In LESS THAN two weeks the final book of the Inn Love series will be released! You can preorder now, but keep scrolling for a special SNEAK PEEK of chapter one.
Where to find Secretly Inn Love
The bitter cold bit into my cheeks as I made my way through the path in the forest to the small beach by the now frozen pond. With the temperature barely above freezing at the warmest part of the day and lows near zero or below, the ice was thick enough to support both my skates and my pissy attitude.
I yanked on the laces harder than necessary, as though it would somehow calm the anger still churning in my gut even two weeks after my sisters accidentally spilled the beans that my entire childhood had basically been a lie. That the two people I trusted the most in this world had spent years keeping me in the dark and feeding me, at best, half-truths and, at worst, mountains of outright deceit.
The first glide of my blade across the glassy surface did more to calm me than any yoga pose, indulgent dessert, or cutting glare I sent pointedly at Gavynn and Blake’s backs as soon as they weren’t looking. It wasn’t my most mature moment, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to admit that to anyone, especially them.
Time was irrelevant and then completely disappeared as I switched from side to side, twisted to skate backward, and even took a few small leaps, less confident in the trick than I had once been. I’d have to go back. Regardless of the tensions simmering between us, I had committed to the reopening of the inn that our aunt and uncle had left us, and I wouldn’t disappoint them, even if it was only their memory.
My sisters, on the other hand, could take a flying leap off the closest bridge.
Deep down, where my love and my devotion for the two most consistent and supportive people in my life resided, I didn’t mean a word of any of the hurtful things I’d hurled at them out of anger or that I’d kept locked in my mind. But at that moment, the wound was too fresh to acknowledge anything other than the pain.
The alarm I’d set on my phone rang out from where it rested on the small bench at the edge of the pond, and I sighed at the device. I had nearly everything prepared for dinner that evening already, but it needed to be put together. Comfort food was a must at this time of the year, and the roasted chicken and vegetables with a side of garlic redskin mashed potatoes would easily fit that bill.
More than any exercise or relaxation technique, cooking calmed me, and making delicious food that so often received copious amounts of compliments was the best medicine for everything that irritated me. I gingerly stepped off the ice and sat on the cold iron surface as I undid the laces with a small sigh. Preparing dinner for Gavynn and Kasey, the young girl we’d hired part-time to help with various tasks around the inn, to serve the guests was just the thing I needed, even if it meant skillfully dodging the assholes formerly known as my siblings.
The familiar battle between wanting to reason away everything that had happened because they were my family and an increasingly strong desire to snap at them like a rabid wolf warred in my gut as I trudged back up the slight incline that led home. I crept into the back door of the carriage house, stashed my skates away in my room, and pulled on my lime green and black snap-front chef’s coat. I turned the three-quarter sleeves up two times and smoothed them out before pulling on the matching black pants.
I slid my feet into the less than chic, but oh-so-comfortable black slip-resistant clogs before I left my room. Even though it was only a few steps from the front door of the carriage house to the inn, pulling on the downy lavender coat was a necessity before stepping out into the icy air.
As always, preparing the food carried a certain level of magic that erased nearly every edge of tension that danced along my nerves. I pulled the carrots, parsnips, and onions I’d chopped earlier in the day out of the refrigerator and arranged the blend along the bottom of each of the three roasting pans I’d prepared. I whisked olive oil and seasonings together and drizzled them over top of each one, tossing them to make sure they were all coated.
The last remaining bit of irritation dissolved from my spine as I trussed the chickens, placed them on top of the vegetables, and sprinkled a blend of herbs over each. While they baked, I boiled the red skin potatoes and whipped up a quick batch of cornbread, a last-minute addition solely because I craved the sweet and savory side myself. I hummed a little tune in my head that I remembered catching Uncle Gary singing to Aunt Matti.
Moving through the kitchen felt like I was performing a grand ballet as I transitioned seamlessly from one creation to the next, everything flowing perfectly. Easily. Without a single one of the tangles currently knotting my life outside of the kitchen.
I laid out each plate with the artful flair I’d not just been trained in, but that I prided myself on. I added a small dash of parsley to the top of each serving of potatoes and nodded with satisfaction at my creation.
