Read an Excerpt
With This Kiss
By Riley, Bella
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Riley, Bella
All right reserved.
You are such a beautiful bride.”
Rebecca Campbell smoothed out the cuff of Andi Powell’s long-sleeved silk wedding gown and smiled at her friend in the full-length mirror. Emerald Lake, still mostly frozen and lightly dusted with snow from last night’s short storm, reflected through the large-paned window to the mirror.
Andi’s eyes met Rebecca’s in the mirror, full of excitement and anticipation for her wedding day. “I know I’ve said it a hundred times already, Rebecca, but thank you so much for everything you’ve done to help with my wedding. I could have never pulled this off so quickly, or so beautifully.”
Rebecca was extremely pleased by how smoothly the wedding preparations had come together. Her final walk-through downstairs half an hour ago confirmed that the Emerald Lake Inn had been completely transformed into a tasteful, elegant wedding venue. She’d done it before, of course, but it meant more to her this time, knowing she was an integral part of Andi and Nate’s special day.
Still, she had to tease her friend. “We both know you could have planned a dozen last-minute weddings in the past two weeks, Andi, and probably gotten a spread in Brides magazine while you were at it.”
Andi grinned before tossing off, “That was the old me, before I decided to start playing with yarn all day instead.”
Rebecca was happy to let Andi say whatever she wanted. After all, this was her wedding day. But both of them knew that moving back to Emerald Lake and becoming engaged to Nate hadn’t changed the core of who she was. Andi had always been driven. Brilliant. And on top of that, she also happened to be one of the most loving, caring people Rebecca had ever had the good fortune of knowing. Business at Lake Yarns was more brisk than ever now that Andi had taken over the store for her mother and grandmother. Not just because Andi was a great businesswoman with a background in management consulting, but because she was truly passionate about knitting—and the women who patronized her store.
As Andi turned back to look into the antique mirror in the inn’s “wedding prep” room, Rebecca noted that her friend seemed surprised by her own appearance. The wedding gown, the soft curls brushing against her collarbone, the pretty makeup.
“I never thought today would come,” Andi said softly. “But I always wanted it.” She lifted her gaze to meet Rebecca’s. “I’ve loved Nate my whole life.”
Rebecca blinked quickly to push away the tears that had been threatening to fall all morning just thinking about Andi and Nate’s wedding.
“You deserve it.” She could hear how scratchy her words sounded. She had to work to swallow away the lump that had formed in her throat at Andi’s soft confession of love. “You and Nate both deserve the love you’ve found again. Especially since this time it’s forever.”
She shot a knowing glance at Andi’s slightly rounded stomach, the lump in her throat replaced with the joy of knowing there would soon be a new baby to cuddle and kiss and spoil.
Rebecca refused to acknowledge the envy that tried to steal through her as her friend’s slender fingers automatically spread across the growing life inside her in a gesture of instinctive protectiveness and nurturing. But she couldn’t hide from the concerned look on Andi’s face in the mirror as she obviously noticed her heightened emotions.
“A little more blush,” Rebecca said quickly, letting her long light-brown hair hide her face as she bent down to pick up the makeup bag.
She knew she’d just given too much away. She always did. Some people had poker faces, but not her. On the contrary, hers would cause her to lose everything in the casino because she didn’t have the first clue how to play the game.
And it was true. Rebecca had never figured out how to play the game. Not with love, that was for certain. And not with jobs, until she’d landed here at the inn and realized she’d finally found something she was good at. Something she loved to do.
Even though they both knew her makeup was already perfect, Andi let Rebecca brush a tiny bit more powder over her cheekbones, just until she’d regained her composure.
But then, before Rebecca could step away again, her friend reached out and put a hand on her arm. “You know you can talk to me, don’t you?” Her gaze softened. “My groom isn’t going anywhere,” she said with perfect confidence. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Knowing the last thing she should do was dump her fears and hurts and baggage all over Andi on her wedding day, Rebecca was intent on finding a way to deflect her concern. “I always get emotional at weddings. You should have seen me at each of my sister’s ceremonies. I cried buckets. The guests in my row were all wishing for raincoats so I wouldn’t soak them.” She smiled a crooked little smile, hoping to lighten the mood. “This time I’ve tucked some under the seats next to mine as a precaution.”
But her friend, the woman she’d helped see through such a difficult time the previous fall, didn’t so much as crack a smile.
“You don’t have to pretend with me, Rebecca.” Regret flashed across Andi’s face. “Ever since I got pregnant, my brain has been fuzzy and I just want to sleep all the time. That’s got to be why I didn’t see it all more clearly before.” She shook her head. “We shouldn’t have scheduled our wedding for this weekend.”
Andi’s words were said softly, and while there wasn’t pity behind them, Rebecca believed that was only due to the close friendship they’d forged during the last six months.
Unfortunately, there was no escaping the fact—not with Andi or anyone who was going to be downstairs at the wedding and reception—that Rebecca was supposed to have been the one about to get married this weekend. Instead of wearing the gown and saying “I do,” she was going to be sitting in the audience, watching two wonderful people make their vows of love to each other.
The truth was that it hadn’t been easy walking down Main Street these past three weeks, going to the grocery store, passing people she knew on the cross-country ski trails knowing they were whispering about her. Sure, they still smiled, still exchanged the same pleasantries. But she knew either they had to be feeling sorry for her… or they were trying to figure out just what horrible thing she’d done to make Stu call off the wedding.
And disappear from Emerald Lake the very next day without a word to anyone.
Only the women at Lake Yarns’s Monday night knitting group had remained the same as always. Warm. Gossipy. And yet, utterly nonjudgmental. No matter how busy she was, Rebecca made sure to keep every Monday night open for drinking too much wine, and usually doing more talking and laughing than knitting.
She felt like she’d found her home in Emerald Lake, liked to imagine growing old on an Adirondack chair on a dock while she watched her future grandchildren playing in the blue water.
She hated to think that she’d only been accepted by the locals because she was engaged to Stu Murphy, whose family had lived in Emerald Lake for generations. She wanted to believe she belonged here on her own merit. Because people liked her and thought she contributed something valuable to the community.
But regardless of how off-kilter she was feeling, she absolutely refused to taint Andi’s wedding in any way.
