Kaitlyn Russo twisted the key in her hand but the front door to the Sweetwater B&B didn’t budge.
“Great. Just great,” she muttered under her breath, which floated away in a little white puff of air. Shivering and wishing she’d worn a heavier coat, she turned the key again, pressing her full weight into the door as she did. This time it flung open and promptly dumped her on the pinewood floor inside. Dust flumed under her nostrils. With a cough, she looked up and inspected her grandparents’ old bed and breakfast.
Scratch that. Her bed and breakfast.
She climbed to her feet, grabbed her luggage, and then closed the front door to bar the wintry cold. Turning on the light in the front room, she surveyed the homey design with high wood-beamed ceilings, a detail that, as an interior designer, she’d always loved. The furniture was a tasteful blend of antique and contemporary. This place was exactly how she remembered it from her infrequent childhood visits, minus the dust mites.
Nothing a little hard work couldn’t fix.
But first she had plans to meet with the lawyer handling her grandmother’s estate. He’d be arriving sometime in the next half hour. When she’d spoken to Mr. Garrison by phone earlier, he’d mentioned something about another person in Mable’s will. Kaitlyn couldn’t imagine who that would be. Other than her parents, who’d inherited various other family heirlooms, her grandmother didn’t have any living family. The Russos were a dwindling clan—all the more reason to keep their legacy alive.
From the corner of her eye, Kaitlyn saw movement in the window. Then a dark figure filled the space behind the curtain. Something told her this wasn’t Mr. Garrison. Lawyers tended to be civilized people who knocked on doors. Maybe a squatter had been camping out here since her Grandma Mable’s passing last month.
The shadow slipped out of sight. A moment later, she heard a shuffling sound behind the front door.
Terror sliced straight down her middle, and her heart kicked into a choppy staccato. She dashed to the fireplace and lifted one of the long metal pokers used to move hot coals. It could second as a lethal weapon if necessary.
Like it had for her, the front door didn’t release immediately. Why, oh why, didn’t I lock it after myself? If she were still in New York, she would have.
The intruder gave the door a firm push, and it swung open, crashing against the wall behind it and making Kaitlyn scream.
Standing before her was a broad-shouldered man with dark eyes, wavy, overgrown hair, and a close-trimmed beard. He was dressed in a nice pair of jeans and a weathered leather jacket. Her gaze fell to his brown mountain boots. Definitely not homeless, she decided.
She held the fire poker up like a sword. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned with a shaky voice.
“Are you planning to use that on me?” His voice, in contrast to hers, was deep and gruff. And if she wasn’t mistaken, there was a little humor threading through it.
Was he teasing her? Because while, yes, he was larger than her, she was the one holding a pointy metal death stick. “I might,” she said, wishing there wasn’t a warm, tingly awareness settling low in her belly, competing with the fear still coursing through her veins. Rugged good looks had never been a more accurate description. This guy had it down to an art form.
He held up his hands in surrender. “So, you’re little Katie Russo?”
She cocked her head to one side. “How do you know that?”
“Mable spoke of you often.”
Kaitlyn lowered the metal poker just a notch. “She did?” she asked, keeping her eyes pinned on him.
“Your grandfather too—when he was alive.”
Grandpa Henry had died several years earlier, leaving Grandma Mable to run the Sweetwater Bed and Breakfast alone. They’d been the only two people in the world to call her Katie, and her mom had always been vocal about her objections, preferring the formal name Kaitlyn instead.
“My name’s not Katie. It’s Kaitlyn. And you could’ve read that on my luggage there by your feet.” She’d met her fair share of con men living in the city. Guys who could conjure a name with only a pair of initials. “A simple inquiry into this place could’ve told you who my grandparents were.”
The man stepped forward and offered his hand. Kaitlyn didn’t move to shake it.
“I’m Mitch Hargrove. I grew up around the corner. Mable and Henry used to take care of me after school while my mom worked. They kept me supplied with milk and cookies and helped with my homework.”