A soft groan came from the doorway and brought my attention up as Kacey appeared. She pulled her raven curls into a tight ponytail and washed her hands, then moved over to appraise the meal. “Ryann, you manage to make the simplest meals look like they belong on the cover of a magazine and the most complicated dishes appear easy. I swear you’ve got a magic wand hidden up your sleeves.”
I grinned at the younger girl as I filled one of the trays for her and gave her a wink. “It’s Aunt Matti’s secret ingredients that make it all work.”
She popped her brows twice as she lifted one serving dish onto her shoulder with practiced ease. “How secret is secret? I swear if I could cook like you, Danny would propose tomorrow and stop dragging his feet.”
Without any conscious thought from my brain, a small laugh escaped my lips and it felt so damn good. “Sorry, Kacey, secret means secret, but I’ll give you a hint: you can’t buy it in a store.”
She rolled her eyes and backed towards the door, bumping it with her hip. “I got it. It’s love or some other bullshit thing, right?”
I lifted one shoulder and held my arms out at my sides. “I shall neither confirm nor deny it.” I jutted my chin toward the dining room. “Are you good to handle everything here and manage cleanup? I went out for a skate earlier and lost track of time, and it’s hitting me now. I’m more than ready for bed, even though it’s super early.”
With her free hand, she waved in the direction of the exit. “Go. It’s a small crowd right now, and a few of the rooms filled out their meal plans to say they were eating out tonight, so there are only four full tables.”
I threw her a look of gratitude as I tugged my coat back on. I slipped a plastic wrap-covered cornbread muffin into the pocket with every intention in the world of smearing my homemade honey butter across it and devouring it for a midnight snack. As much as I loved cooking and as much as it was the exact kind of therapy I needed, I wasn’t joking. The mixture of the cold air and the kind of physical exercise I hadn’t done in years hit me like a ton of bricks, and I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other as I made the small trek home. The comfort of my awaiting bed was the sole thing motivating me.
However, the two people standing right inside the entrance as I opened the door, blocking my way, made my already aching heart squeeze a little more. I folded my arms across my chest and narrowed my gaze, both to make it clear I wasn’t in a mood to discuss the giant elephant planted in the middle of the room and to guard the tender organ. “Now is not the time.”
Blake took a step toward me. “It’s never the time. It hasn’t been the time for two freaking weeks. You need to talk to us, Ry.”
I tapped my finger on my chin and tilted my head to one side as though I were contemplating her statement. “Um, actually, no I don’t. I don’t have to, and I don’t want to. The only thing I have to do at this moment in time is take a long hot shower, crawl into my bed, and dream about the sexy leading actor from the last rom-com I watched.” I pushed through them to hang up my coat, but Gavynn grabbed my arm.
She knitted her brows together tightly. “Ryann Elizabeth Alden.” Her voice was low but left no room for disagreement. “We love you. We screwed up, but we love you and we are your family. So you are going to speak, you are going to scream, hell I don’t really care if you throw shit and destroy this whole room, but we are going to fix this.”
“You keep saying ‘we’ like this is a team. You broke our team. You’ve always treated me like a kid, even after I grew up, and I get that I probably fed into that, but now you’ve got to deal with an all-grown-up me who is pissed off that my sisters spent a lifetime lying to me.” A tear trailed down Gavynn’s cheek, mirroring the one on mine. I looked back and forth between Blake and Gavynn. “What are you even doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home with your husband?”
Blake pushed a lock of blonde hair over her shoulder. “I am right where I need to be. There isn’t a force in this world that could keep me away from my family when they need me, and this shit has been going on far too long.” She grabbed my hands and held them in hers. “We need each other, and we need to fix this.”
“We did a lot of stupid things. We might have had good intentions and you could probably excuse some of it because we were young, but we should have been honest with you when we got older.” Gavynn gave a small shrug. “But then Mom and Dad died, and we moved here, and everything turned to chaos and… you had really good memories. We didn’t want to ruin that.”
I yanked away from Blake’s hold and moved away from both of them. “But they aren’t real.” I dug my nails into my scalp as I screamed out all the emotion I’d been bottling up. “My entire childhood was a lie. The two people I believed in the most in this world—the only people I trusted—have spent the entire twenty-four years of my life feeding me one bullshit story after another, and you think you can fix that with a simple apology?”
