"That girl who got knocked up in high school.”
Maggie Reynolds went all the way to Los Angeles to escape that label, but she hears the whispers every time she comes home to Eden's Ridge, Tennessee. She's been burning the candle at both ends for the last twelve years, trying to make something of her herself, trying to give people something else to say about her.
Porter Ingram prides himself on being a steady man, a good friend, but he's none too steady when he flies off to California because Maggie's collapsed from exhaustion and she doesn't want her sister, Pru, to worry. Not when Pru's about to have a baby any minute. What Maggie doesn't know is that she's more than just a good friend to Porter. It's an open secret he's been wearing on his sleeve for years, if she'd only see it.
When Maggie's forced to take a sabbatical from work, the obvious choice is to go home to Tennessee. But there's nothing restful about just doing nothing for a doer like her. Throwing herself into getting the Eden's Ridge Artisan Guild off the ground is a natural fit for her talents, and Porter's grateful for her help. But walking in the shadows of their painful past could reveal secrets that just might destroy everything they think they know about each other.
Release date: November 22, 2019
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 252
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Bring It On Home: A Small Town Family Romance
“In conclusion, I think we can all agree that Aponyx will be in good hands.”
A single pair of hands began to applaud. “You nailed it.”
Satisfied, Maggie Reynolds nodded at her audience of one, her administrative assistant Alyssa. “I think I did. Now let’s just hope the real presentation goes off without a hitch.”
“You’re due in the conference room downstairs in—” Alyssa checked her watch. “—ten minutes.”
“No time to lose.” She shoved up from the chair behind her desk and her stomach pitched as the room made a slow revolution.
Fingers gripping the edge of the desk to keep from sinking right back into her chair, Maggie blinked and waited for the world to right itself. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just stood up too fast.”
Alyssa looked askance in her direction. “Are you sure? Have you eaten today?”
Had she? “I grabbed a pastry on my way into the office.” Or was that yesterday?
“That was six hours ago.”
Convinced her legs would hold her, Maggie began to gather up her presentation materials. “We’ll get a celebratory meal after the contracts are signed. Seriously. I’m fine. I just need another cup of coffee.”
“Already on it.” Alyssa thrust a travel mug into her hand.
“You are a goddess.” Even as Maggie sipped, she wondered if Blood Coffee Level was a thing. If so, hers was well over the legal limit. But it was the only way she’d been able to function the past few weeks. Okay, months, if she were being honest. She’d been working too hard because work kept her from thinking. That was par for the course and what she’d done for the past twelve years when September rolled around. A part of her was afraid of where her mind would go without the distraction of contracts and mergers and the endless minutiae of being right-hand to one of the most powerful women in the country.
But this year had been worse than usual. Ever since her mother died in a car accident and she’d been pulled home to Tennessee to help her sisters deal with the estate and the aftermath, it had just been one thing after another. A lot more travel to settle things, a lot of legal stuff Maggie had been the natural choice to take on. A lot of reconnecting with her sisters. Which was good, so good. Mostly. But it was bringing up memories she’d done her best to forget.
Instead of a few weeks of overwork distraction in September, she’d been at this for more than a year. She’d been doing double duty for somewhere around eighteen months, keeping herself too busy to be overwhelmed by things she’d rather not remember. She couldn’t deny it was taking a toll. Her body was drained, and all the caffeine had her pulse skittering so she felt simultaneously edgy and dull. Maybe she should take a little time. A long weekend to catch up on sleep. Maybe she’d find a spa up in Sonoma and get pampered.
Later. After the anniversary.
Palming the flash drive with her presentation, she moved around her desk. “Let’s do this. Do you have the copies of the contract?”
“Right here. Sticky-tabbed, exactly as you wanted.”
“Perfect. You’re a lifesaver.”
Reviewing the details of the final pitch, they headed down the hall toward the elevator that would take them to the conference room on the forty-second floor. The merger with Aponyx was all but locked in. Its owner, Roman Lewis, just had to sign on the dotted line.
Maggie’s phone began to vibrate. Seeing her sister Pru’s name flash across the screen, she stopped dead. The baby. Thirty-seven weeks. Her mind spun through all the prospective complications, everything that could go wrong. Preeclampsia. Preeclamptic seizure. Placental abruption. What if Pru had gone into pre-term labor? What if the umbilical cord had wrapped around the baby’s neck?
A cold wave of fear swept over her skin, leaving a dewy sheen of sweat in its wake. “Let them know I’ll be there as soon as I can. I have to take this.” Peeling off, she strode back to her office, punching answer as she went. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you want to tell me why there’s a $700 stroller in my foyer?”
