First Three Chapters FREE
Updated: Sep 30, 2021
The Whisper in Wind
Lucy Gardener sat in her shimmering gold convertible, gazing at the palatial inn that had occupied her full attention for the last several months.
Sunlight streamed through bronze and amber leaves, warming the ruddy bricks of the Georgian-style exterior and glinting off tall windows flanked by pristine white shutters.
For the first time in her life, Lucy felt a twinge of pride. Decorating the newly renovated inn from top to bottom, being careful to blend modern comfort with the building’s historic heritage, hadn’t been an easy task.
Especially since she had zero formal training.
Her eldest brother, Jack, who owned the Whispering Winds Inn, had plucked her from a job staging homes for their father’s real estate business. She’d always had an eye for design, but never had any particular career aspirations, acquiescing to join the family business at her parents’ urging.
According to her mother, the position was merely temporary, anyway—a stepping stone until she settled down with a good provider. Which couldn’t happen too soon, if Elaine Gardener had her way.
Lucy shuddered at the thought of melding into her mother’s role of consummate hostess and socialite, but she didn’t have a better plan for her life.
Not that it mattered.
She reached inside her Prada bag and pulled out an ivory business card with a simple black font.
Ashton Neurological Clinic.
Her primary care physician had handed it to her earlier that morning with stoic professionalism, explaining why she needed to see the specialist in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until he began listing the possible results of an MRI that his armor cracked, revealing misty eyes and a faint warble in his voice.
In all the years Dr. Dunlap had been the family physician, she’d never once seen the man get emotional.
That’s what scared her the most.
Stuffing the card in the bottom of her purse, she climbed out of the driver’s seat, her heeled boots crunching a pile of dry, crinkly leaves.
A crisp fall breeze rustled through the sycamore trees, lifting her spirits along with the fringed edges of her scarf.
Squaring her shoulders, she tilted her chin toward the cheerful sun brightening the clear blue sky and summoned a smile.
Lucy Gardener didn’t worry about the future; she lived in the present, savoring everything life had to offer—for however long that may be.
She skipped up the wide steps of the inn, making her way toward the kitchen in the back, following the mouthwatering aroma of fresh coffee and buttery pancakes.
Kat Bennet stood at the state-of-the-art stove, attempting to flip a flapjack without a spatula. She gripped the griddle with a white-knuckled grasp and closed her eyes.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Jack teased. “We all remember what happened to the last one.” His gaze fell to the floor, where Fitz, a handsome husky mix, wagged his tail in anticipation of the next failed attempt.
“Hush,” Kat scolded, widening her stance. “Third time’s the charm.”
“You mean sixteenth,” Jack corrected.
Kat eased open her eyelids just long enough to shoot him a playful scowl.
Lucy watched the exchange with amusement. As soon as she’d met the fiery redhead, she knew her brother had found a woman who could handle his special brand of humor—and dish it back in equal measure.
Although they weren’t an obvious couple to the common observer—her brother’s hulking, six-foot-four frame towered over Kat’s petite five-six figure—they were a perfect match. And Lucy had never seen her brother more in love, or happier.
Lucy held her breath as Kat counted to three, flicked her wrists, and flung the flapjack high above her head.
It tumbled gracefully in the air before floating back to the center of the griddle.
Lucy cheered, and Kat’s eyes flew open, sparkling at her success. “I did it!”
“Congratulations,” Jack said sincerely, kissing her cheek. “But the real test is how it tastes.”
“Thank goodness Lucy is here, since you can’t be trusted as an impartial judge.” Kat welcomed her into the conversation with a wide grin, motioning for her to take a seat at the expansive center island.
As Lucy settled on the barstool, Kat poured a cup of coffee and slid it across the marble countertop.
“Your brother is teaching me how to make his famous flapjacks. I plan to serve them to our first guest, who’s arriving in three days. Three days! Can you believe it?” Kat’s excitement spilled out of her like champagne bubbles fizzing over the edge of a glass.
Lucy smiled, finding her enthusiasm undeniably endearing.
Even though they’d decided to limit bookings to half capacity for the first month in order to ease into things, Lucy knew how long Kat had waited for this moment. She’d been dreaming about opening an inn for years, and the renovations had taken longer than expected.
Lucy couldn’t even imagine Kat’s level of emotion, so close to having her dream become a reality. If she were honest with herself, Lucy had never been that passionate about anything. Even her YouTube channel, Life with Lucy, was purely for kicks. It had started as a means to chronicle the renovation process, and over time, she posted anything and everything that struck her fancy.
