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Sneak Peek

Welcome to Trickle Creek!

When beloved billionaire, town savior and patriarch of the Carlson family dies, his will has five very specific stipulations. A challenge for each of his children to complete in turn.

It doesn’t take long for the siblings to learn that their father’s requests have very little to do with the promise of the inheritance and everything to do with themselves.

 

Welcome to the family!

Elena

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go: Chapter One

When Chase Carlson pulled the door to the Bean Bag open, he was greeted with the same familiar combination of jingling and clacking of the old bells that hung over the glass door that had been there for years. The sound, accompanied by the rich, overpowering scent of freshly roasted coffee beans that hit him when he stepped inside, was just as he remembered it. He paused, the door held open to the stifling late summer heat a moment longer than was necessary as he looked up at the bells and inhaled deeply.

Some things never changed.

Then again, he thought as he looked past the bells and the doors to the bustling plaza outside, crammed with tourists and maybe a few locals who were brave enough to wade into the throng of people, some things really changed.

The last time Chase had been to his hometown of Trickle Creek, the idea of tourism still hadn’t fully caught on. The golf course was still in its infancy, there was only one beat-up motel on the side of the highway, and no one had even conceived of the idea of vacation home rentals, let alone entire condo buildings devoted to the tourists who most of the townspeople couldn’t believe would ever come.

But they had come.

And judging by the amount of no-vacancy signs and out-of-province license plates, a lot of them had come. He shook his head as he closed the door behind him and turned to face the inside of the cafe.

If he thought there were a lot of people outside, there were even more stuffed into the small space. Almost every table was full. A few people milled about by the doorway, either coming or going. Chase wove his way through the crammed tables and found an empty seat at the counter next to the coffee station.

It would have to do. Besides, the noise and utter chaos of the place would be good for him. A sharp contrast from the somber scene he’d just left. Not that a funeral should be any other way. Yet somehow Chase had expected his father’s funeral to be…well, if he was being truthful, he didn’t really know what he expected because he hadn’t given it much thought.

He was there out of duty for the man who put a roof over his head and gave him his name when he’d married his mother when Chase was just a boy. Michael Carlson was technically his stepfather, but he’d been the only father Chase had ever known. Not that he’d ever really known him well. For far too long, Chase had felt like an afterthought, an extra, an unwelcome addition that came as part of the package with his mother and younger sister.

For some reason Chase could never completely figure out, Charli, two years his junior, had found a special place in their stepfather’s life. But not Chase. Not ever. And especially not when their mother died when Chase was only twelve.

Which was why he’d asked to go to boarding school. Maybe insisted was a better word. Either way, he was just shy of his thirteenth birthday when he’d left his sister Charli as well as his half brothers and sister—Asher, Craig, and Kat—behind.

There’d been a few visits back to the mountain town over the years, for holidays and a few summers, but it didn’t take long for Chase to realize his presence hadn’t been missed, so pretty soon, even those had dwindled completely. It had been almost fifteen years now since he’d been back.

Which probably had a lot to do with why he felt so out of place. And why he hadn’t stuck around after the service. He needed a few minutes alone and a strong cup of coffee before the will reading.

Coffee.

Chase glanced around for the waitress, who still hadn’t been by to check on him or take his order. Her back was turned to him, her notepad out as she frantically scribbled the orders for a table of six. A bell rang, indicating an order was up in the kitchen. Chase couldn’t see any other waitress working.

Shit. He didn’t have time to wait for her to have a free minute.

He slipped from his stool and moved around the counter, where a fresh pot had just finished brewing. Casually, Chase filled a mug for himself. He was about to replace the pot when he noticed the gentleman sitting next to him also needed a refill. As did the woman on the other side of him. Quickly, he moved behind the counter, refilling the coffee cups of a handful of customers. When a nearby table noticed and waved him over, he shrugged. Might as well.

