For the Longest Time: The Harvest Cove Series

For the Longest Time: The Harvest Cove Series

4.1 9
by Kendra Leigh Castle
     
 

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For Samantha Henry, it took a ten-year absence to appreciate the close-knit New England town with an appeal all its own....
 
After a perfect storm of events leaves Sam high, dry, and jobless, she has to head home to Harvest Cove to regroup. Growing up, she was the town misfit, and a brief high school romance that resulted in heartbreak made her

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Overview

For Samantha Henry, it took a ten-year absence to appreciate the close-knit New England town with an appeal all its own....
 
After a perfect storm of events leaves Sam high, dry, and jobless, she has to head home to Harvest Cove to regroup. Growing up, she was the town misfit, and a brief high school romance that resulted in heartbreak made her realize she was never going to fit in. But now with the support of her mother and an unexpected circle of allies, Sam starts to wonder if she’s misjudged the town all these years.
 
Life’s been good to Jake Smith. He transitioned from popular jock to town veterinarian without any trouble. But Sam’s homecoming makes him question his choices. The sharp-tongued beauty was never a good fit for the small community, but he’s never forgotten her—or how good they were together. While she makes it clear she’s not about to repeat the past, Jake’s determined to convince her to give him—and Harvest Cove—a second chance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
05/19/2014
Castle opens a contemporary romance series with this breezy, fun, slightly steamy novel. Artist Samantha Henry makes an ignominious return home to Harvest Cove, Mass., after failing to make it in the Big Apple. It’s been 10 years since she last laid eyes—or hands—on Jake Smith, but she crosses paths with him in her mother’s driveway. He was dreamy and handsome in high school, and has since grown up into a real hunk. They once had a secret, close friendship before Jake embarrassed her in front of a snickering audience, a memory that still stings Sam. Fate throws them together over a kitten named Loki; Sam hopes history won’t repeat itself, but Jake pushes for another chance. If this entry—with its serviceable mix of villainous snobs and good people—is any indication, Castle’s Harvest Cove promises to be worth repeated visits. (July)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780451467584
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/01/2014
Series:
Harvest Cove Series, #1
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
480,931
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Acknowledgments

Chapter One

Sam Henry slouched farther down in her seat and took another swig of coffee from the enormous travel mug perched precariously half in and half out of her cup holder. She’d made it this far on what was left of her nerves. She could make it just a little bit farther. Sam kept her eyes fixed on the road in front of her, eyes narrowed behind oversize sunglasses as she passed historic homes that were usually written up as “charming” and “quaint” in travel magazines. Ten years living away, and she was already full of that creeping sense of paranoia that everyone was staring at her. “Everyone” at this point being a jogger, a couple of unsupervised kids whacking the hell out of each other with sticks in somebody’s front yard, and an English bulldog that had given her a decidedly judgmental look as she’d rolled by its house.

Loser, that look said. Right about now, she was inclined to agree.

This was not the triumphant return she’d hoped for. But when the combination of intense pressure, dwindling funds, and a roommate who’d decided to bail on the lease to become a high-priced call girl left you with a weeklong crying jag and an empty bottle of antidepressants, it was time to reevaluate what the hell you were doing with your life. Preferably somewhere that included free room and board.

In her case, that was Harvest Cove, Massachusetts.

“Nobody’s going to recognize me anyway,” she muttered to herself. What color had her hair been last time she’d dragged herself back here for some family function or other—pink? Black? She should be reasonably incognito now that she’d gone just a little lighter than her own naturally pale blond.

And she was kidding herself. This was Harvest Cove. She’d be recognized from a mile away, and by next week there would be a new spate of rumors about the return of the town’s prodigal daughter. The best she could hope for was that at least a few would be entertaining.

Anything was more entertaining than the truth.

Sam tapped her fingers restlessly against the steering wheel, the black polish glinting with tiny red flecks in the golden light that had finally broken through the clouds. She made the turn from Hawthorne, which would have led her down into the village proper, onto Crescent Road, which traced the curve of the rocky little Massachusetts cove that her hometown had been nestled into since 1692.

Familiarity washed over her at the sight of the trees, complete with leaves of burning crimson and shades of gold, which arched over the narrow road to create a tunnel that was broken only by the entrances to the long driveways of those who lived here. To her right, the land rolled down to the sea between stately homes that had stood, in some cases for hundreds of years, against wind and salt and storm. The names on the mailboxes out here were still, mainly, ones that had existed in the Cove since its beginnings. Owens. Pritchard. Wentworth.

And, of course, Henry.

Sam blew a stray lock of hair out of her eyes with a shallow puff of air and tightened her grip on the wheel as she turned in at the mailbox that bore her family’s name. It was never hard to find, since the vibrant purple kind of stood out. It looked like her mom had recently repainted it. The thought of Andromeda Henry out here with her bucket of obnoxiously cheerful paint was the first thing that had brought a smile to Sam’s face in days.

It was a big deal to live on the Crescent . . . unless you were a Henry. In that case, you were just the well-to-do’s extremely eccentric and generally embarrassing cross to bear.

With the exception of her sister, Emma, “eccentric and embarrassing” seemed to be genetic. The burning desire to stay put, thankfully, was not. And as soon as she got her feet back under her, Sam thought, she’d be right back down the road and on her way. It had been a long time, but she wasn’t stupid enough to think that things had changed here. Nothing ever changed here.

Still, as Sam pulled up the long gravel drive, she was unable to stop the overwhelming sense of relief that hit her as she got her first look at the house. It rose tall and stately against the backdrop of the sea and cloudy sky beyond, all arches and sharp angles, with a wide and inviting wraparound porch. The tower room and widow’s walk still looked hopelessly romantic, even to a cynic like her, and despite its age and faded white siding, the house managed to be both grand and welcoming. This had been her family’s land since the beginning, and somehow, it still managed to look more like home than her tiny apartment ever had.

That was part of the legend of the town, that the original families were bound here, fated to return again and again just like the waves that crashed against the rocky shore. It was one of the reasons she stayed as far away as possible.

Fate, like most things about Harvest Cove, just pissed her off.