But it was hardly a passion project. Not like the inn was for Kat, who’d thrown her entire heart and soul into every detail. She even planned to offer the most luxurious suite to a special guest for free, once a month, as her way of giving back. In fact, their first guest would be one such honoree.
That was just one of the many things Lucy admired about the generous, kindhearted woman, whom she hoped would become an official part of the family one day.
As the youngest sibling with five older brothers, Lucy had always wanted a sister. And Jack couldn’t have chosen better. Now, if only he’d get his act together and propose already.
Not that she was one to give advice. In the romance department, she was as hopeless as her brothers. Although she’d been on plenty of dates in her twenty-five years, no one had grabbed her attention… until recently.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t be any less interested.
As if on cue, the kitchen door swung open.
And in walked the one man who barely acknowledged her existence.
* * *
Vick Johnson paused in the doorway, sizing up the situation as all eyes turned toward him.
Kat and Jack greeted him with their usual warmth, but Lucy dropped her gaze to her coffee cup, hiding her face behind a sheet of honey-blond hair.
Just as well.
He didn’t need the distraction of her intense blue eyes or her ever-present smile that put him on edge.
Focus on the mission.
“Hey, Jack. Can we talk for a sec?”
“Sure. But first, we need your opinion.” Jack gestured toward the barstool beside Lucy, and Vick stiffened.
His instincts told him to retreat, but he couldn't leave without giving his official resignation.
Which wouldn’t be easy.
He’d tried to quit his job at the diner months ago, but Jack had asked him to stay on until the inn was up and running. Although he was anxious to get on the road again, Vick agreed, knowing Jack had his hands full with the busy diner and handling the renovations of the inn.
Vick perched on the barstool, accidentally catching Lucy’s eye.
She smiled, and nerves rippled through him like the first day of boot camp, an uncomfortable mix of apprehension and excitement.
Yep. He needed to clear out ASAP.
He’d made it a habit to never stay in one place more than a couple of years, but the urgency to move had never been this strong before. Poppy Creek had a way of tearing down the bunker he’d built around himself.
Well, that was something else entirely.
“Here. Try this and tell me what you think.” Jack slid a plate of flapjacks in front of him.
Aromatic steam curled from the pillowy crust, and Vick’s stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since his protein shake at 0600. And he’d run eight miles since then.
“Are you trying a new recipe?” He’d had Jack’s famous flapjacks before, so he wasn’t sure why his opinion was needed.
“Something like that.” Jack tossed a playful wink in Kat’s direction.
With an internal shrug, Vick dug his fork into the light, airy dough smothered in melted butter and thick maple syrup. He plopped it in his mouth, unnerved as they watched him chew.
The second he swallowed, Jack slapped his bearlike paw on the counter. “So, what’d you think?”
“It tastes as good as always. Or maybe a little better. Fluffier, I think.”
Jack looked aghast as Kat whooped, throwing her fist in the air. Playful banter ensued, much to Vick’s confusion.
Lucy leaned in close and whispered, “Uh-oh. You’re in hot water now.”
Her sultry, expensive-smelling perfume wafted toward him, and he resisted the urge to breathe deeply. “Why? What’d I miss?”
“Kat made the flapjacks,” Lucy explained, biting back a laugh. “And I don’t think Jack will ever forgive you for saying hers are better.”
“Does that mean I’m fired?” Vick asked good-naturedly, though he secretly wondered if that would make things easier.
“Not a chance!” Jack bellowed jovially. “In fact, I have a favor to ask you.”
Vick shifted on the barstool, suddenly on guard. Normally, he’d do just about anything for Jack. The guy was as good as they came, generous and big-hearted to a fault. Which was part of the problem. Over the past year, he’d become more than a boss. He’d become a friend. And Vick didn’t have friends, as a general rule.
Vick braced himself, but Jack turned to Lucy instead. “Kat told me your latest YouTube video has over a million views.”
“Over two million,” Kat corrected. “Your little sister is becoming quite the celebrity.”
Vick noticed a subtle blush creep up Lucy’s neck, which surprised him. He assumed she’d be used to compliments.
“Not really.” Lucy took a sip of coffee, deflecting behind the brim of her mug.
“Kat and I were talking,” Jack continued, slinging his arm around Kat’s shoulders. “And we were wondering if you could create a few videos about Poppy Creek, highlighting some of the fall happenings around here.”
“The idea,” Kat clarified, “is that by filming some of our fun events, people can see what makes Poppy Creek so special, and they’ll want to visit and see what else the town has to offer. Which, of course, means they’ll need a place to stay.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Lucy’s forehead crinkled, and Vick could see her wheels turning. “I could add a link to the reservation portal beneath each video and give a shout-out at the end.”
