A Vacancy at the Inn Excerpt

Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series
Christmas Novella

Luke & Bethany’s Story

Chapter One

The trouble with driving when you’re upset is that you still have to drive. Bethany Miller felt the challenge of that as she drove down Jefferson Avenue for the first time since before her son was born and she’d taken his embryonic self, and her brokenhearted self, out of here. She should have known what a shock her return would be. She should have anticipated how the years she’d spent in the North Country would come barreling back at her full force, like the glacier that cut the St. Lawrence River Valley out of the earth and left behind a thousand mountain peaks as islands in the stream, a little over two dozen miles from here.

Instead, she’d told herself what she usually told herself. “It will be all right.” This was the assumption she always made, just before she wandered off into the fog that shrouded whatever lay ahead. She’d had “It will be all right” in her head a decade ago when she ran away from Riverton, New York. She’d been nineteen, pregnant and seriously lacking in resources, but she kept on telling herself everything would turn out fine. What kind of fool’s faith had it taken to fly off to Chicago on such flimsy wings? What kind of fool was she now, with her son Michael in the backseat of a rented Ford Fiesta, winging back here on the same flimsy assumption? Or was it only a wish? “It will be all right.”

“Mom, you’re driving funny.”

Michael’s voice snapped her back to the reality of her former hometown at almost midday.

“You’re going about three miles an hour in a twenty-five-mile zone. It’s a good thing there’s not a lot of cars in this place besides us.”

Michael muttered that last sentence in the cross between disappointment and accusation that had been his customary tone for some time now.

“There’ll be many more people when Christmas comes.”

That tidbit of defensiveness popped out of Bethany’s mouth before she could remind herself she was the adult and he was the nine-year-old, and she shouldn’t allow him to manipulate her into defending herself.

“I can hardly wait,” he said.

“Okay, that’s enough. Let’s have a little respect from the backseat brigade.”

She understood that shutting him down with a demand for better behavior was a weak parental response. Knowing Michael, she probably hadn’t really shut him down anyway, but at least she’d shut him up for the moment. Besides, he was right about one thing. She needed to pay better attention to her driving. Traffic might be sparse at this time of day in late-December with a snow storm in the forecast, but there were still other cars on the street, which meant it would be a good idea for her to get off the street. She pulled the ugly green rental over to the curb.

“What’re you doing now?”

She’d been correct about not shutting her son down for long.

“I need a minute.”

She looked into Michael’s eyes in the rearview mirror and saw a flash of compassion there. He wasn’t a bad kid. He was a good kid in a bad situation. Being uprooted from the place he’d known as home all his life would be a bad situation for any nine-year-old. Being uprooted against his will had to feel like a nightmare. Bethany let her own compassion sink in and tried not to muddy it up too much with guilt. This move back from Illinois was for Michael after all, even though he didn’t think so.

“What I really need is a cookie break. Would you like to join me?”

She knew very well that cookies were Michael’s passion.

“Okay,” he said, obviously trying to sound less than enthusiastic.

They were parked in front of Ginny’s Coffee Corner, and Bethany knew what that meant. If she’d hoped to ease herself gradually into her old hometown, that hope would evaporate the minute she opened the pink door of Ginny’s place and stepped inside. The past would flood back in a wave of sweet chocolate chips and bittersweet memories. As it happened, the flood began even before she reached the door.

“Look, Mom. Lots of concerts.”

Michael was pointing at the bulletin board outside Ginny’s. It was covered in flyers, each advertising a different musical performance. There were notices about dance and theater and a number of classes, but bands and singers dominated.

“You didn’t tell me there was so much music around here.”

Michael’s eyes were bright with excitement, as if he’d suddenly awakened from the gloomy funk he’d been in for weeks. Bethany breathed a sigh of relief. She’d been worried about her son. To see him happy again, even for a moment, had her ready to shed tears right here on Jefferson Avenue.

“Music is a big part of life in Riverton,” she said past the lump in her throat. “It was a big part of my growing up here too.”

“I didn’t know about that. How come you never told me?”

Bethany shook her head.

“I don’t know, honey. I haven’t told you a lot of things about Riverton, or Riverton Road Hill either.”

“That’s where your family’s house is. Right?”

“It’s the family’s inn actually.”

She almost added that the Millers of Miller’s Inn were his family too, but she didn’t want to lay too much on him too soon and risk shattering this moment of good feeling she was loving so much. Any real answer to questions about Riverton Road Hill had shattering potential for her also.

