By Debbie Mason
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 22, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Elliana MacLeod has come home to whip the Mirror Lake Inn into tip-top shape, the only way to prevent her mother from selling the beloved family business. In between watching over mischievous, cigar-sneaking Grandpa Joe and trying to help Highland Falls win the Most Romantic Small Town in America contest, Elliana’s plate isn’t just full, it’s overflowing. She can’t refuse Nathan Black’s offer to fix up the inn, even if the gorgeous law enforcement officer has made it abundantly clear he considers her a friend, and nothing more.
Nate knows he’s not cut out for long-term relationships or white picket fences, and that’s what Ellie deserves. Yet keeping her at arm’s length is nearly impossible, especially once they’re working—and living—side-by-side. The more time he spends with Ellie, the more he wants, and not just for today but forever. When Ellie’s ex returns to town, has Nate missed his chance with the woman of his dreams?
If you’re reading this book, it’s thanks to the dedicated team at Grand Central/Forever that works tirelessly to get my stories into the hands of readers. My sincere thanks and gratitude to the sales team, the art department for another gorgeous cover, the marketing team, and everyone in editorial, especially my incredibly talented editor, Alex Logan, who never fails to make each book better.
Thanks also to my agent, Pamela Harty, for her support and friendship these past twelve years.
And to you, dear reader, my heartfelt thanks for buying this book. I hope you enjoy your time with Nate and Ellie in Highland Falls. A special thank-you to reader group member Lorraine Shirlow for naming Toby.
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Elliana MacLeod stood in the middle of the inn’s sun-drenched dining room, surrounded by women devouring every item on the spring tea menu with delighted abandon. It was the first time since Ellie had arrived last August to help out her grandfather after his stroke that they’d had more than a handful of people dining at the inn. If it weren’t all an act for her mother’s benefit, Ellie would be doing a happy dance instead of wringing her hands.
“Are you okay? You look nervous.” Ellie’s cousin Sadie came to stand beside her, carrying a rose bone china teapot and a platter of fragrant iced scones on a silver tray. Her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Sadie had taken on the role of waitress, a position Ellie usually found herself in. Their one and only waitress had quit last month due to the lack of hours.
“Why don’t you have a cup of white peony tea and a lavender cream scone?” Sadie suggested. “Spill the Tea and Bites of Bliss outdid themselves. Everything tastes as incredible as it smells.”
Since the cook had left the same month and for the same reason as the waitress, Ellie had taken over kitchen duty. She couldn’t have pulled off today’s menu without the local tea shop and bakery pitching in.
“Thanks, but I couldn’t eat another bite.” Ellie had been stress eating since she got the phone call from her mother informing her of her intentions for the inn and Ellie’s Grandpa Joe. “The scones look amazing though. Everything does,” she said, glancing at the white linen–draped tables with their gorgeous spring floral arrangements.
The mayor had arrived earlier that morning with armfuls of pastel tulips and boxes of crystal vases to decorate the tables. “I don’t know how I’ll repay everyone.”
Moments after Ellie told Sadie about her mother’s phone call, her cousin had organized a meeting of the Sisterhood, a group of Highland Falls’ most influential women, who then put out a call to their families and friends. Everyone had jumped on board with the plan to convince Ellie’s mother that the inn was a going concern.
“No one expects you to repay them. They’d be offended if you offered. Mirror Lake Inn is as much a part of the town’s heritage as it is yours.” Sadie looked around the dining room with its faded red floral-printed wallpaper and stone fireplace. “Honestly, I think everyone’s feeling bad that they haven’t been more supportive of the inn.”
“It’s not like Grandpa Joe went out of his way to attract business after Grandma Mary died, and I haven’t been much better.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve been looking after Joe. With no help from your parents or sister and brother, I might add,” Sadie said.
“It’s not like Bri could take time away from her counseling practice, and Jace is halfway around the world.” Her younger sister and brother had high-powered careers, something her mother pointed out to Ellie at every opportunity.
“I guess, but your parents don’t have an excuse. They live five hours away.”
Her parents worked at Duke University in Durham. Her mother was an administrator, and her father was a professor. “To be honest, I didn’t exactly encourage them to come.” In fact, she’d done her best to discourage them from visiting. At least in the beginning. One look at the state of the inn and Grandpa’s Joe condition when Ellie had first arrived, and her mother would have put up a For Sale sign and stuck her father in a home.
