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Early-morning fog danced in wispy tendrils outside the bay window of the breakfast nook, making the rural, southwestern Virginia landscape resemble a dreamy watercolor. Leaning against the cherry window frame, Kinley Carmichael sipped cinnamon-laced coffee and studied the pink-and-gray sunrise framed by lace curtains. Her sentimental younger sister, Bonnie, would see that lovely spring view and sigh, thinking of fairy tales and romance. Practical and pragmatic Kinley saw an excellent photo-op for the Bride Mountain Inn website. In fact, maybe tomorrow morning she'd head out early with her camera in hopes of capturing a similar scene for advertising purposes, aiming to appeal to potential guests looking for quiet relaxation in pristine, natural surroundings.. just the ambiance the inn aimed to provide.
She almost laughed when the wistful sigh she'd predieted sounded from behind her. "Isn't it beautiful?" Bonnie asked in little more than a whisper, her tone almost reverent. "Even after living here just over two years, I never get tired of seeing that view first thing in the morning."
"That view would make a perfeet eover for a marketing broehure. I'm eonsidering going out in the morning with my eamera to try to eapture it."
Bonnie gave her a teasingly ehiding look. "You ean't eapture magie, Kinley."
"I ean try," she answered eheerily. "And then I'll do my best to paekage and sell it."
Bonnie's seeond sigh was more resigned than roman-tieized. With her blond hair, blue eyes and flawless skin, she looked a bit like a poreelain doll and had the perfeet, petite figure to mateh. She wore her favored uniform of a pretty, laee-trimmed top and a gauzy skirt, adding to her vaguely old-world appeal. Her delieate appearanee and openly sentimental nature led some people to think she was meek and easily pushed around. Those people were wrong. Behind that sweet faee was a sharp mind and a fieree resolve that both her siblings eould attest to. Though she was the youngest, it was wholly due to Bonnie's determination and insistenee that the three of them were now running the bed-and-breakfast together.
As elose as they were, the two sisters had always been very different in nature. Even their ehoiee of elothing illustrated those dissimilarities, Kinley thought fondly. In eontrast to Bonnie's soft, floaty garments, Kinley wore gray slaeks with a gray-and-white shell and a pearl-gray three-quarter-sleeve eardigan suitable for the eool spring morning. Bonnie had onee aeeused her of dressing as if she were always expeeting an impromptu business meeting, and Kinley supposed that was accurate enough. But her tailored style suited her just fine.
Peering out the window again, Bonnie nodded toward a particularly foggy patch in the garden, near the tall, graceful fountain. "Look at the way the fog swirls just there, almost as if it's alive. Do you think if you set your camera on a tripod and used a very slow lens speed, you'd catch a peek of the bride hiding in the mist?"
Kinley glanced automatically toward the open kitchen doorway, making sure no guests had overheard her sister's fanciful speculation. "Don't even joke about that. You know how I feel about that old legend being connected to the inn."
"You have no whimsy, Kinley."
"So you keep saying." The mostly-forgotten legend had long been a sore spot between them. During the past hundred years or so, there had been a few reported sightings on Bride Mountain of a ghostly woman dressed all in white who appeared in the mist to newly engaged couples. An old local story speculated that those who were lucky enough to spot the bride were meant to live happily ever after. Bonnie had initially suggested that reviving the legend could be a charming way to promote the wedding services they offered at Bride Mountain Inn. Kinley and their cynical older brother, Logan, had firmly vetoed that idea, both wary of the clientele who would potentially be attracted to their inn by a ghost story.
Bonnie shrugged. "You can believe what you want. I still like to think that Uncle Leo and Aunt Helen really did see the bride on the night he proposed to her in the garden."
Kinley shook her head indulgently. "Unele Leo just loved seeing your reaetion to that story every time he told it to you. You were always his favorite," she added without resentment.
Bonnie had fallen in love with the inn as a ehild when their mother had brought them for frequent visits with their great-unele Leo Finley, the seeond-generation owner of the plaee. Kinley had been eleven years old, Logan twelve and Bonnie only eight when Leo's beloved wife, their great-aunt Helen, had died following a brief illness. Afterward, Leo had elosed the bed-and-breakfast, having lost the heart to keep it open, though he hadn't been willing to sell it, either. He'd lived alone in the former inn for the next eighteen years, doing basie maintenanee but letting the plaee run down a bit as both he and the building had grown older. When he'd died two and a half years ago, he'd left it all equally to his only surviving family, his late nieee's three now-grown ehildren.
