A Place with Briar (Harlequin Superromance)

BOOK: A Place with Briar (Harlequin Superromance)
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He’s in some serious trouble

Cole Savitt does
not
want to deceive Briar Browning. But if he hopes to see his son again, he has to find the weaknesses in her charming bed-and-breakfast, then get out of town fast! But the quaint inn isn’t the only thing charming him….

Cole’s straightforward plan becomes anything
but
when he begins to fall for the beautiful innkeeper. Suddenly everything’s on the line—his future with his son, a chance at happiness and the love of a good woman. Cole must rethink his priorities…and the stakes have never been higher.

“There’s something you need to know….”

Cole’s lips curved as he turned back to the bike. “I know.”

“You do?” Briar asked, sounding astounded.

“You’ve never ridden a bike before.”

“Is it that obvious?” she asked, rubbing her palms on her jeans.

“A little,” he said wryly. “Just lean with me into the turns. And hold on.”

Hell, if he didn’t coax her on now, she’d probably run for her life. And while that might have been better for the both of them under the circumstances, he found himself jerking his thumb behind him, motioning for her to get on.

After a brief pause, Briar dropped down her visor and stepped to the bike. Gripping his offered hand for balance, she climbed on behind him and placed her feet on the small passenger pegs.

Just this once, he was going to give Briar Browning the ride of her life. God help them both.

Dear Reader,

For fourteen years, Fairhope, Alabama, was the place I called home. While brainstorming
A Place with Briar,
I often found myself in my car driving toward the Eastern Shore of the Mobile Bay, where my hometown rests, snug on a sweeping, green bluff. I drove the scenic route that still makes my heart soar…maybe because I was retracing my first motorcycle ride, which a cute nineteen-year-old boy who would someday be my husband took me on.

I’m proud of the place I once called home. I love the pace of life in Fairhope, the view of the bay from the scenic bluffs along the shore…. It’s a dreamer’s paradise. As a girl, it was where I discovered my love of reading and writing. From the sailboats gliding across the bay, to the grand homes lining the streets, to the couples strolling hand in hand, growing up on the Eastern Shore jump-started my imagination. My mind has not stopped painting stories since. I had little doubt that one day I would share the stories I conjured there with the world.

I’m thrilled I finally get to share
A Place with Briar
with you, readers! This story is close to my heart in so many ways. Like Briar and Cole, I fell in love on the Eastern Shore. (I might even somewhat re-create my first motorcycle ride within its pages!) It was such a pleasure bringing in a haunted outsider like Cole, who needed a good dose of healing, and giving him the home and love he never knew his heart needed.

I hope you enjoy Briar and Cole’s story. I always love to hear from readers! You can find me on the web at
www.amberleighwilliams.com
or contact me via email at
[email protected]
!

Happy reading!
Amber Leigh Williams

A PLACE WITH BRIAR

Amber Leigh Williams

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amber Leigh Williams lives on the Gulf Coast. A Southern girl at heart, she loves beach days, the smell of real books, relaxing at her family’s lakehouse and spending time with her husband, Jacob, and their sweet blue-eyed boy. When she’s not running after her young son and three large dogs, she can usually be found reading a good romance or cooking up a new dish in her kitchen. Readers can find her on the web at
www.amberleighwilliams.com
!

First and foremost, I dedicate this book to my sister, H.P.W. As always, here’s to reading ’til midnight, eating too much ice cream, and living like there’s no tomorrow. Life wouldn’t be the same without you…. (Olivia is for you, Boo!)

I would also like to thank my father and mother, who moved the family to Fairhope in the early ’90s and were full of encouragement when I began writing shortly after….

To my husband, J.J.S.—there’s a lot of
us
in this book, babe. Thank you for being the inspiration I needed to tell this story….

And finally to the brave volunteers of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup. Endless gratitude for making our coastline beautiful once more.

CHAPTER ONE

C
OLE
S
AVITT
HAD
MADE
a deal with the devil. He did so willingly because the prize far outweighed the cost.

