Starting Over at Blueberry Creek

Includes a bonus novella


By Annie Rains

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USA Today bestselling author Annie Rains welcomes you back to Sweetwater Springs, North Carolina, with a charming friends-to-lovers story between a sexy fireman and the beautiful woman who mends his heart.

Firefighter Luke Marini moved to the small town of Sweetwater Springs with the highest of hopes – new town, new job, and new neighbors who know nothing of his past. And that’s just how he wants to keep it. But it’s nearly impossible when the gorgeous brunette next door decides to be the neighborhood welcome wagon. She’s sugar, spice, and everything nice – but getting close to someone again is playing with fire.

Brenna McConnell put college on hold to raise her little sister. Now that Eve is grown, Brenna is ready to leave Blueberry Creek and finish what she started. Moving on isn’t easy, however, when her gruff new neighbor gives Eve a dangerous firefighting job. And yet, even as Brenna is telling him off for putting her sister in harm’s way, she can’t deny the sizzling chemistry between them. She put her dreams on hold once. Is she willing to make that sacrifice again for a chance at forever?

Includes the bonus novella “Sealed With a Kiss” by Melinda Curtis!


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Words can't begin to express the gratitude in my heart for everyone who has helped me in this author journey. I have the most amazing friends and family in the world (in my humble opinion). Thank you to my husband and children for supporting me in so many ways. Thank you, Sonny, for bouncing around ideas with me. Thank you to my children for your patience and enthusiasm, including taking my books to Show and Tell. Thank you as well to Annette and my parents who support me in too many ways to count.

I also believe I have the most amazing publisher, editor, and agent in the world. (Yes, I'm biased.) A million thanks to my talented editor, Alex Logan. Four books and two novellas published and I'm still pinching myself over the fact that I get to work with you (and Jodi, Estelle, Monisha, Elizabeth, and Mari…The Forever team is truly wonderful). The same is true for my agent, Sarah Younger. I am so fortunate to have you in my corner!

I would also like to thank Chuck Younger who generously offered his time and expertise to answer my firefighter questions. I really appreciate it. Any mistakes in the text are my own.

Thanks and love also go out to the ladies who keep me going every day. This writing gig wouldn't be nearly as much fun without Rachel Lacey, Tif Marcelo, and April Hunt. We cheer each other on in our writing and our lives. You've become more than authors who I respect and admire. You're also my friends, and I love you ladies so much.

Since this book explores sibling relationships, in addition to romantic love, I would be remiss not to acknowledge my own sister here. So thank you to my lovely sister, Dana. I am so blessed to have grown up with you and so thankful that our relationship was never as complicated as Brenna and Eve's in this book!

Lastly, but certainly not least, a HUGE THANK-YOU goes out to my readers. I am humbled that you take the time to read my stories and even more so when you connect with me online and tell me your thoughts or share pieces of your lives with me. A lot of my readers have also become my friends, and I'm so honored and thankful for your support in the many forms you give it.

Chapter One

The aroma of sugar, spice, and butter filled Brenna McConnell's kitchen. Her mouth watered as she stirred the contents in her saucepan, breathing it in. A taste test was allowed but nothing more. This food wasn't for her.

A timer went off on her stove, signaling that the homemade doughnuts were done. She slipped a mitt onto her right hand and pulled open the oven door to retrieve them. They were golden brown and glorious—all except the one that had gotten a little too burned around the edges.

Her stomach twisted with hunger and then growled a little. Yeah, yeah. That imperfect doughnut could be hers. But only the one.

She set the tray down on the stove top and stirred the saucepan again before lifting it up and drizzling its contents onto the doughnuts. Her neighbor, Luke Marini, had been slow to warm up to her, but that would hopefully change with this friendly gesture. She usually brought housewarming treats to her new neighbors on Blueberry Creek but she'd been too busy during the winter months to officially welcome him to the community like she normally would.

She'd met Luke at his mailbox a couple of times, and he'd smiled when she'd introduced herself, but that was all they'd shared. He hadn't hung around to make small talk. In fact, he'd kept his answers to her questions clipped, replying "yes" and "no" when at all possible. She'd tried to convince herself it was because of the biting cold outside. Or maybe he'd just needed to use the bathroom or excuse himself for some other unknown reason.

