Stephanie Fitzpatrick wanted out of the spotlight after her pro-golfer husband was caught on camera cheating. But when she returns to Michigan for a job interview and some much-needed R&R, a fib told by her well-meaning sister has her looking for a temporary fiancé, or she can kiss her new start good-bye. Desperate to hide the truth, she goes to the one man who can help—her former best friend.
Miles Masterson is relieved to see the Checkerberry Inn beginning to thrive once more. Not only does it ease his mind about his grandmother’s financial future, but also about his decision to finally escape town. But then one all grown up and sexy as hell friend from the past shows up needing rescued. Now the temptation to change the "temporary" arrangement into something more is making it harder to think about leaving.
Each book in the Checkerberry Inn series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Her Unexpected Detour
Book #2 Her Unexpected Engagement
Book #3 Her Unexpected Hero
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Her Unexpected Engagement
A Checkerberry Inn Novel
By Kyra Jacobs, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Kyra Jacobs
All rights reserved.
Stephanie Fitzpatrick eased her rental car onto I-94 and headed due west. Hot weather be damned, all four windows were down in anticipation of the one thing that always reminded her of home — the scent of Michigan pines. It was barely detectable this close to Detroit Metro Airport, but the hint of it in the air urged her on. When at last the scent grew stronger, she drew in as deep a breath as possible and felt nostalgia wash over her.
Not the Honey, I'm home, what's for dinner? kind of home, or the So I guess you know by now I'm having an affair with Seth's wife? type. No, the real kind of home, where family came above all else, and no man in their right mind would dream of crossing any of the Johnson girls.
The kind of home she grew up in and should have known better than to leave so far behind. Her reward? The So I guess you know by now I'm having an affair with Seth's wife? home. Good thing her pro golfer hubby Liam wasn't such an arrogant jerk that he'd go around sucking face with any Botox-filled bimbos at his nationally televised tournaments, or Stephanie might well have ended up with a lifetime's supply of nationwide humiliation.
Oh, that's right. He was that big of a jerk.
And even now, six months after the infamous "PGA Kiss," a handful of southern Florida's infamous paparazzi were still camped out on their front lawn. Strike that — her front lawn. Liam hadn't bothered to come back. Which proved that, total jerk or not, he wasn't stupid. She'd never have married him if he were. The only mystery left was when exactly had she taken on the role of resident idiot?
The sounds of Fall Out Boy interrupted her mental stewing. One hand on the wheel and both eyes on the road ahead, Stephanie tapped her Bluetooth earpiece. "Yes, I got off the plane. No, I didn't turn around and hop on the next one back."
Her younger sister Livvy burst into laughter on the other end of the line. "Wow, and you even lived to tell about it? Go figure. Hmm, seems like you should be saying something else to me right about now."
Stephanie gripped the wheel tighter. "You were right," she muttered.
"What's that, darling? I couldn't quite hear you."
"You were right, okay? Man, cut your sister some slack, will ya?"
"Fine." Livvy's laughter subsided, and when she spoke next, it was in a softer voice. "You holding up okay?"
Stephanie took a deep breath and wished it would be enough to wash away the remnants of her most recent panic attack. She never should have agreed to fly. Driving would have been much safer — far less public interaction and worrying about effective disguises. "I'll live."
"You'd better. We paid a pretty penny for this little mini-vacation of yours."
A car flew by on her right, followed by a second with flashing lights on her left. Welcome to Michigan, where the center lane is your safest bet ... "Your idea, not mine."
"Of course it was. If we'd waited on you to decide to come back, it might have been another year or two. Good thing I stumbled across this job opportunity for you to keep you from stalling any longer than you already have."
Though Livvy's tone was teasing, Stephanie knew the concern that lay beneath the surface. Her family had wanted to swoop in and rescue her the minute the news story broke. When she'd requested they stay put, they'd grudgingly complied ... and grumbled about it every step of the way. But Stephanie hadn't wanted to be coddled, hadn't wanted her house full of nay-sayers and I told you sos. Even now, she wasn't sure if she was truly up to the task.
"I need this job, Liv."
"I know, sweetheart. Which is why I made sure to really talk you up when I bumped into Chris this week. He can't wait to meet you, says with the experience you'll bring to the table they should finally be able to clear these last few hurdles. Just think about how many kids' lives could be changed!"
Stephanie sighed. The camps she helped found in Florida had been a huge success, giving children from low-income families a chance to try a variety of organized sports. Some, for the first time in their lives. Leaving that job had been nearly as difficult as losing her marriage.
"That would be so wonderful," she said. "You really think I have a chance?"
"Are you kidding me? You're a shoo-in. Especially with the glowing recommendation I gave you. And I should probably give you a heads-up that — Oh, hang on."
Stephanie shook her head. Livvy breezed through days at a hundred miles an hour, always looking ahead, never looking back. Stephanie had been that way, too, once upon a time. But then came college. And Liam. So while Livvy's boyfriends tended to last about as long as her pet goldfish — which wasn't long, as she seemed to be at the pet store buying a replacement nearly every week — Stephanie had settled down in anticipation of starting a family of her own.
