One crisis at a time. How many times had Elizabeth Wu’s stepdad Ned told her that back when she was in high school?
He’d always said it so calmly, too. She hadn’t understood how he could take everything in stride like that—be it a lost reservation at their family’s inn or her failing chemistry again or that one time she and her best friend, Graham, maybe kind of accidentally got arrested.
Ten years on, she still struggled to remain on an even keel, no matter how hard she tried to channel her inner Ned.
“Where is it?” she muttered, clicking through her inbox on the clunky old computer behind the front desk at the Sweetbriar Inn.
“You tried, ‘Wherever you put it’?” her mother suggested, her tone dry as the Sahara. She had a thick Chinese accent and a tiny bit of a speech impediment—a lingering aftereffect of the stroke she’d had the previous year—but neither got in the way of her giving her youngest daughter a hard time. She was currently on the other side of the lobby, taking pictures of her cat for her legions of loyal social media followers. Because that was totally normal.
Somehow, Elizabeth managed to contain her eye roll, but she couldn’t hold back the deadpan retort of “Why no, Mother, it never occurred to me. What on earth would I ever do without you?”
Her mom mumbled something less than flattering in Mandarin. As the baby, raised mostly here in the sheltered small town of Blue Cedar Falls, North Carolina, Elizabeth wasn’t as fluent as either her mother or her older sisters, June and May, but she knew enough. She looked up from the computer screen with narrowed eyes.
Her mother just waved her off. “Never mind. You clearly don’t need my help.”
Right. A fact Elizabeth had demonstrated when she’d moved out at age eighteen. Her chest gave a little squeeze.
A fact that both her mother and Ned had been reminding her of ever since.
“What is it Elizabeth doesn’t need help with today?” Elizabeth’s oldest sister, June, breezed through the front door of the inn. A year ago, Elizabeth would have read all kinds of condescension into a comment like that.
Then again, a year ago June wouldn’t have been breezing in, period, and she definitely wouldn’t have been breezing in with sex hair and a hickey on her neck, wearing the same clothes she’d headed off in the day before.
Elizabeth had zero room to judge, of course. June was in a committed relationship with the owner and proprietor of the bar across the street, Clay Hawthorne—and even if she weren’t, good for her. Heaven knew Elizabeth had made more dramatic entrances after less well-considered nights.
Momentarily pausing her scouring of her email, Elizabeth mentally switched tabs to a few of the other crises currently on the docket for the morning. “Actually, now that you’re home, there are a few things I could use help with.”
“Can I quick take a shower first?”
“Pretty sure you won’t want to. Toilet’s clogged in room”—she checked her chicken-scratch notes—“twelve.”
June grimaced. “And you saved it for me?”
“Don’t say I never gave you anything.” At June’s skeptical glare, Elizabeth held her hands up. “You’re the one who told me not to leave the desk unattended. Big wedding party showing up today, remember?”
“Mom standing in the lobby counts as the desk being attended.”
“Mrs. Leung and Ms. Smith on their way,” their mom interrupted, as if they needed any reminder about her brunch friends’ imminent arrival. “Besides, you know Sunny’s followers. Need new content every morning.”
Neither of them could argue with that.
Last year, the Sweetbriar Inn—not to mention the entire Wu-Miller family—had been stumbling along under the crushing weight of their mother’s medical debt after she’d been hospitalized for a stroke. Their mom had made a full recovery, and thanks to her cat’s generous fanbase, who had donated an enormous sum to an online fundraiser, the inn and the family had too. Nobody questioned all the feline photo sessions anymore. Even if they were super weird.
And hey, if they got Elizabeth out of plumbing duty while Ned was off running the kitchen for the breakfast crowd, then all the better.
“Fine, fine.” June retreated to the family apartment where she, their mom, and Ned still all technically lived, though she was hardly there these days, it seemed. She returned minutes later with her long black hair in a ponytail, plunger and snake in hand.
