The Inn on Mirror Lake
Book 4 in the Highland Falls series — February 22, 2022
USA Today bestselling author Debbie Mason delivers an uplifting small-town romance about a Highland Falls inn owner who must reluctantly accept the help of the man she's crushing on to save her struggling business and help Highland Falls win the competition for the Most Romantic Town in America.
Elliana MacLeod stood in the middle of the inn’s sun-drenched dining room surrounded by women devouring every item on the spring tea menu with delighted abandon. It was the first time since Ellie had arrived last August to help out her grandfather after his stroke that they’d had more than a handful of people dining at the inn. If it wasn’t all an act for her mother’s benefit, Ellie would be doing a happy dance instead of wringing her hands.
“Are you okay? You look nervous.” Ellie’s cousin Sadie came to stand beside her, carrying a rose bone china teapot and a platter of fragrant, iced scones on a silver tray. Her dark hair pulled back in a pony tail, Sadie had taken on the role of waitress, a position Ellie usually found herself in. Their one and only waitress had quit last month due to the lack of hours.
“Why don’t you have a cup of white peony tea and a lavender cream scone?” Sadie suggested. “Spill the Tea and Bites of Bliss outdid themselves. Everything tastes as incredible as it smells.”
Since the cook had left the same month and for the same reason as their waitress, Ellie had taken over kitchen duty. She couldn’t have pulled off today’s menu without the local tea shop and bakery pitching in.
“Thanks, but I couldn’t eat another bite.” Ellie had been stress eating since she got the phone call from her mother informing her of her intentions for the inn and Ellie’s grandpa Joe. “The scones look amazing though. Everything does,” she said, glancing at the white-linen draped tables with their gorgeous spring floral arrangements.
The mayor had arrived with armfuls of pastel tulips and boxes of crystal vases to decorate the tables earlier that morning. “I don’t know how I’ll repay everyone.”
Moments after Ellie told Sadie about her mother’s phone call, her cousin had organized a meeting of the Sisterhood, a group of Highland Falls most influential women, who then put out a call to their family and friends. Everyone had jumped on board with the plan to convince Ellie’s mother that the inn was a going concern.
“No one expects you to repay them. They’d be offended if you offered. The Mirror Lake Inn is as much a part of the town’s heritage as it is yours.” Sadie looked around the dining room with its faded red floral-printed wallpaper and stone fireplace. “Honestly, I think everyone’s feeling bad that they haven’t been more supportive of the inn.”
“It’s not like Grandpa Joe went out of his way to attract business after Grandma Mary died, and I haven’t been much better.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve been looking after Joe. With no help from your parents or sister and brother, I might add,” Sadie said.
“It’s not like Bri could take time away from her counseling practice, and Jace is halfway around the world.” Her younger sister and older brother had high-powered careers, something her mother pointed out to Ellie at every opportunity.
“I guess, but your parents don’t have an excuse. They live five hours away.”
Her parents worked at Duke University in Durham. Her mother was an administrator, and her father was a professor. “To be honest, I didn’t exactly encourage them to come.” In fact, she’d done her best to discourage them from visiting. At least in the beginning. One look at the state of the inn and Grandpa’s Joe condition when Ellie had first arrived, and her mother would have put up a For Sale sign and stuck her father in a home.
At least Ellie had bought her grandfather time. She hoped that, once her mother saw how well Joe was doing, she’d back off. And while Ellie might not have been able to override her mother’s decision last year, she had the means to do so now. She just hoped she didn’t have to use them.
Ellie shut down thoughts of the upcoming meeting with her mother and smiled at her cousin. “Besides, I had you and Granny. I don’t know what I would have done without you guys. Or Jonathan.” Jonathan Knight was Sadie’s grandfather-by-marriage and had been renting a room at the inn since last fall. The former Superior Court judge had been a godsend in more ways than one.
