The Secret Recipe of Ella Dove

The Secret Recipe of Ella Dove

by Karen Hawkins
The Secret Recipe of Ella Dove

The Secret Recipe of Ella Dove

by Karen Hawkins

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Overview

Three lives converge as a wildly talented baker returns to Dove Pond to face her past in this “enthralling story of losing, loving, and finding your way home again” (Woman’s World).

Ella Dove is an acclaimed baker whose desserts spark vivid, cherished memories in those who taste them. A restless soul, Ella goes wherever the wind takes her—but driven by a haunting dream, she’s coming home to Dove Pond. Years ago, her mentor, Angela Stewart Harrington, falsely accused Ella of stealing her beloved family recipe book, known as the Book of Cakes. Now, Ella believes it’s time for them to reconcile.

Angela has her own share of amends to make. Her daughter Jules has never forgiven her for divorcing her father, and they’ve been estranged ever since. But just as Angela begins to hope that she and Jules might mend their tattered relationship, a miscommunication turns into a lie that could destroy everything.

Meanwhile, Jules’s son Gray is shocked that Ella, his first love and his first heartbreak, has returned to Dove Pond. But even though he knows Ella is a wanderer and will soon leave, he’s unable to stop himself from falling for her once again. Can Gray find a way to convince Ella to give him, and their town, a serious chance? Or is he once again on the road to a broken heart?

With so much at stake, Ella, Angela, and Gray must learn to accept each other—flaws and all—and trust that love can, and will, always find a way. For fans of Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen, The Secret Recipe of Ella Dove is a “spellbinding story” (Robyn Carr, #1 New York Times bestselling author) that will warm your heart and charm your senses.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982195922
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 08/15/2023
Series: Dove Pond Series , #3
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 106,898
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Karen Hawkins writes novels that have been praised as touching, witty, charming, and heartwarming. A native Southerner who grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee where storytelling is a way of life, Karen recently moved to frosty New England with her beloved husband and multiple foster dogs. The Dove Pond series is a nod to the thousands of books that opened doors for her to more adventures, places, and discoveries than she ever imagined possible. To find out more about Karen, check in with her at Facebook.com/AuthorKarenHawkins, on Instagram @KarenHawkinsAuthor, and on her website KarenHawkins.com.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Ella CHAPTER 1 ELLA
Food brings people together, warms the heart, and feeds the soul.

The Book of Cakes, p. 21

Written: 1792–2019

Ella Dove came home on a lazy, scorching, bee-buzzed evening. As she turned her rental car off Interstate 40, her phone rang. Sighing, she hit the answer button on her car screen. “Hi, Tiff. What’s up?”

Tiffany Harper, a fresh-faced social media whiz, had been Ella’s assistant for five years now. Tiff and her team of production experts were worth every penny of the hefty amount Ella paid them too. “Are you home yet?” Tiff asked in her way-too-perky voice. No matter the circumstances, she always sounded as if she were about to announce she’d just won the lottery.

“Almost.” Ella turned onto a small country road and rolled her aching shoulders. The last eighteen hours had been brutal. Just this morning, she’d stuffed as much as she could into her two largest suitcases, handed the keys to her Paris patisserie with its adorable apartment upstairs to its new owner, jumped into a cab, and headed for the airport. From there, she’d flown for ten long and bumpy hours to Atlanta, where she’d picked up the rental car Tiff had reserved, a feisty red Lexus. Now, after five hours of driving, Ella was almost home, jet-lagged to the bone, and already jonesing to leave. “I need a nap.”

“I bet,” Tiff said with sympathy. “But I thought you’d want to know that Matt from Ferndale Farms called. They’re worried about your content now that you’ve moved stateside.”

Ella grimaced. She would be so glad when her contractual obligation to Ferndale Farms was over. The name “Ferndale Farms” might make people think of cozy little farms set in the sunny countryside, but it was actually a huge multinational food syndicate. When Ferndale had bought her small Ella Dove Pie Company for a price she couldn’t refuse, they’d offered a huge bonus if she agreed to do a brand partnership with them for two years. In the beginning, the extra social posts had seemed harmless enough—especially because she already had Tiff and her team to help produce content for her growing accounts—but sheesh, Matt was a pain. “How much longer are we obligated to them?”

