What would you do if a large mansion AND a groundskeeper were to fall into your lap? SWOONWORTHY is all we have to say about Sarah Hogle’s latest.
Maybell Parish has always been a dreamer and a hopeless romantic. But living in her own world has long been preferable to dealing with the disappointments of real life. So when Maybell inherits a charming house in the Smokies from her Great-Aunt Violet, she seizes the opportunity to make a fresh start.
Yet when she arrives, it seems her troubles have only just begun. Not only is the house falling apart around her, but she isn't the only inheritor: she has to share everything with Wesley Koehler, the groundskeeper who's as grouchy as he is gorgeousand it turns out he has a very different vision for the property's future.
Convincing the taciturn Wesley to stop avoiding her and compromise is a task more formidable than the other dying wishes Great-Aunt Violet left behind. But when Maybell uncovers something unexpectedly sweet beneath Wesley's scowls, and as the two slowly begin to let their guard down, they might learn that sometimes the smallest steps outside one's comfort zone can lead to the greatest rewards.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.57(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.67(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I am up in the clouds now, drumming my fingernails on a countertop. Outside the window, in an ever-swirling fog, there's a pink neon sign that spins at an all-the-time-in-the-world tilt, which reads: maybell's coffee shop au. Beneath, with one of the letters blinking out: Open 24 hours.
My AU (alternate universe) café has taken years to build, the past three months being its busiest season yet. I've put up fairy lights and aqua tiles, floppy houseplants and red vinyl booths. A jukebox comes to life whenever I glance its way, spontaneously playing one of my favorite songs. Maybell's Coffee Shop AU is the most beautiful place I can imagine, and I've imagined lots of places.
The fog breaks on cue. I glance up, on high alert, knowing what happens next because it's happened before a hundred times. A story with a scripted beginning and boundless possibilities for how it might end.
The man who throws open the door is tall, broad shouldered, strong jawed, in a suit of blackest black. Dark blond hair falls in tousled wet waves that make me think of a fallen angel who almost drowned, thrust out of the sea by Poseidon and made alive again with a lightning strike. If he were in color, his eyes would be topaz-a glass of root beer held up to the light.
He's all edges and shadow, black and white. Raindrops sheeting off the windowpane behind him project onto the right half of his face like a monochrome film reel, and his gaze sweeps the café before settling on me. I suck in a deep breath, gripping the counter to stay tethered. This is the moment I've been waiting for all my life.
"I've been looking everywhere for you," he tells me. "Why haven't you returned my calls?"
My having seen all of this before does nothing to dull the elation of seeing it again. Joy bursts in my chest, no room for air. "Jack! What if someone sees you here?"
"I don't care anymore." He leaps over the counter to gather me up in a passionate embrace. "I'm not hiding us. Yes, you're a coffee shop girl and I'm the prince of Effluvia. What does it matter? I love you. That's all there is to it."
"You love me?"
This is my favorite part, the love-declaring. I rewind so that I can hear it again, and make some small adjustments for dramatic flair.
"Yes, you're a coffee shop girl and I'm the prince of Effluvia," he repeats, a bouquet of stargazer lilies materializing in his left hand. And in his right, a glittering engagement ring. I silently mouth the rest of his lines along with him. "What does it matter? I love you. That's all there is to it."
"But . . . the monarchy," I whisper against his shoulder. "They don't want us to be together."
"They can't stop us. Our love is a force too powerful to be defied."
"Maybell," I hear a faraway voice chirrup. I rearrange the sound into background noise, letters becoming rustling leaves.
Jack lowers to one knee. The stargazer lilies triple in size. A string quartet appears.
"My beloved . . . light of my life . . ." Jack clears his throat, but my gaze flits uneasily to reflections that don't belong here. They stir in the silver napkin dispenser, the coffeepot, the gleaming backsplash, like they're two-way mirrors. A tiny knob on the vintage rotary landline, boxy and beige, lights up red a half second before the phone's metallic ring interrupts Jack's proposal.
"You are the most special person I've ever met," Jack begins, totally oblivious, tears in his eyes. "Intelligent. Beautiful. Capable. Unparalleled. There's nobody else like Maybell Parrish." According to my schedule, we're going to kiss in thirteen seconds. The passionate kiss that follows the declaration of love is another very favorite part. It's the essential ingredient to every romance that ensures it bakes properly.
The red light is impossible to ignore now. A piece of masking tape at the knob's base glows with each flash, bringing my handwriting into sharp focus. irl calling.
