The Unexpected Inn ~ First Three Chapter FREE

The Unexpected Inn ~ First Three Chapter FREE

Chapter 1


In the long list of Abigail Preston’s life complications, kissing Logan Mathews landed near the top. Somewhere between starting a brand-new business and unexpectedly raising an eight-year-old boy. On any given day, one would slightly out-stress the others, but today, her convoluted love life unapologetically slid into first place.

Elbow deep in lemon-scented soap suds, Abby furiously scrubbed an innocent loaf pan, wishing she could wipe away her agitated thoughts as easily as breadcrumbs. Almost four months had passed since she’d kissed Logan in the middle of State Street on Christmas Day. She could still feel his lips pressed against hers as light, powdery snowflakes fell from the sky.

Something about the way he’d kissed her—tender, searching, and hopeful—had made her forget every closely guarded reservation she’d kept stacked around her heart like a barricade. She’d wanted more; to see if they had a future together. But life and its many complexities had other ideas, abandoning them in the awkward tension of what could’ve been. She couldn’t help wondering if they’d made a mistake.

“Yay! Pumpkin bread!” Max Bailey scampered into the kitchen, his scrawny limbs caked in dirt. He’d grown a full inch since she’d welcomed him into her home last December, and he already needed new clothes. His previous foster parents hadn’t given much thought to his wardrobe, forcing Max’s lanky eight-year-old frame into clothing two sizes too small. But Abby planned to do things differently. Even if, as a first-time foster mom, she had no idea what she was doing.

“Can I have some?” Max peered hopefully at the steaming loaf on the butcher block island, his huge brown eyes reflecting his bottomless stomach. How could such a gangly kid eat so much?

“Yes, but wash your hands first.” She scooted to the side, giving him room at the sink. At five-five, she knew it was only a matter of time before he surpassed her in height. The thought made her smile, then immediately sparked a pinprick of guilt.

Max’s social worker, Carla Delgado, had made the situation abundantly clear: This wasn’t Max’s forever home. Abby had merely been a convenient placement when his foster parents—and her neighbors—the Hobarts, vanished in the middle of an identity theft investigation, leaving Max behind. Carla still hoped to track down a distant relative despite the fact that Max’s father had been lost at sea for months and a family member had yet to come forward.

Abby’s gaze lingered on Max’s sweet, soil-streaked face as he scarfed down a generous slice, and her chest squeezed all the air from her lungs. In a blink, he’d stolen her heart, and no matter how many times Carla reminded her of the temporary arrangement, she couldn’t imagine a world without Max.

Or Logan…

As if on cue, the man who occupied her thoughts—both waking and sleeping—strolled into the kitchen, drawing her gaze with an irresistible force she still found startling, even after rote responsibilities had usurped all hints of romance.

"Wow. Something smells incredible.” His rich baritone rumbled through her like waves on the beach, and the vibrations thrummed all the way to her toes. “Did you save me a slice?” He grinned at Max. His muscular six-two frame—a pillar of strength and safety—towered above the small boy as he tousled his shaggy brown hair.

“Yeah, but you have to wash your hands first. Right, Abby?”

"Uh-huh,” she mumbled absentmindedly, fixated on the soil smudges covering Logan’s jeans and large calloused hands. His tan leather gardening belt hung askew around his hips, giving his austere, ex-military posture a sexy slant. How did the man make dirt look so scintillating?

As the official caretaker of the large Victorian-era estate they all called home, Logan wore a vast collection of proverbial hats from carpenter to plumber to groundskeeper. Even with the injury he sustained in the Air Force and the sporadic muscle spasms that still plagued him, he worked harder than any man she’d ever met. Maybe too hard, as if he had something to prove.

The meticulous backyard and garden that boasted a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean was his pièce de résistance, and Abby never knew she’d find a rugged man wielding a trowel and pruning shears so seductive.

Oblivious to her shameless ogling, Logan surveyed the chaotic kitchen. Dirty dishes, scattered eggshells, spilled flour, globs of gooey batter, and abandoned cookbooks littered the countertops. “So, how’s it going in here?”

