A homecoming he never wanted ...

Ben Sumner left the suffocating small town of Canyon Creek, Colorado ten years ago, and never looked back. Not for more than a visit. Even though his family helped found the town and owned a large piece of the mountain at its center, he always felt out of place.

His father’s death has changed that, bringing him home to discover his parents leveraged everything to build a lodge on the family’s property. Ben knows cutting costs is the only way to keep the bank from foreclosing on his family’s legacy. There’s only one person standing in his way: Maggie Lawrence, the high school crush who’d never spared him a glance. She might be just as beautiful as she was ten years earlier, but he’ll do whatever it takes to stop her.

Maggie Lawrence fought harder than most to get to where she is today. She’s overcome her father’s cruel taunts and jeers, and found a place where she belongs. At the Lodge at Canyon Creek, she’s a valued part of the staff, and practically a member of the Sumner family.

When the lodge owner, John Sumner suddenly dies, she’ll do everything in her power to carry on John’s dream, even if that means fighting the oh-so-sexy Ben Sumner every step of the way.

Born to Be My Baby is the first book in the Canyon Creek, CO Series. It can be read as a standalone book.

Pre-order now for January 30th delivery!

Publisher: RMI Publishing, LLC
Excerpt:

Keep reading for a sneak peek at Born to be My Baby, book one in the Canyon Creek, CO Series by Lori Ryan and Kay Manis!

Chapter 1

It took precisely ten seconds and four bleary-eyed blinks before Maggie Lawrence realized she'd fallen asleep and drooled all over her paperwork. The end result was that now, not only had she not finished reviewing the numbers for the meeting with her bosses, she also had a profit and loss statement glued to the side of her face.

Drool. Lovely.

Peeling the paper from her cheek, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes and leaned back in her kitchen chair. She ignored her open laptop and reminded herself that she could do this. As the new manager at The Lodge at Canyon Creek, too many people were counting on her now and she wouldn’t let them down.

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Maggie had been studying the financial files for the lodge until her eyes were crossed. It always took her longer than most people to completely understand all of the numbers and figures in the spreadsheets. But she’d learned a long time ago not to give up. Gaining knowledge and pushing past her limits was the only way she’d ever reach her goals.

You’ve got this. Valerie Sumner’s voice echoed in her mind, and Maggie smiled. Even though she’d heard the statement a hundred times from her boss and owner of the lodge, it still felt strange to have someone believe in her.

Maggie glanced up at the kitchen clock. She had one hour until her meeting with Valerie and her husband John. She needed coffee. Now.

Grabbing her laptop and papers, she shoved them into a bag before wrapping herself in a wool coat and scarf. She slid out the front door, locking it behind her as she stepped out onto the small porch of her childhood home, a place that had once haunted her.

Maggie glanced up at the early morning sky. A light flurry of snow was beginning to fall and she hoped it would turn into more. It had been an unusually mild winter in Canyon Creek, Colorado, which meant fewer tourists. And fewer tourists meant fewer guests staying at the lodge, something that worried her now that she was the manager. She couldn’t let John and Valerie down.

Maggie had met the Sumners five years ago when they’d hired her at their small bed and breakfast. Putting their faith in Maggie by giving her a job had truly saved her and, for the first time, allowed her to truly dream. It sounded so melodramatic, but it was the truth.

Maggie had been complimented for her pretty face hundreds of times, and even won Prom Queen in high school senior year, but no one in the town expected more of the beauty queen who came from a broken home. Neither had she, to be honest.

But that had all changed when John and Valerie Sumner had entered her life. They’d taken a chance on a girl who wanted more, wanted to be more. They’d nurtured Maggie, taken an interest in her ideas in a way no one had before. And because of them, she’d been able to feel like she was a part of something, even if that had only been in her role as guest services manager at their small bed and breakfast.

After only two years in business, the bed and breakfast had outgrown the demands of the area, and John and Valerie started on plans to build the lodge. It took years of planning and building, but the new thirty room building had been open for two months, and already their bookings were solid and increasing. The couple had taken a huge risk, not only on the lodge, but on making Maggie the manager.

This new endeavor was the scariest thing she’d ever been a part of. There was so much riding on this new venture. For the first time in her life, Maggie had realized she was actually good at something. Luckily for her, John and Valerie had seen what she couldn’t see in herself back then.

Maggie reminded herself that she could handle the stress of her new position. The experience and salary the role of manager offered would bring her one step closer to her dream of owning a small boutique hotel of her own one day.

“Hey, Maggie.” Her neighbor called as she passed his front porch.

Maggie waved with one hand, while she shifted the messenger bag on her shoulder with the other. She probably shouldn’t have packed it so heavily. “Hey, Mr. Delgado.”

“You’re up early.”

She smiled. “I could say the same for you.”

“Early bird catches the worm.” He laughed. Mr. Delgado was an avid outdoorsman and hunter, settling into Canyon Creek once he’d retired three years ago. Claiming to have been bored out of his mind after only two months, he’d decided to work part-time at the adventure company close to the lodge—when not fishing of course.

“Have a nice day,” he called to her. “Tell John and Valerie I said hello, and I’ll give John a call soon about adding on another kayaking trip for the spring tourist calendar.”

“Will do.” Maggie waved and walked down the sidewalk toward Main Street.

Some people hated the lack of anonymity the life in a small town brought, and Maggie had felt the same away at times growing up in Canyon Creek. It had sucked being a teenager when the whole town felt the need to watch your every move. Of course, with her dad being the town drunk, Maggie always felt the citizens weren’t only watching, but judging.

Sometime in the past few years, her views on small town living had changed though. She felt safe in Canyon Creek, like she finally belonged. Both were new experiences for her.

There was camaraderie and new-found respect in her position at the lodge. Of course, it probably helped that more people were moving to the town. Canyon Creek was still small, but it was growing. Now she had friends who hadn’t known her all her life, who hadn’t seen every mistake she’d ever made growing up. Who hadn’t seen every humiliating thing her father had done—scenes Maggie often had to clean up.

Rounding the corner of Main Street, Maggie stepped inside Strange Brew, the local coffee shop, and inhaled the aroma. Even the smell of the place was enough to give her a small energy boost.

She wasn’t cut out for all-nighters any more. It was early for tourists to be in town—most would still be up on the slopes if they were awake at all—but a few locals stood at the counter.

“The usual?” Lina shouted at her from across the counter. Angelina Bianchi, or Lina as the locals called her, was the daughter of Antonio Bianchi, the owner of Antonio’s Italian Restaurant. He had two locations, one off Interstate 70 coming into town and one just down Main Street from the coffee shop.

