Falling in Love on Willow Creek

Falling in Love on Willow Creek

Book 3 in the Highland Falls series — June 8, 2021

 

Fall in love with the latest Highland Falls romance about a single mom-to-be's surprise delivery and the undercover FBI agent who rescues her and her heart in the small town of Highland Falls.

 

 

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Books in the Highland Falls Series:

Summer on Honeysuckle RidgeChristmas on Reindeer RoadFalling in Love on Willow Creek

CHAPTER 1

When you grew up in a small town with a grandmother who believed in unicorns and a baby brother who frequently found himself on the wrong side of the law, the last thing you wanted was to draw attention to yourself. But as Sadie Gray knew from experience, sometimes that was easier said than done.

At that moment, she stood in the display window of I Believe in Unicorns, her grandmother’s store in Highland Falls, North Carolina, wearing a hairband adorned with pastel ribbons, pointed ears, and a gold unicorn horn.

If she was eight instead of twenty-eight, she might have been able to pull off the look. She’d said as much to her grandmother when she’d dragged a pink unicorn sweatshirt over Sadie’s ginormous baby bump and then stuck the hairband on her head.

People made the mistake of thinking Agnes MacLeod, the adorable Betty White look-alike with a soft Scottish burr, was a pushover. Sadie knew better. She’d been raised by her grandmother, after all. And when Agnes MacLeod made up her mind, good luck trying to change it. Which was why Sadie hadn’t bothered putting up a fight. At least not much of one.

“All right now, add a few more heart and unicorn balloons in the window. Though mind that you don’t block the Blow-out Valentine’s Day Sale sign.” Agnes directed Sadie from where she sat on the stool behind the cash register enjoying a cup of tea.

Her grandmother wore a red velour jogging suit, a hairband decorated with blinking hearts, and sneakers that lit up when she tapped her feet to the Irish Rovers singing “The Unicorn Song.”

Sadie didn’t know whether it was the lightshow or “The Unicorn Song” on a constant loop that was making her queasy or if the nausea was due to lack of sleep. The baby had spent the better part of the night kicking her in the back and tap-dancing on her bladder. Still, no matter how queasy, uncomfortable, and sleep deprived she might be, she refused to complain. There was nothing she wanted more than this baby. And nothing that she wanted less in her life than her baby’s daddy.

Her queasiness intensified at the thought of Drew, the aforementioned baby daddy. Maybe it wasn’t just lack of sleep, the Unicorn song or the lightshow making her feel sick. Maybe it was the stress of knowing she had to confront Drew when she went home to Charlotte later today. She should have already been on her way home instead of making a spectacle of herself in I Believe in Unicorns’ window display on a dark and dreary Sunday morning.

She had a rebranding project due first thing tomorrow. A project that she prayed would put her on her boss’s radar for the art director’s position at the advertising agency where she’d worked for the past six months. Now more than ever, thanks to Drew, she needed the increase in salary that the promotion would bring.

“Your sale would have been more effective if you’d held it last weekend instead of on the actual day, Granny,” Sadie grumbled. If not for the sale, she wouldn’t have felt obligated to stay in town to help out.

Her grandmother simply smiled at Sadie’s grumpy observation and picked up the ringing landline, wishing the caller a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Cursing Cupid in her head, Sadie blew a stream of hot, cranky air into a heart-shaped balloon. Her stomach expanding like the Goodyear blimp, her baby bump was smushed against the cold glass. She stepped back from the window, and the unicorn knight rescuing the unicorn princess in the castle’s turret stabbed Sadie in the butt with his plastic sword. On an ouch, she let go of the balloon to rub her butt and the red heart shot toward the window, taking out the sale sign before sputtering deflated at her feet.

With a hand on her lower back, Sadie stuck the knight in the turret and gave the unicorn princess the sword. There might have been a time—twenty years ago—when she believed in fairy tales, but no longer. None of the frogs she’d kissed as a little girl had turned into a prince as advertised, and she hadn’t fared any better as an adult, who should have known better.

She bent to retrieve the sign from the floor but her stomach got in the way as much as the wooden replica of Edinburgh Castle behind her. If it was up to her, the castle would end up in the storage room, along with half the store’s merchandise.

Unicorn-themed clothes, stuffed animals, books, toys, and tchotchkes fought for space on shelves draped in white fairy lights. Seasonal gifts were crowded on tables with bases carved to resemble trees while whimsical children’s furniture sat on the white oak floor. Gold-glitter stars, pastel-colored rainbows, and inspirational unicorn art adorned the walls as angel unicorns rode across the ceiling on white cardboard clouds.