That sounded exactly like something her grandparents would do.
“In exchange, I did odd jobs for them here at the inn during the school year. During the summers, my mom and I RV’d with my aunt, much to Mable’s disappointment. She always said she wanted to introduce us.”
He continued to hold his hand out to Kaitlyn. “Guess Mable finally got her wish. She always was a stubborn one.”
Reluctantly, Kaitlyn returned the rod to its place on the hearth and slipped her hand in his. Rough, calloused skin dragged across her palm as they shook. “I think I remember my grandmother speaking of you. She had a photo of you on her nightstand.” Kaitlyn was only able to come for a brief visit once each summer, the trip sandwiched between various camps her parents had enrolled her in. Each year, the photo on her grandmother’s nightstand was updated with a more recent version of the boy with the magic eyes. That’s how Kaitlyn had thought of him back then. Dark, magic eyes that seemed to jump out of the frame. In all honesty, the boy in that picture was her first crush.
And now he was standing in front of her.
Pinning her gaze to his, she recognized those eyes, changed only by a shimmer of something that resembled sadness. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said quietly.
“You’re family. I’m just”—he shrugged—“the neighbor boy. I’m supposed to be offering my condolences to you,” he said.
Kaitlyn swallowed thickly. Mitch was almost a foot taller than her, which required her to look up at him. “Thank you. So, did you break into the B and B to introduce yourself?” she asked.
“Jacob asked me to meet him tonight. Since I already have a key, he told me to come inside and wait where it’s warm.”
“Jacob Garrison, the estate lawyer? Why would he want to meet you here?”
“Seems Mable left half this place to me.” Mitch’s gaze roamed around the front room as he said it.
Kaitlyn shook her head, feeling breathless with panic. “No. You must be mistaken. I inherited this B and B.”
His gaze dropped to hers. Mistaken, but holy moly hot. Her cheeks flushed, and she looked away, reminding herself of her resolution on the drive down Interstate 95. This was a fresh start for her, an opportunity, and she wasn’t going to blow it.
“All I know is what I was told,” Mitch said.
As if on cue, someone knocked on the front door.
Mitch held up a hand, signaling her to stay where she was. “Wouldn’t want you to threaten Mr. Garrison with that fire poker,” he teased.
Kaitlyn watched as he opened the door to an older man with salt-and-pepper hair and a dark-gray suit buried under a heavy coat.
Despite the cold, the man smiled warmly from the porch. “Hey, Mitch. Good to see you.”
“You too, Jacob.”
They shook hands, and then Mitch gestured the man inside, closing the door behind them.
“Mr. Garrison, I presume,” Kaitlyn said, stepping forward and shaking the older man’s hand.
“That I am. Nice to finally meet you, Ms. Russo. Your grandparents spoke of you often over the years.”
“Please, call me Kaitlyn. Thank you so much for coming. I know it’s late.” She’d offered to meet Mr. Garrison tomorrow at his office but he’d insisted on seeing her as soon as she arrived in town. He’d apparently asked Mitch to come as well. And that little tidbit wasn’t sitting well with Kaitlyn at the moment.
“No problem at all. I’m on my way home, actually,” Mr. Garrison said.
“Well, let’s sit and get to business, shall we?” She moved toward the room’s high-backed Victorian couch and sat down. “I would offer you a warm drink but I just arrived myself. I’m not sure what’s in the cupboards.”
“Oh, I’m fine.” Mr. Garrison sat next to her and laid a briefcase on the coffee table in front of them. She watched as he pulled out a file. Hopefully, it would set things straight. She was the owner of the Sweetwater B&B, and only her.
Mitch sat in a matching antique chair off to the side and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. His chest was thick and broad like a linebacker’s, although his appearance made her think of a man who’d emerged from a mountain cabin rather than a football field.
