“Mom, I can’t find my backpack! I think it’s in the car.”
Thank goodness it was Friday because Mallory Sutton was so over this week. The boys had the last week in April off from school, but she had to get through two more weeks of these daily battles first. She went to the bottom of the stairs to yell back to Eli, even though she hated bellowing through the house. Sometimes it was the fastest way to get things done. “If you left your backpack in the car, how did you do your homework?”
“Didn’t have any.”
Eli was only in the third grade, so there was a good chance he wasn’t fibbing. Fifth-grade Jack was the one she really had to keep her thumb on. They’d started the school year with a phone call from Jack’s teacher because his essay about his summer had bragged about how he hung out in a bar, brewing beer. Luckily, Mrs. Avery lived in Stonefield and knew the Sutton family had converted the carriage house on the property into Sutton’s Place Brewery & Tavern, and they’d laughed about it together.
Since her mom was about to put breakfast on the table, Mallory grabbed her keys and went to hunt for Eli’s backpack in her car. They were usually walkers, but it had been raining yesterday, so she’d picked them up and she was sure he’d had it. She found it on the floor of the back seat, and she was thankful the boys liked hot lunch from school because if he’d left a lunch box in there, her car would probably stink.
It wasn’t until she stood up straight, slinging his backpack over her shoulder, that she saw it.
Next to the huge carriage house—deep green with cream shutters and trim to complement the Queen Anne main house—which her family had turned into a brewery to fulfill her late father’s deepest wish was a camper. And not a tiny camper, but one of those big fifth-wheel types, and parked near it was the biggest pickup truck she’d ever seen. With full-size doors for the back seat and a full-length bed, it looked as long as a school bus.
As she stared at the camper, which hadn’t been there when she went to bed, the door opened and a man stepped out. A tall, muscular man in battered cowboy boots, well-worn jeans and a dark blue long-sleeve, button-down shirt, was settling a cowboy hat as battered as his boots onto his head as he stepped down.
Mallory didn’t exactly flee, but she wasted no time going back into the house and closing the door behind her. Then she threw the dead bolt, and leaned against the door to calm herself. A very attractive man was camping in her yard, and she had no idea what she was supposed to do about that.
Her mom came around the corner into the living room. “Breakfast is ready, so… What’s the matter?”
“There’s a cowboy in the yard.”
“I’m sorry, there’s a what in our yard?”
“A cowboy. And a camper.” She forced herself to stop and take a deep breath, moving away from the door. She could see by the look on her mother’s face that she wasn’t making sense. “I went outside and there’s a camper parked on the back side of the tavern. And a cowboy came out of the camper. Boots. Hat. Like, an actual cowboy, I think.”
“Why would a cowboy park his camper in our yard? Maybe he’s lost and doesn’t know he’s in the wrong place.”
“Mom, there’s no way he missed the big sign that says Sutton’s Place Brewery & Tavern. What are the chances he mistook that for a campground? Maybe Lane hired a bouncer. He looks like he would be a really good bouncer.”
“What on earth would we need a bouncer for? We’ve known most of our customers for our entire lives.”
They both turned toward the door when a heavy knock sounded on the wood, and Ellen stepped forward. “I’ll get that.”
“Mom, I can’t let you open the door. I’ll do it.”
“Maybe we should call Case and have him bring Boomer over.”
Mallory considered the suggestion for a few seconds. Case Danforth had lived across the street since they were kids, and now her older sister, Gwen, had moved in with him. He wouldn’t waste any time crossing the street if they called him for help. Their shepherd-and-lab mix, Boomer, might look and sound scary if he wanted to, but he’d probably be best friends with the cowboy in two minutes or less.
And it was very unlikely a serial killer would set up a camper in the yard. Not impossible, but it definitely wasn’t the most logical conclusion.
“This is ridiculous,” she said, walking toward the door and yanking it open.
