Neighbors always ready to help, a laid-back pace--former model Brenna Lamont needs everything that once made her leave her hometown. To help her pregnant sister Addie, Brenna is back to run the family store, Chocolate Haven, and figure out how to start over. But she just can't make the one-of-a-kind Lamont fudge…or make herself really fit in. And with handsome restaurateur River Maynard causing her troubles to boil over big time, can Brenna risk going after what she really wants?
River already has his hands full helping his ailing foster mother save her ranch for troubled children. He's got no time for anything but reality and hard choices. But somehow, a daily dose of Lamont chocolates is helping his mom feel better. And Brenna's kindness and warmth is making him hungry for an unexpected new dream only she and Benevolence's magical sweetness can make come true . . .
Praise for Shirlee McCoy's Apple Valley Novels
"A delicious treat. Don't miss a visit to Apple Valley!" --Emily March, New York Times bestselling author
"Sweet as pie." --Publishers Weekly
"A wonderful, warmhearted story." --RT Book Reviews
About the Author
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By Shirlee McCoy
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Shirlee McCoy
All rights reserved.
There it was. Just the way Brenna Lamont had left it: Benevolence, Washington, in all its small-town glory. Porch lights glittering in the darkness. Pristine yards and beautiful old trees lining quiet streets. The post office at the north edge of town. The library tucked neatly into a large lot on Main Street. From her vantage point in the parking lot of Benevolence Baptist Church, Brenna couldn't make out the details of the buildings, the yards, or even the row of brownstones that housed her family's chocolate shop. She didn't need to see the details to know what they were. She'd spent seventeen years in Benevolence. Not long by some people's standards. By Brenna's, it had seemed like an eternity.
And now it was going to be an eternity more.
Granddad needed her help at Chocolate Haven. Just for a few weeks. That's what he'd said. She knew how these things worked, though. A few weeks would turn into a month which would turn into more months. One day, she'd blink and realize she'd been working in her family chocolate shop for a lifetime. She'd be an old woman puttering around in sturdy white sneakers, a cat T-shirt, and elastic-waist polyester pants. Probably red. Or, maybe, blue.
Blue was more her style.
Yep. She'd be an old lady in white shoes, blue pants, and a cat shirt, nibbling chocolate and getting chubbier by the minute. The best part? She wouldn't give a crap that her hips were as wide as a houseboat or that her tummy threatened to break her waistband. There'd be no one to impress. No one to please. Just hundreds of customers who only cared about getting another taste of the famous Lamont family fudge.
The thought almost made her smile.
The thing was, she'd needed to return to Benevolence as much as her grandfather had needed her to return. Probably more. Sure, she'd hemmed and hawed and put on a good show — she couldn't make chocolate, she had a busy schedule, she didn't want to leave home for very long. She'd told at least a dozen lies to her family, and she felt bad about it. She really did, but she hadn't wanted them to know how desperate she was.
And, she was desperate.
Her family knew that she and her ex-fiancé had parted ways. They knew she wasn't sorry about it. What they didn't know was that Brenna had nothing left. Not the upscale clothing boutique in Manhattan that she'd worked so hard to establish. Not the fancy penthouse she'd shared with Dan. Not the beautiful furniture and expensive art work that had decorated it. Not the sporty Corvette. Not the money, either, and that's all she really needed.
The rest of the stuff? They were Dan's style, his choices, his preferences. The money? It would have been nice to have a couple of nickels to rub together. Brenna did not. Dan had cleaned out their bank accounts. He'd also embezzled funds from his business partner. Then he'd skipped town with his girlfriend and left Brenna to clean up the mess he'd made.
"Bastard," she muttered.
A magpie answered, his warning trill filling the silence.
She ignored it and the hollow ache of disappointment in her stomach. Disappointment in herself as much as in Dan, because she wasn't sure if she'd ever loved the guy. He'd been there at a time when she'd needed someone. She'd liked him. He'd been fun and exciting and complimentary.
Love should be so much more than that.
She had no idea, and she had no plan to find out. One attempt at happily-ever-after was enough. Now, she just wanted to get herself back on track. Returning to Benevolence would give her an opportunity to do that.