“Let’s see. This is August fifth, so... six months, one week, and two days.”

Ella smiled. “You knew I was going to ask.”

“Who wouldn’t? I told Matt his target audience—your over two million followers on the Gram and four million plus on TikTok—would love the new content. Small towns are ‘in’ right now.”

“It is a pretty town,” Ella admitted grudgingly.

“Charming. Speaking of content, what do you have planned? We need something fresh.”

“Content. Right. I’ll make a cake first thing tomorrow.” Just the thought of baking eased the tension in Ella’s shoulders. Tired as she was, her soul itched to get back into the kitchen. “Maybe a lemon pound cake.”

“And?” When Ella didn’t answer, Tiff sighed. “What do I always say about content?”

Ella tried not to roll her eyes and failed. “‘Cakes alone won’t do it. You have to share bits of your life, too.’” She hated that, but Tiff was right. The metrics didn’t lie.

To be honest, Ella couldn’t believe she could make so much money just by sharing videos of her making cakes mixed with casual glimpses of her so-called baking life. Ella had made a small fortune thanks to the sponsorships Tiff and her team had managed to line up, which had allowed her to develop her brand far more quickly than other bakers. “Maybe I could do a time lapse of me setting up the kitchen at my old house with my favorite kitchen tools.” At this very moment, a large yellow suitcase in the trunk of her car held her favorite cookbooks, three special aprons, a crazy-expensive Japanese knife, her favorite rolling pin, some unique cookie cutters, and more.

“Ohhh, that could be fun. Paul could do something cool with that.”

“Paul’s video editing skills are sick. He can make dust look interesting.” Ella would rather produce content at the old Dove home than wander around town anyway. Being a Dove in Dove Pond inspired the exact kind of expectations she hated. People watched her as if she might wave a wand and make all their dreams come true. Her magic was in her cooking, in making a cake that could allow a person to relive a prized, sometimes-forgotten memory. When compared to her sisters’ abilities, her magic seemed pretty tame.

“Terrific!” Tiff said. “And get some vid of your sister Ava’s Pink Magnolia Tearoom. I saw the website and it’s perfection.”

“Sure,” Ella said. “I’ll go down there tomorrow and—” There, right above her wrist, rested a vivid slash of pink strawberry frosting that hadn’t been there a second before. Her heart sank. Stupid frosting. She swallowed. “I’ll get that content to you ASAP.”

“Great. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.”

Ella ended the call and reached for her tote bag from where it sat on the passenger seat. She pushed aside a wrinkled newspaper, pulled out a napkin, and cleaned the frosting from her wrist.

She’d told Tiff she was coming home to take care of some family matters, but that was a lie. Over the past four months, she’d been plagued by annoying dreams in which she was chased by a giant, silver-papered cupcake with strawberry frosting. In every dream, the huge cupcake chased her through the tree-lined streets of Dove Pond to the highest point of Hill Street. The dream always ended with her standing alone and terrified in front of the Stewart house.

She might have been able to ignore those dreams, but every time she had one, sometime after the dream had ended, strawberry frosting would appear somewhere on her arms or legs. Sometimes it showed up as a plump rose, perfectly made, as if ready for a wedding cake. Sometimes, like just now, it showed up in a long, delicate curlicue. The frosting was always pink, always smelled like strawberry, and was always annoying. And it was why she’d come back to Dove Pond. There was only one person who might understand what was going on.

She turned her car down Main Street and fell in behind a faded blue pickup truck. The sun shimmered on the hot asphalt as a faint breeze rippled through the stifling air and flapped the red awnings that adorned the storefronts, the smell of heat, hay, and summer diesel hanging in the air. The early-evening sun warmed the small American flags still on the light poles from the July Fourth parade a month ago, and glinted off the plate glass fronts of the small stores she knew all too well.