Maybe a mistake, she thought as she took in the full effect of the man on the porch. Up close, he looked taller and his shoulders broader. He wasn’t a lean guy, but it looked like the weight he carried was all muscle. She’d have to run her hands over his body to be sure, of course, but that would be incredibly rude and possibly also dangerous, so she curled her hands into fists.
And those eyes. The man had icy pale blue eyes framed by the dark hat and beard, and when their gazes locked, a shiver went through her.
“Hi,” was all she managed to say, as though she didn’t have a whole lot of questions to ask him, ranging from who he was to why he appeared to be camping in their yard.
“Lane didn’t tell you I was here, did he?” he asked in a voice that, of course, had to match the body. Low and rough, and she absolutely wasn’t going to imagine that voice saying naughty things in her ear later.
“Oh,” Ellen said, jerking Mallory out of thoughts she had no business thinking. “I have a voice mail from Lane on my phone, but I haven’t listened to it yet. They’re usually about the brewery.”
“I have one, too,” Mallory admitted. “I was ignoring it until the boys leave for school.”
She pulled out her phone and pulled up Lane’s voice mail message, putting it on speaker.
“Hey, Mal. There’s a camper next to the brewery and it belongs to a friend of mine. His name’s Irish, and he’s from Montana. He got in late last night and I was going to have him follow me to my place, but I have to move some equipment around before that camper will fit, so it was easier to park it there for the night. The house was dark, so I didn’t bother knocking. He’s a good guy and I’ll be over later.”
“Montana,” Ellen said as Mallory slid her phone back into her pocket. “That’s a long drive.”
“You must be hungry. I was just getting ready to put breakfast on the table,” Ellen said, gesturing for him to come inside. “Nothing fancy, but come eat.”
He looked as if he was going to decline the invitation, which would suit Mallory just fine. She didn’t have time for tall, dark strangers with a look in his pretty blue eyes that made her realize just how long it had been since she’d been this attracted to a man. She had kids to send off to school.
But it had been more of a command than an invitation, so he stepped forward. As Mallory moved out of the way so he couldn’t accidentally brush his body against hers and cause her to spontaneously combust, he removed his hat and ran his hand through his thick, dark hair to smooth it and she almost burst into flames anyway.
She really needed to get hold of herself.
“I’m Ellen Sutton,” her mother said, holding out her hand after closing the door.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Sutton,” he said, shaking her hand. “I’m Irish.”
“Please, call me Ellen.”
Mallory noticed the way he hesitated and got out of using her first name. “I’m her daughter Mallory.”
Even though she tried to brace herself for the contact, the touch fully roused every need and desire she’d been tamping down for a long time. His hand was hard and calloused and much larger than hers, but his grip was gentle.
It also lingered for a few seconds longer than his handshake with her mother, his blue eyes looking at her as if he was trying to figure something out. He didn’t seem to talk much, but maybe her view on that was skewed because nobody in her family ever stopped talking.
“Is Irish your first name or your last name?” Ellen asked.
He didn’t simply let go of Mallory’s hand. Instead, he drew his away slowly, his fingertips skimming over her palm before he turned to her mother. “It’s just Irish, Mrs.…ma’am.
She smiled and waved a hand at him. “If it’s actually hard for you to call me Ellen, you can call me Mrs. Sutton. Either way is fine for me.”
His relief was so visible, Mallory almost laughed out loud. But footsteps running down the stairs—how many times in their lives had she told her sons not to run on the stairs—reminded her they were on a schedule here and already behind even before an unexpected cowboy turned her morning upside down.
Irish had no idea what was happening, or how he’d ended up in this kitchen, eating scrambled eggs with a family he didn’t know.
The boys—Jack, who was ten, and nine-year-old Eli, according to Mrs. Sutton—were the spitting images of their mom. Dark blond hair and blue eyes, with a whole lot of energy. They were doing their best not to stare at him, but they were too curious about the strange man in the kitchen to hide it. He couldn’t really blame them. He hadn’t expected to be sitting at their table with them this morning, either.
