by Genevieve Fortin
As an engineering geologist, Anais (Ana) Bloom is thrilled when she arrives in Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer to study the effects of climate changes and rising sea levels on the shoreline of the Saint-Laurent River. Soon after she settles in at the quaint White Sheep Inn, she develops a friendship with the innkeeper and her canine companion. The innkeeper’s granddaughter, however, is a whole other story. Melodie is attractive, perhaps, but she’s also impulsive, has a bad attitude, and doesn’t share an ounce of her grandmother’s hospitality.
Melodie Beaulieu has never planned to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and become an innkeeper. The only thing she’s wanted all her life is to live by the sea, in her hometown. When Ana Bloom comes to the White Sheep Inn and threatens her entire way of living, she simply won’t have it. She despises the scientist and her big theories and chooses to ignore her good looks and that damn red, unruly hair of hers.
Ana and Melodie would gladly keep staying out of each other’s way, but Mother Nature has other plans. Trapped inside the inn when a strong storm surge hits the beach community, they’re forced to come together to face the terrifying event and its aftermath. Can they rise above their conflicting beliefs and let their attraction take the lead?
Lex Kent's Reviews - I enjoyed this romance. This is the third and my favorite book I have read by Fortin. She writes really well and each new book seems more enjoyable than her last. I wasn’t crazy about the main conflict scene but I was happy it didn’t happen right at the end of the book. The characters actually had time to decide if a HEA was possible or not. This is something we need to see more of in romances so I appreciate that fact. Fortin is slowly becoming one of my preferred traditional romance authors. Her writing works for me and I’m hopeful traditional romance fans will enjoy this one too.
Ana enjoyed the sound of the hard snow crunching under her winter boots as she walked closer to the Saint-Laurent River. It had to be this cold for the snow to make that sound. Cold enough for her nostrils to stick together and for her breath to hang in the air like a fog. She took her gloves off, placed them in her jacket pockets, and reached for her camera in her backpack. She simply had to take a few shots of the scene before her. Snow and ice rippled over the sea, as if the waves had frozen into place. The white of the snow met with a brighter, thin white horizon before it faded into a light gray tinted sky.
The monochrome December panorama was breathtaking—quite literally. She took a deep breath that burned her lungs. She immortalized the view with a few simple clicks and then shot a brief video, wanting to capture the sound of the wind, but mostly the silence of the sea. That silence was almost troubling. No waves soothing her mind with their regular rhythm or crashing on the large, flat rocks that covered part of the beach. This place and moment gave her a new understanding of an expression she’d never stopped to think about before: the dead of the winter. It made more sense now as she looked around her. The perfect, peaceful dead of winter.
Ana’s bare hands were so cold that it felt like tiny needles pushing into her fingertips. The good news was that the great tides expected in the next few days wouldn’t cause damage, she reasoned as she blew warm air into her cupped hands. At twenty-five below zero degrees Fahrenheit, she could hear deniers snicker in her mind. So much for global warming, huh, fancy scientist? Damn deniers. Their refusal to acknowledge the difference between weather events and long-term climate trends was mind-blowing. And dangerous. Idiots, she thought as she dismissively shook her head. She wouldn’t let her mind clutter with her usual preoccupations. Not now. Not when she’d finally made her way back to Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer.
She turned around and took a picture of the small hotel she was so happy to see again before she placed the camera safely in her backpack and put her gloves back on. She stared at the charming inn, its white walls, wraparound porch and its mansard flared roof. She was glad they’d been able to repaint the exterior as planned. She hesitated before she walked toward the front of the property where she’d parked her electric car. She grabbed her luggage out of the trunk, took another deep breath, and rolled her suitcase toward the hotel. She paused at the bottom of the stairs and smiled at the large wooden sign bearing the logo of the hotel: an illustrated sheep running on water with the words Auberge du Mouton Blanc forming a half circle over its head. The White Sheep Inn. The place where she wanted to be more than anywhere else in the world. And the place she most feared entering at the same time.
She recognized the annoying bell announcing her arrival. When she opened the door, she immediately saw her. Melodie. Standing behind the reception desk with her back to her, she was using the counter that lined up the wall to fold towels. “Une minute,” she said in French without turning around.
