The Merriest Magnolia by Michelle Major




Although it was nearing midnight, Carrie Reed shouldn’t feel nervous walking home on a late November night. She’d lived in the quaint town of Magnolia, North Carolina, her entire life and knew most of its residents by name. The ones she hadn’t met likely knew of her thanks to her father, the famous artist Niall Reed, and the drama that had unfolded after his death four months ago.

Pausing before taking the turn onto the street where she lived, Carrie squinted into the darkness, searching for movement outside the branches of a nearby white pine rustling in the cool breeze.

She’d left her downtown art studio without much thought to the late hour. Tonight she’d taught a paint-and-sip class at The Reed Gallery to a boisterous bunco group made up of some of Magnolia’s most respected mavens. It had been an eye-opener for Carrie.

A few glasses of sangria and the women had enthusiastically painted the personalized ornament scene she’d created for them. As they’d worked, those “Bunco Babes,” as they’d named themselves, had talked about everything from grandkids to menopause to keeping their love lives spicy after decades of marriage or, in several cases, a midlife divorce.

Carrie’s relationship with her mother was strained on a good day and she’d been raised an only child, so she didn’t have a lot of experience with that kind of fervid honesty in her relationships with women. Up until her father’s will revealed two half sisters from his years of philandering, Carrie hadn’t even had close friends. She’d devoted the bulk of her adult life—and a good bit of her childhood if she were totally honest—to taking care of her temperamental father.

Her life transformed, almost completely for the better, thanks to her sisters. But secretly Carrie feared the changes were happening to her and not within her. She was a creature of habit and not the most outgoing person on her best day. The past couple of months had pushed her out of her comfort zone in too many ways to count.

She’d never been paranoid, and with a crime rate bordering on nonexistent, Magnolia could be counted on as a safe place. Yet, one of the most important lessons she’d learned from her father’s passing was that looks could be deceiving.

“Who’s there?” she called into the night, feeling a little foolish. Part of her wondered if she was talking to the grapevine deer and plastic snowmen that already decorated the lawns of houses on either side of the street, even though they still had a week until Thanksgiving.

Magnolia took the holidays seriously, although there seemed to be some kind of unwritten rule about turning off Christmas lights at eleven o’clock each night. Only a silvery moon high in the sky and one lone streetlight illuminated the darkness now.

A dog barked a few houses down from where she stood. Carrie spun toward the sound but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

When she turned back around, a dark shape had emerged from the shadows on the sidewalk in front of her.

Carrie opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. Panic pounded through her until the broad-shouldered man stepped into a sliver of moonlight.

“It’s me, Carrie. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Pressing a palm to her chest, she silently commanded her heart to stop pounding. “Are you crazy, Dylan?” She held up a hand. “No need to respond. I know the answer already. Why are you following me?”

All six foot three inches of Dylan Scott, with his tousled blond hair, piercing blue eyes and lean, muscled frame, seemed to stiffen at her question. “I’m not following you exactly. I was out for a walk and—”

“A casual stroll at midnight?” She shook her head. “On a Saturday night in Magnolia?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“What are you even doing in town? You don’t live here.”

“I do now. I moved into a house a couple blocks over.”

No. “You don’t belong,” she told him through clenched teeth.

A muscle in his jaw jumped at that comment. “It’s my hometown,” he reminded her, as if she could ever forget. “I belong just as much as you do.”

“I’ve lived here all my life.”

“I’m well aware.” One side of his mouth curved, more sneer than smile. “Everyone considers you Magnolia royalty. You’ve always been the town’s shining light.”

“Not true,” she said on a gasp. Why did people want to fault her because she hadn’t been a troublemaker? She’d had to bust through the same preconceived notions with her half sisters, especially the youngest, Meredith, who’d also grown up in Magnolia. It was as if people lived in some alternate reality where being a good girl was a bad thing.

Carrie was darn sick of it.

“The apple of your father’s eye. His best girl.” Dylan hurled the words at her like an accusation.

Carrie hated the feeling of bitterness they conjured.

“Did you come back just to antagonize me?” She pulled the tote bag she carried tighter to the side of her body, like she could use it as a shield. “Because these past couple months haven’t exactly been a shot in the arm as far as my self-esteem. I don’t need you to pile any more—”

His eyes widened a fraction before narrowing. “I’m not here for you.”

Of course not.

Even though Dylan had been her first boyfriend, her first love, her first in so many ways, he’d also left her behind the first chance he had. In truth, she had her father to thank for that, as well. Niall had never approved of her high school boyfriend, and when Dylan asked her to leave Magnolia with him, Dad had bribed him to leave on his own.

She shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d taken the money, but the memory of it burned liked acid in her gut.

