by Lacey Baker
Book 1 in the Sweetland Series
Dr. Quinn Cantrell made a life for himself in Seattle when he left behind his picturesque hometown—and the unhappy memories of a relationship that ended tragically. His grandmother’s death is an unexpected blow, but there are even more surprises waiting—including a mischievous puppy, a reunion with his far-flung siblings, and an old acquaintance who’s grown into a gorgeous and capable woman.
Nikki Brockington was proud of the work she’d done at The Silver Spoon, and when the Cantrells leave its management in her care, she’s happy to take on the responsibility. But keeping the inn and its restaurant profitable isn’t her only challenge—not when she can’t stop thinking about Quinn, who reminds her that home is more than a place. It’s who you love…
Book 1 in the Sweetland Series
There wasn’t a damned thing funny, at least Nikki didn’t think so. Hoover King and his band of jolly old men thought it was absolutely hilarious, despite the fact that this was the repast for one of the town’s finest citizens. She had some choice words for them in that regard, too, but held her tongue. Don’t be rude to the guests. That was one of the first rules to be learned in the hospitality business.
How about when said guest grabs your butt? Is it okay to be rude then?
Heading into the kitchen, she could do nothing but shake her head. Hoover King was a sixty-something-year-old man who’d lived in Sweetland forever. He was short, round, bald, and jovial, which was a complement to his wife, Inez, who was tall, rail-thin, and mean as a rattlesnake. She was most likely the reason Hoover stayed drunk more than he was ever sober, a fact that had most of the townsfolk feeling sorry for him instead of declaring him a public menace. With all that said, he probably didn’t even know he’d grabbed her in an inappropriate spot.
No, that was bull, he knew exactly what he was doing and he’d enjoyed it. As for Nikki, she hadn’t enjoyed anything since receiving the call about Mrs. Cantrell’s passing. Yet she’d agreed to come over and help out tonight. Actually, it had been a no-brainer. She worked here during the day as Ms. Janet’s assistant manager, taking care of a lot of the day-to-day tasks and making sure the B&B ran as smoothly as it possibly could. Michelle took care of the restaurant, and they all coexisted in a peaceful harmony. She wondered how that harmony would hold up now that all the Cantrell siblings were back under one roof.
“Hey cutie-pie, you taking a mighty long time with that new pitcher of lemonade.” Hoover’s voice slurred, his portly body wobbling in through the swinging kitchen door.
“I’ll be there in just a minute, Mr. King. Why don’t you go back out and sit with your friends?” Or go home and pass out next to your wife. That sounds like a better plan.
“I came in here to help you,” he said, stumbling toward her.
Nikki could hear his footsteps, but her back was facing him. She’d been just about to lift the tray with the two pitchers of lemonade on it when instinct warned her to put it down. The minute she did she felt him pressing against her back.
“I can carry it,” he mumbled, then breathed over her shoulder. She thought she would collapse.
Even from behind she could smell the liquor on him. It was disgusting that he drank this way, especially since he also acted as the town’s only cab service. The other thing that was basically nauseating was the way his round body was rubbing against her backside. She tried to turn, which really wasn’t a good idea on so many levels. He breathed directly into her face then, hot and funky. And he pushed even closer to her, this time wrapping his arms around her like she’d asked for a hug.
She instantly pushed against him. “Mr. King, why don’t we go back out and find your wife? She can take you home if you need to lie down.” And he so needed to lie down and sleep off this latest drunken stupor.
“Nope, gonna stay right here with you, cutie-pie,” is what he told her. He had the audacity to grind what should have been his pelvis but was actually even more of his protruding belly.
Nikki pushed at him, and he stumbled back away from her. He also had the wherewithal—even though she had no idea where it had come from—to grab her arms, pulling her forward with him.
“That’s okay, I can stay right here,” she argued, trying to keep from falling into the floor on top of him.
“Give me a kiss, cutie,” he asked, poking his shriveled lips out from beneath a bushy mustache.
“Not in a million years,” she whispered while turning her head. “I’ll just go get your wife.”
“Don’t want her,” was Hoover’s slurred retort.
“Maybe that’s the one you should want,” a male voice said about a second before Hoover’s heavy body was heaved away from hers.