Kaitlyn pulled her gaze back to Mr. Garrison. What if she’d misunderstood on the phone? What if this place wasn’t hers after all? She’d purchased a used car and had moved out of her pint-sized apartment in New York City, taking everything she owned with her. She had no home or job to return to because she didn’t plan on going back. It’d been a rash decision, yes, but she hadn’t really had another viable option. This was it, her only lifeline, and she’d latched on with all the grit and determination that had once made her an up-and-coming interior designer.
“So.” Mr. Garrison clapped his hands together. “Congratulations, you two. Looks like you’ll be business partners.”
Kaitlyn straightened. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Mable left you half of the Sweetwater B and B,” he told her and then looked at Mitch. “And you the other half. I’m sure you know the Russos thought of you as a grandson, Mitch. They were very proud of your service as a military police officer.”
Kaitlyn’s eyes darted between the two men. “Excuse me, Mr. Garrison, but I was under the impression that I was the new owner.”
“You are. Along with Mr. Hargrove.” Mr. Garrison pointed at the papers in front of him. “Says so right here. Under one condition that your grandmother spelled out in no uncertain terms.”
Kaitlyn’s head was spinning. “Condition?” she asked.
Mr. Garrison nodded. “That’s right. The condition is that you and Mr. Hargrove must run this place together for the first two months after signing these documents.” Mr. Garrison settled his glasses up on his long, narrow nose as he read. “Both parties must stay in Sweetwater Springs and run the Sweetwater Bed and Breakfast on Mistletoe Lane as a fully functioning inn for exactly two months from the date of signature. If either party declines, the bed and breakfast is forfeited for both parties and turned over to charity.”
“What?” Kaitlyn sat up straight, panic gripping her as it had when she’d thought Mitch was an intruder. And he was. She did not want him here, claiming half of what she’d thought was solely hers.
“No way I’m staying in Sweetwater Springs for two months,” Mitch said flatly. “I love Mable but charity can have this place.”
Kaitlyn shot him a scornful look. “This was my grandparents’ business. We can’t just let it go.”
“I hate to break it to you but this place has been declining for years,” Mitch said. “Mable rarely had a full inn. Any charity we offered it to likely wouldn’t even take it. A bed and breakfast requires time and money. I say we save ourselves the trouble and forfeit now.”
“We are not forfeiting,” Kaitlyn snapped between gritted teeth. She didn’t care how big or attractive Mitch Hargrove was—and he was big and attractive—she’d lost too many fights lately. She was fighting for this B&B with every ounce of strength she had. “Is there any way to get around the legal terms?” she asked. “So I can run the B and B and Mr. Hargrove can go on his merry way?” Which would be best for everyone. The sooner, the better.
Mr. Garrison frowned. “I’m afraid not. The will is detailed. Mable was insistent that you two work here together. Leaving the inn to the both of you was her final attempt to revive this old place.”
Mr. Garrison angled himself to look at Kaitlyn. “Mable was proud of how creative you are. She said you could turn menial things into magic.” He turned back to Mitch. “And she said you could fix just about anything. Between the two of you, she was adamant that the Sweetwater Bed and Breakfast could be transformed back into the jewel it once was. Her words, not mine. Two months. That was Mable’s terms, and she asked me to make sure that’s what happened.”
Mr. Garrison’s gaze flitted between them. “She knew it would take the talents of both of you combined.”
Kaitlyn stared at Mitch. She’d liked him a whole lot better when she’d thought he might be trying to kill her.
“So,” Mr. Garrison said on an inhale, “do you accept or not?”
“No,” Mitch barked at the same time that she said, “Yes.”
Kaitlyn folded her arms across her chest. How dare he even consider refusing her grandmother’s final wish. “We’re not giving up on this B and B.”
“Do you have money for repairs? Money to keep the lights and heat on for guests? This inn is a money pit. We’d be fools to go into business together.” Mitch shook his head. “And I don’t know about you but I have a life to get back to. Two months of trying to avoid the inevitable isn’t in my plans.”
