The Inn on Sweetbriar Lane by Jeannie Chin

Chapter One

Three tours overseas might have cost Clay Hawthorne a chunk of bone from his knee and the better part of his soul. But the good thing about coming back stateside after something like that was that not much could surprise a guy.

Or at least that’s what he told himself.

Worrying the shiny brass key between his rough fingers, he sized up the building he’d bought. Sight unseen, plucked off some real estate website: 23 Main Street, Blue Cedar Falls, North Carolina.

It was hard to tell in the dimness of twilight, but the foundations of the old storefront looked sound enough. No big cracks in the red brick. The awning would need replacing, and the dusty glass of the big, boarded-up front window might, too.

To either side stood little shops that were in a lot better shape. The bed-and-breakfast across the street just about shone, the fresh coat of paint on it was so bright and new.

They weren’t any concern of his, though.

He’d seen a lot of small towns in the year since he’d gotten back. He’d seen even more as a kid, kicking around from one foster home to another. In the end, they were all the same. Charming on the outside, but no amount of white paint could cover up the dingy parts underneath. No doubt in his mind this place would be the same.

Yet there was still an odd prickle of hope in his chest as he approached the big wood door. Solid oak. Strong and true. He fit his key to the lock, held his breath, and pushed inside.

He fumbled for a minute, searching blindly in the dark for a switch. He finally found it and flipped the lights on.

With a groan of protest, a lone flickering fluorescent bulb buzzed to life overhead, and it was all he could do not to turn it right back off again.

Rose-colored walls met him everywhere he looked. All along the top border, salmon flowers had been stamped on with a sponge. Carpet in a different shade of dusty, faded pink spread out beneath his boots. The counter had probably been white at one point, but the peeling paint had just about given up the ghost and decided to go ahead and turn pink, too.

Well, at least now he understood why the place had been such a good deal.

Gritty laughter bubbled up in the back of his throat. “Good grief, Bug. What have we gotten ourselves into now?”

No one replied. No one had in a year and four weeks, and damn if he didn’t miss the voice that had always answered all his stupid questions as much today as he did the day it’d been silenced. Forever.

This had been Bug’s dream, after all. He’d talked about it when they’d been camped under the stars in the desert and hunkered down in the blistering sun, waiting for orders outside a suspected insurgent hideout. Every time he’d told the story about the bar he was going to go home and build, Bug had added little details. Clay had chuckled and told him Sure, sure, skeptical as anything, but he’d liked the stories, no matter how many times he’d heard them.

And the first, most central piece of Bug’s plan had been to open his bar right here where he grew up. Blue Cedar Falls, in the western mountains of North Carolina. He’d put it smack-dab in the middle of their quaint little tourist district, too—the part of town where rich people from all over the country swung through for the weekend, never to be seen again, while the regular folks who lived there felt like scenery.

It wouldn’t be one of those trendy places with fancy wine lists and cocktails in every color of the rainbow, either.

It’d be a real bar, serving beer and whiskey and maybe scotch if things got out of hand. With leather stools and wood paneling and the game playing on a TV in the corner. A jukebox with honest music on it—no auto-tuned crap. With voices and guitars and heartache of the kind anybody could understand.

A bar for people who’d never had a seat at the table.

Bug didn’t live to see his dream through. But Clay was here. Alive and breathing, if not entirely whole.

Clenching his jaw against the twinge in his knee, he circled the perimeter of the big, pink storefront to stand in its very center. It had been a knitting shop, or maybe quilting. He didn’t know and he didn’t care.

He sized the space up with a more careful eye. As a teen in foster care, he’d worked under the table for a handyman for a couple of years, and he knew what he was doing well enough. The carpet he could tear out. A building of this age, ten to one there’d be wood underneath, and wood he could work with. Panels would go up on the walls as easy as could be. He’d need to build the bar itself and put in lighting of some kind. A stage for local acts on Saturday nights. There’d be a couple of high-tops with stools, of course, and a few big tables with benches where real people could drink real drinks and eat real food and forget their troubles, at least for a little while.

A lot of the details were fuzzy, but that didn’t matter. He’d figure them out. Already, he could almost smell the spilled beer and hear the rumble of laughter and conversation.

Then he blinked.

And yeah, those walls were still pink. The room was empty and silent as the grave. But not for long.

“Okay, Bug.” He rubbed his hands together, then nodded to himself. “Let’s do this.”

“How can they do this?”

June Wu tossed the letter from the hospital aside and dropped her head into her hands.