She often wondered why Lina didn’t work for her father, but never questioned her choice. Maggie’s life had been filled with her own brand of family drama and she would never welcome questions.

Maggie nodded. “Yes, thanks, Lina.”

“One large coffee, coming up.” Lina smiled, deep dimples adorning her beautiful face. With her long dark hair, olive skin, and light brown eyes, the girl was gorgeous enough to be a super model.

Someone in front of Maggie turned to face her. “You’re such a rebel,” Mrs. Parker teased. Florence Parker was the town librarian, and some said old as dirt, although no one knew her exact age. Flo knew all the town gossip but thankfully shared little.

“Oh, you know it, Mrs. Parker.” Maggie said dryly. Both women knew Maggie was anything but rebellious. Maggie had learned at a young age that compliance was the key to her survival. She’d always kept her head down and never brought attention to herself. Her father did enough of that for the both of them.

Today she stood a little taller though, secure in the confidence John and Valerie had given her.

Maggie leaned toward Lina. “Actually, Lina, can you make that a latte this morning?” She wouldn’t get in the habit of buying lattes. It cut into savings too much, but one here or there couldn’t hurt.

“You’re up early,” Mrs. Parker said.

“You’re the second person who’s told me that.”

Maggie didn’t bother to tell the librarian she’d been up most of the night. She’d gone to bed but woke at midnight and hadn’t been able to fall back to sleep.

She’d wanted to check and double-check figures on the sales forecasts. She was grossly underqualified for the job Val and John had bestowed on her, if you looked at her qualifications on paper. Maggie had never attended college—she didn’t have the grades or the money—but she’d taken online courses in hotel management and accounting. What she lacked in experience or education, she made up for in sheer will.

“Here you go, Maggie.” Lina slid her latte across the counter.

Maggie held out money but Lina waved her off.

“On the house,” she said.

“That’s no way to turn a profit, Lina.” Maggie laughed. She wasn’t the lodge’s chief financial officer—thank God, John held that position—but even she knew that.

“You headed over to Sally’s?” Mrs. Parker asked, nodding toward the window.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sally Sumner owned The Sweet Spot, a bakery across the street. She was also John’s sister and one of Maggie’s best friends despite their age difference.

“Oh, great.” Lina clapped her hands. “If you tell her we need a dozen more sour cream blueberry muffins and two dozen raspberry scones, then we’ll call it even on the latte.”

Many of the small businesses in Canyon Creek fed off one another, a necessity if they wanted to survive the slowing economy. Even though the bakery was across the street, they sold their goods in stores and restaurants all over the town.

“Sure thing,” Maggie said. Sticky buns would give her the push she needed to get through this meeting. Maggie was convinced sticky buns could get a person through just about anything.

Maggie grabbed her latte and headed for the door. She needed to study her spreadsheets one more time before heading into the office. The lodge was a twenty-minute drive up Canyon Creek Mountain but Maggie found she could concentrate on finances better when she stayed in town.

She glanced down at her watch. She was due at the lodge at nine. That would give her a solid hour to consume an adequate number of sticky buns—probably at least two—then review the spreadsheets before driving to the office to discuss the lodge’s future financial projections.

“Thanks for the coffee,” Maggie shouted over her shoulder as she walked out of the coffee shop door.

“Don’t forget,” Lina yelled.

“A dozen sour cream blueberry muffins and two dozen raspberry scones. Got it.” Maggie let the door close behind her and walked to the corner. She stood, staring up at the one light in Canyon Creek, waiting for it to turn green.

The town had been settled by the Sumner and Noble families in the 1800s. They’d been on a quest for gold but had come up empty handed, discouraged to find Canyon Creek Mountain only filled with sediment and water.

Now Maggie was a part of the Sumner family. Well, maybe not a direct descendent, like John and Valerie’s six sons, but they considered Maggie family, and that was enough to make her smile as she crossed the street.

None of the Sumner boys had been home to Canyon Creek in months, maybe years, and they rarely stayed longer than a few days when they did visit. She wouldn’t say it out loud, but it always ticked off Maggie. John and Valerie were wonderful parents. She couldn’t understand why their boys wouldn’t come home more often.

Maggie waved at a passing car as she crossed to the other side. She didn’t recognize the driver, but it didn’t matter. In Canyon Creek you always waved.

She pushed open the door to The Sweet Spot, smiling when the bells above the door echoed through the store, signaling her arrival.

“I’ll be right there!” Sally yelled from somewhere in the back.

“Steve Perry is parking his Maserati outside,” Maggie hollered.

The entire town, and probably half of Colorado, knew of Sally Sumner’s obsession with all things related to Journey and their one-time lead singer, Steve Perry.

Sally appeared from the back kitchen, a plume of flour trailing behind. She tugged off her apron, shaking out her short blonde hair before straightening her T-shirt that read “I’m a baker, I’m good with my hands. What’s your super power?”

“You think you’re cute, don’t you, Miss Maggie?” The dry tone told her Sally hadn’t believed Steve Perry would show up in Canyon Creek, but Maggie wasn’t fooled. The woman had come out on the off chance this was the one time a miracle had happened.

Maggie couldn’t help but laugh. “Maybe the man likes to ski?”

“I’d go down a mountain for Steve Perry.” She shook her rear in the air and slapped it for good measure. “I still got it.” And she did. For someone in her early fifties, Sally Sumner still looked damn good.

“Hey, before I forget, Lina says the coffee shop needs—”

“I know, she already called me,” Sally sighed, dusting off her jeans. “And the diner screwed up their order and they want me to fix it. They need a dozen more pies before noon. And the café at the lodge opens in—” Sally glanced over her shoulder at the clock on the wall. “Shit, in an hour.”

During the grand opening of the lodge two months ago, Sally had catered baked goods and Strange Brew had brought in coffee. The food had been so well received that Maggie and Valerie had designated a spot for a small stand-alone café just off the lobby with the hopes to expand one day. Maggie knew it meant more work for Sally but she also knew Sally would do anything to help her brother, John, succeed.

Maggie nodded toward the kitchen. “You need any help back there?”

Sally cocked a brow. Maggie couldn’t boil water without burning it, let alone bake a pie, and Sally knew it.

“Why don’t you hire a few more people to help you?” Maggie asked, pulling out her laptop.

“If I could just get half of my girls to move back to Canyon Creek I could franchise this little business and retire.”

Sally had six girls but only one currently lived in Canyon Creek. Lily Sumner, one of Maggie’s closest friends, had moved back a year ago from Denver where she’d worked as an event planner.

As if hearing her name spoken aloud, Lily pushed open the front door with such force, she nearly ripped the bell from its cord.

Her face was ashen, eyes wide. “Mom,” she panted, “why aren’t you answering your phone?”

