When Leigh Holloway felt the frigid slush seep over the tops of her shoes, she pressed her lips together and inhaled deeply through her nose to keep from letting loose a string of very un-festive profanities.
Leggings and leather ballerina flats had seemed like a great idea when she was in Houston, facing TSA checkpoints and hours on a plane. But when she stepped off the curb to board the shuttle to Logan’s rental car center in Boston, she realized they might be cute and comfortable, but they had been a really bad idea.
The joy continued when—thanks to overbooking, an impending storm and a possible system glitch—the four-wheel-drive SUV she’d reserved turned into a compact car with less tread on the tires than her ballet flats had. Usually when she was faced with somebody else’s screwup, Leigh would stand her ground until the error was corrected, but she was so damn tired she accepted the compact and hit the highway feeling like a prop in a monster truck rally.
Before the hours in airports and on a plane, the day had started with paying some bills in advance of her trip, which made her wince. Her new state of unemployment had been by choice, and she had a nice savings, but she still had to count pennies until she knew what the future held. Since breaking off her engagement with Jason two months before, she’d been living in a studio apartment so small, she could practically hit the coffeemaker’s power button while still in the shower. She’d quit her job because her former fiancé was her boss and, though they’d remained friends, it had been time. Even though he’d seemed as relieved by their relationship ending as she was, seeing each other every day made moving on feel awkward.
Of course, Leigh admitted to herself as she pulled the little car into her parents’ driveway, that meant she was thirty years and four months old, back in her hometown, and she had no home, no job and no man.
And she wasn’t going to tell a soul.
All she had to do was spend the next three weeks pretending everything was just the same as it had been the last time somebody in her family had asked her about her life, and she’d be fine. Once the holidays were over, the house was sold, and her parents were happily ensconced in their condo—something they’d been wanting to do once their daughters were settled—she’d send them an email and cc her sisters. They already had one daughter whose life was falling apart, and the last thing she wanted to do was make them second-guess whether it was the right time to make such a big change.
As distracted as she was by the way her life was unraveling, Leigh was almost knocked off her feet by the wave of nostalgia that hit her the second she stepped through the front door of the house.
Ted and Dianne Holloway had bought the big house that could best be described as a farmhouse, despite the fact it was in a residential neighborhood off the small town’s main street, when their three daughters were still young enough so it was the only home they could remember.
And now it was being sold. When Leigh had gotten the phone call from her mother telling her they were selling, she’d understood. It was too much house for two people whose kids had all moved out and they’d be able to save money as they turned the corner toward retirement. She’d even allowed her mom to guilt her into taking three weeks of unused vacation time—or so she let her mother believe—her parents knew she’d accumulated to return to New Hampshire and celebrate Christmas while mucking out decades’ worth of family debris.
But walking into the foyer and not seeing the watercolor painting of the red barn her father loved and her mother hated hanging over the hooks where they’d hung their school backpacks brought unexpected tears to Leigh’s eyes.
It would hang in the condo, she thought, giving herself a few seconds to center herself. The battle of the red barn watercolor was too integral to the history of the Holloway family for it to end up in a yard sale or donation box.
Once she’d pushed back the unexpected swell of emotion, Leigh walked down the hall and took a left into the kitchen because there was at least a 70 percent chance her mother would be in there. Not because she loved to cook so much as it was the one room in the house her husband rarely ventured into.
The craptastic nature of her day couldn’t withstand the warm, comforting scent of Mom that enveloped her and filled her senses. Ivory soap. A powdery fresh-scent deodorant. And a shampoo that smelled vaguely of tropical flowers wafting from her honey-blond (from a bottle), chin-length hair. Dianne Holloway was very much a don’t-fix-what-ain’t-broken kind of person, and Leigh was pretty sure her mom had been using the same health and beauty products for decades.
“I’m so glad you came home, honey.”
“Me, too.” And she wasn’t lying, even though the timing couldn’t have been worse and she was going to spend the entire visit trying to avoid questions about pretty much any aspect of her life.
“Have you seen your father?” her mom asked when the embrace was over.
