Willowleaf Lane Excerpt

Willowleaf Lane

Copyright RaeAnne Thayne. All Rights Reserved.

Release: July 2013, HQN

Charlotte Caine considered herself a pretty good judge of character.

Being morbidly obese most of her life, until the serious changes she had made the last year, had given her an interesting insight into human nature. She wanted to think she had seen the best and the worst in people. Some people pretended she was invisible, others had been visibly disgusted, as if afraid being fat might rub off on them, while others treated her with true kindness.

Given her skills in that particular arena, she liked to play a game with herself, trying to guess the candy preferences of the customers coming into her store. Jawbreakers? Lemon drops? Or some of her heavenly fudge? Which would they pick?

Willowleaf Lane
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When Sugar Rush was slow, like right now on a lazy July late afternoon, it made a pleasant way to pass the time.

By the looks of the skinny preteen with the too-heavy eye makeup, Charlotte guessed she would pick a couple packs of chewing gum and maybe a handful of the sourballs the kids seemed to love, for some reason Charlotte didn’t understand.

But she could be wrong.

“Is there something I can help you with?” she finally asked with a smile when the girl appeared to dither in front of the long counter that held the hand-dipped chocolates.

The girl shrugged without meeting her eye. With all that makeup, the dark hair, the pale features, Charlotte was reminded of a curious little raccoon.

“Don’t know yet,” she answered. “I haven’t decided.”

She stopped in front of the fudge, her gaze going back and forth between items inside the display.

“The blackberry fudge is particularly delicious today, if I do say so myself,” Charlotte said helpfully after a moment. “It’s one of my better batches.”

The girl looked from the silky fudge to Charlotte. “You made it? For real?”

Charlotte had to smile at the disbelief in her voice. “Cross my heart. The brand-name candy in my store comes from a distributor, but Sugar Rush produced everything in this display case.”

She didn’t try to keep the pride out of her voice. She had every reason to be happy at the success of Sugar Rush. She had built the gourmet candy store up from nothing to become one of the busiest establishments in the resort town of Hope’s Crossing, Colorado. She had two other full-time employees and four part-time and might have to expand that in the future, given the rapid growth in her online orders.

“Wow. That looks like a ton of work.”

“It can be.” She loved the candy-making part of her work but hated the inevitable accounting required in running a small business. “It’s interesting work, though. Have you ever seen anybody dip chocolates by hand?”

Her young customer shook her head even as an older couple came into the store. They had probably come from the big RV she could see parked in a miraculously open spot. She smiled at them as they migrated instantly to the boxed jellybeans displayed against the far wall.

“It’s pretty cool. My crew usually starts first thing in the morning and wraps it up by about noon, when it starts to get too warm for things to set up.”

When she first opened the store, Charlotte had made everything herself but she inevitably ran out of inventory by the end of each day. Now she had three people who came to her back kitchen before six a.m. to hand-dip the sweets. She still made most of the fudge herself, prepared in the traditional copper pots with wooden spoons.

“You’re welcome to come watch,” she said. “Are you staying in town long?”

“I really hope not,” the girl muttered fervently, her expression dark.

“Oh, ouch.” Charlotte smiled. “Some of us actually choose to live in Hope’s Crossing, you know. We like it here.”

The girl fiddled with the strap on her messenger bag adorned with buttons and pins. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I’m sure it’s a nice town and all. But nobody asked me if I wanted to move here. Nobody cares about what I think about anything.”

Sympathy welled up inside Charlotte. She knew very well what it was to be this age, feeling like her life was spinning completely out of her control.

Who was she kidding? She had spent most of her life feeling out of control.

“So you’re moving here. Welcome! You know, you might discover you really like it here. Stranger things have happened.”

“I doubt that.”

“Give it some time. Talk to me again after you’ve been here a few weeks. I’m Charlotte, by the way. Charlotte Caine.”

“Peyton,” the girl mumbled and Charlotte had the strange feeling the omission of her last name had been quite deliberate. The fairly unusual name struck a chord somewhere in her subconscious but she couldn’t quite place where she might have heard it before.

“Would you like to sample a couple of the flavors so you can choose?”

“Is that okay?”

“Sure. We give customers sample tastes all the time. It’s quite sneaky, actually. One taste and I’ve generally hooked them.”

Sample bits of the different variations of fudge were arranged in a covered glass cake tray on the countertop. She removed the lid and after a moment’s scrutiny, separated a few flavors onto one of the pretty plastic filigree sample plates she kept for that purpose then handed it to the girl.

“These are our three most popular flavors. Blackberry, peanut butter and white chocolate.”

She waited while the girl tried them and had to smile when her eyes glazed a little with pleasure after each taste. She loved watching people enjoy her creations, even though she hardly tried them herself anymore except to taste for flavor mixes.

“Those is so good! Wow.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you like it.”

“No. Seriously good! I don’t know to choose. It’s all so yummy.”

“See why the samples are a sneaky idea?”