Mind still trapped in the horror of what if, it took Maggie a few moments to register the tone of mild interest underscored with just a hint of exasperation. “I…what? Are you okay? Are you having contractions?”
“I’m fine. The baby’s fine. I’m just trying to figure out why you sent me the Cadillac of baby strollers.”
Reassured everything was okay, Maggie released a controlled breath and wrangled her emotions back in line. She couldn’t afford to be rattled for this meeting. “Because you’re going to need it in a few weeks.” Of course she would. Because her pregnancy had been textbook perfect so far. There was no reason to expect anything else. But that didn’t stop Maggie’s brain from reminding her of the possibilities. She knew better than many that textbook-perfect could turn into a nightmare in a heartbeat.
“We already had a stroller.”
“Yeah, but this one reclines to become an emergency bassinet. And it has a two-way facing toddler seat, an adjustable handle-bar, a temperature-regulating bamboo insert to keep the baby from getting too hot in the summer, and a massive, extendable canopy with UPF 50+ to protect the baby from sun. It’s very well-rated.” She’d researched every model on the market before settling on this one.
“I’m sure it’s wonderful, but honey, it’s too much. You already gave us the Pack ’n Play, the BabyBjörn, a DiaperGenie, and enough clothes to clothe the kid until he or she is four. It is not on you to outfit us with every baby accessory known to man.”
It was the only way Maggie could think of to make up for the fact that she’d been slowly pulling back as her sister’s pregnancy progressed. She hadn’t known it would be this hard, watching Pru and her besotted husband, Flynn, prepare for their new arrival. The baby had been a surprise—a good one. Everyone in the extended Reynolds family was beside themselves with excitement. Not at all how anyone had reacted when it had happened to her. There was no comparison to their situations, but still, Maggie had struggled with feelings she’d thought long buried. She’d sooner streak naked down Rodeo Drive than have Pru realize she was anything other than ecstatic about this baby.
“Are you seriously going to rain on my doting-aunt-to-be parade?”
In the beat of silence, she imagined Pru closing her eyes and praying for patience as she rubbed the mound of her belly. “No. And thank you for your generosity. But seriously, you have to stop. We’ve got absolutely everything we need. We don’t have room for anything else.”
“I suppose I could return the cute little giraffe onesie.”
“Giraffe?” Pru didn’t quite manage to hide the interest. She had a weakness for all things animal. The nursery had been done up in a Noah’s Ark theme and already held more stuffed animals than FAO Schwartz.
“Mmhmm. It says ‘You bet giraffe I’m cute.’ But it’s still got tags on. I can take it back.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Laughing, Maggie felt the last of the tension dissolve. “I put it in the mail yesterday, along with a box of those bonbons you like.”
Pru groaned. “I’m going to be big as a cow before this baby comes.”
“Give them to Ari. I’m sure she’d be happy to take one for the team.” Her teenaged niece had a major sweet tooth.
“Over my dead body.”
“That’s the spirit. Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting to run. I’ll check in soon. Love to everybody.”
“We love you back. Come for a visit when you can. I miss your face. We got used to seeing more of you over the past couple of years.”
Maggie swallowed back against the lump in her throat because that, too, had been harder than she’d expected. There’d been a reason she’d run from Eden’s Ridge when she’d turned eighteen. She hadn’t been the only one, but at this point, even Athena, their youngest sister, the award-winning chef, had moved home. That left her the odd sister out, way out here on the West Coast.
“I miss y’all, too. Talk to you later.”
As soon as she hung up the phone, the warm glow she’d felt talking to her sister faded. Did Pru suspect she wasn’t being completely honest? Did she and the rest of the family realize that Maggie had been burying herself in work and sending endless baby gifts as an excuse not to be directly involved? She’d been in Los Angeles for five years, rocketing up the ranks at Invation. That had involved plenty of backbreaking work. She hoped they just thought she’d been making up for all the time she’d taken off to come home since Mom died. The alternative—that they’d look at her in pity and realize she wasn’t made out of titanium like she pretended—that was unthinkable.
Shutting it away, she hurried down the hall toward the elevators. Halfway there she staggered, pressing a hand to the wall for support.
What the hell is wrong with me? Did I pick up some kind of a bug?
Vowing to take the rest of the day off as soon as the meeting was over, she straightened, squaring her shoulders and pinching her cheeks so she didn’t look as worn out and ill as she felt. Yeah, she shouldn’t have had that last cup of coffee.
The conference room was full when she stepped inside, mask firmly in place.