Abby blushed, turning back to her sink of soapy water. “I’m making progress,” she fibbed. In truth, she was no closer to creating the perfect recipe than she’d been yesterday. Or the day before. But she couldn’t admit that to Logan. It had been his suggestion to turn the beautiful historic home into a bed-and-breakfast, and she’d run with the idea, impulsively deciding to open a full-blown inn, complete with themed weekends, personalized itineraries, and a gourmet breakfast featuring a signature dish. And not just any signature dish, the kind of culinary delight guests would rave about long after their visit. The kind that would bring them back again and again.

She’d naively assumed it would take her only a week or two, tops. After all, as a cookbook ghostwriter, she made a living developing recipes for paying clients. This should be a literal cakewalk. And yet, faced with creating the first recipe that would bear her own name, she’d come up empty. And the worst part? She was quickly running out of inspiration—and time.

“We’re making good progress, too.” Logan placed a proud hand on Max’s shoulder, and the little boy beamed between bites of pumpkin bread. “We have a few more shrubs to plant and an azalea to prune, but thanks to Max’s help, the garden will be ready for our inaugural guest on Friday.”

“Our in-og—what?” Max scrunched his nose, confused by the unfamiliar word.

“Inaugural,” Logan repeated. “It means our first guest that will mark the opening of Blessings on State Street.”

Abby’s heart soared each time she heard the name of their new inn. When she arrived on the doorstep of 1109 West State Street last December, she’d never felt more lost and alone. Her entire world had unraveled when she’d learned her late husband had inherited a beach house in the small Northern California coastal town of Blessings Bay—a house he’d kept secret from her for reasons she still didn’t understand. To maintain his duplicity, he’d hired his ex–Air Force buddy, Logan, to oversee the property on his behalf. Logan—the most unexpected blessing of all.

He joined her at the sink to wash his hands, briefly brushing his bare arm against hers as he reached for the faucet. Tingles of awareness coursed through her, setting every inch of her skin on fire. She resisted the urge to splash the sudsy, lukewarm water on her neck and collarbone to cool off.

Moments like this one, when every fiber of her being wanted to inch closer, to feel his strong, muscular arms wrap around her and pull her against him, she marveled at how she’d managed to get anything done. It took considerable effort to remain focused on her main objective: make Blessings on State Street a premier destination and introduce her guests to the magical town that had changed her life.

When she came to Blessings Bay, she’d wanted a place to hide, a refuge from her pain. Instead, she’d found a family to call her own. Albeit a quirky, unconventional family she was still trying to figure out, but a blessing all the same. And she wanted to impart the same positive, uplifting experience—the feeling of coming home—to every single person who walked through the front door, starting with their first guest.

She’d booked Serena Scott—a famous travel blogger who went by the catchy moniker the Savvy Sojourner—for a complimentary week-long stay in her most exclusive suite. Most proprietors seeking Serena’s stamp of approval offered the influencer only one night. Or a long weekend, if they were feeling generous. But Abby knew she needed to pull out all the stops if she wanted Serena to choose her inn over the countless others vying for her attention. How could Serena turn down an entire week for free?

Plus, Abby had sweetened her offer by promising Serena she’d be the only guest in the inn and would receive her personal, undivided attention. Of course, securing one of the top travel influencers in the country for their first guest came with some risks, but a raving review from Serena—not to mention all the exposure on her multimillion-follower social media accounts—would set them up for success. And Abby was desperate to succeed.

Luckily, she had an ace up her sleeve. Her best friend, Nadia Chopra, not only had impeccable taste and style, she made a living as a professional product reviewer. Nadia had graciously agreed to check in as a practice guest for a few days and point out any areas needing improvement.

Although Abby appreciated the advice, she had another motive for inviting Nadia. Ever since “The Incident,” her stalwart friend refused every offer of comfort and commiseration. But Abby didn’t buy her brave face. A person simply didn’t survive that degree of devastation unscathed.

But how did you support someone on the path to healing when they wouldn’t even admit they needed help?


Chapter 2


Nadia Chopra inhaled a deep, cleansing breath, relishing the salty ocean air as she zipped along the curvy coastal highway. The change in scenery from chaotic, congested Los Angeles was exactly what she needed.

On her left, craggy sea cliffs dropped dramatically to the pristine beaches below, the smooth sand decorated with sun-bleached driftwood. To her right, fragrant redwoods and lush, leafy ferns hugged the two-lane road, stretching up the mountainside until they met milky blue sky.

