Stevie Franklin is thrilled to spend the holiday season helping her best friend Sunny launch her new greenhouse business in Blue Hollow Falls, Virginia. A visit to the quaint mountain town will be a welcome distraction from her recent bad luck with men. But while Sunny’s home is under renovation, Stevie must stay at the local inn, whose amenities feature hunky innkeeper, Noah Tyler.
Noah may be tempting, but city-girl Stevie isn’t sticking around—and she doesn’t do flings. Yet when Noah’s chef gets stranded in a Christmas Eve snowstorm, Stevie can’t resist pitching in and serving up some of her family’s cherished recipes. The magic of Christmas in the Blue Ridge Mountains is already rekindling Stevie’s holiday spirit. But can Noah restore her belief in love?
Includes original down-home holiday recipes!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Stevie Franklin stopped when the trail reached the edge of the woods and gasped. Sunny had told her that the photos didn't do the place justice, and she hadn't been kidding. Stevie's best friend and former coworker at the U.S. Botanic Garden had sent dozens of photos since inheriting the long-abandoned Victorian greenhouse a few months earlier, but no camera angle could ever capture the scene spread out before her now.
"Look at you," Stevie breathed, the words sending small, crystalline puffs into the air as she spoke. The temperature was barely in the teens this high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a good fifteen degrees colder than the already-frigid temps she'd left behind in DC that morning. The winter air was still and silent, felt almost delicate. The sky above the clearing was an impenetrable pale gray, the air heavy with mist, turning the early morning light to a soft eggshell, which only leant to the sense of fragility.
The snow had stopped while she'd been traversing the wooded trail that led away from the parking lot back at the old silk mill. Everything was blanketed in a pristine layer of pillowy white. The only sound was her own breathing, and her pulse reverberating in her ears as she stared at the centuries-old, snow-shrouded greenhouse. Stevie felt as if she were standing in a frozen moment in time. She wanted to hold on to it, ward off anything that might shatter the moment.
In her mind's eye, she saw the greenhouse as it must have looked in its heyday. It was enormous, almost as big as the commercial-sized structures she worked in, infinitely bigger than any one person would ever need for private use, though she knew from Sunny that it had been built more than a century ago as a wedding gift from husband to wife. The soaring center section was a scallop-shaped dome topped by a tall brass spire. It presided over two wings with hangar-style roofs, jutting out to the west and east, respectively. Lacy ironwork, surprisingly delicate and intricate in its design, framed the front of the scalloped dome. Icing on the cake of the entire structure, itself a masterpiece of wrought iron and green glass.
The thick, leaded panes had been scrubbed free of decade upon decade's worth of exposure to the vagaries of nature and once again gleamed like emeralds, sparkling against the snowy white landscape. The brass spire, however, was still a heavily patinated green, the lacy iron scrollwork rusted and badly weathered, damaged panes had been boarded over, and who knew what lay underneath the heavy blanket of snow surrounding the place. There was a third section behind the center dome, out of her sight range, that Stevie knew had crumpled and caved in. None of that mattered.
"You're beautiful," she whispered, the excitement she'd held at bay on the long drive to southwestern Virginia bubbling forth now, despite the enormity of the task before them. "We're fixing you up," she whispered, cupping her gloved hands in front of her mouth to warm her nose and chin as the frigid air seeped in past both her fanciful reveries and the thick padding of her down jacket. "You'll be a grande dame once again, you'll see," she added, even as her teeth began to chatter.
"Coming through!" came a shout from the trail just behind her.
Stevie jumped at the sudden bark of sound, and half-flinched, half-ducked at the same time, as if that fragile, frozen moment in time she'd been experiencing might indeed shatter from the impact of the sudden, noisy intrusion. She must have been so caught up, she hadn't heard anyone approaching. On instinct honed from years of riding the always crowded DC Metro subway, she reached up to grab the heavy pine branch over her head to steady herself as she twisted around to see who, or what, was coming up the trail behind her. The swift action on her part did keep her from going down, as her boots had begun slipping when she'd been startled. It did not, however, save her from the pile of snow that had been layered on top of that pine branch and all the ones tangled in with it, the entirety of which pummeled down onto her head and shoulders, creating a small heap of fresh snow at her feet that piled all the way up above her calves.
She didn't immediately react, afraid of what else might befall her, but did slowly lift her head as a deep, masculine voice sang, "In the meadow we can build a snowman."
Flakes of melting snow dripped off the ends of her eyelashes as she got her first, slightly blurred sight of the owner of that highly amused, and, okay, sexy- as-hell baritone. Even the snowmelt couldn't hide the fact that he had a face to match. Soul-deep brown eyes framed by thick lashes she'd have paid money to own, full mouth, strong chin, flashy white smile, and what looked like a mop of curly, dark hair peeking out from under the folded-up brim of his knit ski hat.
"I'd offer a hand," he said, "but they're a little full at the moment."