Her mom had painted the shutters to match the mailbox. Sam grinned and wondered how often the sight of them made flames shoot out of Emma’s ears. Emma, as she liked to remind her wayward sister during their occasional phone calls, was a respectable businesswoman now. Sam guessed that meant the stick Emma seemed to have wedged up her ass was not painted this particular shade of purple.

Sam pulled around by the old carriage house that had long ago been converted into a garage, then parked. There was an unfamiliar pickup there alongside her mother’s little yellow VW Beetle. She briefly considered wandering down to the water and hanging out until the company took off, then discarded the idea. News of her return would get around soon enough anyway. At least there was no way it was Emma. Whoever owned this truck seemed to enjoy driving through mud.

She killed the engine, sat for a moment, took a deep breath.

This is it, she thought. I’m back.

The urge to put the car in reverse and hightail it back out of town was tempered, more than she’d expected, by the thought of heading back to New York to continue beating her head against a seemingly endless series of brick walls.

The mild nausea she felt at even considering it had her opening the car door and planting her scuffed black boots on the gravel. The tiny, high-pitched sound coming from somewhere nearby didn’t even register until she’d heard it three or four times.

Mew.

Sam frowned, shoving her sunglasses to the top of her head as she walked toward the sound, every footstep crunching loudly. She paused, waiting.

Mew.

It seemed to be coming from underneath the muddy pickup, and it was definitely feline. A stray, maybe. Her mother hadn’t had a pet since Cody, their big golden retriever, had passed away right before Sam had left for college.

She crouched down beside the truck and leaned over to try to get a look at what was underneath. A pair of bright green eyes peered back at her, looking much too large for the tiny black shadow they belonged to.

Whether it was the long trip, the fact that she’d been skirting the edge of a full-on breakdown for weeks, or just the sight of something even more pathetic—not to mention much cuter—than herself, Sam melted.

“Aww,” she heard herself coo. “You’re just a kitten. Here, kitty. Come here.”

She reached under the truck, slowly stretching out her hand toward the crouching shadow and expecting little more than a hiss, and maybe something fun like tetanus for her trouble. Instead, she was surprised when she touched soft, warm fur, the kitten actually moving into her hand so she could draw it out.

It was little more than a ragged bag of bones, Sam realized as she pulled the kitten from beneath the truck. Pitch-black, with ears much too big for its head, it started to purr for all it was worth the instant she cradled it against her chest, interjecting the occasional pitiful mew just in case Sam even considered putting it back down.

“Don’t worry,” Sam told it, staring into bright green eyes she just knew were seeing a flashing SUCKER sign right in the middle of her forehead. She rubbed a finger behind its ear, felt a couple of tiny bumps, and winced.

“Oh, great,” she said. “Fleas.”

The male voice almost directly behind her startled her so badly she jumped with a muffled yelp, earning her a reproachful sound from the kitten and a warning prick of its claws through her T-shirt. However pathetic it looked, it wasn’t completely helpless.

“Hey, Andi! The last one’s out here!”

“Yeah, it’s also embedded in my skin now. Thanks,” Sam said, turning to glare at whoever the genius was who’d thought it was a good idea to sneak up on a woman holding a cat and then shout.

“Shit. I mean, ah, sorry. Wasn’t thinking. We were worried that one had crawled off and died. A couple of the others are pretty sick.”

Sam froze, unable to do anything but stare at the man looking sheepishly back at her. He was exactly how she remembered him. Except . . . he was nothing like she remembered him. Tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, with dark brown hair that would always be a little spiky no matter how hard he tried to get it to lie down and hazel eyes the color of autumn leaves, Jake Smith had only improved with age. His face was more angular now, and the light growth of stubble on his jaw was a new, undeniably sexy addition. The last time she’d seen him, Sam realized, he’d still been a boy. A beautiful boy, but a boy nonetheless. Now there was no doubt he was a man. And even the torn jeans and flannel shirt couldn’t disguise the fact that his body, which had once inspired thoughts her teenage self had been concerned meant she was a complete pervert, had filled out in all the right ways.

His smile was slow, warm, and more than a little incredulous.

He still has the dimples. Shit.

“Sam?”

She arched an eyebrow and, though it took every ounce of effort she had, looked blandly back at him. “Last time I checked.” Inwardly, she had to fight back her surprise. After their . . . well, after, it seemed like he’d forgotten she even had a name. She’d simply ceased to exist to him. And now he was here calling her mother Andi?

“Honey! I didn’t know you were here!”

Despite the tension, Sam couldn’t help but smile as Andromeda Henry came rushing down the porch steps and across the yard, her broomstick skirt whipping around her legs. Her mother’s hair was escaping from the long braid that draped down her back, and her bangle bracelets glinted and chimed as she moved. She was as much a rush of color as she always was, a force of nature dressed like an aging gypsy.

“Hi, Mom” was all Sam managed to get out before she found herself enveloped in her mother’s arms, one very unhappy kitten squished between them. Still, she found herself leaning into the embrace, shifting to prevent the wriggling kitten from getting smothered. She hadn’t realized until just that moment how hungry she’d been for something as simple as a hug, or how long it had been since she’d been touched with honest affection.

Sad. But then, her life would have to be to have brought her back here with nothing more than an overstuffed hatchback and a couple hundred bucks in her checking account.

Sam was appalled to feel the sting of tears when her mother stroked her hands over her hair and kissed her cheek, then pulled back to look at her with eyes that saw much more than she ever let on. The only thing that helped Sam keep it together was the determination that Jake Smith, of all people, was never going to see her cry. She’d done enough of that on his account years ago, not that he probably knew. Or cared. He’d never even kissed her.

But he held your hand. And he told you things he didn’t tell anyone else. Because for a little while, you mattered to him. Well, he let you think you did.

She would have wondered why the gods would be so cruel as to shove him directly into her path on her first day back, but lately, the reasons for her lousy luck didn’t seem to have any explanation more complicated than “because today is a day of the week ending in ‘y.’”

Suck it up, buttercup. Welcome to the rest of your life.