Her cell phone buzzed on the passenger seat, and she accepted the call via her car’s Bluetooth. “Hi, Mom.”

“What’s that whooshing sound? Where are you? Are you driving?” Her mother rattled off the questions in lieu of a greeting, and Nadia bit back a laugh. Even at thirty years old, she’d never escape the well-intentioned mothering.

“I’m on my way to Abby’s for a few days, but don’t worry. You’re on Bluetooth.” She rolled up the windows, muffling the pleasant sound of waves crashing against the rocky shoreline. “What’s up?”

“I spoke with Ishani this morning. You’ll never guess what she told me.”

Nadia adjusted her grip on the leather steering wheel. “What?” She played along, although they both knew the answer.

“She told me you’re considering an arranged marriage. My own daughter. And I had to find out from my sister. Can you imagine my surprise?”

She was imagining it right now. Her mother would be perched on her favorite chair with the custom Aztec-blue upholstery, staring out the window of their Malibu beach house, wondering where she’d gone wrong with her eldest daughter.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come to you and Dad first, but she has a gift for matchmaking. You know her track record.”

“Her qualifications aren’t my concern. Don’t you—”

“Want a relationship like you and Dad?” Nadia interjected before her mother could finish her objection. They’d married in India, after meeting a total of three times, and Nadia had never known two people more perfect for each other. And yet, despite their marital success, they’d encouraged her to find love on her own. One of their more glaring parental mistakes. Why couldn’t they be like other Indian parents who couldn’t wait to handpick their offspring’s partners?

“Our situation was different.”

“How so?”

“We were…” Her mother trailed off, as if searching for the right word. After a thoughtful pause, she added softly, “Ready.” Nadia winced. “Beta,” her mother said gently, evoking an endearment that meant child, “don’t you think it’s too soon for something like this? It’s only been a few months since Brian—”

“Mom, I’m fine. Honestly.” As a general rule, she didn’t believe in lying. In fact, most people would argue she was honest to a fault. But sometimes, if you told a lie long enough, and with enough fervor, you could make it come true. As long as someone, like an overly concerned mother, didn’t poke too hard at your flimsy facade.

Thankfully, a road sign welcoming her to Blessings Bay offered a much-needed escape, and she flicked on her blinker. “Mom, I’m sorry, but I need to get going. I’m almost at Abby’s.”

Her mother’s heavy sigh filled the stereo speakers. “Okay, sweetheart. Give Abby my love.”

“I will.” Ending the call with a quick goodbye, she turned off the highway down a narrow lane that led to Main Street, a charming thoroughfare with colorful Victorian-style storefronts on one side and the vast Pacific Ocean on the other.

The first and last time she’d visited Abby in Blessings Bay had been right before Christmas. The quaint mom-and-pop shops had been bedecked in festive garb, and the long grassy promenade facing the picturesque seascape had boasted an enormous evergreen tree draped in twinkling lights.

Now, bathed in the burgeoning beauty of spring, the pretty pastel storefronts in lemon, sage, periwinkle, and rose-petal pink shone to perfection amid lilac, larkspur, and jasmine blossoms. No wonder Abby wanted to call this place home.

Turning right at the single stop sign, she eased onto State Street, a wide road flanked by gorgeous historic homes in storybook styles like Queen Anne and Eastlake, with large wraparound porches, turrets, and gabled roofs.

The most beautiful home on the block belonged to Abby. The soft blue color reminded her of both the sea and sky—a fitting combination considering the two-story gem sat high on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

She’d been almost as shocked as Abby when the stuffy estate lawyer revealed her friend’s late husband, Donnie, owned a secret beach house. She’d asked her then-boyfriend, Brian, if he knew about it, certain he’d been privy to Donnie’s deceit. Two peas in an adrenaline-junkie pod, they’d bonded the day they met as test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base and had been inseparable ever since. In fact, they’d been together the day she met Brian, when he’d used his persuasive charm to finagle her phone number while she waited in line at her favorite coffee shop. Surely after all they’d been through, Donnie would’ve confided in Brian. But her ex swore up and down he had no idea. Of course, come to find out, he’d lied about a lot of things. What’s one more deception added to the pile?

