Sweetbriar Cottage

Sweetbriar Cottage

by Denise Hunter

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Overview

They thought their love story was over. They thought their divorce was final. They were wrong.

Following his divorce, Noah gave up his dream job and settled at a remote horse ranch in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia, putting much-needed distance between himself and the former love of his life. But then Noah gets a letter from the IRS claiming he and Josephine are still married. When he confronts Josephine, they discover that she missed the final step in filing the paperwork and they are, in fact, still married.

Josephine is no happier about the news than Noah. Maybe the failed marriage—and botched divorce—was her fault, but her heart was shattered right alongside his, more than he would ever believe. The sooner they put this marriage behind them, the better for both of their sakes.

But when Josephine delivers the final paperwork to his ranch, the two become stranded in his cottage during the worst spring snowstorm in a decade. Being trapped with Josephine is a test of Noah’s endurance. He wrestles with resentment and an unmistakable pull to his wife—still beautiful, still brave, and still more intriguing than any woman he’s ever known.

As they find themselves confronted with each other and their shared past, old wounds surface and tempers flare. But when they are forced out into the storm, they must rely on each other in a way they never have before. Josephine finally opens up about her tragic past, and Noah realizes she’s never been loved unconditionally by anyone—including him. Will Noah accept the challenge to pursue Josephine’s heart? And can she finally find the courage to trust Noah?

From the bestselling author of The Convenient Groom and A December Bride (now beloved Hallmark Original movies) comes this charming romance full of second chances and rekindled love.

Sweetbriar Cottage is a wonderful story, full of emotional tension and evocative prose.” —Francine Rivers, New York Times bestselling author of Redeeming Love

Sweetbriar Cottage is a story to fall in love with. True-to-life characters, high stakes, and powerful chemistry blend to tell an emotional story of reconciliation.” —Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author

  • Sweet and thoughtful contemporary romance
  • Stand-alone novel
  • Book length: 86,000 words
  • Includes discussion questions for book clubs

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718090487
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 154,371
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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

Sweetbriar Cottage


By Denise Hunter

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2017 Denise Hunter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-9049-4


CHAPTER 1

Copper Creek, Georgia

Present day


There was nothing like a letter from the IRS to stop a man in his tracks. Noah Mitchell came to a halt outside the Copper Creek post office, an uneasy dread leaking into his veins as he stared at the envelope.

He should've known better than to come down off the mountain and ruin a perfectly good Saturday. Granted, this wasn't the way he'd feared it would be ruined, but it was still a kick in the pants.

He sank onto a nearby bench, dumping the bundle of mail beside him. A cold breeze blew across the valley, but heat prickled beneath his jacket. Though March had arrived in northern Georgia, Mother Nature hadn't gotten the memo. The grass lay brown and dull against the semi-thawed earth, and the branches of the skeletal trees clacked together in the wind.

He pulled a finger through the envelope's seal, sending a plea heavenward. He supposed he was due. He was thirty-one and had never experienced the joy of an audit. Unfortunately, he'd filed for himself last year.

Noah unfolded the paper as the sun broke through the clouds, its reflection nearly blinding on the white paper. He scanned the paragraphs, squinting against the light, his eyes stopping on a key sentence in the second paragraph.

He reread the sentence, blinking in disbelief. Of all the idiotic ...

Noah was as patriotic as they came. He'd served overseas for a tour, for crying out loud. Stars and stripes, baseball, apple pie, all that. But sometimes the ineptitude of the American government left him scratching his head.

"Well, look who's come off the mountain."

Noah looked up to find his best friend, Jack McReady — "Pastor Jack" to most of the town — ambling toward him. Even though it was a Saturday morning, he wore khakis and a button-down. His lips stretched into the smile that had half the single females in his church swooning. He was oblivious to it all.

"Hey, Jack." Noah rose, grasping his friend's hand and pulling him in for a shoulder bump. "Good to see you, buddy."

"I was starting to think I was going to have to come up there and drag you down."

"The ranch is keeping me busy."

"Even horses sleep. How are you? Make it through the winter okay?"

"Lost a foal back in January. Other than that, it's going well. I'm finishing the attic in the cottage. How are things here in town?"

"Oh, you know, the usual. Rumors, Facebook drama, town council tiffs. Let's grab a bite. I was just heading over to the Rusty Nail."