“That would be perfect!” Kat beamed.
“What events did you have in mind?” Lucy asked.
“Just the main ones,” Jack told her. “The Apple Jubilee, Yarnfest, Pumpkins & Paws….”
“You could finish the video series with the Library Benefit Banquet,” Kat added, her green eyes brightening.
Vick’s pulse quickened, but he kept his composure, not wanting to give anything away. He intended to leave town that night. The fancy party at the inn would be the ideal opportunity to slip away without anyone noticing.
He wasn’t big on goodbyes.
“Sounds like a plan.” Lucy pulled out her phone and began typing notes to herself. “If my memory serves, there are six main events in the fall. I’ll create a miniseries around them, take a couple of videos, intersperse them with a few still shots and descriptive text….”
Jack cleared his throat. “There’s one other thing.”
Vick’s radar went off, sensing danger ahead.
“Going through your channel, we noticed your best performing videos have you in front of the camera, not behind it.”
“That’s true,” Lucy admitted. “But I shoot those indoors with a tripod. If I’m filming events around town, I won’t be able to be in the videos.”
“Unless someone else records them, right?” A mischievous grin spread across Jack’s rugged features.
“Are you volunteering? Because you can’t even take a simple snapshot without cutting people’s heads off,” Lucy teased.
“Not me.” Jack turned his gaze on Vick, whose flight instinct immediately kicked in.
“Me?” He wasn’t exactly Steven Spielberg, either.
“Your résumé says you spent a year as an assistant to a wedding videographer in some small town in Sonoma County. Wasn’t it your first job after you left the Marines?”
Vick suppressed a grimace. His hireability had hit rock bottom after his medical discharge, and an old buddy from basic training set him up with the gig to help him get back on his feet. He never thought it would lead to trouble.
“You know what?” Lucy blurted, her voice an octave higher than normal. “I could try using a GoPro or even a drone. Or maybe one of those selfie sticks?”
Vick cast her a sideways glance. He knew why he didn’t want to work together, but what was her excuse?
“Vick doesn’t mind,” Jack said casually. “Do you, Vick?”
Vick swallowed, feeling backed into a corner and pinned down on all sides. “What about the diner?”
“I hired a new guy. He starts in a few days.”
Vick’s brain worked overtime to formulate a rebuttal, but how could he say no without revealing his cards? He doubted Jack would appreciate the real reason he didn’t want to spend time with his little sister. And all the excuses he could think of didn’t sound much better than the truth.
He could feel everyone staring at him, and he realized he still hadn’t given Jack an answer.
“Sure. I can help, I guess.”
As Jack raved about how great it would be for business, Vick’s stomach spun like the rotor on the Sikorsky Super Stallion helicopter.
Something told him he’d just agreed to an impossible mission.
And he’d be lucky if he made it out alive.
Elbow-deep in soap suds, Lucy mulled over her escape plan as she helped Kat clean up from breakfast.
She wanted to tackle her brother for roping Vick into helping her. She’d spent months getting over her schoolgirl crush, and spending one-on-one time together might undo all her efforts.
Somehow, she’d have to get out of it.
Before she made a fool out of herself or worse… had her heart broken.
After rinsing the last plate, she handed it to Kat to dry.
“No problem. I’m happy to help.” Lucy dried her hands on a kitchen towel, barely listening as she pondered various excuses to get herself out of this mess.
“I don’t mean the dishes.” Kat’s tone conveyed a seriousness that gave Lucy pause.
“Is everything okay?”
“I’m not sure.” Kat sighed, and for the first time in months, some of the sparkle left her eyes.
“Here, sit down.” Lucy ushered her toward the barstool, then refilled their coffee mugs before sitting beside her. “What’s on your mind?”
Kat toyed with the curved handle, and Lucy noticed her nails had been gnawed to the tips of her fingers. “I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I’m nervous. Like, sometimes-I-can-barely-eat-or-sleep kind of nervous.”
“I had no idea,” Lucy breathed, her stomach twisting with empathy.
“I’ve tried to ignore it, but I can’t help thinking about all the people who’ve put their faith in me. Especially Jack. What if I fail?”
“You won’t.” Lucy placed a hand on Kat’s forearm and gave a reassuring squeeze. “I have no doubts, whatsoever.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Kat smiled weakly. “But our timing for the grand opening isn’t great. Tourism is always down in the fall and winter. At first, I thought that would be a good thing. That it would give us a chance to ease into a routine.” She glanced down at her hands, nervously wound around the ceramic mug. “But what if we open all the rooms and I can’t keep them filled?”