I wave impatiently for Jack to speed it up, but before we can get to the Will you marry me and the inevitable Yes, a thousand times, yes, mainlining serotonin directly into my brain to get me through the next two hours of my shift, a disembodied hand touches my shoulder.
The proposal hits pause. I smile wistfully at this perfect man and his perfectly love-struck, adoring expression. He would move mountains for me. He would walk the earth for me. He would avenge and protect and come back from the dead for me. Really, the only bad thing about Jack McBride is that he doesn't exist.
A sidewinder of white light blows across the café, shattering windows. My ears are ringing, my vision patchy as it adjusts. I drop out of the clouds of my dissolving happy place and back into the here and now, which is the last place I want to be. And standing before me, with her unwelcome hand on my shoulder, is the last person I want to see.
Gemma Peterson doesn't realize that, of course. She thinks we're BFFs.
"Hello! Earth to Maybell!" She snaps her fingers in front of my face. "Someone threw up all over the second-floor ice machine. Projectile vomit."
I groan. The here and now is Around the Mountain Resort & Spa, a Southern charm-infused hotel and indoor water park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. All the appeal of an old-fashioned timber lodge, but with souvenir shops, HBO, and a lazy river.
When I'm not zoning out into imaginary worlds, I'm planning fun guest activities as the newly promoted event coordinator, and then getting my ideas shot down by my co-coordinator, Christine. Up until New Year's Day, I worked here as a housekeeper, so getting flagged down with reports of vomit on ice machines was par for the course. Unfortunately, it's now April first and people are still running to me with these issues. It's as if the promotion never happened.
"That's for housekeeping," I remind Gemma.
"Oh, you're right! I'm just used to . . ." She bestows a huge smile on me, hooking her arm in mine as I pick up my pace down the hallway. I check the time on my phone and internally despair. My detour into the coffee shop in the sky only burned through ten minutes? I just want to go home, throw all the memories of this place into an incinerator, and sleep facedown on the couch for twelve hours. "Wanna play hooky in the arcade?" Gemma asks. "The claw machine's actually grabbing prizes today."
"We'll get in trouble with Paul."
Paul's the Big Boss, and while it's true that I'd probably get chewed out for losing to rigged Skee-Ball on the clock, Gemma's his daughter and can do whatever she wants. She gets paid five dollars an hour more than I do to stand in the lobby wearing a cutesy train conductor's costume, informing guests in an exaggerated twang that RainForest Adventures Zoo is only five miles down the road, visit the customer service desk for coupons! Then she disappears to the pool for the rest of the afternoon.
It's hard to hate Gemma-she's fun and bubbly. What's not to like? After she was fired from a string of jobs, Paul got rid of seventy-four-year-old Dennis, a veteran, to make room for her at Around the Mountain. She latched on to me on day one. Gemma brings me banana nut bread samples from our resort's breakfast bar, Sunrise in the Smokies, and is enthusiastic about everything I say even if it's just chatting about needing to get groceries. Whenever I wear new jewelry, she zeroes right in on it with an ego-inflating compliment. The only bad thing about Gemma is tangled up in the only bad thing about Jack McBride.
For a period of two wonderful months, I thought he was real. I look at Gemma now, radiant with friendliness, and I want to adore her to bits. But I can't.
"Did I tell you that Eric and I are moving in together?" she asks, steering me away from the direction in which I was heading. We turn left at the end of a corridor, fading out the constant loop of "Welcome to Around the Mountain Resort and Spa!" that blares from a big screen in the lobby, cartoon bear cub in a straw hat pointing at a map of entertainment options.
"I don't have time for the arcade right now." I strain to present myself as nice, harmless, nonthreatening, even though I wish I could be direct and assertive. Slipping up for even a moment and forgetting that Gemma has Paul's ear is dangerous. "I've gotta talk to Christine."
Gemma makes a face. "Christine's the worst. You don't want to talk to her."
"I don't want to, no, but I have some new ideas about-"
"Honey." She laughs. "I love you, but you know it's never happening. Christine's too obsessed with weddings. I heard her discussing your Halloween dinner theater idea with Dad and basically she thinks that sort of stuff degrades the resort and makes it less appealing as a venue. We get so much money for weddings, you know, so that's got star priority."
"When did she say that? She told me she was considering-"
"Anyway," she interrupts, "Eric and I are moving in together next week! Can you believe it? We're gonna throw a huge housewarming party. You're at the top of the list, so you'd better come, no excuses. And bring those amazing cinnamon twist donuts of yours! Everybody's gonna love them."