Nikki took a step back and a deep breath, glad to be rid of Hoover’s pawing and panting, not so glad to be caught in his grasp.
“Get your hands off me!” Hoover yelled but was cut short when a coughing fit hit him. He bowed over with the effort of standing, coughing, and talking.
“Time for you to head on home, sir. You need some rest,” the man—no, the freakin’ drop-dead-gorgeous specimen that had come out of nowhere—advised.
On second glance, Nikki decided Mr. Good Looking, still dressed in his church clothes and smelling ten times better than Hoover, was right where he belonged. His back was facing her but she’d know that back anywhere, would know those broad shoulders and that serious let’s-get-right-down-to-business stance anywhere.
“You all right?” he asked when he’d turned to look at her.
I was before I saw you again.
“Fine,” was her tight reply.
She never could get out more than one sentence around Quinton Cantrell. It was demeaning to realize that nineteen years after his departure, her vocabulary apparently hadn’t improved.
“Don’t need nobody telling me what to do,” Hoover insisted.
“No, what you need is a hot cup of coffee and a bed. I believe there’s someone in the other room looking for you,” Quinn continued after looking away from Nikki. “She’s right outside the door.”
“You ain’t got no business here, boy. Tis here is my town and she’s … she’s,” Hoover stuttered and stumbled in Nikki’s direction once more.
This time his feet tripped him up and he would have hit the floor face-first if Quinn hadn’t reached out to catch him.
The muscles in Quinn’s back bunched with the effort, and Nikki almost swooned. Yeah, swooned, like some high school girl.
Getting to his feet, Hoover mumbled something else, giving Quinn the stink-eye the entire time. Hoover looked so put out. He also stared Quinn up and down but probably figured he didn’t have a chance in hell of taking the younger and clearly more physically built man down.
“I’ll go,” Hoover said, spittle flying out of his mouth, sweat prickling the top of his bald head. “But she’s still my cutie-pie.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. She’s cute all right. You go on home,” Quinn told him.
It wasn’t fine, and what did “she’s cute all right” mean? And why, of all the men in this town, in this house as a matter of fact, did Quinn Cantrell have to be the one to come to her rescue?
“If you like being his cutie-pie I can get him back in here for you.”
The deep voice snapped her out of what she would consider a deep state of embarrassment. Her heated cheeks would second that emotion.
“Hoover’s harmless,” she heard herself say.
“Looked like he was doing a good bit of harm fawning all over you,” was Quinn’s reply.
If it had been any other man, his tone might be construed as jealous and she might, just might have been flattered. As it was, it was Quinn and he sounded more along the scolding line, as he used to when they were younger. Nikki didn’t like that. She’d never liked that, especially coming from Quinn.
Squaring her shoulders, she told him, “I can handle myself.”
“Really?” he asked, his long arms folding over his chest.
And a beautiful chest it was, all broad and muscled. As he moved the material of his shirt had stretched much the way it had over his back a few minutes ago, so the outline of his upper physique was visible. And he was still too damned good looking. His honey complexion and smoldering dark brown eyes were the perfect complement to the strong jawline and aristocratic nose. Her mouth watered but she swallowed quickly, refusing the buds of arousal threatening to blossom. This was an old scene, one she’d vowed to resist. What she felt for Quinn Cantrell was over. Actually, it never truly began, at least not where Quinn was concerned.
“Really. And I have to get this lemonade out there before the rest of Hoover’s crew decide to come in here and try their luck.”
“Let me help you,” he offered when she’d picked up the tray and taken a step in the direction of the door.
“No, thanks. You’ve been helpful enough already, as usual, Quinn.”
Nikki slipped through that door before he could say another word, before he could look at her in that painfully platonic way a second longer. She’d known he was coming back to town, known he would be in this house, and should have known how her traitorous body would react to those facts.
Maybe it was time to admit she didn’t really know as much as she thought she did.
* * *
This day couldn’t possibly last any longer. Surely twenty-four hours had come and gone. Quinn certainly felt like it had. His grandmother’s funeral had been at noon at the Redeemer’s Baptist Church, the oldest church in Sweetland. It was now shortly after eight in the evening and the big yellow house at the end of Sycamore Lane that doubled as a bed-and-breakfast and one of the town’s most popular restaurants, The Silver Spoon, was still full of people.
