Start reading the excerpt for Chapter 1 of The Orchard Inn right now!
Ella Shaw woke to the buzzing of her alarm. After rolling over, she slapped the button, turning off the offensive noise. She had never been a morning person, but running an entire inn, mostly by herself, meant she needed to get up before the birds.
Sitting up, she tried to rub the sleepiness from her eyes. Ella turned toward the window by her bed, the yellow light of day slowly creeping closer to the orange horizon. Rays of partially hidden sun glinted off the early morning mist and frosted dew-covered cobwebs covering the grass in the backyard below. The sky was still varying shades of blue and indigo, edged in fire where the sun slowly rose on its own time. She could still make out a few stars. Ella loved the stillness and quiet at this time of day. It was her own private peace.
She took a deep breath before turning on the small bedside lamp that sat next to her clock. The light flicked, momentarily assaulting her eyes before they could adjust. Her room was small but cozy, with a white pine-paneled ceiling and natural dark wood beams vaulted across the middle. One of the walls was stone and had a large bay window that overlooked the backyard, letting in natural light.
A few of her own sketches hung in the room, her most prized being the one of Mac, her surrogate father, framed by her bed. Ella pushed the purple down comforter off her. It was the one burst of color in the otherwise neutral room.
She slid her feet onto the furry white rug, wiggling her toes on the softness before reluctantly standing.
Ella liked to think of herself as a minimalist. She had come here seven years ago after arriving with only her backpack filled with her sketchbook, wallet, and the clothes on her back. She had no intention of overstaying her welcome. There was no use collecting items she couldn’t take when she left, so keeping less stuff had become a habit. Everything had been temporary for her; there was no sense in getting attached. That had been Ella’s theory for most of her life, until she started to open herself up to the one person she had come to rely on these past seven years: Mac. But even that had come to a bitter end.
Ella dressed and went about her tasks for the day at the inn. After the guests had finished, most of the rooms were prepared for the guests. The checkouts had ended, and the check-ins came rolling in sporadically. The maids had finished cleaning the rooms and were now moving on to clean the lobby and breakfast area.
Ella’s best friend and chef, Magdalena Hicks, sat on a bench in the lobby, waiting for her mother, Annie, and her daughter, Avery, to pick her up.
“How is little miss Avery today?” Ella asked while she worked through the never-ending stack of paperwork on the front desk.
“Oh, she told me she wants to go fossil hunting this weekend to find dinosaur bones.” Maggie stretched out her long legs. She tucked her short blond hair behind her ear.
Ella’s eyebrows rose in confusion. “Dinosaur bones?”
“She is obsessed with all things dinosaurs. Mom said I was, too, when I was five, but I don’t remember ever being so completely captivated by something in my entire life. I mean she watches documentaries of paleontologists talking about stuff that makes me fall asleep it is so boring.” Maggie playfully rolled her eyes. “But Avery is glued to every word they say. The first time she said paleontology it sounded like ‘pay-lean-nolo-ghee,’” Maggie added in a mock four-year-old voice.
Ella laughed at her best friend’s impression, then stapled a few pages together. “Well, maybe she gets that from your wife. Julia does like playing with mud.”
“Yes, because pottery is almost the same as a dinosaur dig,” Maggie said sarcastically, her blue eyes always sparkling with joy at the mention of her wife’s influence.
The bell above the door rang before a warm breeze swept over Ella’s body. Her body buzzed as she inhaled the earthy aroma of the woods, mixed with a masculine scent—musk and pine. Confused, she looked up, her body frozen momentarily as a breathtakingly handsome, tall man walked into the lobby, the door closing behind him. His brown hair was cut in a short fade, and he wore a snug-fitting black tee that accentuated every muscle in his broad shoulders. Her eyes wandered down past his long camo shorts, over his toned brown calves, settling on his black and white Converse shoes. Warmth pooled in her center. What is happening to my body?
Maggie cleared her throat.
Ella’s gaze snapped back to his face, her cheeks growing hot. Did he see me ogling him?
The gorgeous man stopped in front of the counter and stared back at her, his mouth quirked up on one side like he knew what she was thinking. Busted checking out a guest. Great, just what I need.
