Welcome to Mill Pond and small-town country living, filled with fresh air, fresh food, and plenty of fresh gossip—especially when it comes to romance…
It’s impossible not to notice when someone new shows up in Mill Pond. Especially someone as obviously out-of-place as Ian McGregor. His stylish suit and fancy car scream “city slicker.” And when Tessa Lawrence discovers he can’t even change a tire, she has no choice but to help. That’s just what the locals do. And when she finds out Ian’s her new neighbor, of course she’s obliged to invite him to dinner too…
Turns out Ian’s come from New York to open a luxury resort on the property next door to Tessa’s farm, where she grows berries and sells her famous jams and delectable baked goods. But despite their quickly growing friendship and temptingly close proximity, Tessa plans to keep things with Ian strictly neighborly. For one thing, Ian’s got a fiancée who, unlike Tessa, doesn’t have dirt under her nails. Plus, Tessa knows from bitter experience that a guy this gorgeous is all too likely to break a simple country girl’s heart. Even if he’s as sweet as one of her cinnamon buns—and equally hard to resist…
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Cooking Up Trouble
A Mill Pond Romance
By Judi Lynn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Judi Lynn
All rights reserved.
Buck Krieger was busy with another customer, so Tessa finished loading the last of the blueberry bushes into her old, beat-up pickup alone. She rubbed her lower back. Before making the drive here, one town over, she'd dug the holes for each and every bush, and her muscles felt it. The new patch was going in the long, rectangular plot on the east side of her property, right after the strawberry beds.
A breeze whipped strands of her tangled, coppery hair across her face. She scraped them behind her ears. She'd used the new, fancy combs her mother had sent her, but they couldn't tame her thick, wild locks. She'd given up and tossed the combs into her purse. That's what she got for trying to look feminine when she was doing outdoor work.
Her mom would be disappointed. Mom tried, bless her, sending make-up kits, wrapped in pearly pink paper, and certificates for facials or manicures. If Mom saw her fingernails this spring, she'd die of heart failure. Dirt rimmed every one of them. It was impossible to keep them clean when she worked in the gardens every day. That wasn't even the worst of it. Mom would sit on her and smear sunscreen on her face if she saw the new sprinkle of freckles that peppered her nose and cheeks.
Bushes loaded, Tessa started down the narrow, nursery drive slow and easy. Winter had washed enough gullies in the gravel to make for a bumpy ride. She'd paid in advance, but Buck still stopped her to say his goodbyes. "You already have plenty of blueberries for jams. These are for pies, right?"
Tessa smiled and nodded. The man loved his pies. When she'd inherited her grandparents' small farm, it came with plenty of orchards and berry patches, and he'd become a steady customer.
Buck leaned against her truck for a short chat. "People were in here, asking about you earlier today. Thought they'd drive out to your place and look you up."
"I didn't see anyone. I wasn't at the house, though. I was working on my berry beds. Did you get their names?"
"Ann and Rich York. Seemed like nice folks."
She couldn't hide her surprise. No, make that worry. Why would they look her up? Gary's parents had always been kind to her, welcomed her into their lives with open arms when Gary took her home to meet them. She gulped a deep breath.
Buck frowned. "Guess it's a good thing you missed them."
Tessa squared her shoulders. "They're my ex's mom and dad. Nice as can be, but I don't need the memories." It had been three years since she'd walked into Gary's apartment and found Sadie in his arms. Three years since she'd taken off her engagement ring and hurled it at him. He'd called out to her when she stomped down the stairs, but what was there to say? It was over. Done.
Buck nodded. "Some things are best left in the past."
She forced a smile. "Well, these bushes aren't going to plant themselves. I'd better get going."
Buck backed away from the pickup. His expression said he was sorry he'd ruined her day, but how could he know?
When she reached the country road at the end of Buck's drive, she turned left toward her white bungalow and the acres it sat on. She'd turned the barn in the side yard into a farm stand and bakery. She closed the stand each winter and didn't reopen until the first of May, two and a half weeks away, but she sold baked goods all year 'round on Fridays and Saturdays with special requests available by order.
