The long gravel drive wound its way up and through towering oaks whose spiny, brown leaves refused to lose their grip on life. The gloom of twilight, along with twenty-mile-per-hour wind gusts and snow flurries, cast eerie shadows across the road, forcing Evie Steele to reduce her speed with every switchback.
At times, the grade was so steep that the road disappeared beneath the hood of her Nissan Rogue.
Deke Conrad tensed beside her, his hand choking the door grip as if bracing for imminent death.
“Tell me again why we’re doing this?” he asked.
“Do you really want to distract me, right now?”
For anyone who grew up in the mountains, switchbacks and steep roads were part of their daily driving lives. She could always tell the transplants from the locals. Locals took switchbacks as if they were on a straightaway and had someplace they needed to be. Transplants—well, she could run the switchbacks faster.
But as the road disappeared again, she had to admit that this was one of the steepest inclines she’d ever driven and her heart had held its breath more than once in the past ten minutes.
After they crested the next rise and zigzagged down the other side, the topography slowly leveled out. A clear mountain stream rippled alongside the road and a vista of short grasses broken up by rocky outcroppings and framed by layers of emerald evergreens climbing up the distant ridge opened up before them.
“This,” she breathed, “is why we’re doing this.” Her brother, Britt, once said that the Southern Appalachian Mountains were one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, or temperate world, or something like that. Basically, a lot of cool plants and animals called these mountains home.
Exploring a new area was one reason she’d settled on this place. The other was to get her busy family together for a bit of fun before the holidays.
“I’m driving down the mountain,” Deke announced.
“I got us here without a single plunge to our deaths.”
“Which means you have used up all of your luck.”
“Pfft. Incredible skill got us here alive, not luck.”
“I’m driving back.”
“You’re a lousy passenger.”
“I didn’t scream once.”
“No, but you’ve left a permanent indent around my door.”
He nodded at something ahead. “There she is.”
Above the stark canopy of winter branches, a dark blue-gray cupola with white trim appeared. Seconds later, the tangle of nature unraveled to reveal a mansion, of the same color scheme, that looked like it had once been a church in medieval Europe. The bed-and-breakfast’s website referred to the architectural style as Gothic Revival.
A cartoon image of bats flapping around the peak of the Addams Family house flashed through Evie’s mind. The B&B wasn’t too far off the mark. Total badass.
“It’s huge.” His breath fogged the windshield as he bent to get a closer look.
“Eight bedrooms, seven bathrooms, six thousand square feet. All ours for the next three days.”
“Ours and a boatload of Steeles.”
She glanced at his profile and her heart sank. Having come from a much smaller, not super close-knit family, Deke sometimes struggled with the chaos that occurred when the Steeles gathered together.
Even now, his easygoing, fun-loving nature was shifting. By the time he greeted the first family member, a layer of careful reserve would coat his every word, gesture, and expression. He would become a silent, watchful stranger, rather than the man she fell in love with, the one who would chat up a fly if left too long alone.
This new Deke confused her. He’d been around her family for years, being her brother Britt’s best friend. He’d slept at their house, ate at their table, crapped in their toilet.
But once they started dating, Proper Deke materialized. She didn’t care much for him and hadn’t found the Hermione spell to make him disappear.
Two sets of five parking spaces lined up on opposite sides of the mansion’s main entrance. A brilliant design detail that left the impressive front facade open to approaching guests and awed photographers.
Large ceramic pots, overflowing with evergreen branches, pine cones, white birchbark limbs, and red berries, sat like welcoming sentries on each side of the entrance. A beautiful wreath, with similar decorations and a voluminous silver-and-blue bow, consumed much of the front door. Streamers of twinkling clear lights ran the length of the covered porch.
It was picture-perfect. A selfie enthusiast’s heaven.
After claiming a parking spot, she turned off the engine, cutting off the pop music and fan pumping heat into the vehicle’s cabin. Silence settled around them, abrupt and heavy.
Then the tweet of a bird and the chirp of a hardy insect broke through, righting the world once again. She reached over and covered Deke’s hand, where it rested on his thigh. “Ready?”
He continued to take in his surroundings as if he was looking for a tripwire. An alertness that had nothing to do with the impending arrival of her crazy family took hold of his features.
“I didn’t realize this place would be so isolated.”
“The remote location is part of the B and B’s charm.”
As a commander of an elite team of special forces, he’d developed an incredible sixth sense. A gift she trusted and one that had saved her life not so long ago.
But this was ridiculous.
“Are you sure your Gandalf-power isn’t hypersensitive because you don’t want to be here?”