Noah thought of the letter, now burning a hole in his coat pocket. "I'd like to, but I have a few errands. Have to be back to the ranch by three. Let's do it soon though."

Jack's blue eyes fastened on Noah's, doing that thing where he seemed to look right into his soul. "Everything okay?"

Nothing had been okay for a long time. Not since the divorce. But Jack already knew that. "Yeah. Just ... life ... you know."

"Sure." Jack nodded, his eyes still piercing. "Sure."

They parted ways a few minutes later, promising to touch base in the next couple weeks.

Noah gathered his mail and started the short walk toward Walt Levenger's office. He tugged down his cap and lowered his head — against the wind, he told himself. After all, her shop was on the other side of town and no doubt bursting at the seams on a Saturday morning. Chances of running into her were slim.

The downtown of Copper Creek was straight out of a movie set. Diagonal parking along Main Street. Two-story shops with colorful awnings, proudly facing the street, their Open flags fluttering in the wind. You could walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes, and a few minutes later Noah was most grateful for that.

When he stepped into the CPA's office, the phone was ringing. Two people waited by the front desk where a harried teenager shouldered a phone and jotted on a yellow Post-it.

He took his place in line, his mind going back to that one jarring sentence in the letter. Walt was a family friend. He'd tell him how to straighten this out. Then Noah would just put this behind him.

But somehow the letter had stirred up all kinds of things he thought he'd already put behind him. Memories — the best of his life, the worst of his life — swirled together in a confounding cocktail ofjoy and pain. A vise tightened around his heart, squeezing until his breath stuttered.

"Can I help you?" The teenaged girl peered at him through a pair of thick-framed glasses.

He eased forward. "Hi, I'm here to see Walt."

The phone pealed. "Do you have an appointment?"

"No, but it's a pressing matter. He's a friend of the family."

"Name?"

"Noah Mitchell."

"Have a seat, please."

She answered the phone while he joined the others in the waiting room. The letter crinkled in his pocket as he settled against the curved plastic chair.

He took out his phone and made a list of items he needed from the Piggly Wiggly. He could hit Buddy's Hardware while he was in town too. He needed mud and sanding paper for the attic. Might as well get the paint too. Save him a trip back to town. Maybe he'd hunt down his brother and grab a cup of coffee if he had time.

"Noah, you can go on back."

He followed the short hall to the first open door on the left and tapped on the frame.

Walt stood up behind a cluttered desk and extended his hand. "Noah, come on in."

Noah shook his hand. "Good to see you, sir."

Walt was winning the weight war that often accompanied a desk job, but he was losing the battle with his hairline.

"Thanks for seeing me on such short notice. I'm sure you're swamped with the tax season."

Walt pulled off his bifocals. "I have some help this year. Young sprig, fresh out of college. He's going to be the death of me."

Noah's lips tugged northward.

"You look more like your daddy every time I see you," Walt said. "Good-looking son of a gun. Have a seat, why don't you. How are your folks?"

"Enjoying retirement. They're in Las Vegas this week. Last week they were hiking the Sierra Nevadas. Next week, who knows?"

"Good for them. They've been looking forward to this a long time."

"They have. How's your family?"

"Fine and dandy. Here's my new grandbaby." He handed Noah a framed photo of a newborn, swaddled and pink-skinned. "Lori Ann, after my wife."

"Congratulations. She's a beauty."

"That she is." Walt settled the photo back in place. "Well, what can I do for you, Noah? Needing some help with your taxes this year?"

"Not exactly." He pulled the letter from his pocket and handed it over the desk. "Got this in the mail today. Was hoping you could advise me on how to go forward."

Walt settled his readers in place. A frown creased his brow as he read.

It seemed like an hour passed before the older man's eyes finally lifted, meeting Noah's gaze over the straight rim of his glasses. "When was your divorce finalized, Noah?"

Divorce. Would he ever get used to the word? "Before January of the tax year in question."

"You were right to file single then, of course." His gaze fell to the letter.

"How can I fix this?"

"Well, if it's in error, you just send them a copy of your final divorce decree. In a month or two you'll receive a letter stating that the matter's been resolved."

"What do you mean 'if it's in error'?"