At least Ellie had bought her grandfather time. She hoped that once her mother saw how well Joe was doing, she’d back off. And while Ellie wouldn’t have been able to override her mother’s decision last year, she had the means to do so now. She just hoped she didn’t have to use them.
Ellie shut down thoughts of the upcoming meeting with her mother and smiled at her cousin. “Besides, I had you and Granny. I don’t know what I would have done without you guys. Or Jonathan.” Jonathan Knight was Sadie’s grandfather by marriage and had been renting a room at the inn since last fall. The former superior court judge had been a godsend in more ways than one.
“Where is he, by the way?” Sadie asked. “I haven’t seen him since I got here.” Several women called out to Sadie, wanting their tea. “I’m coming,” she told them, and then she said to Ellie, “Don’t let your mother intimidate you. If she tries bullying you into agreeing with her, just remember how Joe looked when Aunt Miranda told him she planned to sell the inn and put him in a home.”
That was one image Ellie wished she could wipe from her mind. But Sadie was right. For her grandfather’s sake, Ellie had to stand up to her mother. She couldn’t let her run roughshod over her like she always did.
As Sadie walked away, Ellie realized her cousin was right about something else. Jonathan was nowhere to be seen and neither was Grandpa Joe. An older woman waved her over to a table. “What’s in this sandwich, dear? It’s delicious.”
Ellie had been up since four that morning making sandwiches—her only contribution to the tea. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying them.” She glanced at the filling in the dainty tea sandwich. “Chicken, cranberries, mayo, Dijon mustard, and watercress.”
The woman hummed with pleasure. “You should do a tea every weekend. We’d book standing reservations, wouldn’t we, ladies?” she said to her table companions.
“Then you’ll be happy to hear that Ellie just told me the inn will be serving tea every Saturday and Sunday afternoon starting next week. So be sure to make your reservations before you leave,” said Abby Mackenzie, who’d come to stand beside Ellie.
Abby was a social media celebrity. Her popular YouTube channel and podcast, Abby Does Highland Falls, had put their small North Carolina mountain town on the map. The petite redheaded dynamo had been responsible for turning around the fortunes of several local businesses. Despite having given birth to a baby girl a matter of weeks ago, she’d spearheaded today’s event at the inn.
“Enjoy your tea, ladies. And thanks again for giving up your afternoon to support the inn and Joe,” Abby said, looping her arm through Ellie’s.
Ellie added her thanks, smiling when the women told her to call on them anytime.
“Remind me again when I agreed to offer an afternoon tea every Saturday and Sunday,” Ellie whispered as Abby led her away from the table.
Abby grinned. “Don’t worry, Babs and Bliss are onboard,” she said, referring to the owners of Spill the Tea and Bites of Bliss, respectively. “It’ll be great promotion for them, especially once people start booking the dining room for weddings, showers, and birthdays.”
“I’ve been here eight months, and the only one who booked the dining room is my grandfather. For his poker parties.”
“Trust me, once Sadie’s finished the redesign of the inn’s website, you’ll have more event bookings than you can handle. Especially if we win our bid for most romantic small town in America. People will be flocking to Highland Falls and the inn.”
A week before Christmas, Happy Ever After Entertainment, a movie production company, had opened up a contest for the most romantic small town in America. The company would film its next movie in the winning town. As its name suggested, Happy Ever After Entertainment was known for its romantic, wholesome movies.
“I know it’s not easy for you to lie to your mother about the state of the inn’s finances, but it’s only a matter of time before it’s running in the black,” Abby continued. “Which reminds me, Mallory, the kids, and I are in the two-bedroom suite. So between us and the Sisterhood, there’s no room at the inn. At least you won’t have to lie to your mother if they planned on staying.”
There were twelve guest rooms at the inn but only nine were available for rent. Ellie, Joe, and the judge occupied the other three. Mallory, Sadie and Abby’s best friend, could have filled the two-bedroom suite with her family alone. Mallory and her husband Gabe, the chief of police, had six children between them—five boys and a six-month-old daughter.
“It’ll make it easier to lie to her, but it’s still a lie. It’s not like you guys are staying all night,” Ellie said as she walked from the dining room into the reception area.
