Romance and old secrets beckon in this small North Carolina lake town.
When her parents die in a tragic accident, Molly Bennett and her siblings pull together to fulfill their parents’ dream of turning their historic Bluebell, North Carolina, home back into an inn. Staying in town would be temporary—three years at most—then they plan to sell the inn, and Molly can get back to chasing her own dreams.
Adam Bradford (aka bestselling author Nathaniel Quinn) is a reclusive novelist with a bad case of writer’s block. Desperate for inspiration as his deadline approaches, he travels to the setting of his next book, a North Carolina lake town. There, he meets his muse, a young innkeeper who fancies herself in love with his alter ego.
Molly and Adam strike up an instant friendship. When Molly finds a long-lost letter in the walls of her inn, she and Adam embark on a mission to find the star-crossed lovers and bring them the closure they deserve. But Adam has secrets he isn’t ready to share. Past and present collide as truths surface, and Molly and Adam will have to decide if love is worth trusting.
“Nobody does summer romance better than Denise Hunter.” —JULIE LESSMAN, award-winning author
- Full-length romance novel
- Includes Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
- First book in the Bluebell Inn Romance series
- Book One: Lake Season
- Book Two: Carolina Breeze (available May 2020)
- Book Three: Autumn Skies (available October 2020)
About the Author
Denise Hunter is the internationally published bestselling author of more than 25 books, including A December Bride and The Convenient Groom, which have been adapted into original Hallmark Channel movies. She has won The Holt Medallion Award, The Reader's Choice Award, The Carol Award, The Foreword Book of the Year Award, and is a RITA finalist. When Denise isn't orchestrating love lives on the written page, she enjoys traveling with her family, drinking green tea, and playing drums. Denise makes her home in Indiana where she and her husband are rapidly approaching an empty nest. To learn more about Denise, visit her website DeniseHunterBooks.com; Facebook: AuthorDeniseHunter; Twitter: @DeniseAHunter; Instagram: deniseahunter.
Read an Excerpt
Ten months later
Adam Bradford was nobody's idea of a hero. His eyes swept past his reflection in the rearview mirror of his rental car as he pulled up to the curb at the edge of downtown Bluebell.
He did have that crooked nose that seemed so popular on the heroes of romance novels, but he hadn't gotten it in a fistfight. He'd gotten it at the library while unshelving a difficult-to-reach hardcover copy of Moby Dick. And while he might be trim and fit, he did not sport rippling abs, a chiseled jaw, or even the requisite cleft chin. It wasn't just his ordinary looks either. He wasn't particularly adept with people, especially the fairer sex. The irony was not lost on him. But there were certain things at which he was extremely proficient. Writing — that went without saying — academics, research, planning. Adam was a planner and a plotter, but this time his preparations had completely backfired.
He looked at the majestic white house, likely turn-of-the-century, situated on a shady lawn about twenty feet off the busy sidewalk. There was no sign indicating it was an inn, but his app listed it as such, and he was getting desperate.
He exited the sedan, maneuvered around a small Dumpster, and followed a walkway past a dirty Bobcat and up to the massive porch. The front door, an old wooden behemoth, was open, a positive sign. He stepped over the threshold to the sudden sound of a circular saw.
There was a grand staircase directly ahead and, to the left of it, a tall mahogany stand that appeared to be a check-in desk. It was unmanned, however, and devoid of a bell. He opened his mouth to call out, but before he could utter a word a head peeked around the corner to the right of the staircase.
"Oh good, you're here. Help!" Dark hair swung over the slim shoulder of a woman he guessed to be in her early twenties.
She had the kind of natural beauty he associated with soap commercials, and he could easily picture her a few years ago, walking across a football field on homecoming night on the quarterback's arm.
He pushed his glasses up. "Excuse me?"
"Can you just come here and hold this? This stupid, dumb ..." She muttered the rest too quietly to be deciphered.
The wooden floor squawked under his brown leather Clarks. He found her sitting on the floor of a massive living room amongst wooden boards of various shapes and sizes; a random pile of nuts, bolts, and screws; and an oversized white instruction sheet, unfolded and tossed to the side. A large box featuring the photo of a gleaming wooden stand sat off to the side.