“You know I absolutely loved being able to put on this wedding for you and Nate. And really, it worked out perfectly. You needed a wedding venue right away and I had one all ready to go.” Rebecca already had the tables and chairs and glasses and food ordered for her own spring wedding at the inn, so Andi and Nate were able to use them without having to try to pull together everything at the last second. “It was meant to happen this way. I’m certain of it. I absolutely love knowing that I’m a part of your happily ever after.”
Anyone else would have stopped talking there, would have held something back, would have hidden the rest of her feelings. But Rebecca had never known how to do that. Especially when a dear friend was looking at her with such deep concern. Besides, she’d finally stopped lying to herself about her ex-fiancé three weeks ago. So what was the point in trying to hold back the full—painful—truth with anyone else now?
“You know Stu and I weren’t right for each other. Not as anything more than friends. The truth is I enjoyed putting the finishing details on your wedding far more than I ever enjoyed working on it when it was my own.” She shook her head. “I guess that should have been my first clue that something wasn’t right. But it was seeing you and Nate together that showed me what real love was supposed to look like.”
“You never told me that,” Andi said, clearly surprised by what Rebecca had divulged. Awareness dawned suddenly in her brown eyes. “Oh my gosh. Three weeks ago. That’s when Nate and I came in to ask about squeezing in a shotgun wedding here at the inn.”
Rebecca nodded, feeling like she was a diary that had fallen open with a splat. “You two were supposed to be flipping through a booklet of cake toppers. Instead, your foreheads were together and you were staring into each other’s eyes.”
She hadn’t been able to tear her eyes away from them, not even when Nate cupped Andi’s cheek and gently kissed her.
That was what real love looked like. Deep and true love.
Just like that, Rebecca had known she couldn’t go through with marrying Stu. Not just for her sake, not just because she wanted that kind of love for herself, but because it wasn’t fair to Stu, either. He deserved forever love, too.
“I don’t know what to say. I hate to think that I caused your breakup. But—”
Rebecca shook her head, wanting to still the remorse, the guilt that was emerging on her friend’s face. “You didn’t cause anything. You just helped me see the light.” Finally. Long after she should have seen it on her own. “I’ll be forever grateful to you for that.”
Andi hugged her tightly and even though Rebecca longed to tell her friend more—it simply wasn’t her nature to hold things back and the secrets she was keeping were eating her up inside—there was one thing she couldn’t tell anyone.
Specifically, what had happened three weeks ago when she went to break her engagement to Stu after seeing Andi and Nate so in love.
She’d been so twisted up inside her head—and heart—on her way to Stu’s suite of rooms that night that she hadn’t thought to knock before opening the door. Rebecca could still remember the way she’d been frozen in place when Stu and John, a mutual friend of theirs from college, pulled away from each other so quickly that she almost thought she’d imagined their embrace. Although he’d always been closer to Stu, Rebecca had counted John among her friends, too.
Stu had cursed and come toward her, hands outstretched, his face ravaged with guilt. “Rebecca, I can explain. I didn’t want to hurt you. I swear it.”
She’d waited for betrayal to kick in, for anger to burst forth. Instead, a deep sense of sadness made her chest clench—along with a flood of relief. Because he didn’t want to marry her either. Stu had been her best friend since freshman year in art college when they’d bonded over giggles during the nude-drawing class. They should have known better than to date and then actually go and get engaged to each other.
She knew she should have been shocked by Stu’s kiss with John. Only, she wasn’t. Not when all of the warning signs, everything that hadn’t added up from the first time Stu had asked her out, suddenly made perfect sense.
After a lifetime of dating tall, dark, and mysterious men who made her heart race, men with a core of danger and secrets that she’d longed to heal and love, Stu had been safe. Gentle. A calm lake instead of a roaring sea. Their first date had been full of laughter, and even though the very few kisses that came in later months were nothing to write home about, she told herself fireworks were overrated. Lord knew she could live without the careening emotions that usually went hand in hand with her relationships.
Standing there in Stu’s living room with John waiting awkwardly by the window, she’d realized why their engagement had always felt so wrong to her: they’d both been desperately lying to themselves, both been wanting to believe in something that could never make either of them happy in the long run.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” was what she’d finally asked him and when he’d said, “I wanted so badly to make it work,” in clear anguish, she’d tried to say, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
She’d thought her relationship with Stu was different from her previous relationships. She’d thought it was healthy. But she’d been wrong. Which was why she hadn’t been able to force those false words out.
Stu was a blur of emotion. “I thought I could marry you, but seeing John brought up so many old feelings. Feelings I thought had gone away. Feelings I’d convinced myself had never existed in the first place. I’m just so confused about everything. You must hate me. But I swear I didn’t cheat on you. Just that kiss.” His tears, along with his confession, broke her heart. “I’m sorry, Rebecca. So, so sorry.”
It had been hard to get him to listen to her, to understand that she’d come to talk to him to call off their engagement, too, that she was an equal partner in breaking things off. Ultimately, she’d accepted that nothing she could say was going to calm him down. Not that night, anyway.
“Please keep my secret, Rebecca.” He gripped her hands so tightly that she’d found small bruises along the tops of them the next morning. “I need to figure things out first. Please.”
She couldn’t help but wonder how Stu could possibly ask her to keep a secret like that? Especially when he knew how big her honesty gene was, that she was terrible at holding anything back.
“You know I’m no good at keeping secrets,” she’d told him, but it was the fear, the pain, the confusion in Stu’s eyes that had her finally promising to keep his secret despite her deep reservations… and the sure knowledge that keeping Stu’s secret was only going to hurt everyone more in the long run.
Of course, she’d assumed he’d be there in the morning, had believed that once he’d calmed down they’d figure out a way to share the news that they’d decided to just remain friends.
Rebecca found his note in the morning.
I have to leave. I’m sorry. I need some time to think things through. I’ll come home as soon as I can, but please don’t come looking for me.
Mere minutes later, his mother, Elizabeth, burst into the inn’s reception room gripping a similar letter in her hand. Tears were still fresh on her cheeks… and she hadn’t bothered to hide the accusations in her eyes when she looked at Rebecca.
The church bells chiming loudly outside the inn’s window brought Rebecca back into the present moment. Andi’s look of concern had morphed into full-on worry.
How long has she been lost replaying her final night with Stu?