“Who says? We’re planning on celebrating with you and Joe after your parents—”
An alarm emanating from the pocket of Ellie’s peacock-blue slacks interrupted Abby. A chorus of shrill beeps went off simultaneously in the dining room. Sadie had set up the group alert on their phones to warn of Ellie’s parents’ impending arrival. Members of the Sisterhood, who were stationed at the entrance to Highland Falls, had issued the warning.
Abby leaned back, calling into the dining room, “Fifteen minutes to showtime, ladies.”
Ellie retrieved her phone and glanced at the text on her screen. “This isn’t good. My mother brought reinforcements. My sister, Bri, and her husband are following behind in their SUV.”
“Don’t buy trouble. They might be on your side,” Abby said.
“Maybe Bri, but not her husband. Richard is in lockstep with my mother about everything. Bri won’t stand up to either one of them.”
Bri had married Richard two years ago. Other than their wedding and a disastrous Christmas visit that same year, Ellie hadn’t spent any time with the couple. She’d taken an almost instant dislike to the investment banker. Her parents, especially her mother, fawned all over the man. Even Ellie’s brother, who was usually a good judge of character, seemed to like her sister’s husband. But while they saw what Richard wanted them to see, Ellie saw what he tried to hide.
“If anything, my mother brought Bri to bolster her case for putting Grandpa in a home.” Ellie’s sister was a family therapist.
Ellie pushed her worries aside, smiling as she approached the registration desk. Mallory’s seventeen-year-old stepson from her first marriage, Oliver, had volunteered to staff the front desk for the afternoon. He looked like British royal Prince William and had the accent to go along with his good looks. “Oliver, have you seen my grandfather?”
“He left with the judge about twenty minutes ago.”
“Did they happen to say where they were going or when they’d be back?” Ellie asked, a sinking feeling coming over her at Oliver’s head shake.
“I’ll get Gabe to put out an alert. They couldn’t have gotten far,” Abby said, head bent over her phone.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Oliver. I should have kept a closer eye on my grandfather.” She knew how Joe felt about the upcoming confrontation with her mother.
Oliver frowned, and Ellie briefly closed her eyes. He hadn’t voiced the thought out loud; she’d read his mind. She was psychic. No one other than her mother and Sadie knew of her abilities, and that’s the way she meant to keep it. Although her grandmother might have an inkling since Ellie had inherited the gift—curse—from her.
“I’ll check if the truck’s in the parking lot.” Ellie headed for the door. Her grandfather and the judge used the inn’s truck whenever they went into town. But Jonathan knew how important today was. Surely he wouldn’t aid in her grandfather’s escape.
As she opened the door, Ellie glanced back at Oliver and clearly saw an image of her grandfather with a bottle of beer and a cigar in his hands. Joe had sworn Oliver to secrecy. It wasn’t something Ellie could ask about without revealing her own secret.
She stepped onto the wraparound front porch. The wooden rocking chairs were empty, the plaid woolen blankets folded neatly over the arms undisturbed. A quick scan of the packed parking lot on her right revealed the red truck was still in its spot.
She walked down the steps, taking the meandering cobblestone path bordered by rhododendrons. Come June, they’d be a sea of purple flowers. As she rounded the inn, the sweet scent from a cluster of mountain magnolia trees greeted her. She looked out over the rolling green lawn to the two empty Adirondack chairs on the dock. Not completely empty, she thought, spying a beer bottle and a cigar on the arm of a chair.
Making her way down the sloping lawn to the dock, she called, “Grandpa Joe! Judge!” Her voice echoed off the sapphire-blue lake. But other than three quacking ducks paddling through the lily pads on her left, no one responded to her calls.
She picked up the half-empty beer bottle and the cigar from the chair, wondering if, like a dog, her highly tuned sixth sense would twig to her grandfather’s whereabouts with a sip of his beer or a puff on his cigar. At this point she was willing to try anything and stuck his half-smoked cigar between her lips. She took a deep pull, but other than a faint whiff of its sweet, peppery scent, she got nothing.
