Bearded man in the center of a book cover. There's an orchard at the bottom. The title reads BRING BACK HER HEART

Chapter One

Laurel Stewart was about to ruin family dinner night. They were supposed to be celebrating one year since Gabriel opened his local pediatric practice and her award for Best Starter Pair from New Hampshire Food magazine, but a recent discovery put a damper on her joy, and she was going to bring everyone down because of it.

Her stomach was in knots every time she thought about what she needed to do, and now that the time had almost arrived to confront her brothers, she was having trouble eating. She managed though, knowing that if she didn’t, someone would ask what was wrong and her news would come out earlier than she intended. She was determined to stay in control.

But this had been brewing for a long time and she was ready.

Hah, brewing, she thought. Funny how much of her life circled back to her business. And when it came to her business – professional and personal – it was time to make a change.

Unlike most families, the Stewarts had family dinner on Monday, not Sunday, night. Since her parents ran the Stewart Inn and Cabins, weekends were their busiest times. Sundays were filled with guests checking out, followed by putting the place back in order for the week to come. So the thought of managing a big meal for their family of ten was more than her mother, Valerie, wanted to handle. Instead, she’d made it a tradition when the kids were young for Monday’s, the quietest day of the work week, to be family night.

This had not only worked well when they were kids, but continued after everyone grew up, especially since several of them, including Laurel, had gone into the food and hospitality industry. Laurel’s business, the Seven Brothers Brewery, was closed on Mondays, as were Jeremy’s nightclub, Flurry, and the Bright Spot, Adam’s ice cream shop. The unspoken rule was whoever was available came to dinner. When they were younger, they’d bring friends to join them, and when they were older, a few dates were “tested” by having to experience the whole family. Some had never been seen again.

This week, almost everyone was around the table. Her brother, Drew, wasn’t since he traveled the country as a corporate team building consultant. A professional fun maker, he called it. And because Lucas was preparing for a major custody case, he was staying in the apartment he kept in Concord all week. It didn’t surprise Laurel when he chose family law given the turmoil he went through when his parents had been killed in a car accident. That’s when he and his brothers, Jeremy and Owen, came to live with the Stewarts, bringing their family of five kids to eight. Laurel had been three at the time and didn’t remember anything other than having seven older brothers. Cousins or brothers, it didn’t matter. She loved them all equally, even when they were irritating.

Over the years, they’d protected, guided, advised, and supported her. She barely made a decision without getting input from several of them – requested or not. Each was different and special in their own way. Gabriel always seemed the wisest, not only because he was the oldest, but because he was thoughtful in his answers. He took her seriously, and she appreciated that. Lucas was next in age and completely different. He had a sharp mind and a quick temper. His recommendations usually involved cutting the other person off at the knee — metaphorically, of course — so the problem wouldn’t come back, but she was grateful for the solutions he offered.

Adam loved to make her laugh, which usually led to clearer thinking. Jeremy was the one to go to when she needed a hug. He also had a way of distracting her, giving her much needed distance from whatever was stressing her. Owen never failed to have a tissue handy when he asked just the right questions, and she burst into tears because he got to the heart of what was bothering her. Zack was the best listener and let her talk out her problems until she came to the answer on her own. Drew helped her see where she might be making a situation more serious than necessary, allowing her to gain a new perspective.

And they’d all been there for her when she opened the brewery. She couldn’t have done it without them. Labor, loans, licenses…whatever she needed, they’d been there. Drew had even come home for a few months to pitch in. It made choosing the name for her business obvious. But maybe she’d let them help a little too much and a little too often.

That ended tonight.

Almost a week ago, she’d discovered she might have won her recent award because the magazine editor was in bed — literally — with Jeremy. The editor had come with a photographer from the magazine, and presented Laurel and her head chef, Anya, with a lovely plaque for their house beer, Notch Pale Ale, and beer-battered mac and cheese bites. Hands were shaken, photos were taken, praise exchanged. Laurel was about to text a picture of the award to her friends, when the editor said as she was leaving, “Tell Jeremy I’ll see him Friday night.” Then she added with a wink, “And hopefully Saturday morning.”

As good as Laurel thought the offerings at her restaurant were, she couldn’t help but wonder whether the restaurant’s pair had actually been the best, or if her brother’s influence had been the reason Seven Brothers had won.

She’d gone home that night to her tiny house in the woods, which had belonged to her mother’s parents, laid in bed, and thought of all the ways her brothers had carried her over the years. And the more she thought about it, the angrier she got.

Being the youngest of eight kids had its advantages and disadvantages. An advantage was no one ever bullied her in school. They wouldn’t dare when there was the possibility of one or more of seven siblings coming to her rescue. They were also there to help her with classes and difficult teachers.

The unexpected disadvantages started when she’d gotten to high school and wanted to date. Her brothers had an opinion about nearly every boy who showed an interest in her, which kept most of them far away. Added to that was discovering an unfortunately high number of the girls who wanted to be her friend were actually hoping for introductions to her “hot brothers.”

