Flashing yellow lights turning the quiet night into the world’s saddest disco did nothing to ease the nausea Evie Sutton had been battling for the past few miles.
She didn’t move, willing herself to keep the misguided slice of gas station pizza down, until there was a soft knock on her window. Her Wrangler had old-fashioned cranks, which required more motion than she was in the mood for, but she slowly rolled it down when she saw a familiar face.
“You okay, Evie?”
“Hi, Vinnie.” She really hoped he’d just been driving by and nobody had actually called out the tow truck to rescue her.
But she tapped the screen of her phone to see the time and realized she’d been sitting on the side of the road with the ignition off for a solid twenty minutes. Just before she crossed the town line, her fight or flight instinct had kicked in and she’d done neither. She’d simply frozen. There were houses around, though, and several still had lights on, so somebody may have seen her and assumed she was broken down.
“You okay?” he asked again.
“I’m good,” she lied.
Vinnie nodded, but he didn’t look convinced, not that she could blame him. Her blonde hair was pulled into a messy bun on top of her head, and it hadn’t traveled well. She knew she was pale, and she’d tried to use makeup to put on a brave face, but the air conditioning in her Jeep had quit on her somewhere in Pennsylvania and it wasn’t a good look.
“Whatcha doin’?” Vinnie asked, and she knew that translated to him recognizing this was weird and being unwilling to leave her on the side of the road.
“Just staring at the Welcome to Stonefield, New Hampshire sign.” It was the truth, but she probably shouldn’t have said it aloud, because it did nothing to convince him she was fine.
“Do you want me to call Ellen for you?”
“No!” Her mother getting a phone call at this time of night from the tow truck driver was the last thing she needed. “I appreciate you stopping, Vinnie, but I’m okay. I promise. Did somebody call you?”
“Nah. I got called out for a dead battery and was on my way home when I saw you sitting here.”
Since she’d known Vinnie for most of her life, she knew he wasn’t going to leave until he was convinced she wasn’t stuck here, so she smiled and turned the key in the ignition. Once it was running, she gave him a smile. “I appreciate you stopping. I guess I should get home now.”
Her voice cracked slightly on the word home and she cleared her throat. Technically, Stonefield hadn’t been her home since she divorced her husband and left town ten years ago. Every visit since had been temporary, even the extended visit earlier in the year that had led to her current predicament.
He patted the top of the Jeep. “Good to see you, Evie. You drive safe.”
She had no choice but to put the vehicle in gear and pull out onto the road. It was time to go home—time to face the music. Pay the piper. Bite the bullet. Take her medicine. There were so many expressions for owning up to the consequences of one’s actions, and none of them made her present situation any easier to swallow.
It was almost midnight when she pulled into her mother’s driveway and killed the engine, and the huge Queen Anne home she’d grown up in was dark. So was the carriage house, which the family had converted into a brewery and tavern after her father passed away, making his long-held and heavily mortgaged dream come true.
Now that she’d arrived and there was no turning back, the nausea abated some, though she still got out of the Jeep in slow motion. After stretching her sore muscles, she grabbed her overnight bag off the passenger seat and closed the door as quietly as she could.
Then she had to stifle a scream when she turned and almost walked into Mallory. Her sister—the middle child—was in an oversized T-shirt and sleep pants, and judging by her hair, she was either a very restless sleeper or had been interrupted having a private moment with her new husband.
“Evie, what are you doing here?” Mallory pulled her into a fierce hug, overnight bag and all. “Why didn’t you tell anybody you were coming?”
She wasn’t ready to say what she was doing there, and she hadn’t told anybody she was coming because right up until she pulled into the driveway, she hadn’t been sure she wouldn’t change her mind and turn around. “Are you kidding me? Back in the spring, Irish and that massive diesel truck of his backed a camper in here and nobody woke up, but I park my Jeep and two seconds later you’re in the driveway?”
Mallory grinned, no doubt thinking of the day she’d woken up to find an unexpected cowboy camping in the driveway. He’d been there to visit his old friend Lane, and Mallory had ended up marrying him almost two months ago. “When you have a lot of alcohol and a reasonable amount of money on the premises, you put in cameras. I recognized the Jeep, which is why I’m out here and not Irish.”
