea of you coming home to find two dead little kits. I’m glad Brooke was available. She came right out.”

“She said they didn’t know how to … go to the bathroom?”

Mac laughed. “Yes, apparently it’s something they have to be taught—who knew? The poor little things were swollen and just miserable. Brooke massaged their little bellies until they finally did their business and they looked so relieved. They curled up and went to sleep right afterwards.”

“Where are they?”

“In the kitchen,” he said.

“The kitchen?”

“Yeah, the heating pad was a good idea, but Brooke also wanted them underneath a light. The one in the kitchen is the brightest I have.”

“Okay … maybe we can go into the vet business with Sam after this.”

Mac laughed again. “No thank you. I’ll leave the animal business to you.”

“Brooke said you did a great job with them.”

“Not a problem,” Mac said. “I hope I didn’t cause you any problems with your new client.”

“I think it’ll be okay … but it’s not your fault anyhow.”

“You think? Was she angry? Damn, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called—”

“Yes, you should have. I don’t think she was angry … she’s a hard one to figure out. She looks like a porcelain doll. Everything about her is intriguing. She was so excited and positive the first couple of times I talked to her, but today she was just … maybe stressed out or something. I’m not sure …” Mac was grinning at him. “What?”

“You like her.”

Drake laughed. “I’m not in fifth grade, Uncle Mac.”

Laughing too, Mac said, “You know what I mean. You should have seen your face when you just talked about how pretty she is. You have a little crush on the lady boss.”

Drake rolled his eyes, but the truth was that Mac was right. In spite of the fact that he couldn’t figure out if the lady liked him or not, she set his insides on fire.

****

For the rest of that week and the entire week that followed, excluding Sunday when he went to the market, Drake worked from sunup to sundown at the Harvest Moon Inn. He finished the front porch, repaired the steps on the stairs, and started replacing some of the fixtures throughout the house that were broken or not working. He was exhausted when he got home at night and he still had his own chores to do around the little farm. Hooter missed him a lot, and so did Mac.

Mac understood that it wasn’t forever—Hooter didn’t. He’d taken to chewing things up and bringing his “hunting trophies,” like the heads of field mice or the tails of garden snakes, up on the front porch and leaving them there for Drake to find when he got home. He hoped that once his schedule returned to normal, his relationship with his dog would as well.

He was thankful that Mac seemed to be really enjoying taking care of the kits. He’d named them Todd and Copper from the movie The Fox and the Hound. Thankfully since Drake had been so busy, Brooke had been around to help them out with the babies and keep them healthy.

Brooke was Drake’s childhood sweetheart. They’d long since decided the love they had for each other was more like siblings or friends than lovers, but since she’d come home from medical school and opened up a clinic in town, they’d remained good friends.

His only worry about the kits was that Mac was so attached to them now. He wasn’t sure how he’d deal with it when Sam came home later that week and found a rescue habitat to take them in. Mac was fond of talking about how his sister and his nephew loved taking in strays, but Drake had begun to wonder lately if maybe Mac needed a pet of his own to chase away some of his loneliness.

Sophie had been working so hard herself that Drake hadn’t had much of a chance to see her. She spent a lot of time on the decorations for the guest rooms and running back and forth into town to pick up deliveries at the post office. The Harvest Festival was only four weeks away now and there was still a lot to do. He felt for her, but she seemed wound up so tightly that he found himself wishing she would just take an afternoon off and relax. On the Friday of the second week, after Sophie had left for town, her mother called to him from the kitchen.

“Drake, I made some lunch. Why don’t you take a break and come have some with me?”

“You don’t have to feed me, Mrs. Michelson.”

She smiled. “I know I don’t have to, but I’ve got fried chicken and mashed potatoes and biscuits—all my Southern specialties. I hate to eat alone. Join me, please.”

“Well, ma’am, when you put it that way …” he said with a grin. He went inside and washed his hands at the sink. The new appliances had been delivered a few days ago, and it seemed like Mrs. Michelson had spent the morning breaking them in. The air in the kitchen smelled almost good enough to eat, and Drake was suddenly starving. He sat down at the table and said, “This all looks so delicious, Mrs. Michelson. Thank you for the invitation.”

“It’s Brenda, and you’re welcome. Dig in.”

He fixed his plate and Brenda fixed one for herself. As they started eating, she said, “You’ve lived in Brook Haven all of your life, Drake?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Does your family still live in the area?”

“My parents are gone,” he said. “My father passed away about seven years ago and my mother a couple years after that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. I miss them a lot. I’m an only child, but I do have an uncle who lives on the family property with me. He’s the only real family I have left. The good thing about Brook Haven is that we pretty much all know each other and it’s like a big, sometimes slightly dysfunctional family.”

She laughed. “I’m finding that out, the family part. Every time I go into town I make another new friend, and everyone has been so warm and welcoming. I have to tell you too, Drake, I haven’t met anyone yet that didn’t have a kind word to say about you.”

“Well, that’s nice of you to say.”

“I’m not just saying it. It’s true. Your parents must have been incredible people because it seems they did a great job with you.”

He felt his face flush slightly at her praise. “Thank you, ma’am. They were pretty amazing people.”

“Sophie’s an only child too. I regret that sometimes. She does have a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins down south because her father and I both had large families. But I still feel like when I pass on, I’ll be leaving her all alone.”

“I’m sure that will be far in the future,” he said. He hated talking about people passing away. Uncle Mac tried to rope him into that conversation sometimes too, and he always passed. To be polite, he said, “Maybe she’ll be married by then and have her own family.”

Brenda got a faraway look in her eyes for a second, and then she smiled and said, “Maybe … but Sophie’s always been so independent and focused on her goals that I wonder if she’ll ever decide to start her own family. What about you, Drake? Have you ever been married?”

“No ma’am.”

“Do you mind if I ask you why? I mean, you’re a handsome young man, a hard worker, polite from what I’ve seen …” She handed him the plate of biscuits, and he took another as he felt his face go hot again.

“Thank you. Well, when I was nineteen, I actually thought that I was in love for a while. It turned out that the girl and I were more cut out to be friends, and so eight years later, we still are. I spend a lot of time keeping my little farm running and working. It’s kind of hard to meet anyone you don’t know in Brook Haven unless it’s a tourist in the fall. I don’t think I’d be happy doing the long-distance relationship thing.”

She smiled. “And the girls you already know feel like family?”

He grinned. “Exactly.”

“Maybe you and Sophie could spend some time together outside of all of this work. She’s a really nice girl.”

Drake suppressed a smile. Brenda was trying to set him up with her daughter. Little did she know he’d like nothing more—but in the two weeks he’d known her, Sophie hadn’t done anything to indicate to him that she’d even be remotely interested. As a matter of fact, most of the time she seemed to go out of her way to do the opposite. At first she just acted annoyed with him all the time; lately it seemed like she was avoiding him altogether.

“I’m not so sure that would interest your daughter,” he said honestly.

“You never know …” Brenda got a mischievous smile on her face and Drake couldn’t hold his back any longer. She was really trying to set him up with her daughter—and he actually found himself hoping that it worked.

After lunch, he insisted on helping Brenda clean up. They were washing dishes together and laughing at some of his stories about the town and the locals when Sophie returned. Judging by the raised eyebrow she gave them both before retreating up the stairs without saying a word, she wasn’t happy about catching him bonding with her mother. He had to wonder again if he and Brenda were just kidding themselves that Sophie would ever be interested in him in more than a professional sense.

They finished cleaning up in silence, and when they were done, Drake said, “I should get back to work. Thank you again for lunch … and the conversation.”

“Drake, about Sophie … she doesn’t mean anything toward you personally. She’s such a nice girl, and she just needs to realize that life is about more than work. She’s always been way too serious. When she was younger I thought it was a good thing because she was so mature and focused, but I’m beginning to see it taking a toll on her, and that worries me.”

He smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking it personally. I’m just pretty sure if I asked her out, she’d shoot me down.”

“I don’t want to put any pressure on you. I’m sorry if it sounded that way.”

“It didn’t. I can tell she’s a good person. Maybe once this place is up and running, she’ll be able to relax a little bit.”

“I hope so,” Brenda said.

CHAPTER FIVE

Sophie was standing in front of the mirror in her bathroom looking at herself, wondering when she had become the girl who rarely smiled, when her mother knocked on her bedroom door. “Come on in, Mom.” She stepped back into the room as her mother opened the door and stepped inside.

Brenda put her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow. Sophie felt like she was back in high school and her mother had caught her doing something she wasn’t supposed to do. “What was that all about?”

“What was what about?” Sophie asked her. She knew full well what her mother was talking about, but she didn’t have a good explanation.

“You were bordering on rude just now when you walked right past Drake and me without even saying hello. This is all so unlike you.”

Her mother was right … it was unlike her. She just couldn’t for the life of her figure out what was going on with her moods lately. “I’m sorry. I was just surprised when I came in to find you and Drake laughing like old friends. Mom, he’s supposed to be here to work—”

“Oh, stop it. That boy works his tail off from sunup to sundown six days a week for you. He’s entitled to take a break and eat a good meal and even have a few laughs. It wouldn’t hurt you to have a few yourself.”

“You seem as smitten with him as everyone in town is,” Sophie told her.

“He’s a really nice person, Sophie. Maybe you should take a cue from all of these people and get to know him better. It would do you good to have a friend your own age to do things with.”

“I don’t have time to get to know him or ‘do things’ with anyone. The Harvest Festival is in four weeks. That means if I plan to open that weekend, I’ll have to begin advertising by next week at the very latest. I’m not even sure we’ll be ready by then, and I still have a list of jobs I need Drake to do—”

“Sophie, I thought we decided that even if you didn’t get to open up that weekend, you were going to be okay with that.”

“No, Mom … I admitted that it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the truth is, it really will be. If we’re not offering beds on the busiest tourist weekend of the season, then it’s all been for naught.”

“If you make yourself sick by overdoing things, my dear daughter, you’ll never be able to enjoy the outcome. I thought we were keeping the joy in this.”

“I feel it still, Mom, in here.” Sophie pointed at her heart. “But I’ve worked too hard and dreamt of this for too long to lose focus now.”

“Okay, so how about this. You agree to give me just one day between now and the Harvest Festival … just one.”

Sophie smiled at her relentless mother. She knew she was worried so much about her because she was so much like her father. Brenda believed that her husband’s heart attack was related to the pressures he put on himself. Sophie hated making her mother worry. She had uprooted her life for her daughter, and she’d been a huge help in getting things set up. This was one small thing she could do to show her appreciation. Besides, she was probably right and taking just one day off wouldn’t make or break her deadline.

“What are we going to do with this one day?” Sophie asked.

Her mother smiled brightly now. “Since it’s my day, you’ll do whatever I ask.”

“That sounds ominous.”

Her mother laughed and said, “Do you trust me?”

“Of course, I trust you more than I trust anyone.”

“Good, then just trust me and you’ll have a great day … but you have to relax.”

“Okay, when is this ‘day’?” she asked.

“Tomorrow,” her mother told her. “It’s Saturday and a lighter day for you normally, right? There won’t be any deliveries, so no wall furnishings or curtains to put up.”

“Okay,” Sophie said again, still reluctantly. She felt her stomach clenching at the thought of losing all of those hours, but she needed to do this for her mother.

****

When Sophie went down for breakfast the next morning, she was surprised to find Drake, and not her mother, in the kitchen. “Good morning,” he said with that killer smile.

“Good morning.” She took the coffee mug he offered her and poured herself a steaming cup full. She took a long sip of it before asking, “Have you seen my mother?”

“Yes. She told me to give you this.” He handed Sophie a note, and she furrowed her brow as she began to unfold it. She recognized her mother’s handwriting right away:

Darling daughter of mine … today is my day. So, what I would like for you to do is get out and get some fresh air and really enjoy it. Drake has an extra bike for you. Please be nice to him. I will see you soon. Have a great ride.

Sophie looked back up into Drake’s eyes. He was smiling. He had the most perfect face that she’d ever seen … but what the heck did her mother think she was doing conspiring with him? It didn’t matter how handsome he was, she was not going on a bike ride with him. “Drake … what is she up to?”

“She wants you to relax. She’s worried about you. This mountain behind us has some of the greatest bike trails in the world—you’ll love it! There are also some really great trails through the apple orchards just south of us, and lake trails too.”

“Drake, I don’t have time to go on a bike ride. You and my mother both know how much there is still to do here—”

“Your mother said you promised to take the day off.”

Suddenly he was her mother’s confidante. “I did … but to spend it with her. If she’s not even going to be here, I don’t see the point.” She felt bad as soon as she said that.

His pretty brown eyes looked hurt for just a second, but then he covered it quickly and said, “I think the point—if I’m understanding your mother—is that she worries you work too hard and you need to take some time to smell the roses, or in this case, the apples.” He grinned and in spite of herself, Sophie had to smile back. He was so cute. “How about this. You can look at it as research for your place.”

“Research?” she asked suspiciously.

“Yes. Have you done an actual tour of the countryside?”

“No.”

“Well, Brook Haven is a pretty tight little town, and you should know some of the basics of what goes on here. Besides, I’m pretty sure your guests will ask you for things like directions and about the bike trails and places to hike. I know them all like the back of my hand. Also, you should check out your competition. If you look at it that way, we’re both still working.”

He had a good point. She’d looked up the other two B&Bs that were close by online, but she’d yet to see them in person. Maybe this wouldn’t be a wasted day after all. “Okay … but it’s been a while since I rode a bike.”

He winked at her and said, “It’s just like riding a bicycle.”

Once again, in spite of herself, she laughed. “I’ll go change.”

“Good, I’ll get the bikes ready.”

Sophie changed into a pair of yoga pants and a stretchy t-shirt that she usually wore to work out. She put on her tennis shoes and pulled her long hair back into a ponytail, then grabbed a sweater and went back downstairs. She found Drake out in front of the porch with two beach cruisers. “Why do you have two bikes?” She suddenly remembered the blonde. She didn’t want to get in the middle of any drama.

“I bought them at a garage sale and painted and fixed them up. I thought it would be nice to have two in case anyone ever wanted to go on a ride with me. And look … I was right.”

She took the handlebars of the blue bike from him and watched as he got a wicker basket and a backpack out of his truck. He slung the pack onto his arms and strapped the basket behind the seat of his bike. “Drake?”

“Yeah?”

“You don’t have someone who is going to get upset that you’re spending the day with me, do you?”

He grinned, and as usual her insides quivered. “Why? Is this a date?”

“No! This is not a date. I just don’t want to get involved in any drama unwittingly …”

Still smiling, he said, “Well, my dog Hooter can get a little jealous every now and again, but he’s not one to really start any drama.”

“Good to know,” she said. She really wanted to ask him about the blonde, but she was afraid he’d take it that she was interested in him herself. That wasn’t the case … for the most part. He was gorgeous, and judging by the fact that everyone in this town seemed to love him, he was undoubtedly one of the good guys. But Sophie didn’t have time for all of that. She slipped on the white helmet he handed her and straddled the bike. “What if I wreck?” she asked.

He laughed. “You are kind of a Negative Nellie, you know that?”

“I am not. It’s a valid question.”

He pulled off the backpack, reached inside, and pulled out a small first-aid kit. “I’ve got you covered,” he said.

“I’ll bet you were a Boy Scout.”

“How did you know?”

“Just something about that halo you carry around,” she said. Before he could respond, she was already pedaling away from the house. She slowed down as she got to the end of the driveway and let Drake take the lead. He grinned at her as he passed and she felt her heart rate accelerate. She followed him along the road that led from her place into town. They rode a mile or two and just before the turnoff toward Brook Haven, Drake turned in the opposite direction of town. They were on a dirt road, but it was well-maintained with no deep ruts or obstructions.

After another mile or two, they came to a spot where there were tidy white fences and green pastures stretching out along either side. “Sheep!” she squealed, surprising herself. Drake stopped his bike and she stopped next to him. “I’ve never seen them out in the pasture like that.” The green countryside was dotted with their puffy white coats. A medium-sized white dog with brown markings on his face ran in and out between them. “Is that a sheep dog?” she asked Drake.

He nodded. “It’s a Queensland, but they make good little sheepherders. They’re working dogs. They seem to enjoy it.” The dog came closer to the fence and looked curiously at them. Sophie could see that he had one brown eye and one blue. “Hey there, Kelly! How’s it going today?” Kelly sniffed up to the fence and Drake reached down and scratched her ears.

“Kelly?”

“Yeah, that’s her name.”

“She’s a girl? How do you know?”

Smiling, he said, “I’ve known her since she was born.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, the man who owns this ranch hires me every now and then to do some work for him around the place. He and his wife are retired from real estate out in California. This ranch was their dream, and they both tell me they’re much happier here than they ever were back there.”

“I’ve never been to California, but this place is definitely gorgeous.” Sophie looked out over the pasture behind them. She couldn’t really process how far it stretched out because from where they were, it looked like it merged with the mountains along the horizon.

“It is a really pretty little ranch. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

They rode on, eventually turning onto another trail. Drake warned her before they rode over it. “This trail is a little bumpier than the other.”

She was so enthralled with the beauty of nature all around them that she wasn’t worried about a few bumps. She could smell the trees and feel the sunlight on her face. Her mother was right—as usual—this was what she needed. Her soul was beginning to feel better already. A few minutes later, her breath was totally stolen away. They came out of a grove of trees and were suddenly surrounded on both sides by water. In front of them was a long bridge that looked sturdy, but it seemed like it had been designed for another century. It was so beautiful. “Is this part of Lake Champlain?” she asked Drake. He stopped next to her again.

“Yeah, this is a little-known spot back here. My friends and I did a lot of fishing off this bridge when we were kids.”

“It’s so pretty.”

“Yeah, it is. I love it out here.” They sat for a while and just took in the scenery around them before moving forward. Drake stopped again when they came to a ridge with a long road that would lead them down into a gorgeous little valley. He pointed out the majestic line of Adirondack Mountains far in the distance behind a beautiful three-story inn that sat surrounded by beautiful sugar maples and a deep-green sea of grass. There was a huge red barn out behind the house, and close to the end of the drive, Sophie could see what looked like a small fruit stand. Between them and the stand were rows and rows of apple trees.

“What is that place?” she asked him.

“That will be your biggest competition,” he said. “It’s the Mayflower Maple Inn.”

“Oh … it’s a beautiful old house.”

“Yes, this one is owned by Mrs. Theresa Larson. She and her husband have owned it for over fifty years. He passed away last year and her daughter came home to help her run the place. Mrs. Larson is close to eighty years old. She runs that little fruit stand down there, and her daughter and the staff handle the rest.”

“She sells apples?”

“She does, and she makes homemade lemonade—the best in the county.”

“Hmm … I am kind of thirsty,” she said, getting back on her bike.

Drake grinned. “You just want to get closer so that you can check out the competition, don’t you?”

She nodded as she took off down the long road that led to the inn. Drake shook his head and followed her with a smile. The scent of the apple trees as they rode through the grove was heady and light. Here and there the bright red apples lay on the ground—a sign that harvest season was coming soon. It was such a cozy scene that when Drake raced past her, Sophie lost all sense of the mature and serious woman she’d become. She stood up on her pedals, giggling, and raced him the rest of the way to the fruit stand. By the time they reached it—with her in the lead—they were both flushed and out of breath but laughing.

CHAPTER SIX

Drake thought that Sophie looked like an entirely different woman with color in her cheeks and light in her eyes. He was so incredibly tempted to kiss her that he was glad Mrs. Larson was standing there looking at them like they were crazy. He caught his breath and said, “Hello, Mrs. Larson. How are you today?”

“I’m doing well, Drake. It’s good to see you.” She looked over the rim of her spectacles and said, “I don’t think I know you, sweetie.”

“This is Sophie Michelson, Mrs. Larson. She just bought the old Harvest Moon Inn.”

“Well, that’s quite the accomplishment for such a young lady. Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Sophie told her with a genuine smile. “I’m really excited about it.”

“Well, I’ve been in this business for over half my life,” she said. “If there is anything I can help you with or any questions I can answer, honey, you feel free to ask. It seems you already know the best carpenter in town.”

Drake grinned. “Thank you, Mrs. Larson. Since I’m the only one in town …”

She waved her weathered palm at him. “You’d still be the best,” she said. She looked at Sophie again and said, “His daddy used to come by and do repairs for me and my husband on his days off from work, and he wouldn’t take a dime for it. We kept him supplied with apples and lemonade. Now his son here has taken to doing the same.”

Sophie laughed. “Well, that sounds like a good deal to me. I was hoping to try some of your lemonade. Drake says it’s the best in the county.”

The old lady winked. “He knows what he’s talking about,” she said. She went over to the little shed and through the divided doors. A few minutes later, she came back with two clear plastic cups of lemonade. Fresh lemon slices floated on top, and she also had a white bag in her hand. She handed one of the cups to Sophie and the other, plus the bag, to Drake. “Give that to your Uncle Mac for me, okay?”

“I sure will,” Drake said.

“How is he doing?”

“Very well,” Drake said. “Hooter found us a couple of kit foxes two weeks ago. Uncle Mac’s been nursing them back to health for me while I work. You know how he is … he won’t admit it, but I think he’s enjoying the company.”

She laughed. It was more of a cackle, and Drake couldn’t help but smile when he heard it. Sophie was smiling too and pulling money out of a little pocket in the front of her pants. Drake didn’t say anything, but he knew Mrs. Larson wasn’t going to take it. “This is $5.00. Is that enough?”

The old lady once again waved her wrinkled palm. “Your money is no good here when you’re with one of the Tanner boys.”

“Thank you.” Sophie took a long drink through the straw. “Wow, that is delicious,” she told Mrs. Larson. The older woman beamed.

“Thank you. It’s an old family recipe that I’m proud of.”

“Well, you should be,” Sophie said. “I’m not sure how I’ll compete with that.”

She cackled again. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. You have the advantage of youth. My daughter does her best around here and I’m thankful for her, but this never was her calling.”

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Larson.”

“You too, sweetheart, and I wish you the best of luck. Drake Tanner, you better kiss this old leathery cheek.” Drake leaned forward and did as she asked, smiling.

“It’s as smooth as glass,” he told her. Her cheeks colored and she waved him away. As they rode off, she stood and watched them and waved until they were out of sight.