"If you could just hold this end while I finish this ... I think I'm finally headed in the right direction."
He knelt, doing as she asked.
"Thank God you're here. Grace bet me I couldn't figure it out, and she's due home from school in an hour. How was I to know the directions wouldn't be in English? And the pictures! Do you see those?" She jerked her chin toward the instructions. "It's like a kindergarten class project gone awry."
She tossed her hair over her shoulder, and the clean apple-y smell of it drifted his way. He looked at the picture on the box and tried to make sense of the few pieces she'd fastened together so far.
"I'm Molly, by the way, Levi's sister, but I guess you already know that."
He tried to process the simple sentence but was distracted by that scent. And the smudge of something white — chalk? — on her nose.
She blinked at him, obviously waiting for a response.
Heat flushed his neck. "Adam Bradford. Um, what language?"
"What?" She spared him a glance, her eyes returning to focus on the screw she was forcing into a too-small hole.
"The directions — what language?"
"Oh, they're in French. This is North Carolina, people. I mean, Spanish maybe. But French? I don't know a single soul who speaks it."
With his free hand he reached for the instructions. As he began reading them to himself it didn't take long to see they were going to have to start over.
"See what I mean?" she said. "Impossible."
When she finished with the screw he let loose of the board and scratched his chin. "I, ah, have good news and bad news."
She looked up at him, and he immediately got caught in her wide amber eyes.
"Let's have the good news first. I'm an optimist when I'm not under pressure to prove myself. And okay, there's a bet on the line. But it's only an ice cream cone. And my dignity. Mainly, my dignity." He noted flecks of color in her irises, ranging from milk chocolate tones to gold. All that intriguing complexity was framed by luscious dark lashes. Utterly mesmerizing.
"Um ... the good news?"
He cleared his throat, a hot wave of embarrassment sweeping into his face. "I — I can speak it. That is, I'm fluent. In French, I mean." Just not his mother tongue, apparently.
"Are you kidding me? That's awesome. What does it say?"
He gave her a look of warning. "That's the bad news. I'm afraid we'll have to start over."
Her face fell, turning her mouth down in an adorable pout. "Oh, doggonit. It took me forty-five minutes to get this far."
Could she be any cuter? Adam dragged his gaze from her lips. "It'll go fast, now that we have directions."
They made quick work of separating the pieces she'd assembled, being careful not to strip the screw holes. Then he set to work on the instructions.
"Read it out loud, in French," she said brightly.
Okay ... maybe she was the curious sort, an eager learner. He could respect that.
He did as she asked, translating internally as he went, and directed her through the beginning stages of the project. While the sketches were, indeed, a jumble of splotchy lines, the written instructions were clear and concise.
As they made quick work of the assembly Adam was barely cognizant of the background noises: intermittent hammering, voices coming from upstairs, and the saw he'd heard earlier, periodically making him raise his voice to be heard.
Molly held pieces in place while he worked in the screws and tightened bolts. She had small hands with long fingers that tapered down to neat, unpainted fingernails. She wore only a utilitarian silver watch that complemented her creamy skin.
She'd make a nice protagonist, he found himself thinking. Though she was delicate in size, he sensed the kind of inner strength imperative in a heroine. Creativity surged inside. It was the first time since he'd turned in Under the Starry Sky that he'd felt anything like the stirrings of inspiration. He wished for a pad and paper, because Adam Bradford had just found his muse.
* * *
Molly watched as Adam deftly put the last piece in place. The stand was becoming heavy and unwieldy, but she could see it would serve its purpose nicely. She needed the piece to stand just inside the entry, large enough to hold a welcoming bouquet of fresh flowers and a guest book. The Queen Anne style fit in with the home's décor without breaking their budget.
Adam flipped the stand upright, his biceps bunching beneath his button-up. He said something in French.
She looked at the stand. It appeared to be complete, and there were no parts left unused. "Is there more? We're all out of parts."
He ducked his head. "No. I said, 'That should do it.'"
