Rumor has it Stonefield’s own Gwen Sutton is back in town. She relocated to Vermont following the huge success of A Quaking of Aspens (which may or may not have been based on Stonefield, and we certainly all have opinions about that) but according to one informed reader, she might be staying here in New Hampshire for a while.
—Stonefield Gazette Facebook Page
“Well, look at that. Gwen Sutton’s home again.”
Case Danforth heard his cousin’s statement and looked up from the small laptop he had propped on his knees. They co-owned the tree service left to them by their fathers, and every Saturday night they sat on Case’s front porch and didn’t allow themselves to have a beer or go out until the paperwork was completed. It was the only way the administrative tasks ever got done.
But the goings-on at the Sutton house across the street were a lot more interesting than reviewing the increases in their insurance costs, so he watched as the small silver sedan with Vermont plates parked between two SUVs. He knew she’d turned the ignition off because the lights eventually went dark, but the door didn’t open. Apparently Gwen was just going to sit in her car for a while.
“This might not bode well for you, Lane,” he said, closing the laptop and setting it on the table next to him. It was going to be a few minutes before they got back to the paperwork.
His cousin shook his head. “No, it doesn’t. If Gwen’s home, Mallory probably asked her to come, which means there’s a problem. And a problem for the Sutton family could be bad for me.”
Mallory was the middle Sutton sister, and the only one who’d stayed in Stonefield. Gwen, who was the oldest, had been the first to move away. Then Evie had gone, leaving Mallory to hold down the fort, so to speak.
Boomer snuffled in his sleep and nudged Case’s leg, so he reached down and scratched the top of the dog’s head. Boomer—so named because they’d returned from lunch one day to find him asleep under the boom truck—had decided immediately that Case was his person. When all efforts to identify the dog had failed, Case had surrendered to the inevitable. He was pretty sure Boomer was a mix of German shepherd and black Lab, and the former’s intelligence when it came to training mixed with the latter’s basic predisposition to loving the outdoors and being content to sleep in or under a truck made him the perfect companion for Case. And for Lane, too, since they were together so often. But Case was definitely his person.
“Maybe they’re doing some kind of memorial for their dad,” he suggested to Lane, trying to be optimistic. Maybe Gwen coming home had nothing to do with the business Lane had started with David Sutton.
“I probably would have heard something about a memorial in the works,” his cousin said, and he wasn’t wrong.
When Lane and David Sutton had decided to invest everything they had into finally opening the brewery they’d been talking about for many years, Case had had some reservations, but he kept most of them to himself. And things had gone well for a while. Lane was the brewer and, while it took him away from the tree service more than Case would have liked, his cousin was happy so they made it work. David loved the brewing, too, but he was also the idea man, owned the carriage house they were converting into a tavern and would coordinate everything to do with the public.
Nobody had seen the heart attack coming. David’s passing had left them all reeling, but with so much on the line financially for Lane, he’d had to keep pushing toward the goal. Ellen, David’s widow, had told Case she was determined to make the brewery a success in honor of her husband’s dream, with Mallory’s help. But Gwen coming home probably meant Mallory was desperate for help.
“I guess if there’s something big going on, Evie will show up anytime,” Lane said, and the wooden rocker creaked as he shifted his weight.
She’d been another of Case’s reservations about the whole endeavor. His cousin and Evie Sutton had been married for all of a year after Lane returned from college, and going into business with his former father-in-law was a tie with his ex-wife Case wasn’t sure Lane needed. Lane had brushed it off as not a big deal, but that was easy to say when the woman in question was rarely seen in Stonefield.
“How are you going to handle that?” Case asked.
“Same as I handle every other day of my life. Cut some trees. Brew some beer. Drink some beer. Sleep and repeat.” He chuckled, but it sounded a little forced. “Evie and I are very, very ancient history.”
He’d let Lane keep telling himself that for now. Case had a theory that the primary reason his cousin hadn’t settled down over the years since his divorce was that Lane’s brain might think his feelings for Evie were ancient history, but his heart didn’t.
Across the street, the car door opened and Case watched Gwen slowly climb out of the driver’s seat. She was wearing a light cardigan over leggings, with her long blond hair piled in a messy knot on her head. He wasn’t close enough to see her expression, but he’d grown up with the Sutton sisters and he knew she’d look tense. Being the most introverted and serious of them, she often looked closed off. Resting bitch face, he thought it was called.
But Case also knew she had a smile that lit up her face. And when she really let herself go and laughed, everybody in the room had to laugh with her. Her joy was infectious, but she usually kept it buttoned up. Especially when she was in Stonefield.