Ana took off her gloves and let go of her luggage when she saw Miller run to her. She crouched down to pet the Cardigan Welsh Corgi. He’d gained some weight. She’d never doubted the dog would recognize her and would be happy to see her again. She’d been right, judging by his wagging tail and wet tongue on her hand. Miller was the easy part of this reunion.
She straightened up and smiled at Thomas, who stood proudly in a small playpen behind the reception desk. Her heart clenched at the sight of the toddler. He’d grown so much. He could stand on his own now. He could probably walk, she imagined, which explained the playpen filled with toys that kept him from wandering. His dark hair was even thicker than it had been, but it was just as unruly. His eyes had remained blue, almost as light as his mother’s. He waved at her and laughed a loud, beautiful, contagious laugh. She felt her smile widen even as she fought tears. She’d missed so much. Too much. She waved back at him, wondering if he’d recognized her or if he was this friendly with all strangers. Ana had not realized she’d moved closer as she’d focused on Thomas, but she was practically leaning over the reception desk when Melodie finally turned around and saw her.
In the mere few seconds that followed, Ana saw three distinct expressions on Melodie’s face. The first was pure shock as her Arctic blue eyes opened wide and she gasped. The second was so brief Ana wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined it, but she thought she’d seen a moment of joy, or at least relief, pass through soft eyes and a twitch of her full lips that resembled a smile. The third expression was the easiest to recognize. It settled in Melodie’s clenched teeth and the way she squinted at her before she spoke with undisguised anger. “Anais Bloom. What the hell are you doing here?”
One year earlier
“Please be quiet,” Melodie Beaulieu whispered to her six-month-old son as she paced behind the reception desk, lightly bouncing him up and down and patting his bottom. Nothing worked. His diaper was dry, she’d fed him, and she’d been holding him for half an hour. Thomas should have been perfectly content, but he was still screaming to the top of his tiny lungs. The dark wood planks of the floor squeaked under each of her steps, accompanying her son’s cries.
The young couple checking out of the inn kept glancing at her, although she was doing all she could to disappear against the back wall while her grandmother, Yvonne, handled the customers. She tried to focus on the floral pattern of the wallpaper behind the couple to avoid their scrutiny but wasn’t successful. She smiled and mouthed the word “sorry.” The woman smiled at her sympathetically, but the man cringed when Thomas hit a particularly high note. He even shook his head when he finally grabbed their luggage and left the lobby.
“I’m so sorry,” Melodie said to her grandmother, who was already taking Thomas out of her arms.
“Let me try.”
Thomas almost instantly stopped crying when Yvonne did the exact same reassuring bouncing and patting she’d been doing to no avail. She wanted to cry with frustration but took a deep breath instead. Thomas closed his eyes.
“Now why wouldn’t he do this for me?”
“Because you’re way too anxious, dear. You panicked and managed to stress out everyone around you, but most of all this little angel,” she explained as she lay him in the small bassinet they’d placed behind the reception desk. Melodie had to admit Yvonne was right about her anxiety level. She freaked out every time Thomas made any noise in the presence of customers. She couldn’t help but smile at her grandmother’s contrasting calm and assurance.
Yvonne had always been her role model—strong, independent, business savvy, but also tender and caring. At seventy-four, Yvonne didn’t look a day over fifty, and the only reason why she was finally talking about retirement was that she’d recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
That information had not registered in Melodie’s brain yet. Yvonne stood tall and straight, with her perfectly shaped, short blond bob and her piercing blue eyes. If Melodie hadn’t witnessed an occasional tremor in her right hand, she wouldn’t believe her grandmother was sick.
“I told you I didn’t mind keeping Thomas with us for now because it’s slow, but you do realize you’ll have to figure out something before business picks up, right?”
Yvonne usually closed the White Sheep Inn during winter, as did most establishments in Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer. It didn’t make sense to keep hotels open in the cold months when tourists deserted their little beach community. This winter, however, she’d decided the off-season would be the perfect opportunity to teach Melodie how to manage the small family business. Since they’d started Melodie’s training in November, they’d never had more than two of their eight available rooms occupied at a time. A month later Melodie was getting used to the daily tasks of an innkeeper, but she still couldn’t imagine handling them with a full house. She was grateful her grandmother had decided to entrust her with the White Sheep Inn, but she was terrified she’d fail the woman she most loved and respected. The anxiety that had temporarily loosened its grip on her when Thomas had fallen asleep was back in full force. “I know, Mammie. I simply can’t afford daycare right now.”