Not far up the road, they came to another area of the lake. This one was surrounded by flat land and wildflowers. “Do you want to stop here and eat?” he asked Sophie.

“Eat? Is that what you have in that basket?”

“Yep. You didn’t have breakfast.”

She smiled. “Come to think of it, I am a little hungry. This looks like a good place.” They pulled the bikes off the little road and Drake unhooked the picnic basket. He had a little checkered tablecloth rolled up and attached to it. Sophie smiled as she watched him spread it out.

He looked up at her and said, “What?”

“Just that Boy Scout thing again—always prepared.”

He made a face at her and finished setting up what he’d brought. Sophie was amazed at the selection. He’d cut up strawberries and melons and, of course, apples, all into bite-sized pieces. He had a sampling of cheese, some bread, and even two blueberry muffins. “Wow, this looks great,” she told him, taking a seat on the ground next to the food.

“Thanks. My mom loved picnics. I learned how to pack one from her, I guess.” He looked at the white bag and grinned. “We could always add Uncle Mac’s apple cinnamon rolls in with the mix.”

“Who is Uncle Mac?”

“He’s my mom’s brother. He lives on the family property with me, but in his own house. Mrs. Larson makes a batch of these rolls about once a week. She always finds a way to send some to Uncle Mac. Before his accident, he worked for her and her husband, and she’s always had a soft spot for him.”

“His accident?”

“He was in a head-on collision when he was in his early twenties. Back before seatbelt laws. He was thrown through the windshield and landed about fifty feet from the car on his back. He’s a paraplegic now, but from what I hear about how he was back then, it’s a miracle he’s alive.”

“Oh, wow, that’s terrible. Can he take care of himself?”

“Oh yeah, he does really well now. Something about the head injury changed him a little, I guess. I didn’t know him back then, but everyone in town says he was always the life of the party. It’s like pulling teeth now to get him out of the farm.”

“The poor thing.” She picked up a strawberry off her plate and said, “What was it you were telling Mrs. Larson about foxes?”

“Oh … that’s actually why I was late that first day.” He told her about Hooter finding the foxes and what they’d been through keeping them alive since. “Uncle Mac likes to blame the ‘bringing home strays’ on me and my mother, but he’s taken to those babies like nothing I’ve ever seen. I worry about taking them from him.” When he finished talking, he noticed Sophie had put her food down and had a stricken look on her face. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “I just feel so bad. I treated you so poorly and here you were saving baby animals—”

He laughed. “I’m no saint, trust me. I should have at least called you.”

“And I should have listened when you tried to tell me what happened. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s forgotten,” he said. “And you weren’t that bad. Eat your fruit.” She smiled and started eating again. “So your mom tells me that you’ve been planning this B&B since you were little. What was it that fascinated you so much about it?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure. I think it was just that weekend we spent at the one in New Hampshire—everyone there seemed so happy. I’ve always been really kind of domestic. I love to cook and bake, and I make my own soaps and grow my own spices and herbs …”

“Really? I do too.”

“You cook and bake and make soap?”

He laughed. “Um … kind of, not really, and no way. I meant me ‘too’ about the growing herbs part. I use mine to make salves and things.”

“Really? How did you learn to do that?”

“My mom. She was really good at that stuff. When she passed away, she left me her journals with her recipes.”

“What happened to your parents, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Dad passed away of a heart attack at sixty-two. Two years later, Mom followed. I honestly think her heart was broken. She loved him so much.”

“That’s sad and beautiful at the same time.”

He smiled and suddenly had that urge to kiss her again. “So, a bed and breakfast because you’re domestic … a lot of women just turn that into marriage and children.”

“If you haven’t noticed, I’m not a lot of women.”

He tried not to let her see the overwhelming desire he was feeling as he looked at her and said, “I have noticed that, yes. So do you not ever want to have a family of your own?”

“I would never say never, but given that option right this minute, I’d say no. It might sound silly to someone on the outside, but I’ve dreamt about and planned this business for so long that I just have to make it a reality first. You see how it worries my mother to death that I don’t want to take a day off. Just imagine me with a husband and a couple of kids who need my attention.”

Drake had been trying not to imagine that very thing since practically the day he met her. He was overwhelmed by the incredible attraction he felt. At the same time, he was pretty sure that he wouldn’t be the man she’d choose if she ever did decide to settle down. One good thing about being complacent with his life, it was fairly easy for him to convince himself to just be happy with the fact that he got to see her every day. And after today, becoming friends with her seemed like a real possibility. Never being one who needed to hurry things, he decided to keep that desire to kiss her in check and just see where this new friendship of theirs went.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“You sure have been smiling a lot this evening.” Sophie and her mom were making dinner together, and she had just been thinking about something Drake had said earlier that made her smile.

“Are you complaining? I thought that was your whole big ploy when you set me up this morning.”

“Set you up? Whatever do you mean? I told you that I remembered I’d made a hair appointment—”

Sophie laughed. “You’re a terrible liar.”

“Did you have fun?”

Sophie smiled again in spite of herself. She did have fun—much more than she’d had in a long time. “Admit you set me up.”

Brenda laughed. “Fine, I set you up. I thought you’d have more fun with Drake than with me. Now, your turn, admit you had fun.”

“I had fun. It was a lot of fun and I definitely needed it, so thank you for your sneaky ways.”

“You’re welcome. So tell me about it.”

Sophie breaded the fish and told her mother about the green mountains and the apple orchards. As she talked, she could almost see it and smell it all over again. It was all so beautiful. She had to admit, only to herself of course, that as she saw it all in her mind’s eye, she saw it all as a backdrop to Drake’s gorgeous smile. “Did you know that he has a disabled uncle?”

“He mentioned an uncle to me; I don’t believe he told me he was disabled.”

“He’s paraplegic. Drake says he does a lot for himself, but I get the feeling Drake does a lot for him, too. He also seems to be quite the animal lover.” She lowered the fish into the skillet with the warming olive oil on the stove.

Brenda waited until she’d covered it with a lid before she said, “You seem to be warming up to Drake.”

Sophie shook her head. She wondered why all of a sudden her mother seemed to want to play matchmaker; she’d never done that before. Was she afraid that Sophie’s biological clock was ticking?

“I am warming up to him, Mom … as a friend. He’s a nice guy and I had fun with him today, but don’t get it into your pretty little head that it’s going any further than that.”

Brenda took the plates and silverware off the counter and carried them to the center island. As she set them out, she said, “Okay, I promise not to push either of you, but can I ask you why?”

Sophie lifted the lid and used the tongs to turn the fish. She was quiet for a long time, trying to decide how to word her feelings so that they didn’t upset her mother. When she put the lid down and turned around, she said, “Mom … now is just not a good time for me to get in a relationship.”

“But you do plan on it someday?”

Sophie took her mother’s hand, then led her over to the island and sat down. Brenda settled down on the other stool and Sophie asked her, “Why is this suddenly an issue for you, Mom?”

“It’s not an ‘issue.’ I just hate seeing you so unhappy.”

“You think that I’m unhappy?”

“You hardly ever smile anymore. You have such a beautiful smile, it’s a shame.”

Sophie squeezed her mother’s hand. “I’m sorry I’ve given you that impression and made you worry. I am happy though, Mom! I’m so happy! This is what I’ve always wanted. I’m just really feeling a lot of pressure right now. I know that outwardly I don’t show it, but I am so grateful for everything I have … most especially you. I will try harder—”

“It’s not about me, Sophie. I know you love me and I feel blessed to be a part of this with you. I’m just afraid you’re going to let your youth pass you by, and once that happens, you can’t get it back.”

Sophie nodded. “I hear you, Mom. In four weeks, this place will be up and running, and I will start spending some time getting to know some of the folks in town and try to make some new friends.”

“You promise?”

Sophie smiled. “Pinky promise,” she said, holding her little finger out. Brenda took it with hers the way they used to when Sophie was a little girl. “Now, let’s eat some fish and talk about your future for a change.”

Brenda snorted and Sophie laughed. She had to admit that she felt much lighter than she had in weeks. Nothing had really changed other than she’d let her guard down for a few hours. Maybe there was something to be said for deviating from the plan every now and again.

****

Drake finished loading the last of his vegetables and herbs in the truck and had just helped Hooter up into the bed. When Hooter was younger, there’d be no stopping him from jumping in and out of the truck, but he was getting up there in age, so sometimes he needed a little boost. He was about to head up to see if his uncle wanted to go when he heard Mac calling to him from the house. Drake walked the five hundred feet and found Mac sitting on the front porch holding the kits, one in each hand. “What’s wrong?” he said before he noticed Mac was smiling from ear to ear.

“Watch …” He held the one in his right hand up, and the cute little guy stretched out his long nose and nuzzled Mac’s.

“Oh wow. That’s cute.”

“Wait! Watch this …” He held the other one up. Instead of going for Mac’s nose, that one laid a kiss right on his lips. Drake cracked up.

“How long did it take you to teach them that?”

“I didn’t teach either one of them. The little boogers just started doing it on their own every time I picked them up.” He tried to look annoyed as he said it, but the little guy in his right hand climbed up his arm and snuggled into his chest right next to his armpit. Drake could see him visibly melting. God, he hated the thought of how upset Mac was going to be when they had to leave.

“That’s awesome,” he said. He almost told him that Sam would be back on Wednesday, but he just didn’t have the heart. “You want to go to the market with me this morning?”

“Nah … I better stay back and make sure these guys eat and take care of their other business.”

Drake smiled. “Okay. Do you have anything you want me to take for you?”

“Yeah, if you don’t mind. There are a couple of new carvings on the table in the shop.”

“Okay, I’ll bring us some lunch when I get back.” Mac was already immersed in conversation with one of the kits and hardly noticed Drake leaving. Drake went around to the woodshop, and when he opened the door and saw what was on the table, tears actually stung the corners of his eyes. Mac had carved a replica of each kit as well as one of them curled together sleeping. They were lifelike and beautiful, and there was no way that Drake was going to sell them. He took them with him; he’d bring the money back to Mac, but they would go into his private collection, the one in his house that Mac rarely saw because he refused to leave his own.

Any time Drake took one of Mac’s carvings into town and it didn’t sell, he bought it. They were genuinely beautiful works of art, but unless it was tourist season, the folks in Brook Haven didn’t often have a lot of money to spend on non-essentials. Drake had a collection of at least a dozen … and now he had three more.

He made it into town just in time to set up his table before he had his first customer. Hooter had wandered off to say hello, and Drake didn’t worry about him; everyone in town knew the old yellow Lab.

“Hi, Drake!”

“Hey, Karen, how’s the shoulder?”

“It’s so much better thanks to that salve you gave me last week.” Karen lived alone in a house at the edge of the woods with no electricity or running water. Drake gave her a camp stove a while back to cook on, and the nice folks who owned the grocery store kept her supplied with fresh water and anything non-perishable that they would have to throw out. She always had a different ailment, and Drake had come to suspect over the years that most of her pain came from the inside and manifested itself in body aches.

“I’m glad to hear that. My mama swore by it for her joint pain.”

“Your mama was an angel,” she said. “We sure do miss her around here.”

“Thank you, Karen. I miss her too.”

“I got a crick in my knee these days …”

Before she left, Drake had loaded her down with a grocery bag full of vegetables and more salve. He was just wrapping things up with his second customer—a paying one—when he heard a familiar voice.

“Well, there he is. Where are those wild animals you’ve been hanging on to for me?”

“Sam! I thought you weren’t coming back until Wednesday.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Well, that’s a nice welcome home if I ever got one,” he said.

“Sorry. I’m just surprised to see you.”

“Well, hitting the beach was nice after the conference, but you know me, I’d rather socialize with the animals.”

Drake smiled. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that about you.”

“So how are those kits doing?”

“Well, when I left the farm, Mac had one of them rubbing noses with him and the other giving him kisses.”

Sam cringed. “You domesticated them?”

“No … Mac did, I guess. You know he just gets lonely out there. Those little guys have kind of become his companions.”

“Drake, he can’t keep them.”

“I know. I’m just having a hard time telling him that.”

Sam laughed. “I’ll tell him.” Hooter suddenly appeared from somewhere and began to rub his thick coat against Sam’s leg. He smiled at the dog and squatted down to pet him.

“No, I’ll do it. Just give me a day or two,” Drake told him.

“The longer he has them, the harder it will be to get them back out into the wild where they belong.” Sam scratched Hooter underneath his chin once more and then stood up.

“I know,” Drake said with a heavy sigh. Sam raised an eyebrow at him again, and Drake said, “Really, I do. I’ll talk to him when I get home.”

“All right, call me tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.” Drake watched him move on to the next booth to say hello to Mrs. O’ Brien. He blamed himself for this. If he’d been paying more attention, he would have seen how lonely Mac was and gotten him a pet of his own.

“Why so glum?”

He looked up at the voice. “Hey, Brooke.” He pulled out the chair next to him and said, “Have a seat and I’ll tell you all my troubles.” Hooter was extremely happy to see her. She sat down in one of the chairs and let Hooter put his big paws up in her lap as she petted him.

“The doctor is in,” she told Drake. “But you know I charge by the hour. I need the cash too since I can’t seem to convince anyone in this town that I’m a real doctor.”

He laughed, even though he knew she wasn’t really kidding. Poor Brooke was having trouble getting new patients. People drove for miles to see a doctor they didn’t know because a lot of them still saw Brooke as the girl they’d watched grow up. Drake had been racking his brains trying to figure out how to help her, but he hadn’t really come up with anything yet. Hooter saw another dog and he was off like a shot to investigate.

As Brooke brushed the yellow hair off her jeans, Drake told her, “You can put the bill on my tab. You know I’m good for it.”

He grinned at her, and she laughed and said, “That tab goes all the way back to fifth grade. I’m beginning to think you never intend to pay me. At this rate, I’ll starve.”

He handed her a plastic container full of carrots. “Here, have some vegetables.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

Sophie drove down to her mother’s cabin to pick her up. They were going to the farmer’s market. It had actually been Sophie’s idea, and her mother seemed thrilled about it. When she stopped in front of the cabin, she noticed her mother’s limp was less noticeable than it had been the day before.

“I’m so happy you decided to take the morning off,” Brenda told her as she slid into the passenger seat of the SUV.

“Yeah, well, I already wasted one whole day.”

“Wasted? I thought you said you had a good time yesterday.”

Sophie smiled. “I was kidding, Mom.” Brenda shook her head. What Sophie wasn’t telling her mother was that she hadn’t been able to get Drake out of her head all night long. She thought about him all evening and when she finally fell asleep, she dreamt about him. In her dream, they were married and running the inn together. She’d woken up feeling warm and safe, and it made her wonder about the possibilities. They were a long way from marriage, but she was definitely interested in getting to know him better.

The two women talked about the website Sophie was working on for the inn on the way into town. Sophie had hired a photographer who would be out on Monday to take some professional photos of the place for her to use in her advertisements.

“Has Drake started on the main fireplace yet?” Brenda asked. There were quite a few loose stones in the big eight-feet-high-by-six-feet-wide stone fireplace and mantle.

“He’s waiting for the stones to come in, but I don’t think any of the imperfections will show up in a photo, do you?”

“Probably not. The fences he did last week out behind my place look really good.”

Sophie nodded. “Yeah, I went out and looked at them on Friday. They actually look like brand new. He does really good work.” And he looks gorgeous doing it, she added in her mind.

Sophie drove through town until they came to the street that was blocked off for the market every Sunday morning. She parked the SUV and went around to help her mother step out. “Really, Sophie, I am not an invalid.”

“I don’t want that ankle to get worse,” she told her. “I wish you would go to the doctor. It shouldn’t still be bothering you so much.”

Brenda pulled her arm gently from her daughter’s grasp. “Who says that it’s bothering me?”

“You’re still limping after two weeks.”

“That’s my bursitis.”

“You don’t have bursitis—”

“Oh look, it’s Tina, the lady who did my hair yesterday.” Brenda lifted her arm and waved, and Tina motioned her over to the booth. “I’ll catch up with you, honey.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. She was glad her mother was making friends, but that had been a blatant escape attempt. Brenda was always so busy taking care of everyone else that she forgot to take care of herself sometimes. Sophie looked around at all of the little booths set up. It seemed that everyone in the community had something to sell—or maybe barter, she wasn’t sure. She saw Mrs. Larson as she was walking around and stopped to say hello. The old lady seemed thrilled to see her and gave her another cup of free lemonade.

“Thank you, Mrs. Larson. Do you know where Drake sets up?”

The older lady pointed to a table about five booths past hers. “He’s right there, honey, behind the O’ Dells’ booth.” Sophie looked but she couldn’t see him. There was a stack of containers on the grocer’s booth that he must be hidden behind. Mrs. Larson told her, “You see those blue containers? Those are his. It looks like Brooke is there with him.”

Sophie moved a step to the right, and she did see him. He was sitting at the little table with the blonde she’d seen with him in Huckleberry’s. “Mrs. Larson, who is Brooke?” Sophie heard herself ask, and she was surprised. Once again, it was very unlike her to feel jealous or threatened by another woman—especially since she wasn’t even in a relationship with the man.

“She’s our doctor now. It’s funny to me, sometimes. I watched that girl grow from diapers to medical school, and now she’s the one who writes out my prescriptions. A lot of folks are still driving the seventy miles down to the city because it just seems too strange to them.” She paused, and Sophie was just about to excuse herself when Mrs. Larson said, “Some things never change though. Those two have been sweet on each other since they were kids. I remember my dear departed husband running them out of our barn once when he found them in there kissing. They couldn’t have been over fifteen then. Brooke’s family lived just across the back field from us.”

Sophie didn’t like the way the sound of that made her feel either. What was happening to her? She’d never mooned over a man before and got jealous at the very idea of him kissing another woman—and twelve years ago at that!

She chastised herself once more, and Mrs. Larson asked, “Are you okay, dear?”

“Oh yes, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You look a little peaked.”

Sophie wasn’t sure what “peaked” meant exactly, but she thought she might feel a little “peaked” as well. “I’m fine, Mrs. Larson. Thank you for the lemonade. I hope to see you again soon.”

“You’re so welcome, dear.” Sophie walked away from Mrs. Larson’s booth, but she wasn’t sure what she should do. Maybe she should go over and talk to him and see if he introduced the blonde this time—now that she really thought of it, he never said he didn’t have anyone in his life. What he had said was that he didn’t have anyone who would get angry about him spending the day with her. His blonde “friend” looked like a model even just from the back. Sophie was sure she’d have nothing to feel threatened about. Maybe that was all he meant.

She had decided to just turn around and go find her mother about the time Drake stood up to wait on a customer. He glanced in her direction and his chocolate eyes captured hers, and for a second she was frozen to her spot. A slow smile spread across his handsome face and he waved her over. Great. She pasted on a smile and walked over to him.

As she walked up, she heard the man next to the table telling him, “Becky was so grateful to you for dropping off those vegetables last week. We were both so sick we could hardly get out of bed, much less into town. She made us the best soup I’ve ever tasted out of them. I don’t know what you use in that soil of yours but—”

“Love,” the woman with the blonde hair said, grinning. Drake rolled his eyes without even looking at her.

“I’m glad you both liked them, Brett. What can I get for you today?”

“Becky said to get some of that yellow squash and two of your tomatoes. I want to pay you for what you brought by last week, too.”

“No way, that was one neighbor to another,” he said. Every time she was around him even for a minute, Sophie was finding it easier to understand why everyone loved him.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive,” he said, putting some things in a bag and handing it to the man. “That’s two dollars.”

“Two dollars?” The man looked at his fully stuffed bag. He appeared about to argue, but a glance at Drake’s face changed his mind. He handed Drake the two dollars, and with a grateful look, he said, “After the harvest, I’m going to make this all up to you.”

“I know,” Drake told him. As soon as the man walked away, he turned to Sophie. His smile and the tone of his voice was genuine as he said, “I’m so glad you came out this morning.”

That smile had a way of thawing the protective wall she kept around her heart. “Me too,” she said. “This is nice.” The blonde cleared her throat, and Drake looked down like he had just remembered she was there.

“I’m sorry. Brooke Kilgore, this is my friend Sophie Michelson. Brooke is the doctor in our clinic here in town.” Brooke stood up and offered Sophie her hand, which she accepted, Sophie found herself envious of the other woman’s smooth, feminine hands. She had been working so hard lately that she hadn’t given much thought to the state of her hands until just now.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” Brooke said. When she smiled, she had one deep dimple on the right side of her face.

“It’s nice to meet you too,” Sophie told her.

“Speaking of the clinic, I guess I should get back to the booth. Drake, call me if you need backup later. And stay strong or buy a puppy.”

Drake laughed and said, “Couldn’t I just give Hooter to him instead?”

Brooke laughed. “Right, you and that old Lab couldn’t live without each other. How old is he now?”

“He’s going on fifteen this year,” he told her.

Brooke whistled. “Wow, it’s hard to believe he’s that old. I was at that birthday party when your dad gave him to you.”

Drake looked like he was remembering. With another genuine smile, he said, “Yeah, I remember it like it was just last week. He’s been a good old dog.”

She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I really have to get back. Don’t forget to call me after you talk to Mac.” She turned back to Sophie and said, “It was really nice meeting you.”

“Thank you. It was good to meet you as well.” Drake’s eyes moved from Brooke back to Sophie. Something about the way he looked at her made her feel safe and warm. “She’s the doctor, huh?” she asked. Stupid question, didn’t he just say, “She’s the doctor?”

“Yeah,” he said, at least polite enough not to even smirk or point out that he’d just said that. Instead he said, “She and I have been friends for a long time.”

Just friends … that’s good. Good, why? Why do I care who he’s “just friends” with?

“So what are you selling?” she asked, trying hard to change the subject before she said something to embarrass herself further.

“Vegetables, herbs, salves …”

“I could use some vegetables.” He grinned. God, he was so handsome…. She started looking through what he had and saw that most of them were cut up into bite-sized pieces and put into plastic containers. Some of them even looked like they had seasoning of some sort on them. “Is this a special seasoning or something?”

“Nope, it’s just salt and pepper.”

“So why do you cut them up like this? Do they sell better?”