She was halfway home, flying past farm fields, when she saw a sleek, black car parked on the side of the road. A dark-haired, lanky man stood beside it, waving his arms to get her attention. He wore a suit and black shoes that gleamed in the sunlight. She pulled up beside him and rolled down her window.
"I'm in a jam," he said. "My car has a flat, and I'm not sure where I am, so I can't give directions to get help."
He was damned good-looking. Not gorgeous, but easy on the eyes. She didn't trust him already. Good-looking men would eventually cheat. Women threw themselves at them, and they caved after time, succumbed to temptation. She had to give this guy credit, though. He didn't try the charm or smiles that most handsome men used, and she was sure it would work for him. He looked to be about six-four with black hair and brown eyes. Off-limits.
Tessa frowned. "Do you have a spare?"
He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "The car's a rental. I'm not sure."
Tessa got out of her pickup. "Let's look in the trunk. Mill Pond's only a few miles away. A donut'll get you there. You can get a new tire and be on your way."
He unlocked the trunk and pointed at the empty space. "See? Nothing's there."
Tessa blinked at him and shook her head. She flipped up the dark mat and pointed to the wheel well with its spare and jack.
A blush rose to his cheeks and he pressed his lips together. "I live in New York. Don't own a car, always use public transit. I've never changed a tire."
Tessa shrugged. "I've changed plenty of them. I own a farm. Something's always breaking down. Give me a hand."
He tried. He really did, but he was pretty much useless. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest as she changed the tire. When she finished, he said, "Let me pay you for your help. I appreciate your rescuing me."
Tessa laughed. "Not exactly a rescue. Your life wasn't in danger, and someone else would've come along."
"I still appreciate it." He pulled out a wallet and riffled through the bills.
"We don't do things that way around here. When we offer help, it's because it's the right thing to do. You might want to stop in town for a new tire, though. You don't want to drive too long on a spare. Try Garth's Gas Station. He's good at repairs and won't overcharge you."
"Thanks. The place I'm going to is close to Mill Pond." He put his wallet away and narrowed his eyes, studying her. "Do you live around here?"
"Orchard Knoll." She wiped her hands on her jeans. The dirt from the tire joined the dirt from her gardening. "My property bumps up against the east side of the lake."
He stared. "I think you may border my property — Lakeview Stables. I closed on it last month, and I'm finally ready to move in and get it running."
"You're the new owner?" Tessa and Ned Cooper, a Mill Pond old-timer, were two of the few people in Mill Pond who didn't have something bad to say about Sam Dramer, who'd lived there previously. Sam complained about anything and everything, constantly causing a ruckus, but Tessa's jams and baked goods had won him over. And Ned had known him since they dipped fishing lines together when they played hooky from grade school.
He held out his hand. No calluses. Definitely a city boy. "Ian McGregor." A smile lit up his face. "I guess we're neighbors."
"Tessa Lawrence. Are you on your way to your property now?"
"Then follow me. I'll take you to Garth's station and then drive you to your place." She got in her old pickup. "It's been empty for a month now. Are you staying there?"
"I hired people to get one room on the ground floor ready for me. Then I can oversee when the crews come to clean and paint the interior. I'm making it into a lodge."
She'd heard that. It would be the perfect property with a wide expanse of beach and rolling, green horse pastures.
"Would you like to see it?" he asked. "I've heard the former owner hardly ever invited anyone inside."
She smiled. "Sam and I got along fine. I bribed him with fresh treats and jams."
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You must be the woman who runs the farm stand and bakery."
"Yup, that's Orchard Knoll." Before she thought about it properly, she said, "If your car's not finished in time for supper, you could stop by my place. Feel free."
"Okay, what time?" He accepted faster than she'd expected. It was a neighborly thing to do, to invite him, but she didn't really think he'd take her up on it.