I took several large steps toward my bedroom before turning back to point an accusatory finger in their direction. “I might have been your sheltered baby before, but not anymore. And this,” I gestured in a circle to indicate all of us, “is not getting fixed that easily.”
With that, I turned on my heel and retreated to my room, slamming the door behind me. I collapsed onto my bed, not even caring that I still wore my chef’s uniform, which now included a large splotch of chicken grease on the front of my jacket. I sobbed into my pillow until exhaustion overtook me and I slipped into the sweet oblivion offered by sleep.
At some point during the night, I woke, blinking my grainy eyes several times before my vision cleared enough that I could catch the full winter moon through the small separation between my curtains where the panels didn’t quite meet. I wondered at the aching in my muscles as I stretched and sat up until I remembered skating out some of my irritation yesterday.
I didn’t have to work very hard to recall why my heart still hurt with every beat.
Stripping out of my wrinkled, dirty clothes, I pulled on fluffy pajama pants and a thermal shirt before padding out into the kitchen for a drink. I pressed the glass against the lever built into the fridge to dispense ice and absentmindedly stared out the window. The scene could have been a study in tranquility. Willow Falls had always been a sanctuary for my sisters and me, and for good reason.
A pair of glaringly bright headlights cut through my nostalgic thoughts and peaceful view. I frowned at the pane of glass and set my drink down on the countertop. I crossed the yard to the inn just as the sleek, black SUV pulled to a stop in front of the porch steps. I wrapped my arms around my midsection, questioning the wisdom of standing completely alone in the dead of night with a potential stranger, even in a place as safe as this. Especially when a gust of air chose that moment to remind me I’d forgotten my coat.
A concern that was multiplied when the driver’s door opened and a man that was easily a few inches taller than either of my sisters’ partners climbed out. He had a solid foot on my five-foot-three-inch self. Even through his heavy coat, the breadth of his chest and the thickness of his arms were impressive. More than fear, annoyance settled in. Making decisions like this probably wouldn’t help my assertion that I didn’t need to be babied anymore.
Summoning courage from somewhere, I took a step toward the man and gave a small smile. “Hi, can I help you?”
A broad grin split his thick ginger beard and something that looked like relief spread across his face as he adjusted the beanie covering his head. “Any chance you’ve got a room free? I was on my way to Canada to visit family, but there is a huge storm coming in right on the border, and according to my GPS, this is the only place to spend the night for fifty miles.”
My tense muscles relaxed as he spoke. Surely a serial killer wouldn’t have bothered giving me that much information. Or be that attractive. “Lots of them.” I wanted to kick myself as soon as I said it, just in case he was just a really good-looking psychopath after all, and I just let him know there was barely anyone around to hear if he tried to kidnap me.
Silencing the voice in my head that had watched far too many true crime shows on TV, I punched in the security code that unlocked the inn and gestured for the man to go in ahead of me. Better not to turn my back, just in case.
I started to remove my coat before I remembered that I wasn’t exactly dressed for public presentation, and I secured the garment tighter around me. With a few taps, I brought up our schedule on the computer at the front desk. “It looks like we still have the Woodland Suite available on the third floor, the Cottage Room on the second floor, and the Lilac Suite on this floor.” There were several other ones available, but I wanted to give the impression that there were a lot more people around us.
His gray eyes twinkled back at me. “Which would you choose?”
That was easy. My room. The Lilac Suite. But I still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t hiding an ax in the backpack he brought in with him, and I’d rather not ruin my perfectly designed space at the inn. “The Woodland Suite would be perfect for you.” I handed him a key with a raccoon-shaped keychain.
The corner of his mouth kicked up into a smirk. “Don’t you need my name and payment information first?”
I winced. This was exactly why Gavynn and Blake handled these things normally. It never occurred to me. “Yes, of course.” I managed to get the response out without stammering too much.
“Elijah Hansen,” he offered by way of introduction as he slid his credit card toward me.
“And how many nights will you be staying, Mr. Hansen?” I entered his information as quickly as I could and passed the plastic rectangle back to him.
His fingers brushed against mine as he took it back and returned it to his wallet that he stashed in his back pocket. “Let’s start with one and see what happens next.”