His light hazel eyes—more green than brown with a golden ring around them—contrasted against his light brown skin, making him almost unearthly. How had they not caught my attention first?
“G-good afternoon,” Ella managed to say. She cleared her throat, then asked, “Can I help you?”
Her heart raced in her chest, so she blew out a long breath through her barely parted lips, which were all of a sudden dry. She licked them and blinked rapidly, bewildered by her body’s unusual reaction. Sure, this man was terribly good-looking, but why was she reacting this way? Ella didn’t react this way to men.
Panic twisted up her spine, cinching around her ribs, but she took in another deep breath and slowly let it out, composing herself.
The supermodel of a man put his hand on the back of his neck as his crooked smirk widened, turning into a full-blown smile that made her knees weak.
Stupid feeble knees.
“Checking in. River Parker,” he answered, his voice a deep rumble that sent vibrations straight to her sensitive core.
She reached her trembling hands down for the paperwork. Does he see me shaking like a leaf? His eyes locked on to her arms, and the immediate urge to hide had her gripping the edge of the desk until her knuckles turned white. He can’t see my scars; they’re hidden in the ink. She glanced at the tattoos on her forearms before forcing her attention back to the stack of paperwork, finding the information she had stapled and prepared.
“Yes. I have you as a guest staying until Tuesday, right?”
“Yup,” he answered, sounding distracted.
“Great. You’re in the Orchard suite. Here is your room key, a local map, and a list of close amenities. Breakfast is in the dining nook from seven to eleven.” Ella motioned to her right, going off muscle memory since her brain was mush at this point. “You’re on your own for lunch and dinner. I mean you can eat with anyone you want, but we don’t serve it here . . . dinner, I mean,” Ella finished, flustered as she motioned to the staircase on her left. Could I be any more awkward! Her cheeks flushed pink.
River’s mouth parted in another full-blown smile. God, he has perfect teeth. The rest of the blood drained from her brain, moving south. What had gotten into her?
“Thanks.” River reached for the paper, his finger grazing hers.
A bolt of electrified energy shot through Ella’s palm, and she jolted and stepped back. Did he feel that too?
River’s eyes flicked to hers before he picked up his bag and walked up the stairs to his right where the sign pointed to the rooms.
Ella stared at the desk in front of her, willing her eyes not to follow the gorgeous man who had just caused her to lose her composure so completely. Her heart thundered in her chest like a war drum, warning her of the last time she’d gotten close to a man. I’m safe. I’m hidden. He can’t find me.
“You should look. The view of his backside is just as nice as the front,” Maggie said, louder than she needed to.
“Shhh! What if he heard you?” Ella’s searing eyes practically burned into Maggie.
Maggie just giggled mischievously in response.
Ella sighed. “Was I that obvious?”
Her friend shot her an incredulous look before answering, “Girl, I have never seen you fawn so completely over any man since I met you. You got it bad for that guy.”
“He’s a guest, Maggie. Off-limits,” Ella responded, more to remind herself than her friend.
It had been a long time since she had been with a man. Ella had let that part of herself wither in the darkness since she’d escaped hell on earth seven years ago. Seven years was a long time, and Ella had since assumed that, maybe, she just didn’t need sex. Because for her, sex meant men. And there had never been a man she was attracted to that she’d felt was trustworthy enough to let into her heart. She had considered casual hookups, but the thought of someone seeing her scarred body and asking questions immediately shut down the possibility for her.
“Whatever you say,” Maggie teased.
The bell rang again as little Avery rushed into the inn with Annie trailing not far behind her. Avery’s jet-black hair was pulled up into a tight bun, and she wore rainbow-striped leggings, a polka-dot skirt, and a blue top with a unicorn on it.
“Mommy! Mommy, I missed you!” Avery yelled as she dove into her mother’s arms.
Annie greeted Ella while Avery and Maggie chatted about the little girl’s day spent with her gramma. Annie had become a surrogate fun aunt for Ella. Two years before Mac’s diagnosis, Annie had retired from her role as the main cook at the inn, except for special occasions. She now watched her granddaughter while Maggie worked in her place.
Annie reached out to Ella for a hug. Ella didn’t like being touched, but she made an exception for the few who were closest in her life. That list had only grown shorter since Mac’s death.