When she popped the trunk, Case’s eyebrow shot up. “She brought a lot of luggage.”
“What do you think the chances are she just decided to come home and it has nothing to do with the brewery?”
“It’s possible. I mean, she really doesn’t like it here, but with her dad gone, maybe she wants to be back here with her mom.” But that didn’t feel right to him. They all knew Gwen was happy in Vermont, and that she and her mother remained close despite the distance.
Lane sighed and then pushed himself to his feet. “It’s time for a beer.”
Boomer lifted his head, probably to see if Lane was going to do something interesting like throw a stick or fry up a pan of bacon, but he’d only had nine or ten naps that day and was exhausted. He was snoring again before Lane reached the door.
“We’re not done with our work,” Case protested, waving his hand at the laptop. But he could see the tension in his cousin’s face. “Breakfast meeting tomorrow?”
“Sounds good.” Lane disappeared into the house and came back with a beer for each of them. They were from a brewery in the southern part of the state they’d visited last weekend—Case didn’t mind the research trips at all—and they sipped in silence for a few minutes.
“Ellen and Mal keep telling me everything’s okay. They’ve shown me plans and projections and stuff. But the execution…it’s hard to tell. I think it’s going okay, but we need to be more than okay at this point. And trying to balance being pushy with respecting the fact that the woman lost her husband six months ago is hard.” He sighed and shook his head. “It’s all well and good to say it’s strictly business, but I’ve known Ellen my whole life. She’s one of my mom’s best friends. Hell, she was my mother-in-law.”
“After we finished the paperwork, I was going to tell you Ellen caught me on my way in tonight. She asked if I could come over and look at a few things in the carriage house.”
“Why didn’t she ask me?”
Case shrugged. “I don’t know. But she knows what the stakes are for you, so maybe she’s feeling some pressure to keep up an appearance everything’s good. I’ve been helping out around the property since David died, so maybe it’s easier for her to ask me for help.”
“Just keep me in the loop, please.”
“You know I will.”
When an ancient Jeep Wrangler pulled into the Sutton driveway and parked half on the grass next to one of the SUVs, Case leaned forward in his rocker. Unlike her oldest sister, Evie Sutton wasted no time getting out and, after opening the back door, she started piling totes and a few boxes on the ground.
The youngest sister also had blond hair—all three of them did, like their mother—but hers was shorter than Gwen’s, and a lighter shade. Mallory’s color was in-between, and her hair was shoulder-length and wavier than Gwen’s. Despite the differences, there was never any doubt the three women were sisters.
“She’s got a lot of stuff, too,” Case said, not that he needed to. His cousin’s gaze was locked onto his ex-wife. “Maybe we should go over there and offer to help carry stuff in.”
As Gwen walked over to Evie and the two sisters exchanged what could only be described as a perfunctory hug, Lane chuckled. “Nope. I want no part of whatever’s going on over there tonight.”
Case sat back in his rocking chair and took a sip of his beer. “Things are definitely about to get interesting.”
Gwen would have happily sat in her car for a while more—hours, even—rather than go inside, but Evie had texted them all to say she’d stopped at the market and would be home in a few minutes.
Back in her small, suffocating hometown in the middle of New Hampshire. She hadn’t expected to be back until December. She’d begged off last Christmas—claiming deadlines as she always did—doing a FaceTime chat with the family instead. She’d had to come home anyway, in the middle of January for her dad’s funeral. Missing out on sharing his love for the holidays and getting one last hug would haunt her forever.
Without being told, she’d known she’d have to be home for the family’s first Christmas without Dad. But here she was, at the halfway point of the year, with the bare minimum of things she’d need for the summer. She was hoping not to be in Stonefield for that long, but Mal had been sketchy on the details when she called.
Gwen had been munching on a carrot stick—which absolutely was not a satisfying replacement for her beloved Doritos, regardless of crunch and color—and staring at a whiteboard covered in plot points scrawled on sticky notes when the phone rang. She’d answered it and heard Mal’s voice.
“You need to come home.”
“The hell I do,” Gwen had responded.
“Gwen.” Her sister had managed to inject an entire paragraph’s worth of exasperation into that one word.
When the answering silence had stretched on, Gwen had resigned herself to making another trip home. As much as the good people of Stonefield got on her last nerve and no matter how behind she was on her book, if her family really needed her, she wouldn’t say no.
So now here she was, back in the house she’d grown up in with her mom and her sisters. It would feel like she’d stepped through a time warp, if not for the constant awareness that her father was no longer with them.
