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Thick, wet, heavy snow tumbled onto Jenna Pearson's shoulders, blanketing her black hair, and seeping into her black leather high-heeled boots, as if Mother Nature wanted to test Jenna's resolve. To see whether a winter storm could derail her plans, and force her back to New York.
Jenna kept forging forward. Really, what other choice did she have right now? If Jenna had one quality, it was that ability to rush forward, to keep going when it seemed like all was lost.
And right now, just about all was lost. But she had a plan, and she'd get it all back. Definitely.
A two-inch carpet of flakes covered the sidewalk as Jenna walked, under the swags of Christmas pine, past the crimson bows dotting the wrought iron lamp poles. Downtown Riverbend had already buttoned down for the night, with most of the specialty shops lining the street shuttered and dark. Only the café's windows glowed, like a beacon waiting at the far end of the white storm.
Jenna drew her coat tighter and dipped her chin to bury her nose in her blue cashmere scarf. She'd forgotten how cold winters got here. Forgot how the snow carried a fresh, crisp scent. Forgot what it was like to be in the small Indiana town that most people called heaven.
And Jenna had called prison.
The streets were empty, quiet, people safe at home and in bed. She was in Riverbend, after all, the kind of town where nothing bad ever happened.
Well, not nothing bad, but not that kind of bad. She was safe. Perfectly safe.
She increased her stride. Goodness, the snow seemed to have doubled in strength and depth in the twenty minutes it had taken her to buy a dozen cookies at the Joyful Creations Bakery. Even though she'd come in at closing time, the owner, Samantha MacGregor, had insisted on staying to fill Jenna's orderand then spending a few minutes over a cup of coffee catching up with her high school friend. Jenna had heard just about everything about everyone in town, even about people she wasn't so sure she wanted to be reminded of.
People like Stockton Grisham. He was here in town, Samantha said. "Returned a few years ago, and opened up a restaurant."
Stockton had returned to Riverbend? The last she'd known, he'd intended to wander the world, plying his culinary talents in some far-off location. He'd told her he wanted to make his mark on the world, one bouillabaisse at a time.
What was it about Riverbend that kept people coming back, or worse, encouraged them to never leave? Most days, Jenna was definitely happy she had left.
Or thought she had been. For so many years, New York had been the only destination she wanted, the only address she imagined for herself. And now
She increased her pace, shushing that persistent whisper of questions she didn't want to face. The snow blew and swirled around her but she kept going, her boots crunching on the icy crust forming over the snow. As she walked, sharp notes of ginger wafted up to tease at Jenna's senses, tempting her to eat onejust oneof the homemade windmill cookies.
She got into her car, laid the box of cookies on the passenger's seat and turned the key, waiting while the wipers brushed off the coating of snow building up on the windshield. When the windshield was clear, Jenna put the auto into gear. The Taurus fishtailed a bit, protesting how quickly Jenna had pulled away from the curb. She pressed on the brakes. Took in a deep breath. It had been a long time since she'd driven in snow. In New York, she walked almost everywhere, cabbed or subwayed it for longer distances. Riverbend was no New York. There wasn't any public transportation or yellow taxis. Just her and the mounting snow
And the job ahead of her.
She thought of turning back, of heading for the airport and retreating to her third-floor walk-up apartment in New York. Anything other than return to the town that had whispered about her life like it was an ongoing soap opera. She supposed, in many ways, it had been. But that had been years ago, and surely things were different now.
Jenna's hand hovered over the turning signal. Take a left? Or go straight?
Really, what was waiting for her if she turned left, and got back on that plane? Her only opportunities lay straight ahead, in this town she had tried so hard to leave behind, and now had become her only salvation. Riverbend, of all places. Jenna sighed and started driving.
Swags of evergreen hung across Main Street, connecting to big red bows adorning the streetlights. The streetlights glowed a soft yellow against the white snow. Jenna didn't pause to admire the view. Didn't slow as she passed the town's Winterfest decorations glittering in the park and still blinking a rainbow of colors even now, two days after Christmas. She drove two blocks, took a right, then pulled to a stop in front of a big yellow farmhouse-style home with white wagon wheel trim decorating the expansive front porch. Fat low shrubs ringed the house, all of them twinkling with tiny white bulbs that peeked out of the snow with a determined glow.