She assembled one of the pastry boxes she kept stocked in her pantry and loaded the doughnuts. After closing it, she tied a red-checked ribbon around the handle that reminded her of picnics and sunshine-filled spring mornings. "I'll just walk right over and knock on his door to welcome him to the neighborhood," she said out loud to herself, which was something she did a lot. It had started when her younger sister Eve had moved out last year. Brenna had grown tired of the silence and had started talking to herself. But now that Eve had moved back in, Brenna was still doing it.

Brenna grabbed the box of doughnuts, giving the runt doughnut one last longing glance before heading to her front door. Then her gaze caught on the stack of college applications that Eve hadn't touched since moving back home. Brenna had strategically placed it on the counter so that her sister could see it whenever she walked into the room. Either Eve hadn't noticed or she was actively ignoring it. No doubt it was the latter.

Eve didn't have big college dreams like Brenna always had. Dreams that had taken a nosedive with the twists and turns of life. No, Eve's dreams were very different in nature. Eve had recently graduated from the fire academy and was determined to follow in their late father's footsteps as a Sweetwater Springs firefighter.

With a heavy sigh, Brenna stepped outside into the warmth of the spring sun and headed across the lawn toward Luke Marini's home.

He lived in a quaint yellow house with a blue metal roof. She'd always admired the home, even when it'd belonged to the old couple who'd lived there since she was a baby. They'd put the house up for sale last year and were now living with their daughter in South Carolina as far as Brenna knew. Brenna had come here many times as neighbors, and the couple's home had always been open and inviting.

She climbed the front porch steps and rang the doorbell. After waiting at least thirty seconds, she turned to check the driveway where Luke's old-fashioned red Ford truck was parked. Unless he'd gone for a walk, he had to be home. She rang the doorbell again. "Hello?" she called. "Hello? It's Brenna McConnell from next door!"

"Around here," a deep voice finally called back.

Brenna spun toward the sound, seeing a midsize Jack Russell terrier dart from the opposite side of the house. She headed down the steps with her box of goodies, the sweet aroma wafting under her nose. The dog met her on the lawn, running circles around her at first and then propping the pads of his feet just above her knee. "Oh, hi," she said, realizing she'd never seen Luke's dog up close before. It was…well…

She narrowed her eyes, her smile slipping as she looked at the little dog with matted brown and white fur in some places and large patches of no fur, just pink scarred skin, in others. She sucked in a breath and nearly dropped her doughnuts, especially when Luke stepped up wearing a T-shirt that fit him like a second skin. She met his dark-brown eyes, the color of maple syrup. His hair, nearly a perfect match to his eye color, poked out from beneath his ball cap, curling at the tips.

"This is Max," he told her. "I rescued him from a warehouse fire in Whispering Pines last year."

Whispering Pines was a nearby town, and if she remembered correctly, it was where Luke had moved from.

"I'm trying to turn Max into the firehouse dog but I'm not sure it's going to work out. He's good for morale around the station but he's still a little skittish around smoke and fire."

She studied the little dog as her mind connected the dots between the warehouse fire that Luke had saved him from and the condition of his fur. Emotion swelled in her throat, and tears threatened behind her eyes. She swallowed and clutched the welcome gift in her hands. "I, um, didn't realize you were working outside this morning."

"I'm patching up the fence behind the house," he said. "There were a few loose boards when I bought this place that I hadn't gotten around to fixing until now. Max likes to run out there, and I don't want any wildlife to get in the fence and have a run-in with him." Luke looked down at his dog. "Although he's one tough canine. I think he'd probably win."

Brenna smiled at the way Luke's voice and expression softened when he talked about his pet. "Well, I just came by to tell you that if you ever need anything—eggs or milk or someone to take Max out when you're not here—don't hesitate to ask. That's what neighbors are for." She reached down to pet Max, who immediately began to lap his tongue over her fingers. "I probably smell and taste like sugar," she said, laughing as he licked her. Then she looked up at Luke and felt every drop of blood she had in her body rush into her cheeks. "Because I've been baking. For you."

*  *  *

Luke's next-door neighbor was hard to miss, even when he was trying his hardest. She had rich black hair that seemed to soak up the sunlight as she shifted back and forth on her feet. She smelled like something sweet, maybe cinnamon and butter. No wonder Max was running circles around her, jumping on her and panting with his tongue half out.

Luke hadn't missed the way she'd physically responded to Max's burn injuries either. She'd taken a subtle step backward, and her hands had shaken just a little. The light he'd seen behind her smiling eyes had also dimmed momentarily. Some might not have noticed but he was sensitive to that detail because the burn scars on his back had elicited the same response from people. He and Max hadn't been injured in the same fire, but they were bonded; both of them had survived against all odds.