“Not really. Brook Haven is so close to the mountains that a lot of folks we get here in town—locals—live in cabins up on the mountain. Many of them don’t have electricity or gas to cook with, and the ones that do just might not have a lot of money to buy food. A lot of our work around here is seasonal. If you don’t own a business that people need all year round, off-season times can get tough. Some of the folks up here just survive all year off what they make during ski season. Some of them wouldn’t make it if the community didn’t help out. The general store is owned by a couple named the O’ Dells, and they give out things that most markets return or throw away, like vegetables you can’t really keep very long or they go bad, especially this time of year. My mom always cut up the ones that could be eaten fresh and raw and packaged them this way. I just continued what she started.”

“So you give them away?”

“In some cases. There are people who can afford to pay me, and the ones that can’t don’t. I plant way too many every season for just Uncle Mac and me to eat.”

She smiled. “How do you know the difference? I mean, do you already know who can afford to pay and who can’t?”

“I don’t need to know. They know. They take what they need and pay me if or when they can. Sometimes they trade me for things.”

“That’s really admirable, Drake.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Nah, it’s just what you’re supposed to do for your neighbors. Everybody around here gives back if they can.”

She didn’t respond because he didn’t seem overly comfortable talking about it, but it warmed her heart. She was feeling more confident with her choice of a place to start her business and put down her roots every day.

CHAPTER NINE

Sophie spent most of the morning with Drake at his table. Some of it she spent playing with his dog who, she discovered, loved to fetch.

“Why is his name Hooter?”

“When my parents gave him to me, I named him Beau. He was just a tiny little thing and I was too young to really know how much trouble he could get into out on a farm that sits right at the mouth of the forest. I got busy playing with my friends at the party and before I knew it, Beau was gone. He’d just disappeared. I was in a panic, and my friends and I all ran off to look for him. We looked for over an hour and when we came back to the house, the pup was curled up in my mom’s lap on the front porch. I asked her where she found him and she said she didn’t find him, the barn owl did. We had this owl that my mom fixed up when he was young. He wouldn’t leave afterwards and just stayed in our barn. I guess once we took off, Mom could hear him making all kinds of racket, ‘hooting and hollering,’ she had said. When she got to the barn, she found the pup curled up on top of the owl’s nest. I decided to rename him Hooter after that.”

“What a cute story. Your family loves animals, don’t they?”

“Yeah. My mother was like Snow White. They were just attracted to her.”

Throughout the rest of the morning, Drake introduced her to a lot of people she hadn’t met, and between customers, she just sat with him and talked. She had a lot of questions about the community and the people and what it was going to be like in a few weeks when tourist season exploded, and he answered them all to the best of his ability.

The whole time he was shaking inside. He hadn’t been able to get her off his mind since he met her, but after the bike ride yesterday, it was even worse. It was the first time she’d really let her guard down around him and he got to see the real Sophie. He’d liked what he’d seen … a lot. Today was a lot of the same. She laughed at his stupid jokes and even made a few of her own. By the time Brenda found her to tell her she was ready to go, Sophie was even waiting on his customers.

“I see you put her to work,” Brenda told Drake with a smile. “Good for you.”

Sophie finished handling her “sale” and turned to look at her mother. “And where have you been, young lady? You disappeared on me for hours.”

Brenda laughed. “You know me, I’m a social butterfly. I think I may have joined a quilting league … or whatever you call them.”

“You quilt?” Sophie asked her.

“Not at all. I can’t even sew, but it sounded like fun.”

Sophie laughed. “Are you ready to head back? I was going to get some work done in the office today.”

“Sure, honey, whenever you are. How is your Sunday going, Drake?”

“Great,” he told her honestly. He couldn’t have asked for a better one—minus the part about having to go home and having that talk with Mac about the kits.

“What are you doing for dinner, Drake?” He didn’t miss the way Sophie’s head snapped around to look at her mother when she asked him that. Sophie was as aware as he was that her mother was trying to set them up.

He smiled and said, “I don’t have any plans, Mrs. Michelson.” Then he looked at Sophie again for her reaction. She actually seemed more amused than annoyed.

“Good, you should join us. I took some pork chops out to thaw this morning. I thought I’d do them up with an apple bourbon sauce that I haven’t made in a long time.”

“That sounds really good, but I might have to take a rain check.”

“Oh. I thought you said you didn’t have plans?”

“I don’t, but there’s something I need to talk to my uncle about and—”

“Oh no, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to exclude your uncle. He’s welcome to come too. I’d love to meet him. Wouldn’t you, Sophie?”

“Yes,” Sophie said, still looking amused. “I’d love to meet him.”

“Well, I’m just not sure he’ll come …”

“How often do you two get a home-cooked meal?”

“Not often,” he said regretfully. “I’ll ask him. Can I let you know?”

“Of course.”

Drake smiled. “Thank you. I’ll let you know soon so you don’t make extra food for no reason.”

“I’ll look forward to hearing from you,” Brenda told him. “Sophie, I’m going to wait in the car. Take your time.”

“Is your ankle hurting again?”

“No, it’s fine. I hope we see you later, Drake.” They watched as she walked away, and it was obvious that she was trying hard not to limp.

“She never saw a doctor about that?” Drake asked Sophie.

“No, she’s so stubborn. She keeps telling me it’s fine, but she’s still limping and she thinks she’s hiding it from me.”

“Will you mind the table for just a second?” Drake interrupted her.

Sophie looked at him strangely but said, “Sure.”

He followed Brenda, and when he caught up to her, he said, “Mrs. Michelson, I was wondering if you’d do me a favor?”

“Sure, of course, Drake. What do you need?”

“My friend Brooke is the new doctor here in town. She just came back from being gone to medical school and doing her residency and all of that in Boston. She opened a little clinic, but they haven’t gotten a lot of business yet. The doctor who was here before was here for years, and people are just having a hard time trusting such a young doctor. Unfortunately, some of them are still a little on the fence about her being female, too. It’s just not what they’re used to, you know? She has a booth here and I was just wondering if maybe you’d let her look at your ankle.”

Brenda had a knowing smile on her face as she said, “And how does that help your friend?”

“Well, I’m not sure it will, but so far today no one has stopped to take advantage of her services. You could be the first. It would at least make her feel better.”

“Are you trying to manipulate me into having a doctor look at my ankle, Drake?”

“Is it working?”

“I’ll let her look at it.”

“Then yes ma’am, that was exactly what I was trying to do.”

Brenda laughed and he held his arm out to her. She took it, and he escorted her over to the booth where Brooke sat with her medical assistant, looking bored out of her mind.

****

“It’s broken?” Sophie said, slightly indignant that her mother had been walking around on it for over two weeks.

“She doesn’t know that for sure. She wants me to go have it x-rayed at the clinic tomorrow.”

“But she told you that you shouldn’t be walking on it.”

“Yes, she told me to try and stay off of it. I wasn’t planning a marathon tonight.”

“You invited Drake and his uncle to dinner though. I’m cooking—”

“No, you’re not. I invited them, I’ll cook.”

“How do you plan on doing that without standing up?” Sophie asked her as she turned off the main road and onto the road leading up to the house.

“I can sit on one of the stools if I need to. I’ll be fine. You worry way too much.”

Sophie shook her head at her stubborn mother. She knew that it wouldn’t do any good to argue with her. When they got to the house, Sophie helped her out of the SUV and said, “Drake says they have an old walker at his place from when his uncle had physical therapy. I’m going to run over there and pick it up.”

“He can just bring it when he comes for dinner.”

“He’s not even sure his uncle will come, Mom. It’s ten minutes from here, he said. I’ll be right back.” She helped Brenda into the house and issued more orders she knew her mother wouldn’t follow. Then she called Drake to let him know she was dropping by before she got back in the car. She followed the road from her place up toward the mountains and turned off on the one he told her to. The road narrowed and was surrounded on all sides by thick patches of trees that seemed to lead higher up into the mountains.

The view was gorgeous and Sophie almost missed her turnoff because she was so engrossed by it. When she saw the little dirt road, she nearly had to slam on her breaks. She smiled at the little handmade sign that read “Tanner Stead” near the mailbox at the end of the road. A bunch of lilac bushes seemed to grow wild there and she caught their sweet, subtle scent as the air wafted through her open window.

She saw Drake’s house as she got a little closer. It was built up on a gentle rise that sloped away on either side, and the property was dotted with massive oak trees and a maple tree here and there. His house was so white that it actually gleamed in the center of all that brown and green. The little yard in front and the vegetable garden off to the side were as well-kept as she imagined they would be.

There was a gravel and dirt road that led from his house up to another, smaller one that she assumed was his uncle’s. Behind that house was a large shop, and off to the side of that looked like a big barn. As she parked and stepped out of the car, Hooter ran up to greet her. Drake came out of the house behind him.

“Hooter, get off of her. This is why we never have company.” Sophie laughed and petted the rambunctious old dog. Something else caught his attention and he scampered off toward the garden. “Come on in,” Drake told her. “What does your mother say about using the walker?” he asked as he led her into a cozy living room.

It was furnished with what looked like handmade furniture covered with thick brown and tan upholstered cushions. There was a fireplace along one wall and a lot of family photos on the mantle. There were also hand-carved animals everywhere. They were intricate, beautiful pieces of art. Sophie was thinking about asking him where he got them from. It would look great in the lodge room of the B&B.

“Well, I think by now you know my mother … so what do you think?” she said in answer to his question.

He laughed. “I think she doesn’t want to be a burden to her daughter, mostly. Have a seat.” Sophie didn’t want to sit down. Being in this house that was so much a reflection of him was making it harder for her to deny she was beginning to have feelings for him. It was a little bit overwhelming all of a sudden. She didn’t want to be rude though, so she sat.

“Your carvings are beautiful. Where do you get them from?”

Drake smiled as he took a seat across from her. “My uncle made these.”

“Oh my goodness. Does he sell them?”

“Yeah, when he can. During the tourist season, he sells quite a few. I get first dibs though.”

“Does he take orders?”

“Not very well.”

Sophie had been looking at a carving that stood about two feet tall. It looked like a piece of a mountain with three unique-looking wolves standing on each flat area. She looked up at him suddenly and relaxed when she saw he was joking. “Well, I assumed since he was related to you that was the case—”

“Hey!”

She laughed. “Seriously, do you think he’d make some for me? I’d be willing to pay whatever his asking price is. I’d love to have some for the lodge.”

“We can take a walk up and ask him if you’d like,” Drake told her.

She resisted the urge to look at the time. Once again, she was getting nothing done today. Taking one day off seemed to have set the pattern for the entire weekend, but she was enjoying herself for the most part, so she simply said, “Sure, I’d like that.”

“Okay, let me get that walker for you and we’ll load it up on the way out.” She watched him step into the other room, and then she got up and looked at the pictures on the mantle. There were a lot of him at various stages of his life with his parents or a man in a wheelchair, who she assumed was his uncle. Drake looked a little like his mom and a little like his dad … and a lot like his uncle. There were also quite a few of him with a blonde-haired girl that looked a lot like the doctor. She felt that annoying twinge of jealousy again.

“All right, here it is,” he said, returning with the folded-up contraption. He carried it out and put it in her car, and then they started the short trek up to his uncle’s house.

The mountain behind Drake’s property was still mostly green, but Sophie could see where there were patches of color—the leaves were just beginning to change. She couldn’t wait until it was full-on fall and everything was in vivid color. When they got to the little house, Drake stepped up onto the porch and, through the screen door, he said, “Uncle Mac, I have someone that would like to meet you.”

“Come on in,” a deep voice called back. Drake held the door open while Sophie stepped inside. This little house was furnished with the same handmade furniture that was in Drake’s house, and the place was just as neat.

A man in a wheelchair rolled out of the bedroom. He held two little wiggly burnt-orange creatures in his lap that looked almost like kittens with bushy tails. He smiled at Sophie. He’s as handsome as his nephew, she thought, just older.

“Uncle Mac, this is Sophie Michelson. She’s the one that I’m working for over at the inn.”

The older man offered his hand, and Sophie shook it. “I’m pleased to meet you, Sophie.”

“It’s nice to meet you too. Are these the kits I’ve heard about?” Mac looked like a proud papa. He introduced them to Sophie as “Todd and Copper.”

“They’re adorable,” Sophie said.

Mac held one up and said, “Here. You can hold him.”

Sophie glanced at Drake and he nodded. There was something sad in his eyes, and she wondered what that was about. She took the kit and held him to her chest. He cuddled into her just like a kitten. “Oh my gosh, they’re so sweet. I want one!”

“They’re wild animals,” Drake said. “Even my uncle seems to have forgotten.” His uncle gave him a narrow-eyed look and then turned his attention back to Sophie.

“Sophie, have a seat. Would you like something to drink? I have tea or I can make some coffee…”

“No, thank you. I can’t stay long. I was just admiring your woodwork when I was up at Drake’s place. He actually brought me over here so I could ask if you might be interested in doing some for me for the inn.”

“Oh. Yes, I could probably do that. What were you thinking?”

“Anything you’d like to make, really. I love all of the ones in Drake’s house.”

Mac looked back up at his nephew, who was standing with his back to the little island between the living room and kitchen. “How many does my nephew have?”

“Just a few,” Drake said.

Sophie suddenly realized maybe she’d said something she shouldn’t have. “Yes, only a few. I really love the one with the wolves.” Mac chuckled and Drake’s face turned red. “I’m sorry … did I say something wrong?” she asked.

“Not at all,” Mac said. “It just seems like my nephew didn’t have the heart to tell me some of my things didn’t sell, so he bought them.”

“Oh …” She looked at Drake. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know …”

He shook his head and smiled at her. “It’s okay,” he said, looking back at Mac. “They would have sold, but I didn’t give them a chance. I bought the ones I liked before I even took them into town.”

Mac laughed then. It was like a deep rumble in his chest and so contagious that Sophie almost laughed too. “You’re so full of it,” he said. “But you have a good heart, kid.” He looked back at Sophie and said, “You bring me a list of what you’d like and I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you so much. Drake, have you told him about my mother’s invitation?”

“Not yet.”

“My mother is making dinner tonight, and she’d really like it if you and Drake could join us.”

“Oh … I don’t think … I mean I really shouldn’t leave the kits …”

“It would only be for a couple of hours, or even less if you needed it to be. We’d really like it if you could come.”

She felt bad because he looked so uncomfortable with the idea. He glanced up at Drake, but his nephew wasn’t going to help him out of it. “Okay … I guess that would be all right. It will just be you and your mother?”

“Yes, and Drake.”

“Okay, thank you, Sophie.” Drake looked both shocked and amused that Sophie had accomplished what he likely couldn’t have.

“You’re welcome.” She stood up and handed the kit back to him. “Thank you for letting me hold him. He’s so cute.” Mac smiled again, and Sophie could see the love in his eyes as he laid the baby gently back in his lap. “I look forward to seeing you this evening.”

“I’ll walk you back up to your car,” Drake said. He looked at his uncle and said, “I’ll be back. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“Lots of surprises today, huh?”

Drake smiled sadly. “Yeah … I’ll be right back.”

On the walk back to Sophie’s car, she could tell that something was bothering him. She was suddenly afraid it was what she’d let slip about Drake having so many of the carvings in his home. “I’m sorry about letting him know you had the carvings. I didn’t know …”

He smiled. “It’s okay. He was bound to find out sometime. I just hate telling him they didn’t sell. Besides, they look good in my house, don’t you think?”

“They do,” she said. “I also think he’s lucky to have you.”

“It can get pretty lonely up here. We’re lucky to have each other.”

“Is something bothering you?” she asked him just as they got back to her car.

He kind of laughed, but it was a nervous laugh. “I have to tell him the vet is back in town and he has to give up those kits.”

“Oh no! Why? He seems to be taking such good care of them …”

“One thing my mother taught me about taking in strays around here was that it was okay to take them in if they needed a temporary home, but they’re not cats and dogs. They can’t live in a home with people forever and truly have a good life. They need to be free out there on this beautiful mountain with other creatures like them. It’s funny because Mac never used to have much interest in any of the animals I brought home to nurse back to health.”

“He seems lonely. Maybe that has something to do with it.”

Drake nodded. “Yeah, that’s my fault.”

“How is it your fault?”

“I should spend more time with him, encourage him harder to get out more.”

“I don’t know either of you that well yet, but I can honestly say I doubt this is your fault. You seem like a great nephew. As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything you’re not great at.”

Drake grinned. “There’s not,” he said.

She laughed. “We’ll see. Can I tell Mom you guys will be there around six?”

“Yeah.” He looked like he was thinking about kissing her. Sophie made a snap decision that if that was what was on his mind, she wasn’t going to object. She suddenly wanted him to kiss her so badly that she knew she’d be horribly disappointed if he didn’t. He stared into her eyes for what felt like forever and she thought about just taking the lead.

When he finally leaned in and she could feel his warm breath on her face, she was shaking all over. The touch of his full lips sent goose bumps racing down both her arms and her spine. He put one of his big rough hands on the side of her face and held her head in place as his tongue slid out and traced the inside of her mouth … and then he pulled back, leaving her breathless and wanting more.

He looked like he was searching her face for a reaction, or waiting for her to say something. When she didn’t, he said, “I’m sorry—”

She reached up then and covered his mouth with two fingers. Once he stopped talking, she leaned in and kissed him again.

CHAPTER TEN

After Sophie left, Drake walked around in a fog for a while. He had kissed her, and she had kissed him back. He couldn’t stop smiling until he remembered that he still had to talk to Mac. “You do it, Hooter,” he told the yellow dog at his feet. Hooter gave him a sympathetic look, but Drake had a feeling that was all he would get from the old dog. With the heavy sigh of someone who was about to rip another person’s reason for living out of his arms, he headed up the path to Mac’s house. Mac and the kits were watching television and having lunch.

“Hey, you’re back already; did your lady friend go home?”

Drake grinned. “Yeah, she went home.”

“She sure is pretty.”

Drake nodded as he took a seat opposite his uncle. “Yeah, she is.”

“So is there more there than a client/contractor relationship?”

He still couldn’t stop smiling. He kind of felt like an idiot. “There just might be,” he said. Brooke was the only real girlfriend that Drake had ever had. They’d grown up in a tourist town, and their graduating class had twelve kids in it. Nine of those were boys. Girls were in short supply unless it was fall and winter, and then they descended upon them—ski bunnies with lots of hair and pretty smiles and daddies with lots of money. When Brooke broke up with him to go away to college, Drake had partaken of as many of those pretty rich girls as he could get. But the reality that they would return to their privileged lives and leave him behind and broken-hearted quickly became too much for him.

He wasn’t a one-night stand or a serial dater kind of guy. Drake had always wanted a family—a life with a woman he loved who loved him back and as many kids as they could manage. That was a tall order in Brook Haven … or it had been. Now that he’d met Sophie, he had begun to wonder if there may still be hope.

“She seems like a nice girl,” Mac said.

“She is … but there’s something else I need to talk to you about, Mac.”

“Okay …” He put his sandwich down and his dark eyes met his nephew’s. “You look so serious.” Drake’s eyes fell to the balls of sleeping fur in his uncle’s lap. Mac looked down at them and back up at Drake. “I know I can’t keep them.”

Drake was fighting back tears as he said, “Sam’s back. He wants to take them up to the refuge center as soon as possible.” Mac nodded. The look on his face was agony, and it made Drake’s heart break. “I was thinking, maybe it’s time we got you your own dog or—”

“I don’t want a dog. It’s okay, Drake. I’m not a kid. I knew they weren’t here to stay. I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry.”

Mac smiled at him. “I’m really fine. Now go on and do whatever you have to do. I’m not going to hole up here with my guns and make Sam call the SWAT team to get me out. It’ll be okay. Just let me know when he’s coming.” Drake stood up and started to say something else, but Mac stopped him by holding up his palm. “It’s really okay, son, don’t worry.” Drake couldn’t help it. He was sure Mac was putting on a brave front for him, but unfortunately this was the way it had to be.

“Okay … you’re still going to dinner with me?”

“Yeah, I’ll be ready,” he said. Drake went back to his own house feeling like crap. He had to return some phone calls he’d been putting off all week. Working on the B&B for Sophie was taking up so much of his time that he’d been turning down a lot of jobs for others that he usually did, and he was feeling guilty about that. He’d decided that he would spend his Sundays between now and tourist season doing what he could for his other clients who had always been faithful to him in the past. He started making his phone calls and did his best to get his mind off of Mac for a little while.

****

“Can I ask you a question?” Drake said to Mac as they headed to Sophie’s for dinner.

“I’m fine. I haven’t been crying. My eyes are puffy because I’m old and I’ve been out of my night cream …”

Drake laughed. “Stop it. I know you’re fine. This is about me.”

“Well in that case, ask away.”

“I kissed Sophie today.”

“That’s not a question.”

“Hush! I’m getting there. I kissed her and she kissed me back … but I’m so inexperienced at this, which really sucks for a twenty-seven-year-old man. I’m not sure what to do next.”

“Was it a good kiss?”

“The best one I’ve ever had,” Drake said truthfully.

“Then kiss her again.”

Drake chuckled. “Thanks.”

“Okay, sadly, son, I am more inexperienced than you. Do you know how long it’s been since I kissed a woman?”

“Yeah … but that’s your own fault because you stay out there holed up in that little house all alone.”

“I wasn’t looking to incite a lecture. My point was going to be that inexperienced or not, you should just go with your gut instinct. You obviously felt like kissing her would be okay, and since she kissed you back, I’d say you were right. So the next step would maybe be talking to her about where she wants to go from here.”

“And what if that’s as far as she wants to go?”

“Then you either have to walk away or bring your ‘A’ game. I guess that depends on how strongly you feel about her.”

“Too strongly to just walk away,” he said.

“Then don’t. Tell her how you feel.”

Drake nodded as he pulled onto the dirt road that led up to the B&B. “You know what … Sophie’s mom is pretty cute—”

“Knock it off.”

Drake laughed. He stopped the truck and got out to get Mac’s chair from the back. It had literally been months since Mac had been off the farm. Drake was really glad he agreed to come tonight. His uncle used his arms to lower himself out of the truck and into the chair, then rolled over to the right side of the house where there was a short ramp up to the porch. It had been there for years, and Drake had restored it when he did the rest of the porch for Sophie.

“Did you do all of this?” Mac asked him.

“Yeah, it was pretty weathered. Sophie’s mom put her foot right through one of the boards a couple of weeks ago. Brooke thinks it might be broken.”

“Damn.” He looked like he was going to say something else, but at that moment the door was pulled open by Brenda.