“Where is he, by the way?” Sadie asked. “I haven’t seen him since I got here.” Several women called out to Sadie, wanting their tea. “I’m coming,” she told them and then said to Ellie, “Don’t let your mother intimidate you. If she tries bullying you into agreeing with her, just remember how Joe looked when Aunt Miranda told him she planned to sell the inn and put him in a home.”
That was one image Ellie wished she could wipe from her mind. But Sadie was right. For her grandfather’s sake, Ellie had to stand up to her mother. She couldn’t let her run roughshod over her like she always did.
As Sadie walked away, Ellie realized her cousin was right about something else. Jonathan was nowhere to be seen and nor was her grandpa Joe. An older woman waved her over to a table. “What’s in this sandwich, dear? It’s delicious.”
Ellie had been up since four that morning making sandwiches—her only contribution to the tea. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying them.” She glanced at the filling in the dainty tea sandwich. “Chicken, cranberries, mayo, Dijon mustard, and watercress.”
The woman hummed with pleasure. “You should do a tea every weekend. We’d book standing reservations, wouldn’t we, ladies?” she said to her table companions.
“Then you’ll be happy to hear that Ellie just told me the inn will be serving tea every Saturday and Sunday afternoon starting next week. So be sure to make your reservations before you leave,” said Abby Mackenzie, who’d come to stand beside Ellie.
Abby was a social media celebrity. Her popular YouTube channel and podcast, Abby Does Highland Falls, had put their small North Carolina mountain town on the map. The petite redheaded dynamo was responsible for turning around the fortunes of several local businesses. Despite giving birth to a baby girl a matter of weeks ago, she’d spearheaded today’s event at the inn.
“Enjoy your tea, ladies. And thanks again for giving up your afternoon to support the inn and Joe,” Abby said, looping her arm through Ellie’s.
Ellie added her thanks, smiling when the women told her to call on them anytime.
“Remind me again when I agreed to offer an afternoon tea every Saturday and Sunday,” Ellie whispered as Abby led her away from the table.
Abby grinned. “Don’t worry, Babs and Bliss are onboard,” she said, referring to the owners of Spill the Tea and Bites of Bliss. “It’ll be great promotion for them, especially once people start booking the dining room for weddings, showers, and birthdays.”
“I’ve been here eight months, and the only one who booked the dining room is my grandfather. For his poker parties.”
“Trust me, once Sadie’s finished the redesign of the inn’s website, you’ll have more event bookings than you can handle. Especially if we win our bid for most romantic small town in America. People will be flocking to Highland Falls and the inn.”
A week before Christmas, Happy Ever After Entertainment, a movie production company, opened up a contest for the most romantic small town in America. The company would film their next movie in the winning town. Like their name suggested, Happy Ever After Entertainment was known for their romantic, wholesome movies.
“I know you were having second thoughts about lying to your mother about the state of the inn’s finances, but it’s only a matter of time before it’s running in the black,” Abby continued. “Which reminds me, Mallory, the kids, and I are in the two-bedroom suite. So between us and the Sisterhood, there’s no room at the inn. At least you won’t have to lie to your mother if they planned on staying.”
There were twelve guest rooms at the inn but only eight were available for rent. Mallory, Sadie and Abby’s best friend, could have filled the two-bedroom suite with her family alone. Between Mallory and her husband Gabe, the chief of police, they had six children—five boys and a six-month-old daughter.
“It’ll make it easier to lie to her, but it’s still a lie. It’s not like you guys are staying all night,” Ellie said as she walked from the dining room into the reception area.
“Who says? We’re planning on celebrating with you and Joe after your parents—”
An alarm emanating from the pocket of Ellie’s peacock blue slacks interrupted Abby. A chorus of shrill beeps went off simultaneously in the dining room. Sadie had set up the group alert on their phones to warn of Ellie’s parents impending arrival. Members of the Sisterhood, who were stationed at the entrance to Highland Falls, had issued the warning.
Abby leaned back to call into the dining room, “Fifteen minutes to showtime, ladies.”