“Yeah. Totally. Okay, I guess I’ll take a pound of the blackberry and a pound of the peanut butter.”

“Good choices.” Two pounds of fudge was a large amount, but maybe Peyton had a big family to share it with.

“Oh, and I’ll take a pound of the cinnamon bears. I love cinnamon.”

Charlotte smiled. “Same here. Cinnamon is my favorite.”

She enjoyed finding yet another point of commonality between them. Maybe that explained her sympathy for the girl, who appeared so lost and unhappy.

While Charlotte hadn’t been uprooted at this tender age to a new community, she might as well have been. Her entire world, her whole perspective, had undergone a dramatic continental shift at losing her mother. She had felt like she was living in a new world, one where nobody else could possibly understand her pain.

While she cut, weighed and wrapped the fudge, Peyton wandered around the store looking at some of the Colorado souvenirs Charlotte stocked.

The husband half of the older couple clutched a bag with saltwater taffy while his wife had several boxes of jellybeans in her arms. The two of them moved to the chocolate display and started debating the merits of dipped cashews versus cherries.

Charlotte smiled politely, waiting for the argument to play out. When Peyton approached the cash register, Charlotte held out the bag of sweets.

“Here you go,” she said.

“Thanks.” Instead of taking it immediately, Peyton reached into her bag and pulled out a hard-sided snap wallet with splashy pink flowers on a black background. She pulled out a credit card and Charlotte spied several more inside the wallet.

She felt a moment’s disquiet. Why would a girl barely on the brink of adolescence need multiple credit cards? Had she stolen them? she wondered fleetingly, but discarded the idea just as quickly.

She had certainly been wrong about people before. She would be delusional to believe her instincts were foolproof. History would certainly bear that out. She had instinctively liked Peyton, though, and didn’t want to believe her a thief.

She probably had self-absorbed, indulgent parents – divorced, more than likely – who thought throwing another credit card at her would fix any heartbreak or trauma.

Charlotte slid the card back across the clear counter. “Tell you what. No charge. Why don’t you consider this a welcome-to-Hope’s-Crossing sort of thing?”

Peyton’s mouth dropped open a little and she stared at Charlotte, obviously astonished by the simple kindness. “Seriously?”

“Sure. It’s a gift for you and your family.”

At her words, the look in Peyton’s dark eyes shifted from incredulity to a quiet sort of despair before she veiled her expression.

“I don’t have a family,” she declared, her voice small but with a hint of defiance.

Was she a runaway? Charlotte wondered. Should she be alerting Riley McKnight, the police chief of Hope’s Crossing, so he could help reunite her with whomever she had escaped? With the vague idea of keeping the girl talking so she could glean as much information as possible, she glanced at the other couple and saw they were busy sampling every variety of fudge.

“Nobody at all?” she asked.

Peyton shrugged, the movement barely rippling her thin shoulders inside the T-shirt that looked a size or two too large. “I had a mom but she died last year.”

Ah. Maybe that explained her instant empathy, that subtle connection she felt for the girl.

“I’m sorry. My mom died when I was about your age too. Sucks, doesn’t it?”

Peyton made a sound that could have been snort or a rough laugh. “You could say that.”

“So who do you live with, then?” she asked with studied casualness.

“My stupid dad,” Peyton said and Charlotte felt herself relax. Okay. The girl had a dad. One she wasn’t crazy about, apparently. No need to jump to conclusions because she said she had no family.

“Where is your dad?”

She pointed out the door. “He stopped to take a phone call. I got bored waiting around so I came in here.”

“No brothers or sisters?”

“No. Just me.”

“So you and your dad are moving to Hope’s Crossing together?”

“Yeah.” Her mouth tightened. “He took a job here even though I told him I didn’t want to move. I had to leave all my friends in Portland, my best friend Victoria, this boy I like, Carson, and the mall and everything. This dumb town doesn’t have any good stores.”

She, for one, had hated clothes shopping when she was Peyton’s age. Even before her mom died, she had been pudgy, with plenty of baby fat that stubbornly clung on. After, the pounds just piled on until she couldn’t find a single thing that fit in any store except what she had considered the fat old lady stores.

Now her favorite thing was to go into a clothing store and actually have choices.

“We have a pretty decent bookstore and a couple of nice boutiques that specifically cater to teens. And a killer candy store,” she added with a smile.

Peyton didn’t look thrilled about any of those offerings. “Yeah. I guess. It’s not the same as Portland. I could buy anything there.”

She wasn’t sure the shopping options was the measure of what made a good town, but she decided not to offer that particular opinion.

“The good news is, as long as you’ve got an Internet connection, you can still find everything you like. And Denver’s only a few hours’ drive.”

“I guess that’s true.”

Peyton still didn’t look convinced of the wonders of Hope’s Crossing. Charlotte couldn’t blame her. Change could be tough for anyone, especially a young girl who had no control over her own circumstances.

“Thanks for the fudge,” she said.

