The Honeymoon Cottage - Lori Foster

The Honeymoon Cottage

From New York Times bestseller Lori Foster, an all-new romantic family saga where locals of a quirky small town help an on-the-shelf wedding planner find her own happily-ever-after.

When it comes to creating the perfect happily-ever-after, Yardley Belanger is a bona fide miracle worker. From bridal bouquets to matching cowboy boots, the quirky wedding planner’s country-chic affairs have caused quite a stir in the small town of Cemetery. But when it comes to her own love life? She’s clueless.

Completely clueless.

Perhaps it’s for the best. The thirty-one-year-old has poured her heart and soul into her business and doesn’t have time for anything—or anyone—else. And that’s something not even the gorgeous older brother of her newest client can change…right?

All Travis Long wanted was to give his little sister, Sheena, the wedding of her dreams. Ever since the tragic death of their parents, he’s done everything he can to make her feel loved and give her everything she needs. Still…a country wedding? In a place called Cemetery? But Yardley seems to know exactly what to do and how to do it—and Travis finds himself falling for her a little more each day.

Soon Yardley and Travis find themselves being nudged together by well-meaning locals who want to see the town’s favorite wedding planner get her own happy ending.

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Reviews of The Honeymoon Cottage

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This light, summery outing from Foster will satisfy lovers of small-town romance with its abundance of quirky characters and cute animals.

Publishers Weekly

...a warm, leisurely plotted small-town saga centered on healing relationships... another ideal escape for romance readers seeking the comfort of a hopeful, life-affirming love story.

Shelf Awareness

The Honeymoon Cottage is extremely enjoyable to read! Several situations made me laugh out loud, and others pulled at my heartstrings.

Northwest Regional Library

Foster has such a sweet and encompassing way that you’ll be immediately drawn into the town of Cemetery as you follow along on the antics of the townspeople. You’ll fall in love with all the characters and root for them along the way.

The Gloss Book Club

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The Honeymoon Cottage

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Chapter 1

Groaning, Yardley Belanger dropped the pencil and stretched her back. She’d been at her desk too long today and her body didn’t appreciate it one bit. She spent far too much time trying to find clever ways to play off the town name. Cemetery, Indiana. There was only so much she could do with that. Why couldn’t it have been Bliss, Indiana? Or Romance, Indiana. Those names would have worked perfectly for a wedding planner. But no, Cemetery it was, and apparently Cemetery it would stay.

Sentiment and tradition, especially when it came to horrible old names, could really crowd out practicality.

Raising her arms high, she twisted this way and that, unkinking her muscles before attempting to focus again. She loved her work as a wedding planner, and she even enjoyed creating meals for herself, her mother and her aunt. They were tasks she’d grown into, and she took a lot of pleasure in them. She also found immense satisfaction in rehabbing their Victorian-style home.

Paying the bills, though? Not so much. And cleaning? Ugh. She really hated that. She did it anyway because she ran the business through her home, and customers expected things to be nice. Unfortunately, her mother and aunt were messy divas who forgot a cup here, a napkin there, a pair of shoes at the bottom of the stairs… Yardley had fallen into the habit of tidying up after them.

One upside to Cemetery? She loved the area, and she loved… Oh yes, she loved the Honeymoon Cottage. Opening the email window on her computer, she again scrolled through the photos that had arrived yesterday. The owner had updated things to Yardley’s suggested recommendations, and it was just so incredibly beautiful. Not that it had needed much. Nestled in mature trees with wild honeysuckle all around, within a few feet of a private cove on the lake, the cottage could be utterly bare and newly married couples would still adore it.

Yardley certainly did.

Somewhere toward the front of her house, a screen door slammed. Her mother, she thought with a grimace. Or her aunt? They were supposed to be out until dinner. Right now was not a good time for her to have to deal with their constant bickering. No one could out-insult the Belanger sisters.

Seconds later she recognized the sound of her best friend’s fast footsteps. Amelia “Mimi” May never did anything leisurely, including walk. She had one speed: full go.

Like a gust of fresh air, Mimi sailed into her open office space, saying, “Oh good, you’re alone.” She dropped into a chair as if someone had poured her there, legs stretched out, spine slouched, elbows draped over the padded arms. Her short, curly blond hair bounced once before settling around her oval face.

Yardley grinned. “Good thing. A customer would’ve thought we were under attack the way you shot in here.”

“Time, you know,” Mimi said. “I never, ever have enough time these days.”

“You always rush,” Yardley countered. From grade school on, Mimi had left her breathless. She’d also befriended her, backed her up, offered defense and alibis, and once she’d even punched a boy for making Yardley cry. “That’s not a complaint though. I’m glad to see you. I needed a break.”

Mimi closed her big blue eyes and sighed. “Me, too.”

Yardley didn’t storm through life the way Mimi did, but her mouth often resembled a runaway train. For the most part, she’d learned to temper it, to slow down and think before speaking. But in moments of excitement? Few people could keep up with her.

Even fewer cared to try.

And around Mimi? She didn’t need to temper anything. That’s why she and Mimi were such a good fit. She loved Mimi’s energy level, and Mimi never failed to mentally keep pace with her wild ramblings.

“Not enough sleep last night?” Yardley asked. “Did the baby keep you up?”

“Well, it sure wasn’t Kevin.” One eye peeked open. “Sammy slept fine for once. She’s six months old now but Kevin hasn’t yet…” Pausing, she made a face. “It’s like I had a kid and became this sexless lump taking up space in the house.”

Yardley sympathized—with both of them. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard this complaint. “You had such a difficult birth.” With two early miscarriages prior to that. “Plus, it took you a while to recover. Kevin was scared to death for you. Maybe he’s just still worried.”

“Not so worried that he doesn’t want to fish at every available moment.”

Every available moment?” Yardley asked. “So that wasn’t him cooking dinner the other day when I came by? Or the time before that when he was cleaning all the floors?”

“Or when he mows the lawn or does the grocery shopping or cleans my car.” Blowing out a breath, Mimi groaned, “Never mind me. Kevin is great.”