In the first thirty-two years of her life, she’d never once failed to pay a bill on time. She’d never so much as incurred a library fine.

Now the stack of notices screaming PAST DUE barely fit in the file she secreted them away in.

She took a deep breath and glanced around the lobby of the Sweetbriar Inn. With the exception of what sounded like a jackhammer firing away outside and the muffled din of her stepfather Ned handling the breakfast crowd down the hall, everything was silent. Confident she was alone, she picked up the letter again and reread the reminder about the anesthesiologist’s assistant’s out-of-network fee for handing the doctor a tube—or whatever this particular bill was about. The threat to turn the debt over to a collection agency made her throat constrict.

Every time she got one of these notices, all she could see was her mother, ashen and mute and hooked up to wires and machines, doctors everywhere, nurses pushing June aside while she screamed at them to save her mom. Just save her. The sheer panic still sent ice flooding through her veins, and she had to shake herself so as not to give over to it.

Her mom was fine. She was fine. Her family—they’d all be fine.

Just as soon as she got these bills under control.

She was working on getting a payment plan set up with the hospital, but everybody who had so much as laid eyes on her mother seemed to want a piece of her. She was barely treading water, and the sea of medical debt kept rising.

At this rate, she was going to lose the inn.

She crumpled the paper in her hand.

Over her dead body. This inn was her family’s lifeblood. Ned had been born here, and his parents had managed it before him. It had weathered tough times in the past. No way the bank would get it under June’s watch.

She just needed business to pick up a bit.

She chewed at the inside of her lip. Bookings were all right for now, but ever since the new highway had opened that spring, cutting Blue Cedar Falls off from the usual flow of traffic, tourism had been trending down. Everyone on Main Street had been feeling the pinch. The last meeting of the business association had been two long hours of people going around in circles complaining.

June had binders full of ideas for how to drum up business, but the only one she’d been able to get enough support for had been a relaunch of their classic Pumpkin Festival. Even that had been a nail-biter. People like Patty Boyd—owner of the gallery at the end of the road, current association president and de facto leader of a coalition of pearl-clutching PTA moms—and Dottie Gallagher—the eighty-year-old florist who’d been putting her nose in everyone’s business since before the Cold War—seemed determined to keep anything from changing, ever.

Well, June would show them. Autumn was supposed to be their busiest season, but right now, it was looking like a bust. She was going to fix that. Bold new branding for the festival, a big online ad campaign, and specials going on up and down Main Street would bring people in. She was sure of it.

Plus, there was her ace in the hole.

Speaking of which…

She tucked the latest notice from the hospital in the locked filing cabinet behind the desk before pulling out her phone. She dismissed a couple of notifications she could deal with later—something from her youngest sister Elizabeth and one of the chain emails her mom was so fond of sending, especially while she was still on doctor’s orders to relax and take it easy.

She pulled up the text message thread she had going with her other sister, May, and frowned.

May’s fast-paced, on-the-go life as a travel writer had always made her hard to get a hold of, but recently it had gotten ridiculous—at least when it came to anything that mattered. Send her a screenshot of a guilty pleasure TV show and she was there with exclamation points and commentary. Ask her if she’d booked her tickets to come down for the festival you were relaunching to try to resuscitate your hometown and keep your family out of the poorhouse?

Crickets.

Just for fun, June sent another, maybe slightly less than gentle nudge, along with an animated gif of a sad puppy staring pleadingly at the screen. It would probably get ignored, too, but no one could say June hadn’t tried.

A successful Pumpkin Festival would give this year’s numbers a much-needed boost, but if June was going to keep the collection agencies at bay, she needed to think long-term. May coming in and writing a glowing article for her magazine could really expand their reach.

She just had to get her sister back here, was all.

Before she could get too worked up about it, footsteps echoed on the stairs heading down from the second floor. June shoved her phone in the pocket of her dress and put on her best smile as the Andersons from room thirteen headed her way. Rising to her feet, she plucked their folio from the tray beside the computer. “Checking out?” she asked brightly.

Mr. Anderson nodded, his mouth pursed.

Hmm.

June walked them through their bill and ran their card, but she kept an eye on them all the while. Happy guests became repeat guests, or at least positive reviewers, and these were not happy guests.

“Is there anything we could have done to make your stay more pleasant?” June tried.

Mrs. Anderson rubbed her eyes and shook her head. “No, dear. Unless you have any sway with whoever’s making that racket outside.”

“They were at it half the night, too,” her husband added.

At precisely that moment banging sounded through the air, and June winced.

