Summer on Honeysuckle Ridge
Book 1 in the Highland Falls series — May 2020
USA Today bestselling queen of small-town romance launches delivers her new heartwarming series with a delightful enemies-to-lovers romance.
Welcome to Highland Falls, a small town where love is always in the air.
In just a few months Abby Everhart has gone from being a top LA media influencer to an unemployed divorcée living out of her car. So inheriting her great-aunt's homestead comes at the perfect time. Abby heads to Highland Falls, North Carolina, to spruce up Honeysuckle Farm before putting it on the market for some much-needed cash. But instead of finding a charming getaway, she discovers a serious fixer-upper, complete with a leaky roof, overgrown yard, and a reclusive-albeit sexy-man living on the property.
Ex-Delta Force soldier Hunter MacKenzie has faced war and loss, but nothing has quite prepared him for an outgoing redhead who's determined to turn his life upside down. Hunter doesn't want to get involved with anyone, especially a city girl who plans to sell the only place he's ever felt at home. But the sparks between them are undeniable. Spending time with Abby is easy. Convincing her to stay for good is another matter entirely.
“You know, this doesn’t look anything like I pictured Honeysuckle Ridge Road. There’s not a honeysuckle in sight. Or a farm. Or any sign of civilization at all, for that matter. All you can see for miles and miles is trees. Ginormous trees,” Abby Everhart said to the Uber driver while holding her eight-pound gold-and-tan Yorkshire terrier close.
The man didn’t so much as blink. He’d barely spoken the entire hour and a half drive from the airport in Asheville to Highland Falls. At least she assumed they were close to the town. She’d seen a sign a few miles back, peeking out from a stand of trees.
With her nose pressed to the window, a growl rumbled in her dog’s throat. Obviously as impressed with the view as Abby. Or maybe Bella had spotted a wild animal lurking in the dark forest that practically swallowed the narrow dirt road winding its way up the mountain.
Abby refused to think about what was crawling around on the forest floor. The past two days had been stressful enough.
If it wasn’t for her ex’s longtime housekeeper, Elinor, Abby wouldn’t have known about the registered letter that had been delivered to his Bel Air mansion days before their divorce became final. She’d have no idea that she’d inherited her great-aunt’s farm in Highland Falls or that Chandler (the aforementioned ex) had been having an affair with the head of his legal team, Juliette Devereaux. Or that he planned to marry her.
But as much as Abby appreciated Elinor standing by her, she could’ve used at least a day to wallow in her misery—some sympathy also would’ve been nice—but Elinor wasn’t having it. She’d decided the inheritance was a sign from the Universe that it was time for Abby to get out of Dodge, or in this case, LA.
Abby slouched down in the backseat of the car and lifted her cellphone to take a picture of the Uber driver, the dark woods up ahead, the dark woods on her right, and the dark woods on her left.
What had she been thinking?
She never should’ve listened to Elinor. She should’ve contacted the lawyer in Highland Falls and had her sell the farm and wire Abby the money. But as Elinor had pointed out, Abby was homeless, almost penniless, and mostly jobless.
At least in Highland Falls she had a home. Just because the idea of living in the mountains with not a soul in sight wasn’t her cup of tea didn’t mean everyone felt that way. There had to be a reclusive dot-com millionaire somewhere who wanted nothing more than to drop a pile on a mountain hideaway.
She swiped to her notes on her phone and created a list of potential buyers to target. Then she texted Elinor and attached the photos.
If you don’t hear from me in twenty-four hours, look for this man, and look for mine and Bella’s bodies in these woods.
But instead of the swoosh of the message being sent, the text just hung there. Abby’s eyes went wide at the thought that she was so far from civilization she was in a texting dead zone. It would be weeks before Elinor sent up an alarm. Abby swiped back to her potential buyer list, deleted dot-com millionaire, and added serial killer or person on the run.
She glanced at her driver, prayed he didn’t fit into either category, then leaned forward in case he was hard of hearing, which would explain why he’d ignored her questions for almost the entire drive.