“What did Trudy say?” Lucy asked. No one would have better advice than Gertrude Hobbs. She and her husband, George, had owned the Morning Glory Inn for decades, and until recently, the small bed-and-breakfast was the only lodging option in Poppy Creek. The older woman had been acting as a mentor to Kat throughout the entire renovation and setup process.
“Trudy’s been wonderful. A lifesaver, to be honest. She said I needed to be patient. And it takes time to get off the ground. I suppose I’m just being overly anxious. But I know how much everyone’s invested in this place. Jack, you…” She met Lucy’s gaze. “That’s why I’m so grateful you agreed to do the videos. I know it won’t be a magic bullet, but if you can inspire even a few people to make the trip, it will go a long way toward easing some of my nerves.”
Lucy forced a smile.
Well, that settled it. She couldn’t back out now.
“I’ll do whatever I can to help, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
Sisterly affection stole over Kat’s features. “You’re a lot like Jack, you know.”
“You mean we’re both blond-haired, blue-eyed versions of the Brawny Man?” Lucy teased. Her brother had often been compared to the muscular, flannel-clad mascot of the popular paper towel company. Although slightly outdated, the comparison was still pretty spot-on.
“No.” Kat laughed. “But I’ll have to remember that the next time he compares himself to Thor.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “He would.”
“I was actually referring to what’s on the inside,” Kat said, her tone soft and sincere. “You both love others with your whole heart. And that’s rare these days. Most of us hold back, afraid of getting hurt. But you don’t. And that comes across in your videos, too. Which, I think, is part of the reason people are so drawn to you. Well, that and the obvious reasons,” she added with a teasing grin.
Lucy blushed. She was used to people commenting on her appearance. To the point she sometimes wondered if that’s all she had to offer. But Kat’s compliment meant more to her than she could ever know. Although, it wasn’t entirely deserved.
When it came to romantic love, she couldn’t be more terrified.
Startled, Lucy glanced over her shoulder. Her good friend Olivia Parker strolled into the kitchen carrying a festive arrangement of chrysanthemums and plum-colored roses. “I thought I might find you ladies in here.”
“Liv! I wasn’t expecting to see you today.” Lucy slid off the barstool and waited for Olivia to set the vase on the counter before greeting her with a hug. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the Apple Jubilee tomorrow?”
“Oh, I’ve been planning that for months. By now, it’ll practically run itself.” Olivia laughed.
Lucy didn’t doubt it. Before she moved back to Poppy Creek, Olivia ran an elite event-planning service in New York, specializing in luxury celebrations and celebrity weddings.
When she reconnected with her childhood friend, Reed Hollis, last spring, Olivia purchased the orchard adjacent to his flower farm and they merged the two properties into the Sterling Rose Estate—Poppy Creek’s premier event venue.
“Besides,” Olivia added. “When Reed mentioned he’d be delivering the arrangements you ordered, I remembered I had a couple more ideas I wanted to run by you for the Library Benefit Banquet in a few weeks.”
“I have to say,” Kat gushed, burying her face in the fragrant petals, “your beau sure knows how to arrange a bouquet.”
“Yes, he does.” A pretty blush swept across Olivia’s cheeks, and she self-consciously tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear.
Lucy smiled, her heart bursting with happiness for her friend. Olivia had been through so much in the past year, between the devastating divorce and the loss of her business, it made Lucy a little teary-eyed to see her so content and blissful.
And yet, somewhere deep down—in a shadowy corner of her heart—a pang of jealousy lurked behind the joy.
But she wasn’t sure what she envied more—the fact that both Kat and Olivia had partners to share their lives with or that they’d found their passions in life, something to give them drive and purpose.
Unbidden, her thoughts drifted to the business card buried in the bottom of her purse, and an unthinkable fear slithered into the back of her mind.
Even if she had both of those things, would it even matter anymore?
* * *
Leaning out the window of his Jeep, Vick pressed the pound sign on the keypad and waited for the long iron gate to swing open.
His landlord, Bill Tucker, owned a myriad of animals, from chickens to miniature goats to alpacas, and he let them all run loose on his farm, which made the gate a necessity.
Vick eased down the dirt road, being mindful of four-legged pedestrians.
Peggy Sue, a rotund, pot-belly pig with a fancy pink collar waddled across his path. Vick paused, idling until she made it to the other side, then continued toward the back of the spacious property.
While Bill treated all of his animals like beloved pets, Peggy Sue was undoubtedly his favorite, and she accompanied him everywhere.
At first, Vick found it strange, even somewhat worrisome. But when he learned Bill’s late wife had weaned the pig from birth, he understood the sentimental attachment.
