As the oldest of the ten Abbott siblings, Hunter prides himself on his ability to solve other people’s problems, but now he has a problem of his own—how to convince the woman of his dreams that his love is for keeps.
As the chief financial officer, Hunter Abbott manages the family’s various business interests while “fixing” things for the people he loves. But the one thing he can’t fix is his undeniable attraction to Megan Kane. Instead, Hunter is prepared to do whatever it takes to show Megan that he’s the man for her.
Megan’s sister rocks her with the news that she and her husband are moving overseas, leaving Megan truly alone. With her sister—and her job at the diner—going away, Megan finds herself leaning on the sexy, button-down accountant who isn’t afraid to lay it all on the line for her. But Megan has watched too many people she loves leave her. Can she risk her heart on Hunter?
Contains a bonus Green Mountain short story!
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“You’re a very nice guy.”
“This is what I’m trying to tell you.”
Her laughter broke the tension that had grown and multiplied during the intense conversation. His smile lit up his handsome face, and Megan couldn’t resist him when he looked at her that way. She put her hand around his nape and drew him in for a kiss. “He cooks, he irons, he bakes and he makes dreams come true.”
“You forgot balances the books and makes you come multiple times every night. What can I say, babe? I’m a Renaissance man.”
“And he’s funny and cute and sexy and adorable.”
“All those things? You shouldn’t let a guy like that get away. You might regret it for the rest of your life.”
“Yes, I’m quite sure I would.”
Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.
—Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group
When her sister and brother-in-law said they wanted to talk to her at the diner Monday evening, Megan Kane assumed they were going to tell her they were finally expecting the niece or nephew she’d wanted for as long as they’d been married. But the words that came from Brett and Nina in stuttering, halting sentences had nothing to do with babies.
“Selling the diner.”
“So sorry to do this to you.”
“It was an amazing opportunity.”
“We couldn’t say no.”
“You can come with us.” Nina seemed crushed to be delivering this news to her “baby” sister, who was almost twenty-eight and hardly a baby anymore. “I’d love that. We could run around and explore together while Brett is at work. It would be so fun.”
Megan shook off the shock and found her voice. “No. You’ve been taking care of me since you were twenty-two, Neen. It’s time to go live your life. I’ll be fine.”
“We really do mean it when we say you should come with us,” Brett said. He was always so kind to her, never once in all these years acting as if her tight bond with his wife was a problem for him.
“I can’t do that. I can’t crash your party. I’ve been around your necks long enough as it is.”
“You’re hardly around our necks, Megan,” Nina said. “We could have so much fun! Would you think about it before you automatically say no? Please?”
“Fine.” Megan said what her sister needed to hear. “I’ll think about it.”
“Great!” Nina said, beaming with pleasure at the small victory.
“If you decide to stay here, we’ll help you find another job,” Brett said. “Maybe the new owners of the diner would want to keep you on. They’d be crazy not to.”
He’d been a terrific brother-in-law to her since he married her sister nine years ago. A teacher at a nearby boys’ prep school, he’d apparently applied for overseas positions in the past but they’d never materialized until now.
Work at Nina’s Diner without Nina? Unthinkable. “I’ll figure something out. You guys don’t need to worry about me.”
“Of course we’ll worry about you, Meg.” Nina reached for her sister’s hand across the table. “I don’t know how not to worry about you.”
“It’s probably time I got a life of my own.” Megan tried to stay calm even as she panicked on the inside. Not see Nina every day? Unbearable. “Mom and Dad would be horrified if they knew I was still living in the garage apartment.”
“They’d be proud of you.”
“No, they’d be proud of you, but you deserve it. You’ve created such a wonderful business here, and now you have this fantastic opportunity to travel. I’d never hold you guys back from doing what you want.”
Brett’s relief was so visible he practically sagged under the weight of it. Obviously, they’d worried about telling her their news. “You really can come with us if you want to, Megan,” he said. “It would be great to have you in France.”
“I’d love to come visit while you’re there, but this is home.” In reality, Nina was home to her, not Butler or the house where they’d once lived with their parents, but Megan kept those thoughts to herself.
“You said you’d think about it!” Nina said.
“Neen, I can’t just go traipsing off to France, as fun as that sounds. I need to figure out my life and what I’m going to do with it. I can’t do that in France. I don’t want either of you to worry about me. I swear I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Nina asked tearfully. “You’d tell me if you didn’t mean that, wouldn’t you?”
“I’m very sure.” Megan kept her emotions out of it—for now anyway. “This could turn out to be a good thing for me. It’ll give me the kick in the butt I’ve needed to move on.” Megan had been marching in place for more than ten years, since the snowy night they lost their parents in a car crash during her senior year of high school.
Nina had been her rock ever since, acting as mother, father and big sister all rolled into one. The sisters had held on to each other for all these years, and the thought of everyday life without Nina was unfathomable to Megan.
“If you agree, we’re going to rent the house,” Brett said, “but the garage apartment is all yours for as long as you want or need it. We told the Realtor the garage wasn’t part of the deal.”
“Of course I agree. No sense the house sitting vacant when you could be making some money.” Her brother-in-law’s sweetness nearly broke her emotional dam, but she refused to cry in front of them. Since there were going to be tears—and lots of them—she had to get out of there immediately. No way would she make them feel bad about something they were so excited about. Knowing she was on borrowed time where the tears were concerned, Megan gathered up her belongings and stood. “I’ll see you guys in the morning.”
“Let me drive you home,” Nina said.
“That’s okay. I could use the fresh air after being inside all afternoon.” They’d used their afternoon and evening “off” to do their monthly deep clean of the diner.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” Nina asked.