“I didn’t say I don’t want to be here.”
“You haven’t exactly been jumping for joy.”
“I love your family, Evie, but they’re your family. You can be yourself. I have to be on all of the time for fear of accidentally offending someone.”
“I offend at least one of them at every get-together.”
“And they forgive you because you’re family. Me? They will tolerate and then talk about me later.”
“That’s not true—”
“It is. Think about the conversation you and your mom had about Brynne the other day.”
Evie took a breath to argue and then memory struck. “I just didn’t understand why she wouldn’t—”
“The reason doesn’t matter,” he said, cutting her off. “No one wants to be the topic of family gossip. So I try to keep myself off everyone’s lips.”
Guilt gnawed at Evie’s insides. For as far back as she could remember, she had always had “after-party” discussions, reliving the evening, getting everyone’s perspective. She never thought of those chats as gossip or as vessels of hurt.
He reached over and squeezed her thigh. “It’s not unique to your family or to women. Guys do it, too.” His attention returned to the ornate mansion. “But my feelings about this weekend have nothing to do with my instincts about this place.”
Still smarting from the realization that she could’ve hurt someone with her idle chatter, she said, “Please don’t make this into one of your missions. I want us all to have fun and be able to spend time together, free of distractions.”
A muscle flickered in his jaw.
“At least keep your grim observations out of Mama’s hearing.” She softened her voice. “Please, Deke. I don’t want to upset her. She’s had enough excitement over the past few years.”
His chest rose on a deep inhalation, then he propped his elbow on the center console and leaned toward her. With the pad of his index finger, he tipped up her chin. His sexy lopsided smile pushing back his uncompromising mood. “Your wish is my command, m’lady Squirt.”
“I love it when you go all medieval.”
His nose nuzzled hers in a playful dip and slide movement that let her know that their difficult exchange was behind them. It was one of the things she loved best about him. He never stayed mad at her, no matter how hard they quarreled.
“And I love it when you—” he whispered in her ear.
She laughed, swatting at his wandering hands. “Later.”
The laughter on his face died when his ice-blue eyes landed on something over her shoulder. Evie’s breath caught in the back of her throat until she turned to find her mother standing on the other side of the driver’s door, her hand raised to knock on the windshield.
Deke pulled away, and the temperature inside the vehicle chilled a good ten degrees.
Sighing, she forced on her best mischievous grin and opened the door. “Hi, Mama.”
“Sorry, dear.” Her mother glanced at Deke as he exited the passenger side. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Don’t be silly. We were just goofing around.”
“Hello, Miss Joan.” Walking around the vehicle, Deke gave her a warm hug and kissed her cheek.
“I’m glad you could join us. We missed you at the potluck we held for the town’s servicemembers.”
“I would rather have been there, but work—”
She patted his forearm. “No need to explain. All you young people are so busy. Wears me out trying to keep up with y’all.” Joan glanced over at her husband while repositioning the strap of her Vera Wang bag on her shoulder. “Would you mind helping Eddy with our luggage, Deke? The stubborn man’s been having lower back issues, but he’s bound and determined to heft those bags all the way to our room just to prove he has the body of a twenty-nine- year-old.”
“I’m on it.”
Evie jumped out and hugged her mom. “It’s good to see you, Mama.”
“You too, sweetheart.” Her gaze followed Deke as he made his way over to her husband. “Is he going to be okay?”
“Who? Daddy? Or Deke?”
“Your man. My man will outlive us all.”
“Don’t worry about Deke. He’s still adjusting to his new role in the family.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s more than Britt’s best friend now.”
Mom smiled. “Wasn’t he always?”
Heat suffused the tips of her ears. “Were our feelings that obvious?”
For nearly a decade, she and Deke had suppressed their attraction for each other. It wasn’t until they were cooped up together in an RV for two weeks that they allowed their feelings to rise to the surface—and explode.
“I’m your mother,” she said, as if the title gave her omniscience. “Come on, let’s take a peek inside.”
Opening the rear liftgate, Evie pulled out their carry-on bags. As she hit the button to close the back of her vehicle, Grif and Carlie Beth Steele’s hot minivan zoomed into a parking stall next to them.
Carlie Beth jumped out first. “Morning y’all.”
Another round of hugs and kisses were exchanged.
“No girls?” Mom asked.
Carlie Beth shook her head. “Sandy and Ross heard about our get-together this weekend and offered to watch our girls and the Robbins kids for Britt and Randi. They adore hanging out at the Kingston Family Farm and were especially excited to help with preparations for the Bigfoot festival.”
