I am so excited to share the first chapter of my upcoming release, Truly Inn Love with you all. If you order before the release date of August 26, 2021, Truly Inn Love is available at a special preorder price of 99 cents. Keep scrolling for a sample of this second chance contemporary romance as well as all the links to snag your copy at the discounted price before the release.
The layer of dust on the front counter made me curl my top lip. I ran a finger through it and frowned at the residue. “Wasn’t the cleaning company supposed to come last week?”
Blake shrugged and pulled her honey blonde hair into a ponytail. “Gravel driveway. Barn. Lots of woods. Bound to kick up all kinds of dirt, Gav. You know Aunt Matti cleaned practically every waking moment to keep this place spotless.”
A boulder clogged my throat. It was hard enough walking through the front doors of Willow Falls Inn without our aunt and uncle there any longer. The small reminder of Aunt Matti’s diligence in keeping the place white-glove-level clean, although it meant working from sunup until sundown, twisted the all too recently placed dagger in my sternum.
I rotated slightly to face the sitting room that still managed to radiate comfort and serenity, even covered in drop cloths. Nearly every good childhood memory started and ended within these walls. I shifted my shoulders just enough so my face was hidden from my sisters, and my lids fluttered closed against the threatened onslaught of tears.
Aunt Matti and Uncle Gary had offered the three of us a safe haven at Willow Falls since birth. First for summers when we needed respite from one broken parental promise after another, and later when our parents left for yet another whirlwind trip that ended with the boat they’d chartered capsizing.
Our aunt had told us repeatedly that the only people she trusted with her baby—the stately Victorian nestled in the white fir trees—were me and my sisters. Thousands of visitors had made their way down the gently curved driveway over the three decades since Mathilda and Gary had bought the historic house, and they knew that no one could care for it like us.
Sharp, stabbing pain of memories of curling up in the older woman’s lap and crying from the childhood heartbreak of my parents missing band concerts and dance recitals—and later when we got the news of their demise—mingled with the serenity that could only be found at Willow Falls. My heart already ached and burned at the still too recent loss of Aunt Matti. Remembering the roller coaster of emotions that defined my childhood certainly wasn’t needed.
I took a deep breath, swallowed down the swell of emotion that threatened to bubble over, and plastered a smile on my face before turning back to the equally mopey faces of my siblings. One of my self-appointed duties as the oldest was to put on a brave face, even when the ache inside seemed overwhelming. “Well, we aren’t accomplishing anything by standing here staring at dust and dirt.”
Rummaging through the small supply closet nestled behind the check-in desk gave my mind something to focus on. I managed to find enough bottles, buckets, dusters, mops, and brooms to keep Blake, Ryann, and myself well equipped to tackle the project of refreshing the main floor of Willow Falls Inn.
The guest rooms had to wait for another day, I decided. Cleaning this space would be time-consuming enough.
Blake gently tugged at the metal handle in my hand. “Gimme that. I’ll go fill both of these up, and we can start by clearing off the mantle while Ryann takes care of the sheets covering everything.”
Although my middle sister and I looked nothing alike aside from our eyes, our personalities balanced each other perfectly. And a lifetime of acting like adults, even when we were children, formed an impermeable bond. My sister would know, without my having to speak the words, that the weight of every memory, happy or sad, would be bearing on my shoulders along with our inherited responsibility. I handed over the gray plastic bucket and gave my sister a look that conveyed all the things I didn’t say.
I gripped the desk chair that rested behind the reception counter, my mind filling in the image of my aunt sitting in it, a broad grin to welcome guests before wheeling the chair into the small office behind to log reservations and payments in the antiquated paper bookkeeping she never could give up. She greeted every guest with warmth and charm, but she saved the best treats and biggest smiles for us. Although we didn’t share a drop of DNA directly with Aunt Matti, she loved us with a depth even our parents couldn’t manage.
“This place is never going to be the same without you, Aunt Matti.” My throat threatened to close as I whispered the words. “But this is our home, and I promise we’ll take care of it.”
A piercing scream from the kitchen tore through the thick fog of emotional memories and dissolved the nearly suffocating band of loss tightening around my chest. I broke out in a full sprint and raced through the living room and dining room before exploding into the kitchen, where Blake was, supposedly, filling the buckets. My youngest sister trailed closely on my heels.
My sneaker-clad foot made a splash with my first step. A stream of water shot from the faucet directly into Blake’s face, the hands she held up doing nothing to shield her from the geyser erupting before her.
“Can one of you stop staring and turn off the damn water?” Each word came out louder until Blake ended on a shriek.
I dropped to my knees to avoid the direct spray, the cold water soaking into the workout pants I’d worn intentionally for their comfort and flexibility. I crawled through the growing puddle on the linoleum floor, opened the cabinet, and twisted the knob to shut off the water flow to the sink.
Icy water pelted my back as I grunted and twisted the rusted valve harder. I put both hands on the metal oval and leaned as much of my body weight as I could into the movement as I gave it another hard shove.
One that exploded in my face, literally, when the pipe split apart and the stream that had been flowing from the sink onto my sister now splattered directly into my face with a surprising force that bit into my skin.
“Ryann,” I shouted my sister’s name while trying to vainly control the vicious spray, “go to the basement and turn off the main valve!”
I pushed to my feet, sliding as I stood, then raced into the living room to snatch as many of the sheets as I could carry off the furniture. I ran back into the kitchen, hoping to sop up as much of the newly formed lake as I could before it did any damage.