“Have you heard from him yet?” Andi asked.
“No. He hasn’t been in touch with any of us. Not even his parents.”
Rebecca turned her gaze out the window, as if she could somehow spot Stu out there on Main Street if she looked hard enough. But she sensed he wouldn’t be back so soon. Even though she not only needed his help with the inn, but the Tapping of the Maples Festival was rapidly approaching and she was nearly running on empty trying to take care of everything by herself.
She understood that he was dealing with a lot right now, but every now and again she felt more than a little miffed that he’d left her here to deal with both the inn and the festival entirely on her own for who knew how long.
Andi gripped her hand tighter and Rebecca felt moisture tickling her eyes again.
No. This was Andi’s wedding day. Rebecca hadn’t cried once in the past three weeks, and she certainly wasn’t going to cry for herself now as they put the final touches on Andi’s dress and hair and makeup.
Firmly deciding that the only tears she’d cry today would be happy ones, she smiled widely and said, “I can’t wait to see Nate’s face when you walk down the aisle. He’s going to be the happiest man alive.”
After only the slightest moment of hesitation, Andi, thankfully, let Rebecca have her way in changing the subject.
“The church bells have chimed.” Rebecca opened the door and held her hand out for Andi. “It’s time.”
Oh my. What a lovely wedding it was.
Of course, the bride was gorgeous and the groom was handsome. Pink and white and red hothouse roses were in bloom all over the room. But Rebecca knew Andi and Nate could have been standing in the middle of an open field wearing jeans and T-shirts and it still would have been one of the most beautiful ceremonies she’d ever witnessed.
The love between them was so strong it reached out to wrap itself around everyone in the room. At last, Rebecca didn’t bother to hide her tears, not when pretty much everyone else in the room was dabbing at their eyes. Thankfully, she’d thought ahead and had put a small box of tissues at the end of every row of seats. The boxes were being passed back and forth as Nate’s ten-year-old sister, Madison, reached into her basket of rose petals and threw them over her brother and new sister-in-law as they kissed and the crowd cheered.
Rebecca was on her feet clapping along with the rest of them. The new bride and groom walked down the aisle hand in hand and she had to put her hand over her heart, as if somehow that could keep everything she was feeling—and everything she was wishing for—deep inside.
Sean Murphy heard the applause and cheers as he walked through the inn’s front door. From the flower petals drifting out of the event room into the inn’s entry, he could easily guess it was a wedding.
It instantly struck him as strange. Why would Stu schedule another wedding at the inn on the same weekend as his own? And how exactly had his brother planned to clean up this wedding party and still have time to set up for his own rehearsal dinner that night?
But those questions left his mind as quickly as they had entered, the noise coming from the event room digging at the headache Sean had been riding out all day. Frankly, all he really cared about right now was getting upstairs to his suite to take a shower.
The red-eye from China didn’t usually take it out of him like this. But it had been a crazy three weeks of constant flights, of hotel rooms he’d barely had time to check in to before he was leaving for the next airport, the next meeting. Today, he’d hoped to have time to get back to his house in Boston to shower, to transfer clothes in his luggage, to flip through his mail before heading to Emerald Lake for his brother’s rehearsal dinner, but his flight had been delayed. So he’d headed straight to the inn.
Sean usually made it a point to stay as far away from weddings as he possibly could, but he hadn’t been home in so long that curiosity had him dropping his bags behind the check-in counter and walking across stray rose petals toward the large room that overlooked the lake.
Standing at a side door behind a large potted plant, he instantly recognized the bride and groom. Sean had been a couple of years ahead of Andi and Nate in school. As long as he remembered, they’d always been a couple. How was it that they were only just getting married? He would have thought they’d have gotten hitched a long time ago and popped out a handful of kids by now.
A moment later, Sean’s gut inexplicably tightened at the sight of Andi and Nate kissing. Worse still, something that felt way too much like envy stole through him a beat later.
Despite his discomfort, Sean forced himself to keep his gaze on the happy couple so that he could dissect whatever it was that was putting these strange thoughts in his head.
In twenty years of dating beautiful women, he’d never wanted to get married, had never been even remotely tempted to get down on one knee and ask one woman to be his for eternity. As he watched two people he’d known as children make their vows to each other, Sean could see that Nate and Andi thought they were in love. And maybe they were.
For now, at least.
But it was what happened later—ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road once they had kids and were supposed to be a cohesive family unit who all looked out for each other—that Sean had no faith in. In fact, the only thing he knew for certain was that the people who got hurt when love failed weren’t just the man and the woman who had once made vows to each other on their wedding day. No, the net was cast much wider than that.
Pushing the rogue emotions away, he scanned the occupants of the room. It had been a long time since he’d been back to Emerald Lake but he recognized most of them. The old football coach. The owner of the general store. Several other people he’d gone to school with.
About to move away from the doorway, sure that a hot shower and a beer would go a long way toward unknotting the tightness in his gut, his eyes caught a flash of movement that held his gaze—and his feet—in place.
Long golden-brown hair was gliding like silk across a woman’s back as she moved out from behind a tall elderly man. And then she turned her face toward him and his breath actually lodged in his throat as he looked at her. Her eyes were glittering with tears, her cheeks were flushed. She was biting her lip, and her hands were covering her heart.
And she was beautiful.
What was wrong with him? He’d never been drawn to a delicate woman like this who looked like she could sprout fairy wings and fly away. He always chose the women who shared his bed very carefully, making sure they were strong enough to never make the mistake of falling in love with him or thinking they could change him in some way.
But there was no denying his elemental reaction to this woman.
It was long past time to turn away, to go upstairs and take that shower he’d been looking forward to. Even more than that, he knew there were several documents waiting in his e-mail for his approval. He needed to leave. Right now.
But instead of doing any of those things, Sean Murphy simply stood right where he was and stared at the woman who wasn’t only taking his breath away but who was making his heart beat faster, too.
Details had made Sean millions in the years since he’d left Emerald Lake. He never got them wrong. But now, as the sun came in through one of the large windows that looked out on the frozen lake and lit her up like a spotlight, he realized her hair was neither brown nor gold. Because as she shifted slightly and the silky curtain of hair moved, he saw clear flashes of red.