She didn’t bother to look at him when her mother said, “You remember Jake, Sammy. He’s a vet now, works with Dr. Perry. I called him to see if he could help me get a litter of kittens out from under the porch. I didn’t even know they were there until yesterday, and there’s no sign of the mother. He’s going to take them back to the office and see what he can do for them.”

Only then did Sam notice the pet carrier at Jake’s feet.

“There are five others,” he explained. “Not in great shape. I’m surprised the one you’ve got was strong enough to get out here. If they’d been much younger, they’d already be dead. I don’t think the mother’s coming back. Something must have gotten her.”

Sam stroked the back of the kitten’s neck as it settled more comfortably against her. Jake was still looking at her like he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing, which wasn’t a big surprise. Between the scuffed old boots, black leggings, long, rumpled black T-shirt and whatever state her hair was in at this point, she probably looked like she’d just rolled out of the nearest Dumpster.

Well, screw him. If he said anything snide she’d just act like Dumpster chic was the newest thing in New York. What did he know? At least she hadn’t been rotting up here collecting flannel shirts.

But when he spoke again, he caught her off guard by being . . . nice. At least, she thought that was what he was trying to be. With him, she didn’t really have a good standard for comparison.

“You must have the touch,” he said. “It came right to you?”

Sam shrugged, her cheeks flushing despite her best efforts to stop it. “I’m wearing a lot of black. It probably just thought we were related.”

He laughed, a lower, warmer sound than she remembered. “I’ll have to try that next time. I got a few scratches for my trouble.”

She offered him a half smile before returning her attention to the kitten in her arms. He’d said its siblings were sick. Could this one be sick, too? Probably. And then there were the fleas, and who knew what else. She was swamped by a wave of protectiveness that caught her off guard. And there was Jake, former über-jock and King of the World, very helpfully reaching out his hands to take it from her.

Her feelings on that were the first things she’d been dead certain of in quite a long time.

Over my dead body.

“Here. If I didn’t manage to embed the cat too deeply in your skin, I’ll take it.”

Sam took a step back. “I’m keeping it.”

He paused, looking startled. “Well. Good. I mean, that’s what I like to hear, of course. But it still needs medical care before it’s ready to come home on a permanent basis. With luck, the kitten will be ready to travel by the time you’re done with your visit—”

“She’s not visiting,” Andi said, and Sam caught the little smile on her mother’s lips. Damn. What if her mother didn’t want a cat in the house? She hadn’t even thought about it. Yet another hazard of moving back home, though this was only going to be temporary. Really temporary. And she’d use that to argue for keeping the little black ball of fluff if it came to it.

“She’s home. With company, seems like. It’ll be good to have an animal in the house again,” her mother said. “I’d thought I might keep one anyway.” Sam relaxed a little. One crisis averted, at least.

“Really? You’re moving back?” Jake asked. He sounded strangely interested. It was annoying.

“Sort of. For the time being,” Sam hedged. If he wanted more concrete information, he could just stick with whatever rumors were sure to come down the pike. It was what he’d done before. Why should that have changed?

“Great,” he said, and his easy smile included those damned dimples. She could almost believe he was sincere. That, Sam knew, would be a mistake. Everyone said that people changed, but in her experience, they didn’t change that much. And even if Jake had, she had better things to do than find out.

Like mope around her mother’s house in her pajamas eating queso out of the jar, for instance. With a spoon. Awesome.

When the silence dragged out, Sam finally realized why Jake was looking at her so expectantly. Sadly, it had nothing to do with wanting extra information about her scintillating life plans.

“You still want the kitten,” she said flatly.

Jake scrubbed a hand through his hair and looked almost apologetic. “Uh, well . . . yeah. Provided you’d like it to stay alive, I think this would be a good thing.”

Sam sighed heavily, looked down at the green eyes that were full of silent, obvious pleading, and began the arduous process of unhooking its claws from her shirt. It mewed and reattached itself almost immediately. She pursed her lips, looked at the kitten, then up at Jake. She might as well go all in on not caring what he thought.

“A little help?”

In the end it took all three of them to detach what Jake determined, with a quick look, was her brand-new male kitten from her now holey T-shirt. Sam hated seeing him put in the carrier with his siblings, already worried that she wouldn’t see him again. His piteous yowling, however, seemed to be a good sign, at least according to Jake.

“You’re going to have your hands full,” he told her as he loaded the carrier into the passenger seat of his truck. “I can already tell he’s not going to give you any peace.”

Sam just laughed. “I could use the distraction,” she replied before she could think better of it. But even when she did, it hardly mattered. She wasn’t a stupid sixteen-year-old anymore. Her life was her own, and she didn’t have to share it with anyone but whom she chose. And Jake Smith was long off her list.

Still, the look he gave her was speculative in a way that left her feeling off balance just before he walked away.

“I’ll give you a call,” he said.

“When you get a better idea of how he’s doing?” Sam asked.

“Sure. That, too,” Jake said, and flashed his gorgeous, infuriating grin before turning to walk around to the other side of the truck, giving Sam an excellent view of an ass that had lingered in her memory far longer than should have been allowed.

“Let me know how it goes, Jake,” her mother called. “I’ll pay for whatever they need. I won’t have them going in the shelter.”

“No, ma’am,” Jake called back. “Don’t worry. I will.”

Sam stepped back as he started the engine and backed out, turned, and headed off down the driveway with the gravel crunching beneath his tires. She stared after him, wondering what the hell had just happened. She’d definitely adopted a scrawny kitten. And she was pretty sure Jake Smith had just threatened to call her for reasons entirely unrelated to said kitten. Which made no sense, since she was still the same girl he’d ignored throughout school, with one notable exception, until he’d graduated and left her, along with her broken heart, in the dust.

Her mother’s arm slid around her waist.

“Sorry about that, honey. I’d hoped he’d be gone by the time you got here. I’m sure that’s not the first person you wanted to see, but believe it or not, he is a good vet.”

Sam shrugged, eyes still tracking the truck as it made the turn onto the Crescent. “No big deal. I grew up. I’m not going to go inside, lock myself in my room, and play “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” until your ears bleed. I promise.”