“Stan, I don’t want to be one of those know-it-all passengers . . . Trust me, I’ve dealt with them before and totally understand how annoying it is. There were a few of them I would’ve happily mur. . .” She cleared her throat. Better not to put ideas in his head just in case. “Anyhoo, you might want to check your GPS. I called mine Chandler. That’s my ex, and he was as much an annoying know-it-all as my GPS. It was also wrong thirty percent of the time. I’m not the only one who’s experienced a GPS fail, you know. There was this woman I heard about whose GPS directed her into a lake. I still haven’t figured out why she actually drove into the lake. She had to have seen—”
Stan cut her off, grumbling, “We’re here,” and turned off the main road.
“Oh, wow. That’s so. . . awesome.” She tried to sound enthusiastic, but even reminding herself that she was still alive and breathing didn’t help. And then she kind of stopped breathing when a log farmhouse came into view—a rustic log farmhouse in need of some TLC. And that TLC needed to be provided by a professional, she thought, her head listing to the side as she followed the crooked line of the covered porch that appeared to wrap around the entire house.
Elinor was wrong. The Universe hadn’t been giving Abby a sign to get out of Dodge. The Universe was giving her the middle finger.
Sensing the driver watching her in the rearview mirror, clearly waiting for a reaction, Abby forced a wide smile. She never should’ve told him the farm was worth a small fortune. She hadn’t done it in a braggy sort of way. It was more like a positive-thinking kind of thing. As in, if she put out positive thoughts, positive things would happen in return. She glanced at the rusted green tin roof. Clearly, she was doing something wrong.
“Look at our new home, Bella Boo. It’s . . . charming.”
Abby got out of the car, her gaze moving from the grassy green meadow to the woods that bordered the extensive property, and the dusky-blue shadows of the mountains looming up behind the forest.
A shimmer of light caught her eye to the right. “Oh look, there’s a pond, and a barn.”
Her fake smile fell when she spotted an outhouse near the yellow barn. Surely the farmhouse had indoor plumbing. Her upper lip trembled from the effort of forcing a smile back on her face. “You know what, with a little money—” more like a small fortune— “this place will be so amazing, I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring myself to sell.” Ha! If she wasn’t broke, and she didn’t need money to finance her comeback in LA, she’d give the farm away.
“Word of advice, keep a close eye on your dog,” Stan said as he set the suitcase beside her.
Since Abby had been living out of her car of the past six months, Elinor had lent her the Burberry suitcase. And probably because she’d looked so pathetic, Elinor had also insisted on taking Abby to her friend’s beauty salon before she flew off on her new adventure.
Thank goodness she had, because while Abby might be completely out of her element, she at least looked somewhat like the woman she used to be (and hoped to become again), and that gave her a small measure of comfort. Although instead of her signature long, straight blonde hair, she was now a redhead with long, curly locks. And instead of her designer store wardrobe, her current wardrobe came from the consignment store.
But the faded denim shorts and white boyfriend shirt she wore looked fab with four-inch wedge sandals and her hot-pink-painted toe nails.
“Thanks for the advice, Stan. I won’t let her out of my sight.” Abby gave him a genuine smile, appreciating his thoughtful concern, especially since he hadn’t been happy to discover she had a dog in her pink-patent-leather Louis Vuitton bag.
Bella had sensed his fear right away and used it to her advantage, snarling and growling so Abby would keep giving her doggy treats.
Abby took out the flat fee she and Stan had agreed upon and added a generous tip, even though she couldn’t afford it. She and Stan shared a bond, after all. They didn’t always get the respect they deserved driving cars for a living. She’d also leave a nice comment about her experience. Although she did wonder if she should give Stan some pointers.
Not to toot her own horn or anything, but her passengers rarely left her anything below a five-star review. And she didn’t have to bribe them or fake that she’d enjoyed their company. She was a people person, and if it wasn’t for the glamorous life she’d led before Chandler and Julia had destroyed it, she would’ve enjoyed her Uber gig. She glanced at the farmhouse. Who was she trying to kid? She so wanted her old life back.
