With her big-city career and relationship in sudden free fall, Olivia Gale isn’t sure where she belongs. So when her help is needed at Goode ʼN Sweet, the family bakery in Sugar Lake, she jumps at the chance to indulge her pie-making hobby while getting her life back on track. Olivia’s not looking for any distractions. Even if the boy who once left her without a word is now a grown man with intriguing secrets—and the same tempting hold on her heart . . .
A firefighter and single dad, Clayton Morris is trying hard to fix his past mistakes. He thought he was doing the right thing by leaving Olivia—and now he’s sure he has nothing to offer the accomplished woman she’s become. But ignoring the sparks between them is impossible. And as unexpected surprises and hard choices endanger their fragile reunion, they’ll have to decide which direction to take if they want to find the road back to love . . .
“A wonderful, heartwarming romance.”
—Rochelle Alers, author of The Innkeepers Series
“A damn-near perfect story of family, starting over, and second chances.”
—Kristan Higgins, New York Times bestselling author
“K.M. Jackson gets right to the heart of family, to the heart of relationships, to the heart of love. She’ll get right to your heart, too!”
—Donna Kauffman, Wall Street Journal & USA Today bestselling author
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About the Author
A mother of twins, K.M. currently lives in a suburb of New York with her husband, family, and a precocious terrier named Jack that keeps them all on their toes. When not writing, she can be found on Twitter @kwanawrites, on Facebook at Facebook.com/KmJacksonAuthor and on her website at KMJackson.com.
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Hmm, absolutely perfect. Or as close to perfect as one could come up with being that it was an early morning rush job, Olivia Gale thought as she pulled the deep-dish berry swirl pie out of the oven. The homemade crust was golden brown, flaking gently along the edges. Liv couldn't help but smile when she saw how beautifully her hand lettering had come out. It had taken quite a few trials, not to mention the expense of new precision knife blades from the art store, but the results were worth it.
The small, baked-in sentiment looked almost magazine photo worthy. She knew her father would love it when she presented it to him later that evening at his retirement dinner.
Careful not to drop any crumbs or — heaven's, no — spill any filling on her cherished cookbook pages, Liv carefully skirted the berry swirl pie around, placing it on the counter with the apple pie and peach cobbler already done. It didn't matter that each of her printed recipes were already saved in a file on her computer and backed up on her cloud drive and that she still had them lovingly protected, each in its own sheet protector; she still took good care of her cookbook. Liv had been collecting her time-tested recipes in that book over the past ten years. She would not let it get ruined.
Oven off and satisfied with her work, she could relax for a moment. Although it was only a small gathering at her parents' apartment that evening — neighbors, old friends, and a few of Dad's best work colleagues — Liv knew that one pie wouldn't have been enough to satisfy the crowd. With that in mind, though it was a workday, she'd decided to make multiple pies to supplement the store-bought cake that her mother was providing. Besides, knowing her mom and her famous open-door policy, you never knew who would show up.
"Absolutely delicious." Damon's voice was a slow, deep drawl as he came into the kitchen and wrapped his strong arms around Liv's waist.
"Are you talking about the way my pies look, or should I take that as a personal compliment?" Liv said, turning to look him in the eyes.
Damon gave her one of his alluring half smiles as his gaze went from her eyes to her lips. But instead of kissing her lips, he bent and kissed her lightly on her neck, she assumed not wanting to get any of her freshly applied lipstick smudged onto him. He hated getting mussed up before work.
"Why can't I be talking about both?" he replied.
Liv shook her head and gave Damon a light nudge against his chest. "You really are a smooth talker. If I didn't know you so well, I'd be a little suspicious."
"Now, there you go with that acute skepticism of yours. Why can't you just smile and take a compliment, woman?" Damon's half grin went up to include both sides of his mouth. "You know you are delicious. As a matter of fact, everything you are, everything you touch, is delicious. Now, why don't you be a peach and share a little bit of that cobbler with me?"
Liv fought back a blush. She'd always found it slightly difficult to take compliments from Damon, not that he was overflowing with them, from him they were rare. Still, she wasn't good at taking them from him, or anyone for that matter, a man especially. Sure, she knew that there was nothing wrong with her, and when she pulled herself together right, she was downright passable in a blending-in type of way. But someone to gush over? Not with her slightly too far apart eyes, and lips that took up too much of her face. Add to that hips and thighs that no amount of squats could seem to slim down, and well, yeah, Liv had a hard time believing Damon and all his extravagant talk. But still, she tried to play it cool. A man like Damon — tall, dark, and, yes, quite handsome — wouldn't find lack of confidence a virtue in a woman. Not many men did. So she'd learned early on to fake what she'd lacked as best as she could.
"No way on the pie, mister," Liv said, making her voice stern, but still playful. "These will all go to my parents for my father's party tonight, as you very well know, since you'll be meeting me there at seven." Liv leaned in to Damon, looking up, giving him her version of her own sly grin as she ran a finger along his smooth, brown cheek. "But no worries. If you're on your best behavior tonight, I have my own sweet treats in mind for you later."