More than ever, he knew he needed to get moving before she saw him standing there gaping at her like an adolescent in the throes of his first major crush. But he didn’t move, couldn’t stop himself from running his eyes over her from head to toe.
She wasn’t tall, but she wasn’t short either. Her figure wasn’t too slim or too rounded.
She was perfect.
Sean shook his head to try and clear the word away, but when he did, he just ended up back at beautiful.
He was renowned for his clearheaded assessments of not only companies but people, too. Sean forced himself to study the woman’s clothes in an analytical manner so that he could put together a better, more accurate picture of her, one that had nothing to do with words like perfect or beautiful.
Her green dress was well-tailored, but not particularly flashy. The pearls at her earlobes and around her neck were elegant, but not at all intended to draw a man’s eyes. Neither were her shoes, low-heeled and silver. He got the sense she wasn’t the kind of woman who would ever try to draw attention to herself.
Even though she had every ounce of his.
The crowd was starting to file out of the room, following Andi and Nate, but the woman hung behind, bending over to pick up stray flower petals strewn around her seat.
Something jogged his brain, a prickle that was more than just a man’s awareness of a beautiful woman, a warning that he knew her from somewhere, but he couldn’t quite grab hold of it.
Finally, when the room was empty save the two of them and she was continuing to grab handfuls of flower petals off the floor, she faced him with a look of surprise on her face.
She was closer now, near enough that he could see just how delicate her features were, from her high cheekbones to her slightly pointed chin and the tiny indentations in each cheek as she smiled.
In her surprise at seeing him standing in the doorway, a big chunk of the rose petals fell out of her hands and fluttered to the floor. She gave him a wry smile as she bent down to try and pick them back up, cradling the pile in her hands and arms.
“These smell good, but they’re so messy.”
Sean knew she was expecting him to say something, to tell her who he was or what he was doing staring at her like that, but for the moment, he was just enjoying listening to her speak. Her soft, melodic voice was another piece of the puzzle he’d been putting together from the moment he’d seen her silky hair glide across her back.
But most of all, her smile made him want to smile back.
Which was crazy.
She finally shook her head and said, with a small frown, “I’m sorry, you don’t need to listen to me babble about roses.”
But he did. Just as he hated seeing the frown replace her smile.
No, not just crazy. Insane.
Sharpening her focus on him, she continued with, “I didn’t think anyone new was checking in today, so I wasn’t monitoring the front desk.” The welcoming smile on her face instinctively drew him closer to her. “Can I help you with something else? Are you visiting a guest at the inn, perhaps?”
Finally, he told her, “I’m Sean Murphy. I’m here for my brother’s wedding.”
In an instant, her smile disappeared. Her mouth opened slightly in surprise and her cheeks grew even more flushed.
She took a quick step backward and bumped into one of the covered folding chairs.
He waited for her gaze to drop to his scar and hold there, certain that was the reason for her sudden, too-strong reaction. But her eyes never left his, never once raked over the mark that bisected the lower half of his left cheek, from earlobe to chin.
“Oh my gosh. Of course you’re Sean. I knew something about you looked familiar. I should have realized it earlier, but the wedding must have scrambled my brain.”
All the while, as she spoke, she was blinking up at him, her big green eyes stealing his brain cells away one at a time. It felt like a hammer was pounding away in his brain.
How did she know his name when he couldn’t for the life of him think of hers?
She bit her lip, drawing his attention to their full, soft shape. For all the conservative nature of her dress and shoes and jewelry, her full mouth and silky hair seemed to show a deeper truth about her. A sweet sensuality she couldn’t hide.
Half of him wanted to ask her how she knew his name. The other half wanted to ask her to say it again, to let her soft voice wrap itself around him like it had just a minute ago.
“Do you know where Stu is?” he asked, instead.
Her eyes grew even bigger. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, more than a little horrified.
“You don’t know what happened?”
The hammer pounded harder, joined by a warning bell inside his brain that told him something was definitely wrong. Hadn’t he known it from the minute he’d walked into the inn and realized there was another wedding taking place?
Immediately worrying that something had happened to his younger brother, a brother he’d always looked after when they were kids but hadn’t been around to check on much over the past few years, he said, “Tell me now. What happened?”
The woman’s eyes were wide enough now that he saw how green they were, like fresh growth on bare trees in spring. She was clasping her hands together in front of her so tightly that her knuckles were turning white and the rose petals were getting crushed beneath her grip.
“I was sure he was going to tell you, that he was going to talk to you.” She shook her head, tightened her hands more. “He should have told you. You’re his brother.”
He moved toward her then, worry for his brother making him put his hands on her shoulders before he realized it.
“Where is my brother?”
Her muscles and frame were surprisingly strong beneath her soft flesh. Her sweet scent wrapped around him, a faint blend of maple and vanilla.
“I don’t know where he is.”
Suddenly, he could feel her starting to tremble beneath his hands.
What was he doing manhandling a total stranger?
“I’m sorry,” he said automatically. “I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that.” Sean started to lift his hands off her when he suddenly realized why she looked familiar.
“You’re Stu’s fiancée.”
Stu had sent a picture of her when they’d announced their engagement and Sean’s secretary had laid it out on top of the rest of his business correspondence. He’d been between meetings and had barely had time to look at the picture before it was filed away. But from what he recalled, while he’d thought his brother’s fiancée had seemed pretty in the picture, nothing about her had drawn any special notice.
He could hardly place this woman before him to the one beside Stu in the staged photo. Same hair, same eyes, same face, same features, but totally different.
As if she’d somehow come into focus since that photo was taken.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m Rebecca. I was his fiancée.”
He couldn’t miss the was.
She hadn’t intended for him to miss it.
“You’re supposed to be getting married tomorrow.”
“Yes,” she said again, but she was shaking her head even as she agreed with him. “We were, but—”
A door flung open and Sean heard his mother’s voice. “Rebecca, have you seen my wrap? I think I left it at my sea—”
The words fell away as Elizabeth realized her oldest son was standing there. She was dressed in a long, sparkling silver dress and even though he hadn’t seen her in the audience, he’d known she had to be at the wedding. Local weddings had always been a town affair.
She looked back and forth between him and Rebecca with surprise—and then a deep, confused frown.
Rebecca jumped out of his grasp so fast he swore he felt a blast of cold air in the spot she’d been standing.