“He is, and so are you.” Mimi could complain to her all day long and Yardley would still know the truth. Sometimes, though, a girl needed to vent. She wanted Mimi to feel free to talk to her anytime, about anything.

“The thing is, I know he wants to be fishing. He might not say it, but he loves being out on the boat. Probably the peace and quiet.”

“If he wanted to fish, he would. A lot of guys wouldn’t even ask. They’d just disappear on you. I’m betting Kevin is as busy being a parent as you are.” With such an adorable baby to focus on, she doubted either of them wanted much time away.

“Right again.” Mimi made a face of disgust. “I’m just horny and I have cramps.”

The horniness Yardley took as a good sign. It meant Mimi was getting back to normal. But the other alarmed her. “Cramps?” she asked, sitting forward.

“My period. Since giving birth, it’s like my PMS is on steroids or something. The cramps last a good seven days—before and during my period. Honest to God, I wouldn’t have let Kevin touch me last night anyway.” Half under her breath, she complained, “But he should have tried, damn him.”

Yardley stood and snagged her friend’s hand. “Come on. We’ll make that cinnamon tea you like, and I have some fresh lemon cookies that I was saving for customers.”

“Customers…and best friends?”

“Exactly.” With Mimi’s hand held in her own, she headed to the kitchen. “Have you asked the doctor about your cramps?”

“Yup. I’m the picture of health, so no worrying.”

She’d worry if she wanted to—and with Mimi’s history, she had good reason for it. “Let’s relax for a while. I finally got the buzzer fixed in here, so I’ll hear anyone who comes in the front door—even if they don’t slam the screen.”

“Ha ha.” Mimi dropped onto a stool at the island, close to where Yardley would heat the water for the tea.

The house, built in 1900 and updated by numerous families since then, had many challenges, but Yardley loved the kitchen. Little by little, when finances allowed, she’d remodeled it. Now instead of in a dinky ceramic sink, she filled the tea kettle in a copper farmhouse sink with stunning oil-rubbed bronze faucets, beneath an ornate window with cut glass panes that mimicked the glass in the upper cabinets.

Everything was fresh and new, from the cream-colored cabinets and the light fixtures to the tile and the hardware. She’d passed on updating her own bedroom at the opposite side of the entry doors to ensure she had the kitchen of her dreams.

“By the way,” Mimi said, “where are Cruella and Maleficent?”

Yardley shot her friend a frown. Mimi knew she shouldn’t call her mother and aunt those awful names. Not because Yardley disagreed with the comparison, but because if either of the elder women ever overheard, they’d make Mimi’s life miserable.

“Shush it,” Yardley said in mock warning.

Her friend shot her an impish grin full of innocence. “What? I’m always respectful to their faces.”

Usually she was—except for when she took offense on Yardley’s behalf. Most of the time, Yardley didn’t think her mother or aunt even realized that they were insulting her. They threw not-so-subtle barbs at each other so often, there was bound to be a stray dart every now and then.

“They’re out until dinner.”

Sniffing the air, Mimi asked, “What are we having, anyway?”

“For dinner?” It was doubtful Mimi would get any, because she wouldn’t stay away from her daughter that long. “Lasagna. That’s the sauce you smell that I cooked earlier today. I’ll assemble it all and have dinner on the table at six if you want to join us.”

“Oh how I wish I could. No one makes lasagna like you.” She sighed. Again. “Mom has Sammy, and she’s great with her.”

“Your mom is great in every way.” Many times, Yardley had envied Mimi for her wonderful mother.

“True, true. But I’ll have to get back to the little stinker before then.” Mimi clasped her really impressive boobs. “I’m cutting back on the breastfeeding, but if stayed away that long, I’d probably pop.”

Yardley hurried around the island and drew Mimi in for a tight squeeze.

“Hey. What’s that for?” Mimi asked, once she’d returned the embrace.

“You’re just the most amazing mom. I mean, I always knew you would be. You’re so full of love and patience. Little Sammy is the luckiest girl in the world.”

Snorting, Mimi said, “You only think that because I adore you.”

The casual words hit too close to home, so Yardley smiled and turned away to retrieve the cookie tin from her new freestanding butler’s pantry. “Your adoration is appreciated.” So very, very much. What would her life be like without Mimi in it?

She didn’t want to know.

“Adoring you was super easy and you know it. I’m weird, you’re weird, it was meant to be.”

“Hey,” Yardley protested. “You’re not weird!”

Mimi started snort-laughing and then she couldn’t stop.

“Are you getting hysterical?” Her friend hadn’t laughed like that in a while.

The question only made Mimi laugh harder, until Yardley reluctantly got drawn in, and soon they were both out of control cackling.

Minutes later, to the sound of the tea kettle whistling, Mimi wiped her eyes. “Ohmigod, you defended me—from me,” Mimi explained, still wearing a huge, lopsided grin—at least until she softly asked, “Why won’t you defend yourself like that?”

Rolling her eyes, Yardley turned away. “Everyone knows I am weird. Always have been.” Growing up in Cemetery, she’d never seemed to say the right thing, do the right thing, or act the right way. Her mother was forever embarrassed by Yardley’s “lack of social graces.” It’d take more digits than she had on her fingers and toes to count the number of times her mother and aunt had reminded her that she was the black sheep of the Belanger line of females, which they blamed on the father she’d never known.

Not Mimi. From day one, her friend had embraced what she called “unique qualities.” She admired Yardley’s lack of fashion sense, and her less than classic features that were so different from her mother’s and aunt’s. She even liked the rapid-fire way Yardley strung together so many unnecessary, and often unwanted, words when she got going.

Thanks to Mimi, she’d stopped fighting her weirdness. For the most part.

Only with clients did Yardley attempt to settle into the staid trappings of a savvy businesswoman. She practiced a lot of “thinking before speaking,” and at times it was almost painful.

She never had to do that with Mimi.

“Maybe you’re the type of weirdo who can’t recognize other weirdos,” Mimi mused. “Did you ever think of that?”

“No.” After Yardley poured the fragrant tea, she put three cookies on a plate—two for Mimi and only one for herself…because she’d eaten a few already.