Chase found himself smiling for the first time all day as he made small talk with the customers as he provided them with their refills. Caught up in the moment, he was about to visit another table when a small hand clamped around his arm.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

He turned to see the waitress, a pretty brunette, her hair tied back in a clip against her head, with two pencils shoved into the top. Her face was bare of makeup. She was cute, in a very girl-next-door kind of way, despite the dark smudges under her eyes and the obvious exhaustion that she seemed to wear like a scarf around her neck. Something about her was vaguely familiar, but that wasn’t unusual considering he’d grown up in town.

Chase held up the coffeepot with a small smile. “I’m pouring coffee.” He gestured to the table who’d noticed the pot and was looking hopefully toward the potential of a refill.

“Well, you need to stop,” the waitress said. “You don’t work here.”

“It doesn’t mean I can’t help.” Chase surprised himself that he even cared. After all, he’d only wanted a cup himself. And it was currently growing cold at the counter. “You seemed a little—”

“I’ve got it.” She took the pot from his hand and moved toward the waiting customers. As an afterthought, she turned and said, “Thank you for helping.”

Her gratitude, no matter how minor, brought the smile back to his lips. “Anytime.” He nodded toward his seat at the counter and held her gaze.

“I’ll be over in a second to take your order if you want lunch,” the waitress offered, and then the moment was gone as she got back to work.

* * *

Annie delivered the last of the lunch rush meals to her hungry customers, did a quick check on the remaining tables, and finally returned to the counter to set another pot of coffee to brew. If she was lucky, she might be able to sneak in a few sips of water before duty called once again. Monica had called in sick. Again. And with no one else to cover the shift because they were short-staffed, just like every other place in town, Annie got to handle the lunch rush on her own for the second time that week.

To say she was exhausted was an understatement. She was so tired she could hardly remember what day of the week it was. Not that it mattered. All her days looked more or less the same: work her shift at the Bean Bag, change clothes and grab the list of vacation rentals she needed to clean and turn over for the next guests before picking up—

“Hey.” A friendly and somewhat familiar voice snapped her from her thoughts. “I could use a refresh, but I don’t want to overstep.”

Annie turned to see the man who’d helped her out earlier by refilling coffee cups. He was tall and his broad shoulders filled out his dark-navy suit and crisp white shirt very nicely. Even so, the suit, as sexy as it was, stood out in the mountain tourist town of Trickle Creek known for the world-class golf courses that dotted the valley, a vast network of mountain biking and hiking trails, and stellar fly-fishing in the summer months, as well as one of the best ski resorts in the Rockies in the winter months. Not that Annie ever had a chance to partake in any of Trickle Creek’s offerings. Still, she knew her sales pitch inside and out from years of selling it to throngs of tourists.

“Sorry.” Annie reached for the coffeepot that had just finished brewing. “I was waiting for a fresh pot.” She winked and grinned.

His smile reached his blue eyes that flashed with humor. He was handsome and—it didn’t matter. He was a tourist. She hadn’t seen him around town before, and having spent her entire life in Trickle Creek, she knew almost everyone. Annie had a rule: don’t get mixed up with tourists. No flings. No one-night stands. No free drinks. No nothing.

Sure, there were plenty of local women who took advantage of the all-men golfing groups that swarmed the plaza almost every night, looking for a good time away from their wives and lives for a few nights. Most of the women used the opportunity to have a few free drinks and a little entertainment. But a handful took it even further, and out of those few, there were a few more who then had to live with the consequences of those choices. Like her sister.

Annie may not have learned much from her older sister, but she’d definitely learned what she didn’t want for her life. Now she just needed to figure out how to get what she did want.

“Thanks, Annie.”

The man put his hand on her arm. It was a light touch, barely there at all. She looked down at his hand, then back up at the man.

“You’re welcome.” She took a step back. “How did you know my name?”

He laughed and nodded to her name tag. “I just assumed it wasn’t an alias.”