Her eyes widened as she took in the whole scene and not just his pretty, oh-so-pretty face. "Oh," she gasped. "Sorry!" There was another man a few yards behind Mr. Sexy Baritone, and they had what appeared to be some very heavy, very long pieces of lumber balanced between them, hoisted up on their shoulders. Their very broad, manly man shoulders. "I was so caught up, taking her all in. I didn't hear —" Stevie broke off and immediately shuffled her way out of her snow pile and off the path to make way for them, then instantly wished she hadn't. The snow off the packed trail was even deeper. A lot deeper.
The fur-lined, knee-high boots had looked so cute when she'd picked them up on a Black Friday deal at Neiman's in anticipation of her holiday mountain adventure. As it turned out, cute had been a trade-off for functional. Not only had the thin rubber soles done nothing to keep the cold of the snow pack from seeping through and freezing the soles of her feet and all ten of her freshly manicured toes, but the shallow-yet-everso-stylish snowflake-patterned tread had also failed to provide actual traction. Of any kind. "Holy ... mother," she said through gritted teeth, managing to bite off the rest of the less than ladylike retort that sprang to mind when the snow tipped inside the tops of her boots. It seemed to instantly melt into a frigid pool of icy water at her feet, soaking clear through her black, thick knit leggings along the way.
It wasn't that she didn't like getting wet or messy. She worked with plants and potting medium every day of her life. Digging in the dirt was what she did. And she loved it. But she wasn't at work. At least, not yet. And it was precisely because she spent long hours every day with muddy streaks on her face and the better part of the rest of her body caked in dirt, that she expended the effort when she was on her own time to indulge in her love of doing up her hair, making up her face, dressing in fabulous clothes, and yes, feeling pretty. Not to impress anyone, but simply to feel good. "Don't be a fool," Granny May had always told her in that gravelly Mississippi twang that forty-eight years of living in the District hadn't altered one bit. "You take care with those gifts God gave you. Don't insult the Man, now."
Her Granny May had worked long, hard hours as a hotel maid and seamstress for each of those forty-eight years, and she'd never once left their little apartment without her lipstick on, her eyebrows carefully penciled in, and her uniform freshly pressed. It was about taking pride in one's self.
Standing there at that moment, however, Stevie could feel that the hair she'd carefully styled into a sleek little bun that showed off her cheekbones was now a soggy blob hanging halfway down the back of her neck, the perfectly applied mascara that made her green eyes flash was no doubt running in black rivulets down her cheeks, and the wardrobe she'd spent several very enjoyable hours shopping for now sagged under a pile of snowmelt. All of which forced Stevie to admit it was the teensiest bit possible that after Sunny had mentioned the abundance of lumberjack types dotting her new mountain landscape, Stevie might have been the weensiest bit hopeful that all her efforts would have an added side benefit. Maybe. Possibly.
"I'm fine," she assured them with a weak smile, carefully wiping her cheeks with the side of a gloved finger. "Please, go on. That looks heavy."
"You must be Stevie."
She blinked against the rivulets of melting snow still trickling off her lashes and down her nose as she looked at Mr. Sexy Baritone. She took in his green plaid wool jacket, the dark brown canvas pants, and the heavy work boots laced halfway up his calves, then looked up to the heavy wood beams propped on his shoulder, and burst out laughing. All he needed was a big blue ox. Hot lumberjack types indeed. She hadn't realized Sunny meant that quite so literally.
"I'm sorry?" he said, looking more concerned for her than insulted.
"No, I'm sorry. It's ... something a friend told me. Please, go, go. Don't let me hold you up any longer."
As if on cue, the man holding up the other end of the lumber shouted, "Noah, could you flirt a little later with the pretty lady, please? I think my shoulder has gone numb back here."
Grinning now, Noah glanced casually over his shoulder. "I thought you Special Forces guys were supposed to be a little tougher than that."
"Yeah, I'm not in that line of work any longer. Though if we don't get this wood inside that greenhouse before Sunny comes out here to see what's holding us up, I might have to consider re-upping."
Stevie's face immediately creased into a big smile as she registered the owner of that voice. She very carefully slogged a few steps to the side and peered around Noah to see the man behind him. "Sawyer! Hello!" She'd met Sunny's hunky significant other when he'd come to see Sunny in DC during the whole inheritance situation. He was looking rather Hot Lumberjack himself. "Why don't I go ahead and hold the door for you guys? Least I can do."
She caught Noah's gaze raking down her body, pausing noticeably not on any of the curves showcased by her snug leggings, black knit turtleneck, or the tailored, burnt-orange shortie winter jacket, but rather on her utterly ineffectual footwear. She followed his gaze, then looked up and smiled into Noah's very handsome face. God hadn't just been good to this man, she thought. He'd been on a benevolent bender. "I'm a city girl," she explained with a cheeky grin. "We live to suffer for our fashion." Her teeth might have started chattering again on that last part.
"Mission accomplished, then," he said, matching her grin.