Nadia parked her sleek black Mercedes beside Abby’s silver sedan in the driveway, and before she’d climbed out of the driver’s seat, her friend bounded down the front steps, glowing like a welcome beacon. Flour dusted her apron and streaked her dark shoulder-length waves, and Nadia had a feeling she’d find smudges on her blouse once Abby relinquished her rib-crushing hug.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” Abby took a step back to regard her at arm’s length, concern reflecting in her large, expressive eyes.

“Before you ask”—Nadia held up a hand to stave off the pity—“I’m perfectly fine. I’m not here to wallow. I’m here to help my best friend open her soon-to-be award-winning inn.”

“Can’t we do both? I have plenty of delicious, wallow-worthy ice cream in the freezer, and I stocked up on Kleenex. I thought we could rewatch The First Wives Club and plot our hypothetical revenge on He Who Shall Not Be Named.”

Nadia couldn’t help a smile. “While that’s tempting, I’m honestly doing okay. More than okay. Work’s been great, and I finally feel like my life’s back on track.” She grabbed her favorite Chanel suitcase from the trunk, praying her declaration sounded convincing.

Abby cocked her head, her brow creased by a skeptical squint. Almost as if she knew Nadia still had nightmares about New Year’s Eve.

“At the very least,” Abby relented, “have some tea with me. I couldn’t find all the spices your mom uses for her chai, but I did my best to match her recipe as closely as possible.”

Nadia’s heart warmed at the thoughtful gesture. “Tea sounds lovely. Thanks.”

Leaving her suitcase in the foyer, she followed Abby into the kitchen, then halted abruptly. “What happened?”

A sheepish blush swept across Abby’s cheeks. “I’m working on a signature dish for the inn.”

“And your pantry exploded?”

“I suppose it looks that way, doesn’t it?” Abby sidestepped a smattering of flour speckling the hardwood floor, maneuvering toward the pot of fragrant tea simmering on the stove.

“You realize this wouldn’t pass a health inspection, right?” Nadia wrinkled her nose at a pile of discarded banana peels.

“I know, I know.” Abby poured the steaming liquid into two matching teacups, balancing the eclectic aroma of her many failed culinary attempts with the spicy sweetness of cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. “I got a little carried away.”

“More like obsessive,” Nadia corrected. Abby had a tendency toward perfectionism and could get a little too caught up in the pursuit.

“Maybe,” she conceded. “But with good reason. And don’t worry. I have a few more recipes I want to try, then this place’ll be spotless.” She shoved aside a teetering stack of cookbooks cluttering the antique kitchen table before gesturing to Nadia to join her in the cozy breakfast nook.

“What about the recipe box Logan gave you for Christmas? You made his collection of old family recipes sound like the Holy Grail. I’m surprised you didn’t find anything in there. Or a decent starting point, at least.”

Abby glanced over her shoulder at a small wooden box on the counter, tucked between an electric kettle and ceramic cookie jar before dragging her attention back to the aromatic tendrils of steam curling from her teacup. “I… uh, haven’t tried any of the recipes yet.”

“What? Why not?”

“I don’t know.” Abby squirmed.

“Yes, you do. Spill it.”

Abby sighed and finally met her gaze. In a feather-soft voice, tiptoeing toward a whisper, she murmured, “What if I find exactly what I’m looking for?”

“Then we celebrate.”

When her friend didn’t respond, and looked even more dejected, Nadia pressed further. “I don’t understand, Abs. Isn’t that what you want?”

“I thought it was. But now, I’m not so sure.” Her shoulders slumped as if the weight of her heavy heart had crushed her slight frame.

“Is this about Donnie?” Nadia asked gently. “Because you know he’d want you to be happy.” They’d shared many late-night phone calls as Abby wrestled with her love and loyalty for her late husband and her ever-increasing feelings for Logan. But Nadia thought she’d worked through a lot of those emotions.

“I know. It isn’t Donnie. It’s…” She bit her bottom lip, struggling with her next words. “It’s Logan. What if I find the perfect recipe, but he regrets giving them to me? I can’t use his grandmother’s legacy. Not if he’s changed his mind.”

The loaded question lingered in the air between them, its gravity belied by the cheerfully chirping birds just beyond the bay window.