That made her laugh, too. “You assumed right.” He was friendly and something about him made her relax, so despite her first instinct, she leaned back against the counter and made conversation. “What brings you to town? I have to say, you don’t look like you’re here to golf.” She pretended to think. “And I’m going to guess you’re not biking or fishing. So unless you’re hiking in that suit…”

“I’m here for a funeral.”

“Oh.” The smile fell from her face instantly. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t—”

“Don’t be. My father and I weren’t close.”

He picked up his cup, and it was only then that Annie put the pieces together. To be fair, she was working on only a few hours of sleep and there weren’t really that many pieces to the puzzle.

“Chase Carlson?”

He almost choked on the hot coffee when he heard his name, but somehow managed to swallow and still look perfectly in control when he set his mug down, crossed his arms on the counter in front of him, and answered her. “Do I know you?”

“Yes,” Annie answered quickly, realizing that she may have sounded creepy. “I mean, no. You do, but you—”

“But I don’t?” He raised an eyebrow and his lips twitched. “Which is it?”

She sighed and placed her palms on the counter behind her, leaning back. “You used to know me,” she started. “Or at least, I used to know who you were. I’m Annie.”

“We’ve established that.” His eyes drifted to the name tag on her chest, which was currently shoved out and on display because of the way she was reclining.

Annie quickly stood up and wiped her hands on the apron tied around her waist.

“Annie Darling.” She said her full name, not that it would help. “I’m friends with your little sister, Kat. I was probably only about six or so when you moved away, but Kat and I are close.”

“I’m sorry to say I had a lot going on,” Chase said. “Not much time for paying attention. And really, I have to admit, I probably wouldn’t have remembered my baby sister’s friend.” He extended a hand to her. “Let’s start over,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you, Annie Darling. I’m Chase Carlson.”

She took his hand and blinked hard against the heat that flashed through her body at his touch.

Was he always so handsome?

No.

He was a kid. So was she.

She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry about your—”

He stopped her condolences with a hand. “Please,” he said. “Save your condolences for Kat. As I said, we weren’t close.”

She knew that much. Kat had talked about her oldest brother for years and the way he’d more or less run away from the family. When she mentioned him at all. Which, truthfully, wasn’t often.

“Well, how long are you in town for, Chase?” She switched the subject and found herself really wanting to know. Something about him made her want to forget all her responsibilities, lean up against the counter all day, and—shit. “Hold that thought.” Annie held up a finger to silence him before he spoke and grabbed the notebook from her apron pocket. “Table three is probably ready to pay and table six will need water refills and—no. You can’t help,” she added with a wink, as he moved to get up from the stool. “I’m pretty sure I’ll get fired if I keep letting the customers do my job for me.”

Chase didn’t move to return to his seat, so Annie tilted her head, ready to press the issue, when he chuckled and said, “I won’t help. But I do need to get going.” He glanced at the watch on his wrist.

A real watch, Annie noted, not a smartwatch like she would have expected.

“I have this thing.” A shadow crossed his face, but it just as quickly disappeared when he met her gaze again. “But to answer your question, I’ll be in town for a few days. Maybe we can grab a drink or something?”

She stood mute and stared at him.

Had Chase Carlson just asked her out? On a date?

No.

It was just a friendly thing to say because you’re his sister’s friend. He doesn’t even know how to—

“I’ll ask Kat for your number.” Chase tossed some money on the counter. “It was nice to properly meet you, Annie.”

He flashed that killer smile one more time, and then he was gone, leaving Annie to wonder what the hell had just happened. Because it had been a very, very long time since she’d ever felt any of the feelings that were currently flowing through her body thanks to Chase Carlson.

Never Let Me Go: Chapter Two

After leaving the café, Chase felt lighter than he had in days—weeks, really. Easy flirting and light conversation with a cute waitress could do that for a man. And not just any waitress but Annie Darling, his baby sister’s childhood friend.

What were the odds of that?

