Determined to own his own bar, as his father had, Craig Sutton is a man on a mission. But wanting to enjoy small town life is only one of the reasons he moved to the mountains of North Carolina. Whether meaning to or not, Craig can’t keep from getting involved with the McKay family, and the closer he gets to Charlie and her daughter the more entangled he becomes.
In Blue Creek secrets have always run deep, and someone is now trying to expose Charlie’s in a disturbing way. She isn’t the only one with something to hide, however, and deception threatens a possible relationship between her and Craig. As hidden truths are revealed and danger increases, Charlie must find a way to face the past or lose everything.
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Someone was in his bedroom. Craig Sutton feigned sleep, even though the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He rolled over, slid one hand beneath his pillow, grasped cold steel, and opened his eyes. He didn’t know whether to laugh or curse. Standing on the bed next to him was four-anda-half-year-old Mackenzie McKay. Her big black eyes were wide and unblinking. He released his weapon and sat up.
“Hi.” She twirled one of her white-blonde pigtails. Craig had come across Mack, the niece of his landlady, on a number of occasions. But…
“How’d you get in here, sweetheart?”
She pouted. “I’m allowed.”
“Well…I don’t think anyone told you, but because I’m staying here, you need to knock first.” Craig didn’t want to scare her or, God forbid, make her cry. He’d never been able to handle female tears, especially the tiny variety.
She crossed her arms. “Auntie Alex shoulda said.”
“I’m sure she meant to…How about you go in the other room while I change, and then I’ll take you to find your aunt.”
“Ohskay.” She jumped down and closed the door behind her. Craig went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and changed his clothes in record time. When he came out, he was surprised to find her sitting at the kitchen table, humming and swinging her legs.
Craig shook his head and smiled; the kid was adorable. “Ready, sweets?” “Yep!” She hopped off the seat and took Craig’s hand.
He shivered the moment he stepped outside; he should have grabbed a jacket. It was freezing, and Mack didn’t have a coat on. He swung her up in his arms, she giggled, and his heart warmed.
She pressed her cold nose into the crook of his neck. “Grandpops does that too.”
“He’s a nice guy then.”
“Uh-huh. You smell pretty. Kinda like my Uncle Ryan but with more pepper,” she said with a small nod, then her mouth pinched. “But you don’t itch my nose.”
Craig laughed. “Is that so?”
They walked across the gravel parking lot toward the bed and breakfast Alexandra McKay owned and operated. It was called Granny Vaughn’s, and the place was both massive and impressive, if one was into that kind of thing. There was a closed-in porch leading to the kitchen, which was off limits to B and B guests, but whose entrance he was told he was welcome to use if he needed anything—like paying his rent or chatting up his landlady.
Craig had expected to come across Alexandra but found her sister Charlie, Mack’s mother, instead. It was a pleasant surprise. He enjoyed this particular McKay, with her short blonde curls, big brown eyes, and supple pink lips—kissable lips. Almost every time he was in her company, he’d been drawn to her mouth, not that she noticed. It was for the best; he had his own agenda here in Blue Creek, and he needed to keep his priorities straight.
Charlie put her hands on her jean-clad hips. “Mackenzie Annie McKay, where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
“Uh-oh, kid.” Craig put Mack down. “She used your full name; looks like you’re in trouble.”
Mack’s gaze darted between the adults. “I went to the playhouse.”
“Do we need to talk again about going somewhere without telling me, or going into places without being asked?”
The child looked down and shuffled her feet.
Charlie offered him a small smile. “I’m sorry, Craig.”
“It was a shock to the system, but what the hell, it woke me up,” he said looking around the room. “Is Alexandra here?”
“She’s running errands, but she’ll be back soon.”
She turned to Mack. “Do you want to help me or play with your doll babies?” It only took a second for the child to dash out of the room.
Craig eyed the pot of coffee sitting on the counter. “Are there any guests?”
Charlie, the consummate hostess, poured him a cup. “This is the slowest time of year for Alex, but there was a sweet older couple staying here last night; they left a bit ago. I was helping them load their luggage into their car, hence my daughter slipping away.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He took the offered mug, then sipped. “You do make the best coffee.”
She gave him a shy smile. “There are muffins too, if you’re interested?”
He homed in on the basket of baked goods, sat down at the table, and helped himself. “Keep me company?”
Charlie shot a quick glance in the direction her daughter went. “Okay, but just for a bit.” She poured herself a cup of coffee, then took the seat across from him. “How’s Blue Creek treating you, so far?”