A family that'd never come to fruition.
"Sorry," Livvy said. "Boss needs me. I'll call you later. You know where you're going?"
Stephanie blinked away images of toilets and belly-up pet fish. "Um, not really, but I plunked the address you sent into my GPS app so the annoying computer lady is giving me directions."
"Good. Big yellow building, lots of windows, you can't miss it. I'll text Becka and let her know you made it okay, you just keep your eyes on the road. Because so help me, if you text and die before our lunch next week I will totally kill you."
"If I text and die you'll kill me?" Stephanie laughed. "I'm not back in our home state for half an hour and already feeling the love."
"Don't smear your car all over the median and I'll promise to go easy on you. Deal?"
Stephanie glanced toward the space separating eastbound I-94 from its westbound twin. A mini-forest stood at its center, dappled shade at its base. There would be no smearing here, only rental car pretzels around thick tree trunks. "Uh, yeah. Deal."
"Good. I should be done with the boss by the time you get there. Call me after you get settled in, let me know how you're doing, all right?"
Her throat tightened from the concern in Livvy's voice. "I will."
"You'll be fine, I promise."
Confidence rang clear in her sister's voice, and a pang of envy stabbed at Stephanie's heart. She'd been confident once, too. Thriving on attention, living life to its fullest. But this spring's disaster with Liam had stolen that from her. All of it. Some days, she wondered if he'd stolen so much she might never be whole again.
And it scared the heck out of her.
Lord, she needed this job. It was the perfect excuse to get her life back on track, give her a sense of purpose. Prove to herself that she can survive anything life dishes out, and do it on her own.
"I sure hope so, Livvy. I sure hope so."
"Of course you will. A little time away from Florida and all those loony photographers, and you'll be back to the old you in no time. Oh, and by the way? I might have told Chris that you were totally over Liam. And engaged. Okay, we'll talk more later see ya bye."
Stephanie's earpiece beeped twice, leaving her in stunned silence, white-knuckling the steering wheel.
* * *
Miles Masterson checked his watch for the fourth time in thirty minutes and frowned. Damn, another hour yet to go. Outside, the sun was bright, the wind was minimal, and a night with Amber "Channel 10" Jensen lay before him, full of possibilities. It'd taken him weeks to turn her head, let alone convince her to check out the newest Chinese joint in town. Now all he had to do was lay on the charm and hope their date extended well beyond the fortune cookies.
His cell phone went skittering across the top of his desk, bringing him back to the here and painfully boring now. He swiped it up, eyeballed the vaguely familiar number displayed on his caller ID, and leaned back in his office chair as he answered. "Masterson."
"Miles, it's Freddie. Did I catch you at a good time?"
Miles straightened in his chair. It'd been months since he'd put that call in to his headhunter buddy, long before his cousin's new flame had arrived on the scene and helped bring their sleepy inn out of the red and into the black. "Yeah, man. What's up?"
"Sorry it's taken a while to get back with you, but the type of jobs out there for guys with your background and qualifications aren't exactly a dime a dozen. And I'm not gonna send you crap leads, either."
"I appreciate that." Miles grinned. He and Freddie went way back, all the way to kindergarten. When it came time to go to college, though, Freddie's old money family told him to pick any school he wanted, so long as it was Ivy League. Miles's family, who epitomized "Middle Class America," offered to go halfsies with him at Central Michigan. Freddie was a good guy, though, and never pointed out the differences in their higher education experiences. He'd returned to Mount Pleasant to set up a successful headhunting shop, while Miles was still trying to get the hell out of Dodge.
"And you'll appreciate this more. I finally got a solid lead for you — six figures, full pension, opportunities for advancement. Techworks International is the company. They're up and coming in the telecom industry."
Miles whistled. "Sounds like a dream, Freddie. What's the catch?"
"No catch, man."
A couple appeared just outside Miles's office window, and the sound of laughter drifted in through the Checkerberry Inn's aging windows. He knew without looking who the musical sound belonged to: Kayla Daniels, which meant his lovestruck cousin, Brent, couldn't be far off. And if they were together, more laughter was sure to follow ... and now was not the time for distractions.
With a growl Miles stood and crossed the room to give the mini blinds a solid tug shut. He was happy that Brent had finally rediscovered love, truly he was. Hell, he'd been the one to help push the lovebirds together this spring. But couldn't they stand outside someone else's window looking all cute and starry-eyed while they shamelessly flirted with each other?
"Come on, Freddie. Great benefits, good pay — there's got to be a catch."
"I'm telling you, Miles, this job has your name written all over it. And even better? It's down in Columbus. You'll finally be able to get out from under that inn of your grandmother's, but still be within a few hours drive of everyone."
And there it was — a buckeye-laced catch.
Miles dragged a hand through his hair. Sure, he was burned-out at the inn. Had been itching to leave it and the constant worrying about whether it was going to sink or swim far behind him. But Columbus, Ohio?