Luke's experience had been during childhood, and he'd had time to distance himself from it and face a fire fearlessly. Max hadn't, and Luke wasn't sure his little dog would ever get over his fear of flames.

"So the contents of that box are for me?" Luke asked, looking back up at his neighbor.

"Right." A small laugh tumbled off her pink lips that contrasted with her olive-toned skin, dotted with pale freckles that only added to her beauty. "Homemade doughnuts. They're sort of a welcome-to-the-neighborhood present."

"I moved in five months ago," he pointed out.

"Well, I've been busy, and it was a cold winter. The snow kept me away. You too, apparently, because I haven't seen much of you."

She seemed to wait for him to offer an explanation, which he didn't have. He'd been busy at the fire station where he worked, and when he came home, he preferred to avoid doing the neighborly thing. He'd learned his lesson on that front in Whispering Pines when he'd found himself dating his neighbor. That had turned out to be a huge mistake. One he wouldn't make again.

"Now that winter is over and spring is upon us," Brenna went on, "I thought I'd make the trek across our yards and give you an official welcome." She shrugged underneath her floral apron and then held the box out to him.

His fingers brushed against hers as he took it, and the touch buzzed around his body like one of those honey bees that had come after him earlier while he'd been patching the fence. Just like with the bees, he ignored the sensation. "That's nice. Do you do this for all the new neighbors?"

"It was a tradition of my mom's when I was growing up. We don't get many new neighbors around here though, because no one ever leaves the creek." She giggled softly, the sound just as sweet as the smell of the treats wafting under his nose. "That sounds like a horror movie setup, doesn't it? You move to the creek and never get away," she said in a playful voice.

He held up the box. "Well, thank you for these."

"It's no big deal. Cooking and baking are what I do for a living."

Luke knew she owned and operated A Taste of Heaven Catering.

"So if you're lucky, you might get more treats from me in the future." Her eyes widened as if she'd just made a pass at him. Did she?

Luke took a backward step, increasing the distance between them. She was beautiful, no denying that. And there was no ring on her finger or evidence of a guy coming around. If she lived anywhere else, he might even consider asking her out. But she didn't.

"Well, I better get cleaned up before I need to head to the station."

"Oh…right." Her cheerful demeanor faded a touch. "I don't want to bother you. I just wanted to say that if you ever need a favor, I'm right next door. My phone number is in the box, and yes, I give it to all the neighbors. Just in case."

"I'm sure I won't be calling you," he said, not intending to come off as rude. Judging by her expression though, that's exactly how he'd sounded.

Her mouth formed a little circle of shock. "I see. Well, enjoy those doughnuts, Mr. Marini." She'd called him Luke before. Then, without another word, she turned and headed back to her house.

He watched her walk away for a long moment, her hair and the strings of her apron dancing in the breeze. "Come on, Max," he finally said. They went inside, and he slid the box of doughnuts on the counter in front of him. A little red oval in the bottom corner claimed that they were "made with love." Just like Brenna, they appeared to be sugar, spice, and everything nice. And he was snails and shells and puppy dog tails.

Luke sat on a stool and pulled a doughnut out of the box.

Max whined softly. He knew better than to beg but he'd already gotten a little taste off Brenna's skin.

"Just one," Luke said before offering it. Max snapped it up, his tail wagging excitedly. Then Luke pulled a second doughnut out of the box and took a bite, his eyes closing momentarily because it was one of the tastiest treats he'd had in a while. Being nice to his neighbor could have its advantages.

But it could also put him at a very big disadvantage. And right now his focus was on building a long-lasting career here in Sweetwater Springs. Not a short-lived romance that could ruin everything.

*  *  *

Brenna was having a stare-down with the runt doughnut on her cookie sheet. She was just being friendly to her new neighbor, and he'd kind of treated her like a nuisance. He certainly hadn't been inviting.

Brenna grabbed the doughnut and bit into it, her feelings dissolving along with the sugar on her tongue. She inhaled the pastry in three bites and then immediately regretted it. And she blamed Luke Marini entirely.

She paced the kitchen for a moment, scanning the room and trying to decide what to do next. Her sister was handling things at A Taste of Heaven today. Brenna had been training Eve on everything needed to run the catering business since Eve was a teenager, but as soon as Eve could drive, she'd been more interested in volunteering at the fire station than cooking meals. Thankfully, there were no vacancies to fill at the Sweetwater Springs Fire Department right now, though, and with any luck, it would stay that way until Brenna could convince Eve to go to college.