“It’s in the kitchen. What’s wrong?”

Maggie dug in her coat pocket and pulled out her own phone. Three missed calls from Valerie. Maggie’s body stiffened, a numbing wave washing over her, the same paralyzing fear she felt any time she received a call about her father.

“What is it?” Maggie whispered. “What’s happened?”

Lily’s eyes darted back and forth from Sally to Maggie before finally settling on her mother. “It’s Uncle John. We need to get to the hospital.”

 

Chapter 2

“It’s good to be you, right?” Ben Sumner slapped his business partner on the shoulder as he joined him at the window.

The view from the 75th floor of Columbia Tower offered an incredible view of the city he’d called home for over a decade. The downtown lights of Seattle dotted the landscape as twilight faded into evening. The colors were stunning as the sun dropped low behind Elliot Bay. It was like looking out on top of the world.

Patrick Fairplay turned to take the amber tumbler Ben offered him and grinned. “Yeah, it is, my friend.”

After nearly fifteen years, not much about Patrick had changed, except his exterior. Ratty T-shirts and worn-out jeans had been replaced with tailor-made business suits. Patrick’s once unruly hair was now styled to perfection, thanks to his fiancé, Daphne Wellington, heiress to one of Texas’ wealthiest families.

“What do you think of the place?” Patrick took a small sip of his Scotch as he studied the large banquet room behind them.

Ben turned and followed his gaze, taking in the elegant decor and the mass of people. “Better you than me.” He lifted his glass in silent salute.

Patrick laughed, touching his tumbler to Ben’s before taking another swig of alcohol. He stared blankly at the mass of people, releasing a deep sigh. “This is the second of four engagement parties Daphne’s parents have planned. The other two are in Texas.”

Ben laughed. “I always knew Daphne came from money but that’s a little extravagant, even for the Wellingtons.”

“Yah think?” Patrick rolled his eyes.

Better you than me had been putting it mildly.

Ben squeezed his shoulder. “Well, at least you know your future father-in-law can bail you out of jail should you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law.”

“I was kind of counting on you for that honor.”

“Anytime, my friend.” Ben chuckled, knowing neither of them needed Daphne’s money. They had enough of their own.

Almost fifteen years ago Ben and Patrick had dropped out of college and moved to the Pacific Northwest to start their small computer software company. Seattle had been a tech magnet at the time and Ben knew their fledgling company could thrive in the big city.

Now, staring out over the Pacific Ocean and one of the most impressive skylines of the world, Ben had to admit, leaving college had been the best, and most lucrative decision he’d ever made—even if his father didn’t agree at the time.

Ben shook his head. Focusing on old memories wasn’t something he had the time for. He and his father had had the biggest fight of Ben’s life when he’d told him of his plans to leave college. Despite Ben’s success, their contact since then had been limited, and strained at best. Ben knew he should reach out to his father, try to fix things between them, but he never seemed to be able to make the phone call.

Ben looked at Patrick. “You sure about this?”

His friend’s brows went up. “Hell yeah. Aside from what you and I have done with the business, being married to Daphne is all I’ve ever wanted since the day I met her.” Patrick was so in love with his fiancée it was laughable, at least to Ben. He didn’t understand that kind of devotion.

Ben moved closer to the window. “We really did it, huh?” he said, as if barely able to believe himself.

“Yeah, we did.” Patrick shot Ben a look that reminded him of the ones his brothers used to give him when they’d gotten away with something they never in a million years dreamed they could.

Of course, there’d been a price to achieve their dreams. Instead of writing computer code, Ben ended up sitting in meetings and looking at financial data most days. That was the only downside to the whole dream they’d been living.

Patrick tipped his head. “And just think, in another year, we could be even richer.”

Ben glanced over at his friend. For almost a year Patrick had been trying to talk Ben into going public with their software company. Ben wasn’t convinced it was the right move, not just for the company, but for him personally. He was already pulling seventy to eighty-hour work weeks. Going public would sink him even further into the bowels of corporate hell.

Ben had pushed himself to the breaking point to make his company a success, trying to prove to himself—and his father—that he could be successful without a college degree. He’d become what he loathed about his own father, a workaholic. Patrick was right about one thing, they could make even more money with this move. But Ben wasn’t sure more money was what he wanted anymore. Some days he yearned for the simple life but he’d never admit that to Patrick.

Ben looked over his shoulder to the celebration, then back to Patrick. “Are you sure that’s what you want? You’re about to marry Daphne? Don’t you think you’d like to relax and enjoy your wife for a while instead of adding to our work week?”

“Patrick.” Daphne’s sweet, southern drawl had both men turning to face her. “You promised no work tonight.”

Ben studied his friend’s fiancée. Long blonde hair tumbled down Daphne’s bare shoulders, accentuating her model-worthy figure. Her bright blue eyes shone with adoration as she stared up at Patrick. A pang of jealousy for what the two had found together hit Ben in the chest.

Where the hell had that come from? He prided himself on his bachelor ways.

Daphne stepped next to her fiancé, sliding her arm inside Patrick’s coat and wrapping it around his waist. “Daddy’s complaining. There are people he wants you to meet.”

“Daph,” Patrick slid his free arm around Daphne’s shoulders and bent to press a kiss against her temple, “I’ve met a hundred people tonight. I’m hiding over here for a reason.”

She laughed and stood on her toes, pressing a kiss against his lips.

“It’s a nice party, Daphne,” Ben said. “Your parents went all out for this gig.”

She stepped back and surveyed the room, a huge smile spreading across her face. “I know, isn’t it gorgeous? I can’t believe we got the Columbia Tower on such short notice.”

“Is your father a member of the club here?” Ben asked.

Daphne and Patrick shared a knowing look and laughed.

“What?”

“Daddy isn’t,” she said, her eyes never leaving her fiancé’s, “but Patrick is.”

“What?” Ben’s head cocked back in surprise. “Since when?” He knew he and Patrick were considered successful in the business world, but he never believed either of them the private club types.

“It was Daddy’s wedding gift to Patrick.” Daphne laughed. “It’s ridiculous but we couldn’t say no.”

Ben glanced at Patrick, who looked like he’d swallowed a bug, then turned to Daphne and chuckled. “You know your father’s gift was wasted on a simpleton like Patrick, right? Not many socialites come from Twin Falls, Iowa.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Sumner?” Patrick asked with mock anger. “Your podunk town of Canyon Creek, Colorado, is smaller than the head of a match stick. One sneeze and you could miss the whole damn town.”

Patrick wasn’t exaggerating. With a population of less than three thousand, Ben’s hometown in Colorado was the epitome of small-town living. Some would call Canyon Creek quaint but Ben thought it suffocating. He had no plans to return in the near future.

