Novel Update: Beneath the Surface Chapter 1 (Excerpt)

Good morning, my friends! I am so excited to share my progress with Beneath the Surface, my current work-in-progress (for a book blurb, click here). This is the second book in the Hanley series, and follows my recently released contemporary romance novel, Autumn in Arborwood. This one was a fun one to write. Not only was it my first contemporary romance, but it is set in the Muskokas, a region in my home province of Ontario that is near and dear to my heart. It’s always a challenging process to piggyback your second novel in a series off of the first one, and to do it in a way that readers get the gist of what the first book was about while still allowing the second to be more or less a standalone. But it’s a good challenge, and I’m enjoying it immensely. So without further ado, please allow me to introduce the first chapter of my second Hanley series novel, Beneath the Surface.

Cheers, and hugs to all,

Veronica.

Beneath the Surface (The Hanleys Book 2) Chapter 1

THE AUTUMN SEASON in Muskoka, Ontario is a kaleidoscope of colour. An endless paradise of lush treetops dressed in fiery reds, electric yellows, glowing oranges and rich browns are set against a backdrop of astonishing azure skies. This breathtaking vision is reflected in the mirror-like surface of a world-renowned network of lakes, amplifying the glorious splendour so that one cannot tell the earth from the heavens.

This awe-inspiring destination is the place to where legions of vacationers, looking to escape the bustle of city life, retreat each summer. The Arborwood Inn is one of the region’s most successful boutique resorts, and it is the town of Arborwood’s largest employer. This little Muskoka village is a world unto itself. Here, family, community and small-town values are celebrated as a way of life.

This particular autumn is especially magical, because it brings with it the marriage of Ryan Mitchell, beloved hometown girl and owner of the Arborwood Inn, to Manhattan society elite and CEO Jake Hanley. This is the event of the year here in Arborwood, not just because of who the bride- and groom-to-be are, but because of how they fell in love. Only a year ago, Jake Hanley was a man who had never known the love of a good woman. Unfulfilled, he dedicated himself to his work, which saw him rise to fame and fortune in the acquisitions and investments industry.

But he had no one to share this success with—not until he met the love of his life, Ryan. In her, he would find the partner he dreamed of, and the rock he so desperately needed…

“Oh, come on, Sylvie,” Ryan groaned into the telephone receiver. She scowled in distaste at the words written on her computer screen.

“What’s wrong with it?” objected her best friend, Sylvie Draper, on the other end. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

“It reads like a romance novel. Beloved hometown girl? The rock he so desperately needed? That’s so over the top, I don’t even know where to begin.”

“It is not.”

“I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit.”

Sylvie huffed loudly. “Well, I hope you choke on it, because I happen to think it’s a wonderful tribute to you both. When people visit your wedding website, they’ll be regaled with the love story of the century.”

“What visitors? There’s only a week left before the big day.”

“Whose fault is that? I was the one who said you needed to have your web page launched months ago. I could have turned this into a social media sensation if you’d given me enough time.”

“And I’ll ask the same question now that I asked then—to what end? Besides that nonsense about increased visitation, that is, which I don’t buy for a second. No one that’s not involved in the wedding is making an extra trip just because of it.”

“How about my vanity, then?” Sylvie retorted without missing a beat. “Honestly, Ry. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, your wedding is a serious selling feature for the Arborwood Inn. You can’t buy that kind of story. If people’s choices are between the Arborwood Inn and the Marriott Rosseau, or the Wharf, or Deerhurst or Buckhurst or Villa Gravenhurst or any of the other five-star Hursts we’ve got around here—”

“Breathe, Syl,” Ryan put in jokingly at her friend’s increasing agitation.

“—your story is the Arborwood’s advantage. That means it’s my advantage, since I’m the one booking most of the experience packages for your uber rich guests. That’s my mortgage, my staff’s wages. Hell, that’s your bloody wedding present right there! You promised. You can’t back out now.”

As owner of Draper International Travel Packages and Experiences, Sylvie’s purpose in life—her raison d’être—was to create leisure experiences for visitors to the Muskokas which couldn’t be curated without professional expertise. A Draper experience was memorable, luxurious, tailor-made to each client… and came with a hefty price tag. Those who could afford to indulge paid a premium for their curated itinerary of bookings, from extreme outdoor adventure to relaxing spa retreats, and everything in between (or even beyond). Sylvie did what she did well—so well, in fact, that she even won over the most resistant of subjects once upon a time: Jake Hanley himself.

Ryan pressed her lips together and breathed once. Inhale, exhale.

She means well. She means well. She means well.