The sale on the old quilt shop across the street had been finalized a few days ago. The Main Street rumor mill had been in a tizzy about it, too, but no one had been able to get the scoop on what was going on over there.

Whatever it was, it was loud. The Andersons weren’t the first to complain.

“I’m so sorry,” June started, but the Andersons waved her off. It wasn’t her fault, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to fix it. “Let me see what I can do about taking a little something off your bill…”

Their mood seemed to improve after that.

Once they were gone, she sighed. No more guests were scheduled to check out this morning—though with all the noise, she’d been bracing herself for the possibility.

Not that she had time to dwell on it.

Double-checking that the sign inviting guests to ring the bell for service was lined up beside the candy bowl and the vase of fresh flowers she had delivered twice a week, she stepped out from behind the desk.

Immediately, she felt freer.

It wasn’t that she minded running the front desk, but too many hours cooped up behind it made her a little batty sometimes. A selfish part of her longed for the days when her mother had happily whiled away the days at her post there, playing mah-jongg online and reading paperback mysteries and gossiping with anyone who came through. With her mom as captain, June had been second mate, following orders and living her life. Carefree, by comparison, though she’d imagined she was stressed at the time.

She sighed. She’d had no idea how good she’d had it back then.

As if to taunt her for that very thought, her mother’s laughter echoed down the hall. Shaking her head fondly, June followed the sound to its usual location these days.

The breakfast room of the inn was bustling. Delicious scents of frying bacon and fresh pancakes on the griddle filled the air as warmly as the sound of good conversation and clinking silverware and plates.

The Sweetbriar Inn was known for miles around as one of the best bed-and-breakfasts in the western half of the state. June smiled as she picked up a carafe of coffee and started casually making the rounds of the tables. Half of them were occupied by guests, whom she greeted warmly, asking about their stay and how they were planning to spend their day—crossing her fingers they wouldn’t say anything about the odd hours her hammer-happy new neighbor seemed to keep.

The other half were filled with locals who knew full well that the breakfasts served at the Sweetbriar Inn were just as special as their beds. They definitely said something about the sounds of construction outside, but none of them seemed to know what was going on, either.

When her carafe was empty, she headed for the kitchen, where her stepdad had ten orders going at once.

“Hey, June-y,” Ned said, presenting his stubbly cheek for a kiss.

She gave one to him happily. “You doing all right back here?”

“Just fine.” The sweat on his brow and the tired lines around his eyes told a different story, but she wasn’t going to call him out right now. Between running the kitchen, tending the grounds, and taking care of her mother, he had his hands as full as she did. As she drew back, he tilted his head toward a set of plates on the counter. “Take those to table three?”

Of course. The sliced scallions on top of the eggs on one of the plates were a dead giveaway. “Sure thing.”

Grabbing a tray, she loaded the plates up and headed for the big table in the corner.

Finally.” Her mother smiled at her approach, softening the judgment in her tone.

As was her wont these days, Li Mei Wu sat in the cushy chair at the far end of the dining room. She was dressed in a blue and white floral blouse, a pale green jade pendant hanging from a gold chain draped across her throat. She was sixty, but her chin-length hair was still mostly black, the curls June had put in it that morning holding well. Sunny—the mean, three-legged calico cat she’d taken in—occupied her lap. A half dozen women of a certain age surrounded them.

As soon as her mother had gotten home from the hospital, June had been on the phone trying to line up people to come by and see her. It was the only way she could think of to keep her mother from diving straight into work and setting back her recovery.

She just hadn’t realized how out of hand it would get.

A few friends swinging by for a chat now and then had turned into a rotating crew of them showing up for breakfast every morning. If any more of them started coming by, Ned would have to haul in another table. As it was, when they really got going, their cackles gave the jackhammer across the street a run for its money.

Smiling at her mother’s friends, June set the tray down and started to pass out plates. Most of these women got the same thing every day, so that was easy enough. She placed the dish with the scallions in front of her mother.

Her mom picked up her fork with her left hand, keeping her once-dominant right arm draped across Sunny’s back. With a long-suffering expression, she looked to her friends on either side of her. “Good help is so hard to find these days.”

The slight slurring of her words had nothing to do with her subtle Chinese accent and everything to do with the lingering effects of her stroke.

Trying not to react—because her mom loved it when she pointed out the places where her recovery needed work—June rolled her eyes, distributing the rest of the plates. “Well, when your boss goes on vacation for nine months…”

“Only because my employee tells me I have to!”