That had her mother laughing as she led her back toward the house, giving her a squeeze that allowed Sam to push all of her embarrassment and confusion, old and new, into the back of her mind in favor of simply being grateful for the moment.

“Good, or you’d be in the attic.” She paused, and Sam could feel her mother eyeing her. “Though I think you surprised him as much as he surprised you.”

Sam smirked to hide her discomfort. Jake was the last thing she wanted to think about. “Yeah, my hair is actually a shade found in nature now. This town will never be the same.”

“I liked it when it was purple,” her mother admitted.

“I don’t know how I feel about matching the mailbox, but I’ll keep that in mind. Lavender’s in right now, you know.”

Andi surprised her by stopping and hugging her tight. This time Sam slipped easily into the embrace, breathing in the light, herbal scent that would always be her mother’s.

“I’m so glad you’re back, Sammy. I always understood why you needed to go, but this is where you belong. You’ll see.”

Sam didn’t say a word. She just took in the comforting familiarity of the house, the meeting of sea and sky beyond, and tried to make herself believe it.

Chapter Two

Jake propped his boots on the railing of his front porch and took a swig of his beer, enjoying a few minutes’ peace while he looked out at the deepening twilight. Tucker, the cattle dog crossed with God-knew-what he’d brought home two years ago, was flopped at his feet, panting happily. Tucker was living proof that there were benefits to bringing your work home with you.

So was the pile of sleeping kittens in his laundry room. Well, until they woke up and started raising hell in there again. For a bunch of malnourished, flea-infested orphans, they’d perked up awfully quickly after a day of attention, medical and otherwise. Still, they were going to be plenty of work for a while yet. Feral kittens always were. And Sam’s little buddy didn’t like him nearly as well as the kitten liked her. Not that it was hard to understand the attraction.

Samantha Henry. Jake took another drink while he mulled what might have brought her back to the Cove. He hadn’t heard a word about it, and considering how many people he saw on a daily basis, he usually heard everything. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen Sam, thought it might have been nothing more than a glimpse of purple hair about six years ago when he’d been home on break. Even that brief sighting had piqued his interest with a strength that had surprised him—though it shouldn’t have. He’d never really gotten over that first bout of fascination with her. Of course, his younger self hadn’t been able to admit that’s what it was back then. Not to himself, and certainly not to anyone else.

From the reception he’d gotten earlier, Sam remembered that as well as he did. She sure as hell hadn’t forgiven him for it. He tapped a finger against the side of the bottle he held, frustrated by the hold she’d had on his thoughts all afternoon. It had been ten years. Didn’t people get to be absolved of their teenage stupidity at some point?

They ought to. Except . . . he remembered her face that day. And he knew that sometimes the answer was a resounding “no,” no matter how much time had passed.

Jake flexed his foot to get the rocking chair moving a little as he reached down to give Tucker a scratch behind the ears. The dog leaned into his touch, happy for the attention like he always was. Jake grinned, gave the furry head one last hard rub, and then leaned back into the chair and blew out a long breath.

“She still hates my guts,” he said, knowing it was mostly, if not entirely true. Tucker cocked his head, looked keenly interested until he realized that nothing Jake had said involved either a walk or food, and then returned his attention to sniffing the air while keeping watch for squirrels. Which was, Jake thought, a lot more productive than sitting here brooding.

He slid a look at the phone he’d brought out with him, thinking there was an off chance that Sam would call to ask about the kitten. A really off chance. Only slightly greater than a snowball’s in hell. Maybe.

Jake scrubbed his hand over his face when he realized what he was doing. Seeing Sam hadn’t just made him feel like a teenager again. It had turned him into a teenage girl.

“Screw it,” he muttered, grabbing the phone and punching in Andi’s number before he could talk himself out of it. He’d said he would call, so he was calling. In his professional capacity. It wasn’t a big deal.

“It’s not a big deal,” he told Tucker, who was so impressed that he decided it was a good time to start cleaning himself. Jake nudged him with his foot.

“You could at least act supportive, jerk.”

The phone rang just twice before someone picked up. Luck was with him.

“Hello?” Sam sounded a little breathless, like she’d had to run to get the phone. She also sounded a lot friendlier than she had earlier . . . which told him she just didn’t recognize his number. Yet.

“Sam,” he said easily, hoping that if he kept it casual and friendly, she would too.

“Jake.” The temperature of her voice changed so quickly that he was surprised the phone didn’t go cold in his hand. Just another reminder that this wasn’t the shy misfit he remembered . . . though there hadn’t been much question of that once he’d gotten a good look at her earlier.

“What do you need?”

He closed his eyes. That was, at the moment, a loaded question.

“I thought you might want a kitten update.”

“Oh.” He could almost hear her switching gears, deciding how to proceed with him. When she spoke again, Sam sounded cautious, cool, but less overtly homicidal. It was progress, Jake told himself. They had to start somewhere.

The question was, where did he want to go?

“Well . . . how are they? Is Loki okay?” she asked.

He paused. “Norse god of mischief?”

“Avengers supervillain. He’ll be an adopted orphan, misunderstood because of his fur color, and bent on world domination because he’s a cat. I think it fits.”

Despite the slightly defiant note in her voice, Jake burst out laughing. “I can’t actually argue with that. Loki it is. And he’s doing fine.”

“Good.” He heard surprise, relief . . . and the natural caution that she’d always had with him, with everyone around here, actually. It took him back to the first day he’d really noticed her, sketching in the park beneath the huge old oak they called the Witch Tree. It was early May, the first really warm day they’d had that year, and he’d been out enjoying it on his own, thinking of the upcoming party that night, the impending summer. He’d just turned eighteen, and the world seemed to be waiting for him. Sam had been just shy of seventeen, and she hadn’t known what to do with him then, either.

“What are you drawing?”

“Well . . . I . . . um . . . Just things, I guess.”

