Seth

“So you met the competition, huh?” Henrietta bustled around the living room of the Tangerine Inn, bending, squatting, and tidying like the housecleaning tornado she was.

I nodded at the older woman, who’d been cleaning the Inn as long as I could remember. Since my mother had needed help to run the place after my father bailed. “Yep.”

“And?” She stopped her constant motion to raise an eyebrow at me.

“And what? I met her. She’s got a couple kids. Seemed…I don’t know.”

“Seth, I need description. It’s a small town. There’s not a lot of entertainment. Work with me. Was she pretty?” Henrietta grinned. She’d been telling me to get married and have kids since I was about sixteen. Since my mom had died, she’d kind of taken the role, and she seemed increasingly eager to get her hands on some babies and solidify her role as almost-grandmother.

I thought about the woman I’d met on the sidewalk. She wasn’t pretty. She was a lot more than that. Yeah, she had the smile and glowing eyes, the dark hair and fit figure…but pretty girls were a dime a dozen. I’d tried hard not to think about it since I’d been over there—but there was something else about her that was undeniably compelling, even in the few moments we’d spoken. And it was better if I didn’t think about it, since she was going to be the competition. Better to keep her at a distance, not become sympathetic to someone who was surely temporary because I was going to drive her business into the ground. “Sure, she was pretty if you go for the frazzled mom thing,” I told Henrietta, feeling a little bit guilty about lying to her. Or maybe it was because I was lying to myself a bit too.

“Oh, she’s got kids, huh? No husband, though?”

“I didn’t exactly sit her down for an interview,” I said, folding the newspaper I’d been trying to read. “But I didn’t see a guy with her.”

“A ring?” I could hear the wheels turning in Henrietta’s head.

“I’m not quite ready to propose to her, okay? Quit imagining us all together on Christmas morning.”

She blushed, and I knew I hadn’t been far off. “I didn’t mean give her one. I meant, did she have one. And it’s fine if you don’t want to talk about her, but when she’s settled, you invite her over.”

“She’s the owner of a competitive business, Hen, not the new neighbor we’re trying to win over.”

“She’s both,” Henrietta scolded. “And Appleton can be tough when you’re not from here. Besides, what better way to get a scoop on the competition?”

“Okay, well…” She had a point there, actually. I stood, shaking my head. “Let’s focus on our own business. We’ve got three couples checking in for the weekend, and one family arriving Saturday for the cottage.”

Hen handled more than housekeeping. She also did most of the cooking, and a lot of the guest interaction. I was too gruff and grumpy, she said, but really I was just busy trying to keep us solvent.

“Got it. Now you go out and get those doorknobs.” She was actually behind me, basically shooing me out the door. “The big suite upstairs won’t be such a draw if folks keep getting locked in the bathroom.”

We’d had a few issues lately, and I needed to fix that right away. When Mrs. Marston had spent two hours locked in the bathroom the night of her honeymoon, it had definitely bumped the faulty doorknobs up my list in priority. “I’ll be back soon,” I said, turning to drop a kiss on Hen’s cheek. “Don’t get into trouble.”

Outside, Appleton was humming along as usual as I walked toward the center of town where the hardware store was located. My mind was on doorknobs, and maybe a little bit on Inn owners, when I glanced both ways and then stepped out to cross Main Street, just as a car pulled away from the curb and barreled toward me.

I didn’t have time to get out of the way, but managed to put both my hands squarely on the hood of the car and stare down the driver just before the bumper took me out at the hips. It was one of those mini-SUVs, and it looked familiar. So did the woman behind the wheel with the dark wavy hair and panicked expression.

Luckily, she’d seen me about the same time I’d seen her, and she hadn’t been moving fast. She threw the car into park and jumped down to run around to where I was sitting in the road, still coming to terms with the fact that I’d almost been killed by a car a didn’t even like. If I was dying by car-strike, it had damned well better be a Tesla, or maybe a Porsche. But not one of those Porsche SUVs or station-wagon things. Those were an embarrassment to all sports car lovers.

Annabelle Frasier was bent over me, her coffee-brown eyes wide and worried as she stared into my face. “Oh my God. Oh God, it’s you!” She clasped a hand over her mouth and then squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m so sorry. So so sorry. Oh my God, are you okay?”

I was standing by then, brushing off the back of my jeans and testing all my joints to make sure they were still working properly. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“I’m really so, so sorry.”

“I got that. It’s okay. You might want to be more careful, though. This is a small town, people don’t drive like they do in the city, and there’s a ton of pedestrians.”

A tear escaped the corner of Annabelle’s eye, and my stomach twisted. Shit. I couldn’t take women crying, and I didn’t want to feel sorry for this particular woman. For one thing, she was running a competitive business. That made her the enemy. Not to mention she’d just about killed me with her crappy driving.

She shook her head and wiped at her face, her pink blush telling me she was as embarrassed by her tears as I was. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and this time I thought she was apologizing for crying.

“Listen,” I said. “I’m fine. You’re fine.” I peered through the windshield to see her two kids strapped into the back seat. “Your kids are fine. We’re all just fine. No big deal.”

Her face cleared slightly and she smiled. I tried not to notice the way my chest tightened slightly as I realized how smooth and pale her skin was, or how the contrast of her dark hair made her eyes stand out. “Okay,” she said, her voice lighter. She seemed determined to be cheerful now. “Well, I was hoping to track you down anyway.”

Annoyingly, my heart lifted in some kind of misplaced anticipation, like an eager puppy expecting some kind of head pat. Down heart. Nothing for you here. “Oh yeah?” I was glad for the suspicious edge in my voice.

“I hear you’re the local handyman, and the Inn really needs some—”

“I’ll just stop you right there. I can’t work on your Inn. It’s a conflict of interest.”

“I’ll pay you, of course. It’s just that—”

“I know the place is a disaster.”

Her smile had slipped slightly, and I could hear one of her kids calling from inside the car. “Okay, well then you know I need some help. And Seth, I know you run the Tangerine Inn, but I don’t think there’s really any problem with that. I don’t intend to compete. My Inn will be different. Appleton is big enough for two inns, and I’d hope that maybe we could be friends, colleagues, even.” Her eyes were huge and expectant, and everything about her was pulling at me, mixing me up and confusing me. Her hair, the strange citrus honey scent that seemed to waft around her, her pale smooth skin—it was all combining to befuddle me until words were coming out of my mouth before I’d even had a chance to think about what I was saying.