Flecks of white snow fluttered around the rolling hills, promising a quiet, beautiful Christmas on Miracle Mountain. Savannah Blake stood at the top of the front steps, closed her eyes, and leaned off the porch of the massive old retirement home turned Miracle Mountain Inn. One leg dangled and one hand gripped a column as she waited for the first drops of snow to reach her skin. She loved the invigorating feel of cold on her face after a morning of hammering, sawing, and arguing with the GGs over all the renovation decisions. Who knew three women could be so difficult? Especially one’s that call themselves Gaggle Girls.
One of the porch boards creaked then snapped. Her hand slid off the crunchy, peeling white paint. Her feet caught the top step, and she tumbled down to the snow-dusted grassy bed below.
“Ow. Ugh.” She rolled to her side and pressed her hand to the damp soil to hoist herself up.
Before she could climb to her feet, the front door opened and a rug smacked the railing over her head, sending dust, dirt, and old people smell all over her. “Hey, wait. Stop that!” She coughed and waved the air in front of her free of particles then wiped her eyes with her soiled hand, only to cause more grime to smear across her face.
“Whatcha doin’ down there? We ain’t payin’ you to sleep on the front lawn. Besides, you’re gonna track more dirt inside, and I’m cleanin’ the floors.” Cookie sidestepped and peered at the broken porch board with a loud harrumph.
Savannah wanted to argue that cleaning the floors in a construction zone, with bits of plaster, wood splinters, nails, and all sorts of dirty hazards about, was pointless. Yet, one look at the Cookie glare, with its trademark pursed lips and hunched brow, she snapped her mouth shut.
“Now, get outta that dirt and clean off. You don’t wanna be dirty. Not today.”
Savannah wiped her hands down the front of her jeans, spreading the dirt like a layer of frosting. “Why? Dirt kind of comes with the job. I can’t be as congenial as Sunny, you know.”
Cookie huffed and pushed her lips out like a babbling fish. If fish babbled.
“No one’s as perfect as Sunny,” Cookie declared. A hint of agitation over a fellow GG, and best friend, appeared at the mouth lines that deepened when she tensed. “Don’t matter. Now, you get cleaned up.” She swished her lips one more time for added emphasis. “I gotta cake baking, and I might give ya a piece if you’re quick about it.” Then she staccato-stomped through the front door.
Herbie, Savannah’s assistant and once-most-trusted-friend-turned-traitor, crept from behind a bush the moment Cookie’s steps faded away. “Coast clear?”
“Coward.” Savannah pulled herself up, tucked her hair behind her shoulder, and fluffed her flannel shirt free of dirt. “You could’ve saved me from the Cookie Chop.”
“Oh no,” Herbie shook his head. “I don’t get messed up with that. She nearly chopped me in half with that glare of hers last time I tried to help you.” He lifted a few blueprint scrolls into the air. “I fetch, I carry, I hammer, I opinionate. I don’t engage in Cookie Chops. I like my ear attached to my head.”
“As I said, coward.” Savannah grabbed the rolls of blueprints and hopped over the broken step. “Then get that hammer of yours and fix these steps before Sunny sees them or she’s liable to faint.”
“On it.” Herbie yanked the remains of the broken board free. What he lacked in education, he certainly made up for in handyman skills. Wedging his hammer against a nail, he pried it loose. “You think they’re up to something? I saw them in a gaggle earlier, whispering, like they were conjuring that Gaggle Girl power they muster up sometimes.”
Savannah froze mid-step. “The GGs aren’t planning anything. They can’t be. I’d know.” She shook off her trepidation and grabbed her tool bag. “It’s probably just all the fuss over this project. I mean, who would’ve thought three retirees could turn an old folks’ home into an inn?”
“Don’t you remember the GG incident of 2010?” Herbie whispered, like a spy in the heart of enemy territory.
She shivered at the memory. “I remember. The boat, the goat, and the waiter. How could I forget?”
“And the police. Oh, and poor Mr. Stan.” Herbie shook his shoulders and danced around the lawn as if he’d stepped on a rusty nail. “I’ve never looked at a goat the same again. I mean, did they really have to shave him, paint him, feather him, and…and—”
“Red eyes.” Savannah shook off the memory of that goat tied out front of poor Mr. Stan’s butcher shop. “Remember how long it took them to get the toilet paper off the boat and unclog the motor?”
Herbie nodded. “And the waiter.”
“Just a poor innocent victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Think he ever got rid of his nervous tick?”
Sunny walked around the corner of the house in her oversized yellow hat and bright pink galoshes. “Hiya, you two. How’s your mornin’?” Her bright smile always seemed to match her manners.
Savannah stiffened then slung her bag over her shoulder. “Fine. Just fine.”
Herbie shifted nervously between feet, and Savannah wanted to backhand him for giving them away.
“Ah, you two talkin’ ’bout the GGs again. You best not let Cookie overhear. What’s it this time? The Flood of ’08? You know, that wasn’t our fault. We were just trying to help the fire department.”
“No, we weren’t talkin’ ’bout that. No, ma’am.” Herbie picked up the broken wood plank, keeping his gaze to the ground.