“Hi there, you must be Mac.” She offered her hand to him and he took it. “I’m Brenda Michelson,” she said. Drake didn’t miss the look on his uncle’s face when he looked at the pretty woman. He wondered if he might be able to do some matchmaking of his own.

“Yes, ma’am, that’s me. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for having us out for supper.”

She smiled. “You’re welcome. Thank you for coming. It was fun to have more than two people to cook for again. Hi Drake, you guys come on in.” She stepped back, and Drake maneuvered Mac in through the door. He made a mental note that maybe the doors needed to be widened slightly to better accommodate any handicapped guests that Sophie might have. “Drake, you and Mac make yourselves comfortable in the lodge room, okay? Dinner is almost ready and Sophie will be right down.” Drake felt his stomach flutter just at the sound of Sophie’s name.

“Thanks, Mrs. Michelson. It sure does smell good.”

“Call me Brenda, Drake,” she said. “There’s coffee there if either of you would like some. I’ll be right back.”

As she left the room, Drake saw Mac watching her. When she was gone, he said, “Told you she was pretty.”

“Shut up.”

Drake was laughing when Sophie came down the stairs. He stopped at the sight of her. Suddenly his mouth was completely dry and all he could think was, I want to kiss her again.

She was wearing jeans and a simple beige sleeveless blouse that snapped up the front, but damn did she wear it well. Her dark hair was shining as usual, and her blue eyes had a warm glow that he couldn’t help but hope was left over from their kiss.

“Hi guys.”

“Hi Sophie,” Mac said. The poor guy looked like a nervous wreck. Drake felt bad, but he had to keep reminding himself that this was good for him. He needed to get out and socialize.

“Hi Sophie,” he said himself. He wondered if he should kiss her cheek. He did that with Brooke all the time … would she be okay with that?

“Is Mom in the kitchen?”

“Here I am.” Brenda came out, mouthwatering smells wafting out with her. “You can all come into the dining room now,” she said. “It’s all ready.”

Sophie went first, and Drake helped his uncle through the doorway. He parked Mac in the spot where Brenda had kindly cleared the chair out of the way, and then he took a seat next to him. He wished that he didn’t feel so nervous all of a sudden. Brenda passed the food around to her right, and once again Drake noticed Mac stealing glances at her.

When everyone had their plates filled, Mac said, “This place is really starting to look good.”

“Thank you,” Sophie said. “It’s mostly thanks to your nephew.”

Drake warmed at the compliment. “Right, because I’m the one who works sixteen hours every day around here.”

Sophie shrugged. “What I do is mostly behind the scenes. The inn is looking really good thanks to your hard work.”

“So you’re thinking you’ll have it ready by the Harvest Festival?” Mac asked. Drake hadn’t told him anything about how stressed Sophie had been, so he had no idea of the can of worms he was potentially opening. Brenda did, however.

“We’re sure it will be ready,” she said with a smile. “Sophie tells me you’re quite the artist.”

Mac’s face actually turned red. Drake was having fun watching him; he’d never seen his uncle with a crush. “I like to make things out of wood,” he said. “I’m not so sure it qualifies as being an artist.”

“Well, the way Sophie was going on, I’m sure you’re just being modest,” Brenda said. “I’m looking forward to seeing some of your work.”

Mac thanked her and then took a long drink of his water. Drake glanced over at Sophie. Her pretty blue eyes were trained on his face and he needed his own long, cold drink of water—possibly followed by a long, cold shower. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. He wondered if there was any way he could get her alone tonight … just for one more kiss.

“Did the realtor tell you the history of this old place?” Mac asked Sophie. Drake gave him a look, trying to stop him, but he forged on ahead.

“Not really … does it have a history other than being a bed and breakfast?”

“It actually has quite a colorful history—”

“Uncle Mac, I’m not so sure—” Drake tried.

“I want to hear it,” Sophie said.

Mac smiled at his nephew and then looked at Sophie and said, “This house was built in 1915, but on the foundation of the one that was here before. That house was built in 1790 for the man who actually founded Brook Haven.”

“Wow,” Sophie said, looking fascinated. “I wonder why she didn’t tell me that.”

“She was probably worried you’d run off like all the other interested buyers—”

“Uncle Mac! I just don’t think this is appropriate dinner conversation,” he said with his eyes still on his uncle. Mac looked amused. Sophie could tell that he was having fun. Drake said he didn’t get out often; he shouldn’t be denied a few minutes in the spotlight.

“I want to hear it,” Sophie said.

“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Drake told her.

She ignored him and said, “Go ahead, Mac.”

“Well, the original house was built for a wealthy man who came over from Wales in the early 1700s. He made his wealth in Europe by ‘questionable’ means, the legend goes. What those ‘questionable’ means were has to be up to the imagination, I suppose. When he arrived here, he invested in shipping businesses all along the East Coast. One of the biggest commodities shipped via the businesses he owned … were humans.”

Brenda sucked in a breath. “Slaves?” she asked.

“Slaves, yes … but also women. The story is that he brought women over to fill the brothels.”

“No! Was this a brothel?” Sophie asked. Drake rolled his eyes and slowly chewed his food while his uncle continued his tale. It was apparent Drake had heard it all before.

“No, it was his private home. But he did marry one of those women. She had three children and then she vanished mysteriously.”

“Was she ever found?”

“Not right away,” he said.

“What happened to the children?”

“They continued to live here with their father and his next wife, until she disappeared … and then the one after that …”

“Uncle Mac—”

“What?” he asked his nephew with a laugh and a twinkle in his eyes. “It’s a true story.”

“You’re going to scare them.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “We’re not children.”

“I’m a little scared,” her mom said, “but I want to hear the rest.”

Mac grinned and continued. “Well, the old man somehow managed to misplace five young wives over a period of twenty-five years. Those five women produced sixteen offspring all together.”

“Sixteen? He lived here with sixteen kids?”

“Well, in the original house,” Mac said. “He died in 1762 of natural causes, and the house and the property went to his eldest son, who promptly evicted his fifteen siblings. The second eldest son objected, and the story goes that there was an all-out family brawl with only three survivors.”

“Oh my God! They killed each other?”

He nodded. “The three youngest children who were found hiding in the basement were the only survivors. The other thing they found down there was an underground tunnel and a tomb.”

“A tomb?” Sophie’s pretty blue eyes were wide as she listened to the story. As annoyed with Mac as Drake was, he was enjoying her expressive face as she listened.

Mac nodded again. “All five wives, I’m afraid.”

“Oh no!” Brenda and Sophie said in unison. “Wow, this house does have a history.”

“Well … there’s more,” he said.

“Oh no. The three children?”

“They grew up with a caretaker the court appointed to live here with them. Or—I should say—the many caretakers. They only lasted a matter of weeks or months in most cases before they reported that the house was ‘evil’ and they couldn’t stay in it.”

“They thought it was haunted?” Brenda asked.

“That’s what they thought … or some reckoned that it was perhaps cursed. The three siblings were embroiled in another battle over the wealth left behind by their father. Only one of the siblings survived. He ultimately ended up with it all.”

“Oh my goodness. This wasn’t his house, was it?”

“No,” Drake answered. “This particular house was built for the mayor of Brook Haven, and no one has had any troubles here since.” He gave his uncle another look, and Mac laughed.

“What about the tunnels?” Sophie asked.

Mac shrugged. “The realtor didn’t mention them?”

“There are no tunnels down there,” Drake said. “Uncle Mac, behave.” Mac laughed again and turned his attention back to Brenda.

“Mrs. Michelson, this might well be the best meal I have ever had.”

Brenda smiled. “Thank you, and that might well be the most interesting story I’ve ever heard. Is it true?”

“Every bit,” he said. “I can show you the old documents in the library in town.”

“I might take you up on that,” she said.

“Be my guest,” Mac said with a wink.

Oh my goodness, he is flirting with my mother, Sophie thought. She looked over at Drake, who was shaking his head at his uncle. He turned his head toward her when he felt her looking at him. She couldn’t help it—all thoughts of Mac and her mother vanished. Instead, the only thing she could really see was his dark, sexy eyes and those full soft lips. She wanted to kiss him again so badly.

Once they’d all finished their meal and had once again complimented Brenda, they moved into the lodge room and Brenda brought out the cake she’d made for dessert.

“That looks great, Mom, but there is no way I can fit anything else into my belly,” Sophie said.

“Me neither,” Drake said.

“I’d love a piece,” Mac told her. Sophie looked at Drake again, and they shared a knowing look and a private smile. Drake could see that Mac was flirting too. Sophie wondered what her mother thought. The next thing Brenda said told Sophie that she was either enjoying it or she hadn’t really noticed.

“Why don’t you two go walk some of your dinner off?” she said. “I can entertain Mac while you’re gone.”

“Are you sure?” Sophie said. “Mac, you won’t think me rude?”

“Not at all. I’d love some time to get to know your lovely mother.” Sophie looked at her mother and saw her face flush. She looked back at Drake, who was already on his feet.

“You want to take a walk?”

“I’d love to,” he said.

Sophie went upstairs and retrieved her sweater, and the two of them set off. Once they were outside, she said, “You know, I’m not sure if this is about pushing us together or having time alone with your uncle. Did you see what was going on in there?”

Drake shook his head. “I saw my uncle misbehaving, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, he was just having some harmless fun with that story … but seriously, do you see the way they’re looking at each other?”

Drake laughed. “Yeah. I haven’t seen Mac look at anyone like that since … well, ever.”

“I know, right? My mother doesn’t look at men like that, at least not since my father died.”

He laughed again. “I guess they are adults—and human, so they’re entitled to a little harmless flirting. Speaking of flirting and things like that … should we talk about that kiss earlier?”

As they walked along the gravel tree-lined path, the early autumn breezed tousled Sophie’s hair. Just a few short weeks ago when she and Brenda arrived in Vermont, the air had been warm and everything a dark, verdant green. The season was definitely changing and with it, it seemed that everything else was as well. She stopped walking and looked up at the sky. It was deep blue and dotted with a thousand specks of light. The moon was new and didn’t cast much of a glow, but the stars were out in full force.

She loved it there—the air, the mountain, the countryside, and the town. She looked at Drake, who was waiting for her to respond somehow to his question, and said, “I think we should revisit it after I get the inn up and running.”

He opened his mouth to speak and she stopped him by saying, “Just hear me out. I loved the kiss, Drake. I haven’t thought about anything else since. I like you a lot and I think that I’d like to explore that—no, I know that I’d like to explore that. But, with that being said, I know myself. I know that I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning, and the magic of this weekend that you and I spent together will be dulled by the fact that I lost almost two full days getting this place ready. I’m going to be nervous and tense and I’ll probably snap your head off a time or two. I promise that I’ll try not to, but I should apologize in advance just in case. I put everything I have into this place, and I have to see it through. I can’t get distracted right now. I can’t afford it. I’m so afraid that getting it ready in three and a half weeks is a crazy dream …”

“My turn,” he said. She thought about objecting, but she nodded instead. He took her hands in his and faced her. “If you’re telling me that I have a chance with you after this place is finished, I can promise you here and now that I’ll work from sunup to sundown until it’s ready to go.”

She smiled. “You already do.”

“I’ll get it ready for you, Sophie. I’ll leave you alone in the meantime … no distractions. But if—when—I get this place in top shape for you, I’d like for you to do something for me.”

“Besides paying you for your hard work?”

He sighed. “Okay yeah, besides that.”

She giggled. “Sorry. What do you want me to do for you?”

“Go on a real date with me. I want to dress up and take you out to a nice restaurant in the city and go dancing, maybe take a carriage ride …” He had a light in his eyes, and she could tell that he’d already thought about doing all of that with her. It made her heart feel happy.

“Okay,” she said. “You have a deal.”

“I have one more request,” he said.

She laughed. “I knew it.”

“I just want one more kiss to hold me over. Three weeks is a long time.” Sophie smiled at him and nodded. He didn’t waste any time lest she change her mind. This time he slid one of his arms around her waist and the other hand rested softly against the side of her face and neck. He caressed her skin with his fingers, and she shivered. He used his thumb to tip her head back slightly, and then he slid his hand underneath her hair and held her head in place while he put his warm mouth on her neck. She wasn’t expecting that, but it felt so good that she tipped her head back even more to give him better access. He held her captive against him, but she didn’t want to escape as he planted kisses all across her sensitive neck and up to her ear on the side closest to his mouth.

She felt his breath and shivered again as he whispered, “These don’t count toward the kiss.” Sophie giggled. She wasn’t going to argue with him. His head dove back down, and he planted a kiss at the base of her neck and then slid his lips upward until he reached her ear again. This time he didn’t speak. He just proceeded to plant kisses all around it. Sophie was glad he was holding on to her because her knees were beginning to feel weak.

He used that one hand to move her head slightly again and before she knew it, their mouths collided. He kissed her slowly and softly all around the outside of her lips. He smelled so masculine that just the scent of him was driving her crazy. He ran his tongue along the seam of her lips next and this time, the shiver was a full body shudder. She let her lips part and wrapped her own hands up in his hair, pulling him in tighter. His tongue slipped in, and slow and gentle went by the wayside as their tongues tangled up in a sensuous dance.

That, coupled with the feel of his taut chest and arms pressed into her and the way he continued to caress the skin on the side of her face and neck with his rough fingers, was overwhelming to her senses. It was absolutely without a doubt the best kiss that she’d ever had, and she knew going three weeks without another one was going to be as close to hell as she’d ever come.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

For the next week, Drake kept his promise and Sophie stayed so busy that the only time she really suffered for it was late at night while she lay in bed and remembered that kiss. She got the website up and running thanks to a good photographer and a lot of computer work her mom did for her. Brenda’s ankle was definitely broken, and Brooke had cast it and given her strict orders to keep off of it. She spent her time doing things inside the house that she could do sitting down.

Meanwhile, Sophie finished furnishing the rooms and stocking the linen closets. She made soaps and arranged them in lovely baskets to leave in each of the rooms. She also planted a small garden with Drake’s help, and slowly but surely she could see it all coming together.

She was almost giddy on Friday afternoon when she got her first reservation for the weekend of the Harvest Festival. She ran outside where Drake was working on the shadow boxes on the windows in the back of the house to share it with him.

“I have a reservation for two!” she squealed. He was up on a ladder and looked down at her and smiled.

“That’s great,” he said. It was the first time she’d really looked at him today. His eyes were bloodshot, and he actually had dark circles underneath his pretty eyes.

“Are you okay?”

“Me? Yeah, I’m great. I’m happy for you.”

“Will you come down here and talk to me?”

“I’m working, boss.”

“Drake … just for a second, please.”

With a sigh, he sat his bucket and brush down on the window ledge and climbed down. He pulled off his leather gloves and said, “What’s up?”

“You look exhausted. Have you been sleeping?”

He smiled and said, “When I’m not thinking about you.”

“Drake, I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Well, that’s good to know because you’ve kept me awake a few nights yourself. But really … why do you look so exhausted? Am I working you too hard?”

“No, not at all. I’ve just been kind of worried about Uncle Mac. Sam took the kits on Monday, and he hasn’t come out of the house all week. I take him dinner every night, but he rushes me out and I’m not even sure he’s eating. He doesn’t look good … I think he’s depressed.”

“Oh no! The poor thing. Mom said she called him on Wednesday. They were supposed to go to the library. She said he didn’t answer and never called her back.”

“I don’t know what to do. I thought about getting him a puppy or something, but I’m just afraid of making things worse. I feel terrible.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It kind of feels like it is,” he said.

“Do you think he’d appreciate a visit from Mom?”

“I know that he talked all the way home Sunday about how much he enjoyed getting to know her … but honestly, I just don’t know. He’s been pretty gruff with me lately. I’d hate for him to be rude or something and hurt her feelings.”

Sophie laughed. “You’ve seen me at my absolute rudest … it hasn’t scared my mom off yet. I’ll ask her to go see him. It couldn’t hurt.”

Drake put his hand on the side of her face, and she wanted to melt into it. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Thank you for doing so much around here.”

He leaned his face in close and said, “That’s my job … besides, I have a lot at stake.”

She smiled and tried to breathe. It was hard with him so close. In a husky voice, she said, “You’re entitled to a break … maybe you should take one now …”

He shifted his body so that she was between him and the house, and then he used it to gently nudge her back. She was trapped between him and the cold wood at her back, but her insides were like hot liquid as he stared into her eyes. “What should I do with my break … boss?”

She slid her arms up around his neck and said, “Just do whatever comes natural.” He closed the space between their faces and covered her lips with his. She could feel the raw desire he had for her pulsing through him as his tongue explored her mouth. He kissed as if he were starving and she was his sustenance.

She kissed him back with the same fervor as she was truly ravenous for him. She held his head tightly and his hands held on to her waist, and the world around them fell away for the time the kiss lasted. When he finally pulled back, it was only because they both needed to breathe, and he pressed his forehead into hers as they panted and tried to calm themselves down.

“Best. Break. Ever,” he said with a grin. Sophie still couldn’t speak, so she nodded. Drake was about to go in for another kiss and Sophie was going to let him when they heard the window to the left of her slide open. They jumped apart like two guilty teenagers as Brenda stuck out her head. Her eyes went from her daughter’s face to Drake’s, and a little smile played at her lips.

“I’m sorry to interrupt … there’s a Mr. Randall on the phone for you, honey.”

Still breathing raggedly, Sophie said, “You didn’t interrupt anything. Will you tell him that I’ll be right there?”

Brenda smirked again before she closed the window.

Drake laughed. “She’s proud of herself, you know.”

“Proud of herself for what?”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t notice that she’s been trying to get us together.”

Flushing slightly, Sophie said, “Oh no … I noticed. I was hoping that you didn’t. It’s a little embarrassing to be twenty-seven and still have your mother fixing you up on dates.”

She yelped a little, startled, when he pulled her body back into his again. He put his mouth against her ear and said, “She fixed you up on a lot more than a date.”

“Meaning?”

He held his face back so that he could see hers and he said, “I’m willing to start with a date, and I’m willing to wait as long as you need me to, but I’m telling you right now, Sophie Michelson, when I look into the future, I already can’t imagine it without you.” He kissed her softly and let her go.

She stood there in shock and watched him climb back up the ladder. She had to admit to herself that when she lay awake in her bed at night and thought about him, it was always more than a simple “date” she imagined as well. She saw them running this place together … getting married in the meadow out behind the house and spending their honeymoon making love for hours. But that was supposed to just be her secret little fantasy. Now that she knew he was thinking along the same lines, getting anything done was going to be that much harder.

“Sophie … Mr. Randall …” Brenda was calling from inside the window this time.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m coming.”

****

Brenda stood holding her crutch in one hand and a cake in the other while she tried to balance long enough to knock on Mac’s door. She almost fell over before she grabbed the crutch and righted herself. Sophie had asked her to come out here and see Mac and then tried to drive her out like she was an invalid once again. Her left foot was the broken one. She didn’t need that one to drive, which she had reminded Sophie to convince her that she didn’t need a chauffeur. Brenda often wondered when they had switched roles.

“Drake?” Mac called from inside the house.

“No, Mac. It’s me, Brenda.”

She heard the crunch of his wheels against what she assumed was a wood floor and then the latch on the door being opened. He pulled open the inside door and looked at her through the screen. “Hi. What are you doing here?”

“I’m sorry to just drop by, but you haven’t been answering your phone …”

“I’m sorry … I haven’t charged it.” He was still just staring at her and she was beginning to wonder if this was a mistake.

“It’s okay, but I’m kind of having a hard time balancing myself right now. Do you think I could come in and at least set this cake down?”

“Shoot … yeah, I’m sorry. Come on in.” He unlatched the screen door and rolled back out of the doorway. Brenda very carefully let herself in. There was a coffee table in the center of the room, and it was riddled with take-out containers from Huckleberry’s. Some of them looked as if they hadn’t been touched.

“Where should I set this?” she asked him.

“The counter over there is fine,” he said. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know … I wanted to. How are you, Mac?”

“Did Drake send you out here?”

“Not really. He told Sophie you were having a hard time and she told me. I was just hoping a visit and some cake might cheer you up.”

“Thanks Brenda, really, but I’m fine.”

“Are you really? I mean, forgive me, but Sophie told me the time she was over here that your house was spotless clean. You look like you haven’t been sleeping or eating or shaving—”

He held his palms up. “Listen, I’m a little … under the weather, that’s all. Drake seems to think I’m going to crack over losing a couple of kits that weren’t even mine to begin with. Give me a break.”

“Can I sit down?”

He gave her a half smile, like he was either annoyed or impressed with her perseverance. “Sure.”

She sat down on his couch and said, “Hear me out, and when I’m finished, if you want me to leave, I will. I know that we barely know each other, but I also am able to know a kindred spirit when I see one. Since my husband died, I’ve been so incredibly lonely. I was in a deep depression for a long time and the only reason I finally snapped out of it was that I realized what I was doing to Sophie. I’m still lonely. I have my beautiful daughter and I thank God for her every day, but sometimes we need something beyond that. We need something that touches our souls like my husband did for me.”

“I’d hardly compare losing a spouse to two wild critters I only had for a few weeks.”

Brenda smiled. “Mac, can I ask you how old you were when you had your accident?”

“Twenty-one,” he said.

“Drake says that you don’t date and you’ve never been married.”

“Drake’s quite the talking little fool, isn’t he?”

She laughed. “He means well, trust me. That kid is so worried about you.”

Mac looked guilty for a second. “I know. I hate worrying him. But really, this is not the same as you losing your husband.”

“Have you ever been in love?”

He seemed reluctant to answer her, and just about the time she thought he wasn’t going to, he said, “No.”

“So Drake is your only real contact with the world until these two helpless little kits fall into your hands. You feed them and keep them warm and safe, and because you did all of that for them, they bonded with you and you with them. That’s love, Mac, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t you think that Drake is going to have a hard time when his old dog passes away?”

“Yeah, but it’s not the same either.”

“Why? Because you only knew them for a short time? That doesn’t mean you didn’t love them. You poured yourself into them, Mac. You kept them alive. That’s huge. It’s like being a parent, and if I’d only had Sophie for the first three weeks of her life, I would have still loved her every bit as much as I do today. What you’re feeling is normal and not at all something to be ashamed of. I find it admirable that you cared that much about two little creatures you could have easily just set loose to fend for themselves. But even though the loss hurts so much, you can’t lock yourself away here and wallow in it all alone. You need to eat, and you need to sleep, and you need to take care of yourself.”