“I have a life,” Kaitlyn shot back. Albeit one that seemed to be in shambles lately. Apparently, Grandma Mable had been struggling too. How had Kaitlyn not known her grandmother was under so much financial strain? Not that Kaitlyn could’ve helped. All she’d really had of value when she’d driven down from New York to the North Carolina mountains was hope, and even that was dwindling fast.
Mitch was having a hard time listening to Mr. Garrison. Partly because he was too distracted by little Katie Russo all grown up. She was gorgeous, yeah, but also feisty enough to threaten a six-foot-one former marine with a poker stick. He could’ve disarmed her faster than she could bat those long eyelashes of hers, if he’d wanted to. He’d enjoyed watching her think she had the upper hand though. He’d enjoyed watching her, period.
“The B and B doesn’t make a profit?” Kaitlyn asked as Mr. Garrison laid out the paperwork.
“Not in recent years, no,” Mr. Garrison said apologetically.
Mitch already knew this. He’d always visited Mable whenever he’d come off a deployment and returned to Sweetwater to see his mom. Since Henry’s death, Mable had been struggling financially. She’d never seemed undone by it though. She was a strong woman, didn’t give up easily, and was as stubborn as the valley here is deep. Mable was always expecting a surge of new business. Always hoping the Sweetwater Bed and Breakfast would return to its glory days.
“This business belonged to my grandparents. It means something. At least to me.”
Mitch swallowed, remembering how he’d sat in this very room after school. As a teen, he’d worked behind the scenes at the bed and breakfast on weekends too. Mable had taught him to cook fancy breakfasts and fold napkins just so. Henry had taught him to care for the landscaping. There weren’t a lot of good memories locked up in this town for Mitch but the Russos and the Sweetwater B&B were some of them.
He turned to Mr. Garrison. “So, you’re telling me that in order for Katie to keep this place, I have to stay in Sweetwater Springs?”
“Kaitlyn,” the woman in question snapped.
“That’s correct,” Mr. Garrison said.
“And if I leave?”
“Then she loses the business as well.”
Mitch rubbed a hand over his forehead. Thanks a lot, Mable. He couldn’t stay in Sweetwater Springs—wouldn’t—and she’d known that. The last few times he’d come to visit, he’d mentioned that he wasn’t reenlisting in the corps. Mable had known he would have time available. But she’d also known he was planning on taking a contract job running security in Northern Virginia. He knew quite a few ex-military who’d done the same kind of work after getting out. The job offered good money. Too good to pass up. This would complicate things.
“Two months?” he clarified.
“Two months. And what a perfect time. You’ll be home for the holidays, Mitch,” Mr. Garrison said, as if that was a selling point.
Mitch hadn’t been home for the holidays since he’d joined the military when he was eighteen years old. There was a reason for that. One that made the stipulations of Mable’s will feel more like a death sentence than a vacation.
“How you go about running things isn’t specified,” Mr. Garrison continued. “After the two months are up, we’ll complete the paperwork and the bed and breakfast is yours to sell or do with as you choose.”
“Please,” Kaitlyn said, turning to Mitch, her brown eyes wide and hopeful.
He didn’t know this woman from a stranger off the street. He didn’t owe her anything. But he did owe Mable and Henry. They’d practically raised him while his mom worked two jobs. Mable and Henry had stood by him after the accident too. He’d never forget their loyalty. “I’m not making any decisions tonight,” Mitch finally said. Especially not a decision that would cost him the next two months of his life.
“Of course. The clock doesn’t start until you sign the preliminary paperwork though,” Mr. Garrison advised.
Mitch nodded, catching the look of disappointment in Kaitlyn’s eyes. He couldn’t help that. This deal was a lot to ask.
The lawyer closed his briefcase and stood. “Just give me a call when you two make your decision.”
“We will.” Kaitlyn followed him to the door. “Thank you for coming.”
“Of course. Anything for Mable.”
That should’ve been Mitch’s immediate answer too. Anything for sweet, caring, kind Mable Russo.
Anything but this.