COOKING UP AN INSTANT FAMILY
Rancher West Montgomery thought he needed Annabel Hurley's help just with cooking lessons. But the widowed single dad required more than great culinary skills to secure custody of his young daughter. Her maternal grandparents wanted little Lucy in a more stable environment. What could be more perfect than West's loving home...with his new wife?
Marry West Montgomery? That had once been Annabel's dream...until West had up and wed someone else. But now the cowboy needed her help—and was willing to save her family's business in return. She'd do anything to keep Hurley's Homestyle Kitchen open. Still, living in the same house with West, and adding his adorable daughter into the mix? This was surely a recipe for another broken heart.
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Meg Maxwell lives on the coast of Maine with her teenaged son, their sweet beagle and newest addition to the family, a black and white cat named Cleo. When she's not writing, Meg is either reading, at the movies, or thinking up new characters and plots on her favorite little beach (even in winter) just minutes from her house. Interesting fact: Meg Maxwell is a pseudonym for author Melissa Senate, whose women's fiction titles have been published in over twenty-five countries.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Barbecued catfish po'boy with Hurley's Homestyle Kitchen's famed spicy slaw would be tonight's special, Annabel Hurley decided—until all thought poofed from her head with a glance out the window. She ducked behind the industrial-sized silver mixing bowl, a glob of biscuit batter falling from the wooden spoon in her hand to her sneaker. She sighed at how ridiculous she was. Hiding behind a bowl because West Montgomery was coming up the path to the house? Heck yeah, she was. Annabel had been back in Blue Gulch less than twenty-four hours and already the one person she wanted to avoid was rapping on the door.
He had something in his hand, she noticed as she bolted up, another dollop of batter flying to the floor. Was that a checkbook? Maybe he wanted to wave his money around to secure a Saturday night reservation for Hurley's best table, the one that faced the Sweet Briar Mountain Range in the distance. Last night, Annabel's first at taking over as cook in the small restaurant's kitchen, Jillian Quisper, homecoming queen back in high school, had gotten engaged to PJ Renner right at that round table for two. Jillian had screamed for joy so loud that everyone in the kitchen had run out to make sure she wasn't choking on her plain green salad. It was no surprise that one of the wealthiest men in Blue Gulch would choose to propose in a small Western-style restaurant like Hurley's; most everyone in town had had their first date at Hurley's as teenagers. Parents knew Gram Hurley would keep an eye on kids. Plus, there was no better place to get country-fried steak, ribs or a pulled pork sandwich in the entire county. Hurley's Homestyle Kitchen meant something to just about everyone in town, homecoming queens included. Telling folks her intended had proposed on one knee at Hurley's over baby back ribs would get any gal "aws" from everyone, especially at the mountain-view table under the elegant little chandelier.
Annabel's experience with marriage proposals at that table was limited to old daydreams and nightly fantasies about West Montgomery on one knee—ha. As if West would propose the traditional way. He'd buy a plane and skywrite a proposal. He'd spell it out in rocks down by the clearing in front of the woods. He'd grab her hand, look her deeply in the eye, see everything she felt and whisk her away to Vegas for a quickie ceremony in the Elvis Presley wedding chapel, not that she'd ever get married without her gram or sisters in attendance.
And not that West Montgomery would ever propose to her.
Would anyone? Sometimes she thought her cooking skills were all she had going for her in the romance department. Way to a man's heart and all that. As if her ability to make a barbecue sauce to rival her gram's had gotten her anywhere but right where she was, standing in a kitchen.
West shielded his eyes from the bright April morning sunshine and squinted in the window. As he spotted her, surprise crossed his features; then he held up his hand with something of a nod.
Annabel gripped the wooden spoon, took a deep breath, ran her hands down the front of her apron, a mistake, since it was speckled with flour, and headed to the kitchen's back door. The restaurant was in the Hurley family home, an old apricot-colored Victorian that had seen better days.
He knocked again. What could he want?
Annabel Hurley, you are twenty-five years old. Open the door and find out!
So she did. The sight of him, six foot three, leanly muscular in worn jeans and a green chambray shirt, those intense brown eyes the color of driftwood, his thick, wavy hair so dark it was almost black, had her knees slightly buckling. He wore a black Stetson, which he tipped at her.
"Annabel," he said, unease clear. "I didn't know you were back in town." His gaze went to her sneaker, with the glob of batter, then to the spoon she held so tightly her knuckles were white.
She loosened her hold. And wondered if he even remembered their night—just a precious hour, if that—in the loft of the barn on his family's ranch. Given what he'd done the next day, she'd bet her meager savings he'd forgotten the minute she left that night. "Just got here yesterday."