“Do they have music where your family lives?”

Bethany couldn’t help but smile. That was maybe the one uncomplicated question he could have asked about her family.

“Yes, Michael, there’s music at our family’s place. Your grandma used to be a singer. I understand she still is, but mostly in church now. She was in a group that made a couple of albums in the early seventies before she met your grandfather.”

“She did?” Michael was nearly jumping up and down now. “How come I never heard them?”

“They’re hardly your kind of music, honey. I don’t imagine a lot of this is either.”

Bethany gestured toward the flyers on the bulletin board. Rock and folk songs were hardly Michael’s tunes of choice. He was more into what she heard as the atonal bang-bang of street rap, or whatever it was called.

“A lot of the pictures have guitars in them and guys with long hair,” Michael said. “Looks kind of cool to me.”

“It is kind of cool. In fact, it is very cool.”

The voice that carried those words came with a rush across a span of years, as if she’d heard it only yesterday, in the halls of Riverton High School or her own backyard on the hill.

“Cliff,” she cried as she turned around and was immediately engulfed in a bear hug by a bear of a man.

Clifford Wickham had grown in girth and roundness, and the hair she felt trailing down his back was grizzled with the wiriness of gray. She’d always expected he would age into a Riverton character, and she was happy to discover he had.

“Welcome home, sweet girl.”

“It’s good to be back.”

She hadn’t meant to say that. She hadn’t meant to feel it either. She’d come here for Michael’s sake. She wasn’t quite ready to let herself think she might have come for herself too.

“Cliff, there’s somebody I want you to meet.”

Michael had been watching them closely.

“My guess is this guy’s somebody pretty special,” Cliff said as he reached out his paw of a hand to take Michael’s much smaller one.

“Michael is very special,” Bethany said with a proud mama smile. “Michael, this is a very dear old friend of mine.”

“And getting older every day. Just call me Cliff.”

He pumped Michael’s hand, and Bethany was tickled that her son didn’t pull away. He could be standoffish with adults, especially ones he’d never met, but he wasn’t standing off now.

“Do you know any of the guys in these bands?”

Michael pointed toward the bulletin board after Cliff freed his hand.

“I am one of those guys.”

“No way.”

Michael’s face split into a huge grin.

“I’m afraid so.”

“Do you play guitar?”

“These mitts weren’t exactly made for string plucking.”

Cliff spread his immense hands wide.

“What do you play then?”

Michael sounded only a little less enthused.

“I’m a drummer, son, and will be for as long as I can still get my belly up to a bass.”

Cliff slapped his round middle and laughed heartily. Bethany could hardly believe she’d forgotten how much she loved his laugh.

“Enough shop talk,” Cliff said. “It’s freezing cold out here.”

He put one hand on Michael’s shoulder and the other arm around Bethany’s waist.

“Let’s see what Ginny’s got on the baked goods counter today. Michael, you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Ginny’s big-as-your-face caramel chip oatmeal cookies. Best treat in the universe. Get the door, son.”

Michael turned the pink knob, and a moment later Cliff was jostling the two of them sideways through the opening they couldn’t possibly navigate abreast.

“I thought you weren’t coming till tomorrow.”

Ginny Simmons herself had called out from behind the white and pink counter that stretched along the side of the room at the rear half of the cafe. Her blond hair was pulled back into a roll at the nape of her neck, very different from the mass of frizzy curls she used to wear. Everything else about her was the same. Her uniform was still just a little too tight, and white with pink trim to match everything else here. Large dimples delved deep into her rosy cheeks. They were the same as always too.

“I was wondering that very thing. The word I heard was ETA Bethany Miller tomorrow in the p.m., maybe a.m. at the earliest.”

Bethany stared at Cliff as he said that.

“You look gob-smacked, girl,” he continued. “You must’ve forgotten how everybody in Riverton knows everything about everybody else in Riverton. That also goes for the two miles between here and Riverton Road Hill.”

He’d hit the snare drum on the head this time. Bethany had forgotten, or almost forgotten, how folks around here lived pretty much in each other’s pockets most of the time. That particular back-home memory didn’t strike her in the same soft, sentimental spot the others had. She’d never doubted a reverse direction toward her roots would be a challenge. The clutch she felt in her stomach, about the prospect of being wall-to-wall visible once again, brought with it a slide to the downside of those challenges, and of small town life in general.

“Come on, buddy, let’s get you a cookie. If it’s okay with your mom, that is.”

Bethany nodded.

“It’s okay with his mom.”