She had no idea Abby had doubts about her relationship with Logan. Sure, they’d had a rocky start. Most fairy tales didn’t begin with the damsel in distress mistaking the hero for a burglar only to tase him senseless. But in the last few months, they’d grown close. They’d not only become business partners in the inn, they were the most amazing co-parents to Max. Logan had stepped in as a father figure the second Abby took on the role of foster mom, providing Max with a secure, loving home. Together, they made an incredible team. What had changed?

“What happened, Abs?”

“It’s more like what hasn’t happened.” Abby tapped her fingertips against the porcelain teacup, her nerves on full display. “I think he might have second thoughts. About me. About us.”

Nadia didn’t believe it for a second. She’d seen the way Logan looked at her friend. His guarded stoicism melted into a puddle in Abby’s presence. “What makes you think that?”

“Because we’ve been at a standstill since December. We never even talked about the kiss.” Her incessant tapping sloshed hot tea over the rim, and she winced, licking her finger. “I don’t know, Nadia. I think maybe it’s all too much for him. The inn, raising Max, living together—”

“But you don’t live together.”

“Okay. So, not technically. But his bungalow is in the backyard. It’s the same address. Plus, we eat all our meals together and most of our free time is spent with Max. What if he’s no longer interested in me romantically, but our lives are so entangled, he doesn’t know how to tell me?”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“And when am I supposed to do that?” she asked wryly, with a hint of desperation. “Hey, Logan, while you’re pruning that azalea, is there anything else you’d like to cut out of your life? A slightly neurotic brunette, perhaps?” She flopped facedown on the table, elbowing the precarious stack of cookbooks.

They clattered in a noisy heap, and Nadia swiped her tea out of the way just in time. This was serious. Abby and Logan were the perfect couple. She could only dream that her aunt would find her a match as ideal as those two. And she wasn’t about to let them mess things up over a failure to communicate.

By the time she left the inn, she’d have them well on their way to happily ever after. And with any luck—and some expert matchmaking—she’d be right behind them.

Chapter 3


The following morning, Nadia jolted awake and ripped off her eye mask. Her sticky sweat dampened the supple, lavender-scented sheets, and she fought to kick herself free.

The nightmare lingered in her mind, blurring the lines between dream state and reality. Jeering faces stared back at her, faces that had witnessed every tortured nuance of her humiliation. And those words… those cruel, condemning words that echoed in a surreal amalgamation of Brian’s voice blended with her own.

Nadia Chopra, beautiful but underwhelming. She did not live up to expectations. Bland. Boring. Basic. I do not recommend. One star.

One star, one star, one star…

The caustic chant still thundered in her eardrums, keeping pace with her hammering pulse.

“It isn’t real,” she said aloud, struggling to steady her tremulous voice.

Fleeing her bed, she padded toward the French doors and flung them open. Escaping onto the balcony, she closed her eyes, bracing against the crisp, briny air as it chilled her flushed cheeks and assuaged her erratic heartbeat.

When she finally opened her eyes, she could breathe again. She fixed her gaze on the blanket of cobalt waters stretched toward the horizon. Soft morning sunlight glittered across the surface, guiding the waves toward shore.

She’d grown up by the ocean, but never appreciated the privilege. In LA, the beach was a status symbol—something to own. People boasted about their home’s proximity at parties while rarely stepping foot on the sand. Its splendor had been commercialized and commoditized. But here, along the rugged Northern California coastline, the waters were wild, untamed, and unblemished. And something about its bold, unapologetic, blissfully unrefined beauty spoke to her soul, almost mollifying her fear of the murky waters. Almost.

Her spirit sufficiently quieted, she stepped back inside and dressed for the day, appreciating Abby’s little touches of luxury. A thick, scrumptiously soft robe hung in the antique armoire beside the clothing she’d unpacked and slipped onto the fragrant cedar hangers the night before. She selected a simple spring dress that hugged her ample curves before falling midthigh and paired it with a cream cashmere cardigan and gold-accented sandals.

As she arranged her extensive makeup kit on the white porcelain sink in the surprisingly spacious en suite, she admired the clawfoot tub and basket of locally made soaps, lotions, and soaking salts. Abby had thought of every detail, and Nadia couldn’t find a single thing she’d change. She had no doubt the Savvy Sojourner would be duly impressed.