People who didn’t know Dove Pond would see only the names of the businesses, but she’d grown up here. She knew Paw Printz was “Maggie and Ed Mayhew’s pet store” and the Ace Hardware was “Stevens’s hardware,” while the Moonlight Café was “Jules’s place” and had the best meatloaf on earth.

Ella slowed down as she passed her sister Ava’s new tearoom. The old brick building featured a beautiful wrought-iron bow window filled with colorful pastel canisters of Ava’s specialty teas. Ella absently wondered when she, or any of the other town residents, would drop the “new” part of “Ava’s new tearoom.” Probably never. The people of Dove Pond weren’t the sort to embrace change. That was one of the many reasons Ella had left. She loved change. It kept her from drowning in boredom.

Sadly, Ava and Sarah didn’t understand Ella’s aversion to sameness. Their unbridled enthusiasm for Dove Pond and everything in it was as irritating as their heavy-handed attempts to convince Ella and her other sisters to move back home. Together, the two were as subtle as a dump truck rolling downhill without brakes.

Ella reached the end of the street, but instead of turning onto Elm Street toward the Dove house, she headed in the other direction. At the edge of town, the houses were smaller, had less trim, and were much farther apart. Ella turned off a windy, narrow road and into the driveway of a familiar yellow house.

Aunt Jo sat on her front porch, her cane leaning against the windowsill near her chair, her chunky bulldog Moon Pie asleep at her feet. Her colorful dress of blue and pink flowers clashed with her fluffy purple slippers as she steadily snapped green beans from a brown paper bag into the yellow bowl in her lap.

Ella parked under the huge oak tree, grabbed her purse, and climbed out, the humidity stealing her breath. Whew. Paris got humid, but not southern US humid. She climbed up the stairs, loving that the porch floor was painted a deep aqua while the ceiling above was a familiar but welcome haint blue. “Good afternoon.”

“You’re late.” Aunt Jo dropped some green beans into the bowl in her lap. “I expected you last week.”

Ella dropped her bag beside a faded wicker chair and sat. “Sarah told you I was coming.”

“She never said a word.” Aunt Jo snapped a bean in half with a bit more force than necessary. Although she was sitting in the shade, she shone with dampness, the humidity dewy on her dark skin. “You Doves aren’t the only ones who know things.”

Ella nodded toward the two glasses of lemonade sitting on the side table. “I hope one of those is for me.”

“One is. This heat is something else.” Aunt Jo pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her shiny brow, her eyes twinkling. “They say the water’s so hot in Lake Fontana that the fish are jumping into boats fully cooked.”

Ella laughed and took a sip of the lemonade. The drink was the perfect combination of tart and sweet. No one knew flavors better than Aunt Jo. “Don’t order lemonade in France. You’ll get a nasty beverage called citronade.”

“France.” Aunt Jo made a face. “Why did you have to move there, anyway?”

“A lot of reasons. It’s beautiful.”

Aunt Jo’s gaze moved past Ella to the large fields around them where yellow and purple flowers dotted the green rye grass. “It’s beautiful here, too.”

“I know, but—” Ella shrugged. “I just wanted more. Not money or fame, but more... happiness, I suppose.”

“You can’t move to happiness. You have to find it where you’re at so you can take it with you everywhere you go.”

Ella tamped down her impatience. As if it were that easy to “find happiness.” She forced a smile. “Plus I wanted to learn patisserie from the best.”

“I could have taught you everything you needed to know right here.”

Ella couldn’t argue with that. Aunt Jo had a remarkable understanding of pastry, which Ella hadn’t truly appreciated until she’d gone to cooking school and realized that, thanks to Aunt Jo, she already knew most of the methods that were taught. Ella swirled the lemonade in her glass, an icy drop splashing onto her knee. “I wish I could have taken Momma to Paris. She would have loved it.”

Aunt Jo’s eyes grew shiny. Moon Pie lifted his head and looked at Aunt Jo, who bent down and gave him another pat. “I still miss your momma. We were as different as day and night but had a lot in common. That’s the mark of true friends. You’re different and yet the same.”