Before heading toward the counter with Michael as eager companion, Cliff favored her with a warm smile.

“Do you want a treat too, darlin’? You look like you could use one.”

“Sure she does,” Ginny answered for her. “A fudge brownie with lots of walnuts. Did I remember that right, Bethie girl?’

“You remembered that exactly right, Ginny.”

Bethany sighed. Her taste buds anticipated the miracle of Ginny’s homemade brownies, and Bethany almost asked for some hot, sticky fudge sauce on top. Then she remembered how hot and sticky other aspects of this homecoming could turn out to be. She was so caught up in thinking about that she neglected to tell herself, “It will be all right.”

Chapter Two

Luke Kalli might have felt sheepish about showing up so often around mealtime at Miller’s Inn, but he didn’t. None of the Millers would have wanted him to feel that way either.

“You’re as welcome at our table as you are in our hearts.”

Millicent Miller, the matriarch of the family, said that to him often. She was a painter and a musician, but she could just as well have been a poet too. The way she spoke sometimes reminded Luke of poetry.

“Does it come from all the singing you’ve done? The music in the way you talk?” he’d asked her once.

“Everything comes from the music we carry inside ourselves.”

That’s what he’d been getting at of course, the way she said thing, and the joy it was to hear her. For Luke, the Millers were a joy in general. He showed up at mealtime so frequently because, for one thing, he loved Amanda Miller Bryce’s cooking. Who wouldn’t? But mostly he came because he loved the family, and meals were gathering time for the Miller clan. His own Kalli family on Riverton Road had a warm kitchen like the Millers’ too, but Luke was one of four brothers. Here he was practically the man of the house, except for Jake Miller of course.

Besides, this was one of the few places left around here where no one tried to fix him up with anybody. His fiancé Lucia had passed away two years ago and, for the couple of months since his return to the North Country, it felt as if getting him married again had become the main objective of much of the local female population, and some of their husbands too. Riverton Road Hill was a haven for Luke in that way. He always pushed the gas pedal of his old Ford-150 pickup just a little harder as he rounded the last curve in the road before Miller’s Inn swung into view. He was doing that now.

Luke turned onto the more gradual slope that curved upward from the steepness of the hill road toward the rambling building that was the Miller family home, and the heartbeat of the Miller family business. Miller’s Inn was long and sprawling and picturesquely in need of a new coat of bluish-gray paint. If this was the warm season, it would be surrounded by flowers, beds of roses in particular, blooming in profusion from early spring well into winter. Luke remembered last year, when Riverton was deluged by its usual substantial snowfall, Millicent’s roses were still red against the white ground. But they were gone now, even in this almost balmy December.

Luke thought wistfully of spring, when masses of daffodils and crocuses would flank the wide steps to the even wider front porch, and mounds of bluebells would peek through everywhere. An English garden covered nearly half an acre beyond the wide, green lawn, and spilled down the curve of the hill. An English garden, as Millicent interpreted it, was a field of flowers of apparently random design, but Luke knew better. Watching Millicent during his earlier life here had taught him that every clump and leafy corner was meticulously planned to be constantly in blossom. She’d filled the space with marigolds and mums for the fall, but they were gone now too. That didn’t leave Miller’s Inn without color however. She had already hung the white wooden fence with a dark green garland festooned in ornaments. Millicent referred to the fence and porch, and the brightly decorated windows, as her Christmas garden, and she brought it to festive life and light every year.

Miller’s Inn was a haven for lots of people besides Luke. They came for a friendly place to stay, and Millicent made sure they got exactly that. Amanda made equally sure they were wonderfully fed too. Luke smelled that wonder the instant he opened the truck door. The rich, deep aroma told him Amanda was making a pot of the Butternut Bisque soup she was famous for in these parts. She stepped onto the porch just as Luke was about to mount the wide steps. She was wearing an apron, as she did just about always, and she’d wrapped a knit shawl around her shoulders to ward off the Northern New York State cold.

“Hello there, stranger,” she said in her usual gentle tone.

Luke chuckled at her friendly tease about how far from a stranger he actually was here.

“Hello there to you too, Amanda. Aren’t you afraid the soup will burn with you deserting your post at the stove?”

“I left William in charge.”

Amanda had married William, a cook like herself, and she’d loved him as much as she loved the kitchen magic they made together. Then she’d had to endure the shock of his death in a boating accident on the river, an experience as bitter as her time with him had been sweet. She was back in their kitchen soon after that, too soon according to some folks around Riverton, but Amanda disagreed.