Megan bent to kiss her sister’s cheek. “I’m fine, and I’m thrilled for both of you.”
Nina held her tight for a minute. “Love you, Meggie.”
Megan couldn’t remember the last time Nina had called her by her childhood nickname. “Love you, too.”
Feeling as if she’d been set adrift, untethered from the one sure thing in her life, Megan stepped out of the diner, taking a moment to breathe in the fresh, clean early-autumn air. The tears she’d managed to contain in front of Nina and Brett broke loose in sobs that had her looking for a place to hide until the storm passed.
She crossed the street and ducked behind the Green Mountain Country Store, planning to hide out until Brett and Nina left for home.
The last thing she wanted was for them to see her crying, and nothing short of a miracle would help her keep it together tonight.
* * *
After another twelve-hour marathon in front of the computer, Hunter Abbott stood and stretched out the kinks in his shoulders and back. As the chief financial officer for the Green Mountain Country Store and other Abbott family businesses, Hunter worked pretty much all the time. If it weren’t for the pressing need for food that his body demanded every few hours, he’d probably work around the clock.
It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. And wasn’t that a sad, pathetic fact of his life?
His stomach let out an unholy growl that had him checking the time on his computer. Nine ten. With the diner closed today, that left pizza as his only option in town at this hour. He dialed the number to Kingdom Pizza from memory and ordered a small veggie and a salad. If he was resorting to eating junk, at least it was somewhat healthy. Before his twin sister, Hannah, had remarried over the summer, Hunter might’ve headed for her house to bum some dinner and conversation. But with Nolan now living with Hannah and the two of them in starry-eyed newly wedded bliss, Hunter steered clear.
He turned off his computer and glanced at the stack of files still awaiting his attention. Bring them home or leave them for tomorrow? After a brief internal debate, he shut off the light and left them. His tank was running on empty, and tomorrow would bring more of the same.
In the outer office, he was surprised to find the light still on in his sister Ella’s office. He went over to knock on her door. “You’re working late.”
“As are you.”
“Except I always do. What’s your excuse?”
“Getting some new products entered into the system, and dealing with a pile of paperwork that never seems to get smaller no matter what I do.”
“I hear you there. So much for being self-employed, huh?”
She smiled at him, but he noted a hint of sadness in her eyes that caught him by surprise. Ella was one of the most joyful people he’d ever known—always happy and upbeat.
“Sure. Why do you ask?”
“You just seemed . . . I don’t know . . . sad or something for a second there.”
“I’m fine. No need to worry.”
“Okay then.” Hunter took a step back, planning to leave, but there it was again—the sadness he’d seen before. “You know if there’s anything wrong, you can come to me, right? We may see each other a thousand times a day, but I’m right over there if you need me. No matter what it is.”
“Thank you, Hunter. That’s very sweet of you. I know you want to take care of everything for all of us, but some things . . . Well, some things can’t be managed. They are what they are.”
More confused than ever, Hunter wasn’t sure whether he should stay and try to force the issue or give her some space to deal with whatever was bothering her. “I’m here, El. I’m right here. Don’t suffer in silence.”
Her smile softened her face. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to wait for you so you’re not here alone?”
“No. I’ve got another hour or so, and I can lock up.”
“Give me a quick call to let me know you got home okay.”
“Hunter . . .”
“What? You’ll always be my little sister, so call me.”
“I’m only four years younger than you.”
“And I vividly remember the day you were born.”
Hunter chuckled at the predictable comment. His family teased him every day about his photographic memory and ability to recall facts and figures from years ago that should’ve been impossible to remember. Sometimes he wished he could forget some of the crap that rattled around in his brain, but it was his lot in life to be a walking, talking data warehouse. “See you in the morning.”
“Have a good night.”
Hunter went down the stairs thinking about what Ella had said about him wanting to take care of things for everyone. Perhaps it was also his lot in life as the oldest of the ten Abbott siblings, but he wanted the people he loved to be happy and their problems to be few, even if that meant taking on more than his share of the load.
Hannah had been after him recently to work less and play more. If only he could think of something he’d rather do than work.
Totally pathetic. He knew it, but damn if he could figure out how to snap out of the rut he’d fallen into. When had he become an all-work, no-play stick in the mud? If he were being honest with himself, he’d been in the rut for a long time, probably since he graduated from college and joined the family business full time. College had been the last time he’d been truly free of responsibility and obligation.
Thinking about the blissful college days had him remembering his late brother-in-law Caleb, Hannah’s first husband, who’d died in Iraq seven years ago. If he came back to life and saw how ridiculously out of balance Hunter’s life had become, he’d raise holy hell.
Raising holy hell was on Hunter’s mind as he stepped into the cool darkness and waited for the motion-sensitive light to come on. Once it did, he turned to lock the door behind him. Ella would see to setting the alarm system. Leaving her alone at the store made him anxious, but he would check on her if she didn’t remember to call him.
A sound to his left had him stopping to listen. Was that sniffling? “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Megan. I’m sorry to scare you.”
That voice . . . It cut through him like a knife slicing butter. Every nerve ending in his body stood up to take note of her nearness, which happened every damned time he came into any kind of contact with her. “Megan,” he said in a voice that was barely a whisper. “What’re you doing here in the dark?”
“Why? Are you hurt? What’s wrong?” True to form, he wanted to make things right for her, no matter what it took. His heart beat quickly, as if he’d been running for miles, and his hands were suddenly sweaty and clammy. He’d never understand why this particular woman provoked such a strong reaction in him every time he laid eyes on her—or in this case, heard tears in her voice as she spoke in the dark.