Melodie and Thomas were staying in the hotel during her training. The off-season was a good time to learn how to manage a hotel, but by definition it was not a lucrative period. Yvonne had graciously offered to lodge and feed them so Melodie could quit her job as a server at Normandin’s Restaurant and focus on her new career as an innkeeper, but she couldn’t ask her grandmother to pay for daycare as well.
“What about Kevin? Can’t he help?”
Melodie scoffed. “All Kevin cares about are his dirt bikes and drinking beer with his buds. You know that. Besides, he’s going back out west after the holidays.”
Yvonne sighed heavily and folded towels that sat in a laundry basket under the desk. Melodie hurried to help her. She should have folded them earlier. When would she start anticipating every task instead of simply following her grandmother’s lead? Yvonne hadn’t said another word, but her movements were more abrupt than usual and Melodie could feel her exasperation.
“Please say what’s on your mind.” When Yvonne didn’t reply, Melodie continued. “Okay then, I’ll do it for you. Didn’t I know Kevin was a selfish prick before I slept with him? Yes, I did. I don’t know what I saw in him or why I did what I did, but it’s done. I have Thomas now. Do you really think I planned on raising a baby as a single mother at thirty?” She folded the towels with the same energy as Yvonne, both women beating them into submission. Yvonne folded the last one before she turned to Melodie and took that calm but assertive tone that made Melodie feel like a little child.
“No, that’s not what I think at all. I don’t think you’ve ever planned anything in your life, dear. If you really want to know what I was thinking, there you have it. And I was also wondering if I shouldn’t have let you move to Montreal with Nicole instead of helping your dad raise you. I love my son to death, but we both know he wasn’t what you needed at that age.”
Melodie was fourteen when her parents divorced, and her mother moved to Montreal to focus on a career in marketing. She felt her eyes fill with tears. Her grandmother knew better than to bring up her mother in a conversation. In any conversation. She finally found the nerve to answer, but her voice was barely audible when she did. “Where is this coming from? You know I wanted to stay here with dad.”
“I know, but you were too young to know what was best for you.” Yvonne took a deep breath that seemed to calm her. She took Melodie’s hands and when she spoke again, her tone was much softer. “You know I love Thomas, right?” She nodded. “I’m not saying I’m not happy we have him. Far from it. But I can’t help wondering lately if Montreal might have been a better place for you. It’s a big city. Perhaps you could have met someone special.”
Melodie squeezed her grandmother’s hands as she finally understood what this outburst was really about. “A woman? You think it would have been easier for me to meet a nice woman and fall in love if I’d lived in Montreal?”
“Well, don’t you?”
“Maybe. But I would’ve been miserable. You know that, Mammie. My place is here, by the sea. And there are lesbians around here, you know.” Melodie laughed and was relieved when Yvonne joined in. “I just suck at picking them. Men, women, it doesn’t matter. I’m no good at love. And it’s not because I didn’t have good role models. I had the best. You and Pappy. You always looked so happy.”
“We were,” Yvonne confirmed as she glanced at the black and white wedding portrait hung on the back wall of the lobby. Melodie followed her grandmother’s gaze. She’d always loved that portrait. As a young girl she’d been fascinated with the oval golden frame and its ornate ruffled edge, but the comforting smiles of her grandparents and the undeniable love between them were what she loved most about it. Raymond Beaulieu had died of a heart attack five years earlier, but they’d been happily married and in love for close to fifty years.
“Now, please do not ever think you should have sent me to Montreal with my mother. I know I give you lots of reasons to worry about me. I’m sorry about that, but there is only one thing I’m one hundred percent sure about in my life and that one thing is that my place is here. With you, with dad, and now with Thomas. No matter what stupid choice I make in the future, I will never, ever doubt that my place is here and I don’t want you to doubt it either. Okay?”
“Okay, if you say so.” Yvonne offered an understanding smile before she added, “And we’ll figure out something about daycare. Together.”
