Nugget Romance #2
January 5, 2015
Kensington Publishing (Lyrical Shine)
Available in: Audio, e-Book, Trade Size
The small mountain town of Nugget, California, is way off the beaten path. But somehow it helps the lost and lonely find a new beginning in life—and in love…
One solitary day at a time is the only way cookbook writer Emily Mathews can restart her life—and cope with consuming loss. Still, the former city girl is finding all kinds of odd inspiration and advice from Nugget’s proudly eccentric residents on everything from new recipes to opening her heart again. Especially when it comes to her rugged rancher landlord…
His no-drama new tenant is the first break Clay McCreedy has had in a long time. He’s got his hands full enough dealing with his wife’s scandalous death and his sons’ unresolved grief. Clay can’t help but be drawn to Emily’s quiet understanding and strength. When their fragile trust turns into passionate healing, he longs for much more. And when both their pasts come calling, he’s determined not to walk away…
Emily gingerly wended her way around the moving boxes, each one labeled with bright red marker. Clutching a fistful of silverware, she managed to make it from the kitchen to the dining room without tripping over one of the cartons. It was amazing how much stuff people accumulated over the years. Her cookbooks and kitchen equipment alone would take up most of a large U-Haul.
At least Drew, her ex-husband, was taking the furniture, and the rest could be donated to the Goodwill. Where she was going, she wouldn’t need half the contents of this big house.
She did a quick appraisal of the table with its last-minute centerpiece—a bouquet of hydrangeas cut from the backyard—and began setting her best Laguiole steak knives at each of the six place settings. The knives had languished in storage since the last lunch. Emily knew that etiquette dictated that the sharp edge of the knife face the plate. To point the blade toward a guest was an ancient sign of aggression. Not good in a room full of FBI agents and police detectives, she reflected wryly.
But this would be the last time. The last lunch. Soon she’d be leaving here, the only home Hope had ever known. Her hands shook as she tried to rearrange the glasses. The guests were due to arrive in thirty minutes and Emily needed every second of that time to pull herself together. Even though it had been four years, the anniversaries were particularly difficult. Every painful detail of that July day—the chaos, the frenzy, the terror—looped through her brain like a skipping record.
Drew and her attorney had warned her against hosting that first anniversary lunch. “The police will use it to try to slip you up,” Drew had said. “They’re not coming because they’re your friends, Em. I’m a lawyer, I know.”
She had learned in those first few days of the investigation that the parents are always the primary suspects. But it had been a full year since Hope had been taken from them, and even if the police weren’t her friends, she needed them. The lunches had been Emily’s attempt at keeping Hope’s memory alive and her case file active, instead of being relegated to a dusty basement somewhere. Later, the lunches seemed to serve as a combination vigil/healing ceremony. The investigators were no closer to solving what had happened to her daughter than they were four years ago. And that had left indelible scars—even on jaded law enforcement.
To paraphrase the news clips, the trail had gone cold. The reporters had pounced on the next sensational story and the police had new, more pressing crimes to solve. Everyone except for her had moved on. Even Drew. He was getting remarried. And more than anything she owed him a fresh start, a chance at happiness. Even if it meant relocating to the ends of the earth. She hadn’t been able to bring back their daughter, but she could at least make amends for what she’d done.
* * *
Four days later, Emily climbed the steep grade into the Sierra mountains. Her old friend Joe had certainly been right about this part of the state being unbelievably beautiful. Verdant fields and miles and miles of pine trees. Snow still dusted the highest peaks of the mountains and her ears popped from the altitude. With the back of her hand she touched the driver’s-side window. Surprisingly, it felt warm. She’d been driving for nearly four hours from the Bay Area and figured she had to be close to her destination.
She’d lived in California her whole life and had never heard of the little railroad town.
Not only did the town have a paltry population of six thousand people, but she would be living in a barn. If the pictures did the place justice, it was a very nice barn indeed.
Joe had gone on and on about Nugget and his friend Clay McCreedy’s cattle ranch—“It’s exactly what you need. Fresh air and a fresh start.”
What she needed was to get her business rolling again so she could afford to pay her own way. At least in this mountain hamlet the rent was a pittance compared to the mortgage on her and Drew’s Palo Alto house. Even after the hefty sum they’d sold it for, there was little left. They’d racked up a pile of debt paying lawyers and private investigators.
Not only would it be far cheaper than anything she could afford in the Bay Area, but here, her neighbors weren’t likely to connect her to Hope. No longer would she have to suffer pitying looks. Or worse. Faces filled with suspicion and condemnation.
She glanced down at the directions she’d printed off Google Maps as she traveled the two-lane highway. There it was, to the left, McCreedy Road. She pulled in, drove for less than a mile, and parked on the shoulder to reread Mr. McCreedy’s instructions. They said to meet him at the big white farmhouse at one o’clock to collect the key. Up ahead, in the distance, she saw an outcropping of trees and assumed that must be the location of the house.
According to Joe, McCreedy Ranch, one of the first cattle spreads in the area, covered thousands of acres. He said Clay’s great-grandfather drove his cattle across the Nevada desert into Plumas County in the eighteen hundreds to sell beef to the gold miners. She had no idea where on the property her new home was located, whether it was near the house, or somewhere remote. The whole rental transaction had been done via email and Emily braced herself for the possibility that the place would turn out to be a total disaster.
Although the photographs had been lovely, she knew from experience the tricks a camera and a good stylist could play. How many times had she sprayed the outside of a cocktail glass with glycerin to make it look frosty for the lens, or drenched a day-old, dried-out pastry with hairspray to make it look fresh-out-of-the-oven luscious? Too many times to count. But she’d gotten the impression that Mr. McCreedy couldn’t care less about renting out the barn, that he was only doing it as a favor to Joe. So hopefully he wasn’t trying to sell her a sow’s ear.
Emily glanced down at her watch. It was nearly one o’clock. She nosed the van out onto the road again when a man on horseback caught her attention. On the other side of the split-rail fence, in a field carpeted with orange poppies, he galloped so fast it made her heart pound. With his head and shoulders pushed forward over the horse’s flowing mane, they beat across the pasture fast as a freight train. For a second, she thought her imagination had conjured him, a centaur, untamed and magnificent. From this distance she couldn’t make out the man’s features, just a black cowboy hat that began to blur as he faded into the copse of trees up ahead. She sat back to catch her breath; the sight and speed, so exhilarating, stirred something dormant in Emily’s breast. Something she hadn’t felt in four years.
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