The rough rumble of an engine distracted her, and she turned. A man sat astride a black Harley wearing a leather jacket. His face obscured by a black-visored helmet, he looked big and bad, and her heart began to race. Not from nerves but from attraction. She knew who he was, and not because of her psychic abilities. Nate Black was the one person she couldn’t read.
Focused on him as she was, it took a moment for her to realize he wasn’t alone. A petite woman got off the back of the motorcycle. Ellie stared in shock when the Betty White look-alike removed the helmet from her head.
It was Agnes MacLeod, her grandmother. “Granny, what are you…” Nate removed his helmet, and Ellie instantly lost her train of thought. His wavy dark hair—longer than she remembered—brushed the collar of his leather jacket, his ruggedly handsome face half-hidden behind a beard. At the flash of his strong white teeth through that dark, heavy beard, she nearly tripped over her own two feet.
Way to play it cool, Ellie. She was acting like the thirteen-year-old geek she used to be if the coolest guy in high school had just smiled at her. His smile widened, fine lines crinkling the corners of his dark eyes, and she found herself smiling in return. Hopefully just a nice, friendly smile and not one that betrayed the Oh my Lord, you are so flipping hot I want to kiss you thought currently running through her brain.
“Hey, Ellie. How’s it going?” he said, swinging a muscled, jean-clad leg over his motorbike.
Her knees went weak at the sound of his deep, sexy voice saying her name. She rolled her eyes at her reaction. She had to get a grip. And get out more. There was no way Nate Black should affect her like this. She was a mature, self-possessed woman, not some starry-eyed teenager in the throes of her first crush. She needed…to say something.
“Hi, Nate. It’s nice to see you again.” She offered her hand to the man now standing beside her grandmother, because that’s what a composed thirty-three-year-old woman would do. “Oh,” she said upon noticing the cigar between her fingers. She transferred it to her other hand, the one holding the half-empty beer bottle. “It’s not what it looks like. I was just”—she couldn’t say trying to get a read on my grandfather’s whereabouts—“picking up after Joe.”
Nate took her outstretched hand in his and smiled. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
What was he talking about? Her secret crush on him or her secret psychic abilities? But the worry that he might have guessed either of her secrets vanished at the feel of his warm, strong hand enveloping hers.
“Why are you two being so formal? You should be hugging, not shaking hands,” her grandmother said, pushing Ellie into Nate.
“Mrs. M,” Nate muttered, releasing Ellie’s hand to slide his arms around her. No doubt to steady her and not to comply with her grandmother’s blatant attempt at matchmaking. Her grandmother loved Nate and didn’t bother hiding the fact that she thought he and Ellie were a perfect match.
Ignoring how wonderful he smelled and how incredible it felt to be in his arms again, Ellie gave him a quick, friendly hug and then backed away.
“What?” her grandmother said. “You don’t think it’s odd my granddaughter doesn’t give you a hug instead of a handshake when you spent the night of Sadie and Chase’s wedding in each other’s arms?”
“Granny! We danced. We didn’t—”
Her grandmother frowned. “I know. That’s what I just said.”
Ellie’s cheeks flamed with heat. “Right, of course. Don’t mind me. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.” She held up the beer bottle and cigar. “And Grandpa Joe is missing.”
Agnes held up her phone. “We got the alert. No one in town has seen him. But don’t worry, Nate will find him.”
“I’m sure Nate has better things to do, Granny. You can’t just—”
“Ellie, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” The three of them turned at the sound of two vehicles coming up the gravel road. Ellie closed her eyes and took a calming breath. Her family had arrived.
“Nate, hurry. Kiss her. Kiss her now.”
Ellie’s eyes popped open, and she stared at her grandmother in embarrassed horror. “Granny, are you cra—”
“It’s not a big deal, Ellie. Mrs. M told me what’s up. She figures your mother won’t mess with you if she thinks you have someone like me backing you up.”
“You mean, like a boyfriend? You’re supposed to be my boyfriend?”
Nate shrugged. “Half the town is in on the act to save the inn and Joe. I don’t mind doing my part.” He stepped closer, smiling down at her as he tipped up her chin with his knuckle. “What do you say?”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea. I—”
“Be quiet and kiss the man. They won’t believe you’re a couple if they don’t see it with their own eyes.”