“Nothing’s wrong. I just needed a minute. Sorry to trespass on your property. I’ll get out of your way.”
“Wait. Don’t go.” The words came out sounding far more desperate than he’d intended. “At least let me drive you home.”
“That’s all right. I can walk.”
“I wouldn’t mind at all.”
She stepped into the light, and the sight of her tear-ravaged face broke his heart. What could possibly be so wrong?
“It’s out of your way.”
“I’ve got nowhere to be.” He watched her expressive face as she pondered his offer. Her lips pursed, which brought her cheekbones into sharper relief against the pale skin on her face. Exquisite was the word that came to mind whenever he looked at her, which was as often as he could. Until recently she’d had a major crush on his brother Will, but that had no bearing whatsoever on how he felt about her. He looked at her, and he wanted. It was that simple.
Except she barely knew he was alive, which was a problem.
“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” she said after an impossibly long pause.
“I really don’t.”
She walked with him to his silver Lincoln Navigator and stood by his side as he held the passenger door and waited for her to get settled.
As he got into the driver’s side, his growling stomach reminded him of the takeout order. “Have you had dinner?” The words were out before he could take the time to overanalyze the situation.
“I have a pizza and salad on order. I’d be happy to share.”
“I don’t know if I could eat.”
“Come along and keep me company?”
“Um, sure. Okay.” She reached into her purse, withdrew a tissue and wiped her eyes.
“Are you going to tell me why you were crying?”
“Do I have to?”
“Of course not.” He was surprised that she would think he’d try to force it out of her. “But I’m told I’m a good listener.”
She had no reply to that, so he turned the key to start the engine, lowering the windows a bit to get some air.
“I probably stink from cleaning the diner,” she said.
“No, you don’t.” As he drove, he thought of a thousand things he’d like to say to her, but none were the sort of things a guy blurted out when he finally had a moment alone with the woman he desired.
How exactly did you tell a woman who barely knew you were alive that you thought about her constantly? That seeing her upset killed you. That wanting her kept you awake at night. How did you tell her it didn’t matter if she had once been obsessed with your brother? That there was nothing you wouldn’t do to see her smile, to see her pale blue eyes light up with joy?
How could he say any of that and not sound like a total creep?
He couldn’t, so he kept his mouth shut and hoped he wouldn’t do something embarrassing like hyperventilate from the overwhelming effort it took not to say all of it.
To think is easy. To act is difficult. To act as one thinks is the most difficult.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer and statesman
Hunter pulled into the parking lot at Kingdom Pizza and said he’d be right back. When he’d asked her to keep him company, Megan assumed he’d want to eat at the restaurant, but now she watched him pay for takeout through big plate-glass windows and wondered what he had planned.
The cashier said something that made Hunter laugh as he returned his wallet to the back pocket of his black pants. His white pinstriped dress shirt stretched across broad shoulders that tapered down to a narrow waist. Since she’d much rather check out Hunter Abbott than think about her own woes, Megan let her gaze travel down over what looked to be a tight, muscular ass and long legs.
As she’d spent most of her adult life longing for his brother Will, she hadn’t given Hunter all that much thought. He was, she decided, every bit as good-looking as Will, but in a different sort of way. Where Will was brawny and outdoorsy and rugged, Hunter was equally muscular and fit, but his appearance was far more refined.
Will had lighter coloring than Hunter, who had dark, wavy hair and intense brown eyes. As she watched Hunter turn away from the counter and head for the door with his purchases in hand, something Will had said recently chose that moment to pop into her mind. You’re focusing on the wrong Abbott brother.
What did that mean?
Megan was still thinking about that when she leaned over the fancy SUV’s center console to open the driver-side door for him.
“Thanks.” He handed her the pizza box and another bag, which she held on her lap.
The smell of the herbs and spices had her mouth watering. Half an hour ago, she couldn’t have imagined eating anything, and now she was suddenly starving.
“Do you mind if we take it back to my place?”
“Um, no, I guess not.”
You’re focusing on the wrong Abbott brother.
During the long years of her not-so-secret obsession with Will Abbott, she’d created a mental catalog of all the things she knew about him. However, when it came to Hunter Abbott, her catalog was empty in comparison. She knew hardly anything about him other than the fact that he was the oldest of the ten Abbotts and worked as the chief financial officer for his family’s company.
He came into the diner twice a day for coffee—at the exact same times every day—but unlike some of his more boisterous siblings, Hunter tended to keep to himself, observing rather than participating when joined at the diner by his family members.
The two of them had rarely exchanged more than a few words when he ordered food and she brought it to him. Except for one time recently when she’d asked him about Cameron moving in with Will, and he’d suggested she go out with someone else—him perhaps—to get her mind off Will. The wrong brother . . .
A few minutes later, he pulled into the driveway of a well-kept tan colonial with black shutters several blocks from Elm Street.
“This is yours?”
“I love this house and the garden. I had no idea you lived here.”
“I thought everyone in this town knew where everyone else lived.”
“I spend too much time at the diner listening to everyone’s business to pay much attention to where they all live.”
“Good point.” He relieved her of the pizza box and bag. “Come on in.”
The words were spoken casually, but when he opened the car door and the overhead light came on, she couldn’t miss the intense way he looked at her.
You’re focusing on the wrong Abbott brother.
What did Will know that she didn’t? Suddenly, she wanted the answer to that question even more than she wanted a slice of the mouthwatering pizza. Hunter took the pizza and bag and waited for her to come around the truck before he led her to the front door, where he used his key and then stepped aside to let her go in ahead of him.