Snatching a cookie even before Yardley got seated beside her, Mimi bit off half. “Mmm.” Using the remaining half of the cookie to gesture, she said, “In a world full of cultured pearls, you, Yardley Belanger, are a rare abalone pearl. Exotic, colorful, and oh so beautiful.”

Yardley’s heart turned over in her chest. The really special part? Mimi meant it. When Yardley was with her friend, her troubles seemed less important and she felt happier, more fulfilled.

Joking her way out of an emotional stranglehold, Yardley said, “Just for that, you can have all three cookies.”

“Awesome. I’d feel bad except that I know you have a bunch, and you’re an amazing chef who can create more whenever you want to. I, on the other hand, make only boxed desserts.”

Just like Mimi to minimize her many talents. “Are you feeling better?” Yardley asked.

“Perkier, for sure.” She sipped her tea, gave another hum of pleasure, and finished off another cookie. “Overall, you know I adore my life.”

“I do know it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bitch to your best friend when the mood strikes.”

Mimi smiled. “Sammy’s an angel. Granted, an angel who spit up all over my hair this morning, and who sometimes doesn’t sleep more than two hours at a stretch. An angel who likes to load her diaper thirty seconds after I’ve just changed her—but still an angel.”

“She really is special.” In more ways than one. “And so are you.”

Sammy was Mimi’s miracle baby. Yardley’s heart still ached when she thought of how Mimi had sobbed in her arms after the first miscarriage. With the second, she’d been inconsolable—and so had Kevin. The poor man had not only mourned his lost child, but he’d suffered over his wife’s pain as well. Always, every second of the way, Kevin was there with her. And when he had to work, Yardley did her best to ensure Mimi wasn’t alone.

It had taken more than a year before Mimi tried again. Poor Kevin seemed to have aged ten years as they went through the pregnancy, every day a cherished milestone. When Mimi went into labor three days past her due date, Yardley had met them at the hospital…and then the nightmare began.

In the birthing room, her camera at the ready, Yardley had waited for the first glimpse of their new baby girl. She could still recall the doctor’s statement that the baby was in fetal distress. Moments later, Mimi began losing too much blood.

Kevin hadn’t budged, standing stoically by the head of the bed, his hand gripping Mimi’s as she’d gone terribly pale and lethargic, tears streaking down her cheeks.

Then Sammy was born and the nurses were bustling everywhere, cleaning her, checking her, and declaring her healthy. Finally, an agonizing ten minutes later that felt like hours, Mimi was stabilized as well.

It was longest ten minutes of Yardley’s life. Her vision was so blurred with tears, she’d had a heck of a time getting the promised pics of Sammy.

Kevin had broken down. Strong, reliable, stalwart Kevin. Dropping to his knees beside his wife’s bed, he’d sobbed, giving broken thanks and swearing that he’d never go through that again.

With Mimi still so weak, and Kevin shattered, they’d handed Sammy to Yardley—and a bond was forged that would never be broken. Yardley had always wanted children, and six months ago Mimi had given her the next best thing. She was an unofficial aunt, an official godmother, and she loved Sammy with all her heart.

“Hey.” Mimi leaned forward to see Yardley’s face. “What’s wrong?”

Lips trembling, Yardley shook her head, then grabbed her friend again for another fierce, almost desperate hug. “I was just thinking how close we came to losing you.” If it still affected her like that, how badly did it haunt Kevin?

They both grew solemn.

“You know, I barely recall any of it,” Mimi whispered, as she always did when they discussed her daughter’s birth. “Mostly I remember waking up the next day with Keven in a chair next to the bed, his head beside my hip and his hand holding mine. The second I moved, he jumped up—and I saw his face.”

Yardley knew that the tears he’d shed had been obvious in his puffy, red-rimmed eyes.

“I panicked, thinking the worst,” Mimi admitted. “But he immediately reassured me that Samantha was fine. He kissed me, really fast because he knew I was ready to lose it. He lifted that little squirt from the hospital crib and handed her to me, and then I was the one sobbing.”

In so many ways, Kevin and Mimi were the ideal couple—and they shored up her belief that marriage could be perfect…which was why she served the community and beyond as a wedding planner.

In Cemetery.

But hey, she sent many of those couples to the Honeymoon Cottage, where they wrapped up the memories of the very best wedding Yardley could give them.

Gah, Cemetery was a terrible name for a town. Even worse, the town council insisted that everything be named Cemetery after the founder, Henry Harrison Cemetery. Like the grocery, the florist, the bank…and her business, Cemetery Weddings.

At least that lovely little cottage had survived. It was just called “the honeymoon cottage” by most, without an official name.

Mimi nibbled on the edge of another cookie. “I still can’t believe I produced such a precious little person.”

“Well, you did, and Sammy will be the most loved little girl in the whole world.”

Mimi picked up the last cookie and stood. “I’m suddenly anxious to see my poopy little angel again.” She held up the sweet treat. “Thank you for these and the tea. Now I feel like I can face the rest of the day.”

“You’re welcome.” Used to Mimi’s quick, refreshing visits, Yardley walked with her out of the kitchen, down the hall, and to the front entry at the other side of the house. The screen door allowed in a warm, early summer breeze that carried through the open windows on both floors. Tall oak and maple trees offered shade, and numerous flowers, both in the yard and window boxes, gave the stately old home a very welcoming air.

“You’ve made this place stunning,” Mimi said from the painted wooden porch as she looked at the new outdoor cushions on the wicker seating arrangement. “The Belanger gals are so damn lucky to have you. Do me a favor and don’t ever let them forget it.” She kissed Yardley’s cheek and headed down the steps to her minivan.

“Come again, any time,” Yardley called after her. Chatting with Mimi was always a wonderful break.

“You couldn’t keep me away.”

After watching Mimi back out to the main street, Yardley waved again.

Time to return to her work. Somehow she had to get her mother and aunt to spend a little less money.

She’d just gotten to her desk when her phone rang. Not her personal phone, but the one she used only for the business. Exciting. She’d love to add another wedding to her schedule so she could hopefully afford the renovations to her own bedroom and bathroom.