Still, she’d learned a lot from them. How to defend herself, hold her own in any situation where a man wanted to dominate or override her opinion, and, she thought, how to succeed.

But now she had doubts.

The day after the photo shoot, Laurel had called her friends Sheridan Behr and Dani Vaughn — soon to be Hanson — and asked them to come to the brewery for dinner. She would have asked them to drop by for lunch, but Sheridan, her closest friend from college, ran the Just Right Café, which was open from seven to three, so she wasn’t available until after closing. They both stared at her when she told them her suspicions. Dani found her voice first. “Jeremy did what?”

“That jackass,” Sheridan added, although with her Southern accent, it didn’t sound quite as menacing.

She was glad both of them agreed with her, but doubt had been her constant companion for the last day, so she asked, “You don’t think I’m being silly?”

“About you not earning the award, yes,” Dani said, popping one of the winning appetizers into her mouth. “These are amazing. But about Jeremy influencing the judge? I’ve known your brothers most of my life, and, yeah, it’s a definite possibility.” Laurel and Dani met when they were eight, and Dani came to spend summers with her Aunt Rosie and Auntie Helen. Dani moved permanently to Fable Notch two years before.

“I’m sure they did it out of love, Sugar,” Sheridan added, “because I’ve seen how much those boys adore you, but they are protective. Sometimes wanting the best for someone means we do the wrong thing.”

“Well, done out of love or not, I can’t let them interfere with my life to the point where I’m not sure if I can succeed without their help. I could have opened this place somewhere else and almost did.” Her friends wore matching looks of surprise. It was almost comical. “It’s true. After my internships, I thought of going somewhere where no one knew me or my family.”

“So, if your mom hadn’t gotten sick?” Dani asked.

“I might be somewhere else,” she said. Five years earlier Valerie had been diagnosed with Stage Two Breast Cancer. Laurel — and all of her brothers — had returned home to help in any way they could. While she worked at the Inn and took her mother to appointments, she spent her downtime researching how to open her own place. By the time Valerie was declared cured, Laurel was ready to turn the old paper mill into what was now the Seven Brothers Brewery. “Maybe that was a mistake, but I’m here, and I’m staying. Going forward, though, I need to do things differently.”

“I think you’re doing things wonderfully now,” Sheridan said as she took a sip of her drink, a blueberry lemon sour Laurel was proud of. Within the next week, they’d finish the last of it and the fall ales would dominate the menu. “But it sounds like you have something in mind.”

She did. While she tossed and turned the night before, she made a decision. “I have to get my brothers out of my life long enough for me to see if I can do any of this on my own.”

“Of course you can,” Dani had said, but her answer was so immediate Laurel knew it came from love and friendship, not any deeper truth.

“I hope so and part of me thinks so, but I have to know for sure.” Not knowing was gnawing at her. Laurel told her friends her plan. “They aren’t going to like it but telling them to back off is the only way.”

“Honey, your family is part of you. I understand you want to make a go of things by yourself, but to cut them off completely?” Sheridan couldn’t keep the shock from her voice. “That’s gonna be tough. On all of you.”

Sheridan was right. Her brothers weren’t only supportive – they were her friends. She loved to argue with Lucas, play video games with Drew, watch movies with Adam… the list went on. If she didn’t see them, there would be a hole in her life which was why she was going to set specific parameters. “I won’t avoid them completely, and I don’t want to, but I am going to tell them that all offers of help — physical, fiscal, or other — are not welcome. And if I find out any of them have gone behind my back and tried to help anyway, there will be bigger hell to pay. Even if I have no idea what that might be.”

She’d considered reaching out to each of her brothers individually to tell them what she wanted, then decided to wait for family dinner to drop the bomb. That also gave her time to tell her parents what she was doing so they wouldn’t be shocked. She worried they might talk her out of it, but she knew things would go easier if she had them on her side.

When she got to the Inn, she found Valerie reviewing a spreadsheet in her tiny office next to the reception area. A lot of businesses hired out their accounting, but Valerie loved it. She said numbers told you the truth. She’d made certain all her kids could read a balance sheet, understood the importance of a budget, and could handle their own finances. Laurel was grateful for the training.

She watched her mother work, taking in Valerie’s features, some of which mirrored her own. They both had dark hair, although Laurel wore hers long and her mother’s was shoulder length. She envied her mother’s Mediterranean coloring, which allowed her to tan in the summers, where Laurel, who had her father’s fair skin, had to layer on the sunscreen to keep from burning. Laurel’s father and brothers, other than Adam, had broken six feet, but she and Valerie were both 5’5”. When she’d reached that height, Valerie joked they’d finally see eye to eye. Laurel loved that because it was her mother’s eyes she most admired. Brown like Laurel’s, they showed her every emotion. She cried easily and laughed often and had the smile lines to prove it.

The lines appeared when Valerie sensed Laurel standing at the door. “Pumpkin,” her mother said, getting up and giving her a hug. “Are you early, or have I completely lost track of time?”