“You and the Arborwood are the only reason I agreed to this whole wedding web page thing,” she answered evenly. “I am not backing out. I’m just asking you to tone down the cheese factor a bit. It’s embarrassing.”

Sylvie knew she’d won. Ryan could practically feel the triumph seeping through the earpiece of her desk phone.

“The web page is stunning, and you know it. But I will try to rework the bio page so that it’s less—”

“Vomaticious?”

“—saccharine. I totally disagree with you on that one, but what do I know? I only do this for a living.”

“It is a stunning website, Syl. But the language makes me squirm. Plus, Jake will think it’s way too much.”

“He’ll accept it if you ask him to,” Sylvie pointed out sweetly. “That man would do anything for you if it made you happy.”

“Exactly. That’s a powerful card to play. If I’m going to use it, it’s going to be on something I really, really want, or to get me out of a really, really bad screwup.”

Sylvie sighed, resigned. “Fair point. So, when does the douchebag get home?”

Ryan grinned at her friend’s pet name for her fiancé. The first encounter between Sylvie and Jake had not gone well, thanks entirely to Jake’s obnoxious and heartless approach to managing the property he’d unexpectedly inherited a year ago. Upon arriving in Muskoka, Jake had been determined to treat the resort like one of the failing companies he acquired in his corporate profession—he was going to gut it and sell it to maximize profits. First up on the docket was to send a message to the staff in the form of a sacrificial firing of the Arborwood Inn’s general manager… who happened to be Ryan Mitchell. Since then, Sylvie had come around on Jake. In fact, they got along quite well. The pet name lived on because Sylvie had a wry sense of humour.

Jake didn’t mind in the least. He had tough skin and, as he’d pointed out, he deserved the moniker fair and square for his behaviour back then.

“Jake’s already home,” Ryan said. “But he told me I’m not allowed to leave the office until after five, because he’s making dinner for me.”

“I didn’t know he could cook.” 

“He’s…” Ryan frowned. “He’s okay. It will be edible. Besides, it’s about the effort. Not the end product.”

Sylvie snorted. “Yeah, that’s what people who can’t cook say. He’s back from New York for the next month, then?”

“Yep. He’s here in Arborwood for the wedding, and then we are touring Europe—which I still can’t believe I’m doing.”

“That’s not like you,” Sylvie agreed. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome adventure.”

“I know, and I’m sure I’m going to love it. Then we’re coming back here for a few days so I can get everything sorted at the inn, and after that we’re in Manhattan for two weeks.”

“He’s still happy with his new COO? Feels good about them taking on the day-to-day operations in his absence?”

The memory of what had happened at Jake’s company within the past year was painful for everyone involved. Because Jake had been spending most of his time in Arborwood, his chief operations officer, Wyatt Dennison, had taken the opportunity to embezzle millions of dollars in a very short period of time. From a financial standpoint, Hanley Acquisitions and Investments had recuperated quickly from the theft, thanks in large part to a plea bargain in which Dennison would return most of the money stolen, and thanks also to the rest of his team who had done a stellar job at damage control with the firm’s professional relationships and corporate image. But emotionally, the recovery was slower. The betrayal had hurt Jake tremendously. Dennison had been one of his most loyal and trusted executives. Jake’s confidence not only in others, but more significantly in himself, had been shaken.

Dennison was now spending time in prison for his crime, and only recently had Jake begun to trust himself enough to bring on a new COO who could coordinate with him when he was in Muskoka—which would be a great deal of the time now that he had bought a house here for himself and Ryan.

“He is,” Ryan confirmed. “Her name’s Valerie Clifton. She seems nice. But tough as nails, too. I met her when I was in New York last time. She’ll do a good job. Plus, the rest of his staff are on heightened alert after what happened, so it’s unlikely that something like that will go unnoticed again anytime soon.”

A knock on her open office door interrupted the conversation. It was Ramona Bartolic, Arborwood’s head of housekeeping.

“Sorry babe, I’ve got to go,” Ryan told Sylvie. “Ramona needs me.”

“No worries. Tell Ro-Bo I say hi.”

Ryan cradled the receiver and gave her attention to the tall, slender, grey-haired Ramona. “What’s up? Resort stuff or wedding stuff?”

“Wedding, of course,” Ramona replied. “That’s the only thing that’s up around here right now. My staff wants to know if they should block off the event hall once the flowers arrive and the decorator has been. They’re worried about the finished space being ruined before the big day by guests poking around. I would have told them to go ahead, but the problem is that with the main terrace exit being through the event hall, guests will have to take a detour through the side exit in the dining room.” 