Stan nodded his thanks and stuffed the money in his pocket. As he walked around the hood of the car to the driver’s-side door, he added, “Hawks and eagles would just as soon eat her as look at her. Same goes for coyotes and wolves.”
Abby decided she preferred the non-speaking Stan to the speaking one. “Okay then. Thanks so much for sharing that with me.” She gave him a smile that stretched her cheeks. “Good thing we don’t have to worry about bears.”
“No, you gotta worry about them too. But they’re more likely to go after you. Same with mountain lions, so have an eye.” He opened the car door, glancing at the farmhouse and then back at her. “Watch out for snakes and spiders too. There are some deadly ones in this neck of the woods.”
She’d been wrong. Serial killers and criminals on the run were the least of her concerns. It was wildlife with murder on its mind that she had to worry about. “Um, you know, maybe I should . . .”
She was about to suggest he drop her off in town but that would feel too much like giving up on her dreams. Besides, it wasn’t like she had money to burn. And no matter how high the odds seemed to be stacked against her at that moment, she’d beaten seemingly unsurmountable odds before.
In her tween years, this kind of challenge would’ve been her jam. Her favorite pastime had been hiking in the woods with her father. They hiked every weekend in good weather and bad. The girl she used to be wouldn’t have been afraid of spiders or snakes or deadly wildlife of any kind. Back then she’d been fearless, the more physical the adventure the better.
She waved goodbye to Stan, putting on a brave face as he drove away. She was all alone in the middle of no—Her mouth fell open. What had she been thinking? Her cell phone didn’t work, she didn’t have any means of transportation, and she had no food!
“Stan!” With Bella in her arms, Abby took off at a run up the gravel road with Bella in her arms. “Look in your rearview mirror!” She waved her free hand, crying out when she skidded across the loose gravel and nearly fell on her face.
The time it took to regain her footing cost her, and she broke into a full-on sprint. Or as much of a sprint as four-inch wedge heels allowed. “Stan!” she called out; her voice strained from lack of oxygen. Her legs protested as she ran up the hill (okay, so it might have been more of a jog), and sweat trickled down her face. A muscle knotted in her side, and she stopped, bending over to wheeze. “I think I’m going to die.” Then hope surged through her at the sound of Stan’s car slowing at the top of the hill, and she lifted her head . . . only to see the taillights wink goodbye as they disappeared from view.
She fought the urge to sit on the gravel road and cry. “Suck it up, buttercup,” she told herself. She’d faced far worse and survived. All she had to do was stay positive. If worse came to worst, she’d change her shoes and walk to the main road. As she turned to make the trek back to the farmhouse, Bella gave her a doggy kiss. “Thanks, Boo. I’m okay.”
But so out of shape it wasn’t funny. She supposed that’s what happened when you made your living sitting on your butt. “It looks like you might be sharing your doggy treats with me.” They wouldn’t last a week.
A sudden image of her hunting for their food made Abby laugh despite the worry they might actually starve to death. “Maybe Aunt Liz left something in the cupboards.”
Except the lawyer handling the estate said she’d had a difficult time tracking down Abby, and Liz Findlay had died months before. Which made it unlikely there would be anything edible left in the house. That animals hadn’t already gotten into, Abby thought, when two gray squirrels appeared on the roof.
Holding up her phone in hopes of getting a signal, Abby made her way through a jungle of bushes and overgrown shrubs to the front porch. Pushing aside the greenery that was encroaching on the stone path, she nearly missed the swoosh of a text being sent. She froze, praying it wasn’t her imagination as she shielded her eyes from the sun to squint at the screen.
“We’re saved!” she cried at the sight of three bars. She set a squirming Bella at her feet and hurried back to her bag on the stone path. As Abby reached inside to retrieve her wallet and the lawyer’s number, her phone rang—FaceTime. She smiled, thinking it was Elinor checking for proof of life after the text Abby had sent.