"Wow, man. I don't know. I was hoping to stay a little closer. You know, in case Ruby needs me."
"Ruby's got Brent working for her now. And that cute girlfriend of his — she's helping out there now too, right?"
"Yeah, but neither of them know anything about bookkeeping." Which was only partially true, but Miles wasn't going to admit that. Brent had run his own construction contracting business up until this spring, and Kayla was tech-savvy enough that she'd be able to keep the accounting software up to date. But still ...
"Then Google 'Mount Pleasant accounting services' and find someone who does. It's not like you're irreplaceable."
Miles grimaced. Something told him his grandmother would disagree. Then again, she would understand his decision to move on, wouldn't she?
Yes, he decided after a moment. Ruby would support him no matter what he did. It was Brent who would give him hell for leaving. But Brent liked routine, familiarity. Miles, on the other hand, was dying for a change. And Freddie was handing him one on a silver platter. He'd be a fool not to take it.
"Right. I'm interested. So, what's our next step?"
"Great! Steven Rozario, their CEO, will be glad to hear it. He's requested a phone interview between him, you, and me on Monday at four. If that'll work for you, I'll email you some information on the company, so you can start preparing for the call."
"I'll make it work. Thanks for everything, man."
"You bet. Call me if you have any questions. Otherwise, I'll talk to you on Monday."
Miles hung up, then dropped back into his office chair and scanned the space around him. This office had been his second home since graduation. It was where he'd cut his teeth on finances, played accountant, payroll clerk, marketing coordinator — you name it, if it had to do with anything other than manual labor here at the inn, he'd done it. And now, at long last, that was finally all about to change.
It wasn't that he disliked the inn, or hated working for his grandmother. But the profits had been slim to none too often in the past, and keeping the old beauty afloat during the post 9/11 economic slump had taken its toll on him. And on Ruby. Every day she got a little older, a little more frail. But Brent was the responsible grandson, and he was on her payroll now as well. That meant the responsibility of watching out for their beloved Ruby could now officially be handed off, and no one would be able to misinterpret Miles's overprotective ways for her anymore.
He suddenly felt a great weight lifted from his shoulders. He stood, drew in a deep breath, and made an executive decision to cut out of work early. For years he'd put his time in and then some. To say he'd earned a little comp time would be an understatement.
Besides, what would Ruby do if he left early — fire him?
With a smile on his face and feeling lighter than he had in years, Miles headed for the hall. Halfway to the lobby, a ping sounded from his phone. An email was in his inbox, the subject Techworks Info. He opened it with a flick of his thumb, rounded the corner, and caught his foot on an unexpected object. Unable to stop his forward momentum, Miles tripped over a pile of gaudy pink luggage and landed painfully on his right side. His cell went skidding down the hall as a startled squeak rang out from the luggage's owner.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry! I stopped to adjust my grip and suddenly you were there and ... and, well, there just wasn't enough time to react."
An outstretched hand came into his peripheral vision. With a grimace, Miles pushed himself into a sitting position. This was just one out of a hundred — no, a thousand — things he wouldn't miss when he left the inn: awkward encounters with flighty guests. He took a deep breath and looked toward the responsible party, ready to lie that it was quite all right and he was just fine. But then his gaze locked onto a ball cap-wearing, heart-shaped face with auburn brows drawn together above dark, oversized sunglasses.
Recognition hit him like a freight train. No cap or sunglasses in the world could keep him from recognizing his childhood best friend. The one girl who'd unknowingly set the bar for all those who came after, and set it so high that Miles had given up trying to find someone able to reach it.
Stephanie froze. She knew those melted chocolate eyes nearly as well as she knew her own. Had laughed, cried, giggled, and shouted at them countless times when they were kids. But the boyish charm of the face around them was gone, replaced by strong cheekbones and a jawline dusted with a five o'clock shadow. Had they kept in touch over the years, his change in appearance might not have been as noticeable.
Correction — had he kept in touch over the years. She'd made the effort a handful of times that first year after she and Liam had married and moved to Florida. Tried reaching out on his birthday and Christmas the year after. But the response she got from Miles was always the same — nothing. A decade of resentment at being blown off threatened to resurface, and she retracted her offered hand before it went and did something crazy all on its own ... like smack the bejeezus out of him.
"Miles? W-what are you doing here?"
"Well, unlike some people, I was unlucky enough to grow roots in this lovely town." Grimacing, he eased his way back to standing and pressed a hand to the small of his back. "Question is, what are you doing here?"
That was a good question ... and one she planned to take up with her younger sister shortly. First the fib about her being engaged — something she wasn't dealing with quite yet — then sending Stephanie here, knowing darned well she'd likely cross paths with Miles? What was that girl up to?
"I came up for a ... business meeting ... I have on Monday. My family talked me into a week-long visit." She narrowed her eyes. "Had I known it'd be here, though, I might have passed."
Excerpted from Her Unexpected Engagement by Kyra Jacobs, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2016 Kyra Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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