"Is six okay?" She'd already put the roast and vegetables in the slow-cooker and she'd baked a pie before she left the house.
"I'll be there."
Damn. He might seem like a nice guy, but he probably wasn't. She'd invited him, though, and she couldn't take it back. With a nod, she got in her pickup and motioned for him to follow her. She led him to Garth's garage, waited for him to explain his problem, and then she drove him to Lakeview Stables.
He inhaled a deep breath when he saw the place. Built of flagstone, the central building stood three stories high with two long wings branching off of it. White trim set off the stonework, and a red tin roof matched the red double doors at its entrance. It was one fine-looking place — outside. Nothing had been done to it inside since Sam's wife died twelve years ago.
Ian shook his head. "It's as beautiful as I remember when I came to inspect it."
Tessa noticed the fallen branches that dotted the yard and the overgrown bushes. "This place could use some love again. I'm glad you bought it."
"Come with me to see if the key works? I'd hate to be stranded out here."
City folks. If buildings didn't bump up against each other, they didn't feel comfortable. She got out of the pickup and pointed across the tall grass in the paddocks toward the direction of her property. "My place is over there."
"How far?" He frowned at the vast spaces that surrounded him. The front yard faced the country road, and the back of the property rolled down to meet the lake. The paddocks sprawled on one side, and an overgrown field sprawled on the other. Rumor was he was going to make that property into some kind of fancy golf course and add tennis courts at the back some place. Plus, add horses for riders.
"Sam had to use a golf cart to get to his mailbox and back before he moved. It's in the barn. Drive that over. This road's not busy, at least, not yet."
"Not yet?" He turned to frown at her.
She shook her head. "Everyone here's expecting a lot more traffic once your place gets popular."
His frown deepened. "Does that bother you?"
"It'll take some getting used to, but everything changes, doesn't it? It's part of life."
"I guess so. This has been my dream for a long time, owning a resort." He opened the front door and took a step inside the house. "It's not as dusty as I expected it to be."
"Iris Clinger hired Luther to clean it up a bit."
Ian sighed and ran a hand through his dark hair. "Luther?"
"The boy who works for me summers and on Saturdays all year. A hard worker. Don't get any ideas. He's mine." She didn't add that Luther was the moodiest kid she'd ever met and you had to understand grunts to communicate with him.
Ian turned his warm brown eyes on her. They looked almost golden in the center. "Does everyone know everyone else around here?"
She laughed. "It's a small community. If you fart in your front yard and the wind's blowing east, your neighbor will be talking about it the next time you see him."
He blinked. "I'll try to wait till the wind's blowing toward the lake."
She shook her head. "No good, the wind usually blows to shore. You'll have to wait a long time."
He stared at her a minute, then threw back his head and laughed. "I get it. Everyone knows your dirty laundry here."
"Then I'd better learn to be discreet."
She raised her eyebrows. "Hmm, that much to hide? This should be interesting."
With a grin, he motioned for her to follow him as he toured the first floor of the house. A small room, near the back, had a double bed made up and ready. He went to the kitchen and opened a few cupboards. A bag of ground coffee sat in the one above the coffee pot. "No food, but I can figure that out later."
"No problem. When you come to my place for supper, I'll send you home with some leftovers and a coffee cake for breakfast."
He turned and reached for her hand. "Thank you. You've been really nice. It's made this easier."
She felt a blush creep up her neck and stain her cheeks. "We're neighbors. It's what country neighbors do."
"Well, I appreciate it. If you ever need any help, let me know."
She couldn't hide her surprise.
He glowered. "I might not be good with tools, but I'm good at finances, business, things like that."
"So am I, but thanks for the offer."
He stared. "You're good at money management, too?"
"I took accounting before I dropped out of college."
He thought a minute. "If you need a spider killed, a hand held, I'm your man."