Right on cue, an older couple wandered in. “Excuse me,” the woman asked. “We’re here checking in as part of the Callahan-Sharifi wedding? I hope we’re not too early.”
Eyeing June’s handful of plumbing supplies, Elizabeth smiled. “Actually, I daresay you’re right on time.”
With a good-natured sigh, June headed off toward room twelve. As Elizabeth was checking in the new arrivals, Mrs. Leung, Ms. Smith, and the rest of the middle-aged lady brunch crew trickled in, and her mom gave her a little wave as she led them and Sunny to the dining room.
“Sure is busy here today,” the gentleman of the couple remarked.
“You have no idea.” She passed them their keys. “You’ll be in room five—just around the corner and down the hall.”
Morning shifts were often hectic at the inn, and they’d only been getting more so this past year. June had launched or re-launched a whole slew of festivals designed to bring tourists back to town. Her other sister, May, was a travel writer, and she’d chipped in, too, with a huge feature on Blue Cedar Falls in Passage magazine.
Leaving Elizabeth the odd, non-contributing member out, as usual. But not for long.
All she had to do was find that darned email. It had come in while she’d been teaching the other day. She’d filed it away to deal with later and then, in typical her fashion, completely forgotten about it until this morning when her mom had made some off-hand comment about having to swing by the town hall.
With the coast mercifully clear for a minute, she went back to scouring her inbox. Desperate, she clicked on the folder full of stuff her students from the community center had sent her, and voilà! There it was.
Confirmation from Mayor Horton’s office about her appointment for…
Crap. Four days from now.
That wasn’t good—both that she’d misfiled it so clumsily and that it was coming up so soon. Mentally, she bumped it up her list of crises.
For the better part of a year now, Elizabeth had been working hard, trying to get serious about her career as an artist. Between staffing half a dozen shifts a week here at the inn, teaching art classes to kids and seniors at the community center, and leading paint and sips for everyone in between at Ella’s Wine Bar down the street, she’d been putting her real dream on the back burner for much too long.
Things had gotten off to a rocky start—like that was anything new. She’d applied to dozens of artist’s residencies around the country, then sat there as the rejections flowed in. One night of way too much alcohol and a few months of soul-searching later, she made her peace with it. The savings she’d for the residencies had gone into renting a vacant in-law apartment on a friend’s property and converting it into a studio. She’d been on a roll, creatively speaking, ever since, but breaking into the professional art world was proving a tough nut to crack.
She bristled, remembering the look on snooty Patty Boyd’s face the last time she’d visited her gallery with the latest pieces from her portfolio.
Well, she’d show Patty—and everybody else, for that matter. If no one wanted to display Elizabeth’s work, she’d create her own venue.
Better yet, she’d build off her sisters’ success. She’d make something this town could be proud of.
The First Annual Blue Cedar Falls Clothesline Arts Festival would give her a showcase for her paintings, but it would also boost the entire local arts scene. She’d cast a wide net, calling for submissions from artists nationwide, but she’d put a spotlight on independent creatives living and working right here in the western Carolinas. It would be a great networking opportunity for everyone involved, not to mention another chance to pull in visitors to bolster local businesses like the inn. All she had to do was convince the mayor’s office to give her a tiny bit of funding and a permit to use for the weekend, and she’d be off and running.
Or at least that was what she told herself every time she tried to gather her thoughts for the speech she was going to give to the mayor.
The truth of the matter was that she had her work cut out for her. She had four days to both nail down that speech and try to turn it into some sort of coherent presentation. She was also well aware that she didn’t have much experience organizing events. Or in any area, really. Her sisters’ good reputations would get her only so far.
Fortunately, she had an ace in the hole.
And she was off to see him—just as soon as she finished covering this shift, taught her watercolor class to the men and women of the Blue Cedar Falls Silver Club, ran a half dozen errands, and picked up a gallon of milk.
One crisis at a time, indeed.
Finally, at a quarter past five, she set the milk jug down on the floor of her certified pre-owned rust bucket of a twelve-year-old Prius. She was tired down to her bones, but a lightness buoyed her up, too, as she set her sights on home.
She started the car and pointed it north, turning off Main Street and onto Magnolia Way, before finally arriving at the old Hemlock House.
She shook her head as she pulled into one of the parking spots out back. With a name like that, it was no wonder the place hadn’t survived as a bed-and-breakfast—though according to Ned’s family lore, it had given the Sweetbriar Inn a run for its money back in the seventies. Main Street had won the battle for the soul of Blue Cedar Falls’ tourism eventually, and the big old building on the other end of town had been sold and turned into apartments. The current owners had tried to rename it, but Hemlock House had stuck. Elizabeth wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Grabbing the milk, her purse, and the giant wheeled crate of supplies she hauled around to all her teaching jobs, she headed in. The lock on the front door of the building was as broken as ever, the log cabin facing half-overrun with vines—which probably wasn’t good for the place, structurally, but it sure was pretty. She strode down the faded carpet of the hallway toward door number three, and with every step, a little of the tension she’d been holding in her shoulders faded away.
Only to dissolve completely the instant she walked in the door. She sucked in a deep breath. The place smelled like oil paint and lemon Pledge and lingering hints of the terrible curry her roommate, Graham, had tried to cook the night before.
Parking her crate by the door and tossing her keys somewhere in the direction of the bowl where they were supposed to go, she glanced around. Graham’s shiny brown work shoes were lined up neatly on the rug. Smiling, she kicked off her own boots. “Honey, I’m home!”
She headed past the big, comfy old couch they’d scored at the ReStore last fall, which looked extra snazzy with the new red, white, and black afghan she’d crocheted to go over the back of it. She deposited the milk in the fridge and took a second to rearrange the magnetic word poetry from the freaking Emerson quotation Graham had put there that morning into a Taylor Swift lyric, just to see his eye twitch later when he found it.
Then her gaze caught on the calendar.
Crap. Right. She pulled a marker out of the messy bun she’d put her hair in while she’d been teaching and scribbled, “Meeting with Mayor!!!” on the square for Tuesday—exactly like she should have the minute she got the confirmation from his secretary. She rolled her eyes at herself.
Because the thing was that Graham wasn’t just her roommate. He also wasn’t just her dorky best friend from high school or her dorky best friend to this day.
He ran the front office of the town hall, handling complaints from indignant citizens, spear-heading initiatives—whatever that meant—and reporting directly to Mayor Horton himself. Heck—chances were, he’d known about her meeting with the mayor before she had.
Which was probably for the best. He wouldn’t be blindsided by what she was about to shout at him next.
“When you’re done putting your khakis away, can I talk to you? I need your help with something.”
Heavy footfalls from behind her had her turning, a smile spreading across her face. He was going to be so annoyed about this. He liked to leave work at work and keep home at home, but what could she do? She needed to rock this presentation to Mayor Horton.
And Graham was her ace in the hole.
“So funny story,” she started, preparing to launch into her explanation about how she’d maybe sort of accidentally misfiled this email and possibly kind of forgotten to do any prep work for her presentation, and could he maybe help her look at it together over dinner tonight?
But before she could get any further, she frowned.
Because there Graham stood, looking like his usual post-work self, his khakis and muted button-down traded in for loose-fit jeans and a dark gray T-shirt with a logo for a band from the nineties. All ready for their usual Friday night routine of takeout on their couch, followed by a night out at the bar with their friends.
But his honey-brown hair was mussed. The weird beard he’d started growing out of nowhere the week before masked his mouth in a way she was never going to get used to, no matter how it transformed his face—in a good way.
While his eyes…
She missed his glasses, which he’d recently stopped wearing as often, choosing contacts most days. But that wasn’t the heart of the issue. Instead of holding flickers of warmth in their umber depths, his eyes were blank.
“Hey,” he said, quiet but firm. “We need to talk.”
>> The House On Mulberry Street releases in paperback and ebook on March 7, 2023. Pre-order your copy today!