“William is right here in our kitchen with me,” she’d say. “He takes my hand to make sure I don’t add too much salt to the stew. Where else could I possibly want to be?”

Luke understood what she meant by that, how the man she still loved even in his absence was as real to her heart as he’d always been. Her speaking of him as if he were alive might bother some folks, but it didn’t bother Luke. He also understood her need to get back to being busy again so soon. He’d done the same after Lucia died, though he’d chosen travel as his medium for distraction and contemplation. Keeping occupied can be a healing thing. It took them out of only thinking about themselves and their grief. Sharing those feelings had made them friends.

“Come on in. I’ll ladle out a bowl for you.”

Smelling Amanda’s soup was definitely making him hungry, but he’d have to swallow that hunger for a while.

“I promised Millicent I’d check for a possible leak around one of the skylights on the roof. Can you save that bowl for later?”

“Bethany may be here by then.”

Luke stared as Amanda flicked a tendril of pale, wavy hair from her usually pale cheek, now blushed pink by kitchen steam, but he wasn’t really noticing any of that.

“I thought she was coming tomorrow.”

“So did we all, but we were wrong.”

Luke was hardly ever at a loss for words, especially with Amanda, but he found himself at a loss now, for more than just what to say. His composure seemed to have deserted him too.

“I didn’t know,” he all but stammered.

Amanda eyed him curiously for a moment before responding.

“Bethany always did have a habit of doing what was least expected. I’m sure you remember that.”

Luke nodded. He remembered that about Bethany, and everything else too.

“I have to get up to the roof now,” he said.

“I’ll keep that bowl of soup warm.”

“Thanks, Amanda.”

For the first time ever, Luke wished he could think of an excuse for avoiding the Miller kitchen and Miller’s Inn altogether. He’d planned his roof-fix visit for today because Bethany was expected to arrive tomorrow. She was what he really wanted to avoid. Unfortunately, there was no way he could come up with a believable excuse to get out of here now, not under Amanda’s perceptive gaze. That’s why, a half-hour later he was standing at the crest of the inn’s roof, gripping the chimney to keep balanced, when Bethany stepped from a nearly fluorescent green car to the gray gravel of the driveway below, as if she were emerging from the center of all the bright colors in the world and nothing would ever be gray again. She brought with her a surge of another kind of hunger for Luke, one even Amanda’s Butternut Bisque couldn’t satisfy, a hunger he wished he’d never experienced.

Ever since he began visiting the inn again, shortly after his return to the North Country, he’d known this day could happen. Bethany would come home sometime, and when she did and he saw her, it would be as if she’d last been in his life only yesterday instead of long years ago. Now he understood, deep in every part of him and undeniably, how right he was. Lucia had known about Bethany, the girl from her fiancé’s past who’d been with him for a brief time and then was gone. He wouldn’t have been able to keep it from Lucia, even if he wanted to do that. She had a way of outing everybody’s secrets eventually, especially his. This was all right with him because he’d needed to tell her everything, including the story of Luke and Bethany.

He’d held back what would have been too hurtful for any woman to hear, that the time he spent with Bethany had been the most incandescent episode of his life, as incandescent as he remembered Bethany herself to be, and just as fleeting. She’d slipped through his fingers like a lovely moth that was bound to fly away, and after she was gone he only half-believed she’d been real. By contrast, seeing her now was sharper with reality than anything that had happened to him in a long time, and part of that reality was how much he still wanted her.

He’d removed his coat, despite the cold, to be freer to move around and exert himself yanking at roof shingles. He was standing there, with roof tar on his jeans, while his heart slammed so hard he thought it might erupt out of his chest and soar across the sky. She’d looked up by then and was staring straight at him. She raised her hand to her forehead, probably to shield her eyes from the whiteness of the sky behind him. Luke was too far from her to see if there was recognition in those eyes. All he knew for sure was they’d still be brown with flecks of gold, and memory had already shot those flecks of shining light like arrows to his soul.

 •  •  •

Bethany stared up at the apparition on the roof. Could that possibly be Luke Kalli? Her heart performed one flip, then another. It couldn’t be Luke. She had to be mistaken. Her heart continued its acrobatics all the same. Her first thought about him back in high school had been that she’d never seen shoulders like his in her life and never would again. For a single wild moment she’d even thought she could build a life on those shoulders. Now she saw them again, stretching his tee shirt, but she had to be imagining. It must be a trick of the light, or road weariness from the drive upstate out of Syracuse. Or maybe she was a victim of emotional overload after her unexpected splash into the past at Ginny’s Coffee Corner. Bethany strained harder to see more clearly and felt tears sting her eyes from the white sky. It’s not Luke, she told herself, just as a commanding voice boomed out behind her. There was no mistaking the sound of her father, demanding as he always had that she remove her attention from everything else and focus on him.