“Your doctor said—”

“Doctor,” her mother scoffed. “What do they know? Your great-aunt Chung never saw a doctor her whole life. When she had stroke, she took Chinese herbs. Better in three weeks.”

“My great-aunt Chung died when she was sixty.”

“But so healthy until then.”

Her mother’s best friend, Mrs. Leung, patted her hand. “No point arguing. You can’t tell children anything.” She made a tching sound behind her teeth. “My youngest, Zoe? The worst. Never listens.”

“You know they say the same thing about you behind your back,” Ms. Smith said, smiling at June as she accepted her plate of hash and toast. She pitched her voice higher, mimicking her own kids. “Mom is so stuck in her ways. It’s like she doesn’t even know what social media is.

“I have all the accounts,” June’s mother insisted. “Facebook, Twitter.” Her eyes sparkled. “Ellen DeGeneres followed me back on Instagram.”

“Of course she did, Mom.”

Her mom put her hand to her chest. “She doesn’t believe me!”

Mrs. Leung tutted. “Like I said, no reasoning with children.”

“There’s no reasoning with you, either,” Ms. Smith scolded. “We could learn a thing or two from our kids if we just listened.”

“And they could learn a thing or two from us,” Mrs. Leung insisted.

June’s mother waved her hand dismissively. “Both sides have points. Need to meet in the middle. That’s what I always say.”

But Mrs. Leung didn’t seem to have any interest in talking about compromise. She looked at June pointedly. “Wait until you have children of your own. Then you understand.”

A dull ache panged behind June’s ribs.

Right. As if that was going to happen anytime soon.

She smiled as sweetly as she could. “I’ll report back to you if I ever do.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught her mother’s slightly lopsided smile falling by a fraction.

If June couldn’t handle Mrs. Leung’s advice about her life, she sure as heck couldn’t handle her mother’s sympathy about her lack of one.

Guilt tugged at her, but she mumbled something about having to get back to the front desk. She didn’t meet anyone else’s gaze as she turned away.

Fortunately, no one called after her, though she had no doubt her mom would bring it up again when they were alone. She seemed to think June could handle everything here and get out and find her soul mate.

She waved at Ned as she passed the kitchen and headed out into the cooler, clearer, quieter air of the hall. On the way, she made a quick stop in the restroom. She locked the door behind her before dropping her head into her hands.

The thing was that she didn’t exactly mind the fact that she had no time or energy for a personal life. Sure, she’d always wanted kids, and yeah, at thirty-two, she wasn’t what some of the older ladies would call a spring chicken anymore.

But she had responsibilities. Her mother, Ned, the inn. The never-ending swamp of medical debt and the new highway and their terrible bookings for fall and relaunching the Pumpkin Festival and, well…everything.

She couldn’t rely on her sisters. Elizabeth was too scatterbrained, and May was never, ever around. Ned was getting up there himself, and he’d taken on the majority of her mother’s care, not to mention pulling his usual weight with the breakfast crowd and handling most of the maintenance around the inn. The rest of it was up to June. Always had been. Ever since she’d been eight years old, fatherless and scared and with no option but to roll up her sleeves and get things done.

It was easy for her mom to give her sad looks and harp on her that she should get out and have some fun. For now, this was her life, and it was enough.

Whatever else she wanted for herself…Well, it would just have to wait.

With that, she blew out a breath and stood up straight again. She checked herself over in the mirror to make sure she hadn’t smudged or rumpled anything while she was taking a moment to herself. Tucking her hair behind her ear, she plastered on a smile and tugged open the door.

Back in the lobby, the sound of the banging outside was even louder. Scowling, she headed to the window and peeked out.

The old quilt shop stared back at her, as boarded up and impenetrable as it had been the last time she’d tried to peer into it.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she pulled it out.

The general store is out of earplugs. Can you see anything?

June huffed a laugh. Nothing you can’t see just as well from where you are.

Her best friend Bobbi ran the bakery next door, and the two of them had been reliving their Nancy Drew–reading days, trying to suss out the mystery of their new neighbor this week.

What is HAPPENING? And more importantly, when will it stop???

June smiled at her friend’s emotive texting. Then the corners of her mouth turned down.

She glanced at the checkout desk, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson’s frustration playing again in her mind. She couldn’t afford to offer a discount to every guest who complained about the noise. Not for long.

Turning back around, she gazed through the window and across the street once more. She narrowed her eyes at the darkened storefront.

Bobbi’s questions were valid.

And it was high time June got some answers.