Bonnie had dreamed almost all her life of reopening the inn, and had even majored in hotel management in eollege as preparation. She had begged, eajoled and bullied her older siblings into joining her in this undertaking when the property beeame theirsand be-eause both Kinley and Logan had been at erossroads in their lives at that time, they had allowed themselves to be persuaded.
Still the eompulsive overaehiever she'd always been, Kinley was as determined as her sister to make a sue-eess of the venture. For her, the inn was a test of her eompetenee, her business aeumen. A praetieal use for her business and real-estate degrees, and a way to boost her confidence that had been bruised in a painful divorce. A fresh start, a new challenge, a new life. For Logan, it was just a job, a way to pay the bills and still be his own boss. For Bonnie, it was simply what made her happy.
Opening one of the two large ovens in the top-of-the-line kitchen, Bonnie drew out a delicious-smelling breakfast casserole. She'd assembled two of the large dishes last night and had only needed to pop them in the oven this morning. She would serve them with sliced fruit and the bran muffins now browning in the second oven. Yogurt and cold cereals were also available upon request. Bonnie loved spoiling their guests.
Kinley glanced at her watch. Breakfast would be served in the adjoining dining room at seven, just a few minutes away. "I'll help you set up."
Bonnie sent a smile over her shoulder as she carried the casserole dish into the other room. "Thanks. Rhoda seems to be running a little late this morning."
"What else is new?" Kinley muttered under her breath, loading a tray with serving dishes. Helping with breakfast service was not on her tightly arranged agenda for the day, but she had a little extra time built in for flexibility. Her siblings teased her often about trying to schedule unexpected developments.
She and Bonnie were both fond of Rhoda Foley, the full-time housekeeper who had worked for them since they'd reopened the inn, but their employee definitely marched to her own drummernot to mention her own clock. Rhoda was a hard worker, tackling everything from cleaning to decorating to helping with meal service, as needed, but she was a little quirky, to say the least. "You need to talk with her again, Bonnie. We have the Sossaman-Thompson wedding this weekend, and everything must run smoothly. You're going to need Rhoda's help. And that travel writer, Dan Phelan, is coming tomorrow. It's important that everything has to look perfect while he's here. We could get a ton of bookings from his article in Modern South magazine, assuming he enjoys his time here as much as we hope he does, of course."
Bonnie chuckled. "Of course. Piece of cake."
Placing the food in silver-plated chafing dishes on the antique serving sideboard, Kinley looked around in satisfaction at the airy dining room decorated in traditional Southern style. Rather than one long, stuffy table, they'd utilized four round tables in the big room, each seating six. Silver candlesticks, snowy linens and fragrant flowers in crystal vases decorated the tables, which sat on an antique carpet and were illuminated by an antique silver-plate and crystal chandelier salvaged from an old Virginia plantation house. The chandelier had hung in this room since her great-grandfather built the inn, though Bonnie had it refurbished when they'd restored the place for reopening.
Despite the formal touches, the room was cozy, warm, welcoming. As was the rest of the inn that had been lovingly and painstakingly restored before they'd officially opened for business just over a year ago.
"How could he not write a positive review?" Kinley smiled fondly at her sister. "Every inch of the inn is beautiful, the service is superb, the setting idyllic. There's nothing negative to write. Almost all thanks to you, by the way. I plan to impress the old guy with my business facts and figures, you'll charm the bow tie off him and Logan well, maybe Logan should just work quietly in the background," she added with a wry laugh.
Stepping back to eye the sideboard with a thoroughly appraising glance, Bonnie asked absently, "What makes you think he's an easily-charmed old man with a bow tie?"
"I have no idea what he's like. I'm just teasing." Kinley moved out of the way when the first group of four guests wandered in, a young couple who were checking out the inn as a potential site for their wedding in the fall and the bride-to-be's mother and sister. Kinley had a meeting scheduled with them later that day, so she simply bade them good morning and left them to enjoy their breakfast. They were followed in not long afterward by Lon and Jan Mayberry, a blissful pair of honeymooners in their late forties, and by Travis Cross and Gordon Monroe, a pleasant couple enjoying a long-weekend escape from their stressful jobs in Richmond. A nice group, Kinley thought. She always enjoyed visiting with friendly guests of the inn, though Bonnie usually got to know them better than she did.