That is, if the devil stuck to her end of the deal.

The devil, in this case, happened to be his ex-wife. If the past three years had taught him anything, it was that Tiffany could be the most manipulative person he’d ever met. He didn’t at all like that his fate was in her hands—or that he’d been the one to lay it there all over again.

But if she did stand by her end of the bargain, not only would his life be his own again, he would also no longer be barred from seeing his son.

Though it had been months since he had seen six-year-old Gavin inside a courtroom as an unsympathetic judge gifted Tiffany with full custody, stripping Cole of any visitation rights, he didn’t need a picture to remember his son’s face. The young visage so like his own was stamped across his temporal lobe—memory of all that had been, all that there was, and reminder of what could be.

The Fairhope pier was calm and deserted but for the early fishermen reclining in beach chairs. Their lines drooped over the railing into the shallow bay below. The only sounds that penetrated the peaceful lull of silence and the foggy gloom of the morning were the pelicans doing their far-from-graceful dive for breakfast and the heavy splash of crab nets hitting the water.

The bells of buoys trilled over the quiet, and water lapped against the hulls of boats tethered off the restaurant that some clever individual had christened Yardarm. Part of Fairhope’s most enduring residential park, the pier had survived hurricane forces and modern industrialization. Along with the adjacent park and the scenic bluff that crested far atop the shoreline, it was an Eastern Shore trademark. One of Alabama’s best-kept secrets.

As Cole sat drinking coffee inside the restaurant, his eyes didn’t stray to the seagulls that swooped into view, the pelicans dozing on isolated posts or the sailboats that well-to-do hobbyists had taken out early. His eyes were trained on the strip of land half a mile away, waiting for the clouds to part so he could get his first look at the target, a bayside bed-and-breakfast called Hanna’s Inn.

Why Tiffany wanted to buy the place so badly was beyond Cole. He knew her family hailed from Fairhope and the coastal cities surrounding it. He also knew that her hard-hitting, real-estate tycoon father had done his best to get his hands on as much land along the Eastern Shore over the course of his business life—and Hanna’s Inn had always eluded him. The old man had bitten the dust three years ago, leaving Tiffany in control of his legacy.

That her transformation from loving wife to manipulative bitch had occurred around the same time she came into family fortune and her own business didn’t strike Cole as a coincidence. Though looking back, he had to admit there’d been earlier signs of her ruthless ambition that he’d chosen to ignore at the time.

The phone call from his ex-wife that had led him to Fairhope had come at an odd time. He hadn’t spoken to Tiffany since that day in court and had planned on putting as much distance between himself and Huntsville, where they had built their so-called life together, as he could. He expected the usual threats and criticism.

Instead, Tiffany offered him an opportunity to make everything right. She apparently couldn’t get into Hanna’s Inn to do her own legwork without being recognized and blowing the sale altogether. She needed someone to do her dirty work for her by getting her a copy of the inn’s financial records. And who better than the ex-husband who had nothing to lose?

The coffee on the table in front of him had gone cold and would’ve tasted as bitter as his mood if he’d taken another sip. Cole scooted the mug away from him. He had no love for Tiffany, and if she hadn’t offered him the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world, he would have refused her.

There was no price too high that could make him walk away from this one chance to be with his son. Even if Tiffany wasn’t planning on upholding her end, he had to try.

The fog and clouds started to break apart, letting the first golden rays of sunlight shine through and unveiling the sandy, green length of the Eastern Shore, one breathtaking sweep at a time. High on a grassy ridge, Hanna’s Inn rose like a waterside Tara, triumphant and glorious, distinctive among other houses around her with white wooden walls and tall columns gracing the bayside facade. It reminded Cole of a regal, antebellum bride from another era.

It looked as charming as it was striking, one of many early twentieth-century dwellings that travelers came to admire along this shore. From a distance, it was all that its promotional brochure promised: a serene getaway.
Forget the world,
the glossy trifold had suggested.

Weeks ago, he might have been tempted to do just that. Now he could only think of Gavin and what he had to do to get back his son.