He seemed distracted, as though there was something weighing on his mind. She knew that look of his well. She wanted to reach out and smooth the worry lines on his forehead the way she once had done, but she couldn't, of course. He took a deep breath, clearly bracing himself to make the expected conversation, to ask how long she was staying, if she was having a nice visit; West Montgomery wasn't one for small talk.
He glanced at his watch and said, "Is your grandmother here? I need to sign up for her cooking class that starts tomorrow." So much for pleasantries. For anything resembling regret for how he'd treated her.
Annabel couldn't help staring at him, her gaze going to the one dimple. The man was impossibly good-looking, so good-looking she almost missed what he said.
"You want to sign up for the cooking class?" she asked. West in a kitchen. She couldn't even imagine it. Her grandmother had been offering cooking classes every season in their big country kitchen for as long as Annabel could remember. When Annabel was in middle school, her older sister had pointed out that Gram had to start the cooking classes to make extra money because she'd taken in her three orphaned granddaughters. Annabel had started helping out in the kitchen from that day forward.
He glanced past her at the counter, where ingredients for Gram's Famed Country Biscuits and homemade apple butter were spread out. "Is there room in the class?" He held up the checkbook. "I'll pay double if it'll get me in."
Double? What was that about? "Actually we had to cancel the spring session. My gram's not well and is getting lots of tests done." At the thought of her beloved grandmother, Essie, collapsing in the kitchen, the weight of a pan of grits suddenly too heavy for the fit seventy-five year old, Annabel closed her eyes for a moment, worry and fear snaking their way inside. She should have been here. Instead she'd been hours away in Dallas, trying to make her life work—for seven years. She could feel the guilt flaming her cheeks and turned away.
He took off his hat and held it against his chest. "That's why you're back," he said quietly. "I'm sorry about your grandmother. A few months ago, I ran into her in the supermarket when I was buying a birthday cake for my daughter. I told her my attempt caved in on itself, and she told me to put the store cake back, that she'd bake one for me. I tried to tell her that wasn't necessary, but she insisted and asked what my daughter's favorite things were. The next morning she brought over a cake in the shape of a tree, decorated with green leaves, branches, crab apples and a climbing girl all set in icing. Lucy flipped. She still talks about her birthday cake."
That was Gram. Always helping, always going the extra mile. Annabel smiled at her grandmother's kindness, but at his little girl's name, her chest tightened. Though she'd only been back to Blue Gulch for holidays and birthdays, she'd once run into West's heavily pregnant wife at the grocery store and another time she'd seen West with a toddler on his shoulders at a parade, a little girl with huge hazel eyes and wisps of dark hair like her daddy's. Lucy must be six now.
She headed back to the counter and gave the biscuit batter a stir. "Why do you want to take a cooking class?" she asked to change the subject.
He stepped in and closed the door behind him, looking everywhere but at her. "I need to learn some basics. Omelets, fried chicken, maybe chicken salad with the leftovers for sandwiches. That kind of thing. And biscuits like your grandmother makes."
She noticed he didn't answer the question. "Your wife could teach you that, I'm sure," she said like an idiot, the face of Lorna Dunkin Montgomery pushing into her mind. Of all the beautiful young women in town, the guy of Annabel's dreams had fallen for the meanest, the ringleader of the group back in high school that had dubbed Annabel "Geekabel" and made her feel ashamed of her scrawny figure, frizzy reddish-brown hair and home-sewn clothes, and how foolish she'd been to even dare have a secret crush on a boy like West. Back then, Annabel had had exactly two conversations with West, both making clear that the maverick in the black leather jacket and combat boots, his hair slightly too long, was as complicated and kindhearted as he was absolutely gorgeous. But falling for Lorna? Marrying her? She'd never gotten that. And she'd never gotten over it either.
A few months after her...moment with West in his barn, she'd happened on the bride and groom coming out of the church, their families throwing rice. He must have gotten her pregnant, she remembered meanly thinking, to marry her after just a few months of dating. Gram had brought her tissues and homemade fudge brownie ice cream, and by the end of their conversation Essie Hurley had convinced Annabel to accept the scholarship she'd been offered to a culinary school in Dallas—her dream—rather than stay in town to help Gram with the restaurant. Maybe Annabel would come back to Blue Gulch; maybe she wouldn't, Gram had said. Follow your heart, wherever it leads. She'd wanted to come back home, cook for Hurley's Home-style Kitchen, maybe add a bit of city to the menu here and there to bring in business from the fancy steak house that had opened a few doors down. But then she'd seen pregnant Lorna. Seen West with his little girl and couldn't imagine watching the man she loved with another woman, a child. And so she'd stayed in Dallas, where she didn't belong.
"Lorna was killed in a car accident a little over a year ago," West said, his gaze going to his watch.