“Not yet. Where is he?”
“I’m not sure. That’s why I asked you if you’d seen him.”
“I literally just got here, Mom.”
“Oh. Well, he’s around here somewhere. And Hope’s here with the baby, of course. They’re staying in her old room until she can get some money from that rat bastard and rent an apartment or a little house of her own.”
That rat bastard being Hope’s soon-to-be ex-husband, of course. He’d gotten caught messing around one too many times and Leigh’s older sister had finally gotten it through her head her husband wasn’t going to stop cheating. Now she was starting over with a four-month-old baby, which couldn’t be easy.
“I’m not sure yet when Jenna and her family will come,” her mom continued. “They won’t be staying overnight at all, even though it’s over an hour of driving for them, so you’ll have your room all to yourself.”
Jenna’s family consisted of her husband of six months, Randy, and his twelve-year-old daughter. Aimee wasn’t thrilled about having a stepmother and wasn’t shy about letting everybody know that, and it hadn’t improved any as of the last time Leigh spoke to her younger sister.
“Your father might be in the shed out back. For some reason he wants to sort through thirty years’ worth of coffee cans full of junk rather than tossing them.”
Leigh knew her father was in the shed for the same reason her mom was so often in the kitchen. Their marriage worked best when they had their own spaces to retreat to. “I don’t want to get sucked into sorting rusty nuts and bolts, so I’ll go find Hope and say hi. Dad will come in eventually.”
Leaving the kitchen, she continued down the hall until it opened into the living room, which thankfully hadn’t been changed yet. The stairs went up to the right and, as she climbed them, she wondered if they’d have trouble selling the house. Open concept floorplans with high ceilings were all the rage, and old farmhouse-style New Englanders were anything but open and airy.
There were two bedrooms on the front side of the house—the one she’d shared with Jenna, and the one Hope got to herself by right of being the oldest—and then the sole full bath and her parents’ room were on the backside. She shuddered at the memory of five people—three of whom had been teenaged girls for overlapping years—sharing that one bathroom and the half-bath downstairs as she walked by.
Hope’s door was open, and Leigh could hear her chattering to the baby as she turned the corner. There was also a weird rasping sound and it took her a few seconds to realize it was coming from a tan pug staring at her from the corner of the room.
“Hope, I think your dog is dying.”
“Hey, you made it! And he’s fine,” Hope said as she gave her a hug.
Leigh stared at the dog over her sister’s shoulder, listening to the horrific Darth Vader-like sounds come from its little doggy lungs and sinuses. “Are you sure? He sounds very…moist.”
“He’s a pug, Leigh. Seriously, he’s fine.”
She kept staring and the dog stared back at her with eyeballs that looked like overinflated beach balls on the verge of popping. “What’s his name?”
“Atticus, because Tim is a pompous ass.”
Leigh thought it might be due to her almost-ex brother-in-law having great taste in literature, but being one hundred percent Team Hope kept her from saying so aloud. It was a lofty name for a wheezing dog that smelled pretty bad, though. “Where’s the red barn? I noticed it was gone.”
“Dad wrapped it in bubble wrap and then put it in a box, which is riding around in the backseat of his truck so Mom can’t accidentally lose it in the move.”
“Okay, I’m sorry, but that dog smells really bad.”
“That’s the baby.” She laughed at what Leigh knew had to be an expression of pure horror on her face before bending over the bed, where the little guy was squirming on his back. “Time for a new diaper, TJ?”
“I thought you said absolutely none of the cutesy nicknames people use for kids who are juniors, including initials ending in J.”
Hope pressed her lips together for a few seconds before putting her hands over her son’s ears. “That was before I knew I’d named him after a lying, cheating asshole and that every time I said my sweet little boy’s name, I’d have to be reminded of said lying, cheating asshole.”
“I don’t know a lot about babies, but I’m pretty sure he’s too young to remember you said that.”
Hope let go of the baby’s head. “I’m not taking any chances. There are people who claim they remember being in their mothers’ wombs.”