The waitress approached his table. When he glanced up, she asked, “More coffee?”

“No, thank you,” he replied. “Just the check, please.” He reached for the billfold in his back pocket as she walked back to the counter. He paid for his meal, left a tip and checked his watch as he left Yardarm and began to walk the length of the pier.

Nearly time for check-in.

The air was soft with a briny tinge. Early summer weather this far south wasn’t quite as humid or heavy as he’d imagined, though if he lingered he would soon experience lower Alabama’s blistering clime.

For now, the wind felt cool on his shaven face, a subtle hint of evening showers. A round fountain slumbered at the park entrance, its still, clear, blue pool and the coins at its base mirroring the sheen of the sun. The labyrinth of roses around it thrived. Their dewy, open petals trumpeted heady, passionate perfume.

Trapping the sultry scent in his lungs, he strapped on his helmet and mounted his Harley. He gunned the machine to life. It roared into the quiet, turning the heads of the few people who’d come to admire the morning’s hushed splendor. He didn’t cast them much of a glance as he coaxed the bike up the towering slope onto South Mobile Street.

The road wrapped around the Eastern Shore, stretching as far as Pelican Point, which joined the bay with another then reached for Fort Morgan and the cool waters of the blue-green Gulf beyond.

However, he didn’t have nearly that far to go.

A white clapboard sign marked the turn for Hanna’s Inn. He pulled into the gravel drive and parked in the shade of a magnolia tree. The wide, fragrant blossoms grinned down at him from limbs of glossy green leaves. The sweet, woodsy, quintessentially Southern scent he associated with childhood bliss...and home.

His chest tightened, and he rolled his shoulder to ease the ready ache. Dwelling on home only made him hurt more.

He tucked his helmet under his arm and left his sunglasses in place as he walked into the inn. The bells over the door jangled, and the homey scent of cinnamon tickled his nostrils.

He scanned the empty lobby, admiring the long, painted aerial of old Fairhope spanning the opposite wall. The glass covering the painting was so clean he saw his reflection clearly. The sharp-cut jawline that framed a tan, narrow face; his hair dark and hanging straight. Black shades hid dark, tired eyes. Still, he could see the wear of travel around the wary crease above the bridge of his nose and the lines bracketing his mouth.

He barely recognized himself and wondered if anyone else would at this point.

“Mr. Savitt?”

* * *

T
HE
SOUND
OF
the bells chiming from the entryway woke Briar Browning. She frowned at the first white strands of sunlight peering through her kitchen window. Raising her head from the tabletop where she’d dozed off hours ago, she winced as rigid neck muscles cried out in protest. Pressing a hand over the nape of her neck, she carefully rolled her head on her shoulders, leaning back against her chair and blinking around the room.

One look at the bills and bank statements spread across the table made her groan. She’d fallen asleep while doing the bookkeeping again. Now there was no time to prep for this week’s guest.

Briar straightened and a sharp twinge cruised up her spine. The chair creaked as she pushed to her feet. Her arches were still sore from the day before, but she slipped them into the shoes she’d toed off under the table and ran her hands over her hair, hoping she looked at least half-decent in yesterday’s clothes. One look at her reflection in the window over the sink reassured her. She didn’t look as fresh as she would have liked, but she wasn’t going to scare anyone off.

With her unawares, it had shaped up to be a glorious morning. The bay water was moody gray and choppy under a stiff breeze from the north. The north wind served as a relief to those on the Gulf Coast, buffering dangerous tropical weather.

June marked the first month of hurricane season, and like all other business and home owners, Briar had already checked the inn generator and readied the storm shutters. If El Niño came knocking on Mobile Bay’s door, she had little to do except stockpile batteries, gasoline, canned goods and water. Then wait for it to be over.

Hanna’s Inn had stood the test of weather and time for over thirty years. Unless any of the tropical waves roiling far out in the Atlantic turned into a storm of Frederic, Ivan or Katrina proportions, Hanna’s and Briar would ride it out like any other.