When she was much younger, she’d loved hanging out at the store with her grandmother. Sadie had been into unicorns, glitter, and rainbows as much as Agnes back then. But that had been before the kids at school found out Sadie’s grandmother not only believed in unicorns; she had the second sight.

Sadie glanced at Agnes, hoping for some help retrieving the signage but whomever was on the other end of the phone had captured her grandmother’s full attention. Sadie straightened and put a hand on the glass for balance as she attempted to get the tape on the sign to stick to her sneaker. After three tries that left her sweaty and frustrated, she managed to raise the sign a few inches off the floor. It didn’t help so she kicked the sign up and into the air and made a grab for it.

As she reached out to snag the sign, she noticed a man across the road leaning against a dark sedan. In the open black dress coat he wore over his dark suit, he looked like he’d stepped off the cover of GQ magazine. And while she might not be able to make out the color of his eyes from that distance, she definitely felt the intensity of his stare. He studied her like she was a bug under a microscope.

And maybe because his cool, calculating gaze flustered her, she lost her balance at the same time she snagged the sign. Using the window to save herself from falling, she ended up like a pregnant starfish plastered against the glass. A cute couple walking hand-in-hand on the sidewalk in front of the store smiled up at her. She managed the semblance of one in return—the left side of her mouth ticking up.

The cute couple looked down and laughed. She chuckled and rolled her eyes like she was in on the joke and raised a mocking hand to her hairband. Except they were looking down, not up. Another couple joined them, and Cute Couple Number One pointed at Sadie and the four of them shared a laugh at her expense.

She followed their gazes but couldn’t see past the top of her stomach. Frustrated, but no less stubborn than her grandmother, she acknowledged their friendly waves with a finger wave of her own. Then, once they were out of sight, she lifted the hem of the sweatshirt to see what they’d been looking at.

Her eyes went wide. “Granny, you’ve got me stuck in the front window wearing a sweatshirt that says I’m horny!”

Suddenly remembering the cute couples hadn’t been her only audience, her gaze shot to the man across the road. At the sight of the huge, naked, and stretched-marked stomach she’d just flashed him, she was surprised not to see a grossed-out expression on his incredibly handsome face. Like the one Drew made whenever he caught a glimpse of her naked. Something that happened more frequently than she wanted because the man was still living with—off—her, and her place wasn’t big enough for the almost-three of them. It was her fault they were still co-habiting after the crap he’d pulled. She blamed it on her fatal flaw.

Despite every man in her life proving that they couldn’t be trusted, she’d let herself get sucked in by Drew. She’d bought his half-truths and lies of omission, but no longer. She was done with him. Done with men in general. She’d raise her baby on her own. She’d devote herself to building a beautiful, drama-free life for just the two of them.

Tugging down her sweatshirt without giving the man across the road a second glance, she called to her grandmother. “Granny, did you hear me?”

Agnes responded with a distracted, “I didn’t have any Hoping for a Unicorn sweatshirts left in your size.” Then she went back to stuffing twenty-dollar bills from the open cash drawer into an envelope.

Sadie frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing.” Her grandmother slid the envelope behind her back and lifted her chin at the door. “We’re in for it now. Brooklyn Sutherland is headed our way. I told the girls they should have invited her to your shower but no one listened to me. That’s what happens when you get old. No one—”

“Don’t even think about trying to distract me, Granny. I’m not taking your money. I’m fine, so you can forget trying to sneak it into my bags. Put it back in the cash drawer.” Her grandmother had overheard Sadie venting about Drew at the surprise baby shower her best friends had hosted for her the night before.

Last month, he’d gotten fired for drinking on the job, a circumstance he blamed on being stressed about the baby. On top of that, just hours before the shower, she’d discovered he’d maxed out her credit card while online shopping because, he’d whined, he was bored.

The front door chimed, and Sadie glanced over her shoulder. Her grandmother hadn’t been lying. Brooklyn walked in with a thin-lipped smile on her pageant-winning face. They’d been frenemies since grade school. Brooklyn had recently moved back to Highland Falls to open Spill the Tea on Main Street with her mother, who was the biggest gossip in town.