She’d barely finished speaking before Evie spotted Gwen, her oldest sister, across the street. She and Boomer—the lab and German shepherd mix dog they all adored—walked out of the house she now lived in with Case Danforth, crossed the road, and joined them in the driveway.
“Evie, what are you doing here?” She also hugged Evie and her overnight bag. “I was in my office, writing down a few notes for my book, and Boomer came and got me. I think he knows all of our vehicles just by the sound.”
Evie set down the bag so she could greet Boomer with proper scratches and belly rubs, but her stomach was rolling again. It was time to confess because there was no turning back now. She stood and faced her sisters, tears gathering in her eyes.
“I’m pregnant,” she said out loud for the first time. “I’m here to tell my ex-husband we’re having a baby.”
Lane Thompson wasn’t in the mood for problems on the job today. He’d gotten up on the wrong side of the bed after yet another dream of Evie, and one of the guys calling in sick with what sounded suspiciously like a hangover hadn’t cheered him up any.
Dreaming about his ex-wife was definitely harder on his frame of mind than an employee lying to get out of work. Especially the dream he’d had. The sex dreams left him frustrated, but he didn’t wake feeling gutted. Last night it had been the worst kind of dream—the ones that felt less like dreams and more like memories of a marriage his subconscious was tormenting him with.
They’d been raking the yard, drawing the crisp, multicolored leaves into one giant pile. Every time the breeze picked up, sweeping some of the leaves away, Evie would laugh that light, almost musical laugh he missed so much and chase after them. When they were finally finished, he wasn’t surprised when she threw herself backward into the pile, arms outstretched and her laughter ringing through the neighborhood. His fun, carefree wife rarely missed an opportunity to bring herself—and the people around her—a little joy. And he didn’t resist when she turned him helping her up into her pulling him down into the leaves with her.
Then his alarm went off, jerking him out of the dream that had felt so much like real life that he had a few moments of mourning the loss all over again. Those simple moments before his dad had died and everything had gone to hell—before she told him she was divorcing him and leaving Stonefield—had been sucker-punching him in his dreams for years.
Lane needed Evie out of his head. Since she’d left town almost three months ago, she’d been all he thought about, no matter how hard he tried to distract himself. Their divorce years ago—when they were still barely adults—should have been the end of it. But in all of those years, he hadn’t found a woman who could make him forget her. Every time she came back to visit her family, it reopened the wound loving her wouldn’t let heal. When she’d come back to Stonefield to help open the brewery, she’d stayed nine months. Seeing her every day—because he was the brewer who’d gone into business with her father before he died unexpectedly—had been torture. Then she’d taken off again and it had been so much worse.
They never should have had sex back at the end of April.
That had been a hard-learned lesson. No matter how much the tension was building between you, never have sex with your ex-wife because no matter how good it was—and sex with Evie was amazing—it couldn’t erase the past. Nothing could ever change the fact his life had changed when his dad passed away and Evie hadn’t like the changes, so she’d left him.
“You planning to start that chainsaw or are you trying to set that tree on fire with your eyeballs?” Case yelled to him.
Lane leaned over the edge of the bucket he was tethered into, glaring at his cousin and best friend. They owned D&T Tree Service and had run it together since they’d inherited it from their fathers, who’d started the company.
Some days, Lane wished he had a cushy office job somewhere, rather than burning himself out being a co-owner of two businesses. D&T Tree Service by day and Sutton’s Place Brewery & Tavern by night. He was tired.
Once they’d limbed and dropped the very tall and very dead tree without crushing either the customer’s garage or the neighbor’s house, it was time for a break. The younger guys immediately went to the truck to get their cell phones in order to catch up on everything they’d missed during the brief time they’d actually worked. Lane had instituted the phones-in-the-truck rule several months ago, when one of the guys almost knocked another guy into the chipper because he was walking and texting.
Usually, he and Case would get the Thermos of coffee out and chat during the break. Case liked to use the time to talk business because Lane was a captive audience and couldn’t duck the conversations. And with the brewery taking up so much of Lane’s time, they didn’t have a lot of opportunities to talk about the tree service outside of on the job.
