As a schoolteacher, Miriam is used to being the one in charge. A born leader with a whip-smart sensibility and a pair of legs that can't be beat, she is adored by many but has never found her one true love. For the most part, that's fine: she has a fulfilling career, a big-hearted family, and a great social life with her best friend Daphne and her better half, Chef Tyne. But when a micro-brewery owner comes to Mill Pond in search of a new beginning, Miriam can't help but wonder whether fate has something else in store for her. . .
Joel is a single father whose divorce left him bruised, bitter, and solely focused on running his business. He doesn't have time to go out on dates, much less begin a new relationship. But when he meets Miriam, he's offered a glimpse into a life he never thought possible. Her warmth and wit are an alluring combination-and she hits it off with his daughter, too. Soon Joel finds himself fantasizing about spending a lifetime of "happy hours" with Miriam. But are each of these strong-willed singletons willing to give up their independence and give love a chance? All it takes is just one kiss to find out . . .
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Read an Excerpt
First Kiss, On the House
By Judi Lynn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Judi Lynn
All rights reserved.
Miriam Reinhardt rested her elbows on the bar and slumped forward on her stool.
Chase, the bar's owner, quirked an eyebrow at her. "That bad?"
"What can I say?" She reached for her purse and pushed a ten-dollar bill toward him. "It's the beginning of May. My students can smell the last day of school in their future. They get distracted if a breeze blows through the windows."
"How many years have you taught?"
"You're not old enough for that, but it's been long enough to know the drill." He grinned, and even after all these years, Miriam admired his good looks and easy charm.
"What will it be?" He picked up a mug.
"Hemlock on the rocks."
"Out of it at the moment. Your usual?"
"Beer fortifies me. Make it a double." She looked up as Tyne and Daphne walked through the door.
Tyne didn't work on Monday nights, so they came to flank her, each taking one side and leaning in to hear about her day. They were so freaking happy since they'd gotten married, it almost made her teeth hurt.
Tyne narrowed his eyes, studying her. The man could dazzle at a thousand paces. So could Chase, who came to deliver a glass of wine to Daphne and mugs for her and Tyne. How in the hell had she chosen such attractive friends? It made her tall, gawky awkwardness all the more noticeable. Not that it mattered. Everyone in Mill Pond was used to her dark, corkscrew curls and endless boniness. They didn't give her a second glance, but a man she didn't know at a nearby booth kept staring at her. It was getting on her last nerve.
"Don't the kids call you Drill Sergeant Reinhardt?" Tyne asked. "I'd lay money you keep them working till the last minute of the last day of high school."
She couldn't deny that. "They all know my reputation. I expect their best and they'd damn well better deliver it."
Daphne sipped her wine, then asked, "The end of the year's when you hit them with your big guns, isn't it? What have you got them doing now?"
"Comparing how three different writers of their choice deal with a social issue in their novels."
"Say again?" Tyne reached for a bowl of popcorn and drew it toward them.
Miriam tried to explain. "They pick a topic. Maya —"
Tyne interrupted. "Our Maya? The girl who lives with Paula's mom at the inn and helps babysit for the employees with kids?"
Miriam nodded. "A superbrain. She chose women's roles in society. She's reading Pride and Prejudice, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood."
Tyne stared. "You know this is high school, right?"
"It's my advanced English class. I expect more. Greg Lewis plans to study public finance in college. He chose The Wolf of Wall Street,The Grapes of Wrath, and Nothin' But Blue Skies by Edward Mc-Clelland."
Chase had a break between customers and came over to listen. He gave a low whistle. "How many pages do their papers have to be?"
"Ten, but they get to work on them during class and ask for feedback."
Daphne took another handful of popcorn. Miriam's best friend had gained a few pounds after marrying Tyne, but they looked good on her. "That's only for your advanced class, right?"
"My two regular classes only have to read one book and report on its theme." She took another swig of her beer and looked up to see the man at the booth openly staring at her again. He didn't even have the decency to look away when she caught him at it. What was she? Some kind of freak show for his entertainment? Irritated, she snapped, "What are you looking at?"
The man grabbed his beer, gave a big smile, and rose to join them at the bar.
What the hell? Before she could blurt out something rude, Daphne interrupted. "I should have introduced you. Joel Worth, this is my friend, Miriam, and my husband, Tyne. Joel's renting the apartment above my stained-glass shop until he can find some place permanent to stay. He came to Mill Pond to start a microbrewery."
Chase's aquamarine eyes sparkled with interest. He reached across the bar to shake Joel's hand. "It's about time we had local beers to serve around here. Are you opening a bar?"
He didn't sound a bit concerned about competition. Why would he? When Miriam came for a burger and beer in the summer, she had to come early to find a seat. So many tourists visited Mill Pond during peak season that there'd be enough business for both him and Joel.
Joel grimaced and shook his head. "Not a true bar. Too much work. I noticed there's no hot dog stand around here. I'm going to serve brews and dogs."
Chase licked his lips. "I love a good dog."
"Finished on a griddle, right?" As a chef, Tyne took food prep seriously. Miriam had been invited to enough dinners at Daphne's to appreciate his skills.