“Sean?” His mother moved toward him, her gaze immediately going to his scar and holding there for several seconds. Finally, she pulled it away. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for Stu’s wedding.”
“I thought he would have told you,” Rebecca said again.
But before he could return his focus to Stu’s ex-fiancée, Sean’s mother was exclaiming, “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re finally home. It’s all been such a mess. For all of us. Your father and I kept trying to reach you, but your secretary always said you were in a meeting.” She lowered her voice. “I didn’t want to leave such a personal message with a stranger.”
“So there’s no wedding?” He directed the question to Rebecca rather than his mother.
“No,” Rebecca said. “I’m afraid not.”
“Why?” Again, he directed the question to Rebecca, but this time she didn’t answer. She simply stood there and stared at the floor.
His mother reached for his hand and gripped it hard. “Stu didn’t say. He just left me and your father a note saying he needed to go away for a while to think about things and that the wedding was off. Isn’t that right, Rebecca?”
Rebecca finally came unstuck and took a step forward. Her chin tilted slightly up to face his mother, who was several inches taller, and she said, “Yes,” and for a moment he was struck by her surprising strength.
The impression deepened as she turned to Sean with her explanations. “Stu and I both agreed that the engagement and wedding were a mistake, but that we’re still friends.” Her words were soft but firm. “There are no hard feelings between us. None at all. We both just want what’s best for each other.” She paused. “Unfortunately, in the morning he was gone.”
Rebecca’s earnest words seemed genuine, but Sean wasn’t satisfied with the explanation. Clearly, his mother wasn’t either, as she said, “I just wish he’d come to tell me that himself, instead of disappearing in the middle of the night with only a note saying he’d left you in charge of the inn. I just don’t feel right about it at all.”
Yet again, the woman who’d trembled in his arms stood strong in front of his mother.
“Your son is a wonderful man. And I’m sure he’ll be back soon to let us all know what’s going on.”
“When?” Elizabeth asked.
To anyone else’s ears, Sean knew his mother’s question was simply full of worry for her youngest child. But there was ice at its core. It didn’t make sense that his first instinct was to protect Rebecca. But sense or not, the instinct was still there.
Fortunately, Rebecca didn’t seem to need his protection. She simply shook her head and said, “I wish I knew. But I don’t.”
Again, Sean knew Rebecca was telling the truth simply because there was no hesitation behind her words. Only when asked why Stu had left had she stayed quiet.
She turned her face to his again. “Are you sure he didn’t try to reach you, Sean?”
His name on her lips sent another jolt through him. Telling himself it was simply that he was feeling every one of the two hours of sleep he’d gotten on the red-eye—or rather, the twenty-two he hadn’t gotten—he ran a hand over his face before answering. “Not as far as I know.”
Damn it, if Stu was in trouble, why hadn’t he come to his older brother? Had Sean done that bad a job of taking care of his brother these past years that Stu didn’t know his door was always open? Stu was the one person he’d always loved with his whole heart. Stu was the only person he knew he could trust wholly and completely.
But now, out of the blue, his brother had done a runner. Not just on his fiancée and family. But on the inn as well.
Sean hated feeling that his trust had been misplaced. By absolutely everyone he’d ever loved.
“He left the rest of us letters,” Rebecca said. “Perhaps yours got lost in the mail.”
“I’ve been out of the country for three weeks. I came here straight from the airport. I’ll have my assistant go through my mail tonight. If there’s a letter waiting for me, she’ll find it.”
And hopefully if there was a letter, it would give them all more of a clue as to where his brother had gone.
The door creaked again and footsteps sounded on the old wooden floorboards. “Rebecca, I think I’ve got a tear in the seam of my dress and I was wondering if you could—”
Andi skidded to a stop halfway into the room, looking between Sean and Elizabeth and Rebecca.
“Sean, what a nice surprise it is to see you.”
He forced a smile for the bride. “Congratulations, Andi.”
His smile had been mostly teeth, but when she smiled back at him, she was so full of happiness he could almost feel it cutting a little hole through the frustration in the room.
But then, as she looked from him to Rebecca and his mother, her smile fell away. “Rebecca, I really don’t want to interrupt, but I think I’d better stitch my dress up before it turns into a full-on tear.”
“No problem, Andi. I’ve got a sewing kit upstairs.” Rebecca hurried to the bride’s side. “I’ll just run up and get it.”
“Great, I’ll come up with you.”
A moment later, Sean and his mother were standing in a room full of empty chairs and hundreds of flower heads and petals.
“What exactly did Stu’s letter say, Elizabeth?”
His mother’s eyes flashed with hurt at the way he’d used her proper name. He hadn’t called her Mom since he was fourteen. He wasn’t about to start now.
“Just that he was sorry, but he and Rebecca had decided not to get married. And that while he was gone, he trusted Rebecca to run the inn as she saw fit.”
She looked away too quickly and the hard knot in his chest tightened, the way it always did when he spoke with her. After all these years away from Emerald Lake, he’d believed he could be in complete control over himself during Stu’s wedding weekend. But that had been when he’d thought it was going to be nothing more than a couple of parties.
Nearly certain that she was hiding something from him, he asked, “Is that all his letter said?”
His mother was an attractive woman, but as they stood together while the sunlight disappeared behind a cloud, she looked every one of her fifty years.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Sean. Don’t you know that? I’ve never wanted to hurt you.”
He didn’t say anything in response to her non sequitur. They both knew he couldn’t say anything, not if she wanted him to continue keeping her secrets, just like he had for the past twenty years.
Her shoulders rounded ever farther as she sighed. “Stu said none of this was Rebecca’s fault and that if anyone should take the blame, it was him.” Her eyes were filled with tears as she added, “But you and I both know he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s always been such a good boy.”
Another wave of exhaustion swept over Sean. “Don’t worry,” he finally told her, knowing it was what she wanted to hear. “I’ll find out what’s going on.”
Looking relieved, her gaze went back to the side of his face. “Your scar looks much better. You must be using that cream I sent you. I know how much it’s always bothered you.”
No. He’d never really cared about the scar, but what was the point in bothering to clarify things twenty years after the accident that had scarred his face?
“It’s been a long day. I’m going to head upstairs to take a shower.”
“Come with me to say hello to your father and grandmother first.” He let his mother take him into the reception room. “Look who I found talking with Rebecca in the other room.”