“Don’t block it off. I understand the concern, but I’m sure nobody’s going to ruin anything. They all know what’s going on, or can figure it out if they haven’t heard by now. I have faith in our guests.”

Ramona raised an eyebrow nervously. “That’s your call. What do I tell your wedding planner if you’re wrong? She doesn’t seem like the forgiving type.”

“I’ll do the explaining to Deanna. I made the call, so I will take the fall. Have you had any word on when she will be here?”

“Wednesday. She called me yesterday to say that her flight was booked, and she will be arriving Tuesday evening. She also said she would touch base with you to set up a time to go over last-minute details.”

Ryan’s wedding planner was a high-priced expert from Dallas, Texas—an obligatory gift from her new mother-in-law. Ryan, who prided herself on being able to get along with anyone, found it difficult to get along with Jake’s mother, Mrs. Caldwell Agaylle III. The woman, who came from a family of New York old money, viewed Ryan as unworthy for her son. Nevertheless, Ryan ignored and otherwise soldiered through Mimi Agaylle’s covert aggression: the slippery comments; the gossiping behind her back; the gestures that appeared generous on the surface but were meant to wound.

(“I have hired a wedding planner as a gift, dear Ryan—Ryan… is that short for a female name, by the way? No? Oh… oh, goodness. Well, anyway. I knew you wouldn’t be able to afford a good planner, so I wanted to do this special for you.”)  

Mimi’s relentless onslaught and Ryan’s refusal to rise to it seemed to amuse Jake immensely. No, not seemed to… he flat out admitted that it did.

“I have her contact info,” Ryan told Ramona. “I will get back to her so that she doesn’t bug you again.”

Ramona rolled her eyes. “I doubt that will stop her from bugging me. She seems to enjoy drama and frenzy. But thanks for trying.”

She excused herself, and Ryan sat at her desk for a few moments, staring at the empty doorframe and reflecting on how the wedding plans had gone so far. In truth, she’d wanted a much simpler affair than this. Jake’s family, on the other hand, wanted an even grander wedding than they were getting. It was quite the balancing act, but at least Ryan didn’t have to balance Jake in with everyone else. He was firmly on her side. In planning the wedding, he played middle-man between his family’s desires and his fiancée’s, and ever the valiant knight, he sheltered her from their disapproval (his father and stepmother were just as bad), taking the brunt of it himself so that she wouldn’t have to. Just as often, he persuaded her to give in to some of their extravagances which she, as a quiet, small-town girl, would otherwise have flat-out refused.

Her dress, for example, was being shipped in from New York. Jake’s sister, Caroline, had gone to great lengths to have a stunning made-to-order Vivienne Westwood created just for her. Ryan’s sense of shop-local chafed at the idea of an international designer gown (not to mention the price tag attached to it) but Caroline had been so eager to please Jake’s new wife that he didn’t get much of a fight when he sat Ryan down to campaign for his sister’s cause.

“You have no idea how much this means to her,” he’d pleaded. “Care is nothing like my mother, and she doesn’t have many true friends. She needs someone to share her heart of gold with.”

After a few begrudging consults and professional measurements sent back and forth between New York and Ophelia’s Bridal Boutique in the nearby town of Bracebridge, even Ryan had to admit that the ethereal, princess-style gown was breathtaking. Showstopping without being over the top.

At least she’d won the “no veal or foie gras” argument for the dinner menu.

It was in quiet moments like this, between the flower discussions and seating charts and hair-pulling frustration of withstanding Jake’s mother, that Ryan had to pinch herself at just how lucky she was to be loved by Jake. There was never a second when she doubted him. Jake’s love for her was the one thing she was most sure of in this chaotic madness of an event. Everything else was detail. Theirs may not be the traditional type of marriage which people around here enjoyed; the traditional type of marriage Ryan had always assumed she’d have one day. She and Jake would have to be back and forth between his business in Manhattan and hers in Arborwood. And there would be times when they’d have to be apart because of those businesses. But so far, the arrangement worked well. In fact, being away from one another made coming home all the sweeter.

It was like a fairy tale. A love story almost too good to be true… and sometimes Ryan wondered whether she was on the brink of something going wrong. She was, after all, a pragmatist. But day after day continued, with Jake as sure and steady by her side as ever. He was everything she wanted in a husband, a friend, a partner for the rest of her life.