Shame at how she'd remembered his late wife came over her. "I'm very sorry, West. For you and your daughter." Annabel had heard through her grandmother that West's parents had died from smoke inhalation in a fire not too long after she went to cooking school. He'd lost his brother, his parents, his wife. So much loss at such a young age.
He held up his checkbook. "I made it out to Essie already. I realize you probably don't have a lot of time between the restaurant and seeing to your grandmother, but maybe you could squeeze in a lesson or two?"
Why was it so important that he learn how to make an omelet and a chicken salad sandwich?
She could help him out. A quick look at the books late last night made it clear that Hurley's Homestyle Kitchen had been losing money left and right the past six months—probably when Gram's health started failing. Essie had kept it a secret from everyone, even Clementine, Annabel's younger sister, who worked as a waitress at the restaurant. Annabel could use the money to keep inventory up, at least. For a few days anyway. Again she wondered if her older sister, Georgia, would come home. A businesswoman in Houston, Georgia was sorely needed at the restaurant to run the office, manage the financials. But she hadn't responded to Clementine's or Annabel's calls for two days now.
"Hattie, Gram's assistant cook, could probably teach you," Annabel said, realizing that despite needing his three hundred dollars for the six-week course, she couldn't bear the thought of being alone with him in close quarters, reminded of the night they'd shared, how she'd almost given all of herself to him and how he'd taken up with Lorna Dunkin the next day.
The next day. All over each other on the flat-topped boulder near where she went to pick herbs every afternoon. Their rock. She'd seen them with her own eyes.
Annabel turned away for a moment, chastising herself for how much it still stung, still hurt.
"Please, Annabel. I'm desperate."
"Desperate to learn to make biscuits?" she snapped before she could catch herself. Seven years ago was seven years ago. You 're not eighteen and he's not nineteen. He's a widower, for Pete's sake. A single father. And for some reason, he is desperate to learn to make biscuits.
He frowned as he stared at her. "Will you teach me to cook or not?" The hat went back on. "You can condense the class if you want, an hour a few times a week for two weeks, early in the morning before opening or after closing—whenever's convenient." He took a pen from his back pocket, filled out another check, and held it out to her. "A thousand dollars. Please, Annabel."
A thousand dollars? Oh, heck. That she couldn't turn down. You'll get through it, she told herself. You'll show him how to roast a chicken and cut up potatoes and that 'll be that. No big whoop. She glanced at him, then began stirring the biscuit batter even though it had thickened too much and was a lost cause. "The restaurant is closed on Mondays, so we might as well take advantage of using the kitchen. Be here at six sharp tomorrow. I'll assume you don't have your own apron."
His shoulders relaxed and he handed her the check. "Actually I do. My daughter made it for me during craft time at her camp last summer. Her colorful handprints are all over it."
She felt for the little girl who'd lost her mother. Annabel knew what that was like.
"Normally I wouldn't take this," she said, tucking the check in the back pocket of her jeans. "But things have been slow around here for the past few months since Gram got sick and didn't tell anyone. We could use the money."
He nodded and turned to leave.
"You don't mind that you're not getting Gram as your cooking teacher?" she asked. Have you thought about me once in all these years? Why did you call a halt to...things that night?
She knew why—thought she did anyway. Because it had dawned on him that he was getting hot and heavy with Geekabel. She'd just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He'd been grief-stricken over his brother's death and out of his mind; she'd been there with whatever comfort he'd needed. Then he must have opened his eyes and seen a too-skinny, frizzy-haired girl he'd never even noticed before, realized he'd been about to make love to Geekabel, sent her home and taken up with sexy, stacked Lorna Dunkin, with her platinum blond hair and 32-D chest and high heels. Annabel doubted that West even remembered her at all.
He turned back and held her gaze so intensely she had to look away. "I still think about that chili con carne you made me the day my brother died. I've never forgotten how good it was or how it actually managed to distract me for a minute from my grief. And you were how old, barely eighteen?"
So he did remember. An image pushed into her mind, of finding him sitting atop that big rock near the field where her gram had always sent her to collect chick-weed and henbit, his arms wrapped around his knees, his head down, his back shaking. West Montgomery, sobbing, his older brother, an army soldier, killed in Afghanistan.
He shifted, straightening his Stetson and digging his hands in pocket. "Anyway."
"Anyway," she said, unable to stop the memory of the way he'd held her seven years ago in the barn where he'd hidden out during most of the sympathy visits to his parents' house. He'd eaten the chili and they'd talked some, and she'd known he wanted to say thank you but couldn't speak, wanted comfort but couldn't ask for it, so he'd just hugged her tightly and held on for a full minute, Annabel gripping his shoulders. He'd kissed her then, her knees actually buckling from the surprise, the sensation, the dream, and he'd picked her up and laid her down on the blanket in the straw.
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