"Seriously," Sawyer deadpanned. "Don't mind me."
Noah nodded toward the greenhouse. "After you, City Girl."
Just then the big front door to the greenhouse swung open, and a tall, slender brunette squealed and came running across the clearing, as nimble as a deer even in her far more practical knee-high rubber work boots. "You're here!"
Stevie staggered forward through the snow, then simply held on when Sunny hugged her tight and said, "What do you think?"
"She's even more beautiful in person," Stevie replied. "I'm so happy I'm finally here." The soggy head bun and black mascara river already forgotten, she just wanted to get inside and get her hands in the dirt. "I can't wait to see the rest."
Sunny pulled Stevie along with her, and they followed the two men, who had already taken advantage of the open door and carried the lumber inside. "There is still so much to do, but when the funding for the orchid program came through so fast we had to jump on it and now —" Sunny broke off as they reached the door, looking back at Stevie, beaming like a kid on Christmas rather than a woman with a massive, antiquated greenhouse she had to somehow get up and running. "Come on in!"
Stevie knew that Sunny's move to the mountains to be with Sawyer and to be closer to her newly discovered half-sister, Bailey, had been made possible by Sunny's involvement with the Care for the Rare program at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Her work had been with rare orchids, and she'd gotten a grant to expand on her research through one of the private organizations that specialized in her field. Normally finding funding was a grueling, slow-as-molasses process, but this time it had been a right-place-right-time thing, and so the operation was moving swiftly. Stevie had vacation time piled up, so she'd cashed it in to come down and help her friend get things up and running.
"You know I've been working on making one of the wings functional enough to get us started," Sunny said as they stepped over the threshold. "I'm moving closer every day, but it still feels like I'm never going to make it. I'm so glad you're here."
If Sunny hadn't still had hold of Stevie's hand, Stevie would have stopped dead inside the entrance to the large, domed centerpiece of the place and simply gaped for a bit. "Whoa." Stevie tugged her hand free then and turned in a slow circle, trying — and failing — to take it all in.
Sunny beamed like a kid showing off her brand-new pony. "Before," she said, gesturing to the east wing that jutted off to the left of the domed central area. The ruined remains of what had once been a showcase of a greenhouse still looked somehow elegant, even in their decay.
Stevie knew from the progress photos that even that section's current state was a big improvement over how Sunny had found it. There had been an almost impenetrable forest of foliage and undergrowth that had taken over the interior of the structure like a mountain jungle gone wild. Mother Nature had done her worst, breaking down parts of the building, shattering many of those leaded glass panes, moving herself right on in to mix in a wonderfully wild, almost Wonderland-esque hybrid fashion with whatever the previous owner had been growing inside during the final days, months, and years of functionality.
All of that was gone now, allowing Stevie to see the entire structure clearly from where she stood. The center section with the big dome overhead had once been laid with a tile floor that had apparently been a big mosaic of some kind, but it was too far gone to really tell. Small squares still covered a decent part of the floor, but what was left of them was badly chipped and worn. Sunny had told her how the root systems of the foliage forest had lifted and removed a good number of the tiles. Those that had survived hinted at the story of the mosaic, but not enough to be able to re-create it outright.
"It looks even bigger than I thought it would," Stevie said, "and it looked ginormous in those photos."
"Right?" Sunny stepped toward the row of six-inch-wide heavy plastic panels that hung, floor to ceiling, from a bar suspended high across the open space heading into the west wing. The weighted bottoms of the panels were still swinging from where the two men had passed through them moments earlier. Sunny beckoned Stevie to follow her. "I haven't sent photos of this because I wanted to surprise you."
Sunny parted the plastic panels, which were very similar to the ones they used to section off parts of the thirty-four greenhouses that made up the Botanic Garden's production facility, where Stevie and Sunny had worked together for the past several years. The panels kept in the heat and humidity, but allowed for simple passage between sections. Stevie ducked through, her soggy bun sliding around the back of her neck, sending trickles of freezing cold water down her back. That was only part of the reason she gasped, though. The transformation of this wing couldn't have been more startling if Stevie had actually been Alice and fallen headfirst down the rabbit hole. "Oh, Sunny, look at her," she breathed.
A series of wide wooden planks had been put down on top of a grid of two-by-four beams, creating a sturdy work floor, while simultaneously raising it above the uneven dirt flooring Stevie had seen in the east wing. Rows and rows of what looked like handmade wooden worktables lined the center of the wing, with another series of worktables, sinks, shelving, and more lining the circumference along the glass exterior walls. Suspended lighting had been run in long rows overhead, and there were heavy-duty electrical cords snaking all over the floor. But what drew her attention were the stacks and stacks of seedling trays and pots layered on many of the tables, while other tables had dozens of shipping boxes, still sealed, piled on top of them.
Excerpted from "The Inn at Blue Hollow Falls"
Copyright © 2017 Donna Kauffman.
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.