Emma Cantrell smacked her open palm onto the worn oak bar top, her gaze focused on the empty shot glass in front of her. “Please.” She didn’t meet the bartender’s sympathetic glance. There were plenty of people who had it worse in the world than Emma.
Even if her life was one sloppy, soggy mess.
She traced a finger over the nails on her opposite hand. Pre-Magnolia, her hands had been soft and her nails regularly manicured. Now her polish was chipped to the point of being almost nonexistent. Her nails were uneven and ragged, her skin in sore need of moisturizing cream. She turned over her hand to study the blister that had emerged yesterday as she spent hours raking pine needles from the front yard of her new house.
The house that seemed bound and determined to pull her under.
“Do you want me to call your brother?” Al, the kindly gray-haired bartender, asked as he placed a short glass of amber liquid in front of her.
“Good Lord, no.” The last thing Emma needed was for Ryan to come and rescue her. Again. “This is my last one for the night, and I’m walking home. It’s all good.”
“If you say so.” Al arched a bushy brow but didn’t argue, although it was clear nothing about Emma’s current situation could accurately be described as good. She was sitting in a local bar in Magnolia, North Carolina, unshowered and sticky with dried sweat caked to her skin, her entire life spectacularly wrecked by five long days of pounding thunderstorms and devastatingly high winds.
Coming to Magnolia and buying the dilapidated house once owned by famed artist Niall Reed was supposed to be the start of a new chapter. A reclaiming of her life. A fresh start. Instead, it had quickly become a mess of epic proportions.
A hundred-year storm was what the insurance adjuster called it when he came to survey the damage to her property. One that hit well before hurricane season could be expected to start.
“I told you so,” was what her mother had said when she called last week, censure and repudiation tightening her tone.
Someone climbed onto the bar stool next to her, and Emma kept her gaze straight ahead. She didn’t want to talk to anyone tonight. Or ever.
Then the smell of freshly baked cookies wafted toward her. Not a typical scent for late-night at the local pub.
She glanced over to see a woman who might be near her own age. The woman turned and offered a watery smile. “I hope you don’t mind company.”
Emma did mind, but the delicate redhead’s eyes were so miserable, puffy and bloodshot that Emma couldn’t bring herself to say so. It would have been like kicking a puppy.
She glanced down the row of nearly empty bar stools. There was one other man who had bellied up to the bar, but he sat at the far end, stroking his beard and gazing into his empty pint glass like he could will a refill to appear.
“Do you come here often?” the woman next to her asked with a sniff.
“She’s our newest regular,” Al answered, flipping a towel over his shoulder as he winked at Emma.
She wasn’t sure why the declaration comforted her. Maybe she was so desperate for a place to belong in the world that she’d grab on to any alliance to call her own.
“That’s nice.” The woman eyed Emma’s shot glass. “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“One glass of liquid forget-your-troubles coming right up.” Al stepped away to pour the drink, and the woman breathed out a soft laugh.
“Does it really work like that?”
The woman sounded so hopeful Emma’s teeth clenched in response. Hope was a pain in the butt.
“You’ll forget for a bit tonight,” Emma said, “and tomorrow you can focus on the ensuing headache instead of your problems.” She glanced at the woman’s elegant hand. The fingers tapping on the bar sported a brilliant diamond ring. Blindingly large and nearly flawless. “Let me guess, fiancé trouble?”
“His family hates me,” the woman muttered, then swiped at her cheeks.
“You don’t seem like the type of person anyone could dislike. Fairy-tale princesses are universally loved.”
“I’m Holly, the opposite of a princess, which is part of the problem.” The woman held out a hand just as Al brought her shot.
“Cheers, not-a-princess Holly.” Emma lifted her glass in a toast instead of shaking. “I’m Emma.”
Holly let out a hiss and a sputtering cough after sipping the whiskey. “It burns,” she said on a gasp of air.
“That’s the point,” Emma told her, licking the last bit of moisture off her lips. “The burn means you can feel something.”