His father’s face lit up. “Son, welcome home.” Bill’s arms were warm around his shoulders.
His grandmother, Celeste, was there a moment later, giving him a kiss on the cheek, then holding him still for a long moment so that her wise eyes could take in far more than he’d planned to give away. Just like she always did.
“You’ve met Rebecca?” He nodded and she smiled. “Lovely girl, isn’t she?”
Something about his grandmother’s smile shook him. Fortunately, his father asking, “You’ve heard about Stu and the wedding, I take it?” saved him from having to reply.
Sean nodded. “I’m heading upstairs right now to make some calls to his friends and see what I can find out.”
“You can’t stay at the reception a little longer?” his mother suggested, a hint of desperation at wanting to spend more time with him pulling at her words. “I know Andi and Nate would love to have you here.”
As if the calls to Stu’s friends weren’t enough of a reason for him to need to leave right away, he told her, “I’ve got to contact my secretary to see if there was a note from Stu.”
He was about to walk away when he felt his mother’s cold hand on his arm. When he was a child, her arms had been warm, and he’d loved to sit with her while she read him books and told him fairy tales before bed. They’d once been so close.
But he hadn’t been a child for a very long time.
And he knew better than to believe in fairy tales.
“It really is good to have you home, honey. We’ve all missed you.”
He’d missed being home, missed the lake, the mountains, the clear air. But he hadn’t missed the way the knot in his gut tightened, grew, whenever he was here.
He needed to find out where his brother had gone and bring him home so that things could go back to the way they were, as quickly as possible… and Sean could leave Emerald Lake again.
Was it kind of tense down there or was it just me?”
Carefully sewing the hole shut on Andi’s dress, Rebecca pulled a pin out from between her lips and slid it into the strawberry-shaped cushion.
“Sean didn’t know that Stu and I split up,” she explained to her clearly confused friend. “He came here expecting there to be a wedding tomorrow.”
Andi whistled softly. “And of course Elizabeth had to get right in the middle of it.”
Rebecca bit her tongue. She might not be about to marry into the Murphy family anymore, but she still didn’t feel right saying anything about how uncomfortable Elizabeth made her feel, even though Stu’s mother had never been particularly warm and embracing.
“She’s just concerned about her son.”
“I know she is. We all are.”
Rebecca was hoping Andi would drop it. But she’d come to know her friend well enough in the last six months to know better. Andi’s laser focus had made everything she’d ever touched a huge success. Only love had eluded her for a decade. Thankfully, though, her friend had found true love in the end.
“I just don’t get it,” Andi finally said. “You’re every mother’s dream daughter-in-law, you know?”
The thing was, Rebecca had noticed Elizabeth acting strange around Sean, too. Completely different from how she behaved around Stu. His mother had always taken care of Stu, almost to the point of being overly nurturing. With Sean, she’d seemed tense. Worried.
Not knowing how to fake either a smile or an easy response, Rebecca pretended to be busy tying off the thread on Andi’s silk gown instead.
“I haven’t seen Sean in years,” Andi mused as Rebecca finished up. “He and Stu were always close. I’m surprised he didn’t know about the wedding being off.”
“Me too,” Rebecca admitted.
That was all she was going to admit. Not that her reaction to looking up and seeing Sean staring at her had been more powerful than any reaction she’d had to another man.
Even realizing he was Stu’s older brother hadn’t been enough to stop feeling like fireworks were constantly shooting off in the middle of her stomach when he looked at her.
“He hasn’t gotten any worse looking, that’s for sure. Back in high school, pretty much everyone had a crush on him.” Andi smoothed her hand over the fix-it job Rebecca had done with needle and thread as she said, “I swear the scar he got on his face after the car accident only made the girls want him more. Must have been all that danger and mystery swirling around him, I guess.”
Rebecca had almost dropped the box of pins at the thought of Sean being in a car accident, even though she didn’t know him at all.
“He had a scar?”
Andi shot her a strange look. “He still does.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“It’s on his left cheek. Lower down. It’s hard to miss.”
Rebecca tried to think back to those moments when he’d been holding her close, questioning her about Stu. But all she could see in her mind were his eyes staring into hers, all she could feel were those butterflies scooting around in her belly.
Not wanting to give away too much to Andi—who she’d learned noticed everything around her—Rebecca turned to put her needle away in her sewing box, making sure to let her hair swing over her face as she said in as light a voice as she could manage, “So was he a total heartbreaker in high school?”
“As far as I know he didn’t date anybody at our school.”
Rebecca couldn’t think fast enough to keep herself from turning back to look at Andi in surprise.
Andi shrugged. “Sean’s always been hard to read. You know how those mysterious good-looking types are. Women are always wanting to uncover their hearts. There’s always some poor, delusional girl out there who thinks she’s going to be the one to make him fall.”
“Definitely delusional,” Rebecca agreed. She knew firsthand all about girls like that.
Because she’d been one of them her entire life.
She’d wanted things to work out so badly with Stu that she’d actually accepted his proposal of marriage. And before Stu… well, she’d been even more delusional with her previous boyfriends. She’d seen only what she wanted to see.
And ignored all of the warning signs.
Never again. She’d never ignore those warning signs again.
Especially given that they’d started flashing bigger and brighter than ever before in the last thirty minutes when she’d been talking with Sean.
Her reaction to him had been beyond anything she’d ever felt before. One look at him standing there against the doorway watching her and she’d almost dropped the entire handful of flower petals.
Yes, just as Andi had said, he was incredibly good looking. Just Rebecca’s type, in fact.
The very type that usually ripped her heart out from her chest and stomped all over it.
“Even though I’ll be in the Bahamas for the next week,” Andi said, “you can always reach me on my cell, day or night if you need me.”
Rebecca gave her friend a warm hug. There was no way she was going to disturb Andi and Nate’s honeymoon. She’d managed to survive the past three weeks of questioning looks—and outright questions from the people of Emerald Lake, especially Elizabeth.
Somehow, she’d find a way to deal with Sean’s questions, too, without giving Stu’s secret away.
Six hours later, Rebecca was rethinking her silent vow to survive whatever came her way alone.
“Such a lovely wedding, Rebecca. We’re just all so sorry you won’t be up there tomorrow with Stu.”