At the head of the table, Genevieve Kessinger, Maggie’s boss and head of Invation was deep in conversation with an older man whose silver-shot brown hair swept back from his face in thick waves. Roman Lewis had crinkles around his eyes and mouth that told her a smile was his default expression. Or maybe he spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun.
“—sure you’re ready to hand over the reins?” Genevieve asked.
“Definitely. Aponyx is no longer an infant company. It’s not even a toddler anymore. And that means it’s time to pass it on to someone who can grow it into something more robust and mature. My passion is in the development phase. Seeing innovation at the ground level and finding a way to make it a reality.”
“You like incubation,” Maggie observed. All eyes turned to her. “So sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“Gentlemen, you remember my number one, Margaret Reynolds.”
Roman beamed. “Pleasure to see you again, Miss Reynolds. And you’re absolutely right. Aponyx is ready to leave the nest, and that means I can turn my attention to finding something new and different to invest in.
“A worthy goal, certainly.”
“I like to think so. Let me introduce you to the rest of my team.”
Maggie shook hands, trying to match the names and positions she’d seen on paper for weeks with the faces in front of her, but each one seemed to flow into her brain and out again. She was maxed-out on information. Praying she didn’t mix anyone up, she moved with careful deliberation to plug her flash drive into the laptop hooked up to a projector. Obviously noting her unusually slow pace, Genevieve frowned, a question clear in her eyes.
Maggie just shook her head and called up her PowerPoint. “We’re here today to go over the final details of the merger between Aponyx and Invation. You each have a copy of the latest contracts in front of you.”
As she spoke, she thanked God for all the practice runs. It made it easy to slip into autopilot. Sweat broke out along her spine. The thermostat had to be set too high. Feeling her skin flush, she fought the urge to unbutton her suit jacket. The excessive heat was making the dizziness worse.
Pausing so Genevieve could answer a question, Maggie edged over to the water service that had been set up on the credenza. She’d just pour herself a glass. Her throat was so parched.
The hand that curled around the handle of the pitcher shook and the edges of the glass began to blur.
Dehydrated. I must be dehydrated.
Fighting for control, she lifted the pitcher, sloshing water as she tried to pour. The pitcher clattered against the rim.
She tried to turn, to speak, but the moment she shifted, the room tilted. She was dimly aware of someone shooting up from their chair before everything slid into blackness.
* * *
“You ready for this?” Porter Ingram studied the woman across the desk, taking in that oh-so-familiar face―the straight, dark hair and big brown eyes, and that crook at the corner of her mouth, always ready to twitch into a full smile. A smile that was about to be a part of his future.
“To hitch my wagon to yours? Bring it on.”
He shoved the paperwork over and handed her a pen, watching as she scrawled her name―Mia Whitmore―on all the relevant lines. When she finished, she beamed a smile at him. “That’s it then. It’s official.”
Porter grinned back. “Welcome aboard―partner.”
He considered himself a lucky man. The business he’d built from the ground up had gotten big enough, successful enough, that he both needed and could afford to take on a partner. And he’d found a good one in the woman he’d worked side-by-side with on a series of restoration projects down in Gatlinburg. They’d kept in touch after, and when she’d expressed a desire to make a change and relocate, he’d invited her up to Eden’s Ridge for a job. She’d loved the town, the people, so before they’d gotten more than halfway through the second phase expansion at The Misfit Inn Spa, he’d asked if she’d be interested in making it permanent. A few of her crew had decided to make the transition as well, and Mountainview Construction had officially expanded as a family.
“This calls for a celebration,” Mia declared.
“Drinks and pizza at Elvira’s?” Not that there was really anywhere else to celebrate in their town of less than three thousand people, unless you wanted pie at the diner.
“Meet you there.”
Ten minutes later, he strode into the controlled chaos of Elvira’s on a Friday night. Bodies were packed on the tiny dance floor, kicking and stomping to some upbeat country song, and the space around the bar was three patrons deep in places. That he didn’t recognize a fair chunk of them was proof that the tourism push was doing some good. Behind the bar, Denver Hershal worked the taps, a towel draped over one shoulder and the sleeves of his henley shoved up to his elbows. Business was booming, but the furrow between his brows was sign enough that he was frazzled.
Porter made his way through the crowd, until he’d managed to belly up to the bar and catch Denver’s eye. “Y’all are jumpin’ tonight.”
“Kennedy picked a helluva time to leave me to go work full-time at the inn.”
Kennedy Reynolds―Kincaid now―had been a fixture at Elvira’s since she’d returned to Eden’s Ridge eighteen months before. With her eldest sister in an advanced state of pregnancy, she’d finally called it quits on her second job in favor of taking over more duties at their family business, The Misfit Inn and Spa.