He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. Of course the only woman to catch his attention in years would be a friend of his sister’s. Not that it mattered anyway; it wasn’t as if he were going to pursue anything with Annie. She lived in Trickle Creek. He lived in the city. And that wouldn’t be changing anytime soon. His job as a business consultant and analyst kept him way too busy for much of a social life. When he wasn’t on-site at a client’s, he was in his own office downtown, working ten- or twelve-hour days. The fact he’d taken a few days off for the funeral was already a bone of contention with his boss, Bruce.

Which meant, that no matter how cute Annie was, and how good she made him feel with only a few minutes of chatting, he was going back to the city. Just as soon as he got through this one last thing.

The light euphoria Chase had leaving the Bean Bag lasted only as long as it took him to drive through the town of Trickle Creek and through the log-and-wrought-iron gate for the big house.

Had it really been almost fifteen years since Chase had driven through those gates? It was hard to believe he’d been gone that long. His stomach twisted with a cramp of guilt at the thought of being gone for so long and only returning under these circumstances. Still, it couldn’t have been any other way, and his siblings, if they’d been old enough to understand, would have agreed.

But they hadn’t been old enough.

At twelve, Chase had hardly been old enough to understand himself. All he knew was that when his mother died, his whole world had fallen apart. The stepfather who had taken him and his younger sister in seven years earlier when he’d married their mother, and raised them like his own, changed overnight. At least toward Chase. His sister Charli had been unaffected by their father’s change. At least, that’s the way it had seemed to Chase.

As a broken-hearted little boy, he’d never felt more alone. In a town where he’d never really felt like he fit in, with siblings he’d always felt less than, and now without his beloved mother, he’d acted out. Making a bad situation even worse, until finally Michael—as he’d taken to calling him because it pissed him off—acquiesced to his incessant demands to go to boarding school on the other side of the country.

Over the years, he’d returned for the holidays and some summer vacations until he was old enough to stay on campus and work summer jobs. After that, his visits had decreased in frequency until finally, they’d stopped altogether.

A twinge of regret pinched his chest for a moment. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed away so long. Maybe he should have made more of an effort. Especially since relocating to Calgary, only a few hours away.

The maybes were still rolling through his head five minutes later when he left his car in the circular driveway and made his way to the imposing wooden door.

Should he knock or walk in?

Neither seemed like the right thing to do. Fortunately, he was saved from the decision as the huge door swung open to reveal his sister Charli.

Her blonde hair hung in waves over her shoulders, the simple black dress made her seem smaller and frailer than the last time he’d seen her when she’d come to visit—was it almost a year ago already?—and she looked exhausted. And sad.

Again, Chase felt the weight of the guilt at not being there for her and the others. He was the big brother. He should have—

“Chase!” Charli threw herself into his arms and immediately started to sob.

He held her, awkwardly at first, and then settled into the embrace.

Despite the distance between them, he and Charli had always been close. The fact that he didn’t see her more was his biggest regret. Maybe that would change now?

But he knew it wouldn’t. Not unless something significant changed. He had his life out in Calgary, and Charli loved the mountains and running her greenhouses that needed almost constant tending.

“It’s going to be okay, Charli.” Chase wasn’t totally sure he believed that but what else was there to say in the situation? He rubbed her back until her sobbing slowed and she pulled away.

“Where did you go?” She pulled a tissue out of nowhere and blew her nose. “Why didn’t you come back to the house after the service? We missed you.”

He doubted that.

“You know why,” he said instead. “The same reason I stayed to the back at the cemetery.” It hadn’t felt right for him to sit up front with the rest of his siblings at the service, so he’d held back, staying to the fringes and mostly out of sight. “Besides, it’s probably for the best I minimize—”

“That’s bullshit, Chase, and you know it. You’re our brother. You belong here.”

“I don’t.”

“You do.” She grabbed his hand and tugged. “And we want you here.”

That made one of them, for sure. Chase was fairly certain not all of his siblings would feel the same way. Still, there wasn’t any point in arguing with Charli. Not on such a day, anyway.