Annie towered over Ella as she enveloped her within her arms. Her hair was long and silver with ever-changing brightly colored streaks. Annie was what Vermonters referred to as “granola” or “crunchy.” She never wore a bra. She used a salt crystal for deodorant and patchouli oil for perfume. Her clothes were all organic hemp or cotton dresses and pants of varying shades of natural colors, patterns, and layers. She practiced earthing, which meant unless it was absolutely freezing out, or there was snow or ice on the ground, she was barefoot. She wore a long crystal and wood mala necklace, and rings on almost every finger. She was the most eccentric, fun-loving, and free-living person Ella had ever had the honor of knowing.
“How goes it at the inn?” Annie asked.
“Great.” Ella exhaled, releasing some of the tension from the exchange with their newest guest.
“I would say a little better than great, wouldn’t you, Ella?” Maggie teased.
Annie looked between Ella and Maggie before asking, “Oh? Sounds like something juicy!”
Ella crossed her arms and shot a death glare to Maggie, which her friend ignored.
“Ella nearly had a spontaneous orgasm at the sight of a smoking, fine-ass guest is all. Pun intended.” She winked at Ella. “His name is River.”
“Be quiet, Maggie!” Ella hissed.
“Who’s River, Mommy? I want to go to the river!” Avery chimed in.
“Aves, you and your mommy should go on a hike to the river! Your mommy was just telling me how much she wanted to go outside today and play in the mud. Mud season is almost over, so you better go now,” Ella lied.
Vermont had what seemed like seven revolving seasons, rather than four: winter, spring, second winter, mud season, summer, fall, and winter again. The locals would joke that if you didn’t like the weather, wait five minutes because it was bound to change.
Maggie glared back at Ella, but Avery jumped up and down in excitement. “Can we go now, Mommy? Pleeease?”
Avery called Maggie Mommy, and her other mother, Julia, Mama. Avery was lucky enough to have two loving mothers, which was twice as many as Ella had.
“Yes, baby. Let’s go before Aunt Ella comes up with any more ideas. We can pick up Mama from her shop on the way.” Maggie took a gleeful Avery’s hand and walked out the door.
Annie gave Ella one more hug and handed her a baggie filled with chocolate hearts. “Oh! I almost forgot. I finished a fresh batch of these for you today.”
“Thanks so much for making me more.”
“I’m just glad they’re helping. Enjoy!” Annie said with a wink before following her daughter and granddaughter.
At midafternoon Ella needed to take a break, so she wandered into the kitchen to make herself a cup of black tea, after setting the chocolates in the freezer. Her mind wandered back to the striking guest and what had transpired. It must have been momentary insanity. A man that good-looking hadn’t crossed her path in an awfully long time—if ever. Maybe she needed to get out a little more, to interact with the opposite sex in a strictly platonic way. The thought terrified her. Ella’s fingertips tingled, and she needed a moment to get a hold of herself. There was no point in entertaining fantasies that could never come true anyway. Even if I managed to trust a man enough, and after he saw how damaged I was, he’d run the other way.
Ella shook her head, as if to rid it of those thoughts. She would drink her tea and get back to learning how to improve the inn’s website design. The task brought a sense of dread, much like the thought of getting out more. She couldn’t afford to hire someone, as she had just finished paying for the remodel, and Mac’s funeral. Plus, this time of year was the inn’s slow season. The business bank account was too low for something she was determined to figure out herself. She didn’t want to risk having someone else take over and make a mess of things that she had deliberately spent countless hours rebuilding. Special events, including the wedding season, would be starting in a couple of weeks, and that would bring in a much-needed influx of cash.
The challenge of conquering the dreaded task of website design would be the perfect distraction from the hazel-eyed god staying upstairs. If she was numbing her mind with internet improvements, there would be no brain cells left to wonder what those full lips would feel like on her own. Ella bit down on the inside of her cheek. I bet they are warm and sweet.
She jolted upright, sitting straight as a board, and nearly spilled her tea. Shaking her head, Ella attempted to release the thoughts out of irrational fear that the stranger could read her mind through the walls.
“Best to get busy,” she said out loud to the empty room.
That’s it for this romance novel excerpt.
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