If it didn't drive her absolutely insane first.
If her family didn't.
She loved them.
God knew she did, but her mother was hell-bent on making sure her three daughters were all happily married. Her grandfather wanted them to live in Benevolence and work at the family chocolate shop. Her sisters ...
They just wanted the best for Brenna.
And, Brenna wanted the best for them.
That's why she hadn't told them everything. They'd both found happiness, and she didn't want to ruin it by telling them how much her life sucked.
The night after Brenna had found out Dan was cheating on her, she and Adeline and Willow had opened a bottle of wine and planned exactly how she was going to kick him out of her life. They'd gotten just tipsy enough to do a bonding ritual, lighting a white candle and swearing that they would stand beside each other. No matter what.
Of course, none of them had known just how deep Dan's betrayal had gone. By the time Brenna had realized it, Willow had gone back to Seattle and her law practice. Adeline was busy planning a wedding. Brenna hadn't had the heart to tell them the truth.
Or, maybe, she hadn't had the courage.
Maybe she hadn't wanted to be the Lamont family failure, the one everyone had to worry about, the one most desperately in need of rescue.
She frowned, a cool breeze ruffling her hair. There was a hint of fall in the air, a tinge of burning firewood. Someone in town had a wood-burning stove going. Late August and already people were preparing for winter. Not too many weeks from now and there'd be ice hockey and skiing, snowman building contests and ice skating on the frozen pond in the Andersons' field. Hot chocolate after a day spent outdoors. As a kid, Brenna had enjoyed those things. Now — at twenty-seven — all she wanted was quiet, peace, a chance to think about where she wanted to go next, what she wanted to do with her life.
Her cell phone buzzed and she snagged it from her purse, eyeing the number that flashed across the screen. Her mother. Calling for the fiftieth time. Janelle had probably readied Brenna's old room, smoothed the flowery sheets and bright green blanket, swept dust bunnies out from under the ancient twin bed in some vain hope that Brenna would change her mind and decide to stay there.
That wasn't going to happen.
Secrets were easy to keep when you lived thousands of miles from the people who cared about you. They weren't as easy to keep when you lived in the same town. Living in the same house would make keeping them nearly impossible.
And, Brenna was going to keep her secrets.
She didn't want her family's pity, and she didn't want them pooling their funds trying to help her out. She just wanted time to get her life back together. Whatever that meant.
Brenna pressed the phone to her ear and leaned her hip against the hood of the 1977 Chrysler New Yorker she'd bought from a former neighbor. Two-hundred dollars. A steal considering it had only had ten-thousand miles on it. "Hello?"
"You finally decided to answer," her mother replied.
"I was driving."
"Where are you now?"
"Stopping to stretch my legs." The truth, because she'd told one too many lies in the past few months, and they weren't sitting well on her conscience.
"You should find a hotel. Spend the night. It's not safe for a young woman to —"
"Don't worry, Mom," Brenna cut her off. "I have everything planned for the night."
"What hotel are you staying at? It's not one of those seedy motels is it? The kind that have roaches and bed bugs and —"
"It's clean." Brenna cut in again.
"You don't have to be short with me, Brenna. I'm your mother. I have a right to be concerned."
"I wasn't being short. I was just making a statement."
"I wish you would have let me fly out and drive across country with you," Janelle continued, ignoring Brenna's comment. "Twenty-five-hundred miles is a long way for a young woman to travel alone."
"I've traveled alone dozens of times, Mom. Besides, I'm almost there, and everything has been fine. I've been fine." There she went. Another lie. She wasn't fine. Not really. She hadn't been since she'd realized that Dan had cleaned out their mutual bank accounts, taken all of their stuff, and skipped town. Skipped the country, actually. The best that the police could figure, he was somewhere in Thailand, living the high-life off of other people's money.
"You're always fine, dear," Janelle said, an edge to her voice. "I don't suppose you've changed your mind about staying at the house?"
"The apartment will be more convenient." Short. Simple. To the point.
"Right, and you're all about convenience. Which is why you drove here instead of doing the rational thing and buying a plane ticket. Call me when you arrive. I made chicken potpie. It's in the fridge at the apartment." She hung up before Brenna could thank her.