Ella couldn’t argue with that. Momma’d had a heart condition—which eventually took her—and it had made her quiet and slow-moving. Meanwhile, Aunt Jo was as loud and powerful as a freight train. When she laughed, her round belly shook like a TV Santa Claus, and she laughed often. But while the two women had been physical opposites, both had strong, determined spirits.

Aunt Jo took a deep drink of her lemonade, a trickle of water dripping off the bottom of the glass and landing perilously close to Moon Pie’s nose. “Your momma would have had a cow if she’d known some of her girls would up and move away.”

“Ava and Sarah are still here.”

“The rest of you aren’t.” Aunt Jo’s gaze narrowed. “Do you even keep in touch with your sisters? Enough to know what’s going on in their lives?”

“I know Ava’s new tearoom has been a huge success and that Sarah’s moved back in after their little tiff.” Which hadn’t been that little, although Ella and her other sisters had wisely stayed clear of the whole thing. “I also know that Sarah is dating the local sheriff, Blake McIntyre. It’s about time they finally admitted they liked each other.” Ella wasn’t sure what was going on with the rest of her sisters, which she didn’t want to admit. I should give them a call while I’m here. “Oh! I also heard that you’re judging the First Baptist Bake-Off this year. That surprised me. You’ve always said you haven’t seen crazy until you’ve seen First Baptist Bake-Off crazy.”

There were two churches in Dove Pond—the First Baptist Church and the First Methodist Church. Most people went to one or the other, and due to the limited citizenship of their small town, the competition between the two churches had grown into something fierce over the years. That had made the bake-off a rather contentious event. Ella shook her head. “How did they rope you into that? Besides, I didn’t think Bev Turnbull would ever give up her judge’s seat.”

“They caught her accepting a bribe. Twenty pounds of premium bacon.”

“Whoa! What a scandal.”

Aunt Jo nodded. “After an especially pointed sermon from Preacher Thompson about the evils of succumbing to enticements, she confessed all and resigned. After that, the preacher asked me to take over and I couldn’t say no.”

“Couldn’t pawn it off on someone else?”

“Who? You?” Aunt Jo pinned Ella with a stern look. “You being a celebrity chef and all might turn people’s attention away from the Bacon Bribery Scandal and focus on the actual competition.”

“If I was going to be in town, I’d do it. But you don’t need me, anyway; you’ll be a terrific judge.” Ella reached over and grabbed some beans from Aunt Jo’s paper bag and began snapping them, dropping them into the bowl as she finished. “Just look at you, saving the day, as usual. This town would be lost without you.”

Aunt Jo made a face. “It’s hard to say no to Preacher Thompson. He looks as if he might be Idris Elba and Halle Berry’s secret man-child.”

Ella raised her eyebrows. “Why haven’t I seen this guy?”

“Because you never stay long enough to visit new people, much less go to church. We could rectify that omission if you’re of a mind. Come with me this Sunday.”

That was only six days away. Hmm. If I stay an extra week, then I could legitimately miss my annual Thanksgiving visit and kill two birds with one stone.

Why not? It wasn’t as if she had anything else to do. She didn’t have much of a plan once she finished her mission here in Dove Pond. That was how she liked to do things. Overplanning took the fun out of life. Ella dropped another handful of snapped beans into Aunt Jo’s bowl. “Sunday is a date.”

Aunt Jo cut her a skeptical look. “Really?”

“Really. By the way, I brought you something.” Ella reached for her purse and pulled out a small package. She handed it to Aunt Jo.

“What’s this?” Aunt Jo undid the ribbon and opened the present. Inside the small box was a shiny cookie cutter. “This—why, this looks like my house!”

Ella nodded, pleased to see Aunt Jo’s smile. “We’re developing a line of Ella Dove kitchen utensils. I sent the company making our cookie cutters a picture of your house, and we’re going to include it in the line.”

“Well, well. That’s nice.” Aunt Jo placed the cutter back into the box and set it on the table at her elbow. “I’ve always loved this house.”