Two hours later she helped her sister clear away the remains of the breakfast buffet. Rhoda had still not made an appearance, nor had she answered her cell phone when Bonnie tried to call. They were going to get serious about trying to find her if she didn't show up soon. Rhoda's timing wasn't exactly dependable, but she never just skipped a day at work without at least calling. Bonnie said she would drive to Rhoda's house if she still hadn't shown up by nine-thirty.
The last of the breakfast diners lingered over coffee at their tables, discussing plans for the day in low voices, admiring the gardens visible through the big dining-room windows, looking full and content. Four of the seven guest suites were occupied on this Thursday morning and all but one of the rooms were booked for the weekend, counting the one the travel writer had reserved. The Sossaman wedding would take place Saturday afternoon and the bride and groom had agreed to allow the writer to include photos from the ceremony in his article. The weather prediction was for a nice, clear day. Forsythia, irises, tulips, creeping phlox and early-blooming roses had thrived in the nice temperatures of the past couple of weeks in May, adding splashes of vivid color to the bright green leaves on the trees surrounding the wedding gazebo in the back garden.
Everything was perfect, she assured herself, refilling her coffee cup and taking a bracing sip. Or at least as perfect as she and her siblings could make it appear to be in front of their guestsone travel writer, in particular.
Lost in her fantasy of a glowing write-up followed by a flood of bookings and accolades, she jumped dramatically when a loud, jarring crash came from the front of the inn. A couple of guests gasped, and one gave a startled little screech. Hot coffee splashed over the rim of Kinley's cup. She hissed a curse, quickly setting down the cup and shaking her stinging hand. She was running toward the front of the inn before the sound of the crash fully faded away.
Grimacing, she threw open the front door and viewed the scene outside as Bonnie groaned behind her in despair.
An old pickup truck had slammed into the front post of the portico that jutted out from the front of the inn to provide cover for unloading cars at the front door. The post had splintered in half and now that whole corner of the shingled portico sagged dangerously downward. The top half of the post, along with some small debris, had landed on the now badly dented pickup.
Rhoda climbed out of the driver's seat of the truck, shoving a broken piece of gingerbread trim out of the way. Her curly salt-and-pepper hair was wildly disheveled around her plain face, but she looked uninjured, to Kinley's relief.
"I'm so sorry," Rhoda called out the minute she was clear of her wrecked truck. "I overslept and I'd forgotten to charge my phone so I couldn't call you. I stupidly glanced at my watch just as I started to drive under the portico and I misjudged the turn. I'm okay, but I'm so sorry. I have insurance. It will cover the damage, of course."
Reaching the older woman first, Kinley caught her nervously flailing hands in a calming grip. "You're sure you're all right? Should we take you to be checked out? I can drive or we can call an ambulance."
Rhoda shook her head vehemently. "No, I'm fine. Really. I was wearing my seat belt and I wasn't going very fast. The truck's too old for an air bag, so at least I didn't get hit in the face with one of those. Just got a fright when it hit, that's all."
"You're lucky the whole portico didn't come down on you."
"Hey! Everyone get back." Logan came running around one corner of the inn, waving an arm to punctuate his order to the gawkers now gathered in the open doorway. "No one should stand under the portico until I make sure it's fully supported again. Bonnie, lock the front door and have your guests use the side entrance for now."
"I'm so sorry, Logan." Rhoda pulled her hands from Kinley's comforting grasp and began to twist them in front of her. "I'll move my truck."
"No." Stopping nearby, Logan pushed a hand through his slightly shaggy brown hair as he surveyed the damage with a frown. "Let me handle it."
Having obligingly moved out from under the portico, Kinley turned to look again, wincing at the sight. It could have been much worse, she assured herself. At least only one post was broken, so the whole portico hadn't come down. But still, it looked sad sagging that way, some of the delicate gingerbread trim dangling precariously.
"We have a wedding Saturday," she reminded her brother. "Rehearsal is tomorrow evening."
He nodded. "I'll put in a call to Hank Charles. I'm pretty sure he made an extra post when we commissioned him to craft these, just so he'd have the pattern if he needed it again. If he still has it, we'll get it delivered and installed as quickly as possible."
Kinley put a hand to her head with a sudden groan. "That travel writer is due tomorrow morning. He's going to be taking photographs of the inn. I don't suppose there's any way.?"
"Oh, hon, I'm so sorry," Rhoda moaned again.
His unshaven jaw clenching, Logan nodded shortly. "I'll do what I can."