“That didn’t come out the way I meant,” he amended with a shake of his head. “I came back to Magnolia because—”

“I don’t care why,” Carrie told him, wanting to inflict on him the same kind of hurt she felt then succumbing to guilt when pain flickered across his features. “We’re not leasing the space downtown to you.” She gentled her tone but not the message. “There’s nothing for you here.”

Her father’s will had brought the sisters together even as it divided his estate into three parts. Niall’s paintings, sentimental landscapes depicting idealized scenes of American life, had enjoyed commercial if not critical success for the first half of his career. He’d been Magnolia’s most famous resident for decades and had both supported the town and demanded fierce loyalty from its residents.

As his career and health declined, he’d made a series of bad investments and engaged in the type of frivolous spending that left his savings decimated. At the time of his death, he’d owned a farm near the beach outside Magnolia that he’d left to Carrie. In a twist of irony, he’d bequeathed the family home to his youngest daughter, Meredith Ventner, who’d grown up in Magnolia not knowing that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father.

Avery Keller, born in California to a single mother who’d had an affair with Niall, had been left the property he owned in downtown Magnolia. The buildings housed his art gallery, a local dance studio, hardware store and bookshop as well as a couple of vacant storefronts.

Past leaders in the town had relied heavily on Niall’s support and generosity without working to modernize the town or attract new businesses and visitors. After a rocky start, Carrie and her sisters were helping to change that.

She couldn’t allow Dylan Scott to be a part of it.

He continued to watch her, the intensity of his stare making heat prickle just underneath her skin. He took a small step back, and in the dim light she couldn’t read his eyes but knew her words had hit their mark.

“You’ve changed,” he said after a moment.

“It’s been ten years.”

“I don’t mean like that, although you’re skinnier than I remember. You always forgot to eat when you were stressed.” He rolled his big shoulders. “In high school, you were a people pleaser. Plenty of people took advantage of that, including me. You let me get away with anything.”

Her stomach pitched and swooped at the memory of all the things she’d let Dylan get away with in his old Chevy pickup. He’d been three years older than she, dangerous and exciting for a shy girl. She’d felt alive with him and hated the detachment in his gaze as it tracked over her.

Carrie stood in front of him after the end of a long day, in a shapeless quilted jacket over an equally loose tunic sweater with her feet shoved into comfortable work boots and her boring brown hair pulled back into a practical but hardly stylish bun.

She’d harbored plenty of fantasies over the years of how it would go if she ever confronted Dylan. Most of them involved her in some sort of fitted, sparkly dress dancing with a Patrick Swayze doppelgänger and having the time of her life.

No one put Carrie in the corner.

Or got away with breaking her heart.

“I was young and stupid,” she said by way of an answer. “I’m not so young anymore.”

“You were never stupid,” he said, the rough timbre of his voice scratching along her nerve endings like a cat’s tongue. “Just too nice for your own good. I don’t think you’re that kind of pushover now.”

He probably didn’t mean the words as a compliment, but she’d been working hard to become stronger. “Then you’ll understand you have no chance of convincing me or my sisters to lease space to you.”

“I have my own space.”

Carrie blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“Your dad may have held court in this town, but he didn’t own everything. I’m under contract with Bobby Hawthorne.”

The breath hissed from between her suddenly dry lips. How had she not heard about that? She and her sisters had been working closely with Magnolia’s mayor, Malcolm Grimes, and the rest of the town council as well as local business owners to implement a plan for revitalization. They weren’t to blame for Niall’s stranglehold on the community, but each of them felt a responsibility to make things better.

“I asked for a confidentiality clause,” Dylan said matter-of-factly. “After you derailed my plans to buy one of your father’s buildings, I wasn’t going to take a chance on you blocking me again.”

“Bobby owns the entire block across from the gallery.” She shook her head, willing her jumbled thoughts to become ordered. “That’s far more square footage than what the space we own would have afforded.”

He gave a curt nod. “I’m expanding my initial proposal. We’re going to redo the whole block with shops, restaurants and lofts on the second floor above each storefront. Just so we’re clear, my company is also buying and developing the old textile factory and the land that borders your dad’s farm. By the time I’m finished, no one will even care that Niall Reed once lived here. Magnolia will belong to me.”

Carrie’s throat tightened, and she glanced around wildly. There had to be another explanation or something she could do to stop him. Dylan had gutted her when he’d accepted the bribe from her father to break up with her. She didn’t trust him or his motives. He’d been so intent on leaving Magnolia and making his mark on the world. He’d hated their sleepy town and everything it represented.

He’d sworn to her that he would never come back so his return to Magnolia didn’t make any sense.

“You despise this place.”

“I despised your father,” he clarified. “Now that I’m back, anything he had I want. I’m going to destroy every last shred of his legacy.”