“Cemetery Weddings, don’t let the name fool you,” she practically sang—because for real, she couldn’t say that seriously to save her life. “This is Yardley Belanger, the wedding planner. How may I help you?”

“My sister is getting married, and apparently she saw a country…display with your company name and number on it.”

Wow. The deep voice sounded less than approving. “Would that be our display with the old rusty red truck? It’s part of a very popular setting right now.” Take that, Mr. Disapproving.

“I assume. Do you have other country displays?”

No, drat it, she didn’t. The truck served as a billboard when not in use, but when necessary, it was moved to various wedding venues. “Just that one display, currently, but of course we can do any type of wedding.”

“Then I must have the right place.”

This time he sounded amused—at her expense. “You must.” And now what? “Would your sister and her intended like to meet to discuss her wedding vision with me?”

“Her intended can’t make it, so I’m stepping in, and tomorrow afternoon is the only time I have free for a few weeks. Do you have any appointments available?”

Keep it cool, Yardley. “Let me see if I can accommodate you.” Knowing she had nothing at all scheduled for tomorrow, she tapped her nails on the desk for an appropriate fifteen seconds, then said cheerfully, “Good news. It seems I have a noon appointment open. Would that work?”

“That’d be great, thanks.”

Well, that didn’t sound as condescending. He actually seemed grateful that she could make it work. “Wonderful. You have the address?”

“Yeah, Main Street, in…Cemetery?”

Her molars locked even though she forced a smile. “That’s us. A small town full of charm, history, and warmth.” With a really stupid name. “When you spot the large cream Victorian-style house with teal-and-white trim and a rather bright pink front door, you’ve found me.”

“Interesting. Any other features I might notice from the outside?”

An odd question, but Yardley rolled with it. “There’s a lovely turret to the left when you’re facing the home.” She would have liked to say a gnarly turret, but her mother would have a cow if she used that description. “To the right there’s also a balcony. Of course the house has the usual gingerbread trim and multiple brackets.”

“Can’t wait to see it. Noon, Ms. Belanger.”

“Wait! I don’t have your name.”

“Sorry. I got distracted with the house.”

If that was a sign of interest, it could be a bridge to win him over, since he didn’t sound all that keen on the charm of a country wedding for his sis. “I understand. I’d be happy to show you around while you’re here.”

“That’d be great. My sister is Sheena Long, and I’m Travis. Thank you for the fast appointment.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Long. See you tomorrow.” As soon as she disconnected, she threw both hands in the air and jiggled in her seat.

Finally, this old house would come in handy for more than the pleasing aesthetics. It would help to win over Travis Long—such a nice name—and push her further along the road to success.

Quickly, with enthusiasm spurring her on, she assembled a fresh packet for the bride-to-be…and she’d definitely print out the photos of the Honeymoon Cottage to include.

***

“Mother, didn’t you plan to go out?” It was nearing noon, and Aurora Belanger had yet to leave. Lilith, her mother’s sister, also lingered in the foyer right outside her office. It was as if they knew she had an appointment and they wanted to oversee the process. It was a fact that no matter how she succeeded, they expected her to fail, or sometimes they just disapproved of how she succeeded.

“Why the rush?” Aurora asked as she adjusted the V-neck of her sleeveless blouse to show more cleavage.

Granted, for an almost-fifty-year-old woman, her mother still had it. The problem was that she knew it, and she focused on looking sexy more than she did on making the business work. Yardley forced her mouth into a smile. “I thought you had some local honeymoon locations to scope out today.”

“I don’t scope out locations. And stop slouching.”

Automatically, Yardley straightened, but damn it, she hadn’t been slouching anyway. “So, what would you call it?”

“I visit, investigate, and collect valuable information that will enhance our clients’ experiences.” She shot Yardley a superior look. “It’s a key part of the business, you know. Certainly, the locations I suggest are more appropriate than that rustic Honeymoon Cottage you always recommend.”

“The cottage is amazing and you know it.”

Aurora sniffed. “Most people are more interested in their honeymoon than the actual wedding.”

Meaning her mother’s contributions were more valuable than Yardley’s efforts? Baloney. She knew one thing though: Aurora’s choices were certainly more expensive. Folding her arms, Yardley said, “Huh. I guess a lot of happy clients didn’t realize that, because more than half choose the cottage, so—”

“Because it’s so disgustingly cheap,” Aurora insisted.

“Affordable,” Yardley countered, but why she bothered, she didn’t know. They’d disagreed on the point too many times to count.

“I need to leave soon for the café,” Aunt Lilith interrupted. She was four years Aurora’s senior, and though they shared similar features, she was more concerned with flaunting her intellect than her sex appeal. At least the niche, tea-parlor-type café Lilith owned turned a small profit, even though they’d transitioned from meeting prospective clients there to having them at the home office instead.

Lilith focused on Yardley with nerve-rattling acuity. “Whatever are you up to, Yardley? Do you have an appointment, hmm?”

“Yes, I do, and I need to prep for it. So…I’ll see you both later.” She took a step back. Then another. Neither of them budged. Damn.

Lilith gave her a longer look. “Don’t you have something more appropriate to wear?”

Looking down at her summer dress, Yardley frowned in consternation. It was one of her favorites. She adored the way the soft, flowing material gently draped her body. The skirt ended mid-calf, and it had just enough adornment to make it professional while still being comfortable. Plus Mimi had told her that the pretty blue floral pattern matched her eyes. “I love this dress.”

“It doesn’t scream professionalism,” said her aunt.

“I’m not sure I want my clothes to scream.”

Ignoring that, her aunt said, “Yellow would be better for you, to offset your dark hair. Perhaps a business suit.”

A yellow business suit? She’d look like a block of butter.

“Nonsense,” said her mother. “Just the opposite is true. It wouldn’t kill you to wear something a little less matronly.”

“My dress isn’t matronly.” Was it? No, no, it was comfortable, damn it.

“You have breasts. Even though they’re small, you should showcase them.”