As she descended the staircase nearly forty minutes later—effortless beauty took time—Abby met her at the bottom with a wide smile and steaming travel mug.

“I thought we’d take our coffee to go and grab something to eat at the farmers market. If we don’t get there early, all the best produce is gone.”

“Works for me. That coffee smells sensational.” She eagerly accepted the insulated mug, her mouth watering as delicious notes of chocolate and nutmeg wafted from the narrow opening in the lid.

“I guarantee you’ve never tasted anything better.”

Nadia raised an eyebrow. “That’s a bold claim considering I’ve reviewed exclusive blends that cost more than a bottle of Dom Pérignon, including the infamous kopi luwak coffee that passes through an animal’s intestines.”

Abby wrinkled her nose. “As delicious as that sounds, I’m confident this will be your new favorite.” Abby watched as she brought the rim to her lips.

A burst of flavors both earthy and bright cascaded across her taste buds, drawing her into a state of caffeinated bliss.

Her delighted delirium must have displayed on her face, because Abby laughed. “I told you.”

“You have to tell me where I can buy some.”

“I’ll give you the website. The roastery’s in this small mountain town with the cutest name. Poppy Creek. Apparently, the roaster donates coffee to a lot of veteran-related charities. Once Logan heard about it, he wanted to give it a try. Now, he won’t stop raving about it. He even got CeCe to serve it at her café.”

“Where is Logan? Is he coming to the farmers market with us?” She took another sip, wondering if she could help orchestrate a few minutes for the two lovebirds to be alone.

Abby dropped her gaze, intently focused on stuffing her bare feet into a pair of worn slip-on sneakers. “He’s gone. He left about an hour ago.”

Something about the subtle strain in her voice gave Nadia pause. “Oh? Where to?” Blessings Bay was tiny, and ever since his injury, Logan didn’t drive. There were only so many places the man could be, unless he took the bus.

“No idea.” She shrugged and hooked an enormous canvas shopping bag over her shoulder. Next to her petite frame, the contrast in size would’ve been comical, except her pinched expression drained all the humor from the situation. “He disappears for a few hours every week. I asked him about it once, and he avoided the question. I haven’t had the guts to bring it up again.”

Nadia looped her arm around Abby’s waist, summoning a smile. “Well, I’m here now. And you know there isn’t a single topic I’m afraid to talk about.” Except for what happened on New Year’s Eve, she quietly added to herself.

Abby leaned her head against her shoulder. “I’ve missed you. Can you please stay forever?”

“I enjoy shopping way too much to survive in a small fashion-starved town like this,” Nadia said with a laugh. “But before I leave, I’m making it my mission to get you and Logan to talk to each other. What you two have is special, Abs. Don’t let anything take it away from you, okay?”

“You’re right. Per usual.” Abby straightened with a smile, her entire countenance brighter. “Ready to go?”

“After a refill.” Nadia tapped her to-go mug, and following a quick top-up, they slipped out the front door.

At the same time, Verna Hoffstetter emerged from the house across the street. Clad in a purple pantsuit and matching cloche atop her short pumpkin-colored hair, the sprightly older woman perfectly complemented the lovely lilac-hued Queen Anne Victorian. A pudgy English bulldog waddled by her side.

“Good morning, Verna!” Abby waved.

“Good morning, lovelies.” She met them in the middle of the wide tree-lined street. “Mr. Bingley, you remember Nadia, don’t you?”

The squishy-faced pup sniffed her sandals, and Nadia bent to scratch his head. “Hello, Bing,” she said, affectionately evoking his nickname. “How’s life treating you?”

He licked her hand, wiggling his substantial backside.

“He loves the farmers market,” Verna said on his behalf. “He’s a big fan of the free samples.”

“Any in particular I should try?” Nadia asked as they resumed their stroll toward the Main Street promenade.