There was the slightest hint of tension that emanated from Damon then, along with the tiniest shift in his eyes. It was so slight that Liv convinced herself that it didn't happen. That she didn't see that small action she'd grown to know was Damon's way of burying something he didn't want to deal with in the moment. And just then she had her own feeling of apprehension. Liv swallowed and made her smile just a little brighter. Nope. It was nothing; she knew she was overreacting. Things were just a little tense, as they were bound to be in any relationship that had reached the nine-month point as theirs had, and the façade of putting on the best face was starting to wear down.
"Fine," he said with a half grin. "None for me means none for you, too. Remember you promised you'd start working out with me anyway. We both don't need the extra calories."
Liv pushed down on her immediate feeling of embarrassment over his comment and let her eyes shift to the old clock above the windowsill. "You better get a move on, Damon. It's starting to get late, and don't you have that early breakfast meeting with new clients?"
Just as she thought, the idea of bringing up business pulled Damon up short and brought him into his usual sharp focus. A marketing analyst for an up-and- coming firm, Liv initially met Damon at one of those usually dull, corporate meet and greets where she was representing her firm as their strategic corporate analyst. One glimpse of Damon, though, and the night instantly brightened up. Sure, she knew he immediately pegged her as a potential business mark, but when he realized he wouldn't be able to sell her on anything his firm had to offer, he switched tactics and went to selling her on himself.
Damon being Damon, he never let anything stand in the way of business. Leaning back, he flipped his wrist, checking the time on his watch that did so much more than just keep time. "Crap, you're right." Damon gave Liv a scowl. "Baby, you knew how important this morning was. Why are you letting me go on so that I'm late? You know how unpredictable the subways can be."
And this is my fault? Liv thought. He was the one who came into her kitchen. Besides, a grown man should be able to tell the time. But Liv kept these thoughts to herself. No need to rock the boat and put him in a bad mood, possibly knocking him off his game when he had important business to take care of. She gave Damon a soft smile. "I guess I just couldn't resist you. I'm sorry that you have to get going. I know you're going to hit it out of the park today, as you always do. I'll see you later tonight."
But Damon was already reaching for his briefcase and heading for the door by the time Liv finished her sentence. All she got was a wave and the click of her apartment door behind him as a response. With a resigned breath, Liv checked the clock once again as she went to cover her pies to ready them for her pickup later in the evening. "I better get a move on myself. Shoot, he's talking about me making him late, what about him making me late?" She gave her head a small shake, whipping off her vintage apron as she headed out of the kitchen. She slipped on her travel flats; grabbed her tote with her ready-for-business, red- bottomed pumps; and made her way for the subway to travel from Harlem, south to her midtown job.
* * *
Walking back into her apartment late that afternoon, Liv kicked off the now- useless red-bottomed pumps that, in her haste to get out of the office, she'd forgotten to switch out before getting back on the subway. Fired. She'd never been fired before in her life. No, wait a minute, it wasn't fired; she was being restructured, or so they said. As in restructured out of health care; into unemployment, if she was lucky; and into a land of severe anxiety and uncertainty. But no, not fired. Fired was way too explosive a word, nowadays reserved only for hashtags and ex — reality TV stars. Liv let out a wry snort as she stepped into her kitchen with aching bare feet and flung open her refrigerator door. Restructured. Talk about irony. That was so her word. She was the queen of restructuring and upending people's lives in the process. It was she who had restructured Bailey and Wagner onto the Forbes list. Yeah, and in doing so it looks as if she had restructured her smart behind out of their fine mahogany-accented glass doors.
Liv sighed and reached for the fizzy cranberry orange concoction that Damon had picked up the other night. She opened the screw top and drank straight from the bottle. So not her, but in times like this, even reaching for a glass felt like an effort. But, after downing half the bottle, she still wasn't satisfied. In that moment, all she wanted to do was open a bottle of wine — no, better yet, a pint of ice cream — crawl into her bed, and drown her sorrows in a little Rocky Road. Unfortunately, though, Liv looked over toward the top of her stove. There would be no relaxing, ice cream, wallowing, or any such thing — at least not for the next few hours — since she still had pies to pack up and her father's retirement dinner to attend.
It's so odd, she thought as she packed up her pies. She still hadn't heard back from Damon. He hadn't returned any of her calls that afternoon. She assumed his day must be pretty busy, because if he'd had any clue what she was going through he'd surely have gotten back to her. She'd been trying to reach him ever since she'd heard the dismal news, but it seems he was all tied up. She knew he'd be just as surprised as she was. No matter, Liv thought when telling Damon came to her mind. Damon was smart, and he knew so many people in the business that she was sure with him guiding her in the right direction she'd find a new position in no time. Who knew, maybe she wouldn't even have to tell her parents about being restructured at all. No use worrying them, not when they were so happy about finally being able to take their long- awaited retirement dream vacation.
Feeling slightly more bolstered, at least enough to get through the evening, Liv suddenly couldn't wait to take off her gray, corporate linen skirt and silk blouse. Once I get out of my "restructured" suit and more party ready, I'll be fine, Liv told herself as she hit her bedroom door, then froze.
First fired and now robbed? Freaking crap on toast, could this day get any worse?