The house was dark except for a small light in the kitchen, and it smelled fresh and clean, like lemons and maybe laundry detergent. She probably should’ve expected that a man who dressed the way Hunter did wouldn’t live like a typical bachelor. And when he flipped on a light in the living room, she saw there was nothing typical about this bachelor pad.
“Toss your stuff anywhere.”
His sofa and love seat were tan with dark brown trim. The tables were black and the usual life clutter nonexistent. On the fireplace mantel was a single framed photo of his family along with several candlesticks with thick cream-colored candles. The walls held framed prints by a Vermont photographer whose work Megan recognized.
She put her sweater and purse on the chair inside the door and followed him into the kitchen.
What am I doing here? The thought nearly stopped her in her tracks as she entered a fully renovated kitchen that had black appliances, matching granite countertops and funky teardrop lights suspended over an island.
“Have a seat.” He gestured to one of the two bar stools tucked under the extended edge of the countertop. “I ordered a veggie and got several slices of cheese, too. What’s your preference?”
“Either is fine. I didn’t expect you to share your dinner with me.”
“I’m happy to share.” He put a slice of each kind on her plate and pushed it across the counter to her. “Wine? Beer? Soda? Water?”
“I’ll take a beer if you have an extra.”
“Coming right up.” He opened two bottles—with an opener, no twist-offs for him—and handed one to her.
She glanced at the label, which she didn’t recognize. Naturally, it was something imported and classy, like him.
He joined her at the bar, sliding onto the other stool and offering to share his salad.
“No, thanks. The pizza is more than enough.”
They ate in silence, and Megan appreciated that he didn’t push her to talk about what had upset her earlier. Being with him on this little detour from her regular routine had helped to briefly take her mind off the bomb Nina and Brett had dropped on her earlier.
The whole thing came rushing back to her in one big wave of sadness that made it difficult to swallow her pizza. She took a sip of beer and closed her eyes, hoping to contain the emotional firestorm that threatened to erupt again at any second.
Megan opened her eyes to find Hunter watching her, and Will’s words once again bounced around in her brain. You’re focusing on the wrong Abbott brother. Looking into Hunter’s deep brown eyes, which were filled with concern and compassion and something else she couldn’t easily identify, Megan was filled with an awareness of Hunter as a man for the first time. Until right that second, he’d been a customer, a guy she knew from town, Will’s brother.
She cleared her throat and took another sip of her beer. “Nina and Brett are selling the diner.”
His expression changed in a heartbeat from compassionate to shocked. “What?”
“He’s been offered a teaching position in France for the new school year. They’re leaving next week. Apparently, the person the school originally hired had to decline at the last minute, so they have very little time to get there.”
“Megan . . .”
“The diner is closing.”
“And you just found this out?”
She nodded. “After we cleaned.”
“You were crying. Behind the store.”
“Maybe a little.”
He pushed his plate away, apparently having lost interest in the food, and reached for her hand. “Are you okay?”
She glanced down at their joined hands and shrugged. “I will be. It’s just a job. I suppose I can find another one somewhere.”
“That’s not what I meant. Your sister . . . You two are close, and she’ll be leaving. Soon.”
Damn it, he had to say that. He had to home in on the part of the situation that had truly broken her heart, and she was going to cry again if she didn’t get out of there immediately. She withdrew her hand and stood, nearly tipping over the stool in her haste. “Thank you so much for the pizza and the company. I’m just going to . . . I’ll go now.”
He stood and took hold of her elbow. “Don’t go. Not now. Not when you’re upset.”
She shook her head. “You’ve had a long day. You don’t need an emotional female blubbering all over you.”
“Please,” he said, the note of longing in his tone impossible to deny, “don’t go. Let me help.”
The wrong brother, the wrong brother, the wrong brother . . .
Megan blinked rapidly, wishing intently that she were a stronger person, the kind who didn’t fall apart over news that tipped her world upside down.
And then Hunter’s arms were around her, and he was holding her, the scent of fine, expensive cologne filling her senses, making her forget, if only for a second, that her heart was breaking.
“I stink like ammonia and bleach, and you smell like Nordstrom.”
His laughter rumbled through his body, making her smile despite the tears that threatened to spill over at any second. “You don’t smell like either of those things.”
Was he . . . sniffing her hair? And was she really tipping her head to give him better access?
“You smell like jasmine and lilies. I love the smell of jasmine. It’s one of my favorite things in the summer.”
His gruff words sent a tingle of sensation down her backbone, which settled in a throb between her legs that made her gasp with surprise.
Hunter released her abruptly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .” He stared at her.
“You didn’t.” She wanted to beg him to hold her some more, to make her feel like he had for that brief second before she overreacted and ruined the moment. Summoning courage she wouldn’t have thought she had, she took a small step toward him and put her hands on his waist, above his black leather belt.
“Megan . . .”
She looked up at him, noting the slashes of color that had appeared in the area of his cheekbones as well as the raw heat in his gaze. “It felt good to have you hold me, Hunter. Would you do it again?”
He blew out a deep breath and drew her into his arms, holding her so tightly she could barely breathe.
If Will had been the wrong Abbott brother, was Hunter the right one? The thought, which moved through her mind like a bullet whizzing toward its target, nearly made her laugh when a second ago she’d been on the verge of tears.
What am I doing here?
She forced the question from her mind and leaned into his embrace as well as the comfort he offered so willingly.
His ringing phone interrupted the moment. He tensed for a second before he released her, seeming reluctant to let go. “I need to grab that. I’m waiting for a call from my sister.”
“Sure,” she said, embarrassed now by the way she’d blatantly asked him to hold her. Her hands dropped from his waist, and she looked down as she linked her index fingers.
