Reunited on Sugar Maple Road
Book 6 in the Highland Falls series — September 5, 2023
Fans of RaeAnne Thayne and Catherine Anderson will love USA Today bestselling author Debbie Mason's sixth book in her charming, small-town Highland Falls series.
Fake dating isn’t supposed to lead to real feelings....
Highland Falls police officer Emma Scott is a workaholic who doesn’t do small talk, hugs, or anything else touchy-feely. Ever since her fiancé’s death over a year ago, Emma’s been sleepwalking through life, and her family is growing increasingly worried about her. Enter Josh Callahan, her brother’s best friend. Josh is obnoxiously good-looking and, even more annoyingly, in a perpetually cheerful mood. Though he may drive her crazy, his suggestion to fake date him is brilliant because there are no feelings involved. At least, not at first.
High school football coach and volunteer firefighter Josh Callahan is a fun-loving guy who is all about friends, family, and community. After his wife left him, he committed to staying uncommitted, except now he’s earned the nickname “Heartbreaker of Highland Falls.” Spending time with Emma will improve his rep while she can remember what it means to get out and enjoy life again. And his plan works…until Josh realizes that the feelings he has for Emma are all too real. But is Emma ready to share her heart again?
Do not make eye contact,” Emma Scott muttered at herself as Gwen, her co-worker at the Highland Falls Police Department, carried on an overly loud conversation with her daughter on the phone two desks away. Em wasn’t the only one avoiding eye contact with Gwen. Half her coworkers were doing the same while the other half were discussing their Saturday night plans as they headed out the door.
“I’m sorry, honey. You know how much I want to be there but I have to work. Please don’t cry. Yes, yes, I know. Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
Em felt the weight of someone’s stare and sent her nearest co-worker and supposed friend a glare.
“Have a heart,” Todd whispered as he got up from behind his desk. He looked like a clean-shaven Keanu Reeves. “The kid’s crying.”
“Me? What about you?”
“Can’t.” He took his jacket off the back of his chair and shrugged into it. “I’ve got a big date tonight.”
“You’re not the only one with plans, you know,” Em said without sharing hers.
“Let me guess. You’re taking Gus for a walk and then you’re going to sit on your couch binge-watching Stranger Things while eating whatever’s left of the fast food you ordered the night before. Am I right?”
“No, you’re not.” It was annoying how well Todd knew her. That was what she got for becoming friends with a co-worker. When she’d taken the job with HFPD last fall, she’d vowed to keep everyone at arm’s length. But Todd had blown past her defenses as if they were made of twigs and he was a gale-force wind.
He cocked his head. “Yeah? So where are you going?”
“The Fall Festival.” She wouldn’t be caught dead at the Fall Festival but it was the first thing that came to mind. Probably because Bri, her sister-in-law and best friend, had called an hour ago, trying to convince her to come.
Em didn’t like crowds or making small talk. And while she might be a fan of the woo-woo on TV, she wasn’t a fan of it in real life. Since the Sisterhood had organized the festival, a big helping of woo-woo was all but guaranteed. The group of women who made up the Sisterhood were some of the most influential women in town. Between them, they ran seventy-percent of the businesses on Main Street and organized every single seasonal festival. They also considered themselves Highland Falls’ resident matchmakers, and the last thing Em wanted or needed was someone else trying to set her up.
Todd smiled as if his boyfriend had just proposed. “Finally. It’s only taken you six months to take my advice. You’ll see I was right, Em. Getting back out there is the only way for you to—”
That was what she got for moving back to her small hometown. Gossip spread faster than a five-alarm fire in Highland Falls, and everyone had an opinion on how to get over the loss of her fiancé, including her coworkers and the members of the Sisterhood.
Em raised her hand, cutting off Todd. “Don’t you have a date to get to?”
“You’re right, I do.” He moved in for a hug.
She leaned back. She didn’t do hugs.
He sighed and gave her a fist bump instead. “Have fun at the festival.”
“Festival? Are you going to the festival, Em?” Gwen asked, coming to stand in front of her desk.
“Uh, yeah?” She couldn’t say no with Todd still standing there. She frowned at him, wondering why he was making a face.
“You’re a lifesaver. I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter, but I didn’t want to ask you to cover for me again.”
Now she knew why Todd made a face. Gwen was working the festival. “Nope. No way. I’m not taking another shift for you.”
“But why? You’ll be at the festival anyway, and I promise, as soon as my daughter’s swim meet is over, I’ll relieve you.” She pressed her palms together. “Please, Em. This meet is a big deal for her. It’s the last one of the year.”
Em felt bad for the kid but not that bad. Her mom had never made it to her swim meets, and she’d survived. Besides, it was past time Em put her foot down. She was everyone’s go-to girl for shift changes and it wasn’t fair. Just because she didn’t have kids or a significant other didn’t mean she didn’t have a life. Okay, so maybe she didn’t but that was her choice.