Turning a quick circle in her bedroom, Liv fought to calm the rapid thumping of her heart. The closet was flung wide open, and hangers were haphazardly strewn on the floor. Some drawers were opened and emptied, and her brand-new television was gone from on top of her dresser. An intense feeling of fear grabbed her as Liv wondered if the culprit could possibly still be in her apartment. She froze completely and listened for any sort of sound. Looking over at her bedroom window, Liv saw that it was still shut tight and didn't look as if it had been disturbed. She didn't remember seeing anything out of place in the living room. As she started quickly backtracking with a tight grip on her bag, grateful she hadn't left it in the living room, she reached inside for her cell.
But before completely backing out, her mind couldn't help its analysis. She glanced at the closet again. It looked as if all her clothes, from what she could see, were still there. But where were Damon's shirts? The five white shirts he left at her apartment along with the two pairs of pants — one gray, one black — and the navy suit that she'd just picked up from the cleaners were gone. Shifting, her eyes went to the drawers; there were two open. The bottom two on the left. The ones that held the T-shirts and boxers that she had just folded the night before. And the bottom one that held Damon's running outfits. Shifting again, her eyes went to the now-empty corner where Damon usually kept his favorite pair of running shoes. Dropping her bag, Liv let out a moan.
Today. Why today of all days would he decide to pull this?
She thought they were fine. At least he said they were fine. Liv groaned again. And he was supposed to meet her at her parents tonight. So now what was she supposed to tell them? The silence of her apartment suddenly felt suffocating, and all Liv wanted to do was fill it. On instinct, she got up and reached over to the night table for the remote control before remembering, as her eyes shifted to the large, empty space where the TV should have been.
Going for her bag, she pulled out her cell and hit Damon's number once again. This time he had the nerve to pick up.
"Really?" she said, fighting to keep any sense of her true frustration out of her voice. "I can understand you taking your own things, who cares about that? But what makes you think I'm going to let you get away with running off with my flat-screen TV?"
Damon's voice was just as smooth as it had been that morning as it came across the air and reached Liv's ears. But what should have been a caress to the senses now sounded akin to a dentist's drill. "Your TV?" His attempt at feigning shock almost made Liv laugh. "If I recall, that television was a gift to me, so technically it's mine. And I really didn't consider you the type, Liv, who would renege on a gift."
Liv pulled back and stared at the phone in her hand as if it had just turned into a pogo stick and she couldn't understand the odd sounds coming out of it. This day seemed to come at her all at once, and she was well and truly, for the moment, dumbfounded. Shaking her head, she clicked off the phone without another word. She couldn't deal with it. With him. Not now. Not when there was a calm, perfect daughter mask she had to put on. Tonight was supposed to be a night for celebrating. She wasn't going to ruin it. Besides, her parents already had two other screwed-up adult children to worry about. They didn't need to add their oldest to the list.
* * *
After a short cab ride, farther uptown with her pies, Liv used her old key and made her way into her parents' modest, but now quite valuable, three-bedroom Harlem apartment. Using her foot to balance the door, she picked up her shopping bag, took a deep breath and made her way in.
"Hello. Ma, Daddy, it's me," she called out, half hoping she wouldn't get an answer and this whole shindig was some other night so she wouldn't have to deal with people and her jumble of emotions all at the same time. But she knew that was ridiculous. Of course it was tonight. The date had been firm for months, and she could smell the aroma of her mother's collard greens practically before the elevator doors opened on their floor.
"I'm in the kitchen!" Her mother's voice sounded light and bouncy, though Liv could detect the slight undertone of pre-party anxiety below the surface.
After closing the door and locking it behind herself, Liv made her way down the short foyer, passing the living room with its new matching suite of couch, love seat, and coffee table, not to mention the show-stopper: the fabulous new recliner with the flip-out cup holders that was her father's pride and joy. A joint retirement gift from Liv and her siblings, though to date both her brother and her sister still owed her most of their share for the chair. She shook her head and let out a sigh. What did it matter? Daddy was happy, and that was most important.
Turning a short corner, she looked into the long galley kitchen just in time to see her mother pulling a baked ham out of the oven. Really, a ham? She could have sworn there was some sort of rule about ham after Easter and before Fall. Glancing around, she could see that the counters were already full of food, not to mention every burner on the stovetop looked occupied. "Geez, Mom, think you've cooked enough food, or will we have to order out for reinforcements?" Liv said, teasingly.
Her mother, Anne Gale, gave her deep chestnut curls a shake as she slipped the pot holders off her hands and walked over to her daughter, leaning up to kiss her on her cheek. "Not today Miss Smarty-Pants. There is way too much to be done for me to listen to you trying to be cute. I still need the buffet table put out, the bar set up, and all the food arranged and laid out." She let out a long exhale and looked around as if searching for something. "And Lord knows where my good tablecloth is. I could've sworn it was in the front hall closet, but then again it's been lent out to Lynn so often ... she may still have it." She leveled Liv with a conspiratorial stare. "You and I both know she's not the best when it comes to returning things."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "As Good as the First Time"
Copyright © 2018 Kwana Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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