“I feel like I’m going to puke.”
“Take a breath,” Emma advised. “I’m not up for holding back a stranger’s hair over the toilet tonight.”
Holly giggled and pressed two fingers to her mouth. “I grew up in Magnolia, and I’ve never been to this bar. It always seemed so scary to me, but it’s actually quite cozy.”
Emma raised a brow as Al stepped forward with a wince. “First time this place has ever been called cozy. Another round, ladies?”
“Definitely.” Holly grinned.
“Two waters,” Emma told the bartender. She wasn’t going to be responsible for getting sweet, naive Holly drunk.
“And a glass of white burgundy,” Holly said. “Do you have Montrachet?”
Al looked toward Emma, confusion clear on his face.
“It’s white wine,” Emma translated. “But we’ll stick with water. You order like a princess,” she told Holly.
“The first time I went to a dinner with Brett, I ordered a brand that comes from a box. His mother laughed at me. I learned about wine after that.”
Emma grimaced. “This is your future mother-in-law? I hope she lives on the other side of the country.”
“She lives a couple of streets over from Brett’s house outside of Boston, although we’ll be in DC most of the time since…” Holly squeezed shut her eyes. “If he doesn’t break up with me because I’m acting so crazy. His family has been pressuring him to ditch me since we met. I’m nowhere near a princess. I’m a girl from a small town who doesn’t even have a college degree.” She shrugged. “I’m a nail technician.”
“You have nice nails,” Emma said. “I noticed right away.”
Holly laughed without humor. “Brett and I met when he came into the salon for a manicure.”
“Your husband-to-be gets manicures?” “He had an appearance.”
“Is he an actual prince or a movie star or something?”
“Something,” Holly whispered.
Al brought their waters. “Still good?”
“Yes, thank you.” Emma gave the other woman an arch look when the
bartender walked away. “I’m not above getting you drunk so you tell me your secrets.” Talking to Holly was the best distraction she’d had from her own troubles in weeks.
“He’s in politics,” Holly said, almost apologetically. “What kind of politics?”
“The US senator kind.” Holly bit down on her lower lip. “Your fiancé is a senator?”
“Wait.” Emma felt her mouth drop open. “Are you engaged to Brett Carmichael?”
“How old are you?” Emma’s shock over that simple nod made her forget her manners.
“Twenty-four. He’s twelve years older than me. His mom hates that, too.” “You know his family is like the second coming of the Kennedys, right?” “I don’t care about his family.” Holly’s voice held an undertone of steel
Emma wouldn’t have expected. “I love him. I want to spend the rest of my life with him. No matter what his mom thinks about me—what anyone thinks about me—I’ll be a good wife. I don’t care about the politics and fame. I want to be with him.”
Emma touched a hand to her throat, which clogged with unexpected emotion. She’d been married once and thought she’d found a man who felt that way about her. She’d believed Martin loved her for who she was and not because of her family’s money or the perks that came with it.
One expensive, embarrassing, heartbreaking divorce later and she understood how wrong she’d been. Another mistake her mom loved to throw back in her face.
But she believed Holly when she professed her devotion. Somehow she knew the woman was incapable of lying. It might not be the smartest trait for a political wife, but Emma felt suddenly and inexplicably protective of her new friend.
“Why would Brett Carmichael break up with you? If you love him and he loves you, then—”
“I’ve ruined the wedding, and his mom is trying to convince him I did it on purpose. His family thinks I’m going to embarrass him and cost him his career and everything he’s achieved so far. Mitsy Carmichael says I’m selfish and immature and I’ll hold him back.” She sniffed. “He has big goals. White House kind of goals.”
“Is that the life you want?” Emma asked quietly. She knew all about trying to squeeze herself into a box that would never fit. Trying to push out of the mold was what had led her to Magnolia. The world had seemed full of possibility for a few weeks. Until a massive storm had torn apart all of her dreams.