She pressed Accept. “Yes, I’m alive. . .” Her eyes went wide, instead of Elinor, Abby’s gorgeous blond mother and her equally gorgeous blond stepsisters appeared on the screen. Crap! That would teach her to check the number before accepting.
She swallowed a panicked eek when she realized they’d see the rundown farmhouse in the background. Her face frozen in a smile, Abby shuffled to ensure they had a view of the trees and mountains. Then she positioned the phone at just the right angle—as far as her arm would stretch out and up—while trying to look perfectly natural. And unfazed.
Her mother and stepsisters had no clue what was going on in Abby’s life. If they had, they would’ve dragged her back to the small Southern town they called home and she called social purgatory. But even worse than that, they’d know she was a failure.
After years of being voted the Everhart most unlikely to succeed, she refused to let them discover she’d lost everything. Even if it meant pretending that she still lived in the mansion in Bel Air and that her husband still adored her.
“Hi!” She waved at her mom and stepsisters. Bella cocked her head, looking up at her as if to say What the hay? And Abby toned it down.
She was nervous. She knew it was weird to be nervous talking to her own family, but she kind of dreaded these phone calls. Her mom had married the twins’ father when they were four and Abby was fourteen. Haven and Haley were everything Abby would never be. Brilliant and beautiful, they excelled at whatever they set their minds to. And while Abby was positive her mother didn’t do it on purpose, the calls were usually a litany of the twins’ recent successes.
“Happy belated birthday, darling! I’m sorry we didn’t call from India but the time difference is horrendous.” Her mother blew her kisses and so did the twins.
“Happy birthday, Abs! Your hair is totally lit! It makes your green eyes pop,” he stepsisters said at almost the same time.
Abby self-consciously touched her hair. “It does look like it’s on fire, doesn’t it?”
Haven, the youngest twin by five minutes, laughed. “No, silly, lit means awesome.”
She really was getting old.
Elinor and her hairdresser friend, Kate, had decided that Abby needed to change things up and do something completely different. She’d tried to explain to them that red was her natural color, and it had never been a good look for her. It was also a color that reminded her of a time in her life when everything had gone from bad to worse. But blond? She’d totally rocked blond. Poker-straight, long blond locks were her Hollywood look. . . Now that she thought about it, she probably should’ve gone with brown or black.
“I don’t know,” her mother said. “It makes you look a little peaked, don’t you think?”
“Mom, stop. She looks fantastic.”
And that’s what made the calls difficult. Her stepsisters were sweet and kind, and Abby always came away feeling like a horrible person because she resented them for being perfect.
“Of course she does.” Her mother smiled at the twins. “Who wants to tell Abby your news?”
“Mom.” They both groaned, sending apologetic glances at Abby.
“What? You should be proud of yourselves and shouting your accomplishments to the world. Abby’s as proud of you as I am.”
She was, because she adored Haven and Haley as much as they adored her.
Ignoring the twins’ second groaned Mom, their mother shouted their latest accomplishment to Abby. “The mayor is hosting a dinner in your sisters’ honor before they leave for university. They’re being given the key to town for all they’ve done to make Shady Mills a wonderful place to live. Can you imagine? They’re only eighteen and being given such an honor. I swear, they’re setting the bar too low for themselves. They should set their sights on the White House.”
Right, because a supreme court judge and neurosurgeon were setting the bar too low. Abby could only dream of being as smart as her sisters. They’d graduated high school a year early both with scores of 4.0, and were given full rides to Stanford. But first they’d taken a gap year to travel and volunteer with non-profits.
Abby had been lucky to have graduated high school at nineteen with a 2.5, and the only college to offer her a scholarship was the University of Hard Knocks. She’d headed for Hollywood the day after graduation. And while she didn’t have the looks or the talent to make it as an actress, she did have an eye for the next big thing whether it be in makeup, hair, fashion, or the Hollywood social scene. More important, she had passion and drive.