“I hear your baby shower was the event of the season,” Brooklyn said with a hint of the South in her voice as she flicked her long, auburn hair over the shoulder of her plaid-lined trench coat. She’d always been blunt and straight to the point. Traits that had once annoyed Sadie but now she found herself admiring. At least Brooklyn was honest.

“Congratulations, by the way,” her grade school frenemy continued. “I haven’t seen you since I’ve been home.”

“Thanks. About the shower,” Sadie said, placing a hand on the knight’s head to gingerly climb out of the display window. “It was a surprise, so I didn’t have a say in the guest list and my friends, Abby and Mallory, they haven’t been in town long. They wouldn’t have known to invite you. But hey, it saved you from having to buy a shower gift.” She smiled, then gestured at the shop under construction across the road to distract Brooklyn from her obviously hurt feelings, which made Sadie feel horrible. “Congrats to you too.”

Sadie noticed GQ Guy was still hanging around, only now he had a cell phone pressed to his ear. It annoyed her that her attention kept going back to the man. It shouldn’t matter that he was drop-dead gorgeous. These days she rarely gave a man a passing glance.

Moving so he was out of her line of sight, she refocused on Brooklyn. “Granny says you’re getting lots of buzz. When’s the opening?”

“April if everything goes as planned.” Brooklyn gave her an ingratiating smile. “I was actually hoping you could get your friend Abby to feature us on her YouTube channel. She does such a great job promoting Highland Falls.”

There was nothing that Abby liked better than promoting local events and businesses, but she might have an issue with some of the gossip Brooklyn’s mother had been spreading around town. Sadie didn’t want to commit without talking to her first.

“Of course she will,” Agnes chimed in as she closed the cash drawer, the twenties suspiciously missing. “You won’t hear it from my granddaughter, but she’s Abby’s partner, more or less.”

Less. Sadie worked part-time for Abby but her grandmother was obviously trying to distract Sadie from what she was up to with the cash.

“She does all her design work and takes care of the technical end of things as well.” Agnes continued despite Sadie giving her a wide stare to get her to stop. “Our Sadie’s a computer whiz, you know. Just like her brother and her father. Not that I approved of how her father used his technical wizardry, mind you, but Sadie, she’s always used her skills for the greater good. She takes after the MacLeod side in that, she does.”

Sadie stared at her grandmother, wondering where that had even come from and what had possessed her to talk about Sadie’s father in front of Brooklyn. It had taken years to live down the damage Jeremiah Gray had done to their family’s reputation. They hadn’t spoken about him in fourteen years.

She also found it telling—but not surprising—that her grandmother didn’t lump Sadie’s brother Elijah in with their father. Agnes couldn’t see past Elijah’s sparkling honey-brown eyes and mischievous toothpaste-commercial grin to the petty criminal who lay within. Disarmingly charming and handsome, her grandmother wasn’t the only one Sadie’s brother had fooled.

“If you can put in a good word with Abby for us, I’d really appreciate it.” Brooklyn’s smile had gone from ingratiating to slightly uncomfortable. “We’re looking forward to the airing of your birth day video. Although I was kind of surprised that you agreed to let your baby’s birth be filmed. You were always so private. Abby must be a very persuasive woman. But I’m sure she won’t show, you know, everything.” She waved her hand in the general vicinity of Sadie’s baby bump.

She now understood Brooklyn’s somewhat strained smile. “Trust me, my birth plan does not include lights, cameras, and Abby calling action.”

Sadie wanted a home delivery with calming music, lavender-scented candles burning with the lights turned down low, and her soft-spoken midwife lovingly guiding Sadie’s baby into the world. “Where did you hear about the episode?”

“You know Momma, she always gets the inside scoop. She’ll be the one spilling the tea at the store, and I’ll be the one making it,” Brooklyn said, deepening her Southern drawl.

“Making the actual tea or giving your momma something to gossip about?” Sadie asked, knowing full well what Brooklyn meant but she wanted her to think about what being on the receiving end of her mother’s storytelling would be like.

Brooklyn lifted a shoulder. “I don’t have a life, so I’m safe.”

But no one else was. “Well, this time, your momma scooped up some fake news.” Sadie planned to call Abby as soon as Brooklyn left, and not just about the birth day episode.

They had to have a serious conversation about whether Abby should be promoting Spill the Tea. Sadie might have been young when her own family became grist for Bab Sutherland’s rumor mill, but that didn’t mean she didn’t remember what it had been like.