Em reached for her jacket hanging on the back of her chair and stood up. “Sorry, Gwen. I’ve put in my allowed overtime this month. Gabe won’t be happy if I blow his budget,” she said, throwing her boss, the chief of police, under the bus.
“Oh, okay.” Gwen gave her a wobbly smile and brought her phone to her ear. Then she grimaced and held it out to Em. “Would you tell her? Maybe she’ll take it better from you. At least she’ll know I tried.”
Em glanced at Todd, whose lips were pressed together as though he was trying not to laugh. “Fine. I’ll do it. But if you’re not at the festival in two hours to relieve me, I’m—”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gwen squealed.
Em didn’t step away fast enough and found herself enveloped in a patchouli-scented hug. She didn’t know what was up with her touchy-feely coworkers. She’d never had this problem at her previous job in Nashville. Then again, other than Brad, she hadn’t had a lot of time to get chummy with her colleagues. She’d been a detective on a big-city police force. So far, her most exciting cases in Highland Falls were a runaway bride, a dognapping, and equipment going missing at a summer camp.
Carefully extricating herself so as not to offend Gwen, Em said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m the best and you don’t know what you’d do without me.” She’d heard it before. At least twice a week. Gwen already had her phone pressed to her ear and was heading for the exit doors. “Two hours, Gwen. I mean it,” Em called after her, texting Bri to let her know there’d been a change of plans. She’d pick up Gus at the festival. When Em was at work, the goldendoodle stayed with her sister-in-law, who was a family therapist and ran her business from home.
Bri responded immediately. Yay! We’ll see you there. Bubbles came and went, and then a second later, I’m proud of you. So is Cal.
Cal was Bri’s husband and Em’s big brother. He hadn’t come out and said it, but lately Em had seen signs that, like everyone else, he thought it was time she moved on from losing Brad. It had been seventeen months since he’d died, and she still fought to save him in her dreams. And every morning when she woke up without him by her side, it was all she could do to get out of bed. She didn’t know how to move on without him. If she was honest, she didn’t want to.
But day after day, she went through the motions. She walked her dog, kept the house she rented on Sugar Maple Road relatively tidy, and got to work on time. She’d thought that would be enough to satisfy the people who loved her. But apparently as the months went by, their patience with her was wearing thin. Maybe Gwen had done her a favor. If Em put on a good show at the Fall Festival, everyone would leave her alone.
She frowned at Todd when he brushed her overlong bangs aside. She needed a haircut but couldn’t be bothered. “What are you doing?”
“Rubbing ‘sucker’ off your forehead.”
“Hey, you were the one who told me to have a heart.” She batted his hand away and moved toward the exit.
“That was before I knew you were doing something fun for a change, and now you have to work.” He held the door open. “Face it, Em. Under that hard-ass persona, you’re a marshmallow.”
Her, a marshmallow? She rolled her eyes and headed for her squad car. The black Camaro was a sweet ride and ranked as one of her favorite things about her job at HFPD. “Enjoy your night.”
“Will do, and you know, just because you’re on duty doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at the festival. I hear HFFD volunteers are in charge of the bonfires.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Firefighters are hot.”
One particular volunteer firefighter came to mind, Josh Callahan, her brother’s best friend. He might be hot but he was also a regular pain in her butt. “Was that supposed to be a pun?”
They got into their cars and drove off in opposite directions. Em wished her drive was longer. The Village Green was less than two blocks from the station. When she arrived at the gravel lot beside the greenspace, she decided she didn’t want to get boxed in and parked alongside the curb.
In the distance, the sun looked like a ball of fire disappearing behind the mountains. She’d worn an HFPD T-shirt to work and zipped up her jacket as she got out of the car. It was late September, and while the days were still warm, there was a distinct chill in the air when the sun went down. She beeped the lock with the key fob and headed for the Village Green, taking a shortcut up a steep incline to avoid the people streaming onto the grounds from the parking lot. Flickering flames from the bonfires lit up the grounds under the twilight sky. The fires’ crackles and pops mingled with the sound of chatter and laughter and the distant whine of bagpipes coming from the stage at the far end of the greenspace.
Up ahead to her left, a line of colorful tents were lit up with fairy lights. The smells of cotton candy, candy apples, and corn dogs coming from a nearby food truck wafted past her nose, and her stomach grumbled. She was about to head that way when she got a look at the purple-and-white-striped tent beside the food truck.