“Thank you.” She hugged her tightly before she took the laundry basket full of clean, folded towels from her grandmother and headed toward the wooden staircase that led to the guest rooms. She didn’t want Yvonne to see the tears in her eyes as she remembered that her mother had not actually asked her to move to Montreal with her after the divorce. She would have said no, as she’d always told her dad and grandmother she had. Her place was in Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer. That much was true. But they would never know that the option to leave had never even been on the table for her to consider.
Ana got out of her car and stretched as she would after a long night of sleep. She joined her hands over her head and reached as high as she could before she lightly bent at the waist, one side and then the other. She’d only stopped twice during her six-hundred and sixty mile journey from Ithaca to Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer, and although her Chevy Bolt was comfortable, she knew she’d pay the price for sitting so long. Her lower back hurt and her legs were numb. She walked the length of the parking lot to slowly wake her aching body and take in the seascape that extended behind the small hotel. The strong winds created foam crested waves on the Saint-Laurent River, and she had to admit she could see why some people compared them to a herd of white sheep running on water. It was a little too poetic for her scientific taste, but she could see it. She might as well, since she was going to stay in a place called the White Sheep Inn for the next few weeks.
She’d never been to Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer but she knew the thirty-seven degrees Fahrenheit temperature she’d noted on her car display screen was much warmer than usual December temperatures in this region of Quebec. The river was not frozen and the locals were probably worried about the potential great tides the upcoming winter solstice might bring. If low atmospheric pressure and strong winds got into the mix, they could witness a storm surge comparable to the one they’d lived through in December of 2010. Or worse. The storm had caused millions of dollars in damages, and in this small beach community alone, forty-six homes had been judged beyond repair and had to be demolished. Perhaps their fear that history might repeat itself would make it easier to convince them to participate in her interviews. She hoped so.
She took a deep breath and filled her lungs with sea air. She couldn’t help but smile as she realized she hadn’t breathed this deeply in months. Hadn’t felt this free. She’d left Ithaca the day after her mother’s funeral. In August, the doctors had told Constance that nothing could be done for her widely spread metastatic cancer besides keeping her relatively comfortable with pain medication. Ana had decided to take a sabbatical from her position as Associate Professor in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences program of Cornell University and invited her mother to live with her in her small two-bedroom home. It was the right thing to do.
She did it out of obligation more than love. She hated to admit it even to herself, but like the forty-six homes that had been destroyed on this beach in 2010, her relationship with her mother had already been beyond repair at that point. She did what Constance wanted her to do until the end, indulged her every whim. Unlike the little girl who’d hoped for love and affection in return, however, she’d learned not to expect anything but selfishness and criticism from the woman.
In the four months leading to her mother’s death, they’d emptied and sold Constance’s small condo and put her affairs in order. There was nothing pressing to do after the services, nothing to keep her in Ithaca. She needed to leave.
The news she’d received a few weeks before her mother’s death had only confirmed her need to come to Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer. She was told she would not get the grant to study the effects of climate changes and the rise of sea levels on the coastal life of the Bas-Saint-Laurent region. She’d been encouraged to redirect her research to larger and better known coastal communities such as Miami or New York City, but she’d argued that those large cities were already getting enough attention. She was much more intrigued with a small community where the government had ruled people would no longer be allowed to build less than a hundred feet from the river and where there seemed to be a will to help people relocate farther from the rising water. That mentality was much more in line with her own than projects to build a wall to protect New York City from the ocean or to raise Miami above sea level one street at a time.
She realized those large-scale projects should have excited her as an engineering geologist, but it was no longer the case. So she figured she would take the rest of her sabbatical year to conduct her own research anyway. The money her mother had left her from the sale of her condo would help. She couldn’t explain exactly why, but she needed this research and she needed to be here.
She entered the lobby of the inn and cringed at the loud sound of the bell. She was immediately taken aback by how old the hotel actually looked. She’d read it had been built in the late 1890s when she’d made her reservation online, but she’d assumed it had been somewhat modernized over the years. The textured roses on the wallpaper, the wide planks of the floors, the ornate crown moulding, and the dark wood of the reception desk all seemed original. Others might have found the decor charming, but to Ana, it was stifling and oppressive. She hoped the guest rooms at least had been updated.