“We’re just so sorry for you, honey. It must be so hard at your age to have to start all over.”
“I know how overwhelmed you must be running the inn without Stu. I heard Sean was back home to help.”
And no, Sean hadn’t come back home to help her with the inn. God forbid. Ten minutes in the same room was enough to send her head spinning and her heart racing.
Working together would surely do her in completely.
In any case, she couldn’t tell any of Andi and Nate’s guests that Sean had no idea they’d called off the wedding until this morning when he’d arrived for the festivities. Given that it was impossible for her to disappear until everyone went home when there were so many details to take care of, she’d simply tried to look busier—which wasn’t hard during a wedding reception—in the hopes that people would stop asking her questions.
Finally, after the guests had gone and she’d seen the bride and groom off on their way to sunny, sandy beaches, she was back in her room. All she wanted to do was take a long, hot bath and read a good book. But first, she was going to relish the moment this dress came off.
It had looked so pretty in the store. Green satin that picked up the color of her eyes, with light ruching along the side, the knee-length cocktail dress played up the best parts of her figure and hid the worst. She hadn’t told anyone that it was supposed to have been her rehearsal dinner dress.
Figuring it was better to get some use out of the dress after the amount of money she’d spent on it, she’d decided to wear it today. Strangely, it had almost felt like she was reclaiming something by putting it on this morning, the part of her that didn’t want to look into her closet and always see a dress that meant a canceled wedding. Now the dress would always be associated with Nate and Andi’s wedding instead.
Still, after ten-plus hours running around in it, she couldn’t wait to get into a pair of leggings and a T-shirt instead.
But when she tried to pull the zipper down it wouldn’t go. She tugged and pulled at it until her index finger was scraped sore by the small metal tab.
She desperately wanted to get out of the darn dress. Maybe, she thought, the dress was cursed. There had to be some alternative to cutting it off herself with a pair of scissors, didn’t there?
Just then, the large window in her bedroom that looked out onto Main Street began shaking. She hadn’t noticed the wind earlier in the afternoon—in fact, it had been strangely, ominously still out on the water—but she’d come to learn that the weather changed so fast in the Adirondacks that the sky could go from blinding blue to pelting hail in seconds.
Strangely, with some help from the moonlight she could see that the treetops weren’t blowing. And the flag on city hall was limp. But the window was still shaking.
Stu had fixed up this suite of rooms high in the inn’s attic especially for the two of them to move into after their wedding. Sixty years ago, this bedroom had been the honeymoon suite. A few years later, for some reason that no one seemed to know, it had been converted to storage.
Stu had insisted she move in a month ago and she’d agreed, glad to have the chance to make the rooms feel like home before the wedding, rather than returning from their honeymoon to an impersonal home. But as she stood in the middle of the bedroom, she felt cold, despite having turned on the heat earlier.
The small hairs on the back of her neck prickled and a rush of air moved over her, almost as if someone had walked by.
Spinning around, she saw that she was still completely alone.
Or was she?
The truth was, she’d always had a vague sense that something wasn’t right about the bedroom. She’d even heard rumors during the months she’d worked at the inn that it had been haunted in the past. And even though she’d laughed it off, the truth was that over the past few weeks—since she and Stu had called off their wedding—she wasn’t sure it was completely ridiculous anymore.
As goose bumps ran up her exposed arms, she suddenly wondered what on earth she was doing standing there thinking about ghosts and spirits. And as her stomach growled, she decided her bath could wait. First, she’d go back downstairs and have a snack. She knew there was leftover cake. Plenty of it. Considering she hadn’t eaten much all day—and how rough the day had ended up being—she figured she deserved a big slice of cake.
Besides, even though she’d sent her employees home, maybe if she was lucky a guest would be awake and reading in the common rooms downstairs and could help her unstick the zipper on her dress.
She just couldn’t stand the thought of cutting it up. Not when that would feel like giving in. Like losing.
So the dress was staying on for the time being. Shoes, however, weren’t going to happen again tonight. The thought of putting her heels back on had her wincing.
Her feet bare, she left her living room and walked out into the private hallway. Well, not so private anymore, since Stu always kept a small suite here for Sean’s visits into town—which had never happened until today. Not wanting to run into him again, she hurried past his door and down the stairs.
Picking up stray things as she made her way through the inn and moving them to their proper places, keeping an eye out for stray guests to help with her zipper but seeing none, unfortunately, it took her longer than it should have to get to the inn’s kitchen. Her stomach felt like it was eating itself by the time she pushed open the door.
At which point she lost her appetite altogether.
Because Sean was sitting on one of the stools, tucking into his own piece of wedding cake.
And he didn’t look any happier to see her than she was to see him.
Oh hi,” Rebecca said, wishing her voice didn’t sound so breathy. “I didn’t realize there was anyone in here.”
Sean’s eyes quickly took her in. The slightly wrinkled dress. Her bare feet.
For some reason, not wearing her shoes around him made her feel almost naked, even though she still had her dress on. It was too intimate.
Far more intimate than she ever wanted to be with Stu’s brother.
“I got hungry and thought I’d come down to get a snack, but I didn’t think anyone would be down here except maybe one of the guests wandering around the library or playing chess.”
Oh god, she was babbling.
Stop talking, Rebecca. Just stop.
She clamped her lips shut and tried to lift her feet to back out of the room, but her feet were stuck like she’d just stepped into quick-drying cement.
Sean gestured to the cake. “There’s plenty.”
It wasn’t exactly an embossed invitation to sit down with him, but it didn’t take a social genius—which she was not, by any stretch of the imagination—to see that if she ran now, she’d look guilty of something.
Like, maybe, breaking his brother’s heart.
And, probably, single-handedly driving him out of town.
As if she needed any help from her stomach, it growled so loud Sean’s eyes actually widened.
“When’s the last time you ate?”
She shook her head, looking down to her wrist for a watch, but she’d already taken it off in preparation for the thwarted bath. “A long time ago.”
She couldn’t have been more surprised when Sean stood up, got a clean plate off the rack, and put a really large piece of cake on it. For her.
“Sit down, Rebecca. You were on your feet all day.”
Oh. How sweet.
She tried not to flush. It was so embarrassing, but with her light coloring if she blushed it didn’t just cover her cheeks. It also covered her chest. A chest that was on far better display in the green dress than she usually kept it.