“You’re welcome. Come back anytime. Next time maybe I’ll have cinnamon fudge for you.”

“You make that? Really?”

“Sure. It’s generally something I make only around the holidays but I’ll see about a special order.”

The small cowbell hanging on the door rang out. Charlotte looked up from Peyton, donning her customary friendly smile of greeting ­– then the smile and everything else inside her froze when she caught sight of the man who just walked through.

Oh crap.

Her stomach dived like the time she accidentally wandered into a black-diamond ski run when her older brother Dylan took her up to the resort once.

“There you are.” The man was gorgeous, with a square jawline, a slim elegant nose and hazel eyes fringed by long lashes.

Smokin’ Hot Spencer Gregory. The cameras and sports magazines had loved him, once upon a time.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to leave? One minute you were there, the next I turned around and you were gone.”

The curious girl who had tasted Charlotte’s fudge with such appreciation disappeared, replaced by a sullen, angry creature who glowered at the man.

“I did,” she muttered. “I said wanted to come in here. I said it like three times. I guess you were too busy with your phone call to notice.”

He frowned. “Pey, you can’t just wander off. I was worried about you.”

“What did you think was going to happen in this stupid town? I was going to die of boredom or something?”

Right now, Charlotte would give anything to be wearing something sultry and sleek. Black, skintight, with some strategically placed bling, maybe. Instead, after all these years she had to face him with little makeup and her hair yanked back into a ponytail, wearing jeans and a simple blue T-shirt, covered by an apron that had Sugar Rush emblazoned across the chest.

At least she wasn’t wearing the ridiculous hairnet she had to make while making fudge. Small favors, right?

She had barely registered the thought when the full implications of the moment washed over her like molten chocolate.

Peyton. Peyton. Why hadn’t she figured it out? That’s why the name had seemed familiar – somewhere in the recesses of her brain, in the file marked Spencer Gregory that she had purposely buried as deeply as she could over the years, she suddenly remembered Spence had a twelve-year-old daughter. Named Peyton.

And said Peyton had just mentioned that her father had taken a job in Hope’s Crossing and they were moving to town.

Oh. My. Fudge.

Spencer Gregory, the only person on the planet she could honestly say she despised, was back in Hope’s Crossing. Permanently.

Why on earth hadn’t anybody bothered to tell her this particular juicy rumor? She had to think that, by some miracle, the news hadn’t made the rounds yet. Otherwise it would have been the topic of conversation everywhere she went.

The bag with its silvery Sugar Rush logo still lay on the countertop. She picked it up and held it out.

“Here you go,” she said to Peyton. Her voice came out cold and small and she widened her smile to compensate.

“Um. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” The girl finally reached out and grabbed it and shoved it into her bag.

“How much does she owe you.” Spence reached into his wallet with what one of the women’s magazines had once declared the sexiest smile in sports.

If she had known Spence Gregory would be eating some of her fudge, she might have had second thoughts about tossing it around indiscriminately.

“She said I didn’t owe her anything. It’s a gift to welcome us to town.”

Spence looked just as stunned by the gesture as his daughter had. “Wow. Thanks.”

He should be astonished. Charlotte sincerely doubted anybody in town would be standing with open arms to welcome back their native son. As far as many people were concerned, Spence Gregory had taken the clean, charming image of Hope’s Crossing and, as her brothers might have said, hocked a loogie all over it.

“You’re welcome,” she lied gruffly.

His smile deepened as he gazed at her without a trace of recognition. There was a certain light in those hazel eyes, something bright and warm and almost … appreciative.

The nerves in her stomach sizzled. Oh, how she would have loved to be the recipient of that kind of look from him when she was fifteen. Back then – okay, even as recently as a year ago – she never would have dreamed it was ever within the realm of possibility.

Instead of making her giddy, having Spence Gregory smile at her now, after all this time, only infuriated her.

She deliberately turned away from him to his daughter. “Peyton, come back any time. I’ll see what I can do about the cinnamon fudge.”

The girl gave her a hesitant smile that meant far more than her father’s well-practiced one. As she did, Charlotte became aware that the browsing couple that had been in her store for what felt like hours were in the middle of a whispered argument.

Finally the husband stepped forward. “You’re Smoke Gregory, aren’t you?”

Spence stiffened, his friendly smile melting away. “Yeah,” he said tersely.

“I knew it. Didn’t I tell you I knew it?” he crowed to his wife. “And you said he wouldn’t dare show his face in public!”

“Darwin, hush!” she said, her face turning scarlet.

Spence had gone completely rigid, a hard, solid block of granite in the middle of her store.

“Well, I just want you to know, we’re big baseball fans. We love the Pioneers. We live in Pendleton and drove to Portland several times just to watch you play.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah. You were a darn good ballplayer. Shame about everything else.”

“Isn’t it?” he bit out.

“And for what it’s worth,” the woman said, her face still red, “we don’t think you killed your wife.”