“I want to be with him, no matter what.” Once again, she heard the thread of conviction in Holly’s tone, her gaze softening as she obviously thought about the man she loved.
Emma might not believe in love for herself, but that didn’t make her a total cynic. “Tell me about this wedding and why his troll of a mother thinks you ruined it.” She tipped her water glass in Holly’s direction. “For the record, your fiancé taking his mother’s side over yours this early in the game is a red flag. A giant, cherry-red flag.”
“He’s not taking her side.” Holly shook her head. “Brett has been great, but he’s busy and I don’t want to bother him with my problems. His mother pushed to handle all the details of the wedding. She had her heart set on a big society affair in Boston with her friends and I wanted…” She shrugged. “My family doesn’t have a lot of money, but my parents love me. My sister died a few years ago in a car accident. Mom has struggled with depression ever since. I thought if I came here and we planned a small, intimate ceremony and reception, she’d have fun with it. It would give her something joyful to think about for a while.”
“So what happened?”
“The storm happened,” Holly said with a sniff. “Not just the one that blew through Magnolia, either. My wedding venue on the beach was destroyed, and the couple that owned the house left town with my money. They’d made me pay the entire amount up front and then they walked away. I sold my car and ran up thousands of dollars in credit card debt to rent the house for two months so I could prepare everything. I didn’t have the money for a wedding planner or any help. Part of why they gave me the deal was I’d agreed to do some cosmetic updates on the house. They were
going to sell it after the wedding. I promised they’d get tons of media coverage and I’d make the property look like a million bucks.”
She swallowed and Emma noticed her hands were shaking. “Now it’s gone. Everything was in that house—the invitations, my dress, all of the decorations I’d been working on putting together. It’s all gone.”
“Seriously? I thought I had it rough, but you’ve got me beat by a mile.” Emma made a face. She could understand why Holly was so upset. The house Emma owned and was planning to turn into a bed-and-breakfast had been damaged by the storm, delaying her plan to open and leaving her in need of income in a bad way.
“What about insurance? That should cover—”
“The policy had lapsed,” Holly said slowly. “In fact, the couple was behind on their mortgage payments and someone from the bank called me yesterday. I guess my wedding was their last-ditch effort to turn things around. Without a house, I can’t have the wedding.” She laughed without humor. “No house, no dress, no invitations. I have no hope.”
“There’s always hope,” Emma said, reaching out to place her hand over Holly’s with a gentle squeeze. If someone had asked her about hope an hour ago, she would have laughed in their face. But she couldn’t let this woman give up. Emma had always been better at taking care of other people than herself.
“Do you think so?” Holly took a long drink of water, then eyed the empty shot glass with obvious longing. “Because I can’t see how. I’ve nearly maxed out my credit cards and my parents don’t have the money to help me. I can do nails from sunup to sundown every day and still won’t scratch the surface of what it would cost to book another venue. Brett is helping, of course, and he’d happily take care of everything. From the start, my parents wanted to honor the tradition of the bride’s family paying for most of the wedding expenses. It’s why I was handling so much of it in the first place.”
“The Carmichaels are political royalty in this country,” Emma pointed out. “Surely they—”
“No.” Holly looked horrified. “If I let Brett’s mom take over, I’m giving up. Giving in. If she railroads me on something this big, then I lose before Brett and I even begin our lives together. What if she makes our lives such a living hell that Brett doesn’t think I’m worth it? You don’t understand how she is.”
Emma thought of her mother, who had immediately cut Emma off when she quit her job at the family foundation to relocate to Magnolia. After talking to her mom almost every day of her twenty-eight years, Emma’d been pushed aside without a second thought. She pressed an open palm against her chest. It shouldn’t hurt the way it did. She was a grown woman and could manage her own life. But to know she could be cast aside so easily for not filling the role assigned to her. Well, that part she couldn’t quite get over.
“I have a venue,” she blurted. “A house. I’m converting it to an inn. I closed on it at the beginning of the summer, and I’ve had a crew working around the clock.”