He sat there quietly for a long time, and finally Brenda said, “I’m sorry … I probably took this visit-and-cheer-you-up thing too far. I do that.”

She stood up, and Mac surprised her by taking hold of her hand. She looked down at it, and he quickly let her go and said, “I’m sorry … please stay.”

She sat back down and said, “You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

“I don’t know how much Drake told you about me. When I had my accident, I was in college. I’d come home that weekend and I was staying with my sister and her husband. Our grandfather lived in this house and our parents had already passed away. I had a girlfriend here in town, and I’d come home mostly to see her. I’d driven most of the night to get here, and then she and I went out to the city that night. I was going on about thirty-six hours of no sleep, and the one thing I thank God for is that I dropped her off before I fell asleep at the wheel. I don’t remember any of that.

“When I woke up in the hospital, it was five months later. I was paralyzed from the waist down and I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t feed or in any way take care of myself. I spent almost two years in the hospital. By the time I came home, my grandfather had died and my sister was getting old taking care of me instead of having babies. If it wasn’t for that, I may have given up and just let her keep taking care of me. That’s how much I cared about myself at the time. I knew she wasn’t going to get on with her life until she knew I was going to be okay, so I pushed myself. I got better. I got stronger. I didn’t do any of that for myself. I no longer cared, and surviving had become a chore. When I woke up out of that coma, my girlfriend had already moved on. I knew I’d never be able to go back to college, and there were so many things I’d never be able to do. One of those things was have a normal relationship with a woman and have kids. I was never going to have a family, and that depression sunk in so deeply that I’ve really never recovered from it.

“I do my best not to let Drake see it, but there was just nothing left in my life that really gave me joy any longer. Then he brought me those damned kits. I tried not to like them just like I’ve tried not to like every damned stray that boy brings home, but somehow they weaseled themselves into my heart and as reluctant as I am to admit this … it feels like it’s breaking. I know that it’s just about the loneliness and the fact that taking care of them made me feel useful and gave me something to look forward to. Now that they’re gone, I just sit here waiting for one day to slip into the next. It’s almost unbearable.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Sunday afternoon while Sophie was sitting at the computer in the office, Brenda knocked on the door. “Come in, Mom. You don’t have to knock.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” she said, sitting in the chair across the desk and resting her crutch down next to her. “I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“This doesn’t involve a gorgeous man and a bike ride, does it? Because he and I have that all figured out–”

Brenda smiled. “No, but I am happy to hear that. One of these evenings when we’re sitting in front of a nice fire, I’d like to hear more about it.”

Sophie winked at her. “You got it. What do you need, Mom?”

“Well, I was hoping to borrow the car next Saturday to drive Mac to Westford.”

“Westford? Isn’t that like a two-hour drive?”

“Yes. It’s where the kits are. They’re at the wildlife rehabilitators there, and I think it would do him a world of good if he can just see firsthand that they’re being taken care of.”

“What about your foot? Have you spoken to Brooke about driving with it?”

“Honey, I really don’t use my left foot to drive. I haven’t spoken to Brooke about it, but I will if you absolutely want me to.”

“No, it’s fine. You know I don’t mind if you use the car. I just worry about you.”

Brenda laughed. “I know … way too much. You need to have a baby or two so you can refocus all of that unnecessary worry.”

“All in due time, Grandma.”

Brenda’s face lit up. “I like that. Or maybe Nana …”

“Run along now. I’m taking reservations,” Sophie told her with a smile.

“How exciting! How many now?”

Sophie looked like she was about to burst as she said, “There’s only one room left, Mom! Two of the rooms were reserved for a week! I’m so excited!”

“Oh honey, I’m so proud of you!”

“Thanks Mom. You know I couldn’t have done any of this without you and Drake.”

“I know,” Brenda said with a grin. “I’m going to get dinner started. I’m really, really proud of you.”

“Thanks.”

She left, and Sophie went back to answering her emails. An hour passed by quickly, and Brenda called out to her that dinner was ready. While they ate, her mother asked her, “So have you thought any more about hiring some help for reservations and housekeeping and all of that so you don’t have to work yourself to death?”

“I’m thinking I’ll wait a while on that. I really want to do this myself, Mom.”

“And what about Drake?”

“What about him?”

“I was under the impression the two of you had sort of … come to an agreement about how you feel about each other.”

“Yes Cupid, we’ve discussed it. After I get the place open, there will be a little rush, but it should calm down enough to leave me with some time—”

“Baby, ‘some’ time will not be enough for a new relationship. You’ll need to be there 100%.”

“I understand that, Mom, but this place is virtually a new relationship too, right? I need to see this through, and then Drake and I will see where we go. I’ve already talked to him about that and he’s okay with it.”

Brenda looked like she had more to say, but she held her tongue. Instead she said, “Did you know that Drake hasn’t gone to the farmer’s market for two weeks?”

“He hasn’t? Why not?”

“Mac told me yesterday that he’s been taking Sundays to help his other clients get ready for tourist season as well. He told them he was too busy at first, but then he felt bad.”

Sophie smiled and shook her head. “Of course he did. He has such a good heart.”

“Yes, he does. Oh! By the way, Mac showed me his workshop and the statues. I love them!”

“I didn’t want to bring it up because Drake said he’s been so sad. Has he started on any for me?”

“He hasn’t been working this week, but he has two that were already nearly finished and he showed them to me. One of them is a grizzly bear and the other a wolf. He said he was planning on finishing them for you. I think you’re going to love them.”

“How exciting! I can’t wait to see them.”

“Did you know also—”

Sophie laughed. “How long was this visit?”

“A few hours and half of a chocolate cake, and when I left he was smiling and laughing.”

“You’re amazing.”

Brenda waved her palm at her and went on, “As I was saying, did you know that Drake made the furniture in both of their places?”

“I meant to ask him about that, but I got distracted and forgot.”

Mischievously, Brenda said, “Really? What was it that distracted you?”

Sophie laughed and ignored the question. “So what about the cushions? Don’t tell me that Drake sews too and I didn’t know. I could have used him to make some curtains around here.”

“Mac said the lady that owns the general store in town makes those, so I think you’re out of luck when it comes to Drake making curtains for you.”

They finished their dinner and then cleaned up the kitchen. After Brenda left to head down to her own cabin, Sophie called Drake.

“Hi beautiful.”

“Hey! You sound tired.”

“I’m okay. It’s Sunday, I’m relaxing.”

“Your nose is growing.”

He laughed. “What?”

“Mac told Mom that you’re spending your Sundays working.”

“They’re not allowed to hang out together anymore.”

She laughed. “Yeah, good luck telling Brenda Michelson that she’s not allowed to do something.”

“I think her daughter got a little of that.”

“Don’t change the subject. Listen, we’re really close to finishing everything up around here. It would be perfectly okay for you to take a day or two during the week to take care of your other clients and go back to having your Sundays for the market and relaxing.”

“Nah, I want to make sure you’re good to go. I’m keeping up …”

“I have no doubts that you are. You’re the hardest worker I’ve ever met. But you need at least one day to relax.”

“What did you do today?” When Sophie didn’t answer right away, he said, “Sophie … did you take the day off?”

“No, but that’s—”

“It’s not different. You need rest as much as anyone else does—maybe even more, because I’d be willing to bet you wake up thinking about that place and go to bed thinking about it.”

“Well then, you’re wrong. I do wake up thinking about this place … but late at night when I’m all alone, it’s you I’m thinking about.”

“Wow. I like that. What do you think about me?”

“You know … how it’s almost eight-thirty and you really should get some sleep.”

“Are you kidding? You’re not going to tell me?”

“Is there not already enough tension between us? I’ll tell you when this is over and we have our date, how’s that?”

She could almost hear him smiling. “I’m going to hold you to that. I’ve already started making plans and reservations for the weekend after the festival.”

“I can’t wait,” she said honestly. She still had reservations about leaving the inn in the hands of someone else that soon after the grand opening, but she had made a promise to Drake and she wasn’t going to go back on that. “I’m going to let you go now,” she said. “Get some rest, okay?”

“You too, beautiful. Sweet dreams.”

****

On Wednesday morning, Drake borrowed a backhoe from one of his friends in town and was using it to fill in the potholes in the dirt driveway. Sophie wanted to eventually pave the whole thing but told him that it would likely be the following summer before she was able to do that, so for now he was going to make it at least smooth and easy for her guests to maneuver. He’d just dumped and smoothed his last load of dirt and was backing away from the house down the long path when he saw her come outside. They had both been so busy again this week that he’d barely gotten to see her.

She had her dark hair in a side braid and was wearing a pair of jeans with holes in both of the knees and a pink-and-blue plaid shirt. He watched as she pulled on her jacket and headed toward her car. He was thinking that she looked good enough to eat and suddenly had an idea. He put the backhoe in drive and caught up to her just as she was reaching for the car door.

“Hey, boss, where are you going?”

“Mrs. Larson said I could come and pick some apples today before they start harvesting them next week. I wanted to have some nice ones for the guests and maybe make a pie or two.”

“Climb on up. I’ll take you over.”

She laughed. “You want me to ride eight or ten miles on a backhoe?”

“Why not? Where is your sense of adventure? Besides, the really good apples are up high. You’ll never be able to reach them from the ground.”

“You can drive this thing through the orchard?”

“Sure, it’s like a tractor. Come on … go for a ride with me.”

Sophie laughed again but when Drake held his hand out to her, she took it. He pulled her up into the partially enclosed cab of the big machine and she slid into the tiny spot next to him. It was technically a one-seater, so the quarters were nice and cozy. Drake started it back up and once he put it in gear, Sophie held on to him for fear of vibrating right off the seat. When he got to the end of the driveway, he slipped his arm around her and pulled her in for a kiss. When he let her go, she said, “This is why you wanted to take the backhoe, isn’t it?” She had to yell in order for him to hear her.

He grinned. “Absolutely. Are you complaining?”

“Not at all,” she said.

He grinned at her again and then reached across her and pulled the seatbelt over her lap. He strapped them both in the one belt and then winked at her and said, “Here we go.”

The backhoe was old and only got up to about thirty miles an hour, but that was okay with Drake. The longer it took them to get there and back, the more time he got to spend with Sophie. The day was crisp and it was becoming apparent that the change of season was at hand. The gray clouds that overlapped each other overhead threatened rain, and the leaves on the trees across the hill had begun to turn yellow or copper; some of them had already begun to fall to the ground.

It took them thirty minutes to get to the Larson place. He wondered if Sophie was thinking about the time. She looked like she was enjoying the ride and the scenery as much as he was until they got to the old bridge. As he headed toward it, she gripped his thigh—which he very much liked—and said, “What are you doing?”

“This is the way to the Larson place.”

“You’re taking this thing over that bridge?”

“It’s fine. We used to run tractors across here all the time.”

“Used to? You mean you haven’t done this in a while? What if it collapses?”

Drake looked serious and said, “Can you swim?”

“What? Yes … of course I can swim—”

“Then you’ll be fine,” he said. He looked like an ornery little boy as he floored the big diesel and acted like he was going to head across the bridge.

“Drake!”

He suddenly laughed, and Sophie realized he’d been teasing her. She punched him in the arm. “You’re such a punk. I really thought you were going to drive across that.”

Still laughing, he said, “It would never hold up. There’s a sandbar up here about a mile away. We’ll cross there.”

“Punk!” she said again, laughing too. When they got to the sandbar, Sophie once again clutched his leg as they went across. She breathed an audible sigh of relief once they were on the other side. That put them at the long, bumpy gravel road that led up to the ridge. The natural vibration of the big machine coupled with the bumps of the road had Sophie’s teeth chattering together. She had to admit, though, that this was much more fun than she would have had taking her SUV and the main road through town.

Once they reached the top of the ridge, she saw the beautiful orchard below them. The wind was picking up and the emerald-green leaves of the apple trees swayed back and forth. Drake drove the backhoe down the steep hill and between two rows of trees. He killed the engine, and Sophie looked around at all of the trees with luscious red apples dangling from their branches, just begging to be picked.

She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent. It smelled like rain and sweet apples. A lot of them had already fallen on the ground, and Sophie saw a couple of squirrels darting in and out of them like they were running a miniature obstacle course. The trees looked like upside-down champagne glasses, and their gnarled trunks were so thick that even if she stretched her arms as far as she could, she wouldn’t be able to reach all the way around any of them.

“I love it in here,” she told Drake.

“In the backhoe?”

She smiled. “That’s nice too. But no, I meant underneath these apple trees. It smells so good.” He reached out the open window on his side of the backhoe and plucked an apple, which he handed to Sophie. She took it and dropped it in the basket that she’d brought. She reached out to get one and realized it was starting to rain. Big drops splashed through the trees and down onto the windshield of the backhoe. Drake started it back up and drove slowly between the two rows as Sophie stuck her hand out and picked the fruits she wanted.

The backhoe had turned out to be a really good idea. It wasn’t the same as wandering around in there with a picnic basket on her arm, but in the current situation, it would definitely work.

After the basket was full, Drake drove out of the trees and over to Mrs. Larson’s fruit stand. Even in the rain, she was there. Sophie tried to pay her for the apples they’d picked, but the older woman simply looked at it and said, “I hope you’re kidding.”

Sophie smiled and put the money back in her pocket. She hoped that someday her inn would be “famous” in the small town for something the way Mrs. Larson’s was for its apples and her delicious lemonade.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

When Drake walked into the house early on Saturday morning Brenda was on her way out to pick up Mac. “Good morning!”

“Good morning,” she said. “I made breakfast, so please help yourself. And if there’s any way you can get my daughter to eat …”

Drake smiled. “I’ll do my best,” he said. “It smells great, thank you. Thank you too for taking Uncle Mac today and everything you’ve done for him this week. He seems like his old self again.”

Brenda had gone over a few evenings after the day she took him the cake and had dinner with him. Drake was actually understating things. Mac wasn’t just back to his old self, he seemed truly happy, and Drake couldn’t remember the last time he actually welcomed company. He’d worn all of his old friends down over the years by refusing their invitations for lunch or dinner or just an afternoon visit. Drake didn’t know if it was specifically Brenda or if Uncle Mac was just finally tired of always being alone, but either way, he appreciated her efforts.

“I haven’t done anything special, but you’re welcome. I enjoy his company too.”

“Be careful driving up there though. The rain stopped, but it came down pretty good all night. There might be some slick spots on those windy roads.”

“I will be. I’m not in any hurry.”

“Where is your daughter?” he asked.

Brenda grinned. “She’s still sleeping.”

“You’re kidding? Is she sick?” It was almost seven a.m. In the almost four weeks that Drake had known her, she’d always been up, dressed, and attacking the day by the time he arrived.

“No, I’m sure she’s just exhausted because it all finally caught up with her.”

“Well, I’m glad that she’s getting some rest.”

“I should get going. Tell her I’ll call her when we’re headed back.”

“Okay, have fun and thank you again.”

“We will. You’re welcome, and don’t forget to eat.”

“No ma’am. I’m going to do that right now.” After Brenda left, Drake started to fix himself a plate, but then he thought about Sophie and had another idea. He fixed her a plate instead and a glass of juice and a cup of coffee. He put it all on one of the new serving trays she’d bought for the guests and left it on the counter, then went outside. He walked around behind the house where the green meadow began and picked a handful of the purple and yellow wildflowers that grew there. He went back inside and found a little vase to put them in and then sat that on the tray, too. He carried it all up the stairs and when he got to the third floor, he knocked on the door.

“Mom?” he heard her call out.

“No, ma’am, it’s room service.”

She laughed. “I don’t believe this inn has room service … what would you be servicing?” That statement left him open to so many possibilities, but he reminded himself he was being patient and waiting for the weekend of their “date.”

“I have your breakfast, Miss.”

She giggled again. “Well, then, by all means, come in.” Drake held the tray in one hand and pushed open the door. His breath caught in his throat when he saw her. She was sitting up in the bed with her dark hair tousled and her nightshirt hanging off of one shoulder.

“Good morning, Miss. I trust you slept well?”

“Fabulous,” she said. “Too well, actually. I woke up and couldn’t believe it was seven already.”

“Your body must have needed it,” he said. He set the tray on the nightstand. He suddenly realized this was probably not the best idea he’d ever had. Being “patient” was hard enough when they were working together or sharing a meal or a ride in a backhoe, but being here in her room where everything looked like her and smelled like her … it was almost overwhelming. When you coupled that with the cloud covering outside that just made you want to cuddle up with someone in a warm bed to begin with—it was like a recipe for torture. “Do you want your breakfast in bed, ma’am?”

She suddenly got a wicked smile on her face. “Is my mother gone?”

“Yeah, she just left—”

She rose up on her knees and cut off his words with her mouth. This was definitely not helping him with his patience. Every nerve ending in his body was suddenly on fire. She kissed him hard and used her arms around his neck to pull him down toward her so they both fell back on the bed. For a second, he completely forgot himself and let his hands roam over her warm curves as their tongues got caught up in an erotic dance of their own. He was immersed in how warm and inviting her lips were and the way her body was arching up from the bed into his. He’d dreamt of this moment from the second he had laid eyes on her. His hands slid under her and pushed up the bottom of her nightshirt until he was touching the bare curve of her lower back. He kept them still there as they kissed, somehow controlling the urge to completely ransack her body.

When he finally forced himself to break the kiss and come up for air, he looked at her face. Her eyes were still closed, her soft full lips were dark red from his kiss, and her cheeks were filled with color. That gorgeous, soft hair was even more tousled around her head, and he knew he’d never seen anything so beautiful in his life. If he’d woken up this morning with the notion that he’d been kissing her in her bed in a few hours, he would have laughed at himself at the sheer absurdity of it. “Sophie?”

She opened those blue eyes, and he could see the desire for him inside of them; it was like throwing kerosene on an already raging fire. “Drake,” she whispered, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.

“You’re so beautiful.”

She really smiled then. “So are you.”

He pulled her into him more tightly and pressed his face into her hair, breathing in the sweet scent of her. He had only a modicum of restraint left, and he was using it to let her set the pace. When he pulled back and looked at her again, her blue eyes were locked into his and her plump lips were slightly parted. He touched her cheek with his fingers and traced her jawline, and then as he ran his thumb across her lips, he said, “If you don’t tell me to leave soon …”

She didn’t tell him to leave. Instead, she shifted her body over so that he could lie down beside her. The already crumbling barrier they’d set up between them was cracking even more. He lay down on his side and put his arm across her, pulling her against him again. He let his hand rub across her back and shoulders as he trailed kisses down the side of her jaw and neck. He felt her body shiver against him, and it was almost enough to put him over the edge. He let his tongue run along underneath the top of her nightshirt, groaning as he tasted her.

His body was pulsing with electricity, and his need for her was such that it was almost painful. She brought her hands up and took his face in them, pulling it up from her chest to kiss his lips wildly once more. She was daring him to cross that invisible line that she herself had drawn … but he had to be sure she was ready for this. There was no way he’d risk losing her for a one-night—or one-day—stand. He forced himself to pull out of the kiss and said, “We don’t have to do this …”

She smiled. God, she was incredible.

“I know,” she said. “I don’t want to wait any longer.”

“You’re sure? I can wait a few more weeks, a month … whatever you need.”

She smiled again and then wiggled out of his grasp to sit up. He watched in complete awe as she reached down and pulled the nightshirt over her head and tossed it aside, and he groaned again. She was as perfect as he had imagined she would be.

“I’m sure,” she whispered. “Make love to me, Drake.”

He sat up and pulled off his shirt, too. Her hands immediately went to his chest and as she traced the hard lines with her fingers, he hesitantly touched her breasts. She moaned slightly and arched into his hands. His touch became more intense as he leaned forward and captured her lips once more. She’d given him the green light he’d been dying for, but now he didn’t want to rush it. He didn’t want to scare her away by ravaging her.

He pulled her into his lap and continued the kiss while his hands explored. She shifted against his aching erection, and he moaned into her mouth. The hands that played across his chest slid down to his belly, and he felt her pulling at the button of his jeans. He reluctantly slid her off his lap and gently pushed her back on the bed.

He didn’t take his eyes off her as he stood up and slid his jeans down. Being here with her felt surreal—he was afraid if he looked away even for a second that she’d be gone when he looked back. He watched her slide off her panties, making his chest hurt. He slid his boxers off and climbed back into the bed with her. She immediately began fluttering kisses across his face and down his jaw line. Sophie kissed his forehead and nose and eyelids and once again found his lips. He held her tightly as their bodies melted together with no barriers between them. He’d never wanted anything as much as he wanted to be inside her right now.

He pulled back and looked into her blue eyes. “I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for you, Sophie.”

“We don’t have to wait any longer,” she whispered in a husky voice. He reached down and gripped her backside, pulling her against his tautness as he used his free hand to explore the rest of her body. He ran it up the insides of her smooth thighs, and she responded with a sultry sigh. He let his mouth finally taste her full, gorgeous breasts and then trailed hot kisses down her flat stomach to her belly button and back up again. She put her hands in his hair and held him to her chest as his lips and tongue played across it. He relished the feel of her, the smell and the taste, before knowing he couldn’t last a minute longer.

He reached off the bed and into his pants pocket. Pulling out his wallet, he fished for what seemed like forever until he found the condom he carried there. He said a little prayer that it wasn’t expired as he ripped it open with his teeth and rolled it on, knowing the whole time that Sophie’s sparkling blue eyes watched him with a searing heat he could feel all the way to his core.

He didn’t waste any more time. He positioned himself above her and as he slid inside her, he knew that he had never experienced a more perfect moment. It felt like she had been made for him, and she responded so fluidly to his movements that their bodies seemed synchronized. He leaned down and kissed her again, and she gripped his shoulders and held on tightly as they lost themselves in this moment.

Sophie reached her climax first, and as Drake was about to reach his, he pressed his lips into her ear and said, “I love you. I want you to be my happily ever after.”

