Read an Excerpt
Sheet lightning flirted with the treetops on the horizon as Innkeeper Summer Matthews started up the sidewalk of her inn. For a few seconds she could see the bridge over the river and the steeple of the tallest church in Orchard Hill. An instant later the starless sky was black again.
Directly ahead of her, The Orchard Inn beckoned. Nestled on a hill overlooking the river, the inn was just inside the Orchard Hill city limits. Built of sandstone and river rock, it was tall and angular and had a roof that looked like a top hat from here. The large windows, wide front walkway and ornate portico were welcoming. A single antique lamp glowed in the bay window on the first floor. Upstairs the flicker of laptops and televisions, modern technology in a 120-year-old inn, cast a blue haze on the wavy window panes.
Only one window remained dark.
Summer went in through the front door, the purling of the bell blending with the lively voices of her friends who were watching the front desk in her absence. She listened at the stairs for guests and checked the registration book on her way by. K. Miller, the last member of the restoration crew scheduled to begin work on the train depot first thing in the morning, still hadn't checked in. Wondering what was keeping him, she followed her friends' voices to her private quarters.
"You're home early." Madeline Sullivan, whose surprise engagement to Riley Merrick was the reason for tonight's emergency wedding-planning session, was the first to notice Summer. Madeline's blue eyes shone with newfound joy.
Chelsea Reynolds looked up from her laptop, and Abby Fitzpatrick turned in her chair.
Giving Summer a quick once over from head to toe, Abby said, "I saw the new veterinarian getting into his truck with roses and a bottle of wine. And you wore a dress, which means you shaved your legs. What are you doing home already?"
Summer went to the refrigerator for a Diet Coke before joining the others at her table. "Did you know that goats, when born, land on only three feet?"
There was a moment of silence while the others searched for the relevance in that little pearl of wisdom.
"Goats," Abby repeated as Chelsea deftly plucked a blade of straw from Summer's light brown hair.
"Do you have experience birthing goats?" Madeline asked.
"I do now." She popped the top of her soda can and poured the cold beverage into a glass. "Nathan's service called during dinner. One of the Jenkins's goats was struggling to deliver. I went along on the emergency house call. The twins are fine, and the mother is resting, but I definitely shaved my legs for nothing."
Madeline was a nurse whose blond hair and blue eyes gave her an angelic appearance. Blond, too, Abby wore her hair in a short, wispy style that suited her petite frame but camouflaged an IQ that rivaled Einstein's. Chelsea had dark brown hair, a curvy build and a no-nonsense attitude. All three of her friends burst out laughing, and Summer couldn't help joining in.
Looking at these women sitting around her table on this quiet Tuesday night, it occurred to her that when she'd arrived in Orchard Hill six years ago at the tender age of twenty-three, she'd been as fragile and wobbly as one of the Jenkins's newborn goats. Madeline, Chelsea and Abby had befriended her, and in doing so, they'd held her up until she'd gotten both feet firmly underneath her. A year and a half ago, they'd all done the same for Madeline when her fiancé was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. Now Madeline was standing on her own again, about to be married to the man who'd received Aaron's heart.
"How are the wedding plans coming?" Summer asked.
"Amazing," Abby said. "In ten days the most miraculous wedding of the century will go down in history right here in Orchard Hill."
Summer wished Abby hadn't worded it exactly that way. She wanted Madeline's wedding to be a dream come truenobody deserved this happiness morebut a wedding that went down in history would undoubtedly be high profile. The thought of that sent dread to the pit of her stomach.
She reminded herself that most people harbored a profound desire to be remembered for something, to leave their mark on the world. At the very least they wanted their elusive five minutes of fame.
She'd already made her splash and a messy one at that. Not that anyone in Orchard Hill knew the melodramatic details of her former life. As much as she loved this town and the life she'd found here, she preferred her little secret to remain just that. Hers.
"I think we've done all we can do until morning," Chelsea said. The official wedding planner, she closed her laptop.