She’d tried to cover up the sketch pad she’d carried with her everywhere, but her hands weren’t big enough to hide what had been an incredible rendering of some dark, enchanted dragon, brooding atop a throne of skulls. Jake remembered noticing her chipped black nail polish as she’d hurriedly flipped the book shut. Mostly, he remembered being completely blown away that Sam, who normally only tripped his radar as a black-clad shadow who was teased mercilessly for being a wannabe witch, a freak, and a variety of other unflattering things, was actually talented. What he’d glimpsed had been at least as good as a lot of the comic book art he liked. Maybe better.

Then she’d looked up at him with those big blue-green eyes, and he’d seen her, really seen her, for the very first time.

“Earth to Jake.”

Her voice, now that of a woman and not the girl she had been, jerked him back into the present.

“Sorry. Thought I heard the kittens.” As an excuse, it worked as well as anything. And it had the added benefit of piquing Sam’s interest.

“Oh. Are you still at work?” He could hear the slight frown in her voice, and pictured her standing with the phone against her ear, looking serious and slightly annoyed. It made him smile. In some ways, she looked so much the same it was eerie—the delicate, pointed features, the full lower lip that he remembered her chewing at when she was nervous. But ten years had enhanced what was already there, and banished the awkward teenager. Her smile was more open, the natural grace in the way she moved more obvious. What she wore, while not exactly standard for the Cove, suited her lithe curves rather than looking like baggy armor. And something about that icy blond hair made his mouth water every time he thought about it. Pretty had become beautiful. Sam wasn’t hiding anymore.

Well, not from the world, anyway. The jury was still out on whether she’d try to hide from him. That, or just flay him alive with what he already sensed was one very sharp tongue.

“It was my day off. I took them in anyway, since they needed it, but afterward I brought them back home with me,” Jake explained. “I’ve got the room, and they really shouldn’t be left alone yet.”

“Oh,” she said again, and he could tell he’d surprised her. Good. Even if it rankled a little that it meant she still had him mentally filed under Heartless Bastard.

Because it helped him keep her on the phone, Jake slipped smoothly into vet mode, telling her that the kittens looked to be about six weeks old, explaining about the baths they’d had to remove the fleas, how he’d started deworming them, how they were taking the soft food he’d started them on. Sam listened, interjecting the occasional murmur of assent to show she was paying attention. When he ran out of material there, she seemed to be waiting for more. Jake cast around for something else to say. Everything he really wanted to know was none of his business. What had she been doing? Why was she back? All he knew about her for sure at this point was that she was in town, and that he wanted to see her again, preferably as soon as possible. Unfortunately, asking her over for a drink was likely to get him hung up on. Left without options, he decided to just jump into the void.

“So why don’t you come by the office tomorrow?”

“Why? He isn’t ready to come home yet, is he?” Any warmth he’d heard in her voice vanished instantly, and that old wariness was back full force. Frustration had him gritting his teeth. For a guy who’d never had much trouble attracting women, he was doing a great job keeping this one at arm’s length. Patience, he told himself.

He was going to have to keep repeating it. Patience had never been one of his strong suits. He was still interested in Sam Henry. Maybe it would burn itself out quickly, maybe not, but he needed to engineer a way to find out.

“No,” Jake said calmly, “but Loki and his siblings are feral. I still don’t know what possessed him to come to you, because all the kittens are going to need a lot of handling before they’re comfortable with people, and he’s nowhere near as friendly with me or my staff as he was with you. The good news is that they’re still in the age window where they should take easily to human contact. The bad news is that my practice is pretty busy. Between me and Tom, we handle most of the pets in the Cove, so I don’t know how much time anyone is going to be able to spend with them on any given day. A foster would be ideal, at least once I’m sure there’s nothing pressing, health-wise, but the local cat rescue is swamped. I thought if you had time you might come by and hang out with them for a while tomorrow.”

She hesitated. “Just tomorrow?”

“I didn’t figure I’d need to ask after that. Kittens are highly addictive.”

She laughed, and though it was still more tentative than he would have liked, it at least sounded genuine.

“Yeah, um, sure. I can come in. Is there a good time?”

“Around noon would be perfect,” Jake replied, deciding that Sam didn’t need to know she was coming in right at the beginning of his lunch hour. No need to complicate things. He’d lure her in with cute, furry things, and then overwhelm her with his charm. Or something.

Right now, it was all he had, so he’d go with it.

“I guess I’ll see you around noon, then,” Sam said. She still sounded way more cautious about it than he would have liked, as though she was sure he was just waiting to spring something unpleasant on her. Still, it was a beginning. He’d see her tomorrow, and they’d go from there.

“See you then,” Jake said, and hung up before she could change her mind.

*
• *

Sam set the phone on the counter, then turned, shaking her head, to pour herself another cup of coffee. Caffeine was probably the last thing she needed this evening, but then again, it was better than, say, whiskey. Which, considering what she’d just agreed to, was a tempting thought.

If he thought she didn’t realize he’d invited her to come by when he’d be able to hang around and pester her, he was really dense. Or just male. She could try to pretend that she was going for Loki—and that was certainly part of it—but the truth was, she was curious. Twisted but true. Of all the things she expected to happen coming back to Harvest Cove, having Jake Smith sniffing at her heels was probably last on the list. What did he want?

“Doesn’t matter,” she muttered, then lifted her mug to her lips, inhaled the warm, comforting aroma of her mom’s favorite coffee, and took a sip. Sam leaned back against the counter, crossed one fuzzy purple slipper over the other, and tried to banish Jake from her thoughts. She’d deal with it tomorrow. And if he thought he was getting any closer than arm’s length, he was going to be awfully disappointed.

“Whose demise are you plotting?”

Sam blinked and turned her head to watch her mother amble into the kitchen from the living room, where she’d been sitting with her nose in a book when the phone had rung. Andi looked about as comfortable as it was possible to get in a pair of loose pajama pants covered in little Eeyores and an oversize T-shirt advertising Merry Meet, a little restaurant downtown. Her long hair was coming loose from its braid, and her reading glasses were perched atop her head. She smiled knowingly as she settled herself on one of the stools situated beneath the edge of the long wooden island, basically a farmhouse table, that occupied much of the middle of the kitchen. Sam stayed where she was, close to the warmth of the massive, white cast-iron AGA. Actually cooking with it remained a mystery to Sam, but she loved the unusual oven nonetheless.