“There are also people who claim aliens kidnapped them and shoved probes up their—” When Hope made a face as if she’d just seen one of those aliens walk into the house waving a wand, Leigh broke off and glanced at the baby. “Butts.”
“You said asshole,” Leigh was compelled to point out.
“I was covering his ears at the time.”
“When’s the last time Tim saw him?”
Hope sighed, her mouth tightening. “Three weeks ago.”
“His choice or yours?”
“His. Apparently his new girlfriend doesn’t consider herself good with babies.”
“Good. I mean it’s not good. Tim’s being a shitty father, but at least it’s not you keeping your son from his dad.”
“Don’t be stupid. I would never use our child as a weapon like that.” Hope paused, and then her mouth twisted in a slightly scary smile. “That’s why I took his dog.”
Leigh shook her head, and then had to cover a huge yawn. “What a freaking day this has been. I think it’s time to have a drink and put my feet up.”
“Unless you mean decaf or lemonade, you’re out of luck. This is a dry house now. And why aren’t you wearing your ring?”
Leigh froze and then glanced at the bare left hand she’d used to cover her yawn. “I…the center stone was loose, so we had to leave it with the jeweler.”
It wasn’t totally a lie. The part about the stone was, but they had left it with the jeweler because Jason had sold it back to him two months ago. Her finger had felt naked without it for the first couple of weeks, but she’d gotten used to it and hadn’t given the missing engagement ring a thought before now. Thankfully she’d kept it simple with Hope, so she wouldn’t have any trouble telling her parents the same story.
“Since when is this a dry house?” she asked, not only to change the subject but because the lack of alcohol was a lot more important to her right now than the lack of a ring.
“Dad had to lose some weight, so Mom and his doctor got on his case about giving up beer. And you know he loved his beer. So he said Mom had to give up her wine and they both got stubborn about it, so there’s no alcohol allowed in the house at all.”
“Oh, hell no.” Leigh was not making it through three weeks of keeping secrets from her family without a little liquid fortification at the end of the day. “I’ll go out and find a nice place to relax with a cocktail, then.”
Hope’s smile was her first warning she wasn’t going to like whatever came out of her sister’s mouth. “The only place in town that has a liquor license is the Center Street Pub.”
“Okay. I’ll go to the Center Street Pub, which must be new.”
“It’s been open a few years, but things were so crazy when you came home for Jenna’s wedding, we barely had time to breathe, never mind go out for drinks.” Hope’s smile turned into a grin. “The Dawson family opened it in that big old house of theirs.”
Leigh’s stomach knotted. “The Dawsons have the only liquor license?”
“Yup. And guess which brother mans the bar.”
Shit. Maybe she didn’t need that drink after all.
* * *
“Croy! What the hell are you thinking?”
While it certainly wasn’t the first time in his life he’d ever heard those words, Croy Dawson had to work to keep from yelling back as he set two frosted mugs of beer on the bar. The couple he was serving already looked startled by the initial yelling, so he deliberately relaxed his face and gave them an easy smile.
“Never work with your older brothers,” he said, and they both laughed.
After giving the room a visual sweep to ensure nobody was actively trying to get his attention, Croy walked to the end of the bar and took a left down the short hallway leading to the kitchen.
“What did I tell you?” Jeff demanded as soon as Croy stepped into the room.
“You’ve told me a lot of things. And I probably listened as well as you did when I told you to stop bellowing to me from the kitchen.”
“I’m going to do a lot more than bellow, you son of a—”
“Enough.” Their oldest brother, Lucas, entered the kitchen from the dining room side. That was the problem with turning an old New England colonial into a restaurant. Too many doors. “You guys swore you’d work on your communication skills.”
“And Croy said he wouldn’t ask Carrie to bus any more tables.”
“Which I didn’t.” As if he’d ask his extremely pregnant sister-in-law to carry a heavy bus pan.
“I just saw her walk out of here with a damn bus pan.”
“Then maybe you should have bellowed at her instead of me.”
Jeff pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You’re in charge out front and I’m in charge of the kitchen. That’s the deal.”