The others gathered up their things, too.
Leading the little entourage out the door, Chelsea said, "We have the church, the reception hall, the caterers, the gown and the guest list. We still have to talk about music, flowers, table favors and Madeline's vows, but we're in good shape. Don't you agree, Madeline?"
Summer wondered when Chelsea would notice that Madeline wasn't listening. She wasn't even following anymore. She'd stopped in the center of the courtyard and, as she often did, lifted her face to the dark sky.
"I want apple blossoms on the altar and no gifts," she said. "I want a simple wedding."
From across the courtyard, Chelsea said, "Apple blossoms on the altar will be lovely, and we can request no gifts. But a simple wedding with three hundred guests?"
"Two-hundred-ninety-eight," Madeline said, blinking up at the starless sky. "Riley spoke with his brothers. They don't see how they can possibly get out of their commitments on such short notice. They'll both be out of the country for the wedding."
"Two of the most eligible bachelors on the guest list aren't coming?" Abby asked.
"Shoot," Chelsea said at the same time.
It was all Summer could do to keep the relief from bubbling out of her. Kyle Merrick was Riley's older brother and had grown up in Bay City on Michigan's gold coast. He'd caused quite a stir when he'd gotten kicked out of his Ivy League college, but it was his expose of a professor's wrongdoing that gained him real notoriety. He'd accepted the formal apology from the university but turned his nose up at their invitation to return. With an attitude like his, it wasn't surprising he'd become a nationally acclaimed journalist. As a newspaperman, he'd likely caught her exclusive the day she'd made the front page of the society section of every major newspaper on the eastern seaboard.
He wasn't coming to his brother's wedding. Summer couldn't contain her happiness about that. It was all she could do to keep from performing cartwheels across the courtyard.
"Before you go," Madeline called. "I want all three of you to close your eyes."
Abby was the first to do as Madeline asked. Although Chelsea complained, she closed her eyes, too. Summer was still smiling when she finally acquiesced.
"Take a deep breath," Madeline continued in her quiet, lilting voice that for a moment seemed almost otherworldly. "Now, slowly release it and draw in another. Relax. Breathe. With your eyes closed, picture the man of your dreams. Do you see him? Maybe he's rugged and moody, or shirtless and sexy, or brainy and pensive."
An image sauntered unbidden across Summer's mind. No matter how many dates she accepted, or how much she enjoyed the attention of the rugged, earthy men of Orchard Hill, her fantasy man wasn't clad in faded jeans or chinos. He was loosening the button on a fine European suit.
Champagne taste on a beer budget.
"Believe your paths will cross, and they will," Madeline said. "I'm living proof. Now open your eyes."
All four of them opened their eyes at the same time. They were still blinking when lightning flashed across the horizon. As if in answer, the lights in the inn flickered.
"The universe just sent us a sign," Madeline whispered in awe. "Your lover is on his way."
Summer didn't know if Chelsea and Abby believed in Madeline's prediction, but they got in Chelsea's car without disputing it. Madeline had always been intuitive and romantic. Since she'd discovered wealthy architect Riley Merrick and had proceeded to fall in love with him, she'd become even more wise and serene. She believed in destiny and positive thoughts manifesting into positive results. And she believed the flickering lights were a sign.
Summer believed in the cantankerous electrical system in her inn. If that storm came any closer, a fuse would blow, and her lights would go out. There was nothing magical about it, she thought, after Madeline left, too. And the balmy breeze fluttering the loose gathers in her dress's bodice wasn't a prelude to a lover's touch.
It was just the wind.
Tall and muscular, the man crossing Summer's threshold watched her watching him. Although she couldn't see his eyes clearly, she saw his bold smile.
Bold with a capital B.
There were times when a woman didn't appreciate such over-confidence. This wasn't one of them.