“I’m not plotting anything,” Sam protested. “I’m having coffee.”

“Uh-huh,” Andi replied, blue eyes twinkling. “I gave birth to you, Sam. I know the evil smirk.”

Sam shrugged. Her mother had always been an excellent sounding board, but this . . . she wasn’t ready to talk about this. Whatever “this” actually was. Leftover hurt and unwanted attraction, she guessed. Hardly worth talking about. So she directed the conversation elsewhere.

“Just planning how I’ll take the Cove by storm, starting tomorrow,” Sam said. “I’m sure once word gets around I’m back they’ll throw me a parade or something.”

Andi laughed, but there was a sadness to it that Sam recognized. She knew how miserable it had been for her younger daughter. And she’d never known how to fix it, being a professional misfit herself. The difference was, Andi seemed to relish being different, whereas Sam had just wanted to disappear. Her mother had done the best she could on her own—better than most mothers in much easier circumstances, Sam thought. But there were so many times when she missed her sweet, sensible father, and the balance he had provided, terribly. She’d been ten years old when he got sick, and the cancer hadn’t appeared to give a damn that Bill Henry was still very much needed.

Her mother’s warm voice pulled her out of memories that would always be bittersweet.

“You’ll get your feet under you, honey. You’ve got everything in the world going for you.”

Sam arched an eyebrow. “I’m twenty-seven years old. I have no job, no prospects, and I’m moving back in with my mom. Which part of that bodes well for the future? Because I’m missing it.”

Andi gave her a withering look. “Well, your positive attitude should help.”

Sam blew out a breath and slouched, looking at her feet. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s been a long day. I’m at that point in the cycle of self-loathing where I feel sorry for myself, and then feel pathetic for feeling sorry for myself, which makes me feel even sorrier for myself.” She looked up through her lashes at her mother, and was surprised to find herself near tears. The emotional exhaustion of the past few weeks, coupled with the warm familiarity of the scene in front of her, threatened to wring out what little feeling she had left. Dismayed, Sam held it together. Barely.

She’d shed enough tears in this kitchen, and she’d come a long way since then. That was her biggest fear—that all the hard-won ground she’d gained would be swept away by coming back here.

“You’re looking at this the wrong way,” her mother said in a tone that brooked no disagreement. “This is home, Sam, not the end of your life. Things get hard. For everybody. So you regroup, start fresh. Wherever you are, that’s where you’re supposed to be. And I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks—I’m glad my daughter’s home.”

“Oh. Well,” Sam said, and a single traitorous tear managed to escape and roll down her cheek. She snuffled and wiped it away with the back of her hand. Andi sighed, rose from the stool, and came to wrap her arms around her daughter. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to.

That was when Sam finally let the dam break, letting out the rest of the misery that had been following her for months as her carefully built life in New York had fallen apart, piece by piece. But then, things hadn’t been right for a while. For all that New York had given her, it hadn’t provided Sam with any better sense of where she belonged. It hadn’t been her place. She’d known it. She’d fought it.

And she really hadn’t wanted to be abruptly kicked out of it before she’d gamed out her other options.

Sam sobbed against her mother’s shoulder until the tears slowed, then stopped, leaving her sniffling pitifully but feeling immeasurably better. A little hollowed out, maybe, but better. And in the empty space that was left at the center of her, she could admit that she’d missed this—her mother, the house, the combination of the two things—terribly. It was the rest of this place she wasn’t sure about. But centering herself here was a start.

She raised her head, and Andi moved back just a little, tucking a stray lock of pale hair behind Sam’s ear and then giving the tip of her nose a playful stroke.

“You’re going to be fine. Look, you haven’t even been here a day and you’ve got a cat and an admirer already.”

That dried up the lingering tears quickly. Sam wrinkled her nose.

“Mom. Jake isn’t an admirer. He’s making sure my new cat doesn’t die.”

Hmph,” was Andi’s noncommittal reply, and Sam caught a flash of her mother’s own version of the evil smirk before she turned around and went back to her stool. It left Sam feeling vaguely unsettled, even when Andi changed the subject.

“You just missed your sister. Emma’s at a conference all this week.”

“That’s too bad.” She hoped she sounded sincere. She was, a little. But though she loved Emma, there were some fundamental differences between them that tended to make things tense. There was also the fact that her older sister, for all her better qualities, was a bossy pain in the ass.

“I can tell your heart is breaking. What are you going to say to her when she offers you a job?” Andi asked.

Sam groaned and shoved her hands into her hair. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s not going to make it go away. Your sister loves you. She worries.”

Sam tilted her head and gave her mother a beleaguered look, taking another sip of her coffee before she responded. “I know. I also know that if she and I work together, we will kill one another. It’s a bad idea, Mom.”

“You’ll hurt her feelings.”

She tried to hold back the snort of laughter and was only moderately successful. “Uh, no. No, I won’t. Trust me.” She was almost positive that Emma would be relieved more than anything that Hurricane Sam wouldn’t be hitting her event planning business anytime soon. And Sam was just as glad that she wouldn’t need to be involved with planning things like elaborate children’s parties for Harvest Cove’s hypercompetitive young professional set. “I’ll find something else. This is just temporary, Mom.”

“So you keep telling me.”

Realizing that her words had stung, though inadvertently, Sam rolled her shoulders and tried to explain instead of just making frustrated declarations.

“It’s what I keep telling myself. I have to. This isn’t what I wanted. I don’t mean you, Mom. I just mean . . . this.”

Andi smiled at that. “Don’t make me quote The Stones at you, honey.”

Sam pursed her lips, ruefully amused. Thanks to her mother’s musical taste, she was more familiar than most people her age with classic rock.

“Yeah, yeah. I can’t always get what I want, but I might just get what I need. Right?”

“You got it.” Andi stood with her coffee mug, stretched a little, and then started back toward the family room. “Well, I’ve laid enough of my vast wisdom on you for tonight. My book is calling.” When she reached the doorway, she turned back with a look Sam knew all too well.