“Oh, my heavens, yes! Tammy’s Taffy is a must if you have a sweet tooth. And what woman doesn’t?” Verna asked with a chuckle. “Well, except for Shirley Milton. The only sweetener she’ll use is raw honey. And it has to be from happy bees, whatever that means. How can you tell if a bee is happy? The tonal frequency of the buzzing, I suppose. Maybe it’s higher pitched? I’d ask Shirley, but then I’d get a lecture on proper hive maintenance and harvesting practices. And it’s not as if I plan to become a beekeeper at eighty-nine years young. Wait. What was I saying?” She paused, then snapped her fingers. “Oh, yes. Tammy’s Taffy. Tammy’s son, Evan, usually operates the booth, and he’s a bit of eye candy himself, if you like the blond-haired, blue-eyed, Robert Redford type. Not that you’re in the market anymore.” Verna gave Abby a gentle nudge, and her friend blushed. “Are you still seeing that airman?” Verna asked, turning to Nadia.

Startled by her innocent question, Nadia stumbled on a nonexistent crack in the pavement. Luckily, before she had time to answer, they’d reached Main Street, and the hustle and bustle of the lively farmers market drew their focus to the festivities.

She’d forgotten all about Verna’s eye candy comment until they reached the final booth at the end of the promenade. Colorfully wrapped taffies filled tall glass jars and spilled from white wicker baskets. But the man standing behind the booth stole the show.

Tall and chiseled, with the most striking blue-green eyes, he commanded her notice even in nondescript board shorts and a plain white tee.

“Hey, Verna. How’s my favorite customer?” Eye Candy dropped to his knee to scratch Bing around the ears before pulling a dog biscuit out of his back pocket as if he’d been expecting them.

The chubby pup eagerly gobbled it up.

“Spoiled, as ever, thanks to you.” Verna glowed with parental pride.

“Happy to do my part.” The man rose back to his full six-foot-something of solid muscle. He wasn’t bulky, but she couldn’t help noting the crisp definition of his biceps. And she had a suspicion he stored a six-pack behind his thin cotton T-shirt.

Not that she cared.

“Nadia, dear. You have to sample one of Evan’s taffies.” Verna pressed a candy into the palm of her hand.

“I’d love to.” The wax paper crinkled as she unwound the twisted ends and popped the morsel into her mouth. A subtle sweetness of vanilla bean swirled across her tongue, the texture both soft and pleasantly chewy. “It’s delicious.”

“Are you sure?”

Startled by the man’s curt question, she jerked her gaze to meet his.

He stared back with an icy intensity that caught her off guard.

“I beg your pardon?” How had she possibly offended him? Did he hate compliments?

“Are you sure it isn’t lacking in nuance and originality?

Something about his word choice tugged at her memory, and a sudden rush of heat swept across her cheeks. Tammy’s Taffy. Now she recognized the name. They’d sent her a box of taffy to review about a year ago.

Oh, no….

She cringed as the pieces clicked into place. While she’d praised their use of real, natural ingredients and the texture of the taffy had been perfection, the assortment of flavors left a lot to be desired. Vanilla, mint, banana, and caramel. Nothing outstanding or noteworthy. The taffies had potential but fell short of exemplary.

She opened her mouth, but no words came out. What could she say? She’d given her honest opinion, and in her line of work—where reviews could easily be bought—her integrity meant everything. Although she always handled the truth with kindness, she refused to sugarcoat. Not that her tactfulness made running into the recipient of a bad review any less uncomfortable.

He seemed to take her silence as another slight. “You’ll have to excuse me, ladies. I was just about to go on break.” He set a sign on the table that read Help yourself to a free sample, and headed for the wooden steps that led down to the beach.

“What was that all about?” Abby followed her gaze as Evan disappeared from sight.

“I reviewed his taffy about a year ago. He must’ve recognized me.” He wasn’t the first disgruntled customer to look her up on the internet. Usually, they sent nasty emails. She rarely ever ran into them in real life.

“I’m guessing it wasn’t favorable?” Abby’s compassionate nature echoed in her soft, sympathetic tone.

“Last year, you say?” Verna interrupted, her brow crinkled with concern.

“Yes, why?”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Verna mumbled, shaking her head. “That poor boy.”

“Why do you say that?” Nadia squelched the rising urge to defend herself. Some people didn’t understand her dedication to candor, favoring the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” approach. Never mind that mentality would render the entire review ecosystem null and void.

Verna sighed, her gaze fixed on an empty space in the distance, as if peering into the past. “Let’s just say, last year, your bad review wasn’t the worst thing that happened to Evan Blake.”


Find out what happened to Evan Blake in The Unexpected Inn


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