Yardley started to sweat. “Look, both of you—”

Aunt Lilith cut in. “Only you, Aurora, would think she needed to be sexy to sell a wedding. If you’d furthered your education, as I did, instead of getting pregnant so young—”

“That wasn’t my fault,” Aurora gasped in affront—as she always did when this debate got started.

“Well, it certainly wasn’t mine.” Lilith scoffed. “I didn’t have unprotected sex.”

“Likely because you, dear sister, have never experienced real passion.”

Lilith’s face went red. “No one said passion must equal an unwanted baby—no offense, Yardley.”

Yardley obligingly replied, “None taken.” This whole argument was so old, she knew the lines by heart. There was always some variant of the same thing. Over and over again.

It infuriated Mimi. If her friend was here now, she’d be blasting them both.

“I did the responsible thing,” Aurora specified with flair. “I raised my daughter. You’d probably have given her up.”

“How dare you?” Lilith pointed one manicured finger Yardley’s way. “I love Yardley.”

Now you do. But while I was carrying her?”

“I was attempting to be the reasonable one.”

“You didn’t want her around, but now you try to claim her as your own.”

“At least I don’t advise her to show off her breasts!”

Yardley lifted her phone to look at the time…and then she heard two things. A man clearing his throat, and a young woman giggling.

OMG. Awash with humiliation, she turned to face her clients…and holy crapola. Pretty sure her ovaries just danced.

Travis Long was a feast for the peepers. She knew because her eyes were gobbling him up from head to toe.

He wasn’t the intended, thank God, just the brother. Is he married?

Good Lord, why did she care? But she answered herself real quick as she took him in feature by feature. Sandy-blond hair, steaked by the sun.

Dark brown eyes, fringed by ridiculous—like, really ridiculous—long, thick lashes.

Broad muscled shoulders.

Lean torso.

Long, strong legs.

Of course he had to be married. He’d probably had a dozen proposals by now. Some lucky woman would have snatched him up already.

Unless… Remembering her initial phone conversation, she thought maybe he was too aloof. Too unfriendly. A discerning woman wouldn’t be reeled in by mere good looks. Somehow she didn’t feel all that discerning right now.

Whatever this man does for a living, it works in his favor.

The young woman laughed aloud this time. “Don’t worry, Ms. Belanger. He has that effect on everyone.” She nodded at Aurora and Lilith, and Yardley realized they were both gawking, too.

Appalled, Yardley loudly cleared her throat—and accomplished nothing. Her mother and aunt continued to stare.

“I’ve told him he could have made more money as a model,” the young woman said, “but no, my brother went into construction instead.”

Attempting to ignore the heat in her face, Yardley stepped forward, hand extended—toward the woman. Who would be her client. She was the one who mattered. “Hello. You must be Ms. Long.”

“Soon to be Mrs. Borden, with your help.”

“Oh, I do hope so. That I get to help, I mean. Not that you become Mrs. Borden. I’m sure that’s a foregone conclusion or you wouldn’t be here.” Shut up, Yardley. “Please, just call me Yardley.”

“If you’ll call me Sheena.”

Beside her, Travis shifted but said nothing. Compared to him, his sister looked extra petite. Her hair, lighter blond than Travis’s, hung just past her shoulders. They shared the same striking dark eyes and sinful lashes.

Sheena appeared to be just out of her teens. Maybe twenty or twenty-one. Young, excited, and brimming with optimism. Total opposite of her silent, possibly brooding, brother.

What could she say with her aunt and mother still eyeballing him as if they’d never seen such a fine specimen before? Honestly, in Cemetery, they probably hadn’t. “I’m thrilled for the opportunity to help plan your wedding.” Reluctantly, because she wasn’t yet prepared to gaze on him again, Yardley turned to Travis. It took her a second to get her lungs to work, and then she gasped, “I take it you’re Travis Long, the Victorian home enthusiast?”

“I am.” He briefly clasped her hand.

Very perfunctory. Not at all personal. Purely business.

But he had magic hands or something because she felt that touch radiate everywhere. With her tingling palm, she lamely gestured to the gawking duo. “My mother, Aurora Belanger, and my aunt, Lilith Belanger.”

Sheena greeted them with a little less warmth than she’d shown Yardley.

Travis merely gave them a nod, then said to Yardley, “I’m relieved to see you’ve kept the house true to the period.”

Oh goody, a safe subject, and one she was comfortable with. She could talk about the house and stare at him. “I’ve tried. Remodeling it has been a pleasure, but a slow process.” She wrinkled her nose. “Matching all that trim, finding the right valance windows, the iron railings—”

“And the slate roof. That impressed me.”

Oh, hey. She’d impressed him. Score one for her. “Most recently the kitchen got a facelift. I hope I did it justice.”

Sheena glanced around. “It’s beautiful. Can we do a tour of it later? I know it’d make this whole trip worthwhile for Travis.”

She shot a warning look at her mother and aunt. “Absolutely. I’ll show you everything.” What? “I mean, every part of the house. All the rooms. And stuff.” If only her mouth had a spigot she could turn off. “Even the upstairs rooms have been remodeled.” Had her mother and aunt left when they were supposed to, she’d have tidied their rooms for them. Now she couldn’t, meaning they were probably messy disasters.

Oh, how sweet it was to have a little payback against them. They were fanatics when it came to designing their rooms, but not so big on keeping them decluttered. Yardley knew exactly how they’d react—and they didn’t disappoint her.

“Excuse me,” Lilith said, exiting in a dignified, unhurried stride…until she was out of sight. Then they all heard the rushed clomping of her short heels on wood treads as she raced up the stairs.

Aurora managed a wan smile. “Yes, I should go as well. Good luck, dear. Oh, not that my daughter needs luck, of course. She’s quite the talented wedding planner. Very popular here and in the neighboring towns. Why, her vintage weddings are heavily trending, or so she tells me. Personally, I prefer something a little more chic, which of course she offers.”

“Mother,” Yardley said, feeling her cheeks burn. “You don’t want to be late.”