Carrie’s father had many faults, but she still loved him. It might be different for Avery and Meredith, but part of the reason she was determined to set Magnolia on a better course was so that her family wouldn’t bear responsibility for ruining the town. She’d become more independent, but twenty-eight years as the dutiful daughter wouldn’t be undone. Loyalty was ingrained in her.

“I won’t let you,” she whispered, more to herself than him.

“You can’t stop me.” He moved closer, using his size to block out her view of the rest of the darkened street. All she could see was the collar of the gray sweater under the wool overcoat he wore. The street was eerily silent, as if even the rustle of the wind had quieted in deference to Dylan’s overpowering presence.

Carrie felt her nostrils flare as the scent of him—spice and clean shampoo—enveloped her.

“If you’re trying to intimidate me,” she said, forcing an even tone, “it won’t work. I know you. You might be ruthless and heartless, but you aren’t a bully.”

“Maybe you aren’t the only one who’s changed.” She could feel his warm breath on her cheek. At five foot nine, Carrie was tall, but he still towered over her. His large body felt like shelter from some nonexistent storm. She’d liked that feeling of being small, of deferring to his size and strength, when they’d been together.

She liked it even now, although she had no intention of surrendering to him no matter how much he blustered.

“Stay away from me, Dylan,” she told him, proud that her voice didn’t tremble. “From me and my sisters. You have no business in this town, and I’m going to make sure everyone sees that.”

Clutching her tote bag to her body, she tipped her chin and elbowed her way past him.

DYLANMUTTEREDACURSE as he stood on the front lawn of the house he’d rented for the next six months.

An eerie blue light glowed from the window of an upstairs bedroom, which meant Sam was awake and playing video games.

This had been a crap night, and it was about to go even more off the rails. They’d only moved in the prior day, with Sam alternately surly and outright antagonistic.

Dylan didn’t blame the kid. Fifteen was a rough time for any teenage boy, let alone one who’d lost the only family he had in a plane crash then been stuck with a guardian who was laughably unequipped to take responsibility for another living being.

Dylan might be a success in business, but his single-minded determination had forced him to sacrifice his personal life. Not that he’d particularly minded. After having his heart shattered once before, he was in no hurry to repeat the venture.

He sure as hell hadn’t expected to run into Carrie Reed on a quiet street tonight. In Boston, where he’d lived in a modern loft downtown, his inability to sleep hadn’t been a problem. He could always find a party or neighborhood bar for late-night companionship. Or, as he’d taken to more often of late, enjoy the succor of background noise while he silently sipped his preferred whiskey neat on his own.

Magnolia, with its tree-lined streets and festive holiday decorations, didn’t offer the same kind of around-the-clock distractions. Instead, he was stuck roaming the neighborhood until the wee hours, needing only a light jacket with the temperatures hovering in the low fifties. That might be cool for this part of North Carolina, but after ten years in Boston, it felt downright balmy.

There hadn’t been another soul out so late, but the flash of a quilted red jacket turning a corner had made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

Dylan didn’t need to see her bourbon-colored tumble of hair or the delicate line of her jaw to recognize Carrie. It was as if the months they’d dated had imprinted her on his soul. He recognized her deep within his body the way a sailor sensed a storm brewing at the edge of a calm swath of sea.

Scaring her half to death wasn’t his plan, but he’d been curious about where she was headed. Although she was a grown woman, he couldn’t imagine her living anywhere but her father’s ostentatious mansion that sat in the opposite direction from the path she walked.

Her reaction to him hadn’t exactly been a surprise. He’d visited Magnolia a month ago, during the time that he was in talks to lease a downtown property that had belonged to Niall. He’d tried to buy the buildings outright but had been willing to settle for renting when his Realtor told him the estate wouldn’t sell. When news of Niall’s death had reached him almost a year after the plane crash that killed his uncle, his cousin Wiley and Wiley’s wife, Kay, Dylan had made the decision to return to Magnolia.

Sam needed a fresh start, and Dylan was determined to honor the promise he’d made to his cousin to take care of the boy. Plus, Dylan wanted a chance to prove wrong all the people in town who’d believed he would never amount to anything. He somehow needed that recompense to demonstrate he could handle raising a surly, grief-stricken teenager. Niall had been at the top of his long list of detractors, but if death stole Dylan’s chance for revenge on the man himself, he could at least destroy the famed artist’s legacy.

He understood that his mixed desire to raise the boy in a small town but also disguise that more noble pursuit with his personal need for revenge made him ten kinds of a jerk, but it didn’t faze him.

He hadn’t expected to be so rattled by Carrie. The quiet and shadows had lent an intimacy to their conversation that made his blood run hot. She’d always been out of his league, and not just because of her standing in the community.

Carrie had one of the purest hearts he’d ever known. Just being close to her gave him the feeling of stretching out in a ray of sunshine on a cold winter day. She was everything light and warm, and he had no business wanting her.

Not anymore.