“Hey, El.” Hunter sounded rushed and abrupt. “You’re home? Okay, thanks for calling. See you tomorrow.” He ended the call and turned back to Megan. “Sorry about that. Now where were we?”
She shook her head. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. It was just . . . tonight.” Shrugging, she added, “The news sort of blindsided me.”
“Of course it did.” He took her hand, apparently comfortable touching her now that she’d all but begged him to, and led her into the living room, where he sat on one of the sofas and drew her down next to him. “You’re losing your sister from your daily life, not to mention your job. That would upset anyone.”
“I want to be happy for her,” Megan said softly. “She’s done so much for me.”
“Tell me.” He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I want to know you.”
Sitting next to him in his lovely home with his appealing masculine scent filling her senses and his kindness touching her heart, Megan wanted to know him, too.
“You know our parents were killed in a car accident the winter of my senior year of high school.”
“Yes, I remember. I don’t know if I ever told you how truly sorry I was for you and Nina. Your folks were great people.”
His kind words nearly brought her to tears again. “Thank you for saying that. Yes, they were. It was an awful time, but somehow we got through it together. Nina was a senior in college, but she came home to be with me, and she never left. She finished her degree over the summer. Then, when she and Brett got married, they took the house, and I moved to the garage apartment. I’ve been there ever since. She opened the diner, I went to work for her and the years just sort of passed in a blur. And now . . . Now I’m not sure what I’ll do.” Megan ran her damp hands over the soft denim of her jeans. Talking about the darkest days of her life never got any easier, even ten years later.
“I’m sure the thought of her moving away has to be so upsetting for you.”
“It is, but I’m also feeling selfish for wishing she wouldn’t go while at the same time I’m happy for her to have this incredible opportunity. Crazy, right?”
“Not at all. She’s your anchor. It’s only natural you’d feel this way at the thought of her so far away. I’d die if Hannah moved away from me.”
She smiled at his attempt to make her feel better. Had she ever noticed what a nice guy he was? “I feel like a big baby weeping over the fact that my sister is moving overseas.”
“I think you’re being really hard on yourself. For one thing, the news shocked you because you hadn’t been expecting it. For another, you and Nina share a special bond that will be changed by this, even if it’s a good change. For her at least.”
“It’s a good change for me, too. It’s time for me to shake things up a bit. Maybe I’ll finally go to college or find a job with more potential or something. After the way I reacted to Will falling for Cameron, I’m sure you’d all like to see the last of me. With Nina leaving and my job going away, there’s no reason to stay.”
“That’s not true. There’s a very good reason to stay.”
I like thinking big. If you’re going to be thinking anything, you might as well think big.
—Donald Trump, business magnate
The words had been said before he took a second to consider the implications of laying it all on the line. Sitting next to her on his sofa, her hand curled around his, Hunter wanted to keep her there forever. Listening to her talk, her nearness spinning him up in knots, he wanted her like he’d never wanted another woman.
He’d sensed the fragility beneath the tough veneer she showed the world, and now that he’d seen the fragility firsthand, he wanted to fix things for her, to make her smile again, to make her happy. Why he wanted that so badly he couldn’t begin to know. It just was, the way Hannah was his twin, Molly and Lincoln were his parents and Butler was his home.
She looked at him, her head tilted ever so slightly in inquiry. “Are you going to tell me this very good reason I should stay?”
“I, um . . .” Hunter Abbott didn’t stutter. He didn’t fumble over his words, or at least he never had before. Until Megan Kane’s crystal blue eyes seemed to see right through the smooth exterior he showed the rest of the world. “I don’t want you to go.”
Shaking his head, he laughed softly. “Damned if I know.”
His words hung in the air between them, almost like a gauntlet he’d thrown down, hoping she’d pick it up and run with it. Did she understand what he was saying? Perhaps not, which was why he tried to think of a better way to say it. “I like you, Megan. I have for a while now.”
“You like me . . . as in . . .”
“I like you. A lot.”
“Why?” she asked, wide-eyed. “I’m not even nice most of the time.”
Her blunt comment made him laugh again. “We all have our moments.”
“I have more than most. I’ve been awful to Cameron, for one thing. I’m trying to be a better person.”
“I heard you apologized to her.”
“That’s good of you.”
“I was wrong to treat her that way. It wasn’t her fault he fell for her.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
She glanced at him, and the hesitance he saw in her eyes made him want to hold her again and never let her go. “You like me even though I used to like him?”
“That never mattered to me, although I often wished you might someday consider his older, wiser and much more handsome brother.”
Her laughter surprised and delighted him. He’d never heard her laugh like that before, and he loved it. He loved that he’d made it happen and wanted to do it again.
“So you used to like him,” he said tentatively. “As in past tense?”
“Yes, past tense. He’s crazy about Cameron, and so is everyone else.” She shrugged it off, as if it hadn’t hurt her to watch Will fall for Cameron. “He said something to me recently . . . about how I was focusing on the wrong Abbott brother.”
Hunter was so shocked to hear this that he didn’t know what to say. Will had tried to help his cause with Megan? That was news to him.
“Was he talking about you?”
“Yeah, I think he was.”
“Is this why you asked me out a couple of months ago? You said it might help me to get over Will if I went out with someone else. I told you I didn’t think going out with Will’s brother would help me get over him.”
“I remember,” he said, grimacing. It hadn’t been funny at the time. Rather, it had felt like the final nail in his coffin where she was concerned. He’d left the diner that day feeling as if he had a better chance of winning a million bucks in the lottery than he did of ever getting Megan to notice him as anything other than her beloved’s brother.
“Did I hurt your feelings that day?”