“Me too.” Ella grabbed some more beans from the brown paper bag at Aunt Jo’s feet and went back to snapping them. “I wanted to give you that present, but I had another reason for visiting. Aunt Jo, I need your advice.”

“Ask away. I like giving advice. It doesn’t cost much.”

Ella had to smile. “It’s weird, but I keep having this dream and it always leaves me feeling lost, somehow.”

“Oh?” Aunt Jo’s hands fell back into a steady rhythm as she scooped up beans, snapped them, and then dropped them into her bowl. “How often have you had this dream?”

“Dozens of times. And it’s always the same. I dream I’m here, in Dove Pond, and I’m being chased up Hill Street by a huge cupcake with strawberry frosting.”

“Does it catch you?”

“I don’t know. I always wake up before that happens. But every time I have the dream, I find strawberry frosting on me the next day when I’m wide awake.”

Aunt Jo’s hands froze in place, her eyes widening. “Ohhh, Ella. That’s not good.”

Oh no. That was not the reaction Ella’d been hoping for. “It’s just a weird dream, right?”

Aunt Jo set her bowl of beans to one side and leaned forward. “Your dream has crossed.”

An uneasy feeling clutched Ella’s stomach. “What do you mean ‘crossed’”

“It’s moved from the dream world into reality. It expects you to do something.”

Great. Just great. “Do what?”

“The dream will tell you what. If you want your dream to go away and that frosting to stop showing up, then you have to do whatever the dream wants.”

Ella grimaced. “I was afraid of that.”

Aunt Jo’s eyebrows rose. “You know what the dream wants you to do.”

“Maybe. In the dream, I always end up in front of the Stewart house. Angela Stewart Harrington and I had a dustup a few years back. It must be that.”

Aunt Jo looked surprised. “You know Angela Harrington well enough to have had an argument with her? She’s almost as old as I am.”

“I went to high school with her grandsons, and they both played baseball, so I saw her when she’d come to town for team games. That’s why I recognized her when I ran into her a few years ago on Fifth Avenue, when I was in New York teaching for Le Cordon Bleu.”

“That’s a big city. That’s a chance meeting if there ever was one.”

“I know, right? Maybe she was homesick for Dove Pond or was just being kind, but she invited me to spend the weekend at her house in the Hamptons. We had such a great time that it became a ritual. I spent almost every weekend that summer at her house with her, her husband John, and her grandsons. Sometimes her daughter, Jules, was there too.”

Aunt Jo’s eyes narrowed. “I heard you dated Gray at some point. I think Sarah mentioned it, or maybe Ava.”

Ella shrugged. “He was at Angela’s house, which was how we started talking, but it was nothing serious. Angela’s the one I need to settle things with.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because of this.” Ella reached back into her purse and pulled out a wrinkled newspaper. She handed it to Aunt Jo, pointing to a picture.

Aunt Jo’s brow instantly furrowed. “That’s Angela’s second husband, John. He died a month ago.”

“It’s his obituary. He worked at the New York branch of a French bank. The article says Angela would be moving home to be with friends and family following the funeral.” Ella took the newspaper back and looked at the picture of the handsome white-haired man. “He was always kind to me when I visited.” She sighed and dropped the paper back into her purse. “About a week after I started having those dreams, that newspaper blew down the street and fell open to that exact page right at my feet.”

“Then you did the right thing, coming here. What did you and Angela argue about?”

“She accused me of stealing a family heirloom.”

Aunt Jo stiffened. “As if you’d do such a thing!”

“It made me furious, too.” Ella still got mad when she remembered that day. It had been late evening and she’d come downstairs with her suitcase, ready to go back to the city. Unlike her normal visits, it had been a less-than-fun Sunday, because that was the day she’d broken up with Gray.

Dating Gray had been a mistake, but at the time it had just seemed like a fun summer fling. Or at least, that was all it had been to her. She should have known better; he was more intense and emotional than the men she usually flirted with. But he’d had a smile that she couldn’t resist, and no man had made her laugh more.