“Are you serious?” Holly blinked. “Here in Magnolia?”
“It’s Niall Reed’s old house,” Emma told the other woman. The painter had been Magnolia’s most famous resident before his death the previous year. He’d enjoyed decades of commercial, if not critical, success and had held local leaders under his thumb because of the way he’d single-handedly put Magnolia on the map at the height of his fame.
The stories Emma heard told of legions of fans streaming into the area for a chance to meet him and to attend the events and workshops he hosted. At least they had until his art fell out of favor and he squandered away his fortune on bad investments.
He’d also revealed the identity of two previously unknown daughters in his will, one of whom was now in love with Emma’s brother. His three daughters had come together to undo the financial mess he’d created in town, and it was clear Magnolia was better for it.
Avery Keller Atwell, Carrie Reed Scott and Meredith Ventner didn’t have much in common from the outside, but even in her short time in Magnolia, Emma appreciated the trio’s dedication to the town and each other.
She wanted that type of bond with someone—the kind she’d never had with her brother but was now trying to forge. She wanted friends, although she’d never been good at making them.
She wanted a life of her own.
Maybe she could start by helping Holly with hers.
“Niall Reed was creepy,” Holly said with a wince. “I know he was a big
deal back in the day, but I remember him as a nasty old man who was rude to anyone he didn’t deem important. My mom was a waitress at the
restaurant where he’d breakfasted a few times a week. He was a terrible tipper, which says a lot about a person.”
“It does,” Emma agreed. “But his house has great bones.” She sighed. “There’s some flooding and other damage from the storm.”
Holly arched a brow. “Other damage?”
“Part of the roof came off.” Emma tried and failed to keep her features neutral. “A few broken windows. Some damage to the exterior siding. Apparently, the contractor I hired cut some corners.”
“This is your idea for the perfect wedding venue?”
“I can fix it. I just need a new contractor.”
“The wedding is in six weeks.” Holly shook her head. “I need to get
invitations out now. I have no dress, very little budget. I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for any of it.” She let out a small groan. “This is a disaster, right? Even more than I’m admitting. I have to call Brett. He has to call his mom. How am I going to handle letting her take over my life?”
“You’re not.” Emma swiveled on her bar stool so she fully faced the other woman. “We can handle this. I can do this. I’m motivated and insanely organized.”
“Insane is one word for it,” Holly said with a laugh. “Why do you want to help me?”
“Because I need a fresh start as much as you.” She wasn’t sure why helping Holly felt so important to her, but it did. Just like this woman with her influential in-laws, Emma could cut her losses and call her mom to bail her out. Gillian would do it, but the price was far too high. She had to find a way to make this work on her own.
“We’ll arrange the payment details as we go along, and I want to document everything for the inn’s website. The progress on renovating the house once more might be picked up by a few regional or national press outlets. The publicity from an event like this could launch my inn as a premier destination location. It’s like hosting a royal wedding.”
“It could launch you or it could sink you.” Holly scrunched up her nose. “It could sink us both. Even if you somehow pull off getting Niall’s house ready to host, there’s so much more that was destroyed in the storm.” Her gaze turned wistful. “You won’t believe it, but I found the most beautiful wedding dress in a secondhand store right here in town. It was a Belle Vie and perfect for me. Brett’s mom was even mad about that because the
designer caused some big scandal in New York City. But the dress was so beautiful I didn’t care. Now I’ve got nothing.”
“You’ve got me,” Emma told her, excitement thrumming through her. It was madness to make this kind of deal with a total stranger, but it felt right, and Emma had few other options at this point. “We’ll figure it out. At least give it a try. Come to the house tomorrow and we’ll talk about a plan. Everything is more manageable with the right plan.”
Holly traced a finger around the rim of her shot glass. “I showed up here tonight because I thought everything was more manageable with alcohol.”
Emma laughed and then caught Al’s attention, lifting her empty shot glass with one hand and two fingers on the other. “Then let’s drink to our new partnership. The one that’s going to save us both.”