“Gramma would have loved the turnout,” Raine said, coming to stand beside him.
Quinn had been trying to keep his distance from the people of Sweetland all day. Tonight it wasn’t a possibility since the entire town seemed to have taken up residence here at his grandmother’s house. And what a colorful bunch they were, he thought, remembering the encounter in the kitchen just a few minutes ago. Hence the reason he was now sitting comfortably in the farthest corner of the den he could find.
The den was decorated in hunter green and burgundy, the deep colors draping the walls and on the tablecloth. Heavy dark wood shelves filled with books were on two sides of the room, while a bay window took up more than half the other side. It was a spacious room that was now filled with about twenty people with heaping plates of food and lots of conversation.
“She did like a house full of people,” he admitted, watching as his younger sister pulled an empty folding chair over to sit beside him.
And this house seemed to have met its capacity for guests. Sure, there was the extension of the restaurant and the backyard was certainly big enough to hold at least fifty, but Quinn still felt crowded. Actually, he felt like the house would rip apart at the seams if another guest arrived. Townsfolk—that’s what his grandmother would call them—were just like extended family. Right now they all seemed to extend his headache.
Despite how emotionally strained and physically exhausted he was feeling, Quinn had to smile at himself because it had been years since he’d seen Raine. At least five, he thought, remembering when he was in Atlanta for a medical convention and had spent the weekend visiting with her. She still looked the same with her slight build and soft-spoken demeanor.
“She loved the house and catering to all the people who stayed here,” Raine continued after he’d slipped into comfortable silence once more.
Quinn nodded. “It was in her blood to take care of any and everyone around her.” Talking about his grandmother, the woman who’d contributed to Sweetland’s emergence into the tourist scene, the one and only Mary Janet Cantrell, in the past tense gave Quinn a melancholy feeling. The fact that she was really gone hadn’t quite hit him yet.
“I’m going to miss her,” Raine added, her voice cracking just a bit.
Because one of his biggest downfalls was a crying woman—a crying sister was a totally different level of torture—Quinn touched her hand. “We’re all going to miss her. She was the glue that held us together.”
Raine sighed, using the napkin she held daintily in her other hand to dab at tears that had formed in the corners of her eyes. It was an action that was so like Raine, so girlie and so classy at the same time. He looked at his sister’s pretty face, the light coat of makeup that transformed her to a woman, and wondered where the little girl had gone.
“If you call what we are together,” she scoffed.
Quinn shrugged. He didn’t know how to respond considering what she’d said. However, she wasn’t that far off the mark. He and his siblings hadn’t seen one another in a while. He did talk to Preston via email a lot. Parker would call every now and then, whenever he wasn’t knee-deep in some murder investigation—which wasn’t very often. As for his sisters, Quinn knew it was bad but he usually only heard from them around the holidays. All of the Cantrells reached out during holiday time. Thanksgiving, Christmas—especially since Savannah’s birthday was Christmas Eve—and New Year’s were favorite times for the entire family no matter where they were in the world.
“We have our own lives,” he said in defense. The words were familiar because he’d been telling himself this for years, using it as his excuse not to come back to Sweetland.
“But we’re family,” Raine insisted.
“That will never change,” he countered. “No matter where we all live, we’ll still be family.”
“You don’t know what’ll change,” a gruff voice interrupted.
Quinn and Raine looked up. Right in front of them was a wiry old man, hunched over slightly and clutching a cane to keep himself as upright as possible.
“Three days ago I sat right in this room with Janet having a glass of iced tea. Janet makes the best iced tea, with real lemons.” He began to cough, and his thin legs shook.
Quinn immediately stood, going to help the man into a chair. “Get him some water,” he told to Raine. “Just sit here, sir. We’ll get you something to drink and you can catch your breath.”
As Raine walked away, the man shook his head. “Don’t need to catch my breath, just a little cough.”
To Quinn’s medical ear it sounded different, like maybe a touch of emphysema or COPD. “Sounds like more than just a cough to me. How long have you had this cough?”