"Great. Perfect," Brenna muttered. "You pissed her off before you even laid eyes on her."
She tossed the purse and the phone into the car and shut the door. No way did she want to answer another phone call from well-meaning family. Her neck was stiff, her shoulders tense. She'd been driving for hours and she was ready for a break.
She'd been ready for a break before the drive.
Two jobs waitressing so she could pay the rent on an efficiency apartment? Countless meetings with Dan's former business partner, lawyers, police? A twenty-five-hundred-mile drive across country to help her family, because she'd been too damn proud to admit she didn't have the money for a plane ticket? Those things made a person tired, and Brenna was not just that. She was to-the-bone weary.
She also wanted a cigarette the way other women might want chocolate or a slice of cake.
You've got an addictive personality, babe, she could almost hear her imbecile ex-fiancé's voice, see his smarmy, irritating grin. And I thank God every day that I'm what you're addicted to.
"Bullsh —" She stopped herself just short of saying it.
She was standing in the parking lot of Benevolence Baptist Church, for God's sake!
And she had a niece or nephew on the way.
She didn't want to fill little ears with words she'd rather not hear a tiny kid say.
Yeah, she'd given up swearing the day her sister Adeline had called and told her she was pregnant. She'd given up cigarettes the same day. That had been five weeks and six days after she'd found out exactly what kind of ass Dan was. Not that she'd been counting the days. Much.
"Water under the bridge," she said, as if there were anyone around to hear.
Leaves rustled, the sound following her across the parking lot and around the side of the church.
The cemetery was there, tombstones dotting a gentle knoll that looked out over the town. A pretty little place to be buried. Her father had said that to her once. She'd never forgotten it.
Weird how things stuck with a person. Even after all these years, she could see her father's craggy face, his bright blue eyes, hear him telling her how lucky they were to live in a town like Benevolence.
She'd never felt lucky.
She'd felt different. A square peg in a round hole.
While her sisters were outside playing with friends, she'd been inside, her head in a book, her imagination carrying her deep into the stories. She'd loved reading the way Adeline loved numbers, the way Willow loved the chocolate shop.
Her father had understood that about her.
He'd been the one to sneak books into her room late at night. A new one I saw at the library, Bren, he'd whisper, and then he'd tuck a little flashlight under her pillow, kiss her head, and leave the room. He'd always made sure to close the door so Janelle wouldn't see the glow of the light held under Brenna's thick blanket, wouldn't hear the soft rustle of pages turning late into the night.
He'd loved his wife. There was no doubt about that, but he'd loved his girls, too, and they'd all loved him. Somehow, when he'd been alive, it had all worked — the diverse personalities, the differing interests, the three girls who were growing into young women.
Things had changed when he'd died.
The before and after? They were as memorable as anything else.
If he'd lived long enough, he might have given Brenna some sage piece of advice that would have kept her from running off at seventeen and taking a job she'd hated just so she could be free of Janelle's expectations. He hadn't, and Brenna had been hell-bent on getting out of town and away from her mother.
Not Janelle's fault. Not really. Brenna had been the daughter most like her, and she'd wanted desperately to mold her into something great. She'd nagged about posture, about skin, about hair and nails. She'd complained about Brenna's lack of friends, about how many books she had stashed under her bed.
You could be so popular if you'd put a little effort into it.
Brenna hadn't wanted to be popular. She hadn't wanted to disappoint Janelle either, so she'd done the only thing she could. She'd left town.
And now she was back.
She didn't mind nearly as much as she thought she would.
She'd traveled the world as a fashion model. She'd been a lot of places, experienced a lot of things, but nothing could compare to the solitude of this place, the beauty of the old cemetery in the moonlight. She might not know anything else — like what she was going to do with the rest of her life, how she was going to be something other than a New York fashion icon, a store owner, a doctor's fiancé — but she did know that there was no place in the world like this quiet little bluff behind the church.
Brenna reached the cemetery gate and strode through it, ignoring the sadness that nudged at the back of her mind. She'd been here many times, visiting the graves of her father and grandmother, listening to the wind rustle in the evergreen trees, hearing whispers of the past in the soft summer breezes and cold winter winds.