“Oh, no. No, I don’t.” Aurora barely lowered her voice when she said in an aside, “Don’t slouch.” Then she turned and sashayed away, making a little less noise on the stairs than Lilith had. Unfortunately, they could hear them rushing around in their rooms, probably tucking away bras and shoes, clearing clutter from their desks, and hopefully tidying their beds.

It was the one thing she had in common with them: they each loved to show off the house. Since Aurora and Lilith had personally helped with the decor choices for their rooms, they were especially proud of them and loved to show them off.

Yardley pinned on her most professional smile. “We finished the upstairs as a divided living area, so both my aunt and my mother have their own private suites with bedrooms, bathrooms, and seating areas. My mother chose the side with the balcony, and Aunt Lilith has that romantic turret.”

“You live here, too?” Sheena asked.

“Yes, my bedroom is off to the right of the foyer, and the kitchen is to the left.” She gestured down the hall. “Only the dining room is used as my office. If you’d like to come this way, we can all get comfortable while you share your wedding ideas. Once I have a grasp of what you’re thinking, I can show you my portfolio and we can go over the budget.”

Travis waited for his sister and then followed along last. When she glanced back, she saw him looking around at niches in the wall, the railing that led upstairs, and the stained glass transom over the doorway to her office space.

Pride had her smiling for real. She knew she’d done an amazing job on the house.

Yardley took a seat behind her desk while Travis waited for his sister to choose one of the two padded chairs facing it. Then he took the other.

Such a good big brother—very attentive with all the earmarks of being a gentleman.

“This used to be the dining room?” he asked.

Pleased with his continued interest, she nodded. “I work from home rather than keeping a separate office space.” She slid a look to Sheena. “It allows me to offer a more competitive price package than many other planners.”

He nodded up at the crown molding. “I like how you added to it.”

Oh, wow. He could tell that she’d done that? Smart as well as hot. “Thank you. I thought it needed a few more frills.” Yardley caught his sister looking back and forth between them, and reminded herself that Sheena was the client, and she wanted to talk weddings, not old houses.

“Your brother mentioned that you’d seen my country wedding display?”

“I did,” Sheena confirmed. “And I absolutely love it. That’s what I’d really like. Simple but fun. Does that make sense?”

“Perfect sense.”

“I have no idea where to start though.” Sheena bit her lower lip. “Or what I can afford.”

“That’s where the wedding planner comes in,” Travis said, turning to Yardley. “Suggestions?”

“How about I go over the two packages I offer, and then you can tell me just how involved I’d be?”

“That’d be perfect.” This time Travis smiled at Sheena. “Don’t you think?”

“I’d appreciate the help.”

Oh, but Yardley loved how Travis deferred to his sister. So far he’d been terrific. “First, there’s the full service, which means I’d recommend and review vendor contracts—and there are plenty right here in—” she would not say Cemetery “—town who are perfect, including a few who really round out the country theme if you decide on it. I’d coordinate the delivery and arrival of your vendors, plus handle the wedding day timeline. I can even be a secretary of sorts, reminding you when to order announcements, of appointments for dress fittings or parties, and I’d help you stay within your budget.” Yardley beamed at her, but Sheena just glanced worriedly at Travis.

Hmm…

Yardley waited.

“And the other option?” he asked.

Clearing her throat, Yardley said, “I can serve as a consultant when you have questions, make recommendations, and assist on the actual wedding day.”

Running fingers through her blond hair, Sheena admitted, “I want the dress and the fun of the country setting—because Todd, my fiancé, will love that. He’s not a formal kind of guy.”

Yardley tipped her head. “And you? Are you a formal kind of bride?”

“Not really. Well, other than the gorgeous white dress. The problem is that I already feel overwhelmed. I have no experience with weddings. One of my friends married, but it was just at the courthouse and we all wore our regular clothes. Travis and I don’t have any family to—”

“Full service it is,” Travis interrupted with an indulgent smile at his sister.

Sheena hesitated. “But you don’t even know the budget yet.”

Fascinated by this brother-sister relationship, and hung up on the fact that Travis wasn’t married since Sheena hadn’t attended a wedding, Yardley almost missed her opening. “Oh, well let me cover budgetary costs very quickly.” She pulled out a pale pink linen folder embossed with the words Making Dreams Come True. Opening it to her standard budget breakdown, she removed two copies and placed one in front of Sheena, the other in front of Travis.

“Those are basic starting points, but things can vary depending on what you choose. Why don’t you two look that over and I’ll go get us some refreshments. I have flavored hot tea, or if you’d prefer coffee or water?”

“Water is fine for me,” Sheena said, her wide eyes taking in the details of the budget.

“Coffee, black, would be great,” Travis added.

“I’ll only be a minute, but you can take all the time you need.” She pressed forward a monogrammed notepad and pencil. “Feel free to jot down your thoughts or any questions you might have.” Leaving them to it, she went into the kitchen, where coffee and hot water for tea already waited. Using the fancy polished silver tray she’d purchased at an antique shop, along with the delicate china cups she reserved for clients, she prepped the drinks and placed several cookies on an ornate serving plate.

Five minutes later, she was just about to lift it all when Travis asked behind her, “Need any help?”

Surprised, she jerked around and found him checking out the kitchen. “Good God, you startled me.”

His dark gaze landed on her. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to intrude. Todd called Sheena to ask her how it’s going, so I wanted to give her some privacy. She’s a little uncomfortable that I’m paying for the wedding.”

The whole wedding? “That’s, um, generous of you.”

He went back to looking over her kitchen design choices. “Todd is apparently always working, so I’m glad to do it if it makes her happy.” He shot her the side-eye. “Maybe from now on, you could just share costs with me, and everything else with her. Would that work?”

Whoa. That sounded an awful lot like he wanted to take over, and in the world of wedding planners, that’d be a big no-no. She’d been down this road with parents, future in-laws, and even some fiancés. “Is Sheena okay with that?”

He gave her a slow smile of approval. “I like that you’re putting her first.”

That sounded genuine, so she explained, “Of course. Sheena is the one who admired my country wedding display, right?”