“You crushed me.” After a pause, he smiled so she’d know he was teasing her. Sort of.
Her lips parted, her eyes widened and he wanted to kiss her so badly he burned with it. “I’m sorry.”
“I was teasing. I wasn’t totally crushed. Just kinda.”
“I didn’t know. I’ve been so oblivious, and I feel terrible.”
“That’s not why I told you. I don’t want you to feel terrible. I wanted you to know. That’s all.”
“That’s all? Like that’s the end of it?”
“I’m hoping it’s just the beginning of it.”
* * *
Megan struggled to absorb the shock of hearing Hunter admit he was interested in her. Romantically interested. Hunter Abbott of the Green Mountain Country Store Abbotts. The man who dressed like an advertising executive on Madison Avenue in New York rather than an accountant on Elm Street in Butler. He was smart, quiet, handsome, intense and currently looking at her in a way that made Megan’s skin feel unusually warm.
She had to put a stop to this. How had it even happened? One minute they were eating pizza and the next they were talking about him being interested in her. She’d never thought of him that way. For so long, the only man she’d wanted had been his brother Will, who had never thought of her as anything other than the waitress he talked to at the diner.
To hear that Will’s brother had harbored secret feelings for her while she harbored not-so-secret feelings for Will was . . . Well, she didn’t know exactly what word to use to describe how strange that was.
She stood up. “I need to go.”
“Because of what I said?”
“Because I can’t process this on top of everything else that’s already happened tonight. My brain feels like it’s spinning or something.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t tell you that to upset you more than you already were. I just . . . I wanted you to know.”
“You didn’t upset me.”
“Let me drive you home.”
“That’s not necessary. I can walk. It’s not that far.”
“It’s dark and cold, Megan. Let me drive you. Please?”
“Fine. Okay. Thanks.”
He went to get his jacket and returned with his keys. Neither of them said anything as he followed her out to the driveway, where he again held the car door for her and waited for her to get settled.
Megan watched him walk around the front of the SUV and get into the driver’s side.
Hunter put on his seatbelt but made no move to start the car. After a long silence, he cleared his throat. “I know I already said it, but I really am sorry. Tonight was not the night to have this conversation.”
She turned in her seat so she could try to make out his face in the inky darkness. “I want you to know I’m flattered. I truly am. And I’d like to talk about it. Sometime. Just not tonight. If that’s okay.”
“Are you mad?”
“No,” he said with a small laugh as he turned the key to start the engine. “I’m sort of oddly relieved that you know.”
“So you’ve . . . felt this way, about me . . . for a while, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
“I don’t remember not feeling this way.”
“Hunter! I’ve known you for years!”
After another long pause, he said, “I thought we weren’t going to talk about this tonight.”
Megan had so many questions suddenly running around in her mind, but he was right. She’d put a stop to the conversation, so it wasn’t fair to restart it just because she had questions.
He drove to her house, which was located about a mile past his parents’ house on the way to Butler Mountain.
“I can get out here.”
Hunter pulled up to the curb. “I suppose it would be useless to offer to walk you to the door.”
“It would,” she said with a smile, “but thank you for asking and for the pizza and the ride. And everything.”
“We’ll talk about it, Hunter. I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that. You know where to find me.”
“Yes, I do.” She got out of the car and headed for the garage apartment at the end of the long driveway, aware of him watching her even though he couldn’t see her.
Hunter Abbott. Though his revelations had added to the emotional turmoil swirling inside her, Megan couldn’t stop thinking about the sincerity she’d felt coming from him. She’d been focused on Will for so long that the thought of another man being interested in her was something that would take some time to process.
As she showered and changed into cozy flannel pajamas, Megan thought about Hunter and everything she’d learned about him during the eventful evening they’d spent together.
She got into bed thinking more about his confession than she was about the impending changes in her life that had upset her in the first place. Snuggling into bed, she relived every minute she’d spent with him, from the second he found her crying in the dark outside the store until he dropped her off at home.
He’d been so thoughtful and caring, scooping her up and taking her home with him, feeding her and listening to her cry over her sister’s surprising news. And when he’d held her for that all-too-brief moment in the kitchen, the last thing on her mind had been her feelings for his brother.
She could still remember how good he’d smelled and how great his strong arms had felt around her. The tingle of desire she’d experienced in his arms had taken her completely by surprise, and once again, she really wished she hadn’t ruined the moment by gasping. What might’ve happened if she had handled it better?
Now she would never know, but she fell asleep hoping she might get another chance to find out.
* * *
Hunter returned home to a ringing phone and ran to answer it.
“Hey there,” a female voice said.
Hunter had no idea who it was until she started speaking again.
“I wanted to let you know that Tom has the kids this weekend if you want to get together.”
Oh God, Lauren . . .
“Hunter? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Sorry, just getting home and ran for the phone.”
“It’s been a while. I thought it might be fun.”
It was always fun with Lauren, but that was all it had ever been or ever would be. After holding Megan in his arms, however briefly, he had no desire to spend time with any other woman. “I wish I could, but this weekend is crazy.” In truth he didn’t have any plans, but he hoped that would change between now and then.
“What?” he asked, not following where she was going with the question.
“Wish you could?”
“Lauren . . .”
“Do you have someone else, Hunter?”
He ran his fingers through his hair repeatedly, wishing he could think of a way to get out of this conversation without hurting her feelings. She’d been a good friend to him for a couple of years. “I, um . . . I might. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? What does that mean?”
“It means,” Hunter said with a sigh, “I can’t see you anymore.”
“You aren’t sure if you have someone else, but you can’t see me anymore. You realize how crazy that sounds, don’t you?”