“I can’t wait.” A small mischievous smile twinkled in Joan’s eyes. “It’s going to be fun.”
“Holidays and Bigfoot. It’s an interesting combination, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s the Kingston clan.”
Joan noticed the hard lines around Grif’s eyes and mouth. “What’s the matter, son?”
“Aubrey’s been hanging out with a boy.”
“That happens,” Evie said, grinning.
“He’s a football player.”
“He’s two years older.”
“Evie,” Mom warned. “I don’t think your brother’s in the mood for your teasing.”
“Who said I was teasing?”
Grif growled and lunged for her, but Carlie Beth hooked her arm around his. “We’ll call Aubrey once we're settled in.”
“She will accuse me of not trusting her again,” he said.
“Do you?” Evie asked. “Trust her?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I don’t trust him.”
“Aren’t you an agent for football players?”
“Which is why I don’t trust him.”
Evie shook her head. “I’ve seen Aubrey in action. She has her mama’s don’t f—” She shot her mom an apologetic look. ‟—eff with me stare. The guy will keep his pants on.” His lips and hands, not so much.
Mom patted her son’s cheek. “Let her unfold, Grif. All she needs is to know that you and Carlie Beth are there if the winds get too strong.”
Carlie Beth pulled out of her phone and started typing away. “That’s good, Miss Joan.”
“Are you writing down what she said?” Grif asked.
“I take note of all your mom’s gems of wisdom. I’ll need a stash for when we’re grandparents.”
Grif groaned. “Can we first get through high school?”
The excited blare of a horn sailed into the clearing, heralding Reid and Brynne Steele’s arrival.
Her brother cranked the wheel at the last minute and his big truck pulled up alongside them. With an arm propped over the steering wheel, Reid bent forward and peered at them through the open passenger window. “Hello, Schmucks.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “And Mama.”
Brynne rolled her eyes. “Someone had too much caffeine today.” She smiled. “Hello, family.”
“Let us out,” snarled her brother Britt from the backseat. The distinct sound of a door handle rattling followed his command.
“Stop your whining.” Grinning, Reid backed into the nearest stall with the force of a rocket. Once he cut the engine, Britt and his fiancée Randi Shepherd poured out of the back of the extended cab, holding their stomachs.
Mom rushed over. “Are you two okay?”
Britt cut a savage look toward Reid. “Nothing a little time in the backyard won’t cure.”
Although Reid was a big guy and, with his military background, probably knew how to kill someone a dozen different ways, he’d never been able to best his big brother in a fight.
“There will be no violence on this trip, boys.” Mom hugged Reid and Brynne, then pointed toward Eddy and Deke. “Go see what’s keeping your father, please.”
Twining his fingers with Brynne’s, Reid strode toward the other two men.
Mom dug into her purse and produced a small sleeve of crackers, handing a few to both Randi and Britt. “Eat these. They’ll settle your stomachs.”
“Thank you, Miss Joan,” Randi accepted the gift and gave her soon-to-be mother-in-law a squeeze.
Britt kissed Mom’s cheek. “Do you always carry crackers in your purse?”
“A mother is always prepared.” Her lips twitched. “Especially when riding with your father.”
Evie glanced down the drive. “Now we just need Micki and Jonah.”
“They’re not coming,” Grif said in a tone that conveyed his displeasure.
Evie’s good mood dimmed. “Why not?”
“Something came up. An opportunity they couldn’t pass up or some shi— ” He checked himself. “—stuff.”
“An opportunity over family?” Evie couldn’t contain her frustration. She’d spent weeks putting this event together. She’d confirmed and double-confirmed everybody’s schedule. “What about Tessa and Gage?”
Grif shook his head.
Mom put her hand on Evie’s arm. “It must be something important. You know the twins would be here, otherwise.”
Did she? Jonah, yes. For years, he’d plotted and manipulated events in order to bring their family back together. But Micki? Her big sister was still a mystery, in so many ways, despite how close they’d become since her return home. Through most of Evie’s childhood, Micki had lived in Vegas. In exile.
Self-imposed exile to protect the family, she reminded herself.
She blew out a resigned breath, knowing it would take something important to keep Micki away this weekend, too. But she was still peeved with both of them for not giving her the heads-up. Inconsiderate boobs.
“What’s the matter, Squirt?” Britt asked. “Aren’t we good enough company for you?” He wrapped a big arm around her neck and rubbed his knuckles on the crown of her head.
“Let go,” she smacked his hard stomach, “you big oaf.”
He bent over, looking as though he’d spew his lunch. That’s when she remembered he was still recovering from Reid’s wild ride up the mountain.