Though the house had a huge formal dining room thanks to its pre-Suttons life as an inn, they were seated around the small kitchen table, as always. The kitchen was the heart of Ellen’s home and they’d always taken their meals there. For as long as Gwen could remember, the massive cherry dining room table was for doing jigsaw puzzles, eating Thanksgiving dinner and wrapping Christmas presents.
Mallory’s two boys—ten-year-old Jack and Eli, who was eight—had been granted video game time in the family room after greeting their aunts, and as her mom made them all tea because she believed tea was always a cure for what ailed a person, Gwen listened to the sounds of engines racing and juvenile trash talk.
And she stared at the empty chair at the head of the table—her dad’s chair. Her mom’s favorite summer cardigan was slung over the back, and Gwen wasn’t sure if it was simply where Ellen had mindlessly tossed it, or if she’d put it there to keep people from sitting in the spot her husband had occupied for over thirty years.
“It’s so good to have all my girls home again,” her mom said, as she pulled out the chair to the right of the empty one—where she’d not only been next to her husband, but closest to the stove—with a tea of her own. Her smile was warm but quivering slightly. “I’m sorry to be such a bother, though.”
It was Mal, of course, who reached over and covered their mother’s hand with her own. Mal was the peacemaker—the one who interceded and arbitrated and soothed. Maybe it was because she was the middle child, though she didn’t really bridge the gap between the eldest and youngest. At thirty-five, Mal was only a year younger than Gwen. But there had been seven years between Mal and a surprise Evie and even at twenty-eight, their youngest sister seemed irresponsible and immature to Gwen. Evie thought Gwen was uptight and controlling. Mal had always had her work cut out for her when it came to keeping the peace between them.
“You know we’re always here when you need us, Mom,” Gwen said. And then she turned her gaze to Mallory. “You said you’d explain everything when we got here. Well…we’re here.”
What followed was Mallory recapping the last six months of handling their father’s estate, while Ellen wrapped her hands around her warm mug and held it so tightly, Gwen was afraid it might crack. The bottom line was that David Sutton had put everything they had into turning the carriage house into a brewery and if it wasn’t a success, their mom could end up with nothing.
Gwen swallowed the questions that popped into her head first—how could her father have been so irresponsible and how could her mother have let him—and focused on the immediate issue. “What, exactly, is it you expect us to do about the brewery?”
“Help. I expect you to help.”
“I hate to break it to you, Mal, but I don’t know a damn thing about brewing beer.”
“The brewer is handling the brewing, of course.”
“Okay.” Gwen waited, but her sister didn’t offer any more information. “If the brewer is handling the brewing, then the brewing is handled. Problem solved and, I repeat, what do you expect me to do?”
“There’s a lot more to running the business than the actual making of the beer. We have to finish renovating the space and make sure we stick to the business plan and plan a menu and go through a metric ton of checklists.”
“And hire staff,” Evie added.
When Mal shrugged and made a well sound, Gwen got it. And she didn’t like it. “You expect us to be free labor, don’t you? Bartender? Server?”
“Dibs on not being the dishwasher.” Evie practically shouted in her rush to get the words out.
“If everybody pitches in, we can do this,” Mallory said.
“I have a job,” Gwen reminded her. “One that I actually get paid for.”
“We can try to keep you at half days so you can still write. Maybe they can give you a little more time to write your book—an extension or whatever?”
Gwen’s stomach knotted at the idea of asking for another deadline extension. The writing hadn’t been going well before their father died, and it certainly hadn’t gotten any easier since. “It’s not that simple, Mal.”
“I don’t know if we can do it without you,” her sister said somberly.
Ellen sighed and blinked back unshed tears. “The last thing I want is to ask you girls to put your lives on hold, but the thrift shop can’t support this house, me, Mallory and the boys, and the loans your father took out. If the brewery doesn’t succeed, I’ll lose everything.”
Gwen’s heart ached at the hopelessness in her mom’s voice, and she focused on her mom’s hand in Mal’s because the pain in her eyes was too much. It wasn’t until she saw her sister’s hand trembling that it hit her that Mallory would lose everything, too. She’d moved home with her sons after her marriage fell apart, and she’d started working at the thrift shop with their mother. It was an arrangement that had worked well for everybody, but her life was so intertwined with her parents’ that she had no safety net of her own.
There was absolutely no way Gwen could get back in her car and drive away, leaving them to figure it out while she tried to help and advise from a distance. “How much debt are we talking about?”
Her mother quoted a number that instantly made Gwen’s stomach hurt. “Mom. How…”
She let the questions die away. How could Dad do that to you? How could you let him do that? Saying the words would only hurt, not help.
“Gwen, do you…” Mallory looked down at the table and shook her head, letting the question fade away.