"Yup. I've already ordered the flattop and a steamer for the buns. I have a good Coney sauce recipe, but I'm still tinkering with that."
Tyne's brown eyes sparkled. "Maybe I can help you."
When Joel frowned, Daphne explained, "He's a chef. He knows food."
"For free? The last chef I asked wanted a bundle for his expertise."
"This is Mill Pond," Tyne said. "Neighbors help each other."
"Even if my place is on the edge of town?"
"You're looking at the old dairy, right?" Chase asked. "That's a good location, close enough that tourists will drop in."
"Iris Clinger is taking me there for one last look-see tomorrow." He shrugged. "Or did you already know that, too?"
Daphne shook her head. "Get used to it. This is Mill Pond. Everyone knows everyone else's business."
Chase refilled Miriam's mug. "Anyone who lives around here is a neighbor. It takes new people a while to get used to us, but we pitch in if we can."
"And you?" Joel's gaze turned to Miriam. "Do you own a shop in town?"
"Not me. I'm a lowly English teacher." She took another gulp of beer.
He locked gazes with her. "I always had crushes on my teachers. I like smart women."
Yeah right. Every kid fell for their first-grade teacher. Not that many were enamored of the high school teacher from hell. Miriam glanced at Joel's left hand. No ring. But some men didn't wear their wedding bands.
He caught her looking and smiled. "You're single, too?"
"Yup, the town's official old maid schoolmarm."
"For a schoolmarm, you seem to really like beer."
He had her there. "I'm not classy enough for wine. More of a broad, if you know what I mean."
"Do you like sports?"
She wrinkled her nose. For her, the two didn't necessarily go together. "I'd rather watch Pride and Prejudice."
"I can do that, too."
Was he hitting on her? How desperate was this man? He was pleasant enough to look at, five ten with limp, sandy-brown hair and gray eyes. Not a hottie like Tyne or Chase. Just nice. He had a little belly on him, not the rock-hard abs they had. Miriam liked bellies — a soft pillow to rest your head on.
Miriam raised her eyebrow — her school teacher intimidation tactic. "Be warned, Daphne's new friend. I have an acid tongue."
"And a great laugh. They balance each other, don't you think?"
What was with this guy? He hardly knew her. He must not have gotten laid for a long time and was looking for a quick thrill. That was fine with her. He was nothing special, but then, neither was she.
She'd never been good at coy, so she decided to be direct. "I'm too busy for any distractions until school's out. I'm going to be buried in term papers."
"Works for me. I'm a patient man." He drained his glass and gave her a wink. "I'm setting up my brewery. I'll be busy, too, but whenever you want me to make time for you, let me know." He put money on the bar and nodded at the others. "Nice meeting all of you."
Miriam stared as he walked out the door. Then, she asked, "Do you think he's for real?"
Tyne and Chase grinned in unison. Tyne's brown eyes glittered with amusement. "I think you've got yourself a contender, Drill Sergeant."CHAPTER 2
Joel gave his daughter, Adele, a kiss on the cheek before he left for the day. "What do you have planned while I'm gone?"
She grinned. "I'm going to watch old movies on the Hallmark Channel. You got the internet connected yesterday, didn't you?"
He switched on the TV and flipped to the right station. He didn't like to leave Adele alone in front of the TV, but he'd kept her busy the last few days, unpacking and getting the kitchen and bedrooms ready to live in. They hadn't unpacked anything but the basics, but they could manage here until they found someplace better. "Do you have everything you need for snacks and lunch?"
She nodded, impatient for him to leave. "There's plenty of deli meat in the refrigerator for sandwiches and you bought yogurt and hummus and a cupboard full of chips."
"If you need anything ..."
She interrupted him. "Daphne's downstairs in her stained-glass shop."
Joel felt torn. He'd talked to Daphne about Adele and she'd volunteered to be backup if he needed her. She knew Adele would be alone today and had agreed to check on her between customers. He'd left Adele before and she was fine, but he always worried. She was nineteen but had been born with cerebral palsy. His blond, pretty daughter would be mentally twelve for the rest of her life. He'd trained her over and over again not to answer the door when he was gone and never to use the stove, and she'd always followed his instructions. Usually, she just sat in front of the TV and lost herself in show after show. That was why he only left her on her own when he couldn't think of some other arrangement.
A car honked at the curb and Joel grinned. "Enjoy yourself. Be safe." Then he ran down the stairs and out the door to slide into Iris Clinger's car. "Can we finalize the deal today?" he asked.
Iris gave her pleasant smile. Close to sixty, she was a little on the plump side with red hair that had faded to sandy-colored. She had warm brown eyes and laugh lines. "If you like it, it's yours. All you have to do is sign the contract."
Relief flowed through him. He'd made the right choice moving to Mill Pond for a fresh start. He'd bought and fixed up enough strip malls that when he'd sold them all, he'd have a secure future whether the microbrewery made much money or not. At thirty-seven, he could try something fun, and he'd always wanted to make beer.
Iris drove him to the old dairy on the southeast edge of town. The long, low building had an office near the front door. The place was big enough to suit his needs, and it sat on enough property to put a trailer near the trees in back.