She tugged him through the massive entryway and into the living room where their baby sister, Kat, was sitting and staring out the window to the garden that faced out to the stunning mountain range. It was one of the things he missed about living in the big city. The skyscrapers were no contest to the beauty of the mountains. The sight of them took his breath away every time. As did the sight of Kat, folded in on herself, her long red hair pulled into a tight twist on the back of her head, her eyes pooled with tears and the general weight of grief making her look like the small child she no longer was.

“Kat?”

She looked up from where she sat and blinked in his direction before wiping at her eyes. “Chase?”

He nodded but she was already on her feet and in his embrace. “Where have you been? Did you just get here?”

Chase squeezed his baby sister tight in an effort to relieve a little of her pain. “I got in early this morning. I went straight to the cemetery. I’m sorry I—”

“Well, look who decided to show up.”

Chase stiffened at his brother’s voice. Where he’d expected that his sisters would be happy to see him, Chase hadn’t been certain of the same reception with his brothers. Particularly Asher.

He released Kat and slowly turned around to see his brother. Five years his junior, he and Chase had never gotten along and was the sibling he’d seen the least. For all the family vacations that Charli had organized in an effort to keep them connected, Asher steadfastly chose not to participate if Chase would be there. In fact, Asher had been a teenager the last time Chase had seen him. Now, he was looking at a grown man. The spitting image of his now-deceased stepfather. The resemblance caught him off guard momentarily.

“Good to see you, Asher.”

“Is it?” His brother stepped toward him, his hands clenched into fists at his sides, his jaw set and his eyes flashing with challenge. Asher was taller than him by at least an inch now, and broader across the shoulders.

But Chase wasn’t a small man himself, and he definitely wasn’t one to back down from a fight, especially not when it was his little brother. He took a step forward as well but left his hands hanging at his sides.

“Couldn’t be bothered to visit all these years, or even come to the funeral, but it’s time to read the will and here you are.” Asher scoffed and took another step forward.

“There were plenty of family visits,” Chase said, his teeth clenched. “Just not here. And none you could be bothered to come to, I noticed. And I was at the service. If you pulled your head—”

“Enough.” Charli stepped between them, her arms outstretched. “We’re family and we’re all welcome here. I, for one, am glad that we’re all finally together. Fighting isn’t going to help anything. It’s only going to make it worse.”

She wasn’t wrong. Just because Chase had complicated feelings about their dad, didn’t mean they all did. And those feelings had no place at his funeral. The last thing he wanted was to stir up any trouble. That’s not why he was there. He nodded toward his younger brother and relaxed his shoulders. “It really is good to see you, Asher.”

Asher, still visibly agitated, did his best to relax for their sister’s sake, but as soon as she was satisfied they weren’t going to rip each other’s throats out and turned her back, he leaned over and hissed into Chase’s ear, “Why are you even here?”

“My presence was requested by the—” He was interrupted as their youngest brother, Craig, appeared in the doorway.

“Good, we’re all here.” Craig’s eyes flickered over to Chase. He nodded hello and turned to address the room. “The lawyer is ready for us in the study.”

“By the lawyer,” Chase finished with a wave of his hand toward the study.

Asher merely grunted his acknowledgment and led the way through the door to the study and reading of the will.

Chase waited until the rest of his siblings had made their way through the door before taking a breath and running a hand over his face. The sooner they got this over with, the sooner he could get out of there. And that would be the best thing for everyone.

* * *

“Come on, Barb.” Annie leaned over the counter toward the other woman, who was sitting behind it. She glanced back at her seven-year-old nephew, Grady, who was kicking at a mark on the linoleum floor of the old community center and thankfully not paying attention. “You know as much as I do that he needs this.” She turned her attention back to the other woman. “Can you just—”

“I can’t let him keep coming to the summer program without payment.” Barb cut her off. “If you need financial assist—”

“I don’t need any assistance,” Annie hissed under her breath before swallowing hard. It wouldn’t do any good to piss Barb off. For better or worse, the woman was the gatekeeper of community programming. She didn’t need to give her more reasons to make life difficult for her. “I’m sure Jill just forgot to drop off a check before she went out of town,” Annie said, this time with a bright smile on her face. “As soon as she gets—”

“She can make the payment through online banking,” Barb said. “No need for checks at all.”