Ben’s cell phone buzzed in his coat pocket. He pulled it out and noticed his brother Emmett’s number flash on the screen. Ben ignored the call and slid the phone back into his jacket. He’d return the call later when he might have a chance of hearing what his brother was saying.

“Was that your hot date, saying she’d be late?” Daphne asked.

“Nope,” Ben said, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. “I’m solo tonight.”

“What?” Daphne clasped her chest in mock horror as she searched the room. “No friends-with-benefits bimbo for the evening?”

“Maybe later.” Ben smiled, lifting the tumbler to his lips and taking a long swig of Scotch. Now that Daphne had mentioned it, Ben realized it had been awhile since he’d shared his bed with the soft curves of a woman. He mentally flipped through his contact list of women who shared his idea of a relationship. He didn’t date, he was too busy, but it didn’t mean he was celibate. His relationships were based on physical need, and happened between the sheets, nothing more.

“Have you guys finally decided where you’re getting married?” Ben asked, trying to change the subject.

“Dude,” Patrick held up a hand, “can I just get through these damned engagement parties before we start walking down the aisle?”

“Patrick,” Daphne cried. “You sound like you don’t enjoy the parties.” Her bottom lip curled out with a pout. Daphne was a master at getting what she wanted. Especially from her future husband. If Ben didn’t actually like her, he’d find it annoying. Somehow, though, she managed to be both a pain in his ass and one of his favorite people all at the same time.

“What I enjoy is spending time with you.” Patrick pulled Daphne into an embrace and planted a searing kiss against her lips.

Oh, shit. Ben needed an escape. As much as he liked them both, he didn’t need to watch this public display of affection. Maybe he’d step out in the hallway and call his brother back. It was unusual for Emmett to call, especially on a Saturday night.

“Oh, Patrick,” Daphne moaned. Slowly they pulled away, Patrick staring down at his fiancé as if he wanted to eat her alive.

“And on that note…” Ben slapped his best friend on his back and leaned over to kiss Daphne on the cheek.

“Oh, don’t leave yet,” Daphne said. “My sister’s best friend is here. She was Miss Texas three years ago.”

“Holy hell, where is she?” Patrick teased, pushing Daphne to the side.

“Patrick,” she squealed.

One thing Ben had to admit, Patrick and Daphne were perfect for each other. Even though Daphne had originally made a play for Ben, as soon as her blue eyes had spotted Patrick, all other men faded away.

Ben felt his phone vibrate again and reached inside his jacket.

“No business,” Daphne scolded. “Come on Ben, let me introduce you.”

As with most people in her life, Ben had no choice but to follow Daphne as she wound them through the crowd of people. She stopped every few feet to say hello to people Ben had never met, and would probably never see again.

His phone vibrated again. Something in his chest tightened and he stilled.

“Ben, what is it?” Daphne asked, staring up at him.

“I don’t know.” He slipped his hand inside his pocket, taking out his phone, sensing in his gut that something was wrong. He glanced at the screen and saw two missed calls from his mother. “Fuck,” he whispered.

“Ben?” Daphne stepped closer, staring down at his phone.

“I need to make a call,” Ben said as he slipped from Daphne’s hold and walked toward the exit. His mother called every Sunday afternoon. It was Saturday night.

First Emmett, now his mother.

Ben stood next to the elevators in the foyer, trying to steady his heartbeat as he pushed the button to call his mother.

“Oh, Ben,” his mother answered with a cry.

Fuck.

“Mom, what is it?”

“It’s…it’s…”

“Mom?”

Someone tugged on his arm. He glanced down and saw Daphne staring up at him, Patrick flanked on the other side.

“Ben, it’s your father.” His mother’s voice cracked with emotion.

“What happened to Dad?” Ben’s eyes shot to Patrick and he felt Daphne squeeze him tighter.

“He, he,” she whimpered, “he died.”

Ben felt his world fall away. “He what?” Ben asked, unable to believe the words. The room spun and Ben locked his knees before they gave out. Patrick and Daphne led him to a chair against the wall.

“Yes,” his mother said quietly, unable to hide her muffled sobs.

Ben scrubbed a hand through his hair, unable to believe the words. He died. “How, Ma? What happened?”

“A heart attack,” she whispered.

“Are you all right? Is someone there with you?”

“Yes. Maggie’s here. And Sally.”

“Maggie Lawrence?” Something in his gut tightened at the mention of her name.

“C-, can, you come home, Ben?”

“Of course, Mom. I’ll leave tonight.”

“Thank you, sweetie. I’ll try to get someone to pick you up in Denver.”

“Ma, don’t worry about it, I’ll rent a car and drive myself. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Questions flew through Ben’s mind but he knew his mother was in no state to answer. Hell, he was in no state to comprehend.

“I’ll call you in a bit with my flight details.”

“Okay.” Her voice broke and she hiccupped another sob.

“Are you sure you’re okay for now?”

“Yes. Just…if you could come home.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can, Ma.”

“Thank you.”

Thank you? Jesus, did his mom really think she had to thank him for coming home. Probably. The thought filled Ben with regret and guilt.

“I love you, Ma. I’ll be home soon.”

“I, I love you too, sweetie. Please be careful.”

“I will. I’ll call you back soon.”

“Okay, bye.”

“Bye, Mom.”

Ben pulled the phone away and stared down at the blank screen. He shook his head, unable to believe that his father was gone. John Sumner was a giant of a man, stubborn, intelligent…invincible. Or so Ben had thought.

“Ben,” Daphne said quietly. “Did your father pass away?”

“Yeah,” he said, scrubbing a hand down his face, trying to rub away the fog that seemed to fill his head.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Daphne gripped his arm and rubbed a soothing hand on his back.

Patrick squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll get Stephanie to book our tickets and then we can swing by our houses to pack some clothes.”

Ben glanced up at his friend, barely comprehending what he was saying.

“What? I’m coming with you,” Patrick said.

Ben shook his head. “No, I’ll go. Stay here and take care of things.” Ben stood, his legs still wobbly. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ben, please let Patrick go with you,” Daphne pleaded. “You shouldn’t be alone.”

Alone was exactly what Ben needed right now. All he could think of was the fight he’d had with his father over a decade ago. Ben had always thought they’d have time to mend the fences he’d broken that day.

“No, I’ll be okay, Daph, and I’ll feel better knowing we’re not both away from the business.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek, not at all sure he would be. “Thank you, though. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“We’re here for you, Ben, for anything,” Patrick said.

“I know.”

Patrick stepped forward and hugged him tight. “For anything,” he whispered.