Ellie retrieved her phone and glanced at the text on her screen. “This isn’t good. My mother brought reinforcements. My sister Bri and her husband are following behind in their SUV.”
“Don’t buy trouble. They might be on your side,” Abby said.
“Maybe Bri, but not her husband. Richard is in lockstep with my mother about everything. Bri won’t stand up to either one of them.”
Bri had married Richard two years ago. Other than their wedding and a disastrous Christmas visit that same year, Ellie hadn’t spent any time with the couple. She’d taken an almost instant dislike to the investment banker. Her parents, especially her mother, fawned all over the man. Even Ellie’s brother, who was usually a good judge of character, seemed to like her sister’s husband. But while they saw what Richard wanted them to see, Ellie saw what he tried to hide.
“If anything, my mother brought Bri to bolster her case for putting Grandpa in a home.” Her sister was a family therapist.
Ellie pushed her worries aside, smiling as she approached the registration desk. Mallory’s seventeen-year-old stepson Oliver had volunteered to staff the front desk for the afternoon. He looked like British royal Prince William and had the accent to go along with his good looks. “Oliver, have you seen my grandfather?”
“He left with the judge about twenty minutes ago.”
“Did they happen to say where they were going or when they’d be back?” Ellie asked, a sinking feeling coming over her at Oliver’s negative head shake.
“I’ll get Gabe to put out an alert. They couldn’t have gotten far,” Abby said, head bent over her phone.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Oliver. I should have kept a closer eye on my grandfather.” She knew how Joe felt about the upcoming confrontation with her mother.
Oliver frowned, and Ellie briefly closed her eyes. He hadn’t voiced the thought out loud; she’d read his mind. She was psychic. No one other than her mother and Sadie knew of her abilities, and that’s the way she meant to keep it. Although her grandmother might have an inkling since Ellie had inherited the MacLeod gift—curse—from her.
“I’ll check if the truck’s in the parking lot.” Ellie headed for the door. Her grandfather and the judge used the inn’s truck whenever they went into town. But Jonathan knew how important today was. Surely he wouldn’t aid in her grandfather’s escape.
As she opened the door, Ellie glanced back at Oliver and clearly saw an image of her grandfather with a bottle of beer and a cigar in his hands. Joe had sworn Oliver to secrecy. It wasn’t something Ellie could ask about without revealing her own secret.
She stepped onto the wraparound front porch. The row of wooden rocking chairs were empty, the plaid woolen blankets folded neatly over the arms undisturbed. A quick scan of the packed parking lot on her right revealed the red truck was still in its spot.
She walked down the steps, taking the meandering cobblestone path bordered by rhododendrons. Come June, they’d be a sea of purple flowers. As she rounded the inn, the sweet scent from a cluster of mountain magnolia trees greeted her. She looked out over the rolling green lawn to the two empty Adirondack chairs on the dock. Not completely empty, she thought, spying a beer bottle and a cigar on the arm of a chair.
Making her way down the sloping lawn to the dock, she called, “Grandpa Joe! Judge!” Her voice echoed off the sapphire blue lake. But other than three quacking ducks paddling through the lily pads on her left, no one responded to her calls.
She picked up the half-empty beer bottle and the cigar from the chair wondering, if like a dog, her highly-tuned sixth sense would twig to her grandfather’s whereabouts with a sip of his beer or a puff on his cigar. At this point, she was willing to try anything and stuck his half-smoked cigar between her lips. She took a deep pull but other than a faint whiff of its sweet, peppery scent, she got nothing.
The rough rumble of an engine distracted her, and she turned. A man sat astride a black Harley wearing a black leather jacket. His face obscured by a black-visored helmet, he looked big and bad, and her heart began to race. Not from nerves but from attraction. She knew who he was, and not because of her psychic abilities. Nate Black was the one person she couldn’t read.