Brenna gazed at the stack of college applications, just as tempting as that runt doughnut she'd devoured a moment earlier. She had only needed one more year to finish her own degree in childhood education when her parents died. Then she'd dropped out and moved back to Blueberry Creek to care for Eve, who'd been eleven at the time. Brenna had stepped into a guardian role and had taken over her mom's catering business, working alongside their aunt Thelma. She'd put everything on hold for the last seven years, telling herself all the while that she'd start living her own life again once Eve was eighteen.

Even though Eve had turned eighteen this past fall, she still needed Brenna, whether she knew it or not. Sometimes Eve made poor decisions, and when it was her turn to watch the catering business, like today, she slacked off on her responsibilities.

Brenna nibbled on her lower lip. "Eve is fine," she said out loud. "It'll just make her mad if I show up."

And it was time for Brenna to let go and focus on her own life.

Brenna tapped her fingers on the counter, trying to talk herself out of going downtown to check on her little sister. Unable to resist, she grabbed her keys and headed out the front door. She glanced over at the little yellow house next door and suppressed another impulse—this one to walk back over and snatch back her welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.

Chapter Two

Brenna reversed out of her driveway and drove toward A Taste of Heaven, just around the corner from the downtown strip of quaint little stores on Silver Lake.

After a short drive, she pulled into the parking lot and sat in her car for a moment. Maybe she should take a walk downtown. Perhaps she could do a little shopping. It'd been a while since she'd had a day off. She could even go to Perfectly Pampered and get a haircut or a pedicure.

Instead, she pushed open the door of her navy blue Honda CR-V and headed toward the back entrance of A Taste of Heaven. As she stepped through the door, the dense air immediately made her cough and the smoke detector started to shriek.

Brenna blinked past the sudden sting in her eyes, and her heart catapulted into her throat. "Eve?…Eve!" Heart racing, she hurried toward the kitchen and located the smoke's culprit. One of the three convection ovens along the wall had charcoal-colored puffs coming out of the back vents.

Brenna yanked open the oven door, allowing more smoke to bloom toward her face, which only elicited more coughing. Then she snatched a mitt from the counter and pulled a tray of burned biscuits out, stashing them on the stove top. "Shh-shh," she said, using the mitt to fan the air in front of the smoke detector. "Please stop."

"What are you doing here?"

Brenna whirled to face Eve, pulling the mitt down to her side as if she'd been caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar. She hadn't done anything wrong by coming here though. And it was a good thing she'd shown up when she had. "I'm keeping the business from burning down," she shouted to be heard over the alarm. "Where's Aunt Thelma?"

Eve shoved her hands on her hips. "Aunt Thelma called and said she was running late this morning."

"Where's Nate?" Brenna asked then.

Nate Trapp was a new hire. He could follow a recipe well enough, and he had a mind for business, which was a plus. He also helped with deliveries and setup.

"He went to deliver the spread to the men's breakfast at Sweetwater Chapel."

Right. Aunt Thelma usually handled that, but since she was out, Nate would have taken on the task.

"Don't worry. Nate and I cooked the eggs, grits, and bacon. But we forgot the biscuits." Eve gestured at the oven. Her long red hair was pulled up in a messy bun at her nape. She'd gotten the full lot of their father's Irish features, unlike Brenna who'd only gotten the sprinkle of pale freckles on her nose. Brenna had gotten her black hair and brown eyes from their mom, making her and Eve look as different as their personalities.

"Great," Brenna huffed. "The men's group love their biscuits and now they'll be disappointed. And thanks to all this commotion, Mrs. Roberts is probably calling the fire department from next door as we speak."

Eve rolled her eyes as the smoke detector finally stopped. "Yeah well, Mrs. Roberts is slightly neurotic. A lot like you." She cocked her head to one side and narrowed her pale-green eyes at Brenna.

Brenna stiffened. "Do you think this is funny?"

"The fact that my sister doesn't trust me with the job she begged me to do? No. It's a little insulting, actually."

"You fill our shop with smoke, and now you're giving me the guilt trip?" Brenna shook her head but the guilt trip had worked. Her insides twisted uncomfortably because she should have let Eve run the shop without interfering. She knew that, just like she knew she needed to apologize and leave right now before this argument gained momentum.

"It's not our shop. I don't want it. It's yours." Eve pulled her apron off and flung it on the butcher-block-style counter behind her.