The other thing he hadn’t expected was taking one look at Mallory Sutton and having hunger—to touch her and kiss her and run his hands over those curves—hit him like a cattle prod.
But he was going to ignore that jolt of attraction because he was here to visit a friend and check out the brewery. He was not here to get tangled up in anything messy and Lane had mentioned in passing once that Mallory didn’t have a husband. If Irish knew one thing about relationships, no matter how casual or short, it was that getting involved with a single mom was always messy.
“So what do you do, Irish?” Mrs. Sutton asked once they were seated around the kitchen table. They’d passed a dining room on the way in, but it looked like the huge table in there was currently being used for a jigsaw puzzle.
“I’ve worked ranches my whole life, but now I’m traveling and seeing some new country.” He hoped that answer would satisfy her because he didn’t really want to go into more detail.
“Ranch is my favorite!” Eli yelled, almost knocking his brother’s juice glass off the table.
“I only like ketchup,” Jack said.
Irish had heard somebody say a person could learn anything by watching a YouTube video, and he wondered if there was one that would teach him how to understand what kids were talking about.
“He’s not talking about salad dressing, boys,” Mallory said, reaching out to move Jack’s juice glass toward the center of the table. “The cowboy kind of ranch.”
“Are you retired, then?” Mrs. Sutton asked. “Or are you just taking a long vacation?”
He should have guessed she wasn’t done with the questions. “I’m not sure, ma’am. I was the foreman for a big spread for a number of years, but the ranch recently passed to the owner’s son, and he and I had some differences of opinion on how to do things. I’ve never seen the ocean, so I figured I’d head east and stop by and see Lane on the way.”
Mallory was looking at him when he said it, and he guessed some of that anger over the employment situation was showing on his face because she arched an eyebrow before changing the subject. “So I gather you’re the cowboy Lane met when he went to school in Montana.”
“Why did Uncle Lane go to school in Montana?” the younger boy asked. “Is Montana far away? Did he have to ride the bus?”
“College, honey,” Mallory said. “Uncle Lane got his degree in forestry in Montana, which is pretty far away.”
“Did you have to get gas on the way here?” Jack asked, and Irish wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything, but he nodded anyway.
Mrs. Sutton chuckled. “That’s how he measures distance. If you have a full tank of gas and you go somewhere, but have to fill up before you get back to town, it was a long drive.”
“My truck takes diesel,” he told Jack, “but I definitely had to fill the tank a few times.”
“A truck that big pulling a camper like that?” Mrs. Sutton snorted. “Probably more than a few times.”
“Lane said you were interested in brewing, too,” Mallory said, and he was thankful to be saved from the possibility they’d try to calculate his gas mileage. “Have you done any?”
“Some home brew stuff,” he said, dipping his head slightly to the side. “Never had the time or the space to do more than that.”
“I’m surprised Lane hasn’t shown up yet,” Ellen said. “He should be here to show you around.”
“Last night he told me there was a job he couldn’t get out of this morning, but he’ll be here as soon as he can.”
He knew Lane owned a tree service with his cousin Case—it had been started by their fathers and they inherited it—and that the cousin was marrying Mallory’s older sister. And Lane used to be married to Mallory’s younger sister, Evie.
Not having any family himself, he had a little trouble wrapping his head around the many connections he was walking into. He’d heard a lot about the Sutton family from Lane, of course, but remembering it all and matching it to faces while navigating breakfast with strangers wasn’t a well-honed skill of his.
But he remembered the bigger picture. Lane Thompson and David Sutton had dreamed of opening a brewery together and they’d finally made the leap—both of them putting themselves up against a financial wall in order to renovate the Suttons’ carriage house—and then David had passed away the January before last. Mallory had finally made her sisters, Gwen and Evie, come back to Stonefield to help and together they’d managed to get it all done. Gwen had also fallen in love with Case, who lived across the street, during that time and was staying, but Lane expected Evie to up and leave town anytime.