Ben released him and Daphne immediately took him in her arms. “I’m so sorry,” Daphne said quietly.

So am I, Ben thought. “I shouldn’t be gone long,” he said.

“Take your time.” Patrick clutched his shoulder. “Your family needs you right now. We’ll survive here.”

He nodded absently.

“Send me the details of the funeral and we’ll fly out.”

Funeral. God, was this real? Had his father really died?

The elevator dinged and the doors opened.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay flying home alone?” Daphne asked again.

Ben wasn’t sure of anything right now but he knew one thing with certainty. He needed to do this alone. The last thing he wanted was anyone to see him break down. Returning home to Canyon Creek wouldn’t be easy but Ben would go. For his mom, for his brothers. But mostly for his dad.

 

Chapter 3

Ben glanced around the small conference table, happy to see his brothers after years apart but hating the reason they’d been called home. Too many miles had separated them for far too long and a pang of guilt hit him in the chest. He’d missed his brothers.

Five pair of expectant eyes stared back at him as his brothers waited for Ben to speak. The conference room within The Lodge at Canyon Creek where they all sat vibrated with tension. He hated to admit it but staring at them now, Ben realized he didn’t really know his own brothers any more. Hopefully that would change.

“So, what are you saying?” Aaron asked. Ben wasn’t surprised the second oldest of them wanted to get straight to the point. Aaron was a cardiologist at a large hospital in Chicago and had no time to waste on placating them.

His brothers and he shared so many physical resemblances. Thankfully, their professional lives were as different as night and day. Ben hoped their varied skill sets would help his mother save their family land and the lodge she’d built on it.

Ben drew in a deep breath and slowly exhaled, wondering how to make his brothers fully appreciate the dire situation their family was in. One he hadn’t even fully understood himself until early this morning.

“I studied the financial records for the lodge well into the night and looked through the terms of the loan this morning,” Ben said, raking his fingers through his dark hair. “Mom needs our help. She can’t run this place without dad. Hell, they had a hard time before dad’s death, but without him, there’s just no way to keep the lodge solvent and make good on the loan unless we all move back and help with the continued expansion.”

Stunned gazes met his and he knew what they were thinking. All six of them had run far and fast when they’d left Canyon Creek years before. Coming back wasn’t an option. Only, now, it had to be.

“Move back?” Grant jerked his head. Having been born only three minutes after his twin, Jake, Grant was officially the youngest Sumner son. “As in live here, in Canyon Creek?”

Ben didn’t want to live in their small home town any more than his brothers did. He glanced out the window at Canyon Creek Mountain, noting the snow that had blanketed his father’s funeral was finally letting up. “Yes. Live here.”

“I can’t do that. My career is in California,” Grant said, sounding like the baby he was.

Ben bit down a harsh response. He would never intentionally hurt his brother by pointing out what everyone in the room knew thanks to the tabloids.

Grant had been an A-list actor this time last year, sought after by most studios execs. But one messy divorce and a shit-ton of poor choices stacked on top of some pretty public battles with his manager had left his bank accounts drained and himself damn near unemployable.

“Maybe MTV will offer you a reality show here in Colorado.” Max snorted. “I can see it now,” he said, waving his hands in the air as if revealing a marquee, ‘Washed-Up Actors Gone Wild.’”

“Yeah?” Grant shot back. “And maybe Trojan condoms will sponsor your next season with their new mini-man-sized line.”

Max was the notorious bad boy of the National Football League, no matter how hard he tried to deny it to the press, and their mother. An attack on his manhood was the best way to piss off Max, and Grant knew it.

The other brothers joined in the laughter this time.

Ben slammed his hand on the table, making them jump. “I’m serious, guys! Mom is royally screwed here. I don’t know what Dad was thinking, mortgaging the lodge and the land to finance renovations and expansions.” The thought that their mom might lose her dream right after losing their dad gutted him. Ben wouldn’t let that happen.

“How much did they borrow?” Jake asked.

Ben hesitated “Almost two million dollars.”

“Two million dollars!” Emmett shouted. “What the hell?”

“I know.” Ben shook his head in disbelief.

“They mortgaged the land?” Max asked, looking like he might be sick.

Ben didn’t blame him. As much as he didn’t want to live in Canyon Creek again, there’d always been something comforting about knowing his family had a history here. That history was in the land, and it went without saying, they’d all always believed that land would be in the family for generations to come.

The boys had grown up on the northern quarter of Canyon Creek Mountain. The large chunk of acreage that began at the base and went up the northern face of the mountain had been in their family since the tiny town of Canyon Creek was established in the 1800s. At one point, they’d owned more, but that had been lost decades before to the Noble family—a ridiculously ironic name

Now, the Nobles owned three quarters of the mountain, and the Sumners hung onto their quarter with fierce tenacity. Until now.

“Of course, the land too,” Ben said. “This place—the location—is the value, not the out-cropping of buildings.” Ben shouldn’t have to explain this, but his brothers just weren’t getting it.

None of the boys had argued when their parents built a six-bedroom bed and breakfast five years ago after retiring. It had been successful and a good diversion for his nosy mother. Of course, the fact the Nobles ran a lucrative ski resort on the opposite side of the mountain meant the bed and breakfast had a built-in customer base and had done well from the start.

But a few years ago, his parents had started to expand, believing their years of success with the small bed and breakfast would grow exponentially. The Lodge at Canyon Creek had been born and construction started, despite his and his brothers’ concerns over the size of the project.

The building was now complete and included a stunning main lodge with 27 guest rooms and three suites. Construction on seven free-standing cabins had already begun, as well as renovations to a junky old barn. His hopelessly romantic mother dreamed of making the dilapidated structure into a wedding venue soon.

What his parents hadn’t explained to Ben, or any of his brothers, was how they’d funded the expansion. His usually budget-conscious father, the one who rarely gave his sons anything but grief, had taken out a nearly two million-dollar loan. If this expansion didn’t pay off, if his family couldn’t fill these rooms and soon, his mother could lose everything.

“What about life insurance?” Jake asked. “Surely dad had life insurance?” Grant’s twin was a political strategist, working on some of the most successful campaigns in Washington. Given his strong strategic skills, Ben had hoped Jake would volunteer to move back first to help him develop a solid plan for repayment. They needed someone who could see the big picture and make shit happen without involving sentiment or emotion. Ben realized he’d just included himself in that scenario when he had zero interest in being there. Who the hell cared, as long as they figured this out.

“The insurance will help,” Ben said, “but it’s not enough. The payout is only one hundred thousand. When you factor in his hospital stay and the funeral costs…” He let the sentence trail off. His brothers could do the math. He didn’t mention the terms of the loan yet.