She moved closer to the desk and noticed an empty bassinet and a dog sleeping on the ground. The dog opened one eye to look at her and went back to sleep with a heavy sigh. She could hear a baby crying from somewhere in the building, perhaps upstairs. What kind of hotel was this? Fortunately the lady on the other side of the desk looked professional when she smiled and greeted her in French. “Bonjour. Bienvenue à l’Auberge du Mouton Blanc.”
“Sorry, I don’t speak French. But I have a reservation for Anais Bloom.”
“Oh yes, of course. Anais. What a lovely name,” the woman replied with a heavy accent.
“Thank you. I don’t really like it, though. I go by Ana.”
“I see. Ana it is, then. I have a room with a view of the Saint-Laurent for you. It’s our best room.”
“Great,” Ana answered before a younger woman rushed into the lobby and went straight behind the reception desk holding a crying baby in her arms and addressing the older woman in French. She seemed furious and spoke as if Ana didn’t exist. Ana didn’t understand French but recognized the name Kevin in the middle of the woman’s rant. She figured the women were related, judging by the ice blue eyes they shared. Ana had never seen eyes that light before, almost white.
The younger woman could have been attractive. She had lovely curves, thick light brown curls falling below her shoulders, and dimples punctuating a beautiful round face. But she was beyond rude. Ana hoped she didn’t work at the hotel because she was obviously clueless when it came to customer service. And would someone make that baby stop screaming already? Her ears couldn’t take it much longer. More importantly, one of his basic needs was obviously not being met. She had a feeling that need was the same peace and quiet she needed right now. She hoped that rude woman would calm down quickly for his benefit even more than hers. She was tempted to turn around and leave, but she knew she’d have to go to Rimouski to find another hotel that was open in winter, and she wanted to be in Sainte-Luce-Sur-Mer, right by the Saint-Laurent.
The women continued talking in French as the older of the two took the baby and he finally stopped crying. “I’m very sorry about this interruption, Ana. We have a little emergency as you can see. Melodie here will show you to your room if you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” Ana agreed reluctantly.
Melodie took a key from a series of hooks behind the desk without acknowledging Ana’s presence and didn’t bother to smile when she turned and commanded, “Follow me.”
Ana didn’t expect Melodie to carry her luggage upstairs for her, but she could have offered. She could certainly have slowed down instead of hurrying upstairs and waiting for her with an air of exasperation as she fidgeted with the key. It was an actual key, not a card, which left Ana much less hopeful regarding any possible renovation that might have been done in the guest rooms. “Yours is right there,” Melodie announced without enthusiasm as she pointed to the first door on the left and handed Ana the red plastic circular key chain with a faded, black number one.
“Thanks,” Ana said more automatically than graciously.
“Breakfast is served every morning between seven and nine. The dining room is on the left at the bottom of the stairs. Enjoy your stay,” Melodie said in one breath before she ran back downstairs without giving Ana the opportunity to ask a question.
“I guess she works here after all,” she muttered to herself as she struggled with the lock on the door. When she finally entered the room, she had to laugh to keep from crying, completely deflated. The floral pattern of the wallpaper was orange instead of pink, and the wide boards of the floor were a lighter shade of wood, but, like the lobby, there was no doubt the decor was original and so depressively old.
The floor squeaked as she rolled her suitcase into the room and hurried to the bathroom, almost expecting to find a porcelain chamber pot in which she would be expected to urinate. There was one, but fortunately there was also a flush toilet. The chamber pot was simply a decorative element sitting on the antique wood dresser that had been converted into a bathroom vanity. The shower-bath combo was small, but she turned the water tap to the left and was satisfied when she felt warm water on her hand. She would have preferred a more modern look, but she had to admit this fitted better with the rest of the place.
She stepped back into the small room and noticed another antique dresser by the bed and an antique armoire on the opposite wall. She cringed when she spotted the crucifix above the bed. Really? How was that still allowed in this day and age? She shrugged and figured that if the mattress was comfortable enough, she could sleep with Jesus above her head for a while. The bed was also from the Victorian era, made of white-painted wood with a curved headboard. She sat carefully on the mattress and was relieved to find it was not too soft or too firm. She bounced on it a few times and the bed squeaked with each movement. “Oh hell.”