Walt handed back the letter. "Well, you might just check with your attorney and be sure things got tied up nice and proper."

Noah blinked. "Of course they did."

"Well, sure. You just send a copy of that final decree, then, and that'll be the end of it."

The end of it. The divorce had been uncontested, as simple as the act could be, he supposed. But there was nothing simple when it came to separating one flesh. If there was anything he'd learned in all this, that was it.

The phone pealed again in the front office, shaking Noah from his stupor. "All right then. Much obliged, sir. I won't take any more of your time." He stood, his legs quaking beneath him.

"Good luck, Noah. You say hello to your folks the next time you hear from them."

"Will do."

Noah's heart raced as he strode down the hall, his mind spinning.

The final decree. He had those papers. He'd signed them, and Josephine had sent him a copy. He remembered that much, even if those grief-laden months were as foggy as the valley on a warm spring morning. Facing Josephine across that old scarred table. Feeling like strangers, despite their nearly two-year marriage, her porcelain skin pale against her red lipstick. Working in a daze, forgetting to eat. Lying in his empty bed night after night, a concrete block on his chest.

The divorce decree. He couldn't say where it was just now, but he knew he had it.

It was all just a mistake. But there was no sense going all the way back up the mountain when he could drive across town and make absolutely sure. He'd get a copy from the attorney and mail it while he was still in town. Get it behind him. Lickety-split.

He turned left at the sidewalk and worked his way back to his Silverado. Traffic in town was heavy, everybody out running errands like he was. When he reached the Connelly Law Offices he turned into the space and headed inside.

The jingling bell announced Noah's arrival, and Joe Connelly came out of his office.

"Noah, good to see you."

"I wasn't sure you'd be open."

The men shook hands. Joe's partner, Vernon, had represented both Noah and Josephine in the divorce. But a serious heart attack soon had the man retiring to Colorado where he could enjoy his son and grandkids.

"A man's got to be open on Saturdays anymore if he wants to stay in business. My secretary's out sick with the flu. Have a seat. Can I get you a cup of coffee or a glass of tea?"

"Coffee sounds great."

Joe poured a cup and handed it to him. "Come on back. I'm just working on a deposition, nothing that can't wait."

As Noah followed, he drew a deep breath, trying to steady his nerves. Was it just him, or did the building actually smell like a place where marriages came to die?

He took a seat across from Joe's desk — a direct contrast from Walt's. Other than a tidy stack of papers and a canister of pens it was all glossy mahogany.

Joe folded his hands on the desk. "What can I do for you, Noah?"

For the second time this morning he withdrew the letter from his pocket and explained the situation.

Joe listened intently, his hawk-like eyes fixed on Noah. "I see," he said when Noah was finished. "Well, hopefully the IRS is mistaken — it wouldn't be the first time. Do you remember signing the divorce decree?"

"I do. I have a copy at home." He probably hadn't been as attentive as he should've been through the process. He had been reeling, and there was an intense desire to push all the details onto Josephine. She'd had it coming, after all.

"A divorce is finalized when the decree is signed by both parties, then by the judge."

"The judge?" Noah palmed the side of his neck, feeling like an immense idiot. "I don't remember seeing a judge's signature, but I wasn't really looking for it either."

"Well, the courthouse is closed, but we can certainly check our files." Joe stood and walked over to a wall of filing cabinets. "I just can't imagine Vernon letting this slip through the cracks."

"Things were winding down in the process when he had his heart attack."

Joe's fingers walked along the top of the files. "He came back to the office to tie up loose ends before he moved. I suppose it's possible the decree was overlooked." Joe pulled a file and shut the drawer. "Let's see what we have here."

Noah's heart pummeled his ribs as Joe flipped through the papers. Please, God. He'd just come to town to run his errands. How could this be happening?

Joe pulled a packet from the envelope. "Well, here's a copy of the decree."

Noah's lungs emptied. "Thank God."

"Well ... hold your horses," the lawyer said after he flipped to the last page. "It's not been signed by the judge."

Noah sank into his seat.

"There's a note stating he gave a copy to Josephine on September 28. Once the judge signs, copies are sent to both parties, and we retain a copy for our records. Since there's no such copy here, it was never submitted to the judge. You can check with the courthouse on Monday to be certain, but it looks as though your divorce was never finalized, Noah."