“Is that my grandson?”

Bethany tore her gaze from the apparition on the roof to the reality of Jake Miller, marching toward her in his usual forceful stride. She swept a tear from the corner of her eye with the back of her hand, then immediately wished she hadn’t. She wouldn’t want her father to think she was crying over him, even though the sight of his ruddy sturdiness reminded her of childhood days, when she was still his pride and he was hers. Her heart flipping over memories of Luke Kalli, her head caught in nostalgia for her father. She was a mess. She balled her hands into fists so tight her fingernails gouged her palms.

“Hello, Dad.”

She hadn’t prepared herself for how it would feel to say those words for the first time after so long away from him. The mess inside her grew messier still, more so than digging her fingernails into her palms was likely to control for long.

“Hello, Bethany.”

Her father’s glance grazed past her without settling, and moved on to her son at her side.

“You must be Michael. I’ve been waiting to meet you for a very long time.”

Jake’s strong hands grasped Michael by the shoulders.

“I’m your grandpa. What do you think about that?”

Jake had gone down on one knee to say that directly into Michael’s face. Bethany could feel her father’s charm radiating full-bore, the same way it had radiated over, around and through her in her growing up years, as long as she was pleasing him. She also remembered the chill that engulfed her when he withdrew that charm after she ceased to please him, as any daughter with gumption was sure to do eventually. Somehow that memory restored the self-control she’d feared would desert her entirely.

“Michael, this is your grandfather Jake,” she said with surprising steadiness. “I’ve told you about him.”

If her father wondered how she might have portrayed him, he revealed no sign of that. He revealed no sign of anything, as if she’d never spoken at all. Bethany felt a pang of the same old combination of disappointment and guilt he’d always been able to inflict on her. Disappointment that she couldn’t seem to get what she needed from him. Guilt that she couldn’t seem to give what he wanted from her.

“I’ve been waiting to meet you too.”

Bethany was surprised to hear Michael say such gracious words. She was also proud of the full-voiced, strong-spirited way he said them. So proud she almost, but not quite, didn’t care that her father was bound to be favorably impressed by the boy she’d raised entirely on her own.

“Then call me Grandpa right now, you whippersnapper.”

Bethany watched Michael pause until Jake’s big voice had stopped resounding.

“Grandpa it is,” Michael said as he stepped back from Jake’s grasp and took his hand to shake instead.

Bethany was beaming down at her son when she noticed her father beaming down at her in turn, fully acknowledging her presence at last.

“You brought us back a Miller after all,” he said.

“I brought my son.”

“And it’s high time you did.”

Bethany knew from her emails back and forth with her sister Amanda, that as far as Jake Miller was concerned, his youngest daughter Bethany had deserted him, and he was not about to forgive her for it.

“Those are cool boots,” Michael said.

He pointed at his grandfather’s feet, as if sensing a good time to intervene.

“You like these, do you?”

Jake looked down at his knee-high black rubber boots. They were caked with dirt and pine needles from the eight acres of Miller property trees he’d always loved to tramp through at least once a day. Bethany wondered if the ridges across his boot soles were filled with bits of mud and pebbles like when she was a kid. She remembered prying those pebbles free with a stick, just so he would put his hand on her head and say.

“Well done, my good girl.”

“I like those boots a lot,” Michael was saying now.

“Well, I’ll bet we have a pair around here somewhere just about your size. How would you like that, grandson?”

“I’d like it fine.”

“You’re a man after your grandpa’s heart,” Jake said as he stood up again, straight and tall, looming over Michael. “I think we’re going to have some good times together.”

Bethany worried that Michael might feel intimidated, the way she’d sometimes felt with her father when she was young, and knew she’d have to struggle against feeling even now.

“Okay, Grandpa. Let’s have some good times.”

He certainly didn’t sound intimidated. Jake gripped Michael’s shoulder again and gave it a squeeze then turned toward Bethany.

“Like I said, you brought us home a Miller.”

She understood this to be her father’s stamp of approval. But, unlike back when she was a little girl and still the apple of his eye, Bethany wasn’t at all sure Jake Miller’s approval was what she should desire right now, especially for her son.

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