Shit.

Not that she didn’t know that already. It’s not like it was 1983.

“Oh.” Annie feigned surprise. “I’ll make sure to tell her that when she calls next and she can take care of the payment then. No problem.”

“No problem,” Barb agreed. “And then Grady can come back to the program.” She pressed her lips together. “When Jill gets home.

It’s going to be like that, is it?

Annie swallowed hard. She shouldn’t be surprised that Barb knew—or suspected—that Jill wasn’t on vacation as Annie had been telling anyone who pushed too hard. People weren’t stupid. Especially people in Trickle Creek, who’d known Annie and her sister their whole lives. The only vacation Jill was on was the kind where she took off with a man, usually one who’d buy her whatever drugs she currently favored and pay her way. She’d be back as soon as she got tired of him, or he wised up. Whichever came first. It wasn’t her first time, and unfortunately for her young son, it wouldn’t be the last.

The thing was, when Jill was home, she was actually a pretty good mother. She worked hard at whatever job she could find, which in a booming tourist town with more jobs than potential employees, was never hard to find. She doted on Grady and spent as much time as she could hiking or skiing or swimming with him. Those times would last for months, and once when he was little, a full year. And that was the worst part, because then Annie would let her guard down, and even allow herself to think about her own future and the possibilities that might be open to her if she didn’t have to raise her nephew at the drop of a hat.

Jill had already been gone for three weeks this time. She could be home at any day. Or not.

“How much does she owe?” Annie asked Barb, knowing full well that no matter how much it was, she wouldn’t be able to afford it. “I’ll see what I can do.”

For a moment, the older woman flashed her a look of what Annie was certain was pity. She blinked hard and the look was gone.

“Four hundred and twenty dollars.”

“For summer program?” Annie almost choked on the words.

“As I said, there are programs available and if you qualify—”

“No.” She wouldn’t qualify because Annie wasn’t Grady’s mother, nor was she a legal guardian. She pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers and inhaled. When she looked up again, she played her last card. It was her only hope. Grady needed the program. She needed Grady to be in the program. Otherwise, she’d have to figure out what to do with him during the day while she worked at the cafe. It was bad enough she had to take him to clean the short-term vacation rentals she contracted for on the weekends. At least there she could set him on the couch with a book or her phone to play games on. That wouldn’t work at the cafe. Not if she wanted to keep her job. And she did. There was only one thing left. Annie leaned a little closer to Barb.

“I’ll clean your place.” She hated making the offer, but it was all she had left. “Every other Saturday,” she added quickly and then, before Barb could voice any objections, “I know it’s been hard since Phil got sick. This will help.” Annie looked into the other woman’s eyes and nodded. “Both of us.”

Equally a curse as much as it could be a blessing was the fact that everyone knew everything in a small town. Including how much Barb was struggling when it came to juggling her job, her husband’s cancer treatments, and their hobby farm just outside town. Never mind keeping up with the household chores. It wasn’t much, but if Annie could trade her time and skills for Grady’s summer program, even for a few weeks, it would help them both. She didn’t know how she would find the time to fit in yet another job, but she would. For Grady.

Annie waited while Barb digested the offer, but she didn’t have to wait long.

“Just until Jill comes home.”

She exhaled and nodded her agreement. “Until Jill comes home.”

Before the other woman could change her mind, Annie grabbed her nephew’s hand and led him out of the building. She’d already had to take the rest of the day off from the café; she might as well make the best of it for her and Grady. “What do you say we go swimming this afternoon, kiddo?”

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