On that day, still feeling a little down after facing Gray’s hurt expression when she’d ended things, she’d gone through the kitchen on her way out and had found Angela and Jules arguing, their faces red. On seeing Ella, Jules had given her a hard, cold look and then stormed away.

Ella had assumed Jules must have discovered that Ella had broken up with Gray, but then Angela, looking tired and dispirited, had asked, “Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

Angela’s mouth thinned. “The Book of Cakes has gone missing, and Jules is certain you took it.” Angela had nodded toward Ella’s suitcase. “Is it in there?”

Ella struggled to absorb the words. The prized possession of the Stewart family was an old, cherished cookbook filled with handwritten recipes from across the decades. Since most of the recipes were desserts, someone along the way had started calling it “the Book of Cakes” and the name had stuck. “Angela, I didn’t take your cookbook. How can you even say that?”

“Fine. Then prove it.” Angela, her back stiff, tapped her finger on the kitchen table. “Put your suitcase here. I want to see what’s in it.”

Ella simmered, but she yanked up her suitcase and dropped it on the table. “When you’re done, I expect an apology.”

Angela opened the suitcase. Besides clothes, Ella’s favorite rolling pin was there, as were copies of two recipes she’d brought for them to try, and her favorite apron, too. But there was nothing else. Angela shut the case, looking yet more weary. “It’s not there.”

“Of course it’s not. I can’t believe you’d think it would be.” Fuming, Ella snapped her suitcase shut. That was when Jules had burst back into the room.

It was obvious she’d been listening in as she descended on Angela. “Make her give it back! If she leaves, we’ll never see it again!”

“As if!” Ella yanked her suitcase off the counter. “I would never ever steal anything, much less a recipe book. Not from you, Jules, and definitely not from your mother, who is a close friend of mine.” She sent an accusing look at Angela. “Or so I thought.”

Angela turned red but didn’t reply.

“Then who took it?” Jules demanded, her voice shrill. “It’s gone and no one has been here but the family and you.”

“It wasn’t me! Angela, you know me. Tell her I would never do such a thing.”

Angela wasn’t able to look Ella in the eye. All she did was spread her hands on the empty counter in front of her as she slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ella, but I have to agree with Jules. None of us would have taken it, which leaves you.”

That was it for Ella. “I didn’t, and wouldn’t, steal a cookbook or even a recipe from anyone. I’m not that sort of person. And if you don’t know that by now, then I’m done with all of you.” She turned on her heel and, suitcase in hand, headed out the door. She was so mad that the drive home was nothing more than a blur.

A week passed, and then two. Ella kept expecting a phone call with an explanation, if not an apology, but it never came. She didn’t make friends easily, and she’d felt an unusually close connection with Angela. The confrontation had left Ella surprisingly low.

So, after a series of slow days filled with teaching and even slower nights spent perfecting recipes, she was relieved when, three weeks later, she was offered a job in Paris at a world-renowned patisserie. The job wasn’t supposed to start for six more weeks, but as soon as she finished her final class, Ella packed her things and headed for France, desperate to put some space between herself and the weight of her thoughts. The whole thing was a mistake. How could anyone think that I—a pastry chef, no less—would steal a family cookbook? No one reveres a cookbook like a chef.

Realizing Aunt Jo was watching her with a concerned gaze, Ella forced a smile. “It was an ugly time.”

Aunt Jo scowled. “I hope you gave Angela a good what-for.”

“I told her the truth. That’s all I could do. After that, I left for Paris, and we never spoke again.”

“Ah. You left and so the situation was never resolved.” Aunt Jo clicked her tongue. “Still running away from your problems, are you? No wonder your dreams are pushing you around. You need some pushing.”

That wasn’t fair. Ella said stiffly, “It’s not my fault Angela accused me of stealing that silly cookbook—”

“Cookbook?” Aunt Jo’s eyed widened. “The Book of Cakes?”

“You know it?”