“That’ll teach you to treat your adult sister like she’s ten years old,” Randi said, massaging his back.
Rubbing her burning scalp, Evie glanced around and recounted bodies. “Looks like we’re all here then.” She nodded toward the house. “Let’s check in.”
Pausing at the bottom of the stairs, she picked up her bags and ascended the wide flagstone steps leading to the wraparound porch. Wooden rocking and white Adirondack chairs dotted the space.
Before she could knock, a preteen boy, wearing a stocking cap with tassled ear flaps, opened the door.
“Hello,” she said, her customary cheerfulness back in place.
“What do you want?”
Her smile faltered under the boy’s direct—too direct—gaze. “We’re here to check in.”
“No one is supposed to be here this weekend.”
Dread socked her hard in the chest. “I confirmed my reservation with Nora last night.” She tried to look past the boy and into the house, but he drew the door closed even more, squeezing himself half in and half out.
“You got a confirmation receipt?”
“Is Nora your mother?”
An awful silence settled in the group behind her, and twin streaks of fear and embarrassment stabbed her chest. Had something happened with her reservation between last night and today? Had everyone come all this way for nothing? Where was the owner? And who was this snot-nosed brat?
“Please go get—”
A large warm hand rested on her lower back a moment before Deke asked, “Problem?”
She gritted her teeth and dug into her purse for the printout of her reservation. Technology was great, but it wasn’t always reliable, especially in the mountains.
“This young man would like to see a confirmation of our stay.”
“Didn’t you book the whole house?”
“Yeess.” Locating the sheet of paper, she unfolded it and held it out for the militant’s inspection.
He made to take it, but she jerked the sheet out of his reach. She pointed to her name and reservation date. “As you can see, we’re supposed to be here. All weekend.”
“How do I know that’s you? Got any ID?”
Her patience at an end, she took a threatening step toward the punk. “Where’s Nora, you little—?”
Deke’s arm snaked around her waist at the same time a diminutive woman with brown skin, dark eyes, and thick, black shoulder-length hair appeared. She wrangled something out of the hand the boy kept hidden behind the door. Evie caught a glint of metal before the woman dropped the item into the depths of her coat pocket.
Giving the boy’s shoulder a hard nudge, she said, “Georgie, load their bags on the service lift and take them to their rooms.”
With absolutely no concern about the threat still vibrating in Evie’s body, the boy grabbed her and Deke’s bags and hauled them inside.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear y’all pull up,” the woman said. “I was out back, filling the bird feeders.”
Evie cocked her head at the woman’s unusual accent. It sounded like a cross between New Zealand and Southern. Her cousin Riley had once told her about the Māori, an ancient Polynesian culture that settled on New Zealand centuries ago. If Evie guessed the accent right, she wondered if Māori was part of the woman’s ancestry. And if so, what was she doing in the sticks of North Carolina.
“Georgie kept us entertained,” Deke said with his most charming smile.
“My apologies. He can get a bit...bored up here.” She gifted them with their first welcoming smile. “I’m Nora Ngata—your cook, cleaner, hostess, or whatever you need for the next seventy-two hours.”
Evie dug down deep for her earlier excitement and made the introductions. “We’re happy to be here. Metamora Inn has an amazing reputation.”
“I hope you’ll agree, by the end of your visit.” Nora stepped aside and waved toward the door as Georgie returned for more luggage. “How about y’all come inside, so I can hand out your room keys and get you settled.”
While they piled inside, Nora went to sit behind a beautiful wooden desk with ornate carvings anchoring each corner of the massive piece of furniture. Much to Evie’s surprise, the innkeeper remembered everyone’s names and seemed to have keen insight into each couple’s desires.
She placed Grif and Carlie Beth in a room with a desk and a beautiful wrought iron balcony, Reid and Brynne got the one closest to the small workout center, Britt and Randi lucked out with an amazing long-range view of the mountains, and Joan and Eddy had access to a private patio garden. As for her and Deke, they would make good use of their massive Jacuzzi tub.
Once everyone stood with a key in hand, Nora said, “Supper is at six o’clock sharp, breakfast eight o’clock sharp, and lunch twelve-thirty sharp.”
“At what sharp will we get to kill someone?” Reid asked.
Nora leveled a you’re-not-as-funny-as-you-think-you-are look on him.
“What my dear brother meant to ask,” Evie shot the big lug a death stare of her own, “is when will the murder mystery start?”
The innkeeper’s focus slid from Reid’s unrepentant smirk to Evie. “It’s already begun.”