“You’re going to be late, boys,” Mallory said. “Let’s go.”
As the boys ran out of the kitchen, Irish stood and gathered his dirty dishes. “Thank you for breakfast, Mrs. Sutton. It was delicious.”
She waved his words away, but she looked pleased. “You’re welcome anytime. I’ll take those.”
“I can wash up,” he said. It seemed only fair, since she’d done the cooking.
“Case installed a dishwasher for me last month and now there’s nothing to it. And I’m sure you have a lot to do to get settled.”
“If you could tell me the best place to buy some groceries, I’d appreciate it. I’m running low on some things. And once Lane gets here, I’ll hook up and get that camper out of your way.”
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Sutton said. “It’s not in the way. And if you take it to the Thompsons’, the only place it’ll fit is where they park the tree service equipment and that lot is ugly and dusty. Plus, I don’t know if you noticed, but back when this place was an inn, they installed all the hookups for a camper off the carriage house because the owners had one. David kept all that up because he thought we might buy one someday when the kids were gone. I have no idea how he thought we were going to open a brewery and run around in an RV at the same time, but that was David. Dream big and the details will work themselves out.”
Irish took a second to sort through all the words coming at him—the Sutton women talked a lot, and they did it fast—but the bottom line seemed to be that she was inviting him to stay on the property while he was in New Hampshire.
He looked to Mallory for her reaction, since she had small kids and should have a say in who was around the house, but she gave her mom an affectionate eye roll and then smiled at him.
That smile made him ache deep inside.
“There’s no sense in arguing with her,” Mallory told him. “She usually gets her way, and she’s right. Our yard is a lot nicer than Lane’s equipment lot, plus the brewery’s right there.”
He shouldn’t. There was something about the way he felt every time Mallory Sutton looked at him that should have him hooking his truck back up and hauling that fifth-wheel up the road without looking back.
“Sounds good, if you’re sure,” was what came out of his mouth.
“I’m sure,” Mrs. Sutton said firmly. “And you’ll want to go to Dearborn’s Market for groceries. We need a few things, so Mallory can go with you and show you the way.”
He saw the woman in question pause in the act of ushering her kids—who’d yelled a goodbye as they ran past with their backpacks, making him wonder if they ever slowed down—out the door to school. Maybe they were just that friendly around here, but there was a hint of a maternal matchmaking vibe to the offer that surprised him. He’d never seen himself as the kind of guy a mother would want for her daughter. He tried to come up with a way to get Mallory out of the obligation, but his mind had gone fairly blank other than imagining how nice it would be to have her riding in his truck with him, a country song on the radio and the wind blowing her hair.
He really needed to get a grip.
Before he could come up with a reasonable excuse to turn down Mrs. Sutton’s offer of her daughter’s company, Mallory rejoined the conversation. “Your vehicle or mine?”
Irish couldn’t remember the last time he was a passenger. He always drove. “I’ve got coolers in the back of my truck already.”
“I’m off to work,” Ellen said after locking the dishwasher and hitting a button. “Mallory, check the list on the fridge and if I think of anything else I need, I’ll let you know. Have fun exploring Stonefield, Irish.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said dutifully, though grocery shopping and exploring the town were two different things. He was planning to buy some food, not do a scenic walking tour before visiting the gift shop, though with Mallory for a tour guide he might not mind so much.
“I have a few things to do before we go,” Mallory said.
“So do I,” he said. If he was going to be staying here for a few days, he needed to level the camper properly and hook it up. “But I’ll be ready whenever works for you.”
After she nodded, he walked out of the house and paused on the front porch before settling his hat on his head and heading for the camper.
He had no idea what he’d gotten into here, but between the rambunctious boys, their bossy grandmother and their extremely attractive mom, he suspected it was going to be a wild ride.