Ellie looked from her grandmother to Nate. The poor man had no idea what he was getting himself into. He might be an agent with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and incredibly good at his job, but Agnes MacLeod was as devious as any of the criminals he’d put away. She was also right, to a certain degree.
While Nate’s act wouldn’t deter her mother from trying to railroad her into going along with her plan, Ellie’s fake in-a-relationship status might deter her mother from listing all the reasons she would never be in one again. It was one of her mother’s favorite gaslighting tactics to throw Ellie off balance.
“What are you two waiting for? They’re turning into the inn,” her grandmother said.
Nate stepped back, lowering his hand from Ellie’s chin. “Are you okay?”
She looked up at him and smiled. He might give off a dangerous bad-boy vibe, but he was an incredibly nice guy. And it wasn’t as if Ellie hadn’t thought about kissing him. She’d actually given it quite a bit of thought the night of her cousin’s wedding. They might have already done the deed if he hadn’t been called away in the middle of their last dance together that moonlit night in October.
“I’m good. Let’s do this.” She stepped in to Nate and placed a hand on his chest. The man was seriously built and gorgeous. His muscles…No. No thinking about his muscles or how handsome he was. They were simply playing a part for a few hours. She’d deal with her grandmother’s off-the-wall expectations later. It wasn’t as if Nate would be around for more than a day anyway. The man was married to his job.
“Are we going for quick and chaste or down and dirty?” he asked, a teasing note in his voice.
She blinked up at him. Heat spread through her body at his question and her grandmother’s snort of laughter. Ellie opened her mouth to blurt Quick and chaste when she caught a glimpse of her mother’s face as the black SUV drove by. The rebellious streak in Ellie that she mostly ignored took over. “Down and dirty.”
“Totally not what I expected you to say,” Nate murmured as he wrapped an arm around her waist, drawing her closer.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Her body was practically humming with desire. But it was too late to change her mind. His mouth was on hers, his lips surprisingly soft and gentle. Their breaths mingled in a kiss that was more teasingly seductive than down and dirty.
There was no urgent plundering. It was a lush exploration of her mouth by a man who knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it very, very well. He angled his head, and she followed, deepening the kiss. It was like a sensual dance, one they’d performed before. She clutched his leather jacket, dizzy from the intensity of her feelings. She swore she heard violins. The sound of car doors slamming interrupted the romantic soundtrack in her mind.
Nate broke the kiss and stared at her.
“Good. You look relaxed and ravished, Ellie my girl. A much better look on you than pale and stressed out. And you, laddie”—her grandmother grinned at Nate—“look stunned.”
Nate’s mouth flattened. “You and I need to have a chat, Mrs. M.” He glanced over Ellie’s head. “But it’ll have to wait,” he said. Then he reached for Ellie.
He wasn’t going to kiss her again, was he? She didn’t think her mind or body could take it. “Um, Nate, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to kiss me again.”
“You and me both,” he said under his breath, and then he took the cigar and beer bottle from her hand. “I’ll text you when I find Joe, and you can tell me how you want to play it.”
She looked over her shoulder. Her parents were out of their car, waiting for her sister and Richard to join them. Ellie returned her attention to Nate, retrieving her phone from her pocket.
“I’ve got your number,” he said without meeting her gaze. He lifted his chin. “What’s across the lake?”
She glanced at the rooftops barely visible through the trees. “Cabins. They’re part of the inn, but my grandfather hasn’t rented them out in years.”
“Is there an access road?”
“I’m pretty sure there is, but we usually walked around the lake or took the boat.” She looked to the right of the dock where the rowboat had been this morning. “It’s gone.”
“Probably faster if I go by boat. Do you have another one?”
She nodded, wondering what she’d done wrong. He wouldn’t look at her. Had she offended him when she said she didn’t think they should kiss again? He seemed to be on the same page as her, but—
“Elliana, what is going on?” Her mother’s annoyed voice interrupted Ellie’s thoughts about Nate and his reaction.
She turned. Her parents and Bri and Richard were standing on the path by the steps, glancing from her to Nate. They looked like lawyers in their expensive dark suits. Her father and Bri greeted her with wan smiles and finger-waves while her mother and Richard wore the same tight-lipped expression. Her mother’s gaze narrowed on Agnes. They’d had a strained relationship for as long as Ellie could remember.
- On Sale
- Feb 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 368 pages