A nervous laugh slipped out. "I can't believe this is happening."

Joe set his hand on Noah's shoulder. "I know it seems bad, but this is easily rectified. The divorce is probably still pending. It happens more often than you'd think. Just be glad neither of you has remarried. And yes, that actually happens."

Easily rectified.

The words bounced through Noah's head as he left the office. Easy for Joe to say. He hadn't been unknowingly married for the past eighteen months to the woman who'd wrecked his world. He hadn't been completely failed — twice now — by the woman he'd once loved more than life.

Josephine. You're still married to her. She's still your wife.

His traitorous heart gave an extra heavy thud, followed by a quick stutter. Longing surged, strong and unrelenting, making his chest tight, his breathing laborious.

The innate reaction made his blood boil. That she still had that power over him ... Would it never end? What kind of idiot was he?

This was all her fault. She'd promised to handle this. And here they were. Eighteen months later and still married.

He'd somehow kept a lid on his emotions through the endless process of their divorce. Had somehow bottled it up, clamped his teeth together, locked his lips. If she knew he was shattered it wasn't because he'd fallen apart in front of her. If she knew about the anger churning inside him it wasn't because he'd raged at her.

But the emotions roiling now begged for release. And his feet, now striding purposely down the sidewalk, seemed helpless against the force. This time she was going to know exactly how he felt.

CHAPTER 2

Josephine Mitchell dragged a comb through Abel Crane's newly trimmed hair. Her nimble fingers tugged here and there on the coarse strands, covering a cowlick, taming a wave. Abel was in his sixties with a thick head of gray hair that grew as fast as a June lawn.

The Saturday-morning crowd filled Josephine's Barbershop with the familiar sounds of chatter, the buzz of a razor, and the splash of water in the bowls. She caught the nutty scent of shaving cream and heard the scrape of a blade as her friend and fellow stylist, Callie, drew it deftly across her customer's cheek.

Josephine whipped the cape from Abel's shoulders. "Ta-da! Handsome as ever, Mr. Crane."

"Much obliged, dear."

Abel lived in the foothills in a mobile home that had seen better days. Two years ago, after a back injury at the gravel pit, he'd had to file for disability. His wife stayed home with their grown daughter, who had severe cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair.

The bell over the door tinkled behind the partition wall as Josephine replaced her tools. Her four stylists were busy with their own customers.

"Be right with y'all," she called.

On Abel's way to the lobby he fished his wallet from his pocket in a routine as familiar as the smell of shampoo.

Josephine stopped him. "Now, sugar, you know your money's no good here. Go buy that wife of yours a Danish, and tell her I said hey."

Abel's round cheeks flushed. "Aw, you don't have to do that, Josephine. Things is better now that our boy's out on his own."

She gave his arm a light swat. "Now you get on, Abel Crane. I'll see you next month. And tell Lizzie to stop in and see me."

"Will do," he said, exiting the shop. "Much obliged, Josephine."

She turned, seeking the new arrival. "Just give me a second to sweep up and —"

Her eyes connected with the waiting customer. But it wasn't just any customer. It was Noah. Standing tall and confident in the corner of her little lobby, making her chest ache on sight. That's how it was with Noah. He walked through her door, and just like that the past eighteen months fluttered away on a breeze.

"Noah." His name escaped on a breath.

His hair was wind-t ousled, his jaw all sharp angles and scruffy bristle. His amber-colored eyes snapped with fire. "We need to talk."

Her mouth opened, but her brain was a jumble. She couldn't think why on earth he'd be here, why he'd be angry with her. She hadn't laid eyes on him since the deposition.

She crossed her arms, a flimsy barrier at best, and pasted a smile on her lips. "All right. What is it?"

A shadow passed over his jaw. "What is it? I'll tell you what it is, Josephine."

That stung. She didn't expect to hear "baby girl" in that low gravelly voice, but Josephine? He'd called her Josie from the start.

He leaned closer, and the full effect of his masculine smell made her woozy. "I need to see a copy of our divorce decree."

She blinked, her eyes fluttering around the lobby, grateful it was empty. Still, the partition wasn't made of steel. A wave of heat flooded up her neck and into her cheeks.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Sweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter. Copyright © 2017 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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