“No savings?” their middle brother, Emmett, asked.

Emmett was a writer. He could write anywhere. It wouldn’t be hard for him to relocate. At least Ben prayed it wouldn’t. Their mom would need all of them to spend some time in Colorado over the next year-and-a-half.

Ben shook his head. “They had savings, but they sunk it all into the bed and breakfast when they first built it.” Ben drew in a deep breath. “This place,” he waved his hands around the room, “this lodge is now their retirement. Mom’s retirement,” he corrected. “And she can’t do it alone.”

Ben scrubbed a hand down his face. He’d been just as stunned when he discovered how much his mom and dad had leveraged themselves and the land for the expansion, but he needed his brothers to process the situation quickly before their mother caught them. Valerie Sumner was a proud woman and would never actively ask for their help. She wouldn’t be happy if she caught them all talking about her finances.

Emmett, always the consummate introspective, steepled his fingers under his chin. “But they’ve run the bed and breakfast for five years now. Hasn’t it been profitable? Shouldn’t the lodge do just as well?”

So much for skipping the details of the loan and its covenants, Ben thought. “The bed and breakfast was profitable after their second year of operation,” Ben said, “which is remarkable in the business world. But we don’t have two years. The loan has covenants we have to meet every quarter.”

“What the hell is a covenant?” Grant asked.

“A covenant is a specific condition of the loan that a company must meet,” Ben said. “Requirements like, hitting certain ratios of income to expenses, meeting room capacity, stuff like that.” Ben scanned the room, not surprised at the blank faces staring back at him. He had to cut to the chase. “It’s not just about making payments. If Ma doesn’t meet those conditions, the bank can foreclose. On everything.”

His brothers seemed to be digesting the information so he went on. “Dad didn’t take a salary. Their plan was for him to draw wages after the first year or two of operations. If mom has to pay people to take over his work load, that’s a huge line item in the expense column. When the bank sees that, she’ll be screwed. We’ll be screwed. We won’t meet some of the covenants. They just…” Ben shook his head, “Mom and Dad expanded way too fast, way too soon.”

“Dad never could say no to Mom,” Jake said, stating what they all knew as fact. Their father had been able to say no to his sons plenty, but never their mom.

“Look, we just buried Dad like—” Grant glanced down at his watch “—two hours ago. Do we need to do this now?”

“I know,” Ben said, “I’m sorry to spring this on you, but I don’t have a choice. I had no idea how dire their financial situation was.”

“If mom loses the lodge and the land, you know Dad will haunt us all for the rest of our lives.” Emmett laughed.

“Never mind Dad. Great-great-great grandpa Lazarus Sumner will come back from the grave to haunt us all.” Grant shook his head. “It was bad enough the guy lost half our land to the Nobles when he was alive over a hundred years ago. If we lose the rest of the mountain, that old man will never let us have a moment’s peace.”

Ben had yet to mention the fact that his mom and dad had secured the loan through the local bank—a bank whose board held more than one Noble family member who probably wouldn’t be sad to see the Sumner name fail. His brothers had enough to worry about right now.

“What if we pool our money?” Jake asked.

“I don’t have shit for money right now,” Grant answered.

“And I’m swamped in medical school loan payments,” Aaron added.

Grant glanced at Ben. “What about you, Ben? Isn’t your company going public this year? You should make a shit-ton of money with that.”

Ben rubbed the back of his neck. There was no denying he was less satisfied with the management of the company lately, but he wasn’t willing to admit that to anyone. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his company. He did. He was proud of it. But, he had to admit, he was bored.

“We’re still deciding,” Ben mumbled, shoving the thoughts from his mind. He could give his mom a few hundred thousand, maybe more. He lived comfortably. But two million dollars without time to raise it? Not going to happen.

“I’ll pay it,” Max said.

Everyone turned and stared at him, not surprised by his offering. He may be notorious with the women, but everyone knew the all pro wide-receiver had a giver’s heart.

“Thanks, Max,” Ben said. “I appreciate that. We all do. But you know Ma. She would never take our money.”

“So, what makes you think she’ll take our help?” Emmett asked.

“She’s too proud,” Jake said.

“Too stubborn,” Max added. His other brothers nodded in agreement.

“Does Mom know about this? The bank note I mean?” Jake asked.

“I don’t know. I assume so. Her signature is there next to Dad’s.”

“Does she know you know?” Aaron asked.

“I’m pretty sure.” He paused, knowing his proposal wouldn’t go over well. “If we could all come back to help over the next eighteen months—”

“Eighteen months!” Grant cursed under his breath. “That’s almost two years.” He shook his head and pushed back in his chair. “No way, man.”

Max shot him a glaring look. “What the hell are you bitching about loser? It’s not like you have a career waiting for you.”

Me a loser?” Grant shot to his feet. “I’m an Oscar winner, asshole. You’re the lying sack of shit who’s playing on borrowed time, asshole.”

Max bolted from his chair, arms outstretched as he lunged over the table for Grant. Max might have blown out both knees during his ten-year career in the NFL, but his hands worked just fine.

“What the hell, guys?” Aaron slid across the table to break them apart. “We’re not ten years old.”

“Let them be.” Emmett leaned back in his chair, crossing his hands behind his head. “More inheritance for me.”

Grant released his hold on Max and glared at Emmett. “You’re not taking our fucking inheritance,” he growled.

“There is no fucking inheritance you morons!” Ben yelled. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There’s only this lodge and the land it sits on.” He waved a hand around the room. “And a loan that will wipe Mom out financially and take it all away from us for good if we don’t step in and fix this.” He lowered his voice. “Mom needs this, guys. She needs us.”

He and his brothers might not want to come home, but the fact remained, they’d all do anything for their mother.

“She’ll really lose it all if this place doesn’t take off?” Emmett asked.

“Yes.” Ben blew out a frustrated sigh and nodded his head.

Silence rang through the room.

Max released his hold on Grant and fell into his chair. “So, tell us your great plan for saving the lodge, big brother.”

Ben pulled his chair closer to the table. “Well, Mom has zero business skills. She thrives on the people side of running the lodge—interacting with the guests, regaling them with the history of Canyon Creek.”

“Showing off her Bon Jovi memorabilia,” Aaron snorted.

They all laughed. His mother’s obsession with all things Jon Bon Jovi was borderline obsessive. It was rivaled only by his Aunt Sally’s Journey mania and Aunt Lisa’s fixation on Van Halen. The battles between the three women over the ’80s iconic hair bands were the stuff of family—and town—legend.

“It was Dad who kept the accounting side of things going,” Ben continued, “but having him here to carry the expanded workload of the new space was crucial to them making money for the first year out. Replacing him would essentially mean hiring another manager, or at the very least, a lot of staff to take over his workload.”