She gave her mother an extra squeeze. “I’m early. I need to talk to you.”

“Sounds serious,” Valerie said, going back to her desk. Before sitting down, she asked, “Does this need cocoa?”

Laurel smiled. Valerie believed that all important conversations needed sweetening. Either that, or she wanted an excuse to drink cocoa. Her mother had a notorious sweet tooth, which Adam and Owen shared. “It might, but my stomach is a little too jumpy at the moment.”

“Too jumpy for cocoa. That is serious.” Valerie changed directions, took Laurel’s hand, and walked them to the living room so they could sit together. “Tell me everything.” And Laurel did. From what happened with the award to what she planned to do about it. Valerie listened, asked questions, and when Laurel finished said, “You’re right. You have to do this.”

Laurel didn’t know what she expected, but instant agreement wasn’t it. “You’re okay with me telling everyone to back off?”

“Absolutely. Do I like that you feel this is necessary? Of course not. I always prefer it when my children get along, but I also understand that at this moment, you need to move away from the Stewart shadows. Maybe even Dad and I need to watch when we’re stepping in where we’re not needed.”

Laurel hadn’t noticed her parents’ help as much, but it was true they were always the net beneath whatever leap she took. “They aren’t going to like it.”

“No, definitely not, but they will accept it. Or I’ll make sure they will.” Laurel liked the teasing threat and knew there was truth to it. “If you need this so you can see what I see all the time — which is that you’re amazing and completely capable of succeeding on your own — then go for it. There’s nothing better for a woman to have than confidence in her own greatness, and I want that for you.”

Laurel threw herself into her mother’s arms. “I can still ask for hugs while I’m doing this, right?”

There was a small sniff before Valerie answered, “Anytime you need it, Pumpkin. I’ll make sure your father knows what’s happening and why.”

Dinner was its usual rowdy affair. Her brothers shared news from their businesses and relationships and complained about Boston’s sports teams. Gabriel announced his best friend, Hunter Davis, was home for a few months to help his mother at the family orchard. Laurel couldn’t stop herself from being interested in that tidbit.

Of all her brothers’ friends, Hunter was the only one she’d ever had a crush on. “How long will he be here?” Everyone kept eating, so Laurel assumed her question sounded casual. Good. The last thing she wanted was for any of them to think she had a special interest in Hunter. Especially since she did.

Gabriel gave a shrug. “I don’t know, but from the level of exasperation in his voice, I think he’s expecting it to be awhile. It’ll be good to spend time with him. I barely saw him when he came in for the funeral.” Hunter’s father had died a few months before, but Laurel had been out of town. “Can he come for dinner while he’s here, Mom?”

“As if you need to ask. I’d be upset if you didn’t invite him,” Valerie said.

After dinner, everyone devoured the blueberry cobbler her mother made, covered with ice cream Adam brought.

As they ate, Laurel cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. “I have an announcement to make,” she said and looked to her parents for support. They nodded, which Laurel appreciated. “Guys, you know I think you’re all awesome.”

“Uh oh, what have one of you done?” said Zack, who always assumed it wasn’t him. He was the ultimate rule follower, which is probably why he became a cop. There were chimes of “It wasn’t me,” and “Let’s blame Drew. He’s not here,” before Laurel held up a hand for quiet. Silence at a Stewart dinner table was a big deal.

She went on. “You have all been my biggest fans and staunchest supporters, and you know how grateful I am for all you’ve done.”

“We’re grateful you let us drink for free,” Adam said and drained the glass of beer he was enjoying. It was true she didn’t charge her family when they came into the restaurant. But they never took advantage of that, usually leaving money for the bill regardless and always tipping their servers.

“And now there’s something I need from you. You all have to agree because it won’t work if only a few of you do and the others don’t.”

“Whatever it is, we agree,” Gabriel said, and the others nodded. Good. As the oldest, he had the most influence by default. And if he was willing to go along with this, they all would.

“You haven’t even heard what it is,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter.” Owen said. “You’ve got our support, no matter what.”

That’s what she was hoping to hear. “All of you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Jeremy said. She wondered what he would think when he heard he was the instigator of this decision.

“We believe in you, sis.” That was from Adam. God, she loved them so much. This was harder than she thought.

“Thank you, because it’s my turn to do that.” Five pairs of eyes focused on her, clearly confused. “I need to believe in myself, and that’s only something I can do on my own.” More blank stares. “Without any of you.”

Gabriel spoke first. “What are you saying?”

Laurel took a deep, slow breath. She looked around the table and individually met their eyes. “There is hardly anything I’ve done in my life that all of you weren’t a part of. You’ve coached me so I could make the softball team in high school. You bought my computer for college. Several of you practically stopped working on your own businesses when I opened mine. You’ve even recommended my brewpub to help it get press and publicity.” She looked at Jeremy at this point, who had the sense to look down. “I appreciate it and love you all, but it’s time for me to learn if I can succeed without the help of my big brothers. You agreed to help me no matter what I needed. I need all of you to leave me alone.”