If You Hold Me (A Sugar Maple Novel #4) by Ciara Knight

Chapter One





Mary-Beth Richards wiped off the residue on her Maple Grounds coffee shop counter, wishing she could wipe away the memories as easily. Memories of promised happily ever afters.

“You’re doing it again,” Andy, her little brother, shouted, as if she were the one with the Air Pods blasting music in her ears.

“Doing what?” she asked, plopping the sponge unceremoniously into the sink and wiping her hands on her apron before she retrieved five mugs for her afternoon meeting. She already knew how it would go with her four friends gossiping about wedding plans and boyfriends and past sins.

Andy pulled one white earphone out of his ear. “You’re stress cleaning to get ready for the friend attack. Why do you hang out with the girls if they make you so crazy? I mean, come on, they were childhood friends. I don’t get why the town is so crazy about the infamous Fabulous Five. Especially after Judas Jackie stole Carissa’s fiancé after high school.”

“Old news, buddy. We’re all good now that Carissa is engaged to Drew.” Mary-Beth thanked the dear Lord for that miracle. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, anyway. I’m looking forward to spending time with them. They’re like extended family to me.” She started on the drinks, closing her eyes and thinking about each girl and what she liked.

Andy harrumphed. “They’ll be your only wannabe family when I head to college next year. You’ll finally be free of your forced parental responsibilities. Yay to the ’rents for dumping me on you, huh?” He snagged his football from the chair and a muffin from the fridge before he slipped his letterman jacket on and headed for the door, probably to meet up with his secret girlfriend he refused to tell her about. Wow, did he remind her of her own epic high school relationship, the way he strutted around like the Football God of Sugar Maple.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. Andy, you know I begged for them to let you stay with me when Dad got the job transfer.”

“Chill. Stop being such a Chad.” Andy offered a backhand wave, leaving Mary-Beth feeling like she should lay down some house rules.

“Be back here by nine when I close up.”

“See you at ten.”

“Andy. I mean it.” Did she pull off the “mom” voice?

He slipped on his Aviator sunglasses but tipped them down in that oh-so-familiar jock way and said, “Football, remember?”

“Right. Okay, see you at ten.” Feeling like she’d read the Cliff’s Notes for Parenting High School Boys instead of the five-volume manual, she sighed and returned to what she did best, making coffee. Each brew was distinctive—sophisticated for Jackie, sweet for Carissa, bitter with a hint of sugar for Stella, fresh and uplifting for Felicia.

The Sugar Maple Courthouse clock tower struck three, warning her that all four of her friends would be arriving for their Fabulous Five Operation Wedding Decorations.

Through the front window, Mary-Beth watched Jackie click across the town square in her skyscraper designer heels, like a model racing for her monthly ration of fat-free, sugar-free, taste-free chocolate-covered celery stalk. But she wasn’t a fashion model. She wasn’t racing. And she wasn’t free. Like Mary-Beth, she secretly held on to the past to avoid the future. Jackie was prickly but a good friend who loaned Mary-Beth designer clothes and constantly told her to stop wearing too much jewelry. Jackie paused at the front steps, waiting for the others to catch-up, wrapping a garland like a boa around her neck and holding a bag at her side. A sophisticated cappuccino with a hint of fresh-shaved hazelnut and a dash of Ceylon Cinnamon waited in her place by the side window, where a crisp fall breeze floated inside.

The opposite in attitude and fashion sense was Sassy Stella, who pulled up in her 1957 Chevy wearing combat boots, faux leather jacket, and heaps of in-your-face attitude. With one glance at the I-don’t-care grin on her face, Mary-Beth was sure she’d perfected the bitter coffee with a dollop of almond whipped cream stirred into a white swirl. The girl would never drink something with bling. Stella was the shield in Mary-Beth’s life. The one who always had her back and would break down doors and men to keep her safe.

She inhaled the hint of pumpkin from Carissa’s cup. Sweet, sensible creation that fit her dependable baker friend’s soul. The girl was only a call away.

In the middle, between Stella and Jackie, Mary-Beth placed Felicia, the negotiator of the group. Her London Fog made with lavender and a hint of lemon would provide a brightness with a hint of calm. The perfect pick-me-up after working at her nursery in the drizzling rain all morning.