“Crap,” Jake said.

“Yeah,” Ben agreed, “Mom can’t afford to pay another salary if she hopes to meet the covenants and, eventually, pay the debt.” Ben raked a hand through his thick hair. “I thought if we all moved back for a little while, between the six of us we could oversee the final renovations and work on ways to cut back on expenses.”

“Eighteen months is more than a little while, bro.” Emmett used air quotes as he spoke.

Ben got it. He had never planned to return to Canyon Creek any more than his brothers had when he’d dropped out of college and fled his hometown to start his company. “I know.” Ben sighed. “But it doesn’t have to be the full eighteen months. We’ll rotate. Maybe two at a time, for like six months, or whatever we can manage, I don’t know.” He shrugged.

“I can’t.” Aaron said flatly, shaking his head. “I’m sorry guys, but I’m finishing up my fellowship at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. I can’t leave now.”

“What about a sabbatical?” Ben asked.

“Are you kidding?” Aaron laughed but the sound was devoid of humor. “Give up a fellowship in cardiac surgery at Northwestern? It would be professional suicide.”

“And I can’t stay,” Max said. “It’s playoff time.”

“You’re benched.” Grant laughed sarcastically.

Max saluted his youngest brother with his favorite finger. “I’m on the injured reserve list, asshole. I’ll be back on the field as soon as the docs approve me. Besides, my contract requires me to be on that bench. I don’t get to sit home eating bonbons with my thumb up my ass like some people.”

“Whatever.” Grant rolled his eyes.

Ben stared at Emmett, who was deep in thought.

Emmett was the quieter brother, more introspective. He often didn’t speak without careful consideration in a situation like this. Jake was more contemplative too, unlike Grant and Max, who’d never learned to temper their anger, or their mouths. They’d always chosen to act without thought, and often times paid a high price for their impulsivity.

Ben focused on Emmet now. “What about you, Em?”

Emmett’s head jerked up, his eyes narrowing. “What about me?”

“You can write from anywhere, can’t you?”

Emmett raised his brows. “And you can program computers from anywhere, too.” It was a statement not a question.

He and Emmett locked eyes, silently caught in a battle of the wills, just like they’d done since childhood.

“Ugh,” Emmett frowned, falling back in his seat, “fine. I’ll stay. But not for eighteen months.”

Ben smiled, relieved at least one Sumner brother was committed to saving the lodge. He could run his business from here for a few months. If he and his brothers staggered themselves over the next year, they could give their mom enough time to get this done and none of them would have to sacrifice all they’d built in their own lives.

Ben nodded at Emmett. “Good. You and I will be the first wave. What about the rest of you?” Ben glanced at Jake, Aaron, Max and Grant. “When can you guys clear some time?”

“I can come for a few months once the season is over,” Max offered.

Ben grinned. “Thanks, man. I plan on sticking around for a few months at the very least. I can work remotely for the time being but I’ll need to fly back to Seattle for a day or two first. I need to set things up with my office staff for a long absence.”

Jake, Aaron, and Grant remained quiet. Ben would let them absorb the information for a day or two. He knew they’d figure out a way to get back here and pitch in. They had to.

Max stood and rounded the table, reaching out to squeeze Ben’s shoulder. “Thanks bro, I’ll do as much as I can to help from Tampa.”

“You know, Benny Boy,” Grant waggled his brows, “there’s one fringe benefit to staying here in Canyon Creek, right?”

“Free pies from Aunt Sally’s bakery?” Aaron asked.

“That, too,” Grant nodded. “But nah, I’m talking about Maggie Lawrence.”

Ben’s shoulders stiffened at the mention of Maggie’s name. He was surprised when other body parts stiffened, too. Christ. Ben thought he was well past his infatuation with Maggie Lawrence and her effect on him. Obviously not.

Max released Ben’s shoulder. “You okay, man?”

“Oh my God, I forgot about Maggie Lawrence,” Jake chuckled.

“Ben’s had a hard-on for that girl since freshman year of high school.” Emmett smirked.

Ben glared at them. “Screw all of you.”

“But you have to admit,” Emmett said, “having Maggie Lawrence around as the lodge’s manager makes this pill a little easier to swallow.”

“Swallow!” Grant shouted, laughing hysterically. “You said swallow!”

A soft knock echoed from the door.

All six men fell silent and stared at the entry.

“Come in,” Ben said, expecting to see his mother.

A mass of auburn curls peeked through the opening. As if summoned by his own father’s ghost, Maggie Lawrence appeared in the doorway. She was out of breath and her cheeks were pink from the cold. She’d probably walked up to the lodge from his mother’s house.

The brothers’ collective gaze shifted from Maggie to Ben, their smirks impossible not to notice. Assholes.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you guys.” Her sing-song voice lilted through the room as she scanned the table, focusing on the folders lying open with financial documents. She stared for a moment.

“Maggie?” Ben coughed out.

She shook her head as if waking herself from a trance. “Sorry.” Her emerald green eyes rolled up to meet his and he swallowed hard. God, those seductive eyes still had the potential to slay him nearly fifteen years later. Shit.

“Some of the guests are asking about you.” She held his gaze for a soft beat before turning her head to glance around the small room. “All of you,” she corrected, “they’re asking about all of you. And your mom seems pretty anxious.”

His mom. Ben was an ass for not keeping this meeting short and getting them all back out to the reception quickly.  They had invited the mourners back to his parents’ home after the burial. How had he forgotten about the heartache she must be going through after losing her husband of thirty-four years?

Maggie’s sympathetic green eyes met Ben’s, care and concern etched on her face. Suddenly he was transported to high school, a pimply-faced nerd enamored with the popular beauty queen who didn’t even know he existed.

Maggie Lawrence.

His brothers had been right about one thing. He’d lived with a perpetual hard-on for most of high school thanks to Maggie Lawrence. Of course, he’d been off her radar, completely invisible to her. Ben never stood a chance against the good-looking, well-built jocks Maggie dated.

His brothers were wrong on their other assumption, though. Ignoring his childhood crush would be easy. He was successful now, no longer the geeky nerd from years ago. He could shut off the attraction to Maggie Lawrence as easily as he could block out their taunts.

Ben nodded. “Okay, thanks, Maggie. We’ll be right down.”

She smiled.

Oh shit. So, maybe not so easy to ignore after all.

Maggie bowed her head and backed through the door, closing it quietly.

He willed his body into submission and turned his attention to his brothers.

The five sets of eyes staring at him tried to hide their amusement, but failed. Lips twitching, the grown men stifled laughter like school girls.

Ben glowered, hoping his expression would shut them up.