Inside the tent, behind a wooden table, sat Bri’s sister Ellie and their grandmother—a Betty White look-alike and a founding member of the Sisterhood. Ellie and Granny MacLeod were dressed like the fortune tellers they were pretending to be. Supposedly, Ellie had inherited her psychic gifts from their grandmother. But Em didn’t buy that they had psychic abilities, no matter how many stories she’d been told to the contrary. Going by the line outside their tent, she was in the minority.
“Let the woo-woo times begin,” she muttered.
“Em!” She turned to see Bri waving her over to where she sat around a bonfire with a group of teens, including Cal’s stepdaughter, Izzy. Izzy was seventeen going on thirty with long, curly black hair. She was one of Em’s favorite humans.
Bri smiled, patting the rock beside her. The firelight cast her best friend’s hair and face in a golden glow. Em’s sister-in-law and brother could pass for Barbie and Ken.
Em looked over the Village Green and demurred. “I’d better not. I’m on duty.”
Bri’s shoulders drooped, and Em was pretty sure she heard her sigh.
Reminding herself of her goal for the night—to convince everyone she was moving on from her loss—Em said, “I guess I could sit for a minute.” She took a seat, acknowledging Izzy’s wave hello with one of her own. “Where’s Gus?”
“He’s with Cal and—” Bri broke off and waved. “Over here.”
Em bowed her head when she saw who Bri was waving at. Her brother, Cal, and his best friend Josh. Heads turned as the two men weaved their way through the crowd, people calling their names in greeting. Cal and Josh were over six feet and stood out in the crowd. Cal with his head of golden hair was a perfect foil to his dark-haired best friend.
Em’s brother was a renowned surgeon who headed up the trauma team at Highland Falls General. Josh, a former star athlete, taught gym at the local high school and coached the varsity football team. With Josh at the helm, the team was on a three-season winning streak, which probably accounted for his popularity in town. Apparently, from the people offering congratulations as they walked by, his team had won their game the night before.
Although she imagined the flirty smiles and finger-waves from three twentysomething women didn’t have anything to do with his coaching abilities. Josh was obnoxiously good-looking with his jet-black hair, sky-blue eyes, muscled physique, and tattoo sleeves. But what annoyed Em even more than his head-turning gorgeous face and body was his perpetual good mood. She didn’t trust anyone that happy or easygoing.
“Freckles,” Josh said with a grin, tugging on her ponytail before sitting on the rock beside her.
She wanted to push him off the rock. Her brother and Josh had been best friends since grade school, and he treated Em like his baby sister. “I’m not twelve, you know,” she said.
“Sorry. Officer Freckles.” Em was about to elbow him when Gus, her sixty-pound goldendoodle, shoved his curly, apricot-colored head between them, greeting her the way he always did, with a hug. “Yeah, yeah, I missed you too.” She patted him and then gently pushed him off her. Even Gus’s doggy hugs made her uncomfortable.
She was a reluctant doggy mom, or at least a reluctant Gus mom. She’d inherited the goldendoodle from her fiancé. They’d tolerated each other for Brad’s sake when he was alive. Cal and Bri had offered to take Gus when Em moved out of their place last year, but he was all she had left of Brad. And while she might not be enamored of his doggy hugs or kisses, he was good company.
Cal ruffled Em’s hair. “Glad you decided to come.”
“I had no—” Em caught herself and forced a smile. “You know me, nothing could keep me away from the Fall Festival.”
She waited for either her brother or Josh to call her out on the obvious lie, but Cal was helping Bri to her feet, and Josh was listening to whatever the kids were saying with a frown on his face.
“We’re getting something to eat. You guys want anything?” her brother asked, including his stepdaughter in the question. He knew better than to ask Josh, who considered his body a temple, Em thought with an eye roll.
“Corn dog, thanks,” she said, and Izzy asked for a candy apple.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Josh said sotto voce as Bri and Cal walked away holding hands, Gus loping after them.
“I like corn dogs. What’s the big deal?”
“I know you like corn dogs. You eat like half the guys on my team but that’s not what I was talking about.”
Josh leaned into her, and she suppressed a shiver of awareness. She always got a tiny jolt when he got this close. He smelled like Brad. She’d thought about suggesting he change his cologne but then she’d have to tell him why.
“I was talking about the kids. Haven’t you been listening to them?”
“I suggest you do. You’re about to get a lot busier at HFPD thanks to this book they’re talking about.”
She tuned into the conversation going on around the bonfire. The kids were talking about Seaton House. An abandoned house up the road from Em.
“So you mean, if someone proves that the Seaton sisters were innocent, they can rest in peace?” asked a boy on the far side of the bonfire.
Another kid nodded. “That’s what it said in the book.”
“Seriously? There really is a book about the Seaton sisters?” Em whispered.
The Seaton sisters were Highland Falls’ answer to the Sanderson sisters of Hocus Pocus fame. Except without the coming-back-to-life-on-Halloween-thanks-to a-virgin part. Although the way rumors spread, that version of the story had probably made its rounds too.