He winced. “Yeah, that was Sheena.” His pained expression made it clear it sure hadn’t been his idea. Turning his attention to her sink, he ran his fingertips along the bronze. “This is stunning.”

Instantly forgiving him, Yardley circled the island with enthusiasm. “I saw the design in a magazine that focuses on Victorian style. It’s different, I know, but I think it works.”

“Especially with these faucets.”

She beamed at him.

“You obviously combined function with original design. The butler’s pantry is great, by the way.”

For Mimi, anyone who complimented her adorable baby girl won her over. For Yardley, it was her kitchen. She could overlook a great many flaws in a person who appreciated a really great prep space. “I do a lot of the cooking here.” She did all the cooking. “It’s a passion of mine.”

The word passion earned her another quick glance. “Sheena told you I’m in construction. What she didn’t say is that between building new houses, I renovate old ones.”

Hey, common ground. “Very cool.”

“It’s a nice break for me.” He sniffed the air. “Those cookies smell great.”

See, he was winning points all over the place. “I hope they taste as good as they smell.” She reached for the tray.

“Would you like me to carry that? It looks heavy.”

“Sure. Knock yourself out.”

He paused, one brow raised.

Yardley mentally kicked her own butt. “Didn’t mean that sarcastically, I swear. I meant, rather sincerely, that I’d appreciate it. Heck, it’s not often anyone offers to…that is, most everything around here falls to me, so… Never mind.” Trying to swat away the overflow of words, she suggested, “Let’s see how your sister is faring,” and she marched out of the room, leaving him to bring the tray.

For the next thirty minutes, around eating cookies and offering praise for their deliciousness, Sheena went over her ideal wedding while Yardley took notes.

“I already chose my fancy white dress, but I want to wear boots with it, like you had in that awesome display.” Leaning forward, Sheena asked, “Want to see my dress? I have a photo of me in it.”

“Of course I do.” Yardley absolutely loved seeing wedding dresses, from super simple to over-the-top extravagant and everywhere in between. She adored them all.

Sheena quickly retrieved her phone and searched her photos, then turned it so Yardley could see the screen.

“Oh my.” Slowly, Yardley came out of her seat and moved around the desk. She took the phone and smiled. “Wow, beautiful.” The dress and the woman. It was perfect for Sheena’s petite size, and the smile on her face made it all the more stunning. Sheena looked the way every bride should: thrilled, excited, and full of confidence for a love-filled future.

Genuine emotion glazed Yardley’s eyes, forcing her to blink a few times. She’d seen many brides over the years, and it always hit her the same way. With happiness, and a dose of melancholy.

“I think she looks incredible,” Travis said softly.

That’s when Yardley realized how intently he watched her. Forcing a big smile, she handed the phone back to Sheena. “You’re going to be the prettiest bride ever.”

With a short laugh, Sheena said, “I get why my big brother thinks so, but I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of brides.”

“Dozens and dozens, and they were all special in their own way, but this—” she gestured at the phone “—and you…” She sighed. “Todd is a very lucky guy.”

“That’s what I keep telling her,” Travis murmured.

“Hush it.” Sheena gave a playful push to his shoulder, then said to Yardley, “According to Travis, no one is good enough for me.”

They really were close, Yardley could see that, and it made her a little wistful. What would her life have been like with a big brother to look out for her?

But hey, she’d had Mimi, and that was even better. “Do you already have your boots?

As if unsure of the right answer, Sheena said tentatively, “No?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” Another note. “And the groom? What will he wear?”

Sheena bit her lip. “What do you suggest?”

“That depends on when you’re getting married.”

Hopeful, Sheena said with a question, “Mid-July?”

Hmm. They were already well into April, so that’d be cutting it close, but no way would she disappoint this lovely young woman. “I’m sure I can make that happen. Let’s go over everything first so I can see what we’ll need. Then we can work on an exact date depending on the venue you want. Oh, and if it does happen mid-July, then Todd and any other men in the wedding party will be more comfortable in cotton shirts than tuxes, right? So the country wedding theme will work out well. July in Indiana can be downright steamy.”

Sheena clasped her hands. “I just knew you were going to say it was impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. The dress is what usually takes the longest, but you already have that done. If it needs any alterations, I can recommend a wonderful local seamstress.”

“Well, the thing is…I’m four months pregnant.”

Smiling, Yardley said gently, “We’ll set it in mid-July, and if you need an alteration or two before then, no problem.”

Travis turned to his sister. “You see? No big deal.”

Giving him a fond look, Sheena said, “That wasn’t his attitude when I first told him.”

Feeling defensive on Sheena’s behalf, Yardley narrowed her eyes at Travis. “Oh?”

He laughed. “Don’t misunderstand, Ms. Belanger.”

“Yardley.”

Conceding with a nod, he amended, “Yardley.” Then he explained, “I’m thrilled to be an uncle. My only concern was Sheena’s happiness.”

“My future happiness, because he doesn’t quite know Todd well enough yet to understand how perfect he is for me.”

Travis said nothing to that.

“We’ll have some adjusting to do,” Sheena admitted. “I dropped out of college, but my plan is to get an online degree in business.”

“You seem determined enough to make it happen.” Yardley thought of her own mother, who to this day insisted that she’d given up everything, all promising prospects, future plans and education, simply because she’d been a single mom. Yardley hoped Sheena would have a different attitude.

“I know as much about babies as I do weddings,” Sheena admitted with a grin. “Which isn’t much, right?” She placed a hand over her midriff. “But I already know I love him or her with my whole heart.”

“That’s a good start.” Yardley found herself grinning, too. “My best friend, Mimi, has a six-month-old daughter. Like you, I had zero experience with babies, but most of it just sort of creeps up on you.” She pushed out of her chair and turned to the bookcase behind her desk. Running a finger along the bottom row of books, she said, “Here it is.” She withdrew the slim volume titled What to Expect for Baby’s First Year, and reached across the desk to hand it to Sheena. “That was a good primer for me. Maybe you’ll find some helpful tips, too.”

“Wow.” Sheena looked up at her with gratitude. “You’re loaning it to me?”

“It’s yours to keep.”