He was pretty sweet, really. But Gary had been sweet, too. Nice, handsome men might make great friends, but nothing more. "I'll keep that in mind. For now, I've got to go. I have blueberry bushes to plant. You have a beautiful place. Settle in and I'll see you at six."
With a nod, he watched her go.
On the drive home, she couldn't help thinking about him. Boy, did he have a lot to learn. She'd been lucky. She'd stayed with her grandparents every summer before she'd moved here. She knew what to expect of a small town. She had a feeling Ian McGregor didn't have a clue.CHAPTER 2
Tessa spent the next few hours planting her new bushes. The knees of her jeans were caked with dirt, her cheeks were smudged, and she looked a mess. But by the time Ian knocked on her front door, she'd showered and changed. She wore her good jeans and a long sleeved, cream-colored T-shirt. Once the sun set, the air turned cool. She let her hair dry naturally, flowing around her shoulders, which meant it curled every which way.
When she opened the front door for him, he held out a bottle of wine before he entered the house. He stared at her. "You have gorgeous hair."
She laughed. "Thanks, come in." Men always noticed her hair. It was flattering, but nothing more.
Ian stepped into the foyer, stopped to soak in his surroundings, and then sighed. "This place feels so homey, cozy. I'd like to get that feel at the lodge."
"Lived-in. My grandparents owned it before they gave it to me."
She led him toward the kitchen at the back of the house, but he kept getting sidetracked to look at things. "I didn't realize bungalows were this spacious."
She shook her head. "This is a wide one."
"With a big, inviting porch. The lodge needs a bigger porch." He glanced out the front window at the wicker furniture. Then he studied the arches that connected the living room to the kitchen and the side hallway. "How many bedrooms?"
"Two down, two up."
"Nice. The lodge is bigger. Do you think I could make it feel warm like this?"
"Let's talk about it over supper. Everything's ready. When we're finished, I'll give you a tour of the place."
"I'd like that." He grinned. His grin was good. A girl could be swayed if she wasn't careful.
He sighed again when they walked through the arch into the kitchen. White cupboards lined three walls. One row had glass panels to show off the dishes, bowls, and crockery inside. Granite counter tops provided plenty of workspace. Oak floors gleamed in the sunlight spilling through the windows. He sniffed the air. "I wish Lily liked to cook."
He jammed his hands into his jeans pockets, embarrassed. "My fiancée. I came here to get things ready, and then she's going to join me."
"Smart girl, she'll miss all the dust and mess."
Ian frowned at her. "I should have told you about Lily sooner. I wasn't thinking. If you cooked a meal to impress me ..."
Tessa snorted. "Sorry, I'm not looking. I invited you over because you're my neighbor. I'm glad you're engaged. Now we don't have that awkward guy-girl thing to worry about."
Color tinged his cheeks. "I sounded like an ass, didn't I? But girls have invited me for home-cooked meals before, hoping —"
She cut him off. "I get it. No problem."
His shoulders relaxed. "We can be friends?"
"That's my limit these days." She motioned him to a seat at the cherry table and went to carry the food over. "Why don't you pour us some of that wine?"
His gaze scanned the area, the French doors that led out to a three-season room and the white picket fence that bordered the small yard beyond that. Flowerbeds circled the fence, new shoots just beginning to sprout. An herb garden grew at the corner by the house. Beyond the private yard was a vista of gardens and trees, all leading to the lake.
"Where's your bakery?" he asked. "In town?"
She dished chuck roast, potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery onto his plate, then filled her own, then passed him the sautéed green beans. "No, there's a breezeway that leads to the garage. It blocks the view of the barn on that side of the property. That's where the farm stand and bakery are."
"So you never have to leave your property, if you don't want to."
"I'm not very social, but being around people is nice now and then. It's convenient having everything close, though. I spend a lot of time in the barn and gardens in good weather."
He looked up from his plate, frowning. "And in bad weather? What do you do then?"
Excerpted from Cooking Up Trouble by Judi Lynn. Copyright © 2016 Judi Lynn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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