Iris waved a hand. "Well? What do you think?"
"This will work." There'd be enough room for a dining area and a family room besides the brewery, and it would be easy to add a patio outside.
She gave him a sideways glance. "Do you think your wife will like Mill Pond?"
Joel bit back a smile. Iris knew he had a daughter. She was trying to find out if he was married. "I hope not. That's why I'm moving, to get away from my ex."
Iris lit up. She must consider herself a matchmaker. "We have a lot of pretty girls in Mill Pond."
"Most of them would run from me."
"You're selling yourself short." Iris looked him up and down. "You seem especially nice to me."
"I try to be, but my daughter's nineteen. She can't use her right side very well and she'll always be mentally challenged. Most women don't want to take on a kid who'll never be able to leave the nest."
Iris's expression melted with sympathy. "Her mother doesn't help?"
Joel shrugged. "My ex-wife is fragile, troubled, couldn't deal with Adele. Can barely cope herself."
"You poor man."
"I've stopped thinking of myself that way. I thank the heavens every day for Adele." Okay, his marriage had been a bust, but April had given him Adele. He'd married her with the idea of rescuing her, but he'd been young. There were some things you couldn't fix. He hadn't realized the odds were too stacked against him. Then Adele had been born with problems, but how many parents had such a sweet, generous child? True, she'd always be a child, but there was some beauty in that, right?
Iris hesitated. "Mill Pond is a close, giving community. Adele will be well-treated here."
The same thing people had said at the bar the night before. After his conversation with them, he'd realized anything and everything he told Iris today would be known all over Mill Pond by morning, but he was okay with that. People might as well know all his dirty laundry. Then it would be out there, in the open. "I'm hoping to put a trailer on the back of the property close to the trees."
Iris frowned. "But there are plenty of nice houses and cabins for sale."
"I know, but eventually, I'll probably end up with my brother, Miles." Might as well spill the beans now and get it over with. "He's an alcoholic who's struggling to get himself together. I'd like to hire him as a custodian for the brewery and let him live on site."
Iris took a deep breath. "Are you going to take in every troubled person you can?"
"Nope, I've learned my limits. Only family, and Adele and Miles are more than enough for me."
She placed a hand on his arm. "I've lived longer than you have. Take care of yourself or taking care of others will drain you, leave you empty. You won't have anything to offer, not for them, not for yourself."
He appreciated her honesty. "That's why I left my ex. I understand what you're telling me."
Her shoulders relaxed. She'd been worried about him. That was nice. "So, do you want to sign the contract?" she asked.
Once their business was over, she drove him back to town. On the way, he thought about their conversation. He'd grown up with Miles. He recognized a troubled person when he saw one, so why had he gotten April pregnant when they were seniors in high school? Because he was young and stupid and she was so needy, he'd wanted to make her feel loved. Talk about naïve.
Never again. If he ever fell in love again, it would be with someone sturdy and solid. An Amazon.
He thought of Miriam. The woman looked like she could give as good as she got. A challenge.
He pushed her out of his mind and turned to Iris. "Are there any outlets around here you think would be good for my product?"
"Honey, you've come to the right place." She turned at Lake Drive. They passed farms on the far side of the road and the marina and public beaches on the other. "You need to meet Ian McGregor. He runs the resort on the lake and his wife owns the bakery and farm stand next door."
She parked in the lot of a sprawling inn with the lake at its back. It offered tennis courts, a golf course, and horse stables. Joel was impressed. She led him inside and a tall man with dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes circled the check-in counter to greet him.
"Joel, this is Ian," Iris said by way of introduction.
Ian extended a hand. "Tyne told me about you."
Tyne popped his head out of the office when he heard his name and grinned when he recognized Joel. "The beer maker! Nice to see you again." He followed Ian to greet him. "I've been tinkering with Coney recipes."
Joel blinked his surprise. He'd been worried he'd be odd man out in a small town, that longtime residents would be cliquey. Instead, he'd been greeted with open arms. Not what he'd expected. "I asked Iris about possible markets for my beer and she brought me here." Joel had researched Mill Pond, but he hadn't thought of selling beer to the inn.
Ian gestured him toward the inn's dining room. "A good thing. We buy all our wine from Harley's winery, but we've never offered beer. We try to avoid name brands to support local farmers and suppliers. Once you get up and running, stop by to talk to me."
"Will do." Joel's gaze roamed to the wide expanse of windows at the back of the room. The view of the lake was stunning.
"You need to meet Mill Pond's farmers and suppliers," Tyne told him. "I work night shifts, so I can drive you around and introduce you to them. I have tomorrow open. What do you say?"
"Who could turn that down?" Joel shook his head. "You people sure are friendly. I was worried it would take me twentysome years to fit in here."
Ian laughed. "Mill Pond's trying to grow, to attract more tourists. Every businessman wants the next one to succeed. That way we can offer more, draw in more people."
It made sense. These people worked together instead of competing. Joel felt himself relax more. He might not only make it here but he was sure to enjoy the new people he'd meet.
Excerpted from First Kiss, On the House by Judi Lynn. Copyright © 2017 Judi Lynn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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