But he got the impression Case was avoiding conversation with him today. This morning, he’d claimed he was running late and met them at the jobsite, rather than driving to Lane’s and riding with him. And he’d been overly attentive to Boomer, who really preferred to be left alone to nap in the shade. There was nothing specific Lane could put his finger on, but Case wasn’t acting himself, and he finally cornered him by the truck and called him on it.
“You’ve been acting weird all morning, man. Something’s up. You and Gwen have a fight?”
“No, nothing like that.”
He wouldn’t meet Lane’s eyes, though, and finally the lightbulb went on. There was only one topic of conversation that would be awkward between them. “It’s about Evie, isn’t it?”
Case sighed, and Boomer picked his head up, looking for the reason his human didn’t sound happy. “Could the dynamics of this family get any messier?”
“One, you should never ask that out loud. And two, you’re my best friend.”
“And your ex-wife’s sister is my fiancée.”
“You’re also my cousin,” Lane pointed out. “Family.”
“But, she’s almost my wife.”
“Gwen told you not to say anything.” It wasn’t a question.
“There are going to be times I know something that I can’t talk about.”
Lane crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t like it.”
“I don’t, either. But I love Gwen, and I do not want the Sutton women mad at me.”
He understood that, but he also couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t let anything go when it came to Evie. “Is she okay?”
Case shot him a look, but then he nodded. That was a relief, but there was something going on. And it was something that Case was uncomfortable keeping from Lane, which meant it could be something that could affect him. Or maybe just something Case knew would upset him.
“Is she sick?” Case shook his head. “Stranded somewhere because she refuses to let go of that old Jeep?”
Though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, Lane braced himself and asked the most obvious question. “Is she dating somebody?”
When Case shook his head again, relief flooded through Lane, but he still scowled. What could be left? She was okay, she wasn’t stranded, and she didn’t have a new guy in her life. What else could Case be hiding from him on Gwen’s behalf?
No. There was only one possibility left, but it. couldn’t be. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to take it.
“Is she back?” he finally asked, unable to hold the question in. “Tell me Evie didn’t come home again.”
“Hey Boomer, find a stick.” Case pushed away from the truck, all of his attention suddenly on his dog. “Bring it here.”
Lane dropped his gaze to the toes of his work boots, shaking his head. His cousin could have saved the theatrics with his dog because, even if Lane had known what to say, he wasn’t sure he could have gotten the words out.
Evie was back in Stonefield. He hadn’t even gotten over her leaving the last time—or ever—and she had come back again. She was trying to kill him. That was the only explanation he could come up with. She was going to torment him until he couldn’t take it anymore and he just spontaneously combusted.
“Case, you’ve gotta give me something. How long is she staying?”
“Stop asking me questions,” Case said, tossing the stick for Boomer to fetch. “I’m not saying anything, and it’s time to get back to work.”
They had a dangerous job and Lane did his best to keep his attention on the work, but thoughts of Evie and why she’d come back so soon couldn’t help creeping up on him. If she’d simply changed her mind about leaving, she probably would have made it home to see Mallory get married. To randomly show up just shy of two months after the wedding didn’t make sense. He would know if there was anything going on with her mom or sisters, thanks to his daily proximity to the family.
So something must be going on with her.
But it wasn’t his business and it certainly wasn’t his problem. Evie had run away—again—and no matter why she’d returned, it was only a matter of time before she took off again. That was Evie.
He would avoid her. He wouldn’t give the chemistry that still sparked between them the chance to overpower the hurts of the past the way it had in April. Now that Irish—an old friend from his college days who’d come to visit his brewing operation and ended up falling for Mallory—was buying into the brewery business and taking over a lot of the day-to-day, Lane didn’t have to spend all of his free time in the cellar. Brewing beer had been a good way to fill the empty hours, but being around Evie wasn’t good for him.
His daily to-do list was a simple one: Cut trees. Brew beer. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. There was plenty of room to add one more task.
Avoid his ex-wife.