Focused on him as she was, it took a moment for her to realize he wasn’t alone. A petite woman got off the back of the motorcycle. Ellie stared in shock when the Betty White lookalike removed the black helmet from her head.
It was Agnes MacLeod, her grandmother. “Granny, what are you . . .” Nate removed his helmet, and Ellie instantly lost her train of thought. His wavy dark hair—longer than she remembered—brushed the collar of his leather jacket, his ruggedly handsome face half-hidden behind a beard. At the flash of his strong white teeth through that dark, heavy beard, she nearly tripped over her own two feet.
Way to play it cool, Ellie. She was acting like the thirteen-year-old geek she used to be, and the coolest guy in high school had just smiled at her. His smile widened, fine lines crinkling the corners of his dark eyes, and she found herself smiling in return. Hopefully just a nice, friendly smile and not one that betrayed the Oh my lord, you are so flipping hot I want to kiss you thought currently running through her brain.
“Hey, Ellie. How’s it going?” he said, swinging a muscled, jean-clad leg over his motorbike
Her knees went weak at the sound of his deep, sexy voice saying her name. She rolled her eyes at her reaction. She had to get a grip. And get out more. There was no way Nate Black should affect her like this. She was a mature, self-possessed woman, not some starry-eyed teenager in the throes of her first crush. She needed …to say something.
“Hi, Nate. It’s nice to see you again.” She offered her hand to the man now standing beside her grandmother, because that’s what a self-composed thirty-three-year-old woman would do. “Oh,” she said upon noticing the cigar between her fingers. She transferred it to her other hand, the one holding the half-empty beer bottle. “It’s not what it looks like. I was just—” she couldn’t say trying to get a read on my grandfather’s whereabouts—“picking up after Joe.”
Nate took her outstretched hand in his and smiled. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
What was he talking about? Her secret crush on him or her secret psychic abilities? But the worry that he might have guessed either of her secrets vanished at the feel of his warm, strong hand enveloping hers.
“Why are you two being so formal? You should be hugging, not shaking hands,” her grandmother said, pushing Ellie into Nate.
“Mrs. M,” Nate muttered, releasing Ellie’s hand to slide his arms around her. No doubt to steady her and not to comply with her grandmother’s blatant attempt at matchmaking. Her grandmother loved Nate and didn’t bother hiding the fact she thought he and Ellie were a perfect match.
Ignoring how wonderful he smelled and how incredible it felt to be in his arms again, Ellie gave him a quick, friendly hug and then backed away.
“What?” her grandmother said. “You don’t think it’s odd my granddaughter doesn’t give you a hug instead of a handshake when you spent the night of Sadie and Chase’s wedding in each other’s arms?”
“Granny! We danced. We didn’t—”
Her grandmother frowned. “I know. That’s what I just said.”
Ellie’s cheeks flamed with heat. “Right, of course. Don’t mind me. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.” She held up the beer bottle and cigar. “And Grandpa Joe is missing.”
Agnes held up her phone. “We got the alert. No one in town has spotted him. But don’t worry, Nate will find him.”
“I’m sure Nate has better things to do, Granny. You can’t just—”
“Ellie, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” The three of them turned at the sound of two vehicles coming up the gravel road. Ellie closed her eyes and took a calming breath. Her family had arrived.
“Nate, hurry. Kiss her. Kiss her now.”
Ellie’s eyes popped open, and she stared at her grandmother in embarrassed horror. “Granny, are you cra—”
“It’s not a big deal, Ellie. Mrs. M. told me what’s up. She figures your mother won’t mess with you if she thinks you have someone like me backing you up.”
“You mean, like a boyfriend? You’re supposed to be my boyfriend?”
Nate shrugged. “Half the town is in on the act to save the inn and Joe. I don’t mind doing my part.” He stepped closer, smiling down at her as he tipped up her chin with his knuckle. “What do you say?”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea. I—”
“Be quiet and kiss the man. They won’t believe you’re a couple if they don’t see it with their own eyes.”