Shaded by mature pines and a giant willow, the Lamont family plot sat apart from the rest of the graveyard, a huge marble angel standing in the middle of it. Brenna walked past it, heading to the newest graves. Her grandmother's, sheltered under the willow, a bench just beside it. Her father's a few yards away. Someone had placed flowers on both.
A pretty little place to be buried.
Yeah. It was, but she didn't think her father had planned to be interred there quite so soon. He'd had big plans for his life and for his family. He'd sit at the dinner table every night, talking about trips that he wanted to take, new recipes he wanted to develop, books he'd wanted to read. He'd been full of life, a bookworm and a chocolatier, a guy who'd loved tradition as much as he'd loved adventure. He'd been a little bit of each one of his daughters. Maybe that's why he'd understood them all so well.
Brenna settled onto the bench, the coolness of the stone seeping through her jeans. Eventually, she'd have to go to the apartment, drag in her suitcase, let herself get used to the idea that she was home for a while.
Was it really that? After all this time?
She didn't know, but she guessed she'd find out, because she was here, and she had nowhere else to go. She'd given up the lease on the efficiency, said good-bye to the few friends she had left in New York, and left without a backward glance.
She ran a hand over her short-cropped hair, imagining Janelle's reaction when she saw it. She'd be horrified. Or slightly disapproving. Or outspokenly and overly supportive.
Things could go any of the three ways, because Janelle really tried to be the kind of mother her daughters needed. She just missed the boat. A lot.
"Things don't always work out the way we've planned. Right?" she said to the angel statue.
"They sure don't," someone responded, the masculine voice so surprising, she nearly tumbled sideways off the bench.
Leaves crackled, a twig snapped, and a dark shadow appeared in front of her. Tall. Broad shouldered. A man, moonlight gleaming in his dark hair.
She screamed so loudly she almost expected the angel to take flight.
It didn't, but she sure did, her head slamming into willow branches, leaves falling all around her as she darted behind the tree and raced back through the cemetery.
She was pretty damn certain her feet never touched the ground.
* * *
Scaring the hell out of a woman wasn't cool. Chasing her through a cemetery to apologize? Even worse.
Both beat getting tossed in jail.
Which could happen if River Maynard didn't convince the lady he'd scared that he was harmless. Tough to do when he was wandering around a cemetery in the middle of the night.
Of course, she'd been wandering around in the cemetery too.
He'd say they were even, but he figured she was a local, and the police would be a lot more likely to listen to her side of things. He also figured that she had a better track record in town than he did. Not a farfetched assumption since River had been one of the worst things to happen to Benevolence in its hundred-and-twenty-year history.
Not his words.
Those were the words of the sheriff who'd been working in Benevolence when River was a teen. River couldn't blame the guy for feeling that way. Breaking and entering. Petty theft. Arson. River had even taken the radio from a police car that had been left unlocked in the church parking lot. He'd been fifteen at the time. Just young enough that the sheriff had taken pity on him. Otherwise, he'd have been tossed right back into the juvenile detention center his foster parents had pulled him out of.
Dillard and Belinda Keech had been taking in troubled teens for nearly a decade when they'd come for River. They'd heard about him through friends who worked with child protective services. A week later, they'd signed him out of juvenile detention and brought him to Freedom Ranch, a sprawling property right on the edge of a little town called Benevolence. A place for at-risk kids. That's what River's case worker had said.
Excerpted from Sweet Surprises by Shirlee McCoy. Copyright © 2016 Shirlee McCoy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Real decent and well written story, but ended abruptly. And have to wait a year for the next sister and her story to find out what happens at the end of this one? No thanks.