Before Jenna reached the top step, the front door was flung open and her aunt Mabel came hurrying out the door, her house slippers padding across the dusting of snow on the porch, her bright pink robe flying out behind her like a cape. "Jenna!" She crushed her niece into a hug scented with cinnamon and fresh-baked bread.
Jenna's arms wrapped around Aunt Mabel's ample frame. It had been two years since she last saw her aunt, but as they embraced, and she took in her aunt's short gray curls and light blue eyes, all those months disappeared and it felt as if she'd never left Riverbend. If there was one blessing she'd received from this town, it was her aunt Mabel, who had done the most unselfish thing anyone could ask for, and raised her sister's child as her own. "I've missed you so much, Aunt Mabel."
Her aunt drew back and smiled. "Oh, honey, I missed you, too." Then she patted Jenna's hand and waved toward the house. "Now let's get on inside and I'll put on a pot of coffee. I know you're hankering for one of those windmill cookies you've got in your hands as much as I am."
Jenna laughed. "Am I that predictable?"
Aunt Mabel nodded. "And I love that you are." They went inside the house, warm air hitting Jenna with a burst. As Jenna glanced around, she realized very little had changed in the house she'd lived in most of her life. The same overstuffed crimson sofa set sat in the living room, the same pink striped wallpaper lined the bathroom walls and the same family portraits hugged the hallway. When she'd been a teenager, the day-in, day-out sameness had drove her crazy, but now, as a returning adult, familiarity bred comfort, and the tension that had seemed to hang on Jenna like a heavy blanket eased a bit.
A few minutes later, they sat down at Aunt Mabel's scarred maple table in her sunflower bright kitchen, two steaming cups of coffee and a platter of windmill cookies before them. Jenna picked up a cookie, dunked it in her coffee, then took a bite before the softened treat fell apart.
Aunt Mabel laughed. "You still do that." "What?"
"Dunk your cookies. When you were a little girl, it was in hot cocoa. Now, it's coffee." Aunt Mabel's soft hand covered hers. "You're still the same."
The words chafed at Jenna, and she pushed her coffee aside. "I've changed. More than you know."
Aunt Mabel tut-tutted. "People don't change, honey. Not that much. You might think you do, but you always come right back to your roots. Why, look at you, you're here now. And just before the new year, too. There's no better time for a new beginning." She put up a hand. "Oh, wait. I think I still have some mince pie. You know you should have some in the days after Christmas, to bring good fortune for the year ahead."
"I'm fine, Aunt Mabel, really." Her aunt saw signs in everything from birds flying south to overly puffy clouds. Jenna wasn't in the mood to go down that portent-laden path. "I'm only back in Riverbend to plan Eunice Dresden's birthday party." Her gaze met her aunt's. "Thanks for recommending me."
Aunt Mabel waved off the gratitude. "That's what family's for, to give you a boost when you need it most."
Her aunt had no idea how much Jenna needed this boost.
She had no doubt it had taken some doing on her aunt's part to get the Dresden family to agree to hire her. "I appreciate it, all the same."
Aunt Mabel wagged a cookie at Jenna. "You stay here long enough, you might find this town growing on you again."
She loved her aunt, even if they had the same argument every time she'd seen her. The only thing she'd ever really loved about this small, confining town had been the warm and gracious aunt who had raised her after her parents died. From the minute Jenna realized a big, bright, busy world existed away from insular Riverbend, she'd wanted to leave. "It never grew on me. And I'm not staying. I already have a flight back booked for the night of Eunice's party. The party should be done by six, which means I can be on the nine-o'clock flight back to New York."
A nagging doubt grew inside her. Would this break from the city, from her faltering business, be enough to restore her? To give her back what she had lost?
Aunt Mabel pursed her lips as if she might say something else, but instead she got to her feet and refreshed her coffee. "Well, you're here now. We'll see about the rest."
"It's clear where I get my stubbornness from."
"Me? I'm not stubborn. Just focused on getting what I want."