Sadie waited for her grandmother to chime in. It had been a difficult time for all of them. But Agnes didn’t say a word, and Sadie glanced at her, only to discover her grandmother was in the middle of a stealthy getaway.

“Ah, Granny, where do you think you’re going?” Sadie couldn’t hold down the fort on her own. At this stage in her pregnancy, she needed more bathroom breaks than her grandmother.

Agnes waved her hand behind her head—a hand that held an envelope. “I’ll be right back.”

Huh, so the money wasn’t for Sadie after all. She leaned past Brooklyn to get a look at the woman her grandmother was trying to keep out of the store.

“I wouldn’t mind warming up for a bit before I head back home, Mrs. MacLeod. It’s cold enough to freeze the teats off a frog.” Tall with beachy blond waves, the twenty-something woman muscled her way past Sadie’s grandmother. The blond wore a puffy iridescent blue jacket, a denim skirt, and thigh-high black leather boots. She took one look at Sadie and spun around, snatching the envelope from Agnes’s hand before heading out the door at a fast clip.

“Granny, who was that?” Sadie asked with a sense of foreboding.

“Oh, just a lass who does alterations for me,” her grandmother said, eyeing the younger woman’s progress through the window.

“It’s Payton Howard,” Brooklyn whispered. Then, probably seeing that the name meant nothing to Sadie, added, “She was dating your brother before he . . . before he left town last summer. He was spotted around Willow Creek two days ago, and someone saw him leaving Payton’s house late last night.”

Sadie and her grandmother hadn’t seen or heard from her brother since last summer. Truth be told, even before Elijah had gone on the run, Sadie had rarely heard from him. He called when he needed money or a favor or a fall guy, in her case, a fall girl. She was just lucky his actions hadn’t landed her in jail.

She’d been bailing her baby brother out of trouble for years. But last summer, she couldn’t—wouldn’t—help him. He’d gotten involved with drugs. She didn’t know the whole story. He hadn’t deigned to share it with her. Even when he’d been blackmailing her for cash.

She had to get rid of Brooklyn without seeming rude. Sadie needed to talk to her grandmother alone. There was something going on.

She rubbed the sore spot just above her tailbone. “I should probably sit down and rest for a bit.” She wasn’t faking. The earlier ache had worsened, spreading across her lower back. “But don’t worry, I’ll put in a good word for you with Abby. I’m sure she can fit you in before your grand opening.”

“Thank you, that would be great,” Brooklyn said but didn’t make a move to leave. She chewed on her bottom lip while looking at Sadie’s grandmother, who was rearranging the sale sign in the display window. No doubt hoping to avoid a confrontation with Sadie. Brooklyn glanced at Sadie. “Um, you know how your grandmother has the second sight?”

Oh no, she did not just go there. Brooklyn had teased Sadie mercilessly when word got out in grade school about Agnes’s gift. It was bad enough Sadie had a grandmother who believed in unicorns, but to have a grandmother who could tell someone’s future simply by holding their hand. . . Eyebrow raised, Sadie crossed her arms.

Brooklyn winced. “I know, and I’m sorry. I was just jealous that all the boys liked you.”

Sadie snorted. “They did not.”

“Trust me, they did. You were cool and smart and had no idea how pretty you were. We were all about clothes and makeup and boys, and you were all about soccer, nature hikes, and photography.” Brooklyn glanced at Agnes who looked like she planned to spend the rest of the day in the display window. She was waving at passersby while doing an impression of Vanna White, pointing out sale items in the window. “I’m really nervous about the store opening, and I was hoping your grandmother could, you know, tell me if Spill the Tea will be a success.”

“Speaking from personal experience, you might not like what you hear. Granny has no control over her gift.”

“But her predictions come true, don’t they?”

“Sometimes, but not always in the way you expect or want them to,” Sadie said, thinking back to her grandmother’s latest prediction for her.

In December, she’d told Sadie that she’d experience an all-consuming pain and love on the day of hearts. With everything going on, Sadie had forgotten about it until now. In a way, it looked like part of her grandmother’s prediction had come true. Elijah was back, which would no doubt cause Sadie pain, and she’d once loved her brother with all her heart.

But that hadn’t been the end of her grandmother’s prophecy. Agnes had also said a man would come from the shadows to deliver Sadie from the pain, but in the end, he’d bring her more because he wasn’t who he said he was. Either her brother or Drew qualified for the role.

Happy Valentine’s Day to me, she thought.