Realizing she was still standing there in the most awkward way, she tried to put a smile on her face—and moved toward the cake.
Finally, her limbs obeyed her—unlike her heart, which was racing out of control again.
What was wrong with her? Why did Sean make her so nervous? Well, not nervous exactly, but kind of like she was buzzing on the inside.
She hadn’t felt this way about a man since—
All the things she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge she had felt about meeting Sean when she and Andi had been talking upstairs earlier came to the fore. But even worse than the fact that she clearly had no self-control over her stupid feelings was that she was certain Sean could see her attraction to him written all over her face.
Her unfortunate reverse poker face.
Taking the stool to the far side of the one Sean had been using, she was pleasantly surprised again that he didn’t sit down until she was seated. He was obviously a gentleman like his brother and father. It should have made her more comfortable.
Instead, her nerves ratcheted up a notch.
There was nothing quite like a man who looked like a bad boy acting the part of a gentleman. It tended to do all sorts of ooey-gooey things to her insides.
Okay, so she’d sit and eat as fast as she could and then she’d flee.
She was reaching for the fork when a pang landed in the pit of her empty stomach at the thought. Her instinct had always been to run. From bad jobs and bad boyfriends. Coming here, to Emerald Lake and the inn, brought her to the first truly solid place she’d ever had beneath her feet.
Why should she be the one to leave in a hurry just because Stu’s brother had come home for a wedding that should have never been in the first place?
Three weeks ago when she’d gone to break it off with Stu, she’d vowed that she was going to change her life for the better. She’d started off by throwing herself into not just Andi and Nate’s wedding, but something that was all hers: the Tapping of the Maples Festival. In two weeks she was going to put on her first big event in the Adirondacks. Even before Stu had left, she’d watched the details line up one after the other and knew in her heart just how great the festival was going to be for the entire town.
So, yes, she was uncomfortable, sitting in the inn’s kitchen with Sean. But that didn’t mean she was going to fold under the pressure. Just the opposite, in fact. Not only was she going to sit here and enjoy every single bite of her chocolate cake, but she was going to force herself to relax about Stu’s brother. For years she’d listened to Stu’s stories about his beloved older brother and she’d wanted to meet him. Finally, she was getting her chance.
“So,” she said to Sean. “Stu said you were traveling?”
While she waited for him to say more she finally took a bite of the cake. Oh god, it was good, half a dozen layers of chocolate cake surrounded by white and brown frosting. So good that she might have actually let loose a small moan of appreciation.
Closing her eyes to fully appreciate every single taste sensation of the cake, when she finally swallowed it down and opened her eyes back up, she was surprised to find a glass of milk in front of her.
After drinking half the glass in one gulp, she smiled and said, “Thank you. That was the perfect touch.”
She swore one half of his mouth almost quirked up as he said it, but she couldn’t have proved it for a jury. It was just a sense she had that he was loosening up a little bit.
“Where were you traveling, if you don’t mind me asking?”
One of the things she loved most about her job was talking to the inn’s guests about their travels. She very much wanted to visit all those wondrous places she’d heard about.
It was another vow she’d made to herself: one day would see the seven wonders outside of a book or cable TV program.
“I’ve been all over Asia these past weeks.”
She could tell he was a big traveler, simply by the way he said it, like it was no big deal to visit Asia. If it had been her, she would have been gushing all over the place and pulling out pictures.
“I’ve always wanted to see that part of the world,” she murmured after taking a second, smaller bite of cake. “Do you have a favorite country in the Far East?”
“Japan.” He seemed almost surprised by his response. “Especially in the spring.”
She leaned forward on her hands guessing, “Were the cherry blossoms in bloom when you were there?”
She closed her eyes, trying to imagine what it must have been like to stand beneath the pink blooms. “How lovely it must have been,” she said, a smile on her lips at the vision in her head.
“Lovely,” he echoed.
She opened her eyes and found his gaze locked to hers, a definite smile trying to form on his lips. His brown eyes were darker than she remembered them being a few minutes earlier. More intense. Which was saying something, because he was one of the most intense men she’d ever come across.
Wanting to go back to that space they’d just been in where things had finally felt somewhat comfortable, she said, “Stu told me you own your own business.”
His almost-smile disappeared. “I just sold it.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say to that. Of course, she went for honest. Just like she always did. “Is that a good thing?”
“It was time to move on.”
Yes, she knew about moving on. “Any thoughts about what you’re going to do next?”
Feeling borderline comfortable again, she was about to take another bite of cake when Sean said, “Look, Rebecca, you seem like a nice person, but the truth is I don’t understand what happened with you and my brother. Maybe you could explain it to me.”
She nearly dropped the fork at his abrupt conversational switch. But really, how could she blame him for asking the question? They hadn’t had a chance to talk much about it beyond her earlier, “Yes, the wedding is off. And by the way, your brother has gone god-knows-where.”
“I’ll do my best.” She wanted to be as honest as possible with him, despite knowing she had to keep Stu’s secret.
Ugh. This was going to be a hard conversation. The first of many to come if she wasn’t mistaken.
She put down the fork on the side of the plate and pushed it away from her. She wasn’t hungry anymore, anyway.
“You probably know that Stu and I have been friends for a really long time. Since college.”
“He always said you made him laugh.”
She smiled at the comment. “He made me laugh, too. Did he tell you the first time we met was a nude-drawing class?”
Sean’s lips twitched a little bit again and she found herself wishing he would let himself smile. But, again, his mouth flattened out before that could happen.
Rebecca shook her head. “I probably should have known right then and there that I wasn’t cut out for being an artist.” She wrinkled her nose. “If it had been a naked woman then maybe I could have done it with a straight face, but a naked old man… Well, it was just so gross…”
He didn’t say anything, simply raised an eyebrow, and she realized she was getting off track.
“Anyway, fast forward ten years later, and I needed a job.” And an escape. From her mistakes. “Stu offered me one here at the inn.” She looked around the inn’s kitchen, at all the upgrades she’d helped make in the past nine months. “I love working here. I absolutely love it.”
“Did you and Stu date in college?”
“No. We were just friends.”
“When did that change?”
Excerpted from With This Kiss by Riley, Bella Copyright © 2012 by Riley, Bella. Excerpted by permission.
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