“Pru’s only a few weeks from popping. Doctor’s orders that she cut back.”
“I know, I know,” Denver grumbled. “Doesn’t mean I have to like losing my best bartender. What’ll it be?”
He’d beaten Mia here, but given how busy the place was, Porter figured she’d forgive him for ordering for her. “Two of the IPA you’ve got on tap.”
“You got it.”
Propping an elbow on the bar, he scanned the room, wondering if Mia had scooted past him.
“Well, hello handsome.” The redhead’s tilted blue eyes skimmed down his face to check his left hand.
Porter resisted the urge to shove it into a pocket and simply nodded politely. He wasn’t here for flirtation.
“You a local?”
She leaned next to him, mirroring his position. “Cute little town. I’m passing through on my way up to Virginia for my next job and ended up stopping for a couple days to try out the hiking. But what’s a girl to do at night around here?”
Porter recognized the flirtation and the implied invitation. She wasn’t unattractive, but he just wasn’t interested and didn’t quite know how to make that clear without being rude.
“You’re pretty well doing it. Other than Elvira’s we tend to roll up the sidewalks in time for supper.”
“That can’t be all there is to do around here on a Friday night.”
“This time of year, most folks are up at the high school for football. But it’s an away game tonight.”
“Pity. Where do you take your dates?”
He was still searching for a polite brush-off when Mia strode up, faintly breathless.
“Sorry I’m late. I had to run by the house to feed Leno.”
The redhead lost her flirty demeanor as her gaze shifted between the two of them. Color rose in her cheeks and she backed away with a muttered, “Sorry.”
Mia watched her go. “Aw, I ran her off. Damn. Sorry about that. I’m a shit wingman.”
“I’m not looking for a wingman. You did me a favor.” Porter scooped up the beers Denver delivered. “C’mon, let’s see if we can find a table.”
They lucked into one of the high-tops toward the back as a trio of women, clearly out for girls’ night, vacated.
Mia took a stool and sipped at her drink. “You know, I haven’t really seen you interested in anybody since I moved to the Ridge.”
“I could say the same about you.” Mia worked like a dog and loved to hang out with friends, but she’d shut down the handful of guys who’d shown interest in her over the past few months.
“My relationship status is permanently set to ‘It’s complicated.’ What’s your excuse? Have you got some ex in your closet who scarred you for life?”
“No.” He’d never actually been with the woman he couldn’t get out of his head.
“A secret long-distance relationship?”
I wish. “Nope.”
“Do you secretly swing the other way? Because it’s cool if you do.”
He huffed a laugh. “Not that either. There’s just no one here I’m interested in.”
Her gaze sharpened. “Which begs the question of whether there’s somebody somewhere else you’re interested in.”
That was a can of worms he wasn’t willing to open. “I want to talk about that about as much as you want to talk about that ring you wear around your neck that you think nobody knows about.”
Her hand reached up reflexively to check the chain, her good humor fading. “Yeah okay, we’re not here to talk about our love lives. Or lack thereof.”
“This is about business and partnership.” Porter lifted his pilsner glass in a toast. “To our future success.”
“Fine, fine. Be that way.” Mia grinned and lifted her own glass. “To our future success. With the resort contract, that seems in the bag.”
The Paradise Mountain Resort was the biggest construction job to hit Stone County in…maybe ever, and Mountainview had been first in line to bid on the job. “I was beginning to think it was a pipe dream, as long as it’s taken to get off the ground.” There’d been one delay after another with the proposal to the city, and Eden’s Ridge had already missed the window of prime opportunity to easily siphon off some of the tourist trade after the Gatlinburg fires. Gatlinburg had already rebuilt―Porter and Mia had been a part of that―and here the powers that be were still waiting to break ground.
“Bureaucracy. Slows things down the world over,” Mia declared. “But it’ll be good to have solid work for the crew through fall and winter.”
“True that. But I won’t feel totally relaxed about it until after the meeting with the mayor in a couple days.” Porter hid a scowl in his beer. He’d have to be on his best behavior around Mayor Bradley Danforth.
Mia circled a finger in his direction. “What is this face? You’re fine with meetings.”
“I am not a fan of Danforth.”
“There’s…bad blood between our families.”
“What kind of bad blood? Like a Hatfield and McCoy sort of feud?”
Under the circumstances, he owed her some kind of an answer. “His family is about as close as you can get to Stone County royalty. They go back generations, and they’re the type that walks around acting like their shit don’t stink and that they’re better than everybody else. Danforth senior wasn’t one for keeping it in his pants. He habitually strayed on his wife.” Dropping his voice low, despite the din of the bar, he leaned closer. “One of those affairs was with my mother.”