Sophie didn’t say it back but he felt her body respond, and for now he was okay with that. He didn’t have to have the words until she was ready to say them. He knew that letting him make love to her was a big step. She showed him how much she wanted him, and she trusted him—those were the things that mattered.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Cuddling up to Drake’s hard body felt like heaven to Sophie. She was in that place between sleep and awareness where it felt like she was floating on air. His arms were so warm and strong, and they made her feel so safe that she felt like she could stay in them forever. She felt guilty for not saying she loved him back, but she was going to need a little more time. For now, she was relishing the quiet and the peace that settled down over them after the perfect storm of their lovemaking, and this was everything she needed.

She closed her eyes and ignored the daylight that had broken through the clouds and was now trying to sneak in through the curtains. She’d worry about burning that daylight later. She let sleep take hold of her instead and pull her back down into its embrace, and for the next two hours she slept like she hadn’t slept in years.

When she woke again, she was still tangled in Drake’s long limbs and she could feel the gentle rise and fall of his chest. The clock at her bedside said nine a.m. She’d allowed herself as much of an escape as she could for now. Reluctantly she began to disentangle herself and slide out of the bed.

“Where are you going?” Drake asked in a warm, sleepy voice that made her want to crawl back up against him.

“I didn’t mean to wake you. I need to get to work.”

She felt his body shake as he laughed. “I’m the one who works for you, remember? You’re going to let me sleep while you get up and work? Damn, I scored with this job.”

She giggled. “Don’t think you’re so smart, Mister. You went off the clock the minute your pants came off.”

He laughed again. “You know what … I win either way.” He opened his gorgeous eyes and looked at her, and suddenly his face was serious. “Thank you.”

She leaned forward and pressed her lips softly to his. “You are so welcome. Thank you.”

“Anytime … and I do mean that more than I’ve ever meant anything—absolutely, positively, anytime … anywhere …” He began to shower kisses around her face.

She laughed again. “Okay, I get it. I do have to get up now and shower so I can get something done today.”

“Are you going to eat your breakfast?”

“It’s cold now, I think.”

“It’s a good thing I got my tip first then, huh?”

“You could warm it up for me while I shower.”

“You make love to a woman one time and suddenly you’re her slave for life … how warm would you like it?”

She kissed him again. “Thank you. I’ll be down in a few.”

He closed his eyes again and nodded.

“Are you going back to sleep?”

“Nope, I’m just picturing you in the shower.” A slow grin spread across his face. “I have a clear image to work with now.”

She stood up and threw the pillow at him before running for the bathroom. He opened his eyes and said, “Mm … and one more for the memory books.” She was giggling as she slammed the door.

****

By the time she made it downstairs, Drake had her plate warmed and covered, his washed and put away, and a little vase with wildflowers and a note that said, Eat hearty. I’m off to work, but I won’t be far if you need anything … and I mean ANYTHING from me.” He signed it –D with a smiley face. She smiled and rolled her eyes. She’d created a monster.

After she ate and cleaned up the rest of the kitchen, she headed into the office to check her messages. She heard her cell phone vibrating and hadn’t realized she’d left it in there. Still smiling and thinking about Drake, she picked it up and looked at the screen. She’d missed three calls from the same number. It was a Vermont area code, but she didn’t recognize the number. She slid the button for voicemail and as she listened to the message, the smile fell from her face. With her heart pounding, she ended the call and pressed the number for the missed calls as she ran out the kitchen door, calling for Drake at the same time. He came around the corner of the house just as the phone was answered on the other end.

The phone answered, “Memorial Hospital, how can I help you?”

“My name is Sophie Michelson; my mother was brought into the ER …” Drake’s eyes went big. He dropped the can of paint he was holding as he heard her say, “Yes, she was with a man. His name is Mac Tanner. Yes, I can hold.” Her eyes met Drake’s and she said, “Mom and Mac were in an accident …”

“Are they okay?”

“I don’t know … she’s getting the nurse.”

“Miss Michelson?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

Drake was watching her face, looking for confirmation that Mac and Brenda were okay. She pressed the speaker button so he could hear too just as the nurse said, “Your mother was brought in about an hour ago. I honestly don’t have a lot of information to give you yet. The doctor is still in there with her. What I do know is that she was conscious when they brought her in. She was talking, and she’s the one that asked us to call you.”

“That sounds good,” Sophie said, feeling her eyes fill with tears. Drake’s were still staring at her face. “What about the man she was with … Mac Tanner?”

“He was taken straight to surgery.”

“Why?” Drake asked, panic rising in his voice.

The nurse hesitated and Sophie said, “That’s Drake Tanner. He’s Mac’s nephew.”

“He had some pretty extensive internal injuries and he lost a lot of blood. I’m sorry, that’s all I know. The officer with the Vermont State Police who was on the scene is still in the ER, I believe. Would you like to speak with him?”

“Yes!” Sophie and Drake spoke at the same time. She could see the pain and worry in his eyes, and she could hardly stand it. They waited in silence until a man’s voice came on the line.

“Miss Michelson, this is Officer Williams. I was first on the scene of the accident.”

“What happened?”

“Your mother’s car was hit head-on by a pickup of teens that lost control after skidding across the slick road. The driver of the other car was ejected from the vehicle and sustained minor injuries. Your mother and her passenger were pinned in their car.” Sophie sucked in a breath as he paused. He continued, “I’m sorry. I don’t know exactly what their injuries are yet. She was able to talk to me while we waited for the ambulance. She told me her passenger, Mr. Tanner, was a paraplegic, and she gave me your number and his nephew’s number …”

“I’m here,” Drake said.

“Mr. Tanner?”

“Yes.”

“Your uncle is in surgery—”

“Yeah, the nurse told us that. You were there, you saw him. Was he awake at all?”

“No sir, he was unconscious. I’m sorry.”

Drake turned away from Sophie and kicked the paint can out of his way. He started walking to his truck. She thanked the officer before ending the call and followed him. “Drake …”

“I need to get to the hospital.” He looked and sounded like he was in a trance.

“Okay, me too. Can I ride with you?” He nodded. “I’m going to get my purse.” He nodded again. Sophie left him there and ran inside. She grabbed her purse and locked the door and when she got back outside, Drake was still staring off into the distance. “Drake … are you okay?”

He snapped back to the present and started the truck. “I’m good,” was all he said. The drive to the hospital was long and quiet. As they passed the turnoff for the wildlife rehab, Drake slowed the truck down and sat there for a few minutes, idling. He looked like he had checked out again. Sophie waited. Finally, he said, “This is my fault.”

“No, Drake. It was an accident that no one could have predicted.”

He put the truck back in drive, and she was surprised when he started heading up the hill instead of down into the town. “Those damned kits. I started all of this by not being able to keep my nose out of something that I had no business in. They probably would have survived if I hadn’t picked them up. And if they didn’t, that’s nature, right?”

“Drake, you have a good heart—”

“Do I? Do I have the kind of heart of a man who was left entrusted with the care of another one and failed to give him what he needed? I was so busy working and doing anything I could do in order to see you that I completely neglected him. If he dies today, he’ll die thinking that he’s all alone.”

“No, that’s not true. Mac knows you love him.”

Drake didn’t say anything, he just kept driving. Just as Sophie was going to ask him what they were doing, she saw it. Black skid marks lined the road like an ugly scar, and pieces of glass and metal still littered the shoulder. Drake pulled the truck over and got out. Sophie followed him. The cars were gone, but there was a black mark up against the white cement guardrail where the paint from Sophie’s SUV had come off as it was likely shoved up against it. Drake bent down and picked something up. He held it in his fingers and looked at it before his eyes suddenly filled with tears and he crushed it in his hand.

“Drake?”

He smiled as one of the tears escaped from his eyes and rolled down his cheek. “I saw him out in the grove behind my house yesterday rolling around. I asked him what he was doing and he got really defensive. He had a bucket in his lap, and it was filled with figs that had fallen off of one of the trees. He used to feed them to the kits. He took that bucket with him today.”

Sophie could tell that it was taking every bit of strength he had to hold it together. She went to him and put her arms around him. She just held him, and when she felt his body stop shaking, she pulled back and said, “We should go. Maybe they’ll have good news for us when we get there. We have to stay positive.”

He nodded and kissed the side of her face. She looked down as they walked back to the pickup and saw there were figs scattered all over the ground.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Drake and Sophie went straight to the ER when they arrived at the hospital. The nurse was kind, and she told Drake she’d find out where Mac was and if he could see him before taking them in to see Brenda, who was in a cubicle in the ER behind a sliding curtain. She was surrounded by gurneys on either side in front and behind. Brenda looked pale, and she had a few cuts and scratches on her face. The rest of her was covered, but there were lines and tubes running here and there underneath the sheet.

“Mom?” Sophie’s face was as pale as her mother’s. Drake suddenly felt bad for the breakdown he had had. He should have been there for her. She was as worried as he was, and he was wasting time making it about him and how he felt. “Mom, can you hear me?” Sophie slid her hand under the sheet and grasped her mother’s. Brenda’s eyes fluttered open and then closed again. The nurse said she was on pain medication, so she was probably having trouble waking up.

“Sophie?” Brenda said groggily.

“Yeah, Mom. I’m here. Are you okay?”

“Mac?”

Sophie looked up at Drake. He suddenly felt like he couldn’t breathe. “We haven’t seen him yet. Drake’s here too. As soon as we see him, we’ll let you know how he is, okay?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, turning her head slowly and pulling her eyes open as if they had weights on them. Drake realized that she was apologizing to him. He felt another lump welling up in his throat. He stepped closer to the bed and took her hand.

“I’m sorry that you had to go through this,” he said. He bent down and brushed his lips across her cheek. “Everything’s going to be okay. You don’t have anything to apologize for, all right?”

A stray tear rolled down her cheek, and Sophie wiped it away. “Don’t cry, Mom. Everything’s going to be okay. Are you in pain?”

“No,” Brenda’s voice was raspy and hoarse.

“Do you want some water?”

“They won’t let me have any,” she said, having to force each word as if her chest hurt when she spoke.

Sophie suddenly looked annoyed. To no one in particular, she said, “Where is that doctor? The nurse said he’d be right in.”

“I’ll go check,” Drake said. He left the women alone and stepped out from behind the curtain. He felt like he could breathe a little easier out here. He found the nurse that had helped them and asked about Brenda’s doctor. She assured him that he’d be in as soon as he could. Then, he asked about Mac again.

“He’s still in surgery. I let the staff up there know that you’re here. They’ll call when he’s out and I’ll take you there, okay?”

He nodded, feeling like he was suddenly caught in a bad dream. The day had gone from a beautiful kind of surreal to a nightmare. “Mr. Tanner?” He turned at the sound of the voice. He was facing a middle-aged man with a long face in a green uniform with gold piping holding a green trooper hat.

“Yes, Drake Tanner.”

“I’m Officer Williams.” Drake shook his hand. The officer said, “Have you gotten any word on your uncle?”

“No sir, not yet.”

“I just wanted to give you my card and ask if you could keep me updated.”

“Sure. Thanks for helping them.”

“It’s nothing. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do until the fire department got there. I hope your uncle comes through this okay.”

“Thanks, me too.”

Drake put the card in his pocket and headed back to where Brenda was. The doctor was walking in just as he was. It was a female doctor with the posture of a soldier. She smiled at him, but it was the smile of a professional. There was nothing overly warm about it. She had her hair pulled back into a severe bun and a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. She pushed them up as she perused the file in her hand. Sophie looked up as they walked in and said, “Are you Dr. Garrison?”

“Yes,” the woman said, holding her hand out almost robotically. Sophie stood up and shook it, then introduced herself and Drake. He watched poor Brenda trying to keep her eyes open, but they kept drifting back shut. “So Mrs. Michelson was the driver in a multiple-injury accident. The car she was driving was pushed into the guardrail, and she and her passenger were trapped inside. She sustained some crushing injuries to her ribs as well as a punctured lung. It looks like she already had a break to her left ankle that was cast, so that isn’t new.

“So far we haven’t detected any other injuries or internal bleeding. She has a chest tube in place now to keep the fluids from building up in that lung as it heals, and the oxygen is to help her get enough air exchange while it’s healing. She’s scheduled for one more CT scan of her abdomen this afternoon. She had a lot of bruising and swelling when she came in, so it was hard to read. We didn’t see anything worrisome, but we’ll want to check it again just to be sure.” She looked from Sophie to Drake and said, “Do either of you have any questions?”

“Her broken ribs … they’ll heal on their own?” Sophie asked.

“Yes, that’s what we hope for. She’s wearing an abdominal brace now so that when she breathes, coughs, or moves, she won’t experience so much pain. She’ll likely have to wear that until they’re healed.”

“How long will she need to stay here?”

The doctor shrugged. “At this point, we’re still at the stage of finding out what her injuries are. Hopefully we’ve already identified them all, but we’d like her to stay under observation for the first twenty-four hours. She’ll be transferred to a room as soon as one is available.”

Sophie nodded. She looked relieved, and Drake was relieved for her and Brenda both. Now if they’d just tell him something about Mac. The doctor answered a few more questions for Sophie before leaving. Sophie looked up at Drake and asked, “Have they told you anything else about Mac?”

“No. He’s still in surgery.” Drake sat down in the chair on his side of the bed. “They said they’ll call me when he’s out.”

They both sat there and watched Brenda sleep. It was about an hour later when the nurse stuck her head in and said, “Mr. Tanner, he’s out of surgery.”

Drake got up and looked at Sophie. “I’ll let you know as soon as I talk to someone,” he said.

She smiled gently at him and nodded. “I have my phone. Call me if you need anything, okay?”

“Yeah, I will.” He kissed Brenda’s cheek again and then Sophie’s before following the nurse out of the room. Drake looked around as the nurse led him to the surgical waiting room. The hallway was as untouched with personality as the rest of the hospital. The floor beneath his feet was white and slate gray tiles, and the light overhead was way too bright. It reminded him of one on television when the police were interrogating a suspect. As he walked on, wondering how far away the ICU was, he noticed how everything was clean and spotless and tinged with bleach.

The nurse, who’d told him her name was Marla, pushed a button on the wall at the end of the hall, and a set of double doors swung inward. In between that set and another, there was a black phone on the wall. She picked it up and dialed 1 before speaking. “Hi Katie. I have Mr. Tanner here to see his uncle.”

Marla listened, then hung up and put some sort of code into the keypad. The next set of doors opened. Drake felt a rush of cold air and was once again overwhelmed by the strong scent of ammonia.

“This is where I leave you, Mr. Tanner. Good luck. I wish your uncle a speedy recovery.”

“Thank you for your help.” She nodded and smiled and then left as the other nurse came toward him.

“Hi, Mr. Tanner. I’m Katie.”

“Hi … where is my uncle?”

“They’re bringing him up right now.”

“Can you tell me what’s wrong with him? What did they operate on him for?”

“I’m going to let Dr. Gill tell you all of that. Here he is now.”

Dr. Gill was a tall, broad, Eastern Indian man. He shook Drake’s hand and proceeded to give him the rundown on Mac’s injuries. “Your uncle is paraplegic, correct?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“Um … I guess about thirty years.”

“Otherwise healthy?”

“As far as I know.”

“Good. He was trapped in the vehicle and suffered some major internal injuries. We transfused him with two units of blood before the surgery and I just ordered another unit now. We took out his spleen because it sustained some major damage. He has some severe bruising to his abdominal area, and his legs are quite cut up from the crushing metal. His right arm is broken in two places, and I’m afraid that he has a closed head injury as well. He’s not breathing on his own right now.”

“So in English?” Drake said.

“The injury we’re worried about and watching is the closed head. We don’t know why he hasn’t woken up yet or why he’s not breathing on his own. He has a lot of swelling around his brain and if that doesn’t go down with medication over the next twenty-four hours, he may need surgery to relieve that as well. I ordered an MRI of his head to be done first thing in the morning and when that comes back, I can let you know more.”

That all sounded really, really bad. Drake felt sick to his stomach. “Is there still a possibility that he’ll wake up on his own?”

“Yes. He does have brain activity, so for now, it’s wait and see.”

That wasn’t the best news, but at least it gave him hope. “Okay. Thank you. Can I see him?”

“Yes, absolutely. He’s there in room four. I don’t know if anyone else is here with you, but only one visitor at a time.”

“Okay, thank you.” After the doctor left, Drake stood near the nursing station and texted Sophie what he’d learned. She texted back right away.

Give him a kiss for us. Mom is feeling so bad.

Please tell her to stop that and concentrate on getting better. I’ll text you after I see Mac for a bit.

He stuck the phone in his pocket and took a deep breath before heading over to the big glass room.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Three days later, on Tuesday, Mac was still in the same condition. They’d done surgery on his head to remove the pressure on Sunday, but he still hadn’t woken up and was still not breathing on his own. Brenda, on the other hand, was doing great … physically. Although the police officer had said more than once, and even put in his report, that the slick road was what caused the accident and she was in no way at fault, she was still blaming herself.

Sophie texted Drake early in the day to let him know the doctor was discharging Brenda. He let the nurses know he would be downstairs for a while, and he went to the second floor to Brenda’s room to see them. As soon as he walked in, Sophie got up and hugged him. He held on to her tightly for a long time, and his eyes met Brenda’s blue ones over Sophie’s head. He kissed Sophie on the side of the face and stepped over to her mother. Smiling at her, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. “I’m so glad they’re letting you bust out of here.”

“Me too,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “How’s Mac?”

“He’s the same … still fighting.”

“Do you think they’ll let me see him before I go home?”

“I think we can arrange that,” Drake told her.

She clutched his arm and said, “Drake, I’m so very sorry.”

He rested his weary forehead into hers. Sophie had gotten a motel room in town, but he wouldn’t leave Mac. He slept off and on in the recliner in the room, but not much. “Brenda, please, please, please stop blaming yourself for this. The state trooper said you did absolutely nothing wrong. It was a horrible freak accident, and I am so glad that you’re okay. Mac is a tough old guy, and I believe in my heart that he’s going to come back to us … and when he does, he’s going to be just as happy that you’re okay, too.”

“I just feel so helpless,” she said. Drake hugged her.

“Me too,” he said. They sat like that for a long time while Sophie loaded all of the flowers and cards she’d gotten into the car she’d rented to take them home. She was touched by the outpouring of support from the people of Brook Haven, who had only so recently met Brenda. It was another reminder of what a nice place she’d chosen for them to call home.

On Monday, Brooke had come by to see Drake, and Sophie realized as she watched them together that any jealousy she’d felt was just her own silliness. It was easy to see that their love for each other was a pure kind of love like that shared between siblings. Mrs. Larson sent some apples and a quart of lemonade with her and a note for Sophie that made her tear up.

Remember when I told you that I thought that Tanner boy was in love with the doctor? Well, I just wanted to tell you that I was wrong. That day you and he came by to pick apples, I saw such a strong love in his eyes when he looked at you … it was the way my husband used to look at me. Hold on to that dear, and it will get you through anything. Trust me, I know. Kiss your mama for me and tell her when she’s feeling up to it to drink the magic lemonade … it will do wonders for her soul.

Sophie kept the note in her pocket and over the next couple of days when she was feeling down, she would take it out and read it again.

Eventually the nurse came in with Brenda’s discharge paperwork and instructions. She was to be on strict bed rest until her ribs healed. Her ankle was still healing as well. She was exchanging oxygen on her own just fine, so they weren’t worried about her lung. The cuts on her face had begun to heal and she had a black eye, but all in all she was lucky, and the proof of how lucky was upstairs in the ICU. She thanked the nurses, and the three of them got onto the elevator. Drake pushed the button for the tenth floor and once they were at the ICU, he asked the nurse to let Brenda visit as long as she wanted to. While she went in to see Mac, Sophie and Drake sat together in the waiting room.

“So … Friday is the big day,” he said.

“What?”

“Your grand opening,” he said. He was trying to brighten her mood. Hers seemed almost as down as Brenda’s.

“Are you coming home?”

The smile fell away and he said, “I can’t. I hope you know how badly I want to be there with you, but it’s over an hour’s drive and if anything happened to him while I was gone …”

She nodded. “I know. I’m just worried about you. You’re not eating or sleeping—”

“I’m fine.” He slipped his arm around her and held her close while they waited. Neither of them said anything after that until it was time to say goodbye. He kissed and hugged Brenda one more time before helping her into the car. Then he took Sophie in his arms and said, “I promise I’ll eat and sleep and if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll shower.” She smiled and wrinkled her nose. He laughed and kissed her forehead. “I need you to promise me something.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t stress too much this week. My friend Sam, who is a veterinarian and not a carpenter by the way, is going to come and help you finish up at the inn.”

“What? No. Drake, you shouldn’t be worrying about any of that right now.”

“I’m not. Sam’s not as good as I am, of course.” He grinned. “But he’s pretty handy.”

“Drake—”

“Shh. Don’t argue with me. You worked too hard for this, and there is no way that it’s not going to happen.”

“I just wanted you to be there so badly.”

“I know … I’m sorry.”

As soon as he said he was sorry, she felt guilty again. He shouldn’t be sorry about staying with his uncle. Sometimes Sophie wondered if she’d become way too self-absorbed. It was her turn to say, “Shh. Please don’t apologize to me. You have such a good heart. You always do the right thing. I can learn so much from you.”

He pulled her back into his side and with that cute grin of his, he said, “Just you wait … I have a list of things to teach you.”

She laughed. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, baby,” he whispered. “I love you.”

****

Brooke showed back up on Thursday morning. Drake met her out in the waiting room and as soon as she saw him, she said, “Whew! I made it just in time. Here …” She handed him a shopping bag. He raised an eyebrow and she said, “Just look inside.” He did, and what he saw was a new pair of jeans, t-shirts, shorts, and socks as well as a razor and shaving cream, toothbrush, and toothpaste. He smiled.

“Are you trying to say I stink?”

“I would never … Sophie asked me to bring them.”

“Is she doing okay?” They’d talked on the phone several times since she took Brenda home. He could tell that she was trying to put on a happy face, but she didn’t sound truly happy.

“I don’t really know her that well. She seems a little stressed, but that’s to be expected. She misses you, that much I can see on her face.”

“How are things going for the opening tomorrow?”

“I went inside today when I stopped by to pick these things up because I wanted to check out Brenda’s ankle. The place looks beautiful. I think it’s going to be a big hit with the tourists.”

“Good. She’s worked so hard. She deserves good things.”

Brooke put her hand on his face and said, “So do you.”

“They’re coming,” he said. “Soon.”

Brooke smiled and asked him, “How did you become so disgustingly positive?”