Which made it difficult to wait until five o’clock to leave the Arborwood Inn. Jake had been away in Manhattan for two whole weeks, and she was eager to see him again. More than eager. She was the owner of the resort now. She had no one to answer to, and could come and go as she pleased. But Jake had made her promise not to leave early so that his efforts at dinner would be a surprise. It was no easy thing to watch the minutes tick by in slow motion, but somehow she managed. At five o’clock on the dot, she shut her laptop with glee, packed it up along with her take-home files, and hurried out of the office, wishing every staff member she passed a good night.

No one tried to stop her. The Arborwood Inn was like a family. Everyone from Andre the head groundskeeper, to Denise the director of finance, to Norma the housekeeping attendant knew exactly why she was happily trotting out the door. No one tried to hold her up as she made her way to her brand-new Audi sports car that Jake had insisted on buying her. Soon, she was on the road, en route to the brand-new model home that Jake had insisted on buying her, too.

Since her new address was on the outskirts of town, Ryan could no longer officially call herself an Arborwood girl. But rounding the corner of the private drive and being presented with the view that was now hers, it was a technicality she was happy to accept. Each time she made this drive, she was in awe of the grandeur of the home…

Her home.

Her and Jake’s home.

See? “Pinch-me” level fairy tale!

The house was made to look like an east coast beachfront home, the likes of which one would find in Nantucket or Cape Cod. It was two stories, and had lots of huge windows to flood the interior with sunlight. Out front, a large, circular driveway swept past a grand flagstone entryway with ornate glass double doors. A detached three car garage sat to the right of the house, and to the left, an expanse of manicured lawn, complete with expertly tended and expertly landscaped gardens, offered visitors a view of the easternmost end of Arbor Lake. Ryan and Jake’s lakefront property had a private dock at which was parked a speedboat and two Jet Skis. It also had a private beach which a professional company was contracted to maintain and groom.

The expense of her new home was mind-boggling to Ryan, who had grown up under far more modest circumstances. But, being the diligent general manager she was, she’d reviewed Jake’s personal balance sheet, and could attest to the fact that this was a mere drop in the bucket of his total personal wealth.

Their personal wealth. (Would that ever feel like a natural thing to say?)

At Ryan’s insistence, the sun-drenched section of lawn behind the garage had been converted into a vegetable garden, which she had spent the summer installing with a little bit of professional help and a lot more from friends and family—especially her head chef, Eric Blondell, who had happily snagged more than his fair share for the Arborwood’s culinary needs. She was still getting the hang of growing her own produce, and finding uses for it. But she enjoyed the process immensely.

On that note, she hoped that Jake was using some of the massive surplus of tomatoes for dinner tonight. She was going to have to figure out what to do with them before the weather turned.

Ryan steered her flashy new sports car into her spot in the garage. Jake’s car was in his spot, which made her unaccountably giddy. It was one of the little things she’d missed while he was away. With her head in the clouds, she skipped up the front steps and through the front door, punching her code into the electronic keypad above the handle.

Inside, the entire house was fragrant with cooking. She breathed the mouth-watering scents deeply, and gazed in amazement as she always did at the luxury that was hers. Though it was richly decorated, her personal touches had made it into the décor so that it felt like home even though she’d lived in it less than a year. The oversized furniture, which was needed to compensate for the openness of the main floor, was overstuffed and comfortable. It was the kind one could flop onto and get lost in a good book. That was Ryan. The dining room table had enough seats for twelve people, but it was handmade from reclaimed oak. That was Ryan, too.

Thanks to the open floor plan, she could see from the front door straight through to that reclaimed oak dining table. It had been set for two. She giggled, biting her lip with pleasure. In the kitchen, which was also visible from her current vantage, she spotted the top of Jake’s white shirt as he bent behind the large centre island to tend to something in the built-in oven. Quietly, she placed her laptop bag on the floor and tip-toed behind through the house, slipping her arms around his waist when she was behind him.

“Missed you,” she breathed into the nape of his neck.

The body in her arms jumped and whirled around—it wasn’t Jake, it was Eric, the Arborwood’s head chef.

“Jeez, Ry, you scared the shit outta me.”

“Oh my God, Eric. I thought you were Jake. What the hell are you doing here?”

From the back patio door, a throaty chuckle interrupted them. Ryan turned at the noise to find Jake leaning casually against the frame of the open door, enjoying the tableau. He looked fresh and rested from his journey, in a white button shirt and dark denim with his feet bare. In one hand he held a glistening-cold glass of white wine. Ryan knew without needing to ask that it was from Pratt Estate, a local winery that Jake adored.

“I don’t know if I can go away anymore,” he teased. “Seems I can’t trust you on your own.”

Ryan plunked her hands on her hips and fixed him with her best look of stern reproach. “You got Eric to cook for you? That’s cheating. You said you were making dinner.”