"Oh, good." Her impulsive request that he read the directions aloud had come from a spontaneous desire to hear the language from a man's lips — she'd always thought French to be the premiere language of love. Her eyes drifted over his features. He had brown hair, neither short nor long, and a little messy, as if the wind had caught it on his way in.
The sharp turn of his freshly shaved jaw was his most masculine feature. A pair of scholarly glasses hid a pair of magnificent blue eyes. They were a less intense blue than her siblings' — the color of faded denim, jeans gone soft from many washings.
"I guess your dignity is salvaged after all," he said as he stood.
He helped her to her feet, his hands engulfing hers with warmth. He let go as soon as she got her balance. He wasn't particularly tall, but at five two she barely reached his chin.
She glanced at her watch. "And in the nick of time."
He lifted the stand with ease. "Where would you like me to put this?"
She directed him to the spot by the door, and he set it in place about an inch from the freshly painted wall.
It looked just as she had envisioned. "Perfect. Levi said you were a godsend, and for once he wasn't exaggerating."
"He did? I am? Who's Levi?" He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose in a gesture that was already becoming familiar. She hadn't noticed his glasses slipping, but it was probably just a nervous habit. He did seem a little flustered.
Wait a minute. Molly blinked. "My brother, Levi? The one who asked you over to help me ... He's no fan of my dignity, but he owed me one."
Adam shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about. I don't know your brother; I just came to see about getting a room."
Her lips parted as she froze. "Oh no. I'm so sorry! I've taken up half your afternoon."
"It's no problem at all."
"And I can't even give you a room. We're not open yet."
"I couldn't help but notice all the construction. Is this place turn-of-the-century?"
"That makes sense. The architecture bears out the trend of the time — reviving previous styles from the nineteenth century. I noticed some regional characteristics — the roofline, for example — but also some eclectic flair brought over from abroad. Tourism of the time was broadening the scope of architecture in the US."
Molly gave a bemused smile. "You must be an architect."
A flush crawled up his neck. "No, actually, I'm not. Don't mind me, I'm just full of useless information."
"You're probably a whiz at Trivial Pursuit. But back to our situation with the inn ... We were supposed to open this weekend but ... life happened."
"I was afraid of that. I've already checked every place I can think of. Everyone's full up."
"It's the start of Memorial Day weekend — our busiest of the year.
People book out months in advance — sometimes a whole year." "Well, that explains it. I actually booked a house on the lake, but there was a mistake with the reservation."
"I feel so bad that we can't accommodate you, especially after you went out of your way to help me."
She thought of the two completed rooms upstairs sitting clean and ready. It was true the kitchen wasn't finished, but they were only days away from completion. What could it hurt?
"Well, thanks anyway. It was nice meeting you, Molly." He was already moving toward the door. Someone had closed it while they were working on the stand, and the air was getting a little stuffy.
"Wait," she said. "Listen, maybe we can offer you a room for a night or two."
"I'm actually planning to stay in town a while — through the end of July probably."
"I see. Well, you could always move someplace else after the weekend. There'll be plenty of vacancies starting Monday night."
He shifted in the doorway. "Are you sure? I don't want to be in the way."
She gave him a wry look. "Have you looked around? We're going to be in your way."
His laugh was warm and mellow, pleasant. "At this point I'll be happy to have a roof over my head."
"There is a roof, but I can't guarantee there won't be people stomping across it. And saws buzzing, and hammering and whatnot.
But everything shuts down by suppertime, and mornings usually don't start till eight or nine. Can you live with that?"
He gave a nod. "I'm grateful. Thank you."
"It's the least I could do after all your help."
As if on cue Grace burst through the front door, backpack swinging from her thin shoulders, wearing her volleyball clothes. Molly had completely missed the sound of her loud car pulling up to the house.
"Hey," Grace said in greeting. Her long blonde ponytail swung as she looked to the space where the new piece of furniture now stood. Her face fell.
"You owe me a cone," Molly said smugly. "Double scoop with sprinkles."
"Fine. But I got an A on my math test, so you have to pay for pizza tonight."
"Well worth it. Great job, kid." Molly high-fived her sister, then shifted her attention to Adam. "Grace, meet our first guest, Mr. Bradford. This is my sister, Grace, straight out of volleyball practice."