He laughed. “I just pretend like I am to annoy you,” he said.

Drake talked one of the nurses into letting him use the shower in one of the empty rooms while Brooke visited Mac. When he was showered and shaved and dressed in clean clothes, he felt slightly more human. He called Sophie before he went back to the ICU.

“Hey! How are you?” she answered. “How’s Mac?”

“He’s the same, and I’m great now. Thank you for the clothes and things. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I really did. The nurses called and said you stink.”

He laughed. “Not anymore. How are things going there?”

“Good. Everything is ready, I think. Sam has been a big help and Mrs. Larson has been over with her helpful tips. The only thing missing is you.”

“I’m sor—”

“Don’t say it! You have nothing to be sorry for. I just miss you. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Monday.”

“No,” she pouted. “Monday is too far away.”

“Get through your opening weekend and the Harvest Festival, and I’ll see you on Monday.”

“I will see you soon,” she said.

“I love you, Sophie.”

She still didn’t say it back, but he was okay with it. He could see it when she looked at him and he could hear it in her voice. Words didn’t mean a thing. Anyone could say the words. He looked down at his new clean clothes and thought, It’s the little things that matter.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Sophie woke up on Friday morning with butterflies the size of dragons in her belly. Her dream was finally becoming a reality. She stood in front of the mirror on her vanity and looked at herself. She didn’t look happy. She didn’t look like a woman about to realize her dream. The truth was she didn’t feel it either. All she felt was nerves … and not the good kind.

The night before, she’d finally admitted to her mother that the joy she thought she would feel when this day happened was just not there. When Brenda asked her what it would take for her to feel that joy, she didn’t hesitate. “Drake,” she said, and then, “Oh, Mom, I want to be with Drake. I want to give everyone their deposits back, tell them how sorry I am, lock the doors, and go be with Drake. He needs me, Mom. He needs me there.”

“Then go,” Brenda had said simply, as if it were as easy as that.

“What about the people already on their way here? Everything in town is booked—”

“I’ll open the inn for you.”

Sophie laughed. “I love you, Mom. You have three cracked ribs and you’re still limping around on that ankle … so, no. But it was so sweet of you to offer.”

She’d finally left Brenda’s room and gone upstairs after midnight. It was two or three a.m. before she fell asleep and six when she woke up. She showered and was dressed by eight. She’d pictured this day a million times in her head, but never like this. She didn’t even want to be here. All she wanted was Drake.

“Sophie?” She heard her mother’s voice on the intercom she’d asked Sam to install in the downstairs room Brenda was staying in while she healed.

“Yeah, Mom, are you okay?”

“I’m good, honey. I was wondering if you could come downstairs for a minute though … after you’re dressed?”

“I’m dressed. I’ll be right there.”

Sophie took one last long look at herself and wondered if it was a reflection she should be proud of. Every time she asked herself where Drake would be if the shoe were on the other foot, the answer was clear. He would be wherever she was, and she knew it.

She made her way downstairs and when she got to the last step, she heard voices in the dining room. She followed them and was shocked when she walked in on her mother, Mrs. Larson, Brooke, Brooke’s nurse, and three of the ladies from Brenda’s quilting group sitting at the big dining room table. “Hi everyone. What’s going on?”

Brenda looked up and smiled. Before she could say anything, Sam hurried in. “Sorry I’m late. The Lindons’ cow had a baby last night.”

Sophie smiled. “Late for what?”

“We have a grand opening to get ready for,” Brenda told her. “I called on a couple of friends, and I told them your heart was with Drake and Mac and you wanted the rest of you to be as well. These fine ladies …”—she looked at Sam—“and gentleman rushed right over to help. Go be with Drake and Mac, and we will take care of everything while you’re gone.”

Sophie couldn’t believe it. She barely knew these women. They were all people who owned their own businesses and had families. They were all people who had so many things they could be and maybe should be doing, and yet they were willing to drop it all and help her. Tears were streaming down her face as she went around the table and hugged each and every one of them. She was so choked up and so overwhelmed that she had no idea what to say. She finally just pressed her hand to her heart and thanked them all. Then she kissed her mother and grabbed her keys. She was going to be where she belonged underneath the Harvest Moon … at the side of the man she loved.

****

“So … I know it’s a downer that Beth is gone, but it’s fall and apple harvesting time and it’s also Marmee’s sixtieth birthday.” Mac groaned. Drake went on explaining why he thought Little Women’s ending wasn’t as sad as some people often said it was. It had been the only book the nurse could find for him in the ICU when he asked for one to read to his uncle. In spite of himself, he’d loved it. Not that he’d ever admit that to Mac if he was awake.

“So they have this big harvest party and birthday party at Jo’s place. Jo has three daughters now …” Mac groaned again. That time it hit Drake. “Uncle Mac?” He saw Mac’s eyelids flutter. His eyes stayed closed, but they were definitely moving underneath there. “Oh my God! Uncle Mac, are you waking up?” Another loud groan, and then Mac’s hand moved. He was trying to lift it up. Drake’s face broke out in a wide smile. “Stay right here, I’ll get the nurse.” He ran out to the nurse’s station and found Marla. She had been Mac’s day nurse all week. “He’s groaning and moving his eyes and he’s trying to lift his hand …”

Marla was on her feet at once. Drake liked that she didn’t ask him to repeat all of that. She simply followed him to the room and set about taking vital signs and talking to Mac. “Hey, Mr. Tanner, are you waking up? Come on and open those eyes. I’d like to see what they look like. Come on, Mr. Tanner, I’ve been here all week. I’m off this weekend. Wake up for me today or my co-workers will take all the credit.”

Mac groaned, and suddenly it looked like he was trying to lift his head. His arms were shaking convulsively, but it didn’t look like he was having a seizure—it looked like he was trying with all of his might to move them. “I’m going to get the doctor, Mr. Tanner. Don’t go anywhere.”

Drake smiled. He was glad to know he wasn’t the only one who said silly things like that to a man in a coma.

“Hey Uncle Mac, I’m here. Wake up, okay? I really want to take you home. Please wake up. If you wake up, I won’t read any more Little Women to you.” Drake wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but it actually looked like Mac tried to smile. Then he started choking and the entire team ran in. He was pushed out into the hallway, and for a few minutes he just stood there helplessly. He’d been thinking something good was happening … but what if it were the opposite? What if those noises were him getting ready to die? What would he do without him?

“Drake?” He thought he imagined the sound of Sophie’s voice, so he didn’t even turn around. God, he missed her. “Drake!” That time it was even louder and clearer. He turned toward the sound of it and saw her beautiful face. She had the hallway door open a crack and she was looking in at him.

“Sophie … what are you doing here?”

She waved him over. When he got to the door, she pulled him through it and said, “First of all, don’t even try to send me away because I’m not going. I need to be here with you. I want to be here with you. I am going to be here with you and no one is going to stop me … and you want to know why?”

She was so passionate and so damned cute. He was holding back a smile as he said, “Why?”

“Because I am in love with you, Drake Tanner. You are my happily ever after. I look at you and see forever. Not that house … you. If I don’t have you, then none of the rest of it will matter.” She had tears streaming down her pretty face. He pulled her into his chest and held her while the tears welled up in his eyes as well. She loves me! He held her back and looked at her face.

“I’m not sending you back,” he said with a grin. “Not ever. I love you so much.”

“I love you so much. Kiss me, Drake.”

He didn’t hesitate. He pulled her up so that she was almost all the way off her feet and he covered her warm, soft mouth with his. She parted her sweet lips, and he let his tongue taste them first before delving into her mouth. Her tongue came up and met his as the passionate kiss went on and on. The only reason they broke was for air, and given half the chance, both of them would have passed on that. Breathless and struggling to get his voice back, Drake smiled and said, “I think Mac is waking up.”

EPILOGUE

One Year Later

The afternoon air was cold, but there was no wind or rain. It was a perfect fall day, and the trees that surrounded the bright-green meadow were on fire. The gold and scarlet and burnt-orange leaves licked at the sky overhead as they swayed in the gentle breeze. They were nature’s decoration for the celebration that was happening tonight. An entire community had come together to celebrate the union of two souls underneath the Harvest Moon.

As the wedding march began to play, Sophie stood at the back and looked up at the altar. Brooke was there, her maid of honor. She’d become good friends with the other woman over the past year. They had bonded over their love for Drake but found they had much more than that in common day by day.

Sam was there, standing alongside Drake. Her beautiful fiancé was wearing a light-brown suit that contrasted beautifully with his dark eyes. He was fidgeting with his tie and looking nervous. Sophie smiled, and she felt her heart speed up. They’d both made the inn their home over the past year, and Drake had become an intricate part of the day-to-day affairs of it. Their first winter open had been a roaring success as the tourists had descended like crazy for the snow-covered mountains, the fresh air of the country, and the hospitality of an inn that was rapidly gaining a countrywide reputation for being the best.

“Are you ready, pretty girl?”

Sophie looked down at Mac. He was dressed in the same color suit as his nephew, and he looked so handsome. Drake had wanted him to be his best man, but Sophie had stolen him to walk her down the aisle. He’d fought through his recovery like a champ and after he’d gotten stronger, Drake had taken him up to see the kits, who were nearly grown but still acted like they knew him. When he got home, Brenda had presented him with a puppy that she told him they could share custody of. The two of them had become really close friends, and every time Sophie saw them together, she knew she had one more thing to be grateful for.

She glanced up and saw her beautiful mother in the front, standing and looking in her direction. This was a day that Sophie hadn’t been sure would ever come, but Brenda had always known. Sophie only hoped that one day she could be half the mother that hers had been.

She took Mac’s hand and said, “I am so ready. Let’s get this happily ever after started.” He smiled at her and pushed the button on his new electric chair. He and Brenda had begun taking walks every day, spending time at the library, and picking apples together. He needed something a little faster to keep up with her, and his nephew had been more than happy to provide him with it.

As Sophie walked toward her future, she looked at her fiancé’s gorgeous face, and she knew for sure that everything she would ever need lived right there in his smile and she was exactly where she belonged.

The End

Please swipe past 100% and leave a review for Where I Belong. It’s one of the best ways to show an author you appreciate their work. Thanks, Charlene

 

Enjoyed what you read? Want to read more from Charlene? Try her holiday romance I Saw Mommy Kissing a Cowboy. Here are the first three chapters.

I Saw Mommy Kissing a Cowboy

A Cowboy Christmas Romance

Jyl and her four-year-old son, Gabriel, have survived the worst thing that could happen—the loss of her husband on tour in Afghanistan. She’s looking for a change, an escape from the constant reminders of her late husband and a place where she and her son can build a new life.

 

What she wasn’t looking for was Grant Underwood. The last complication she needs in her life right now is a man. Add in her outspoken friend and his intrusive family, and fireworks ignite in the middle of December. Jyl wants to ignore her overwhelming attraction to Grant, but she also wants to do the right thing for her son.

 

So what happens when Gabriel asks Santa Claus to bring him a new daddy in the form of Grant? And Gabe’s not the only one wishing for a Christmas miracle. It seems the only one not hoping for a little of Santa’s magic is Jyl.

CHAPTER ONE

“I can’t believe you’re moving to the wilderness!” Sharla threw herself back dramatically against the headboard of Jyl’s bed. She was supposed to be there helping Jyl pack, but so far there hadn’t been much packing going on.

“It’s not the wilderness, Shar. You’re being dramatic again.”

“Really? Not the wilderness, you say? Let me read you a few statistics.”

Jyl laughed. “I don’t need statistics, Shar. I checked it all out before I decided to move there.”

The long-time friend wasn’t deterred. “Queens, New York … the largest of the five boroughs. The population at the last census was estimated at 2,321,580 people. Buffalo County, Colorado … last census, 10,365. Do you know how many less people that is? I mean just the dating pool alone is cut by—well, it’s cut by a lot!”

“I’m not looking to date,” Jyl told her, folding another pair of pants and placing them into the open box at the end of the bed.

“Well, of course not now, but someday. You’re young and beautiful; you don’t want to be alone forever. If you move to the wilderness you’re practically guaranteeing it.”

“Sharla, you know how much thought I’ve put into this. This is no spur-of-the-moment decision. You know I’d never do that to Gabriel.”

“I know, but the bottom line here is that I’m going to miss you! I’ll never make another friend like you. No one else will put up with me. Can’t you just stay until I’m grown up and able to do this on my own?”

Jyl laughed again. “Since you’re twenty-six, honey, I’m not so sure that’s ever going to happen.”

“Hey!”

Jyl dropped down next to her friend on the bed. She and Sharla had been friends since the second grade when they met in Mr. Godfrey’s class at P.S. 101. She put her arm around her friend and said, “You know I’m kidding. You are more than capable of doing this without me. You’re an editor for a national magazine. You supervise ten people. You’re more of a grown-up than me.”

Sharla put her head on Jyl’s shoulder, and Jyl heard her sniffle. “My chest aches when I think about not seeing you every week.”

“Mine aches for you too, sweetie. But, you know that I need to do this, right? Gabriel and I need a change. For one thing, there are just too many memories for us here. Everything in the house reminds us that Josh is never coming home. Everywhere we go, we see something or someone who reminds us of him. I don’t ever want to forget him, and I won’t ever let Gabe forget his father, but I don’t want to be haunted by his memories every waking moment either. I want to get to a point where I can have a memory cross my mind and smile about it. I don’t think I can get there without a fresh start.”

Sharla wiped her face and sat up. “I get that. I really do. But why so far away? New York is huge. You have four other boroughs to choose from. Why do you have to go to the wilderness?”

Shaking her head, Jyl stood up and went back to her packing. “I did a lot of research and Buffalo County, Colorado kept coming up as one of the best places to raise a child. There are tons of cultural events going on at any given time. Lots of recreational opportunities for me to get Gabriel involved in and most importantly, the public school system earned Accredited with Distinction honors from the Colorado Department of Education the last two years in a row. Shiloh Falls—the town—is the only populated town in the county and the rest of it is ranch land. It’s the moose viewing capitol of Colorado.”

Sharla snorted.

Laughing, Jyl continued, “Okay, so that’s not so important, but the crime rate is almost nil, and that is. I want the best for Gabriel and I think I’ve found it in Colorado.”

Sharla stuck out her bottom lip, but she didn’t press further. Jyl and Gabriel were leaving first thing in the morning. The house had been sold, the furniture shipped, and everything but the last of the clothes packed. She’d worked with a realtor online and over the phone and she ended up buying a home that she’d fallen in love with, though she had only seen photos of it. The house was made to look like a log cabin on the outside but equipped with all of the modern amenities of life on the inside. It sat on an acre of land, and the thought of Gabe having all of that space to roam, with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop to his childhood, thrilled her.

It had three bedrooms and two baths and one of the things she loved about it the most was the great open concept kitchen. There was a large loft which she thought would make a great playroom and a lovely living room with vaulted ceilings and a wood stove. Even though it was a little older than she preferred, she was super excited about it. There was a hot tub on the back porch, too, and the mountains lined the landscape. Even if it was one-tenth the house she’d seen in pictures, it would be worth it.

This move was a done deal and no matter how much Sharla contested it, she had to know that Jyl couldn’t change her mind now if she wanted to. She was excited about the move. She and Gabriel were looking forward to the adventure. The buoyant, free feeling it gave her was much needed after what she and her son had gone through over the past year. Her husband, Josh, had been a soldier, and although not many twenty-six-year-olds could already pinpoint the worst second of their lives, Jyl could. It was that moment when she had looked through the peephole on the front door of the brownstone she and Josh had so lovingly restored and saw the soldier in his dress blues accompanied by the chaplain. That moment, before they had even told her that Josh was dead, was even worse than the moment that followed, because she knew what news they were bringing when she first saw them on her porch.

She had come to think of the pain that had insinuated itself into her and her son’s lives that day as The Monster. Some days she would feel The Monster holding her underneath the deep end of the ocean, and the waves would engulf and overwhelm her. Other days she would wake up to the sunlight, only all she could see was the darkness that dwelled inside of her. For the first few months it was as if The Monster lived inside her brain, filling it with cobwebs and tangling her synapses so that the only rational thoughts she could have would be of Josh and the horrifying fact that he was gone. Her heart and soul were at war with The Monster and she hadn’t felt a true moment of peace since that day.

She wasn’t going to raise her son that way. It would be like allowing him to see her in an abusive relationship. The pain was holding her back from being the best parent and role model that she was capable of being. She would hold Josh in her heart forever, but for his son’s sake, she had to move on.

“Mama!”

“I’ll go see what he needs.” Sharla got up off the bed and went out into the living room. Jyl took that moment to give the bedroom she had shared with the love of her life one last long look. It was a place filled with memories, both good and bad, but mostly good. It was the place where the current love of her life was conceived. It was a place she would hold in her heart forever—but it was just a place. She and Gabriel would make new memories, and she had to believe that Josh understood and knew that she was doing the best that she could do for their son.

They were making it now off of the proceeds from the sale of the house and the widow’s benefits she had received when Josh died, but none of that would last forever. She hadn’t worked since before Gabe was born, but she had a degree in English Literature and considered herself a pretty good writer. She was going to start small with a blog about healthy living in the mountains of Colorado, and who knows, maybe she would finally write that novel someday.

The drive from Queens to Shiloh Falls was going to take twenty-seven hours. Jyl considered taking the train or an airplane, but she thought the drive would be part of the whole experience for her and Gabe. So far the winter had been mild; she’d checked the road conditions and the reports were favorable. Sharla was back in the morning to see them off. Jyl was proud of her; she kept her tears at bay in front of Gabriel.

“I love you,” Jyl told her. “I’ll call you as soon as we’re settled.”

Sharla nodded, tears filling her eyes. “I love you too. Be safe!”

Jyl hugged her tightly. “I’ll see you after the new year when you come visit us.”

“This will be the first Christmas in twenty years—”

“Stop it! No sad stuff. We just did Thanksgiving together and if you could get the time off for Christmas, you know you’d be welcome to come out.”

Sharla sighed. “I know. I still don’t like it. But I will let it go and say, ‘happy trails.’ Gabriel, give your Auntie Shar a hug, baby!”

Gabe hugged her. He was excited about the trip. Jyl didn’t think he fully grasped the concept that they were moving and would never be back to the only home he’d ever known. She was confident that he would adjust. He was a smart boy and he’d done amazingly well with the death of his father, being only three at the time. He would be okay. She was going to make sure of it.

******

The trip was as much fun as Jyl had imagined it would be and she was happy she’d decided to drive it. Gabriel had never been out of the city, so once they hit the farmlands of Iowa and Nebraska, he was fascinated. She stopped at one point and let him get out of the car and run through an alfalfa field. The joy in her son’s eyes as he ran, defeated any doubts that still lingered in her mind about whether or not she was doing the right thing.

The weather was good, for the most part. It was clear and she hadn’t needed chains all the way to Kanorado—the border town between Kansas and Colorado. It was there that things started to become a little hairy for her. They still had about six hours until they reached their destination when the snow began to lightly fall. She wasn’t worried at first. She was born and bred in New York and she’d lived and worked and thrived through some pretty severe weather, but when she got deeper into Colorado, the snow started falling more rapidly and the wind joined in on the assault.

She had to stop in Denver to have her chains put on. She would normally do it herself, but she didn’t want to leave Gabriel sitting inside someplace unattended, and she definitely didn’t want him in the car while she was doing it. It was far too cold for him to be left outside. She pulled into a Chevron station with a shop and was told it would be at least an hour before they could get to it so she took Gabriel across the street to get a hot chocolate. By the time they got back, the car was ready to go. She told herself that the rest of the trip was going to be smooth sailing, and she was almost right.

“Mama, I have to go to the bathroom.”

They had just crossed into Shiloh Falls and the snow was beginning to pick up momentum once more. The town was decorated with twinkling white lights in all of the trees and Christmas wreaths on what looked like all of the business doors. With the snow in the backdrop it looked like a Christmas postcard. As beautiful as it all was, Jyl didn’t really want to stop now. They were literally twenty miles away from their new home and she desperately wanted to just be there. She glanced back at her son who was doing the “pee-pee dance” in his car seat. She still needed to call the realtor so someone could meet them with the keys. She couldn’t make him wait that long.

“Okay, sweetness, we’ll stop at the little mall up there.”

“Can I have a toy?”

She laughed. “No, sweetness, no toys. It took me an entire day and six boxes to pack up your playroom. The last thing you need is another toy.” She turned into the little strip mall where there was a sporting goods shop, a diner, a grocery store, and a hair salon. The diner seemed to be the only thing open, so they went in there.

After Gabriel used the restroom, they took a seat in one of the booths and the waitress came over. “Hey there! You two are brave being out in this weather.”

“We’re just moving into town,” Jyl told her. “But it’s really not so bad out there right now.”

“This is one of those sneaky storms,” the waitress said as she handed them each a menu. “By the time the sun is down you can bet you don’t want to be anywhere except inside with a fire going.”

“Thanks, we’ll make sure that’s where we are then.” She handed back the menu and said, “I think I’ll just have some coffee. Gabe, do you want a piece of pie or something?”

“Chocolate?”

She rolled her eyes. There was no way he was sleeping tonight. “Okay,” she said and then looked at the waitress. “A small one, please.”

When the waitress left, she took out her phone and called the realtor. She got a recorded message saying they were unavailable. She had told them an approximate time that they’d be in town and they weren’t that far off, so hopefully someone would call back soon. She left a message telling them she and Gabe were in town.

She sipped her coffee and kept an eye on the weather through the window while her son ate his pie. The streetlights were just beginning to come on, and the lights were misty in the light snowfall. More ice than snow blanketed the street and sidewalk, and the moon looked milky as it woke up to push its way into the sky, replacing the sun that was still setting behind the snow-capped mountains.

It was about seven fifteen and she was beginning to worry. She started to dial the realtor again but then said, “Are you finished, Gabe? Maybe we’ll just go find the house and be there already when the realtor arrives. It’ll save us some time.”

“I’m done.” He had chocolate all over his little face. She smiled at him.

“Go wash up while I pay.” He ran off to the bathroom just as her phone rang. It was the realtor’s office.

“Hi Jyl, this is Becky with Shiloh Falls Realtors. I’m sorry I missed your call. Are you at the house now?”

“No, but we’re in town. We’re just getting ready to leave the diner.”