“If it wasn’t for Abby, the mayor wouldn’t be honoring us,” Haven said.
“It’s totes true, Abs,” Haley said, no doubt responding to Abby’s pained smile. “When you gave up your YouTube channel to focus on philanthropy and giving back, you inspired us.”
It took everything Abby had to keep the smile on her face. She was a fraud. She didn’t deserve the twins’ love and admiration. She hadn’t given up her YouTube channel to focus on philanthropy. She’d given it up because Chandler and his attorneys (i.e. Juliette) had wanted her wiped off social media.
And that was a truth she couldn’t bear her family to hear. She couldn’t stand the idea of Haley and Haven looking at her like her friends in Hollywood now did.
“I’m sure Chandler is as proud of you as we are,” Haley continued. “Did he spoil you like he always does on your birthday?”
He hadn’t spoiled her for the past two years. She’d just pretended that he had for all their sakes. Just like she’d pretended he still loved her, ignoring the signs that he was having an affair.
“Yes, darling. Tell us what he bought you.” Her mother craned her neck as though looking for another five-carat pink diamond ring, which was the last birthday present Abby had received from Chandler. He’d demanded it back as part of the settlement. “You look like you’re at a resort. It’s not a spa-slash-rehab resort, is it?”
“Mom! Of course it isn’t. Why would you even think something like that?”
“You do hang around with all those Hollywood types, darling. And you are a little gaunt.” She leaned into the screen. “You don’t look like you’ve been sleeping either. You’ve got black circles under your eyes.”
Abby leaned in to peer at herself. “It’s mascara.” She licked the tip of her forefinger and ran it under her bottom lashes.
Haven’s and Haley’s eyes rounded.
Thinking they were shocked that she no longer wore lash extensions, Abby swallowed a sigh to say, “I’ve heard that lash—”
“No! Look, Abby! It’s Bella.”
She frowned and looked down. Bella wasn’t there. Following her stepsisters’ pointed fingers and their squeaks of terror, she turned, emitting a terrified squeak of her own. Her teeny-tiny dog was racing across the field toward a huge white . . . wolf! In her panic, she dropped her phone and ran.
“I’m coming, Boo! Mommy will save you!” She raced across the meadow.
Bella stopped about fifteen feet from the wolf to snarl and bark at the animal. The wolf tilted its head to the side, appearing confused. Maybe because most animals were smart and ran at the sight of it. Or maybe it found the bow and dress her dog wore confusing.
“Bella, do not annoy the big, bad wolf. Come here, baby. Come to Mommy.” Abby’s heart hammered as she closed the distance between her and Bella. The wolf did the same. Slowly, lethally, he padded across the grass. “Shoo! Go away! Argh.” Abby growled in hopes of scaring him off, waving her arms over her head to make herself appear bigger than five-foot-four.
The wolf stopped, and she thought her attempt to scare him away had worked. But then, over the frantic pounding of her heart in her ears, she heard a deep voice shout, “Wolf!”
A huge man with shoulder-length hair and a short beard walked out of the woods carrying a tree stump on one broad shoulder and an ax over the other. Abby prayed he was a lumberjack and not an ax murderer because he looked a little scary.
“I know it’s a wolf!” Abby cried out as she bent over on the run to scoop Bella into her arms. “Do not fall. Do not fall,” she told herself as she veered to the left at an all-out sprint, praying the lumberjack took care of the wolf.
“Stop running!” the man yelled.
She glanced over her shoulder to see the wolf loping after them and screamed.
“Wolf!” the man shouted again, but this time, Abby noted that he’d put down his huge log and his big ax and was jogging toward them. Jogging!
“I know, you idiot!” she shouted at the lumberjack. “Do something! Go back and get your ax!”
“Watch where you’re going!”
“Watch where I’m going?” she yelled back at him, furious and terrified at the same time, afraid her legs were going to give out at any minute. “That’s as helpful as you shouting—Argh!” she cried as she fell face-first into a weed-filled pond.