“So,” Grant grinned, “you’ll be back soon?”

Ben glanced at the door as if Maggie would magically reappear. Heaven help him...and his dick. “Yeah, I’ll fly to Seattle tomorrow and be back in a few days.”

“How long do you plan to stay in Canyon Creek?” Jake asked.

“For as long as it takes to get into Maggie’s panties,” Grant answered for Ben.

His brothers joined in Grant’s laughter.

Ben scowled, his resolve fortified and his mind made up. Moving back to his hometown wasn’t the ideal situation, but his mother and the lodge needed them.

“I’ll be here for as long as it takes to save the lodge,” Ben said. And he planned to keep Maggie Lawrence off his radar this time.

 

Chapter 4

Maggie closed the door to the small meeting room and walked down the corridor toward the lobby of the lodge. She hadn’t seen any of the Sumner brothers in over a year, and hadn’t seen them all together like that since high school, almost fifteen years before. Their absence hurt their mother, and because of that, it pissed Maggie off.

She didn’t know what the brothers were talking about in the conference room, but their mother needed them down at the reception. Valerie Sumner had just lost her husband of thirty-four years. Her sons should be by her side, not holed up by themselves, laughing.

Maggie had known all of the Sumner boys growing up, but she hadn’t been friends with any of them. She wasn’t planning to be their friend now, either. The lodge and Valerie were her only priorities, and right now she needed to get back to both.

The employees were running the lodge by themselves, giving Maggie and Valerie time to grieve with family and friends, but they’d have to return to managing the place soon. The Sumners were only two months into the expansion of the lodge. There wasn’t time for them to curl up in bed and sob, as much as she might want to somedays. Maggie couldn’t imagine how much Valerie wanted to hide from the world right now.

“Did you find them?” Valerie asked, as Maggie walked back into the lobby of the lodge.

Maggie glanced up and smiled. “What are you doing up here? I thought you were going to wait back at the house with the guests.”

“I got antsy,” Valerie gave a small smile.

Maggie understood. The outpouring of sympathy from the town was overwhelming, for both of them.

“So, where are they?”

Maggie motioned behind her. “They’re in one of the meeting rooms.”

The lines around Valerie’s eyes deepened as she narrowed her gaze. “What are those boys up to?”

“You sound as if you think it’s no good.” Maggie grinned, a little surprised she could still smile on a day as sad as this. Valerie brought the joy out in her. Despite their difference in age, the two were close.

“Any time all six of my boys get together, you can guarantee they’re up to no good.” Valerie laughed—a real laugh—for the first time in days, and it felt good to see her expression lighten.

“I’m sure you’re glad they’re here,” Maggie offered, trying to skirt the issue of what the brothers were doing, sequestered in a meeting room. Their mother was right though. Maggie had the same feeling that the brothers were up to something—she just didn’t know what. Yet.

Valerie drew in a deep breath and sighed. “Yes, yes I am. I’m just sad it took their father’s death to get them all here at once.”

Maggie took Valerie’s arm in her own and led her toward the front door of the main lodge. They needed to get back down to the house where the funeral guests were gathered. She was pretty sure the entire town had come to say their final farewells to John Sumner. Valerie tugged on her arm, bringing them to a stop before they reached the door.

Maggie glanced up. “What is it?”

Tears welled in Valerie’s eyes.

“Oh, Valerie, I’m so sorry.” Maggie wrapped her arm around her friend’s small waist and pulled her back into the hallway for privacy. The weight of her own pain crushed her. She could only imagine what it felt like for Valerie, losing her husband after spending a lifetime together.

Valerie whispered on a sob. “I’m afraid to do this without him.” She looked around her. “Without John, the expansion seems…overwhelming.”

Maggie pushed back and stared up at the woman who’d become like a mother to her. Valerie’s face was stained with tears. “I told you, Valerie, I’m here for the long haul. I won’t leave you. We’re going to make this work.”

“Oh, God, thank you Maggie.” She drew Maggie in tighter. “I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Lucky for you, you’ll never have to find out.” Maggie smiled. “Promise.”

“Ma,” a deep voice rumbled from behind them.

Valerie pulled away and swiped at her face but kept one arm wrapped around Maggie’s shoulder.

“Max.” Valerie smiled at her son.

Max Sumner, four-time All-Pro wide receiver and two-time Super Bowl champion. Could there be a finer specimen of man candy? Glancing behind him at Max’s five brothers, Maggie had to admit that yes, yes there could be. Specifically, Ben Sumner. Each brother had his own distinct personality, but they all shared their father’s dark chestnut hair and hazel eyes. Still, Ben had always stood out to her.

He’d grown up and filled out since high school, and the man knew how to wear a suit. Like, damn, he could wear a suit. Looking at him now, Maggie had to admit, Ben did more for her than any of his brothers ever had. She just preferred to ignore that fact.

From the moment the men had descended on the lodge, something had been telling her she needed to protect herself, and Valerie, from them. The Sumner brothers stalked toward her and Valerie, eyes trained on them like a pack of angry lions. A menacing brood of hulky, sexy men about to devour their prey.

Maggie had grown up honing the skill of knowing when things were about to go wrong. Everything in her was screaming that this was one of those moments.

Ben stared at her, whiskey-colored eyes boring through her, and she had no doubt whatever was going on, he was the one leading the charge. When he spoke, though, he turned to his mother. “We need to talk about the loan, Mom. We need to make some plans.”

This was how Maggie remembered Ben from school—serious, hard to read, closed off. He could board up those eyes in a heartbeat, never giving a clue as to what was going on behind them. That was one of the reasons she’d never approached him. He was too intimidating.

“What about the loan?” Valerie tensed under Maggie’s arm as she spoke.

Ben shot Maggie another glance. “Maybe we should talk about this in private, Mom.”

Maggie almost laughed. Ben had some nerve, coming into town, acting like he’d been here all these years, taking care of his mother. He obviously had no idea of the part Maggie played with the business and the loans his parents had taken for the expansion.

“I don’t think I care to discuss my business loans at all with you, Ben.” Valerie squeezed Maggie’s arm tighter. “But if we’re going to, Maggie will be present.” Maggie liked the way Valerie didn’t offer any explanation. As far as she was concerned, Ben didn’t deserve an explanation.

It was hard to miss the way Ben’s eyes narrowed, but his brothers’ gazes darted anywhere but at the scene before them. It was also hard not to be a little smug and proud at Valerie’s words. Valerie had laid down the law to her sons, established Maggie as an integral part of their family’s business.

Been looked as if he’d swallowed a bug, obviously not used to being told what to do.

Maggie couldn’t help but smirk, just a little.

 

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