“You’re the doc,” the man said, looking up at Quinn with watery eyes.
Quinn nodded, sure he didn’t remember this man and not very sure how the man knew Quinn was a doctor. “I am. And you are?”
“Sylvester Bynum,” he stated, extending a hand to Quinn. “I live here. Have for going on three years now.”
“You live at a bed-and-breakfast?” Quinn asked, more than a little confused.
His grandmother lived and had grown up in this very house with her parents, and so had their parents before them. About ten years ago she’d converted the huge yellow Queen Anne Victorian home with its sweeping towers and turrets and rounded porch that wrapped two-thirds of the way around the structure sitting at the end of Sycamore Lane like a light beckoning those lost in the dark—that’s what his grandmother used to tell him—to a bed-and-breakfast. At that time Mary Janet had moved into the caretaker’s suite located in the west tower. The six-bedroom, four-bathroom house was passed down through the seven generations of Cantrells that had lived in Sweetland. It had housed Quinn’s ancestors, former mayors and founders of Sweetland, Maryland. To Quinn’s knowledge his grandmother had run this B&B on her own since conception. Well, his sister Michelle helped out a lot, but Michelle had her own house a few blocks down. So the idea of someone actually living here and not just visiting, besides Mary Janet, was a little strange.
“I didn’t have anyplace else to go,” Sylvester continued as if he could tell exactly what Quinn was thinking. “No family. No nothing but my pension. Janet said I could stay here. I paid my way, so don’t go thinking I’m some kind of mooch. But this is my home and I loved Janet for all she did for me.”
The man looked adamant about what he was saying, his eyes watering even more as he spoke. Quinn didn’t have the heart to continue questioning him. “Okay, well I’m glad she was here for you,” Quinn said. “Now about that cough?”
Across the room loud laughter sounded, grabbing Quinn’s attention. He looked up through the crowd of people and zeroed in on her.
It was the same woman from the kitchen, and it appeared men couldn’t keep their hands off her. She’d just hugged someone, a tall, lanky guy in a police uniform. The embrace hadn’t lasted long, which Quinn shouldn’t have noticed at all. But as she pulled away her eyes were alight with the huge smile that covered her face. A cute face, he thought. No, a really pretty face, was the realization when that thought translated to a quick pang in his chest. Her hair was a riot of curls, which only added to the perpetually cheerful look she possessed, the look that shouldn’t be sexy but actually was.
“Can’t spend all your time alone,” Sylvester said.
“What?” Quinn asked, returning his attention to the old man.
“The people.” Sylvester nodded toward the crowd. “You don’t like them here. Do you?”
“I don’t see the point. We’ve already had the funeral. She’s gone and she’s not coming back,” he said, sinking back down in his own chair. That enormous burden was weighing on Quinn. From the moment he’d received Michelle’s call saying their grandmother had passed away in her sleep, he’d felt like yelling or screaming or punching something. Of course, he hadn’t done any of those things, but the tension was continuously building inside him. Verbalizing that his grandmother was gone almost broke him.
“She’ll always be here,” Sylvester said, clapping his shaking fingers over his heart. “You need to remember that.”
Before Quinn could say anything else Raine had returned with the glass of water. Sylvester politely took a sip then waved both of them away as he struggled to stand. Raine stood closest to him now, and the old man touched a hand to her cheek. “You’ve got lots of love in you. Janet knew it and I can see it in your eyes. Don’t wait forever to share it.”
He limped away, leaving Quinn and Raine to stare after him. “Who was that?” Raine asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
“A friend of Gramma’s,” he answered simply even though he was thinking the man may have been more than a friend to their grandmother. She had definitely provided him with some sort of companionship, and he’d most likely reciprocated. That was something neither Quinn nor his siblings had done since leaving town years ago. Now he could add guilt to the storm of emotions reeling through him. He would give anything to turn back the clock to when he was in Seattle, sitting in his office reading the latest in stem cell research. He was in his element there, safe from all the bad memories that wanted to haunt him, safe from the pretty little Bay town of Sweetland.
And definitely safe from the picture of the pretty woman with the curly hair that kept entering his mind.