Mia’s mouth dropped open, her eyes going wide. “Shit.”
“The details aren’t widely known, so keep that under your hat. Anyway, my dad found out, my parents split, Mom left town, and Dad fell into the bottle―bad.”
“That’s how you ended up in the system?”
Porter nodded. The fact that they’d both grown up as foster kids was one of the things he and Mia had in common. But she hadn’t been lucky enough to find an amazing foster mother as he had. Joan Reynolds had made sure he hadn’t followed the same path as his father.
“So you basically hate the family on principle?”
“Something like that. Our illustrious mayor doesn’t fall far from the tree, as it were. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.” It was a partial truth anyway.
“Is that gonna be a problem for you?”
Porter shrugged. “I can be a grown-up about it. I may think it’s laughable that he’s the guy elected as our leader, when he’s about as far out of touch as it is possible to be with what life is like for normal people here, but he’s the one in charge, so I’ll make nice. This is just business. The meeting shouldn’t take long, anyway. It’s just a formality to sign off on the contracts.” There was no reason to think the project wouldn’t be rubber-stamped. It wasn’t like there was another construction company in the area who could take on this project. For all he despised Danforth, the man did believe in keeping labor local.
The phone in his pocket began to vibrate. Sliding it out, he caught sight of Maggie’s name on the screen, and his pulse leapt with anticipation. Stupid. They were friends. Had been since they were kids. But she’d been giving him heart palpitations since he was fifteen, and no amount of time or distance seemed to dim the sensation. No matter what, no matter where, he’d always stop what he was doing to answer her call.
Across the table, Mia arched a brow, and too late he realized he hadn’t managed to school the tone of his voice.
“Is this Porter Ingram?” Another woman’s voice. Definitely not Maggie.
Unease began to unfurl in his gut. “Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Genevieve Kessinger. I’m a friend of Maggie’s.”
Kessinger. Friend and boss, he remembered. “What’s going on?”
“I’m calling because she passed out at work today and is in the hospital. I know you’re not her next of kin, but I didn’t want to call her pregnant sister, and you were the next most frequent contact―”
For one stunned moment, his mind simply blanked. Then his heart began to pound. Maggie in the hospital? She hated hospitals. As far as he knew, she hadn’t been in one since senior year of high school. Certainly not as a patient. She had to be fucking terrified.
Already sliding out of his chair, he demanded, “Where is she?”
Genevieve named the hospital. “We haven’t been here that long, but she’s been admitted and they’re running tests.”
He was aware of Mia trailing him to the door. “I want to talk to her.”
“You can’t. As I said, they’re running tests. I practically had to threaten her job to make sure she agreed to them.”
For a few heartbeats he squeezed his eyes shut and saw her face at seventeen, ashen, terrified, screaming as they wheeled her through the double doors in the ER, away from him.
Willing back the old, helpless rage, he shoved open the door with more force than necessary, surprising Jolene Lowrey and her husband Curt. He waved an apology and made a beeline for his truck. “I’m on my way. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I’ll have a private jet on standby in Johnson City.”
His hand stilled on the door handle. “You…really?”
“She’s one of my best friends and money is not an issue for me, Mr. Ingram. I don’t know what they’re going to find, but I think she needs someone from home here for her. I’ll text you the address of the airstrip.”
“Thank you.” As soon as he hung up, he yanked open the driver’s door and finally glanced back at Mia. “I’m sorry, I have go to.”
Expression dialed to concern, she crossed her arms. “What’s going on, Porter?”
“A friend is in the hospital. I have to get out to Los Angeles.”
“By friend you mean Maggie Reynolds.”
“Why did they call you instead of her sisters?” Mia might not have been in Eden’s Ridge that long, but she’d already met the rest of the Reynolds sisters.
“Because Pru is more than eight months pregnant. Maggie wouldn’t have wanted her to have a shock.” She’d been going overboard on the worry and caution the entire time. It had been driving Pru nuts, but she knew what Maggie had been through, knew the obsessive research and concern came from a place of love, so she tolerated it with her usual good grace.
“Aren’t you going to tell Kennedy or Athena before you go?”
“No. Not until I can give them some definitive answers about what’s going on. And neither will you if you run into them on-site at The Misfit Kitchen while I’m gone.”
“Fine. But what about the meeting?”
“I’ll probably be back by then. And if I’m not, it’s nothing you can’t handle. I’m sorry to bail on you, but this is important.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. “I’ve got your back. I hope Maggie’s okay.”
She’d be all right. She had to be. Anything else was unthinkable.
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