His chest was bare. Why, she didn't know. He didn't seem to care that he was dripping on an impeccably tailored, white shirt lying on the floor. He kicked it aside with the toe of one worn boot. Summer knew there was something incongruous about his attire, but this was her dream, and she was enjoying it too much to rouse herself enough to analyze the inconsistencies.
Thunder rolled, ever closer, the sound moving through the darkness, approaching as rhythmically and steadily as the man. And what a mana long, lean paradigm of natural elegance, honed muscle and masculine intent.
Apparently unaffected by the fury of the storm, he smiled as he leaned over her. She held her breath as she waited to be awakened with his kiss.
Thunder cracked right outside the window, and Summer jerked awake. She blinked. Floundered.
Where was she?
Rain pelted the windowpanes, and thunder rumbled again. As she ran her hand over the cushion beside her, her memory gradually returned. She'd curled her feet underneath her at one corner of the settee in the central foyer to wait for the last guest to arrive. She must have fallen asleep. Had she been dreaming? The details of the fantasy escaped her, but there was a yearning in her belly that reminded her how long it had been since she'd known a lover's touch.
Darn Madeline and her silly predictions.
Summer squinted into the darkness. Darkness?
The lights had been on when she'd curled up with her magazine. The power must have gone out. Luckily she'd anticipated the likelihood of that and had put her candle lighter and hurricane lamp on the registration counter soon after Madeline, Chelsea and Abby left.
Now that she had her bearings, she padded barefoot to the desk where she easily located the lighter and removed the glass chimney from the hurricane lamp. She was in the process of lighting the wick when a fist pounded the door behind her.
She spun around, the lighter still flaming. Lightning blazed across the sky just then, outlining the dark figure of a man on her portico.
She reeled backwards.
"I'm here for the room," he said, water sluicing off his rain slicker.
K. Miller, the missing carpenter, she thought. Of course.
With her heart still racing, she took her finger off the lighter's trigger then turned down the wick of the lamp. "The power's out," she called, after replacing the globe.
"It went out with that last streak of lightning as I was pulling in," he said loudly enough to be heard through her front door. "I don't need electricity. All I need is a dry corner to crash until morning."
She unlocked the door. Leaving him space to enter, she slipped behind the counter where she normally greeted guests.
There was something oddly familiar about the way he stepped over the threshold. Which was strange, because she was sure she didn't know him.
Wet, his hair was the color of her favorite coffee, dark and rich and thick. His eyebrows were straight and slightly lighter than his hair, his eyes too shadowed for her to discern their color from here. A drop of water trailed down his cheek before getting caught on the whisker stubble darkening his jaw. He hung his jacket on the coat tree next to the door then started toward the desk.
Green. His eyes were green and so deep they shot a bolt of electricity straight through her. The atmosphere in the room thickeneddesire at first sight. He must have felt it, too, because he wasn't moving anymore, either.
"Are you the innkeeper?" he finally asked, dropping his duffel bag at his feet.
"Summer Matthews, yes. Welcome to The Orchard Inn."
Maybe it was the lamplight. Maybe it was the late hour and the rain, but her voice sounded throatier and somehow sultrier in her own ears. If one of them didn't put an end to this soon, clothes were going to start falling off.
"Everyone else arrived hours ago," she said, taking a stab at normalcy.
He delved into his back pocket. It took her a little longer than usual to realize that he was probably fishing for his credit card so he could register.
She pushed the leather-bound book toward him and said, "As long as the power is out, my computer is, too. If you'd just sign the registry, we can settle up in the morning."
He hurriedly wrote his name. Leaving the book open on the other side of the counter, he turned his attention back to her. That delicious warmth uncurled deep inside her again.
Well well well. Here she was having sexy thoughts about a rugged, earthy man who definitely was not wearing a two-hundred-dollar tie. There was hope for her yet.
"You're in Room Seven." She handed him a key, since the electronic key card wouldn't work during a power outage, the number seven dangling from a metal ring. "Upstairs, to your right, then all the way to the end of the hall."