Hugging the book to her chest, Sheena glanced at Travis. “Didn’t I tell you she’d be the perfect wedding planner?”

With a long look at Yardley, Travis agreed. “She’s very nice—and before we run out of time, maybe we should get back to wedding plans.”

Yardley laughed. “I have my notes right here. Next on the list: flowers. Any thoughts on that?”

“Oh yes! Instead of fancy flowers I’d love something simple, like daisies, but with accent colors in soft pastels.”

“Sounds lovely.” Yardley scribbled away.

“I’d like to get some photos in the red truck, too, if that’s possible.”

“Absolutely.” Because Yardley loved the people in Cemetery regardless of how she felt about the name, she started on her well-rehearsed pitch of the different vendors. “Have you been to the lake yet? If not, we can plan a day and I’ll take you around to meet everyone. Most of the local vendors have storefronts there and with the warmer weather, their shops are bustling again.”

“Oh, I’d love that,” Sheena said. “What’s the name of the lake?”

“Er…” No, Yardley refused to call it Cemetery Lake. That was just morbid. “Main Street—that is, the road we’re on right now—continues on to the lake, then it intersects with Lakeshore Drive. If you’re interested, there’s a stunning private cottage there that’s just perfect for a honeymoon.” She clasped her hands to her heart. “I highly recommend it.” Just mentioning it made Yardley wistful. “It’s small but has everything you’d need, and the sunsets are—”

“Honeymoon in the same town where they marry, in the same state where they live?” Travis asked.

Feeling defensive over her dream honeymoon, she elevated her chin and suggested, “Why don’t you wait to see the lake and the cottage before you pooh-pooh it?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Did you say ‘pooh-pooh’?”

Oh God, she had. Heat seeped up her chest, up her throat, and into her face, and she just knew she looked scalded. “It’s a saying. I’m sure you’ve heard it before.”

“Maybe, but not often and not from someone so young.”

“I’m thirty-one. Not that young.”

He shrugged. “I’m thirty-five and usually I’d agree, but you look younger.”

Yardley opened her mouth with no idea what to say. She settled on, “Thank you.” Was it a compliment? Or another slight, as if she wasn’t old enough or mature enough to coordinate a wedding?

Sheena jumped in. “Todd and I aren’t planning to take a big honeymoon anyway. He can only get a week off work and we don’t want to spend a lot of money right now, not with a baby on the way. When you have a chance, I’d appreciate seeing the cottage.”

Triumphant, Yardley promised, “You’re going to love it. I have a good feeling about you.” Knowing the cottage would win Sheena over once she saw it, Yardley decided not to share the photos. It’d be better if the cottage was viewed in person. With that decided, she detailed the rest of the vendors. “If you don’t already have a venue chosen, Mr. Wilson Hobert owns a huge, renovated and updated barn that’s perfect for weddings and receptions. It’s rustic, with some of the original features from when it was used to house animals, but now it has a small kitchen and a really pretty bathroom and changing room. There’s a loft area for bands and special lights, and a wide-open floor for seating and dancing. Usually for our country wedding packages, we tow the red truck there and the photographer meets us when the wildflowers are in bloom. It’s so pretty.”

“I love it,” Sheena enthused. “Yes, let’s look into that!”

Travis stayed silent. Lack of enthusiasm, no doubt.

But who cared? Clearly, despite his appreciation of her home, he had no imagination. Yardley focused all her attention on Sheena. “Ms. Emily Lucretia owns a floral shop. She can order any specialty flowers you want, but of course she has all the most common flowers on hand. The best part is that she also has a variety of wildflowers in beautiful colors, including some truly luscious daisies. She grows many of them on the acreage behind her home. That’s another place we could visit, by the way. You can see fields of flowers.”

“I’m getting so excited!” Sheena hugged herself.

That, at least, put a smile on Travis’s face.

“Mrs. Sallie Sheldrake creates the most divine wedding cakes ever. They’re stunning—and delicious.” Deliberately omitting the town name, she said, “We’ll be sure to visit Sallie’s By The Shore while we’re at the lake. You can taste some samples. Oh, and speaking of tasting! Saul Culver runs his father’s barbecue restaurant now. The Pit Stop does the best glazed, smoked baby back ribs in the whole state, if not the whole country.”

“Ribs for a wedding?” asked Mr. Skeptical. “Won’t that be too messy?”

“I don’t know.” Yardley gave him a sweet smile. “Are you a messy eater?”

Issuing a dare, Travis sat forward. “Let’s see you eat barbecue ribs—in all white.”

All white—like a bride? Unfortunately…no. Not likely to ever be her. “I’m not the one getting married, so I don’t need to wear all white. Unless you’re suggesting your sister can’t handle it?”

Sheena snorted. “Bring on the ribs.”

Man, she loved this girl with her upbeat attitude. “They have pigs in a blanket, too. Baked beans and cornbread. Or Saul can set up an old-fashioned pig roast. Steamed corn on the cob, potato salad… I’m making myself hungry.”

Grabbing up another cookie, Sheena said, “Me, too.”

“The photographer is also along that lakefront strip of shops. What do you say? Do you want to tour everything soon, and then you can make some final decisions?”

Sheena shot another glance at Travis. “Todd is working tons of overtime right now.”

“I know, sis. It’s okay. I’m free Wednesday of next week, if that works for Yardley. Say around four?” As he grinned, the gleam of challenge shone in his eyes. “Then we can finish up the tour with a dinner of ribs.”

Ha! Sporting her own grin, Yardley didn’t even bother to pretend-check her calendar. “Sounds great. Let’s do it.” She jotted the date and time on a sticky note and put it on her monitor. “Would you like to meet here and I can drive us over? Once you’ve seen everything and made a few decisions, I can work up a detailed budget for you.”

“Perfect.” Travis stood. “Do we still have time for the tour of the house?”

Oh geez, she’d forgotten all about that. “Absolutely.” At least her mother and aunt were gone now. She’d heard them leave when she was getting the cookies and drinks. “Let’s start in the kitchen and we’ll work our way through.”

End of Excerpt

The Honeymoon Cottage

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