“According to the kids, it’s called “The Haunting of Seaton House”.” He glanced over his shoulder, lifting his chin at a black-and-gold-striped tent. “Three Wise Women Bookstore is selling copies here tonight.”
As several of the teenagers discussed whether there was any truth to the rumors that the Seaton sisters had been witches, someone on Em’s right whispered, “If you ask me, the Sisterhood are witches.”
Em couldn’t tell who’d said it but she had to nip this in the bud. When she’d been in eighth grade, there’d been a brouhaha about the Sisterhood dancing in the woods to welcome spring. Everything had gotten blown out of proportion, and the town didn’t need a repeat.
“Aunt Em, you live down the road from the Seaton House. Is it really haunted?” Izzy asked.
“No. It’s a dilapidated, old house that needs to be torn down.” Em might like to keep busy but the last thing she needed was the teenagers of Highland Falls going “haunting” as they used to call it. “And it’s off-limits to all of you.”
Josh glanced at an attractive redhead making a beeline for him, and he slid a muscled arm around Em’s shoulders. “Just go along with it, okay?” he said out of the side of his mouth. Then he smiled at the woman. “Hey, how’s it going?”
Em shook her head. The way Josh went through women, he probably didn’t remember the redhead’s name. He hadn’t dated for a couple years after his divorce, but he’d been making up for lost time this past year. Em spotted two men doing the chest-shove thing at another bonfire and jumped to her feet. “Duty calls.”
Josh followed her gaze and stood up. “I’ll give you a hand. You might need backup.”
He was as overprotective as her brother. Something else that annoyed her. “I think I can handle it, thanks.” Em eyed two other women headed their way. “You, on the other hand, might require backup.”
It wouldn’t be her. Unless a fight broke out amongst the three women, she supposed. Then again, Josh had charmed his way out of detentions in high school, and rumor had it, he’d even made their former principal laugh out loud. A big deal because no one could recall the woman ever smiling.
Em headed for the other bonfire, disappointed to see the two men hugging it out.
Izzy flagged her down with a couple of her friends in tow. “Aunt Em, are you sure you haven’t seen lights at Seaton House? Or heard a woman screaming?”
“Positive. And, Iz, I don’t want you near that place. It should be condemned.” Now that she thought about it, that was something she should look into. “If you hear anyone planning to go, I want you to tell me.”
Izzy glanced at her friends. “I’m not a narc, Aunt Em.”
Em got it. Izzy had been living in Highland Falls for all of two years, and she wouldn’t want to jeopardize her hard-won social standing at school. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have asked. But do me a favor, the three of you, if you hear someone making plans to go to Seaton House, shut them down. Same goes for anyone talking smack about the Sisterhood.”
The blonde beside Izzy ducked her head. At least Em knew who to look at if the rumor mill heated up. The teen’s mother had been a mean girl in high school.
“There are laws against defamation of character. It’s a serious offense that comes with jail time.” When the blonde raised her gaze, Em held it, letting her know she’d heard her.
Figuring she’d made her point, Em said, “Okay, I’ve got a job to do. I’ll see you later, Iz.”
Em walked the perimeter of the Village Green, avoiding making small talk by staying in the shadows of the trees. Then her stomach grumbled, reminding her there was a corn dog with her name on it. She spotted her brother and Bri. They were almost at the front of the food truck line, talking to a group of friends while Gus played with a golden retriever.
Em spotted a line of teenagers outside the black-and gold-striped tent and decided to grab a copy of “The Haunting of Seaton House” while she waited for her corn dog. At least she’d know what they were up against.
Retrieving her cell from her pocket, Em pretended she was engrossed in something on her phone. Someone walked into her, and she reached out to steady them. As a blue-veined hand closed around her fingers, Em raised her gaze, sucking in a breath when she met the vacant stare of Granny MacLeod.
It was said that all the woman had to do to see your future was hold your hand. It’s why she routinely wore gloves. She wasn’t wearing them now, and her viselike grip tightened around Em’s fingers.
As Em struggled to free her hand, Granny MacLeod said in a disturbing monotone, “Beyond your sorrow, a man with hair the color of raven’s wings and a child with eyes the color of the morning sky waits for you. But your journey to the other side of sorrow shall not be an easy one. Only by dying will you free yourself from your past and find your future. This I see, so it shall be.”
Em felt the blood draining from her face, and her knees went weak. Granny MacLeod hadn’t seen her future. She’d seen her past. Brad and the baby weren’t waiting for her. There was no such thing as life after death. It was a myth created to give people false hope. To give them something to hold on to when their world fell apart.
Brad and the baby were lost to her forever, and she was to blame.