“Are you sure?” The question was tinged with sadness that made him feel bad.
He thought of Megan’s gorgeous face, her teary blue eyes and the way she’d felt in his arms. “I’m sure.” He was sure of nothing more than he wanted a chance with her, and that could never happen as long as he was still seeing Lauren on occasion.
“I’m really sorry to hear that. I thought we had a fun thing going.”
“It was fun.”
“So that’s it? We’re done?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.” He eyed the leftover pizza still sitting on his counter, his stomach turning at the sight of it. Then he realized she was crying, and he felt like total shit. “Lauren, come on. We were never about anything more than a good time. I thought you knew that.”
“I did know that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings for you.”
“I wish I knew what to say, but I don’t.”
“Were you going to tell me that we were done?”
“I guess I’m a little confused here. I wasn’t aware that we were in any kind of relationship, per se. We dated here and there, but that was the extent of it.”
“That’s not all we did.”
“We had fun. Didn’t we?”
“No buts. That’s all it was. Fun. Please don’t make it into something more serious than that because we both know it wasn’t.”
“I’m going to go now.”
“Bye, Hunter.” When the line went dead he pressed the Off button and returned the cordless phone to the cradle. With his hands flat against the granite countertop, he tried to figure out how this night had gotten so far out of control in the course of two hours.
“At least I’m not stuck in my usual rut,” he said with a laugh that turned to a grimace when he recalled the hurt in Lauren’s voice. His conscience was clear where she was concerned. They’d had an uncommitted, once-in-a-while arrangement that usually revolved around the one weekend a month when her young kids were with their father.
He liked Lauren and had enjoyed the time they’d spent together, but he didn’t think of her between visits. He didn’t count the days or the weeks until he could see her again. Hell, he hardly even talked to her except for on the weeks they saw each other. He had nothing at all to feel guilty about, and she knew it. He’d intentionally kept his friendship with Lauren uncommitted and casual because he had feelings for someone else. So why did he feel like the world’s biggest asshole after the conversation with her?
He wished he could call Hannah and air it out with her, but it was too late to call her. She’d know just what to say to make him feel better and to help him figure out what his next move with Megan ought to be. He stashed the leftover pizza in the fridge and wiped down the countertop before trudging upstairs, unbuttoning his shirt as he went.
Hunter stripped down to boxers, brushed his teeth and got into bed, his mind still whirling from the eventful evening. His thoughts kept coming back to that all-too-brief moment when he’d held Megan close to him and felt the click of two halves coming together in a perfect fit. He could still recall the scent of jasmine that had surrounded her, making him want to get even closer to her.
God, he had it bad for her, and the thought of her leaving town made him crazy. Mindful of her huge crush on Will, he hadn’t acted on his feelings for her, but he’d always known she was right across the street, working every day at the diner, close by even if she had no idea how he felt about her.
He thought about the possibility of buying the diner from Nina and Brett. If only they hadn’t just agreed to acquire additional acreage to expand the family’s sugaring facility to accommodate expected demands from the new website. Between that and the cost of the website, the family business couldn’t afford to take on something else. Not right now anyway. He needed time to pull the financing together, but time was the one thing he didn’t have where Megan was concerned.
Hunter had money of his own put away, but it probably wasn’t enough to buy the diner, and besides, how would that keep Megan in town? Hadn’t she said it was time to shake things up? To maybe go to college? To get a “real” job?
He couldn’t stand the panic that seized him at the thought of her slipping away before he ever had a chance to really know her. Lying awake for hours that night, he ran the numbers in his head but couldn’t seem to arrive at a place where he could afford to solve all her problems by keeping the diner “in the family.”
What if he found a way and she wasn’t interested in continuing to work there with her sister out of the picture? And what in the hell did he know about managing a restaurant anyway? Not much, but he could learn. He could figure it out if it meant keeping her around.
He was already working sixteen hours a day to keep up with the demands of the family’s vast business interests. What were a couple more hours if it meant the woman he cared for might stay in Butler rather than going God knows where to find this so-called real life she’d been missing out on?
By the time the sun began to streak between the slats in the blinds, Hunter was no closer to a solution, but he was more determined than ever to do something, anything to keep her from leaving town.
The cynic says, “One man can’t do anything.” I say, “Only one man can do anything.”
—John W. Gardner, former secretary of health, education and welfare
Hunter waited until he was fairly certain Nolan would’ve left for the garage before he headed to Hannah’s in the morning. He’d given up on sleep at about five A.M. and had a full pot of coffee in him by the time he pulled up to the stately Victorian where Hannah lived with her new husband.
Today he needed his sister and closest friend to tell him what the hell to do.
Hunter groaned when he saw Nolan’s truck still parked in the driveway. He should’ve been long gone by now. Since it was a workday and Nolan would be heading out soon, it was probably safe to knock on the door. At least he hoped so . . .
He missed Hannah. She hadn’t gone anywhere, but he’d tried to give her some space since she and Nolan had gotten together, which had left him on the outside looking in. The situation was reminiscent of when she and Caleb had first been together in high school and then in college at the University of Vermont when he’d had the miserable misfortune of being their unwanted third roommate. And hadn’t those been good times? Thankfully Will had joined them the next year to save him from having to be alone with the lovebirds.
As Hunter used the big brass knocker on the door and heard it echo inside the house, he yearned for the “old days” when he could walk right into his sister’s house without having to worry about seeing something that couldn’t be unseen. Although, he was thrilled to see his sister happy again after suffering through the agonizing loss of Caleb, a man they’d all loved and respected. She’d chosen a great guy in Nolan, another close friend of Hunter’s, and he couldn’t be happier for both of them.