I'm still pissed about Christine's disregarding my contributions yet again, but a new irritation sidetracks me. My donuts are amazing, but when Gemma compliments them, I second-guess what the truth is because she lies all the time for no reason. Maybe she's lying about how much she loves the cinnamon twists, too.
"We need to get you a man, Maybell," she's saying now, dragging me over to Whack-a-Mole. She bangs her mallet with a scary degree of violence for someone so petite. "Then we can double-date! It'll be so fun, having both of my favorite people together with me." She beats the crap out of the plastic rodents as she talks, silky brown hair tumbling from her ponytail.
Gemma has such an abundance of nerve that it makes me question my own sanity. I know I didn't imagine the last few months because Gemma apologizes for them incessantly, bringing it up at least once a week. Her apologies are reality-warping mysteries that somehow end with me comforting her, and reassuring her, about everything that happened. "Everything That Happened" is how Gemma, Paul, and my other coworkers phrase what she did: a thick coat of sugar slathered over one of the most depressing experiences of my adult life.
"Your turn." She hands me the mallet, which means I'm the one who looks bad when Christine happens to walk by. Fantastic.
"Are you on break?" Christine barks at me. No attitude for Gemma, naturally. Gemma could be holding a chain saw dangling human innards and Christine would find a way to praise her for it.
"I stole her away for a second," Gemma replies, fixing on an angel's smile. "Blame me, not Maybell."
Christine holds my stare. "If you have time to waste, you have time to work. There's vomit on the ice machine and all over the walls on floor two."
It's on the walls, too? Good lord. "But-"
As she turns away, I gather up the courage to call out, "Have you finished reading my proposal for the scavenger hunt?"
"We tried a scavenger hunt in 2018," she says without turning. "Nobody was into it."
"I think the pirate theme would be fun for kids."
She claps her hands three times. "Get! To! Work!"
Gemma waits until she's out of earshot and pats my shoulder. "Ugh, I hate her, too. I think she's having an affair with my dad."
"I don't hate her," I'm quick to say, simultaneously imagining pushing Christine into the lazy river. Gemma probably waits until I'm out of earshot to whisper, Ugh, I hate her, too, about me to other people. At least now I have an excuse to leave. "Gotta go clean up, I guess." Two hours. Two more hours and then I can go home.
She slides away to a game called Ticket Jackpot. "Wish me luck!"
Padding down the dark green hall, I replay Christine's words and am strongly tempted to rip off my "Event Coordinator" badge. After changing trash bags, making beds, and bleaching Jacuzzis from the time I turned eighteen, I'd moved out of housekeeping just before hitting thirty and into an arena where I could finally flex my creative skills. Now I'm told the events I want to produce are too big, too niche, or too much. No matter what I do, I'm perpetually ending up alone in a room with a roll of paper towels under my arm and cleaning supplies to take care of somebody else's mess.
"I'm going to quit," I grumble. It's my personal anthem, which I sing every day. "Job is in title only. This is stupid. It's stupid!"
Caleb Ramirez nods in greeting as he walks by, likely on his way to Sunrise in the Smokies, where he works. Seeing him is like being stabbed with a very small pin, because he was the unwitting catalyst for Everything That Happened. Unfortunate, because Caleb's such a great guy. The only bad thing about him is that once, several months ago, we shared a bag of popcorn together in the break room and he mentioned he liked my sneakers. I'm bad at receiving compliments, habitually reciprocating with a compliment of my own to erase the one given to me, and I said I liked his car. He grinned. I'll take you for a ride sometime.
Gemma, who falls in love about a dozen times a year and falls hard, had a huge crush on Caleb. As I came to find out, on a deceptively ordinary Wednesday evening two months afterward, with Gemma snotting all over my shirt as she wrapped her arms around me and wouldn't let me squirm away, she'd simply done what she thought she had to do. She was sorry. She was insecure and desperately in love. People who are in love can't think straight, don't act normally. Please don't hate me. I couldn't keep it going any longer, my hair's starting to fall out and I'm losing sleep.
Gemma had catfished me with a fake Tinder profile.
I'm nursing some conflicted feelings over this because I wasn't the victim of a personal vendetta; I was collateral damage in Gemma's quest to keep the object of her affections single and available. Now that it's over, I'm less surprised-a couple months before it happened, a guy loafing about the lobby asked me where the ATM was. While leading him there, we got to talking a little bit, just innocent chitchat, which culminated in his asking for my number. I was doing my job. Being friendly. I did not flirt with him.