Shifting into park, he glanced at the eagle tattoo on his forearm. Most people assumed it had ties to his military service, and he never bothered to correct them. The true meaning wasn’t anyone else’s business.
Unwanted thoughts crept into the forefront of his mind, triggering a familiar tension in his chest. His breath quickened, and his lungs worked overtime.
Leaning against the headrest, he inhaled for a count of seven, then exhaled following the same pattern.
His heart continued to pound.
Unclenching his fist, he tapped his thumb against his pinky finger, then his ring finger, then middle, then pointer, repeating the process in a slow, methodical rhythm until his pulse returned to normal.
The first time the therapist taught him the calming technique, he’d scoffed, refusing to try it. Then, later that night, his nightmare returned, and he’d rocketed awake, dripping with sweat, his heart revolting against his rib cage.
Desperate for relief, he’d tossed aside his pride and tried the therapist’s hokey trick. While it wasn’t a miracle cure, his panic had eventually subsided.
The tension gone, Vick climbed out of the Jeep and strode toward his temporary home.
He’d agreed to rent it from Bill, sight unseen, but the second he laid eyes on the converted grain silo, he knew he’d made the right decision.
The quirky, cylindrical living space only had one bedroom and a half-bath with an enclosed shower out back, and the kitchen consisted of a microwave, mini fridge, and hot plate, but it suited his simple lifestyle. In fact, the glorified tin can had everything he needed, especially since he brought most of his food home from the diner. And when he cooked on his day off, he used the barbecue out on the patio.
Plus, it came with an unofficial—though somewhat ornery—roommate.
“Hey, Buddy.” Vick knelt and extended his hand.
The miniature goat trotted toward him, nuzzling his palm with the top of his head.
“Sorry I missed breakfast this morning.” Vick gave him a few scratches behind the ear. “But better late than never, right?”
That’s when he noticed one of his boots by the front door—mangled within an inch of its life.
Vick sighed. Apparently, Buddy didn’t agree with his better-late-than-never philosophy.
“Why is it always the expensive boots?” Vick asked, lifting the drool-covered footwear. “Why can’t you destroy my ten-dollar sandals instead?”
He glanced at Buddy, whose black and gray markings gave the appearance of a perpetual smile.
“Oh, you think it’s funny, do you? We’ll see if I share my apple with you now.”
Even as he pushed through the front door and tossed the boot in the garbage, he knew he wouldn’t make good on the threat.
Buddy must’ve known, too, because he pranced around the kitchen while Vick brewed a fresh pot of coffee.
Most mornings, he woke up at 0600, went for a run, then sat with Buddy on the front porch, sipping coffee and sharing apple slices.
Today, he’d been anxious to talk to Jack, so he’d skipped their ritual and headed straight for the inn.
Clearly, Buddy hadn’t appreciated the change in plans.
Steaming cup of coffee in hand, Vick settled in the rickety rocking chair with a view of the bucolic farm.
Buddy waited by his feet, his dark eyes locked on the apple in Vick’s grasp.
“First, apologize for ruining my boot,” Vick said in as stern a tone as he could muster.
The little goat placed his chin on Vick’s knee, his tiny nub of a tail wiggling.
“All right, apology accepted.” Vick chuckled, flipping open his tactical knife. He cut a generous slice and tossed it to Buddy.
The impish goat gobbled it down.
Vick usually spent his days off helping Bill around the farm. But today, he had an important task to check off the list.
After they finished the apple, Vick overturned an old milk crate and spread out a worn map of the United States.
Red circles marked all the places he’d lived since leaving the Marines.
So far, he’d stuck to small towns but had noticed a troubling pattern. The friendly townspeople inevitably tried to corral him into their close-knit communities. He needed a larger city, somewhere he could blend in and keep to himself.
An image of his mother flashed into his mind, dragging his thoughts back in time.
He could still smell the rancid leftovers and pungent liquor bottles abandoned in the dumpster directly below their apartment window. Sirens wailed in the distance. A baby cried in the unit next door.
“One of these days, we’ll live in a place like this.” His mother had unfolded a glossy brochure for a small mountain community up north, gazing fondly at the idyllic photos of a family boating on the lake, roasting marshmallows around a campfire, and enjoying funnel cake at a county fair.
Despite being abandoned at nineteen by her husband of one year, left to raise an infant on her own, and working multiple jobs to make ends meet, his mother had managed to keep her sense of optimism.
Right up until the day she died.
A loud rip yanked Vick back to the present.
Buddy munched on a mouthful of map with an unsurprising air of nonchalance.