Which made Carrie running off with a bus pan something of a gray area. The dirty tables were out front, but the bus pans and dishwashing station were technically part of the kitchen. Not that it mattered. The only person in charge of Carrie was Carrie.
“And I’m in charge of everything,” Lucas reminded them. “Nobody should be bellowing. And Carrie shouldn’t be bussing tables. Where’s Dylan?”
Croy shrugged, though if he had to guess, he’d say the teen had yet another raging case of dishpan diarrhea. In other words, the dishes were piling up while Dylan was hiding in the bathroom—again—playing with the cell phone that was supposed to be turned off when he clocked in.
But none of this was his problem. Carrie knew she wasn’t supposed to be bussing tables and Dylan knew he was.
“Since you’re in charge of everything,” he said to Lucas, “you can handle this.”
As he turned to leave, Croy saw Carrie walk in the other door. Empty-handed. Right on her heels was Dylan, carrying a full bus pan.
“Uh-oh.” Carrie stopped, moving sideways so Dylan could get to the dish room. “This is never a good sign.”
She meant all three brothers being in the kitchen at the same time and she wasn’t wrong. Croy watched his short, hugely pregnant sister-in-law rest her hands in the vicinity of where her waist used to be. Even with puffy ankles, what looked like a beach ball under her shirt and her dark hair wrapped in a messy knot, Carrie looked as if she was contemplating giving each of them a swift kick in the ass. Or as high up on the backs of their legs as she could reach in her current condition.
“What’s going on?” she demanded. “And, by the way, I could hear the yelling from the dining room.”
Croy heard Lucas’s frustrated growl and jumped in before his brother could go off on the communication tangent again. “Jeff thought I had you bussing tables.”
She laughed. “I can’t even bend over the tables far enough to reach all the damn dishes. I was grabbing the bus pan for Dylan because he forgot it again.”
They all rolled their eyes at that one. Dylan was not well suited for the restaurant industry—even just washing the dishes—but he was a good kid trying to save money for the automotive program at the tech school. Every time he frustrated them to the point they discussed firing him, it seemed as if the brothers took turns digging up valid reasons to keep him on. Croy had saved him last month by pointing out Carrie did most of the training and she had too much on her plate to deal with new employees.
“I’m going back to my job,” Croy said. “Jeff, you make sure everybody back here does their jobs, and we won’t have a problem.”
“And stop yelling.” Lucas shook his head. “I still think we should revisit the idea of an intercom system.”
“No,” Jeff and Croy said at the same time.
When Lucas scowled and opened his mouth to argue the point, Croy turned and walked out. He had customers to take care of.
Whenever they were squabbling, Croy found himself wondering why he’d agreed to be part of their crazy family restaurant scheme. Yes, the house had been too much for their dad after their mom died and they were all grown, but they could have sold it. Hank Dawson could be in a nice condo or even a little cabin by the lake, but no. He didn’t want to give up on the house that had been in his wife’s family for multiple generations, so two of his idiot sons had come up with a plan to turn the ground floor into a family restaurant and pub.
And the youngest idiot son hadn’t had the heart to keep saying no.
But when he was behind the bar, keeping an eye on whatever game was on the television while chatting with the customers and pouring drinks, Croy loved his job. He’d bartended to get through his last two years of college, and he thought he had a knack for it. Maybe not so much the fancy cocktails, but this was mostly a beer and wine kind of town, anyway.
Things were starting to die down after the dinner crowd and Croy had started checking the easy things off the laminated list of closing tasks when a woman he hadn’t seen in years walked past him, all the way to the far end of the bar. While she hoisted herself up onto the stool and settled herself, he took another look because he still couldn’t believe this particular woman would just stroll into his family’s restaurant and belly up to his bar.
Maybe it was some other woman with long, dark hair and skin like a fine china plate. Then she looked up and he saw those pale blue eyes. Yeah, Leigh Holloway was back in town. At his restaurant. And, judging by the stubborn look on her face, she’d known ahead of time he’d be the one standing on the other side of the bar.
His night just got a lot more interesting. “Leigh Holloway. What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”