Jenna laughed. "Aunt Mabel, you should have gone into politics. You have quite a way of dancing around words."
The older woman returned to the table, and wrapped her hands around her snowman-decorated mug. "Are you going to see anyone special while you're in town?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, Aunt Mabel, but I'm here to work. Not visit with anyone." She put her hand out and grasped the older woman's fingers. "Except for you."
"I know you mean well, but really, I'm not going to have time for anything more than planning the party." Jenna got to her feet, put her mug into the dishwasher and gave her aunt a quick hug. "I'm going to bed. It's been a long day and I have the meeting with Eunice's family first thing in the morning."
"Good luck, sweetheart."
Jenna waved a dismissive hand, one filled with more confidence than she'd been feeling over the past few months. "Aunt Mabel, party planning is what I do. The whole thing will be a piece of cake," she said, telling herself as much as she did her aunt. She could do thisand she would. It was a birthday party, not a presidential dinner. "You'll see."
Aunt Mabel laughed. "You don't know Eunice's sister like I know her, honey. And you ain't met stubborn like her."
Stockton Grisham put the teaspoon into the deep stainless steel sink, then made a note on his clipboard to add the tomato basil tortellini soup to tonight's menu. It would pair well with the Chicken Marsala, and make a nice light side to the house's namesake Insalata Rustica. His restaurant was celebrating its first anniversary this week, an occasion that surprised even him sometimes.
He'd done it. Taken what had always been a dream and turned it into a living, breathing, forty-table reality. And what's more, made it work in the little town of Riverbend. Everyoneincluding his own fatherhad told him he was crazy, that no one from Indianapolis would make the trek to the "boondocks" just to eat dinner, but they'd been wrong.
He wasn't sure if it was the outdoor seating under the canopy of ivy, or the cozy booths and cushioned chairs, or, he hoped, the authentic Italian food he made, but something drew people out of the city and into Riverbend for a night at cozy, intimate Rustica, followed by an hour or two of wandering Riverbend's downtown, a boon to the other local shops. It had become the perfect relationship, and a measure of pride swelled in Stockton's chest.
He'd done it. When he'd been young, he had never imagined returning to this town and being a success, but as he'd traveled the globe, it became clear that the only place he wanted to build his culinary career was here.
In the very town his father had thought lacked the sophistication to house a restaurant. To Hank Grisham, true culinary enjoyment could only be found in places like Paris, or Manhattan. Small towns, to his French-born father, were the antithesis of fine cuisine. Stockton's mother had loved Riverbend, and she'd stayed here, putting down roots, raising her son, while Hank traveled and cooked, taking a job here for a few months, there for another few. Stockton saw more postcards with Hank's signature than he ever saw Hank.
At some point, it had become a quest to prove his father wrong. To show him Riverbend could, indeed, house a top-tier restaurant and that the residents would fill the tables. Stockton sighed, and thought of Hank, manning a stove somewhere in Venice right now. One of these days, his father would come home to Riverbend again and see the restaurant in action. Maybe then the biggest naysayer of Stockton's dream would admit that there were more places than Italy to find amazing food.
Stockton had everything he'd always wanted. And yet, an emptiness gnawed at him sometimes, long after the dishes were done and the food put away, he wondered if there was.
Insane thoughts. He had the more, and then some. He just needed to remember to count those blessings instead of looking for others.
The back door opened, and a whoosh of cold air burst into the kitchen. "Goodness, when is winter going to end?" Samantha MacGregor stomped the snow off her boots, then whisked a few flakes from her blond hair. Even bundled in a winter coat, Samantha was still beautiful. Her cheeks held a soft pink flush, and a smile seemed permanently etched on her face. Clearly, marriage agreed with her. Ever since reporter Flynn MacGregor had come to town a little over a year ago, Samantha had laughed and smiled almost daily. She'd had a hard time of it the past few years between her grandmother's illness and the full-time job of running the Joyful Creations Bakery. Stockton was glad to see his longtime friend find happiness.
"Considering it's not even January yet, I'd say we have some time before spring returns," Stockton said. "You have my cookies? "