The four guest suites were quiet on the second floor. Briar’s stomach knotted, the silence pressing against her eardrums. The local small-business economy had suffered hard over the past few years. She had hoped summer would lure tourists and revenue to the Eastern Shore as well as Hanna’s.

It was June and the guest calendar still looked utterly vacant. The only name on the page was a single man’s.
Cole Savitt.
She rarely booked singles, this time of the year, especially. Fairhope, with its easy proximity to Alabama’s white-sand beaches, was the perfect place to bring a family or loved one for a cozy, Southern-style getaway. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem as if many people were getting away.

The man was probably in town strictly for business, she thought. And with the weather behaving strangely well for June, wouldn’t that be a shame?

As she moved through the swinging door, she shifted her unease to the back of her mind. She couldn’t leave her guest waiting any longer, not to change or ruminate over her financial difficulties and all the uncertainties ahead. Her mother might have died a year ago, but that didn’t change the fact that Briar now singularly owned and operated the inn Hanna Browning had built from the ground up.

“Mr. Savitt,” she called as she walked into the entryway. The room was awash with morning light, and the man who stood with his back to her, backpack slung over one shoulder and motorcycle helmet in hand, slowly turned. There were sunshades over his eyes, but the frown that greeted her stopped her in her tracks.

Her hand fluttered to her stomach and she sucked in a breath. “I...I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”

* * *

B
EHIND
THE
SHADES
, Cole’s eyes locked on the innkeeper like heat-seeking missiles, moving only to rove her fair features. Flushed cheeks, honey-brown eyes, a dainty chin and ripe lips he knew would taste sweet just by looking at them.

His throat went dry and his heart rebounded. Her shoulder-length hair fell in natural streaks of gold, blond and fairest brown. Her slender form was covered in a trim khaki skirt and a pink silk blouse.

There was nothing suggestive or mysterious about her beauty. It was vulnerable and soft, a whisper of wind in a rainless summer. Her eyes beamed sincerity and a touch of timidity.

This was
the mark,
as Tiffany had described her. The woman whose financial ruin would be his ex-wife’s gain.

Cole wanted to touch her. It wasn’t a sensual need—instead, a knee-jerk urge, an instinct from another life to protect, shelter and shield.

When she only stared at him, lips slightly parted, he realized he was supposed to respond. “Oh. No problem, ma’am. I was just looking around.”

All too quickly, she dropped her gaze and walked around the podium. “Welcome to Hanna’s.”

He hesitated before crossing the room, his own greeting lodged in his throat.

“If you’ll just sign here, please.” She shifted the leather-bound sign-in book so he could initial. When he removed his glasses, he watched her lips part again in surprise as she searched his eyes.

He dropped them to the page in front of him, knowing all his secrets lurked there in his eyes—a window to his all-too-haunted soul. Without a word, he scrawled his signature on the line she’d indicated.

“Thank you.” She opened the drawer of the cabinet behind her and palmed a set of keys. “These are yours, Mr. Savitt.”

He pocketed them. “I paid ahead, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” she said, a hospitable grin twitching the corners of her mouth. “Your receipt is included in this packet.”

“I’m sorry the reservation was made on such short notice. I was going to stay at The Grand, but a family member more familiar with the area recommended your place, instead.”

“I think you’ll find Hanna’s more convenient,” she told him. “It’s closer to town—a quick walk if the heat isn’t oppressive. Your stay is for two weeks, but feel free to extend it if you need to. Just let me know a day or two ahead of your check-out date.”

“That’s great, thanks.” His eyes found hers again. They searched for a moment, clinging to the warmth he saw.

She took a short gulp of air and circled the podium. “I’ll show you to your room. May I help with your luggage?”

He shook his head, shouldering the pack he’d dropped at the door. “Thanks, but this is it.”

“Follow me, then.” She led him into a small sitting room infused with more cinnamon and the soothing aroma of fresh coffee. A small half-moon sofa faced windows that beamed soft, natural light.

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