“I never said that.”

“Yes, you did.” Ryan pulled her phone from her back pants pocket and scrolled through Jake’s texts. “You said… Oh, I see. You said you would have dinner ready when I got home. My bad.”

“You don’t want his swill,” Eric insisted. “He would have no idea what to do with all of your tomatoes.”

“You did use them.” She brightened. “I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do with all of that.”

“You don’t have enough tomatoes for all the things I could do with them,” Eric bragged. “But tonight is a start. Cornmeal crusted fried green tomatoes for appetizers, marinated tomato and cucumber salad for starters, and fresh pasta with grilled tomato porcini sauce for the main.”

“It smells delicious. I can’t wait.”

“And with that, you’re good to go.” Eric tilted his head to the oven. “Timer is on, take that out when it goes off. That’s your main. And there is a fruit tart in the fridge for dessert.”

“Big plans tonight?” Ryan asked as Jake, who had walked into the dining room to pour her a glass of wine, approached and handed it to her. “Thank you,” she said and submitted to a light kiss. 

“Hot date,” Eric said. “Met her at the pool hall last night. We’re going for drinks and we’ll see where the night goes.” 

“Uh huh. I think everyone and their mother knows what that means,” she said with humour. Technically she was Eric’s boss, but the relationship had never functioned that way. The pair were more like brother and sister than general manager and head chef. “Don’t you ever get tired of one girl after another? You go through them like Kleenex.”

“I feel like there’s a really dirty joke somewhere in there.” He laughed when Ryan swatted his upper arm. “Naw, it’s not like that. I date a lot of women because I haven’t found the right one. When I find her, I’ll settle down. But for now, I’m not going to waste time with long-term dating when I know it won’t go anywhere.”

“Maybe you should look somewhere else for her,” Jake suggested. “If you’re not finding her at the bars, there’s probably a reason why you haven’t found her yet. Ever tried thinking outside the box?”

“I am absolutely open to thinking outside the box as long as that box includes drinks, a pool table and some good hometown music. You guys have a great night.”

With a jaunty salute, Eric made his exit. Once he was gone, Jake threaded his arms around Ryan’s waist and pulled her close. This time his kiss was not light. Ryan could feel the desire radiating from him like heat. It was enough to make her knees wobble.

“God, I missed you,” he sighed into her lips.

“I missed you too. Did you have a good trip? The office all set for you to be away for the next month?”

Jake leaned back a little, but kept her close in his arms. “Yeah. I feel good about it. I think they’ve got it covered. I’ll of course have to check in while we’re away, but you do, too, with the resort. So, you can’t be mad at me.”

Letting go with one arm but with the other firmly encircling her waist, Jake led her to the dining room and they both took a seat. Jake passed her the plate of appetizers which Eric had already laid out for them. Ryan doled a portion of the fried green tomatoes onto her plate, and when Jake had done the same, she took a bite.

“Oh my God,” she moaned. “These are so good. I can’t believe they came out of the ground because of me.”

“I can,” Jake said, equally as impressed. “So, I hear that Deanna is arriving tomorrow.”

“She is.” Ryan glanced at him suspiciously. “Who did you hear that from?”

His lips quirked into an amused grin. “You know I heard it from Mother. Just like you know that I heard a lot more from her as well. But I’m not going to bore you with those details because they are inconsequential.”

“If they are inconsequential then I don’t want to hear them,” she agreed. “I have to get back to Deanna to confirm when we are meeting, but Ramona told me she’d be here tomorrow. And then I get to go over all of those fun details that we already finalized to death all over again and fight her on not changing a whole bunch of things that she thinks would be better.”

“You are a trooper.” He chucked her playfully on the chin. “But it’s what you want? In the end this is the wedding of your dreams?”

“Generally speaking, yes. And in fairness, Sylvie is just as bad. Is it the wedding of your dreams?”

“As long as you show up to marry me, it will be.”

Then, surreptitiously, he glanced to the kitchen. “How badly do you need to eat right now? Just saying—our main’s got another forty minutes.”

Eagerly, Ryan glanced to the staircase that led to the upstairs bedrooms. She pushed back from her chair swiftly and stood.

“Race you there.”

She took off at a run, but within seconds, her feet flew out from underneath her as Jake caught her around the middle and tossed her easily over his shoulder. Ryan let out a wild hoot, swinging helplessly upside down, as Jake couriered her up the stairs.

“I win,” he said, kicking the door of their bedroom closed behind them.

To visit Autumn in Arborwood on Amazon, click here.

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