Too late.

"Looks like you're no longer taking the day off so I will. Bye, sis." Eve headed toward the back entrance where Brenna had entered only a few minutes earlier.

"Wait!" Brenna called. "I'm not working today!"

"Should've thought of that before you drove here to mother me," Eve called behind her. "I mean smother me." She slammed the back door behind her.

Brenna sighed as she reached for the apron that Eve had discarded and pulled it over her head, preparing to make a new batch of biscuits. Even though the apron was light, it felt like a shackle weighing her down.

*  *  *

Luke glanced over at Brenna's house as he cranked the truck's engine and reversed out of his driveway. Guilt pinched under the Sweetwater Springs Fire Department logo on the chest of his T-shirt about the way he'd treated her. He didn't deserve the doughnuts she'd brought him, which was why he was bringing the rest to the station.

The crew would appreciate it. They were all young and endlessly hungry, a lot like a bunch of high school boys. When Luke had interviewed for the assistant fire chief position six months ago, he'd been intimidated to step into an authoritative role as the new guy. A few of the guys had given him a hard time at first, and one still did most days.

He drove a short distance and then parked behind the firehouse.

"You're thirty seconds late," Chief Brewer called from his office as Luke walked in with Max matching every step.

Luke lifted the box of treats. "I come bearing food."

"Forgiven." The chief stood and followed Luke and Max to the small kitchen behind the garage, where Luke laid the box on the table. The chief looked at it for a long moment. "Made with love." His gaze jumped back to Luke. "By Brenna McConnell, I presume."

"A welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift," Luke explained.

"You moved here five months ago," Chief Brewer pointed out, just like Luke had to Brenna herself.

"I know. I guess neither of us made an attempt to get to know one another." Or actually Brenna had on multiple occasions but Luke had dodged those efforts.

"I worked with her father, you know," Chief Brewer said, leaning against the counter along the wall.

Luke had already gathered that bit of information and had seen the pictures of Aidan McConnell on what Chief Brewer called his wall of fame, a space dedicated to honoring all the firefighters who'd come and gone at the Sweetwater Springs Fire Department.

"I was the first one on the scene of her parents' accident too," Chief Brewer added.

Luke hadn't learned that tidbit yet. "What happened to her parents?"

He only had to see Chief Brewer's expression to know that whatever happened had ended badly.

"Accident on Forest Grove. Her mom was driving and had to pull over because of a migraine. She called Aidan, who was working that day. It wasn't a fire department call, just a family emergency, so he was the only one who went. When Aidan arrived, he told his daughter to climb into the cab of his truck. Then he tended to his wife." Chief Brewer paused before finishing the story. "An oncoming vehicle hit Jane's car a moment later. It didn't even slow down."

A sick feeling blanketed the bottom of Luke's stomach. "They both died?"

"Yep. Fortunately, Eve was safe in Aidan's truck. Not unscathed though. She saw everything. As you can imagine, there was a degree of lashing out after that."

"That's awful. Where was Brenna?" Luke asked.

Chief Brewer grabbed a doughnut from the box on the table. "She was grown and living on her own by then. After the accident, she came back to Sweetwater Springs to care for Eve." He bit into the doughnut and shook his head as he chewed and swallowed. "Those girls are like family to me. I was good friends with their dad. He'd want me to grill you if you're thinking about dating his oldest daughter."

"Don't worry about me, sir. I'm not interested in anything romantic."

Chief Brewer clapped a hand on his back. "I'm not sure how their father would feel about his baby girl volunteering with us either. I'm sure that possibility never even crossed his mind. But I must say, Eve is determined and a big help on the scenes."

The more Luke thought and talked about the McConnell women, the more he regretted being so abrupt with Brenna earlier. She was only being friendly but he was so guarded when it came to beautiful neighbors now.

Maybe he'd go apologize after his shift. He didn't need to roll out his welcome mat to everyone who lived on the creek, but if he planned on staying in Sweetwater Springs, he guessed it was smart to be in the good graces of the people who lived directly beside him.

"It's my shift," Luke said, returning his attention to his boss. "What are you still doing here?"


On Sale
Feb 25, 2020
Page Count
448 pages

Annie Rains

About the Author

Annie Rains is a USA Today bestselling contemporary romance author who writes small town love stories set in fictional places in her home state of North Carolina. When Annie isn't writing, she's living out her own happily ever after with her husband and three children.

Learn more about this author