He shrugged. “I can’t complain, but let’s not talk about me; tell me about you.” He eyed her over the rim of his mug. Was she debating what to divulge? How stimulating!
“Well…I—” “I didn’t see your ride in the parking lot.”
“No, my sister Casey took it for an oil change.”
“She’s the mechanic, right?”
“It’s an interesting choice,” he said around a mouthful of muffin.
Her brow pinched. “Sorry?”
He swallowed both his food and his grin. “Your SUV—not your sister’s career. A female mechanic is pretty badass, but so is your ride. It’s vintage, isn’t it?” Her lips quirked upward.
“Yes. I saw one like it in a movie once. I’ve never really been into cars, but I wanted that Blazer! I asked Ward Jessup, who was the town mechanic at the time, how hard it would be to get one, and he said he’d look into it. It took him years, and I’d actually forgotten about the entire thing, but after I had Mackenzie, it showed up in my driveway.”
Craig’s eyebrows rose. “He gave it to you?”
A fine sheen glazed her eyes. “Yes, Ward was very special to my family—to me. He died over a year ago.”
And now he was a dick. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She shrugged. “You didn’t know.”
He shifted in his chair. “What about your family?”
“What about yours?” A blush swept up her cheeks. “I didn’t mean to sound—”
He waved a hand. “Don’t mention it. My mother died when I was a kid. It was just me and my dad until college—two men trying not to let life knock them down, or so he always said. He owned a bar, so I’m continuing the tradition. I’m on my own now.” Sort of.
“What about Mackenzie’s father?”
She flinched. Damn. “Sorry if that’s too forward.”
Craig sat back. “I see…sorry.”
Charlie stood, dumped her coffee in the sink, and started loading the dishwasher.
He drummed his fingers against the table. “So, tell me about my landlady.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Alexandra?”
“Yes, is she as—I don’t know—cold as she seems?”
“Alex isn’t cold; she’s shrewd—there’s a difference.”
“Yeah?” He smirked and stood.
“She seems a bit stuck-up to me.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘stuck-up.’ ” She closed the dishwasher and smiled at him. “We’ve always described her as prissy, and that’s Alexandra to the core. She’s always been like that—she’s a trip. You seem to have a lot of opinions about my sister.”
Craig cocked his head to the side. Was Charlie jealous? “I’m the curious sort, but if you’re wondering if I’m interested in her, then the answer is no. She’s not my type.”
“And what is your type?” Her face went red.
“Why? Are you interested?” Wouldn’t that be stimulating?
Her brow pinched. “I…” She was a picture with big doe eyes, apple cheeks, and pink, kissable lips.
He downed his coffee and walked over to her. Priorities be damned. “Well, Charlie, are you?”
“I have a four-and-a-half-year-old and own a diner. I don’t have time to be interested.”
Craig leaned down and breathed her in. She smelled like cookies. Delicious. “Pity that.”
Her gaze searched his, and, God help him, she licked her lips.
“Good morning.” And there went all the heat. Craig winked at Charlie, then turned. Even with the cold stare in her dark blue eyes, Alexandra was breathtaking.
“Good morning, Landlady.”
She put her shopping bags down on the table and eyed him. “Was there something you needed, Mr. Sutton?”
“Nope, and it’s Craig, remember?” He turned to Charlie. “Thanks for the coffee and conversation.”
Charlie’s cheeks were still flushed, but she smiled. “You’re welcome.”
He gave a curt bow to Alexandra, then headed out the door. Despite the dismissal, Craig smiled. Things were shaping up his way.
Craig Sutton…holy moly, but the man caused Charlie to pulse in places best not thought about. From the moment he walked into her diner, she had been taken by the sight of him. And today was no different; his tawny hair had been tousled by the wind, and his dark blue eyes were the perfect mixture of mischief and sincerity. Not to mention how his tight jeans fit his backside oh-so-snugly.
Even a ratty sweatshirt couldn’t diminish the drool-worthy factor. Charlie shook her head and turned to her sister.
“Do you want to tell me what all that was about?”
Alex paused from putting away groceries. “What all what was about?”
Charlie rolled her eyes. “Oh, you know very well what I mean.”
“I thought you’d sworn off men?”