“By the way, Zoe Watson, down at the gallery, wants to meet you. Tomorrow, if you can. She seemed very excited about someone with your experience being in a little place like this.” Andi paused. “She’s a bit of a newcomer here. You might like her. Gallery opens at ten . . . if you’re interested, of course.”

Sam could only stare for a moment, too surprised to speak.

“We have a gallery?”

“For the last year or so, we do. Does pretty well, too, from what I hear. Nothing in there as nice as what you do, but—”

“Mom.”

“Well, there isn’t,” Andi insisted. “But it is nice. Zoe has a good eye. And so do you. You should have a look.”

Relief flooded her. And fast on the heels of that was guilt.

“I should have done it myself,” she murmured, more to herself than anyone else. When she’d finally decided to come home, it had been the way big decisions usually went with her—sudden, full of emotion, and minus any long-term planning. A job, beyond the fact that she didn’t want to work with Emma unless absolutely necessary, was something she needed and had only just begun to contemplate. A gallery job, surrounded by inspiration so that she could maybe, possibly get her own work back on track, would be a godsend.

And it was being handed to her, which hardly seemed right.

Andi didn’t appear to agree. She simply watched her youngest child with a mixture of exasperation and affection.

“Samantha Jane Henry. I have no doubt you could have and would have found Zoe yourself. You’ve spent years trying to do everything on your own, whether or not it was a good idea. But this was something I could smooth the way on, so I did. The job’s not yours yet; trust me. Zoe’s sweet, but she’s a hard-ass where it counts, and that business is her baby.” Her voice softened. “You don’t have anything to prove here, Sammy. Everyone knows you can make it on your own. But one of these days, I’d love it if you’d figure out that you don’t always have to.”

“I know,” Sam said, her shoulders slumping a little. “Thanks, Mom. Really. I mean that.”

Andi smiled. “I know you do, Sammy.”

She left, and Sam watched her go, feeling all of sixteen again, and just as helpless. The bright spark of interest she’d felt at the mention of the gallery faded, subsumed again by the weariness that had been dogging her all afternoon. She was ready to try to start fresh, like her mother had said. She wasn’t afraid of a challenge, and besides, unless she wanted to be some sort of basement-dwelling woman-child with a paper route for the rest of her life, a fresh start was pretty much the only choice. It was just more daunting than most projects she’d undertaken, because Andi had been wrong about one key thing.

Sam had everything to prove. And it was going to take all the energy and luck she could muster to do it right.

Chapter Three

By the time Sam sat across from Zoe Watson at ten thirty the next morning, she was certain of two things: that her mother had seriously understated what a hard-ass the proprietress was, and more importantly, that she really, really wanted this job.

Getting it, however, was very much a work in progress.

“So,” Zoe said, her rich, warm voice utterly at odds with the shrewd assessment Sam saw in her storm gray eyes. “What do you think you could bring to Two Roads Gallery?”

Sam fought the urge to fidget. She’d met far more frightening characters in the New York art scene, she reminded herself, and she’d held her own then. And this sleek, intimidating woman, with the South in her voice and steel in her eyes, was hardly the dragon that her former employer had been. She needed to remember that. Sam took a deep breath, collected her thoughts, and answered as clearly as she could.

“I’ve spent the last three years buying and selling pieces for a small, successful gallery in New York City. I’ve got an eye for talent, and I’m good with people.” She paused, trying to gauge Zoe’s reaction, but the woman’s expression seemed carved from stone. “I love art. Being around it, being around the people who make it. I think that shows.”

Hmm” was Zoe’s noncommittal response. She shifted a little in her chair, and Sam was struck all over again by how different she was from anything she might have been expecting. The unfamiliar name had led Sam to figure that Zoe would be some city-weary yuppie who’d decided to bring culture and taste to small-town America, enlightening the rubes and becoming beloved by all, the star of her own women’s fiction novel . . . and who would probably, like most of her ilk, either get disgusted and leave or simply go bankrupt. Instead, Sam had discovered a woman who’d come to Harvest Cove with a very specific, very detailed idea of what she wanted to accomplish—and who was making it happen.

Why she was so determined to make it happen here was something Sam couldn’t begin to fathom. But what Sam remembered as a little run-down two-story house on Hawthorne, a fixture since the 1700s, looked amazing in its rebirth as a gallery. She’d barely had a chance to browse before Zoe had swept her into the little back room that served as her office, but Sam had been impressed by the pieces Zoe had assembled. There were paintings and glasswork, sculpture and jewelry scattered about the main room of the shop in such a way that one discovery led quickly to another. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that she hadn’t been the only artist in the area. Far from it. But then, Sam realized, it had been stupid to think so in the first place. She’d been so young and self-centered that all she’d seen was the surface of things.

What she was seeing here gave her a lot of food for thought. Later, though, when she wasn’t in danger of sweating bullets through her simple black jersey dress.

“Your mother tells me you’re an artist yourself,” Zoe said smoothly. “I was hoping you’d bring your portfolio, if you did decide to come by. I’m very proud that we showcase local artists almost exclusively, and I’m always on the lookout for new clients.”

Sam had to fight to keep her voice neutral, though panic welled immediately in her throat. “I’m not interested in getting a showing, Ms. Watson. Just a job.”

Zoe’s ebony eyebrows shot up. “Call me Zoe, please. And that’s a shame. I looked up some of your work, and you’re very talented. You’ve been selling online, right? I checked out the site. Great layout.”

Her face felt like it was on fire. Of course Zoe would have looked her up, if only out of sheer curiosity. And she hadn’t had the heart to completely shut down her Web site, or her little shop on Etsy, simply leaving up a few images of sold pieces with the notice that she was on hiatus for the time being. It wasn’t like she could post the truth—that every ounce of her creativity and passion seemed to have been sucked into a black hole, that she hadn’t picked up a brush in months except to throw it across a room . . . or hold it and cry because whatever had once powered it, a light that had once seemed as though it was always fighting for a way to get out, had gone dark.

She could say none of those things. So she went for the simplest explanation possible.

“I was. But I’m not really painting right now. Thanks, though.”