Our first day of officially owning Willow Falls Inn and we were already disappointing the ghosts of our aunt and uncle. Worry and fear twisted my gut as I pulled open the swinging door to the kitchen and dropped a couple of the sheets, desperate to at least contain the disaster to one room and not have the water seep onto the hardwood floors that had survived a hundred years of wear and tear before us.
In less than twenty-four hours, we were going to ruin everything our aunt and uncle spent their lives building.
When the stream slowed to a trickle and stopped, the first breath I’d had in what seemed like forever, finally filled my lungs. I closed my eyes on a deep inhale and slowly hissed the air out between clenched teeth. Blake and I made multiple trips between the kitchen and the other rooms to absorb as much of the mess as possible. Hopefully, we didn’t cause any significant damage.
By the time we had things contained enough, which included having the large wraparound porch railing covered with soaked sheets stretched out for the hot sun to dry, it had been over two hours since we arrived. Not the eternity I had estimated when I collapsed on the brocade love seat next to Ryann.
My baby sister laid her head on my shoulder. “This is bad, isn’t it?” Ryann’s voice cracked on the words, tearing further into my already shredded heart.
Before I could summon some reassurance I didn’t really feel, Blake appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame. “I found Mr. Donaldson’s number in Aunt Matti’s office.” She held up her cell phone like a prize. “So I called over and talked to his wife. She said she’d send help right over to look at things.”
Our aunt and uncle’s close friend and designated fixer of all things would handle this. He had to. And his gratefully close proximity meant that as long as he wasn’t somewhere far away on a job site, he’d be here soon.
I released a shuddering sigh. “Thanks, Bee. It would have been hours before it dawned on me to look for that.”
A tension-filled silence descended over us, punctuated only by the ticking of the large clock over the mantle on the other side of the sitting room. Words couldn’t fill the space currently occupied by more anxiety and worry than any of us cared to speak.
The quiet was broken by thumping on the porch steps and muttered curses that carried through the empty house. I braced for Mr. Donaldson to come in reprimanding us for all the things I was already berating myself for in my head.
But the sturdy thighs encased in well-worn denim that appeared in my downcast vision definitely did not belong to the sixty-something-year-old man who knew every creaky step or rattling window better than us. My overloaded brain was too exhausted from our miserable welcome back to the inn to process the shock of seeing Mr. Donaldson’s son.
“Well, well, three damsels in distress rather than just one?” His familiar full lips, now accentuated by a well-groomed beard unlike when we were younger, quirked into a mischievous smirk. “Must be my lucky day.”
Blake tipped her head back and let out a throaty chortle. “Cade Donaldson.” She threw her arms around his neck and gave him a hug that flared completely inappropriate and completely unnecessary jealousy in my gut. Cade and I were ancient history. Ancient high school history. “Never expected to see a knight show up in a dusty truck instead of a valiant steed, but right now we’d take anything.”
The man who had haunted the periphery of my consciousness since we were teenagers slapped a hand to his chest. “Blake Alden, you wound my fragile heart.”
My sister propped a fist on her hip and shot him an apathetic glare. “Ego, Cade. It’s not your heart it’s your ego. But I swear we will all happily bow down at whatever altar the townsfolk erect in your honor and worship dutifully if you manage to get us out of this without major damage.” She gave him a cheeky wink that definitely did not nearly end in a snarl from me. “And Ry’ll make whatever delectable dish your heart desires as tribute.”
His eyes turned wary as his gaze finally took in all of our disheveled appearances. “Okay, if you’re offering your baby sister’s talents up on a platter, I should probably ask first… Exactly how big of a mess did you three make?”
Blake squinted and shrank away from Cade slightly. “I was trying to fill some buckets so we could clean the dust and dirt that sort of just appeared over the past few weeks since Aunt Matti…” Her voice trailed off, and she drew her brows together before clearing her throat. “But the faucet snapped off and sprayed water everywhere.”
I lifted my gaze to connect with his smoldering chocolate one. Butterflies I thought I’d long ago released into the wild battered my abdomen with their frantically beating wings. “Within two minutes the kitchen was soaked. I tried to turn off the valve under the sink, but it was rusted, and…” I shrugged. The mixture of Cade’s unexpected presence and lingering wisps of haunting failure caused my hands to tremble, and I clasped them together in my lap. “It broke, the pipe split, by the time Ry made it to the basement to turn off the main water line, we had an even bigger disaster than before.”
His slightly cocky smirk slipped smoothly into a softer smile as he held me captive with a stare that whispered to my soul that he’d never forgotten me. Us. “Hence the need for my dusty blue steed.”
The moment was broken, as always, by Blake, who slapped Cade on the back just hard enough to make him give a small wince. I barely restrained my eyes from rolling heavenward at the gesture. Clearly the subtle looks between us weren’t quite as covert as I’d thought. Or as one-sided.
“Come on, Sir Donaldson, let me show you the way to the battlefield.” Blake gently, or not so gently as evidenced by Cade’s slight stumble, nudged his shoulder, urging him toward the kitchen. And giving me a meaningful look as they went.
I groaned and tipped my head back to rest against the frame of the sofa while Ryann giggled beside me. I turned to the left to face my sister and gave her what I hoped was a withering glare. “And what exactly is so funny?”
The angelic look only the baby of the family could sport so perfectly slipped into place on Ryann’s face. “Oh, nothing. Only that my big sister, who used to spend night after night terrifying Blake and me with stories of ghosts walking around the inn, just came face-to-face with the most dangerous kind: a real one.”