She could only stare at her sister. A few years ago, Charlie’s choice in the opposite sex had sent her reeling into a black pit of shame and despair. She had promised herself she wouldn’t go down that particular rabbit hole ever again, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the scenery. And she missed being in a man’s arms, not to mention kissing. Goodness, she loved kissing. If Alex hadn’t come in, Craig may have…Don’t even go there, Charlie girl!
“Cat—or something else—got your tongue?”
Charlie gaped. “What in the world has gotten in to you today?”
Her sister sighed. “Sorry, I’m not trying to be a bitch—”
“You could have fooled me!” She shook her head. Alexandra was more than a sister, she was Charlie’s best friend, and…and… “Do you like him?”
“Seriously!” She huffed and snatched a package of coffee filters out of her sister’s hands. “Do you like Craig?”
“We don’t know enough about him.” Alex held out her hand.
Charlie gave the filters back. “That doesn’t answer my question.” Most men fell over themselves when they first met Alex, and Craig was no exception. Charlie couldn’t blame him; her sister was like a goddess with her crown of fiery locks and unrelenting confidence. And Charlie wasn’t jealous, but this particular man’s reaction to Alex, and her sister’s odd behavior, did prickle under her skin.
“Are you interested in him?”
Charlie shrugged. “I can’t afford to get in a tizzy over any man.”
“Exactly! Men make a mess of things, and that’s all we need to say on the subject.”
“Fine.” Charlie began to help unload the groceries, knowing full well her sister hadn’t answered the question.
“Did you get me a surprise?” Mack asked.
“Yes, baby, but you have to wait till we get home,” Charlie said for the third time since they’d left her parents’ house. It was her own fault for mentioning she’d gone shopping after she’d picked their SUV up from the garage.She pulled into the driveway, enjoying how the moonlight haloed their little house, a small white-sided ranch with navy-blue shutters and a wraparound porch. It was the house she’d always pictured having—a home of their own. Putting the vehicle in park, Charlie squinted at the package on the front porch. She didn’t remember ordering anything.
She got Mack out of her car seat and hurried up the steps after her. “Look, Mama!” Mack clapped. “It’s a present for us.”
“Let’s go inside first, then I’ll come and get it.” Charlie unlocked the door and urged Mack in. She waited a beat, then went back to get things she’d picked up at the store. She glanced at the box and rolled her eyes. It looked heavy.
Mack tried to take the bags out of Charlie’s hands the minute she walked into the kitchen. “Can I have my surprise now?”
Charlie handed her daughter the new coloring book. “Here, sweetheart. Now go to the playroom, and I’ll come in there in a minute.”
Mack shouted her thanks and skipped away.
Charlie hated admitting it, but she couldn’t wait for preschool to start again. She understood the teaching staff had the flu, but how long did it really take to get better? Take a chill pill, Charlie girl! Twenty minutes later, she put the finishing touches on her meatloaf. She cranked the timer for another fifteen minutes and went to set the table. She had just put out the forks when she remembered the box.
Maybe one of her sisters had sent them something. Out on the porch, Charlie took a few minutes trying to figure out how to get the thing inside—it weighed a ton. Finally, she decided to open the package right where it was. From the smell, something had gone bad. There was no way she was bringing it inside her house, much less her kitchen.
Maybe if she hadn’t forgotten about the darn thing, it wouldn’t have had a chance to spoil. “It’s freezing out here, so it isn’t my fault,” she told the box. Shaking her head, Charlie used a paring knife to cut the tape. She opened the flaps, wincing at the stench, and looked inside. Charlie rushed to the porch railing and emptied her stomach.
She closed the box, her hands shaking. It couldn’t be! Oh, God.
“Go to your room, Mackenzie, and don’t come out until I get you.”
Charlie shouted, “Now!”
Her daughter ran back inside.
Charlie rubbed her face. “Holy shit,” she whispered; she choked out a sob, then took a couple of deep breaths. She could handle this; she had to calm down. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed.
“Fletcher, someone sent me a package.” She gulped for air. Do not fall apart, do not fall apart.
“Hells bells, just spit it out! I got a grave robbed out here, and you won’t believe whose it is neither.”
“How the hell did you know that? Shit—”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to say. He’s here…someone put him on my porch.”
“Holy fuck! Don’t touch anything! Jasper and I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Charlie shoved her cellphone in her back pocket. Not only did someone out there know her secret, but they’d dug it out of its grave, chopped it into pieces, and left it at her door.
About the Author
A native of Virginia Beach, she is currently living in Western North Carolina. Pick up her latest novel, The Secrets That Shape Us- available now!