“I see,” Zoe said, and Sam knew at once that she wasn’t going to press her on it . . . though Zoe obviously wanted to. She just had more tact than that. The relief helped calm Sam’s now rapidly beating heart. A panic attack in the middle of a job interview would have been a very bad thing in a string of bad things, and she really wanted to break the chain before the only kind of art-related field left available to her was carnival face painting.

“Well, when you decide to get back at it, let me know,” Zoe said. Then, to Sam’s surprise, Zoe leaned back in her chair, took off the cool, collected facade, and became . . . well, human. A slightly tired, slightly harried, and surprisingly friendly human.

“I’ll be straight with you, Samantha, I was ready to hire you the second you set foot in here. It’d be a godsend to have someone I didn’t have to teach. And you’ve got that local connection, which would be . . . helpful.”

There was a wealth of meaning behind her words. Sam winced, sympathetic. “It’s Sam. Kind of hard to break in, huh?”

Zoe’s look said it all. “I’ve been here a little over a year. People still think my full name is Zoe, That Nice Black Girl from Atlanta. I didn’t expect to be a local at this point, but I’d like to stop being a novelty item.”

Sam burst out laughing, unable to help herself. Zoe grinned, the smile slowly spreading over her face, and then shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “For the Cove, you’re pretty exotic.” She was beautiful, actually, Sam thought. Zoe’s warm mocha skin was a startling contrast to those big gray eyes, and she wore her hair in a way Sam had always envied—hundreds of long, tiny braids, now loosely swept into a bun at the nape of Zoe’s neck. She looked like she belonged here about as much as Sam herself did.

Zoe screwed up her mouth and arched an eyebrow. “I’m not exotic. I’m from Atlanta, not Mars.” She sighed. “But yeah. It’s been interesting. People are friendly. Business is pretty good. It’s just . . .”

“You’re still an outsider,” Sam finished for her. “It’s a small town. Takes a while. Even for locals, sometimes.”

“You’re telling me. You know Penny Harding? The one who only talks about shoes, how her daddy’s the mayor, or that big Christmas party her family throws every year that everyone knows about but only the special people get invited to?”

Sam stared at Zoe in awe. “That’s the most accurate description of her I’ve ever heard. You should win something for creating that.”

Zoe gave a rueful smirk. “Well, I sure didn’t win an invite to that party. Despite the fact that plenty of the other small business owners did, and that she came in here talking about it at least once a week for two months at the end of last year, and that I helped put on one hell of a classy event for her daddy and his buddies when I’d barely gotten this place opened. No. No ‘thank you for bringing your money and class and fine self to the area’ invitation.” She sighed, rolled her eyes, and shook her head. “Sorry. Thought I’d worked the bitter out on that one.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Sam said. “The Harding party crowd has kind of a small circle of trust. Most of us just get to be rabble. You’ll get used to it—I promise.”

Zoe smiled, and this time there was plenty of understanding in it. That and determination. “They can have their circle of trust. I just want a night to wear a red dress and eat the Hardings’ caviar. I’ll get there, though. I love this place.”

Sam could only shake her head and laugh, bewildered. “Why? Seriously, how did you get from Atlanta to Harvest Cove?”

“I drove.”

“Ha,” Sam replied. “Really, though. We’re pretty tucked away. We get tourists, but it’s not like, say, Salem.”

“That’s what I like about it,” Zoe replied. “This place is exactly what I pictured, exactly what I wanted. Ever since I was little, believe it or not.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Anything set in a little New England town, movies or TV, I was glued to it. I had this crazy thing for Murder, She Wrote reruns when I was a kid, too. My mom would sit and watch it with me, a lot of times. Love me some Angela Lansbury. I wanted my own Cabot Cove, except with more art and less dead bodies. So I scouted around when I knew I could swing it, and here I am.”

Sam burst out laughing. When Zoe looked down, her cheeks flushing, she quickly sought to reassure her before the tentative connection they’d made was broken.

“That’s awesome. I mean that. It’s the best reason I’ve ever heard for coming here. I love it.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

They regarded each other for a moment. Zoe smiled that slow grin of hers again, and Sam knew immediately that she’d found not only a job, but a friend.

“All right, girl. Be here tomorrow at nine. I’ll show you the ropes before we open at ten. I like you, but you’re still going to have to prove yourself.”

“That’s something I’m happy to do,” Sam said, nearly dizzy with relief. She hadn’t realized just how low her hopes had gotten until right this second. “If you want references . . .”

Zoe waved her hand. “As a matter of fact, I dealt with your former employer once a couple of years back. Mona Richard, right? Andi told me it didn’t end well for you there, and trust me, I believe it. What you do here is all the reference you need. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll tell you. And besides,” she continued with a knowing look, “when you start painting again—not if, when—I want your work here. Those dreamscapes you do would make for an amazing show.”

Sam nodded, and for once she didn’t have the heart to deny that there would be a when. Maybe Zoe was right. It was nice to hear that kind of faith, regardless. And nice to hear someone admiring her vision. Dreamscapes. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t paint anymore. Her dreams were buried somewhere beneath the smoking rubble that was her life.

“Okay,” was all she said out loud, and when Zoe extended one elegant, long-fingered hand across the desk, Sam took it and shook.

“Two Roads Gallery. The Frost poem,” Sam said suddenly. “That’s what you named this place after. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—”

“I took the one less traveled by,” Zoe finished for her. “You got it. It made all the difference for me. Hopefully it will for you, too.”

“Maybe it will,” Sam replied. And was surprised to find that there was a part of her that actually believed it.

*
• *

By the time she’d stopped by Brewbaker’s to grab the biggest vanilla latte they offered and then hopped in her car to make the short drive to Jake’s office, Sam felt better than she had in months. Some of it was probably the caffeine, and some of it was doubtless being able to take off those stupid heels to drive in her bare feet, but a lot of it was plain, old-fashioned happiness. She had a job. A gallery job. And she’d be working for someone who, at least right now, didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would earn nicknames from her employees like, say, The Evil One. Bitcharella. Or one her personal favorites, Cthulu.

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