“Years ago, Jules made a buttermilk pie for the Ladies’ Club, and the recipe was in that book—I saw it sitting open on the counter. I only got a glimpse of it before she realized she’d left it out and whisked it away. It looked old.”

“The first recipe came from the seventeen hundreds. It’s an amazing collection,” Ella admitted grudgingly. “All of the Stewart women pick a page and add some words of advice along with their favorite recipe. Angela’s was for her hummingbird cake.”

“She makes a fine one.” Aunt Jo picked up her bowl of green beans and placed it back in her lap. “So you think your dream wants you to settle things with Angela.”

“That must be it. I’ve tried to call her, but the number I had is no longer in service. I called Jules too, but she hung up on me. Repeatedly.” Ella shrugged. “So I came here.”

“You were right to come here. Poor Jules has a full house nowadays. Mark still lives there and helps his momma run the Moonlight Café. He’s turning into a fine line cook. But then all the Stewarts are good cooks.”

Ella started to point out that Mark’s last name was Phillips and not Stewart, but then decided not to bother. His mother had worked at the family café from the time she was in high school on. Despite getting married later in life, the locals refused to accept her married name and continued to call her Jules Stewart and referred to her sons as “the Stewart boys.”

Aunt Jo shot Ella a look from under her lashes. “Grayson is back in town, too.”

Ella dropped her gaze to where the early-evening sun was slanting across the toes of her shoes, hoping Aunt Jo hadn’t seen how much that surprised her. One of the things she and Gray had had in common was a dislike for their tiny, smothering hometown, so she’d never expected to hear that he was in Dove Pond.

“He bought the old Morris farm off old Route 9,” Aunt Jo continued, “cows, sheep, and all. Jules says he’s doing some cutting-edge agricultural stuff out there, turning that farm into some sort of scientific food haven and growing things without soil. It sounds like a scam to me. He’s gotten all sorts of attention for it, though. The Raleigh news station did a whole segment on him and his farm.”

Ella shrugged. It didn’t matter if Gray was around or not. She needed to speak to his grandmother, not him.

Aunt Jo offered a green bean to Moon Pie. The bulldog sniffed it and then turned away. “Picky eater.” She placed the bean in front of him and then returned her attention to Ella. “It’s a pity you and Gray didn’t work out. I like him.”

Ella finished breaking the beans still in her lap and dropped them into Aunt Jo’s bowl. “You know I don’t like being tied down. It’s too much like work.”

“Real love is work; it just doesn’t feel like it. That’s how you know it’s real.” Aunt Jo pulled some more beans from the paper bag beside her chair and handed them to Ella. “Where will you go after you’re done here? Sarah says you sold your shop and apartment in Paris.”

Ella had no idea, but she wasn’t about to admit that to Aunt Jo. “I might write another cookbook. Or maybe I’ll open a new patisserie somewhere exciting. I’ve never been to Japan.”

Aunt Jo frowned. “What are you looking for, Ella? Adventure? Excitement? Love?”

Ella let her gaze wander from the porch to the fields shimmering in the breeze. The rye grass ran greenish-gold to the purple line of the mountains that encircled their little town. It was beautiful here. And safe, too. But safe wasn’t enough. Frankly, she wasn’t sure what was.

Suddenly restless, she finished the beans and dropped them into Aunt Jo’s bowl. “I should get going. Sarah and Ava will be waiting.” Ella collected her purse, then stood and kissed Aunt Jo’s warm, round cheek. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Aunt Jo gave Ella a quick, fierce hug. “It’s good to have you home.” The older woman released Ella and then shooed her away. “Get on with yourself. Your sisters will be wondering where you are. Tell them I said hi. And don’t forget about Sunday.”

“I won’t.” Ella headed off the porch to her car. Waving goodbye, she was soon on her way to Elm Street, where her sisters waited. It would be good to see them... or it would be, until the hounding began.

First thing in the morning, Ella would head to the Stewart house to talk with Angela, which would hopefully end those annoying dreams and frosting attacks. Ella could only hope she wouldn’t come face-to-face with Gray. Ugh. Why is nothing ever as simple as it should be?

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