“No.” Sunny gasped in a delicate little breath. “You weren’t. Not that!” She dabbed at her brow with the back of her gloved hand. “Savannah, you best not say it aloud.” She leaned closer and cupped her hand to the side of her mouth. “You wouldn’t want to start Birdie on her diatribe again, about how she saved goats from extinction.” Her voice was faint and southern and full of charm as always despite her concern. The woman could tell anyone off and they wouldn’t realize it for days.
Clutching the broken wood planks to his chest, Herbie backed away to make his great escape.
Sunny heaved a big breath. “Oh, darlin’! Why you so dirty? And your hair? I mean, don’t you brush it, sweetie? Especially when…” Her voice faded before she cleared her throat and set her gardening tools down on the ground. Then removing her gloves one at a time, she pressed them neatly onto the edge of the front porch.
Herbie stopped in his tracks. “Told ya the GGs were up to something. It’s the GG kidnapping trial of 2006 all over again.” Like a weasel scurrying into the nearest hole, he slinked away toward the barn, leaving Savannah to face whatever these women had in store.
Sunny pirouetted in her galoshes with poise, not an easy task in damp grass, then hurried back around the side of the house.
Savannah stared at Sunny’s abandoned gardening tools and groaned. That sealed it. Sunny didn’t leave anything in the wrong place. Ever. She dumped her blueprints and dignity on the front porch to chase Sunny down. “You best spit it out.”
The older woman bounced like a jackrabbit through the side yard and raced up the back steps.
Savannah paused at the edge of the house. The rush of river water at the bottom of the ravine made her stomach churn. It sounded full and wild from the recent rains. The site of the bridge two hundred yards away that led to the trails her sister took that day stoked her anxiety. She never went in the backyard. Never. Not in the last seven years. Not since the GGs bought the building six months ago. Not since she’d lost her sister. Not since her boyfriend had been accused of murder. Not since her entire life had been churned and swirled and shot down the rapids of loss.
She forced her attention to the house, stomped through the construction zone and gooey mud on the grassless backyard and pushed the back door open. “You need to tell me before I end up on the news for concealing a dead body inside a wall,” Savannah called.
Sunny removed her hat and coat, hung them on a broken hook. “Don’t be absurd. We’ve never hidden a body. Well, not a human body anyway.”
Savannah fought the urge to ask what that meant, but after seven years, she knew better. Plausible deniability had become part of her daily life. The smell of paint, old heater coils, and lies filled the atrium. Sunlight spilled through the sunroom windows, highlighting the chipped and cracked tile. “Confess.”
Sunny waved a dismissive hand and mumbled something, but the circular saw grinding upstairs drowned out her delicate voice. Then she rounded the corner and headed for the front door.
Savannah vaulted strips of wood molding and flung herself in front of the door before Sunny could pull it open. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Birdie descended the stairs with yards of floral fabric flowing behind her. “What’s all the commotion about? This is supposed to be a peaceful retreat, not a football arena.”
Sunny wrung her hands and stopped short of the mahogany reception desk Savannah had finished staining an hour ago. Cookie entered from the kitchen hall, wiping her hands on a towel. The women had GG radar. When one was in trouble, they all flocked together. It was eerie. “I thought we all agreed to get this place cleaned out today so the workmen could finish up the drywall and plaster downstairs.”
Birdie waved her hands, her chunky auburn and blonde highlights fluttering above her head in short wisps.
All three ladies stood in the atrium facing each other. The stern gaze Cookie usually used to cover up something knotted Savannah’s insides. Sunny’s avoidance spoke volumes of her part in all this. And Birdie… “Spill it, you three,” Savannah demanded. “What have you cooked up this time that will likely crumble our lives and land us in jail?”
Sunny quirked her head. “You don’t have to be so dramatic.”
Birdie shrugged. “GGs are innocent. I swear. We haven’t done anything but focus on renovating this place.” She twirled, and her oversized, bright pink kimono puffed out like gaudy angel wings.
Savannah eyed the three of them. She could tell Birdie spoke the truth, but the other two were lying. “What on earth would you two ever be a part of that didn’t include Birdie?” A wave of realization prickled over her skin like crushed glass. “No.” The only time that would happen was if Birdie’s nephew was involved. Savannah choked on her own saliva and construction dust. The gritty, sandy taste invaded her tongue, and she struggled to say his name. “Mason?”
Footsteps sounded out front then Herbie stepped inside. “Ms. Savannah. I ain’t got nothin’ to do with this. I promise ya that.” His tone was filled with fear.
Before Savannah could manage another word, another breath, Mason Harrington entered the atrium. Different hair, different build, different swagger, but the same eyes, the same stellar looks from years past.
Savannah clutched the corner of the registration desk, managing to remain upright. Dizziness swirled her in a never-ending marry-go-round. She forced air into her lungs, contaminated as it was with the fumes of wood stain, sawdust, and regrets.
After seven years of separation, ex-couple Mason Harrington and Savannah Blake are thrust together to save their loved one’s dreams. But can old wounds from tragic loss, accusations of murder, and running away ever mend? It will take a miracle on the mountain to heal their hearts and reunite these childhood sweethearts.
Ciara Knight is a USA Today and Amazon Bestselling author who writes 'A Little Edge and A Lot of Heart' that spans the heat scales. Her popular sweet romance series, Sweetwater County (rated PG), takes readers into small town romance full of family trials, friendly competition, and community love.