“Okay. I’m really sorry, but I have to be across town in about twenty minutes. Would you mind terribly if I just leave a key for you in the mailbox and we can get together in the morning to go over a few things?”

“Oh … no, that should be fine.”

“If it’s okay with you, I’ll go in and turn on the heat. It’s going to be a cold one tonight.”

“That would be great, thank you.”

“Thank you. My daughter needs to be picked up from band practice and my husband hasn’t made it home from work yet. I guess the traffic is pretty backed up because of the snow.”

“Well, family always comes first,” Jyl told her. “I’ll look forward to seeing you in the morning.”

After hanging up, she paid their bill and she and Gabriel headed for the car. The snow was coming down harder now, and it was almost so thick that seeing across the street was difficult. She was nervous about driving in it, but by her calculations they were only a few miles away.

She got Gabe buckled up and they got back out on the road. The drive just to the end of the street had beads of sweat forming on her brow and her heart pounding in her chest. She took the turn slowly, and just as she got around the corner, she saw the red lights of a police cruiser in her rearview mirror. She drove up a few feet, and then praying she was far enough off the road, she stopped. It took a few minutes, but finally the deputy sheriff emerged from the car. He was so tall that when he got to the passenger side window of the car, he had to bend nearly in half to look inside.

“Good evening, ma’am.”

“Good evening, Deputy. Did I do something wrong?”

“No ma’am. I just noticed you were going really slow and thought you might could use some help finding where you’re going.”

She smiled. She couldn’t imagine that ever happening in New York. It was hard to get the police to show up sometimes when there was a crime going on. “I suppose I could use a little help,” she said. “We’re just moving in and I’m looking for my new place. I’m used to snow, but not so much used to driving in it. In the city I mostly used the subway.”

He grinned at her. He had a pleasant face. He wasn’t attractive, but he had a smile that made you want to smile back. “What’s the address of where you’re going?” he asked. She told him and he said, “You’re only a block away. I’ll lead, you follow.”

“Thank you, Deputy.”

“Nah,” he said, “It’s my job.” She watched him pull his long coat around him as he walked back to his car. So far this town was looking up to be everything she’d thought that it was.

CHAPTER TWO

“What happened to Rachel?” Kat quizzed her brother-in-law while she had him trapped underneath the sink, cleaning out the grease trap.

He wished there was a trap door. “Who?”

“Oh stop it. I know you love your ladies, but I also know you’re not a dog. You remember her name.”

“We broke up.” (She had asked, “Are you going to marry me … ever?” And he had said, “No darlin’, sorry.” Then she had broken up with him.)

“Why? You’re such a catch. Why do women keep breaking up with you?”

Grant chuckled. “What makes you think they’re breaking up with me?”

“Oh fine, why do you keep breaking up with them, then?”

“Because I’m such a catch, I can do better, right?”

He pushed himself out from under the sink and stood to his full six feet, four inches. Kat was five four and currently in her flannel pajamas and woolen socks. She had to tip her head back to look up into his dark blue eyes. He could tell she wasn’t buying the arrogant routine. She knew him too well. He was sixteen when she had married his eighteen-year-old brother and before that, they’d gone to the same school their entire lives. She may as well be his sister instead of his sister-in-law.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Sadie is not going to be laughing if you don’t make her a grandmother soon.” Kat and his mother were close enough to drop the “in-law” as well.

He grabbed a towel off the counter and wiped his hands. “You and my brother have already done that—three times.”

“It doesn’t matter, she expects more … from you. I think she might be counting on you for the ‘X’ without the ‘Y’ chromosome.”

He laughed and said, “Now you’re just showing off that biology degree. I doubt that, though. Mom doesn’t count on me for much more than showing up for Sunday dinner. I don’t think she’d expect me to be the one to break the curse.”

Kat was standing against the counter eating a bowl of cereal. With a sigh she said, “As far as the degree goes, it’s the only place I’ve gotten to use it in the past two years, and can I just say that you Underwood men and that silly curse are something else?”

“How long have you been an Underwood now, Kat?”

“Ten years come December, you know that.”

“And in all of that time how many women named Underwood that didn’t marry into the name have you met?”

“None. But that doesn’t mean your family is cursed.”

“Our cousin Bob has been married three times. He has six stepsons. That’s not to mention his biological three. Our cousin Nate has two boys, and Cousin Sam has four. You and my brother have three, my mom and dad had two—”

“I’m well aware, but still, a curse? You’re all such intelligent people to buy into that craziness.”

He shrugged. Honestly, he didn’t believe in the curse, but it was fun to mess with his sister-in-law.

“I really have to run now. Can you put the lecture on hold until next time I see you?”

“Where are you running to?”

“Well since my brother was too busy to unclog his own grease trap, I now have to take another shower before I go on shift.”

“On shift? It’s Friday! You’re off on Fridays!”

Sometimes his only wish was for one day when his entire family wasn’t aware of his business. “Not tonight. Murph’s got bronchitis or something—it’s that time of the year. I owe him a shift.”

She stuck her bottom lip out in a pout and that was when he realized the entire conversation had been a setup. “What was it you had planned for me tonight, sis?” He often wondered if his brother even knew how to say “no” anymore. Kat was a beautiful woman and she was probably the best wife and mother Grant knew. But the one thing she was above all else was used to getting her way.

“I just wanted you to have dinner with us and meet my new friend tonight. …”

“Uh oh, I’ll have to thank Murph for getting sick.”

“Oh stop it! She’s sweet and she’s smart and if she’s half as pretty as her Facebook pictures in real life—”

“Wait a minute … you’re trying to set me up with someone you’ve never even met?”

She put down her cereal bowl and folded her arms across her chest. “I wasn’t trying to set you up. I just wanted you to meet her.”

“You haven’t even met her yet?”

“We’ve been chatting online for six months already. I know her without meeting her.”

He was laughing as he said, “That’s what the sheriff said about his second wife—you know the one he met online?”

“Oh stop! It’s not the same thing. That woman was evil!”

“And so might this one be too. Thanks, sis, but no thanks. I have to go. I still have a ton of work to do around the ranch before I go in. Tell my brother if he can’t control his wife and her match-making, he’ll need to learn how to fix his own sinks.”

She picked up a dishtowel and threw it at him as he slipped his black Stetson hat over his dark hair. “Your brother has no control over me.”

He laughed harder and said, “And it shows.” She narrowed his eyes at him, but he was saved by the sudden stampede of little boys coming in from outside. The two-year-old squealed when he saw his Uncle Grant. He stooped and picked the little guy up and tossed him in the air. “Hey, punk! How are you?”

“Grant Underwood! I told you to stop calling him that. Do you want to know what he told the visiting pastor his name was last week?”

Grant cracked up and held his hand out to his six-year-old nephew, Scotty, who slapped his uncle’s palm with his little hand and said, “David told the pastor his name was ‘Puck’.”

That only made Grant laugh harder. The four-year-old was laughing too, although it was doubtful he knew what he was laughing at. When his brother, Scott, came in the door, Grant handed him the bundled-up toddler and, looking at Kat, said, “Thanks for the laugh, sis. I needed that. Brother, you have a fine family.”

Scott looked like he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what he missed as he said, “That’s what the wife tells me.”

Grant was still laughing when he got to his pickup. He wished he would have been there to hear David tell the pastor his name. As he was backing out of the driveway, he saw his brother out on the porch, peeling the knee-high rubber boots off of his middle son. Kat would be surprised to know how envious he was of his brother. A soft woman in his bed had been enough for a long time, but it just wasn’t anymore. He wanted what Scott had, but he refused to settle for just anyone to have it. He had played the ladies’ man—the confirmed bachelor—all the while hoping that the next woman he met was going to be the one who knocked his socks off. His parents had been married for forty years, and he could still see the love for each other in their eyes. And nobody who ever met Kat and Scott could deny they were madly in love. That was what he wanted, what he insisted he felt before he said, “I do.”

His phone rang as he drove out of his brother’s driveway. He looked at the display and saw that it was Lyle, one of the senior deputies from work. “Hey Lyle, what’s up?” he said, pulling off to the side of the dirt road and putting the phone to his ear.

“I need a favor, man—a huge favor.”

“Uh oh, I’m already working for Murph tonight—”

“Nah, that’s not it. I’ll be there tonight … I need you to do the Plunge in Sean’s place.”

Sean was Sean Murphy, or “Murph” for short. “Uh … I don’t know, man. I’m not fond of the cold. …”

“Bull. You grew up right here freezing your marbles off every winter like the rest of us. Come on, man, it’s for a good cause. My niece does Special Olympics, did I ever tell you?”

“No, you never mentioned it.”

“Cutest little thing with big blue eyes and white-blond hair. She’s got Down’s syndrome and in spite of the struggles she’s had, she never stops smiling. She loves sports—”

“Okay, geez. I’ll do it. Give it a rest though, drama queen.”

“I kid you not. Her name is Morgan. I’ll show you a picture when I see you. Be there at five a.m. and thanks, man!”

Before Grant could change his mind, the other man hung up. He stared at the phone for several minutes, wondering what the hell he’d just gotten himself into.

CHAPTER THREE

It took Jyl about three days to get their things unpacked and put away. On the fourth day she worked on hanging up her photos, and by the fifth day—Friday—she was ready to work on her blog. So far, she’d only made one post and that was before she had left New York. She’d started with a post introducing herself and describing her life with her son. The point of the blog was to give encouragement to people who were starting over. Her blog was titled, “One small step at a time,” and subtitled, “Choices, Chance, Change … One woman’s journey.”

She sat down in front of the computer while Gabe played with his building blocks in his new playroom. She stared at the blank post for several seconds before placing her fingers on the keys and beginning to type.

So my son and I arrived in Shiloh Falls, Colorado five days ago. We haven’t done much yet other than unpack and set up our household. There are a few honorable mentions that I would like to make here already though. First to our realtors, who delivered exactly what they promised. My son and I are so thrilled with our new home and it is even more fabulous than the pictures. Then there was Becky, the kind soul who works for Shiloh Falls Realty who had the heart and the foresight to go by the house and turn on the heat so that when my son and I arrived, we were welcomed with a warm and toasty atmosphere. I also have to thank the sheriff’s office, or one deputy in particular—a Deputy Murphy, who took the time and braved a snowstorm to show me the way when I felt lost and confused in the blizzard. We’ve been welcomed by the kind waitress, Maggie, at the diner and fussed over by Mr. and Mrs. Hildebrand who own the grocery store. This entire county has less people in it than my neighborhood in New York alone and yet we have been smiled at and spoken to and asked how we were doing more times over the past five days than I recall happening in an entire year at home. In my first post I talked a lot about making the choice to make a change and praying that you made the right one. So far, I think that I did and I can’t wait for this storm to clear so that my son and I can get out and explore and hopefully meet more of the wonderful people that this county seems to produce. Until I see you again, remember that we are all slaying our own dragons, so please take a page from the citizens of this fine county and be kind to one another.”

When she finished, she sent a link to a woman named Vera Bartlett. She was the chairperson of the chamber of commerce in town. Jyl had been communicating with Vera for over six months now, mostly online. Vera was so excited about the blog because the town council had been trying to come up with new ways to attract people to their little county both for tourism and for the long haul. People used to flock to Shiloh Falls during the hunting season and the merchants would make most of their money for the year in those few weeks. The hunting crowd hadn’t completely diminished, but it wasn’t what it used to be. When Vera told Jyl about it she said it was “Either the economy or the liberals causing it … and if it was the economy, the liberals were to blame.” Jyl had laughed out loud when she read that.

During their talks, Vera agreed to keep her informed of local events and Jyl agreed to attend as many of them as she could. The first one on her agenda was the “Polar Plunge,” that would be taking place early tomorrow morning.

She had heard about the Polar Plunge but she’d never attended one. It was an event held all over the United States during the winter time. Participants sign up, often in teams, and they pay a fee for entering. Then the teams jump into the freezing cold water, usually together. There’s often some other kind of event that goes along with it like a festival or a barbecue and all of the proceeds go to whatever charitable organization the Plunge is supporting, typically the Special Olympics. This one would be held at the Shiloh Falls Lake State Park. There would be a “Meet and Greet” with some of the Special Olympians, live music, and booths representing businesses in the county, selling food and peddling other wares.

Jyl was looking forward to it, but she was a little bit nervous about leaving Gabriel for the first time with a woman with whom she’d only shared emails. He was just too young to have out at five a.m. in this kind of weather. The only reason she’d even considered it to begin with was because Vera highly recommended the woman six months ago when Jyl mentioned that she would have to find a babysitter in their new town when they got there. From there, she and the lady, Kat Underwood, had been exchanging emails and had become Facebook friends. Kat was around Jyl’s age and born and bred in Shiloh Falls. Her husband was the foreman on a cattle ranch and they had three boys, ranging in ages from two to six—Jyl shuddered at the thought. Some days her own little man was almost too much for her. He had the energy of three so that meant Kat was dealing with the energy of nine.

She had grown to think of Kat as a “friend,” although she’d never met her in person. She trusted her already. There was something so genuine about her, and the photos she saw of her family online looked like they were all so happy. They were all having dinner this evening so that she could meet them in person and Gabe wouldn’t feel like he was getting dropped off with strangers at five in the morning.

“Gabe! It’s time to take your bath.”

Her son poked his head down from the loft. “A bath? It’s not bedtime, already?”

“We’re having dinner with the Underwoods tonight, remember?”

“Yeah, but why do I need a bath? I’m not dirty.”

“You haven’t had a bath since last night. Don’t you want to make a good first impression?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said in typical four–year-old fashion, “but I don’t want to take a bath.”

She shook her head at her son. “I stoked the fire so you won’t be cold and we have a brand new bottle of Minion soap.”

With a heavy sigh like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, he came down the steps. “I hope they’re worth it,” he mumbled as his mother gave him a gentle push to propel him toward the bathroom.

She got him into the bath, and while he washed himself he asked her, “Do the Underwoods have a dad?”

“Yes, baby. His name is Scott, but I would like you to call him and Kat, Mr. or Mrs. Underwood unless they ask you to do otherwise.”

“Okay. What did people call my dad?”

“Your daddy’s name was Josh Landry, so people called him Josh or Mr. Landry.”

“Mama?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“Can Santa bring people?”

She felt her chest tighten up, and she fought back the tears that suddenly burned at the corners of her eyes. She knelt down next to the tub and said, “No, buddy, Santa can’t bring people. Remember last year when you asked for a puppy? We talked about how Santa can’t bring living, breathing things?”

He nodded. “I wish we had a dad.”

She didn’t even consider the fact that her boy was wet and soapy. She hugged him tightly to her chest and said, “Me too, buddy. Me too.”

He quickly became distracted once again by the toy airplane he’d brought with him into the tub. That was the beauty of being four years old; even if you had a sad thought, it usually didn’t last long.

********

The snow stopped early that morning and the roads had been cleared so the trip to the Underwoods’ home was quick and easy. Their place was less than five miles from Jyl’s. As they made the turn onto the long dirt road where the ranch began, Gabriel said, “Look at that cow’s horns, Mama.”

She smiled. “That one is a bull, sweetness, a longhorn.”

“What’s the difference?”

“A cow is a girl and a bull is a boy.”

“How do you know he’s a boy?”

“Um …” She started to say it was his horns, but she didn’t want to lie to her son and have him confused about it later on. “He has boy parts, sweetness.”

“Can you stop so I can look?”

Laughing, she said, “No, baby, just take my word for it this time.”

The house was beginning to come into view and it was just as she had pictured it in her many talks with Kat. It was a two-story ranch house with a wraparound porch and big windows to let the sun in all the way across the front. A big red barn with a black shingled roof sat behind it to the right, and to the left was a small holding pen. On the left of them was the pasture where Gabe had seen the bull, and to the right was what looked like a large garden, dormant for the winter months. There were chicken coops alongside that as well.

She parked the little car close to the house and wondered how Kat did it all. Kat had told her that she mostly took care of the day-to-day operations of the ranch so Scott could take the ranch foreman job after their third son was born. Between that and three young boys, the poor thing must be exhausted, thought Jyl.

Kat stepped out on the front porch with a little dark-headed boy in tow as she and Gabriel got out of the car. The young woman looked just like her pictures, and Jyl marveled at the fact that she lived way out here, worked like a ranch hand, raised three boys, and still managed to look like a model. Her dark blond hair was pulled to the side in a stylishly messy braid. She was dressed in a pair of faded Wrangler jeans, tan cowboy boots, and a green t-shirt with an interlocked “U” and “R” insignia on the front. She made it all look better than a lot of the women in New York who never stepped out onto their stoops without their designer clothes and shoes.

She left the boy on the porch and came down to greet them. “Jyl! I’m so glad you made it.”

Jyl held out her hand, but she ignored it and wrapped her up in a hug.

“It’s so good to finally see you in person, I already feel like I’ve known you for years.” She looked down then. Gabriel was holding on to his mother’s leg, looking at her suspiciously. “You must be Gabriel. I’m Kat. I’m so happy to meet you.”

She didn’t try to hug Gabe. Instead, she put her hand out to him. Gabriel continued to only look at her.

“Gabe, shake Mrs. Underwood’s hand.”

He only clutched tighter to his mother’s leg.

“Gabriel!”

Kat smiled. “It’s okay. I don’t like to shake hands either. How about a high five, or some knuckles?” She put her fist down where he could reach it and he looked up at Jyl.

“Go ahead.” He let his little fist come out and after their fists bumped, Kat pulled hers back and opened her fingers and made an explosion noise.

“You blew it up, little man!” Jyl looked down at her son, who was smiling. “Come on and let’s get y’all inside where you can meet all of my crazies.”

They followed her up on the porch where the little dark-haired boy still stood staring at them. His hair was so dark that it was almost jet black and he had the most amazing pair of blue eyes Jyl had ever seen. He must have gotten them from his daddy because Kat’s were a pretty shade of hazel. “This is my middle boy, Heath. Gabriel, Heath is the same age as you are. Heath, say hello to Mrs. Landry and Gabriel.”

“Hi,” the four-year-old said. He and Gabriel were eyeing each other suspiciously.

Jyl tapped her son on the back of his head and he said, “Hey.”

Kat led them inside where they met six-year-old Scotty, two-year-old David, and Kat’s husband, Scott. “Why don’t you boys take Gabriel and show him the toy room?”

Scotty and Heath looked at Gabe. Gabe looked back at them, and then suddenly all three of the big boys took off, their feet pounding on the wood floor. The toddler tried to keep up, but he fell flat on his little face in the doorway and started to scream. Kat’s husband jumped up and got him, kissing his boo boos away as he carried the boy down the hall where the others had gone.

“Whew!” Kat said with a smile. “I’m sorry it’s so chaotic. I would love to say it’s not always like this … trust me, I would really love to say that.”

Jyl laughed. “I can’t imagine how you do it. One is more than enough for me.”

“I couldn’t do it without Scott. He’s amazing with them. It makes a big difference when you do it together.”

Jyl nodded.

“So how do you like it here so far?” Kat continued.

“I love it,” Jyl said, honestly. “It’s such a big change, but it’s such a good one that the culture shock isn’t killing the thrill of it, you know?”

“I’ve only left Shiloh Falls once for more than a few days and that was to go to school. Scott and I lived in an apartment in Denver for almost three years and we came home on the weekends. I think we were both in culture shock the whole time, and Denver is no New York.” She opened the lid of the pot on the stove and an amazing aroma wafted out.

“That smells delicious.”

“Thanks, it’s a stew that Scott’s mom makes. The recipe getting passed to the daughter-in-law on her first anniversary is kind of a tradition. His family is huge on tradition. It took me a little getting used to. My parents … not so much.”

“That’s nice. I lost my mom a few years ago to cancer. My pop is still going strong but he moved to Florida about a year after my mother died.”

“I’m sorry. You’ve had a lot of loss already in your not-so-long life.”

Jyl gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s been hard. With Mom, it has gotten easier. I’m still working on Josh.”

Kat put her arm around her and gave her a one-armed hug. “I’m glad we met, Jyl. I think we’re going to be really great friends.”

“I do too.” She already felt right at home.

Even more so when Kat let go of her, handed her a knife, and said, “You want to butter up some of that cornbread for the heathens?” Want to continue Jyl and Grant’s story? Download or purchase, [+ I Saw Mommy Kissing a Cowboy+], it’s $.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

 

 

 

About the Author

Charlene Bright is the author of several contemporary western romance novels. She’s a lifelong resident of the American South and currently residents in southern Oklahoma on a family-owned cattle ranch. She greets each morning with a hot cup of coffee and an optimistic smile. Traveling to America’s national parks is her favorite pastime. After rearing her children, she and her husband recently became empty-nesters. With the peace and quiet that comes with that, she began to hear the characters in her head begging for their stories to be told which is when the author inside her was set free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Where I Belong

Sophie Michelson has always been serious. Even as a little girl, she knew what she wanted out of life. And unlike other little girls, that definitely wasn’t a husband and children. Sophie has a head for business and a burning desire for one thing: to own a bed and breakfast, just like the one she stayed at as a child. It will take everything she has, and she’s prepared to do anything to realize her dream. Now, after years of hard work, the time has finally come. With her brand new—okay, so maybe a little old—bed and breakfast in Brook Haven, Vermont, she is set to become the successful business owner she was always meant to be. There’s only one thing standing in her way: renovating the run-down B&B in time for Brook Haven’s annual Harvest Festival and the official start of the tourist season. Lucky for her, her mother is there to guide her through it and keep her life distraction free. Soon, though, the renovations get delayed, and Sophie starts to wonder if her B&B will ever be ready to open. The only solution is to call upon Brook Haven’s best carpenter to speed construction along. But as it turns out, Drake Tanner is exactly the kind of distraction she doesn’t need. Drake has spent his entire life in the quaint town of Brook Haven. Everyone there knows he’s the one you call when you need a hand. When he meets Sophie Michelson, he thinks his search for love might finally be over. As the two grow closer, Sophie learns that sometimes feelings can’t be denied no matter how hard you try, and she eventually has to admit to hers, just before a tragic accident threatens to tear them apart. Soon, she’s faced with a choice: follow her head, as she’s done all her life, or finally trust her heart.

  • ISBN: 9781370464654
  • Author: Charlene Bright
  • Published: 2017-09-29 02:35:16
  • Words: 48214
Where I Belong Where I Belong