She didn’t need to finish it, though. Gwen knew that the perception of a bestselling author’s income and the reality were not one and the same. “I can maybe help a little, but I can’t put a dent in that. Most of the stuff people see—the book clubs and the movie and all that—was baked into my first contract and debut authors don’t have a lot of negotiating power. And I signed the contract for the second and third book before A Quaking of Aspens broke out, and my agent gets his cut and don’t even get me started on taxes. I got more for my current book but it’s not done. So, like I said, I can help a little, but not enough to make this problem go away.”
Honestly, the best thing she could do was go home and finish the book and get the rest of her advance, but even that wouldn’t be enough.
“I wouldn’t want to take your money, anyway,” Ellen said, but Gwen and Mallory locked gazes and she knew if she had it to give, they would take it.
“How is the business partner handling things?” Gwen asked after an awkward silence, and the look that passed between her mom and Mallory filled her with dread.
“He stands to lose his investment, too,” Mal answered. “Pretty much all of his life savings. He’s doing what he can, but he was never supposed to be involved with all of this—the tavern part, I mean. He’s the brewer.”
“We need to meet with him,” Gwen said. “Whoever this guy is—and I assume it’s an old friend of Dad’s—he needs to step up.”
“Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be involved with this,” Evie added, “but if he might lose everything, too, then he needs to get involved.”
“It’s Lane,” Mal blurted out. “Lane Thompson is our brewer.”
As that bit of news settled, Gwen thought back over all the conversations she’d had by phone and email with her parents, and sometimes Mallory. The partner. The brewer. Him. He. She realized now none of them had ever used his name.
“Dad went into business with my ex-husband?” Evie asked, and then silence filled the room as even Mallory didn’t seem to know what to say. “You can’t be serious.”
“They always got along, honey, and years ago, when they discovered they both loved craft brewing, they became good friends,” Ellen said quietly. “And all that was so long ago, he didn’t think you’d mind.”
All that meaning Evie and Lane’s marriage and subsequent divorce. And if they were so sure Evie wouldn’t mind, Gwen thought, they probably would have mentioned his name at some point in the last two or more years since they hatched this plan.
“If he didn’t think I’d mind, why did he hide it?”
“I’m sorry, Evie,” Mal said. “Dad wanted to find the right time to tell you, but he didn’t want to spoil the holidays and that’s pretty much the only time you come home, so…”
“Yeah, it’s totally my fault none of you told me Dad and my ex were business besties,” Evie snapped.
“Girls,” Ellen said in a pleading tone. “It’s my fault.”
“It’s Dad’s fault,” Gwen snapped, and they all fell silent as they tried to reconcile anger with grief.
“We can do this,” Mallory said. “People start breweries all the time. If other people can do it, so can we.”
“We don’t have any choice,” Gwen said. “Where do we start?”
“Case is coming over tomorrow to look things over, and I have a few things I’m going to ask him to help with to save us some money,” Ellen said. “He’s been such a help around here since your dad passed, and I hate to ask him, but for us and for Lane, he’ll help out.”
Gwen had stopped processing the words her mother was saying as soon as Case Danforth’s name came out of her mouth. She was too busy making sure she revealed no reaction whatsoever to mention of the boy next door. Or man across the street, as the case may be.
She couldn’t remember a time she hadn’t had a crush on Casey “don’t call me that” Danforth. Younger Gwen had mooned over his shaggy brown hair and dark eyes. Adult Gwen liked the way he kept it trimmed now, though it was still thick enough so her fingers itched to bury themselves in it. Just a little shy of six feet, he was what she considered a perfect height, and working outdoors kept him strong, lean and sun-kissed.
But she’d always been awkward around boys—even ones who were practically part of the family thanks to proximity and parental friendships—and then he asked Mallory to the winter carnival dance the year they were juniors and Mal was a sophomore.
Gwen had hidden her broken heart and never let on how wrenching it was to see her sister and the boy of her dreams together. And even once they’d broken up, Case remained forever off-limits to her. He was her sister’s first love . Okay, maybe not first love. They’d been kids, but they had dated almost a year. She couldn’t date her sister’s ex, regardless.
But the crush remained, held in check largely thanks to the fact she’d rarely seen him since she’d moved out of Stonefield over fifteen years ago.
But whenever she was in town, she was aware that ember had never gone totally cold. Even during her last visit—the darkest days of her life—when he’d offered a comforting hug, she’d been aware of how good it felt to have his arms around her.
If Case was going to be crossing the street all the time, working with them to dig her mother and sister out of the hole her dad had left them in, she was going to have to make sure that ember didn’t flare up into an active flame again.
Her feelings for Case Danforth were a secret she had no intention of sharing.