He extended his hand. "It's just Adam. Nice to meet you."
Molly found his shy demeanor inordinately appealing. Maybe because it was so different from Dominic's arrogance.
"You too," Grace said before addressing Molly. "I thought we weren't open yet."
"We're not exactly."
"She took pity on me," Adam said. "There's no place else to stay."
Molly and Grace exchanged a look. Yes, their brother was going to throw a fit, but Molly was willing to risk it after Adam had been so generous with his time.
"Are you sure it's all right?" Adam had apparently picked up on the unspoken message passing between the sisters.
"Absolutely. Let's get you checked in." Molly stepped behind the counter and opened the registration page.
"Need some help with the system?" Grace joined her behind the counter, dropping her bag.
"I think I remember." Molly went through the check-in process step by step, taking Adam's credit card and having him sign in. She quoted what would be their regular rate and offered him 50 percent off for the inconvenience.
He thanked her as he pocketed his credit card.
Molly opened the antique key cabinet and withdrew the key for room seven. "Here you are. Let me show you around, then I'll take you to your room."
"I have to get my bag. I'll be right back."
Molly watched through the picture window as he strode across the porch and down the steps. He was dressed business casual in khakis and a blue shirt. She wondered what he was doing at Bluebell Lake alone and for so long. The area attracted mainly couples and families with children who enjoyed frolicking at the beach and riding Jet Skis across the twelve-hundred-acre lake.
Grace nudged her. "What's up with that?"
"What do you mean?"
"Levi's going to have a conniption when he finds out we have a guest."
Molly wiped the dust from the registration stand. "Oh well. This inn belongs to all of us, not just him." She watched as Adam withdrew a suitcase from a small blue sedan. "He kind of looks like that actor from The Notebook, don't you think?"
"Ryan Gosling? Are you kidding me?"
"Well ... at the end of the movie, when he was all lovelorn and kind of scruffy looking."
Grace snorted. "A nerdy Ryan Gosling maybe."
"He's not nerdy. Scholarly maybe." Molly didn't know why she felt the need to defend him. She watched him bump the car door shut and start making his way back to the house.
"I think somebody's smitten with our new guest."
Molly rolled her eyes. "You know my heart belongs, now and forevermore, to Nathaniel Quinn."
"Most women fall in love with the heroes of romance novels, not the authors."
"Book boyfriends aren't real; authors are." Molly waggled her head at Grace and walked away.CHAPTER 2
Let's start with this side — it's not under construction." Molly beamed at Adam as he entered the foyer, her smile so warm and bright it could probably burn off the morning fog. He noticed a shallow dimple in her left cheek. "It's my first tour, so you'll have to be patient with me. Little warning: sometimes I talk too much."
Adam hitched his laptop bag higher on his shoulder. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
"I'll show you the library first. The dining room won't be of much use to you anyway. Where are you from, Mr. Bradford?"
"Adam, please. I'm from New York. I flew in early this morning, and I've been trying to find a vacancy ever since."
"Well, your search is over. You're a little ways from home."
"Yes, I am." He struggled for something else to say and came up empty.
Molly seemed awfully young to be running an inn. He followed her to the left of the stand and down a short hall. This part of the house seemed untouched by the construction. It featured the high ceilings of a bygone area, original mahogany woodwork, and squeaky wood floors.
"So what's the history behind this place?" he asked.
"Well, as I said before, it was built in 1905," she said over her shoulder. "Bluebell's first inn. Early on it became a stagecoach stop, and it's been many things over the years, including a saloon, if you can believe it. It was even a post office for a while. In the sixties — the lake's real heyday — other hotels opened, but the Bluebell Inn remained the place to stay."
"Unfortunately, the area declined in popularity in the seventies, and the inn was purchased by the governor's family and made into a summer home. They lived here until my parents bought it."
"If only the walls could talk," he said. "I'll bet they'd have some good stories."
Her smile widened. "I know, right? The last innkeeper's wife kept a journal, though, and we have it right here in our library. Fascinating stuff and as close to talking walls as we're going to get, I'm afraid."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lake Season"
Copyright © 2019 Denise Hunter.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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