That didn’t mean, however, that he didn’t miss the ability to talk to his sister any time he wanted or needed to.
The door swung open, and Nolan greeted him in the uniform shirt he wore to work along with a pair of black jeans and work boots. His brother-in-law looked frazzled.
“Everything okay?” Hunter asked.
“Hannah’s not feeling great today.”
“Oh.” Hunter was about to ask him to tell Hannah he’d call her later.
“Come in.” Nolan walked away as he said the words, so Hunter followed him inside, closing the door behind him.
Nolan led him into the kitchen, where Hannah was seated at the table, wearing a robe and sipping a cup of tea. She was pale and had dark circles under her eyes that had Hunter immediately concerned for her health and that of her unborn child.
“Hey.” She forced a weak smile for her brother. “What brings you out so early?”
Nolan stood next to Hunter, hands on his hips, the picture of agitation as he studied his wife.
“I was hoping to talk to you, but we can do it another time if you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m fine,” she said with a pointed look for her husband. “Go to work.”
“Stop trying to get rid of me.”
“I’m not trying to get rid of you, but you’ve got a busy day at the garage, and I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine. You can’t stop puking.”
“Am I puking right now?”
“Hannah . . .”
“Nolan. Go to work.”
“Fine. Call me if it gets worse.”
“Will you really?”
He leaned in to kiss her, lingering long enough for Hunter to find a picture on the wall that needed his full attention. “I’ll be home to check on you at lunchtime.”
“It’s practically lunchtime now.”
“I’ll be back.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll make sure my boyfriend is gone by then.”
“You’re hilarious when you’re not puking.”
“And you’re leaving so I can talk about what a pain you are to my brother.”
“He was my best man. He wouldn’t dare let you get away with that, would you, Hunter?”
“Um, well, she was my twin long before I was your best man.”
The comment earned Hunter a bright, beaming smile from his sister.
“Should’ve known,” Nolan muttered before he kissed Hannah again and headed for the mudroom.
They heard the garage door go up and come down and his truck start in the driveway.
“Go make sure he’s really gone,” Hannah said. “Yesterday he faked me out, came back in five minutes later and caught me puking again.” She waved her hand. “Go check.”
“Yes, ma’am. Is there anything else I can do for you, ma’am?”
Hunter did as she asked and went to look out the window of the sitting room, which overlooked the empty driveway. Returning to the kitchen, he said, “He’s gone.”
“Finally! He’s driving me crazy.”
“He’s worried about you. So am I. You look like hell.”
“Aww, shucks. Thanks! I’m pregnant, not dying. Vomit happens, especially in the first trimester.” When she’d postponed the planned Labor Day opening of the new inn for war widows, named in Caleb’s honor, she’d told her family it was because she was feeling so crappy. They’d also put off their planned move to Nolan’s house, which would free up the Victorian to serve as the new inn.
“Seems to be happening a lot. What does the doctor say?”
“She said the same thing I did—it happens. She’s keeping an eye on me with weekly appointments to make sure I don’t get dehydrated.” This was said as if it were no big deal to be so sick.
“You’re all . . .” He waved his hand as he searched for the word he needed. “Zen or something. What the hell is wrong with you that you don’t care that you’re puking the day away?”
Laughing, she said, “I don’t care about the puking. As long as the baby is fine—and he or she is doing great—that’s all I care about. At the end of all of this, I get a baby. I really want this baby, and I’m willing to do whatever I have to.”
Despite her pallor, despite the dark circles, she positively glowed with joy. “I’m happy for you, Hannah banana. It’s nice to see you excited again and looking forward to something.”
“I’m so excited it’s not even funny.” She rested her hand over her still-flat abdomen. “How will I survive for seven more months until I can meet this little person?”
“You never were known for your patience. I still remember being your lookout while you opened all your Christmas presents and rewrapped them. I used to be terrified we were going to get caught, but you always said the risk was worth it.”
“I still say that.”
The risk is worth it. Was it, he wondered?
“What’s on your mind, Hunter?”
“Last night was kind of crazy.”
She got up, poured him a cup of coffee, grimacing at the smell, and brought it to him before rejoining him at the table.
“Thanks. Why do you brew this stuff if you can’t stand the smell of it?”
“My husband needs it to function, and I need him to function so I don’t have to.”
“Crazy how?” she asked, getting back to his initial statement.
“I worked late, and when I came out, Megan was there and she was crying.”
“Wait. Megan was where? At the store?”
“Sitting on the back steps.”
“In the dark? By herself?”
“Yeah. Nina and Brett are selling the diner and moving overseas so he can take a job teaching at a school in France. They’d just told Megan.”
“Oh damn. Wow. She took it hard, huh?”
Nodding, he said, “I talked her into letting me give her a ride and feed her dinner, which we did at my house.”
“You had her at your house?”
“Just long enough to eat some pizza and talk a little.” And to hug her, he thought, but didn’t say. That seemed too personal to share with anyone, even Hannah.
“Still. You had her at your house. That’s a big development.”
“She talked about moving away, finding a ‘real’ job and maybe going to college. She never got to do that because her parents died and everything got derailed.”
“I remember that. Such a sad time for them.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for New York Times Bestselling Author Marie Force
“Marie Force makes you believe in the power of true love and happily ever after.”—Carly Phillips, New York Times bestselling author
“If you’re a fan of Robyn Carr and Jill Shalvis, then you will want the Green Mountain series by Marie Force.”—Fresh Fiction
“Marie truly just has a way of telling a story that draws you in, and never lets you go. Not even when you reach the end of the book.”—Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews