Widow Carrie Gable is desperate to care for her ailing mother-in-law at home but the mounting medical bills are becoming more than she can handle. A request to board a handful of Hollywood’s most elite actors at the manor comes just in time to save her from bankruptcy. If she can survive a few months with demanding houseguests, she won’t have to worry about bills and can focus on caring for Doreen.
Will Walker has agreed to a project he has no interest in but has been reassured will save his fading career. The script is lackluster and his costar is impossible, but being around the down-to-earth innkeeper and her mother-in-law make the filming bearable. The more time he spends with Carrie, the more he longs for a simpler life, but his ties to LA aren’t ready to let him go.
With stardom pulling Will in one direction and the need to care for Doreen tugging Carrie in another, will their love be strong enough to survive their real lives?
2014 Epic eBook Awards Finalist
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Carrie struggled to tuck a royal blue fitted sheet around the corner of a mattress.
Sweating and exhausted, her best friend collapsed in a chair and blew a strand of hair from her face. “Remind me again why you’re doing this?” Natalie swatted at the wayward strand that fell back into her eyes.
“Because,” Carrie grunted, thankful this was the last bed to be made. “I love to torture myself.”
Carrie stood upright and rested her hands on her hips. Looking across the queen-size bed, she couldn’t quite hide her irritation. “They offered a lot of money.”
“Some guy named Confucius once said that money can’t buy happiness.”
Throwing a pillow at the smartass, Carrie instructed her to put on the top sheet and comforter. She walked to the bucket of cleaning supplies and pulled out a rag.
Spraying bright blue liquid on a mirror that hung on one wall, Carrie watched Natalie’s image blur as she wiped dust and smudges from the reflective glass. “This place is expensive to maintain. I don’t know how Doreen has kept it up all these years.”
“Her husband left her a lot of money.”
“Not enough.” The checkbook she’d balanced for her mother-in-law earlier in the day attested to that. “It’s just for a few months.”
“A few months,” Natalie said with a taunting tone, “of being their bitch.”
“I’m not going to be anyone’s bitch.”
A snide laugh bounced off the light blue walls. “You are going to have a house filled with Hollywood’s snobbiest. Who do you think is going to fetch their mineral water?”
Defeat filled Carrie. She’d been regretting this decision since before she’d made it, but one look at Doreen’s bank account had let Carrie know they really didn’t have a choice. Either Carrie would have to tell Doreen she needed to sell the property that had been in the family for generations, or they would took in a group of overrated actors while they filmed a period piece in town.
It would be three months, four tops, the location manager had promised. When Carrie looked at it from a business standpoint, their offer had been too good to pass up. However, on a personal level, having her home invaded for that length of time didn’t appeal to her at all.
“Do you think Doreen can handle this?”
Carrie finished wiping the mirror down. “She’ll be fine. She’ll have to be. It’s done.”
She’d been telling herself that lie for weeks. For the most part the elderly woman was clear-minded, but there were times when the Alzheimer’s reared its head. Even though she’s been sick the better part of three years, every “incident” shook Carrie to the core.
Carrie hadn’t adjusted to the disease yet, but she didn’t think anyone ever did. Watching Doreen fade little by little was tearing her apart.
Focusing on the antique cherry vanity, Carrie swiped away at nonexistent dust. “I think she’ll actually enjoy having a few new faces to look at. Don’t you?”
Natalie stopped adjusting the bedspread. “Honey, every face looks new to her these days.”
“I’m not joking. She’s getting worse, you know.” Natalie softened her tone. “She made it all the way across town last week before you knew she was gone.”
“Anything could have happened to her.”
Carrie didn’t need to be reminded. The fear of realizing she’d lost her mother-in-law had probably taken ten years off her life. “I know.”
Natalie rounded the bed, tilted her head, and eyed Carrie with a sympathetic look that was far too maternal for Carrie’s liking. “I’m not saying it was your fault. It’s not like you can tie her to a chair, but if you can’t keep up with her when it’s just the two of you, how are you going to keep up with her and a houseful of guests?”
“With the help of my very dear friend.”
Turning at the sound of a cheerful round of knocks, Carrie smiled at Doreen standing in the doorway with a glimmer in her eyes and a flush to her cheeks. “I’ve stripped all the beds, girls. Let’s get to cleaning.”
Carrie’s face fell. No. They’d just made all the beds. “You did what?”
“Come on. We don’t have all day. Our guests will be arriving any moment.”
Stepping into the hall, Carrie and Natalie looked at the linens piled in front of every door all the way down the long hallway.
“Oh, shit,” Carrie moaned, realizing they had to do start all over.
Carrie glanced out the front window at the sound of gravel crunching under tires. “Well, there’s no backing out now.” Letting the curtain fall back into place, she looked toward the den where Doreen was turning a vase of white roses, trying to find the perfect position. “Mama, the guests are here.”
The older woman flashed a brilliant smile. “I love this part.”
“Yeah,” Carrie whispered, wishing she felt the same. She focused back out the window as car doors began to shut—each slam increased her sense of dread until she found it difficult to breathe.
Doreen started humming a happy tune and ran her hands over her slacks as if to smooth out any wrinkles. “Do you know how many presidents have slept in this house?”
Carrie glanced at her. “What?”
“No less than six. Of course they weren’t president when they were here, but this was one of the stops on the way.”
Her voice faded from Carrie’s ears. Glancing at Natalie, Carrie exhaled. “Here we go.”
“Here you go.”
Opening the front door, Carrie let Doreen go first—she had been through this a hundred times, after all—and forced a warm smile to her face as she stepped onto the porch. Moving down the stairs, she watched people climbing from cars, looking up at the old Colonial with its two-story pillars and tall windows.
Carrie recognized several of them from movies and magazine covers. She thought she should be more impressed by the fact that they were there, planning to stay in the house where she’d spent so much of her life. Everyone in town was talking about the movie, even though the small Iowa town wasn’t unfamiliar with celebrities, plenty passed through during election season to support their favored candidate before the all-important Iowa caucuses. This, however, was the first time a big-budget movie was filming in the area. Speculation on who, what, when, and where was all anyone could talk about, and everyone was green with envy that the actors were staying at Doreen’s out-of-the-way inn.
Stepping down from the porch, Carrie smiled at the man approaching her. “Donnie?”
“Carrie,” he said with a forced cooing tone. He embraced her as if they were old friends. “Darling, this is exactly what we were looking for. Fantastic,” he commented, eyeing the house.
“I’m so glad.” She tried to come across as enthusiastic, but it sounded as false to her ears as his greeting.
Draping his arm over her shoulder, not hesitating to violate her personal space, he huddled close to her. “You did what we talked about? A south-facing room with heavy drapes for Ms. Ramirez?”
“Yes.” Carrie was already forming a strong dislike for her guests.
“No down for Mr. Walker. He’s allergic.”
“I’ve taken care of it.”
“He doesn’t make many demands. He’s easy to get along with. Some of the other actors will push their way around a little, but Ramirez and Walker are the ones you must concern yourself with. We want them happy.”
“Just do your best to stay out of their way, and everything will go smoothly.” Finally putting some space between them, he grinned down at her and she had the eerie feeling he would eat her alive if the opportunity arose. “You’re a doll, Carrie. I knew you would be. Let me introduce you.”
She smiled her way through shaking hands with some of the cast members who would be staying in her house. In turn, she introduced Doreen and Natalie. She had been told in advance that Juliet Ramirez and William Walker were to be checked in first, but the two stars had yet to emerge from the limousine.
Doreen took the arm of a young man, an actor named Grant who had a supporting role in the film, and started telling him the history of the house and stories of the various people who had stayed at the inn. Seeing how patient he was eased Carrie’s anxiety and gave her hope that the next few months wouldn’t be as stressful as she had imagined. The pair was nearly to the side of the house when the driver stepped out of the sleek black car.
Carrie expected she should feel some kind of excitement—she was about to meet two of Hollywood’s most popular actors—but all she felt was a trepidation as her fate unfolded before her. It wasn’t enough taking care of Mama and this house? Now she had a houseful of people, two of whom she was instructed to kiss up to, yet stay away from at the same time.
The first to step out of the car, with the assistance of the driver, was Juliet Ramirez. Her near-black hair fell around her face in long waves full of body and auburn highlights that caught the light. She smiled, and Carrie almost expected the birds to sing louder and the sun to shine brighter.
The entire world seemed to be enchanted by the actress—everyone and everything, except Carrie. She merely saw a woman who was already making demands without ever having set foot inside the inn.
Even so, Carrie held her hand out and smiled warmly. “I’m Carrie Gable, Ms. Ramirez. It’s very nice to meet you.”
“This is lovely, Donnie,” Juliet said, as if Carrie weren’t standing there. “I think I’ll like it here.”
“That’s wonderful, darling.”
Juliet finally looked at Carrie. “Have someone get my bags. I’d like to see my room.”
Carrie quickly realized that the person who would be getting Juliet’s bags was Carrie. “Right,” she whispered as two large suitcases were pulled from the trunk. “Natalie?” She smiled at her friend. “Would you please show Ms. Ramirez to her room?”
Natalie glared at her. She, too, already had an immense dislike for the woman. “Sure. Love to.”
“One moment, Carrie,” Donnie said, before she could head for the luggage. “This is William Walker.”
Carrie turned and realized for the first time that there was a man leaning against the open car door. His light brown hair waved in the breeze, and she had to admit that her heart actually did a little flip as he stopped taking in the architecture of the house to smile at her. He held out his hand, and she slid her palm against his, instantly taking notice of how smooth and warm his skin was against hers.
The heat of a blush touched her cheeks when he held her gaze for a long moment, making her wonder if he’d read her mind.
“Will,” he clarified. “Only critics and producers call me William.”
“Carrie. This is your home?”
She looked up at the house as she pulled her hand from his. “I live here, yes.”
“Thanks. Feel free to have a look around.”
“I will.” He seemed genuinely interested. He stepped to her side as she headed for the luggage. “Let me help.”
“Mike can help with that,” Doreen said, walking back to the cars. “Carrie, let Mike do that.”
Carrie glanced up at her. “He’s at the store, Mama.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “Well, let me help.”
“Will,” Carrie lifted a suitcase, “this is Doreen.”
“Everybody calls me Mama.” The petite woman held out a delicate hand to him. “I expect you to as well.”
Will smiled as they shook hands. “Yes, ma’am.”
Will and Carrie grabbed two suitcases each and headed toward the house while Mama stopped to tell someone how many presidents had slept at the inn.
There was going to be a lot of that going on.
Will stepped into the foyer and paused to scan the dark wood flooring that perfectly complemented to the cream-colored walls and crisp white crown molding. The light shining through the decorative windows cast mesmerizing prisms of color about the room.
“This is amazing,” he said.
Carrie gestured to the den, silently encouraging him to move along. “There’s a TV and a fireplace in there. It still can get chilly in the evening, so feel free to build a fire whenever you like. Your rooms all have TVs as well if you prefer solitude. The dining room is there.” She pointed ahead. “We’ll be serving breakfast and dinner—”
“Yeah, we were told.” He looked through the framed doorway.
The carved oak table and chairs took up the majority of the room, leaving little space for the buffet that sat against the far wall. As in the foyer, the windows were decorative, splitting the light that shone through them and sending it in a thousand different directions. Carrie figured he was used to far better surroundings, but she thought the room was beautiful.
Rather than weigh his judgment, she moved him along, pointing out the bathroom and a sitting room. She pushed a swinging door open for him to step into the room. “Kitchen. Through here,” she walked to the back door and pulled it open, “is the patio. There’s a built-in fire pit. We have a never-ending supply of firewood, so feel free to use it whenever you’d like. Just make sure to put the top on before leaving it unattended. We don’t want to burn the house down.”
When he looked at her, she put a smile on her face, but she suspected he could tell she wasn’t sincere.
“How long have you lived here?”
“This is Doreen’s family home. Her great-great-something grandfather built it. She’ll happily tell you about it some time. Or all the time,” she amended, thinking of how many times she’d heard the story.
“So your whole life?”
“A lot of it.” Carrie headed back inside. “Shall I show you to your room?”
“Sure.” Stopping in the foyer, he picked up his suitcases and stared up the long stretch of stairs. “Wow. That’s some staircase.”
Carrie followed his gaze to the second floor landing. “Try not to fall down it. I’d hate to have to call all the king’s horses.”
Will chuckled as he started up the stairs, hauling his bags with him. He followed her down the hall until she finally stepped inside the middle room on the left side. “This is me?”
“This is you. Grant is across the hall, Donnie is the last door on the right, Juliet is the first room on this side, and Mama is on the far side of you.”
“So you’re the first room on the right?”
Carrie stared at him, wondering if he intended to knock on her door at three in the morning to request his tea.
He must have read her mind. “I promise not to stalk you. I was just curious.”
She smiled with embarrassment and let her defensive posture ease. “Yes, first door on the right. Everyone else is on the third floor.”
“Good to know.”
Moving past her, Will set his suitcases down and examined the fireplace. “Does this work?”
She pointed to a switch on the wall. “It’s gas. Just turn it on. The bathroom is through there.”
“And a sitting area.” He moved to several chairs grouped by a large window.
“So, that’s it. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Carrie,” he called before she could leave. When she stopped and lifted her brows curiously, he gave her a warm smile. “You have a beautiful home.”
“Thanks.” She backed out of the room, closing the door behind her. Turning, she nearly bumped into Juliet Ramirez standing with her hands on her hips and Carrie’s discontent grew. “Ms. Ramirez.”
“The sheets on my bed. They are not what I requested.”
Carrie searched her mind, delving into the very depths, but nothing came to her. “I don’t recall a request for sheets.”
“What is the thread count?”
She nearly laughed, but managed to contain it because the woman before her was clearly serious. “I don’t have any idea.”
“Well, it’s not high enough. They feel like sandpaper.”
Donnie came out of his room, appearing as if panic were about to overtake him. “Is there a problem?”
“My sheets are cheap.”
“Well, Carrie will take care of that. Won’t you, Carrie?”
She smiled a false bright smile. “Of course.”
“Now,” Juliet demanded. “I will not sleep on those sheets.”
“No, of course not.” Carrie grabbed the suitcases she’d left by the door, and stepped around Juliet and into her room to strip the bed of perfectly soft sheets.
“Just a little bit.” Carrie reminded Doreen as the woman added salt to the soup.
“The troupe seems happy,” Mama said.
“They seem to like the house.”
“My great-grandfather built this house right after—”
“Mama,” Carrie said with just a slight bit of impatience. She exhaled before she could say that she really didn’t want to hear the history of the homestead again. “Would you slice the bread?”
“I can do that.” Mama walked to the island and dropped the homemade bread on a platter. “I like cooking with you. Everything always smells so wonderful.”
“I like cooking with you, too.”
“Mike always tells me how much he likes your food.”
Carrie glanced over her shoulder. “That’s nice.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Mama creased her brow as if she suddenly realized she hadn’t seen her son in some time.
“He’s at the store.”
“Did you tell him to get milk?”
“I’m sure it was on his list.”
Seemingly satisfied, Mama went to work on the bread, cutting even slices with a swiftness that showed she knew her way around the kitchen.
“Perfect. Thank you.”
“This isn’t going to be too much work for you, is it?” Mama neatly arranged the freshly sliced bread on a tray. “All these people needing your attention.”
“I can handle it. Why? Do I look overwhelmed already?”
Doreen laughed. “You looked overwhelmed when you woke up this morning, dear.”
“Well, I can handle it. I’m Superwoman, you know.”
“You try, that’s for sure.”
“Natalie is going to help out as much as she can and, if I need it, I’ll hire some short-term help. Honestly, though, I’ve been given their work schedule, menu selections, and they’ll be spending a lot more time out on location than they will here.”
“I just don’t want to see you working too hard. You always work too hard.”
“Think you can help me serve?” Carrie asked, ending the conversation.
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