Sweet Surprises by Shirlee McCoy is the 2nd book in her Home Sweet Home series. I enjoy the setting of this series, small town Benevolence, home to the family store, Chocolate Haven. The Lamont family patriarch, the three Lamont girls Grandfather, has been unable to run the store due to health issues. The first book in this series is about Adeline, who is now happily married and pregnant, so it is now Brenna's turn to return home to Benevolence, and help her grandfather run Chocolate Haven. What no one knows is that Brenna is in dire straits, with her fiancée running off with another woman, and taking every penny of her money. Forced to close her successful business and leave her lifestyle behind, Brenna heads home determined not to let her family know the truth. River Maynard, the male MC, has returned home to Benevolence to help his foster mother recover from a stroke and help keep her ranch running. River, who has a successful restaurant business in another state, wants to convince Belinda to sell the ranch and come live with him. River is not happy with all the other "guests" living at the ranch when he arrives. Belinda wants to help the homeless teens, but River wants them gone. Belinda's desire for chocolate brings these two together. Will they work through their mistrust of others and develop a friendship or even love? Can these two who ran from Benevolence at one time, be able to remain and plant roots? Along with this second chance romance, there is a mystery involving vandals targeting Brenna and Chocolate Haven. Sweet Surprises was a sweet (no pun intended) story, with a very likable couple. There were some very interesting characters, especially those living at Belinda's ranch. Some reviewers found the ending a bit abrupt and it was obvious that it left things open for the third book in this trilogy. If you enjoy small town romances, family atmosphere, sweet likeable couple, a few quirky characters, as well a nice story line then I recommend that you pick up Sweet Surprises, or the first in this series, Sweet Haven and read about the Lamont Family in Benevolence, Washington.
Sweet Surprises by Shirlee McCoy is the 2nd book in her Home Sweet Home series. Brenna Lamont is returning home to Benevolence, a small town in Washington. Brenna is coming home to help her grandfather run Chocolate Haven. What no one knows is that Brenna is in dire straits, with her fiancée running off with another woman, and taking every penny of her money. Forced to close her successful business and lifestyle, and unable to pay bills, Brenna heads home determined not to let her family know the truth. All they know is she was dumped by her fiancée. River Maynard, our hero, is now home helping his foster mother recover from a stroke and help keep her ranch running. River, who has a successful restaurant business in another state, wants to convince Belinda to sell the ranch and come live with him. There are a number of others who live with Belinda, helping her, whom River is not really happy about. They all are either homeless or wayward teenagers who have major issues, which Belinda overlooks, as she gives them a home. However, River sees them as more trouble than help. Brenna will find working at Chocolate Haven more difficult then she imagined, especially in creating the famous fudge, which she cannot recreate much to her frustration. She meets River, whom she remembers from her school days, and a friendship begins. River will help Brenna with the chocolate (not the fudge, since it’s a secret recipe) preparation on many evenings, utilizing his expertise as a chef. The attraction between them builds slowly, and they made a great couple. River begins to suspect that Brenna is in a more dire situation then she has let on to others, and he will eventually learn the truth about her ex fiancee. Will Brenna be able to overcome her fears of loving someone, and trust River? Will River, who is falling hard for Brenna, be willing to stay in Benevolence? In the midst of their budding romance, is a mystery of vandalism against Brenna and the Chocolate Haven. Sweet Surprises was a nice story, with a very likable couple. It was nice to see some of those from the first book, and we met a lot of interesting new characters. The ending left things open for the next book, which is another mystery surrounding Brenna’s sister Willow. I would have liked more closure on some things left partially open. I suspect Willow will be the lead in the next book. If you enjoy small town romances, family atmosphere, sweet likeable couple, as well a nice story line; I suggest you read Sweet Surprises.
We're back in Benevolence for book 2 of the Home Sweet Home series and things couldn't be sweeter. Brenna Lamont is back to help run the family Sweets store while her sister Addy is pregnant. Well and to be honest, she really doesn't have anywhere else to be but that's her little secret. Hopefully she won't run the business into the ground. That's exactly what will happen if she can't figure out why she can't seem to make the fudge come out right. River Maynard is back in Benevolence too. He's trying to help his foster save her failing ranch. Dealing with the "guests" she has there is no easy task but he's doing the best he can and as long as he brings her some Lamont chocolate every day her spirits stay high. That means seeing the very tempting Brenna Lamont every day though and that could lead to big trouble! You don't want to miss this wonderfully sweet small town read. I highly recommend it.