Excerpt for Valentine Kisses by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Valentine Kisses

A Moore Sister Romance

Ann B. Harrison

 

 

Valentine Kisses

Copyright © 2018 Ann B. Harrison

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

First Publication by Tule Publishing Group 2018

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-948642-10-0

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

The Moore Sisters of Montana

Excerpt from Christmas Glitter

Watson Brothers series

About the Author

Prologue

Bella Moore thought she had everything she ever wanted. After winning Masterchef, she has her own reality show and a contract for two cookbooks a year, with people lining up for her to appear on their shows, attend events, and promote their goods. Burnout creeps up on her fast and even though she tries to insist she’s fine, the show’s producers give her six months’ hiatus because they want her fresh and vibrant for next season.

Not one to sit back and relax completely, she thinks visiting her sister’s in Cherry Lake and helping with the hotel is the only things that will save her from boredom. That way she gets to reconnect with her sisters and her nephew as well as keep her mind occupied. Win/win situation. A small hotel, old-fashioned kitchen and people that don’t ask for more than she is prepared to give sounds perfect before she gets there.

What she doesn’t expect is to clash with the fire chief over her new position. The last chef left the kitchen in a mess and Bella has to step up to help her sister get the premises ready for her next big event. His suggestions are great and she gladly puts them into practice, but the more he is around, the more rattled she becomes. She isn’t here for love, and to think of starting something she can’t finish makes her feel ill.

Jake Woods lost his wife a few years ago and is now happy to concentrate on his teenage son and his job as the local fire chief. He thinks a love like he shared with his wife only comes around once in a lifetime.

Until the new chef at The Lake Hotel almost burns the place down. The kitchen needs renovating but Bella says she’s wary of getting too involved because she has to return to the city when her forced break is over. The outdated equipment needs to be replaced and he is keen to help, but will that make it harder for him to let her walk away when her time is up?

With Bella’s reputation already preceding her, it’s tempting to go all out and do the best for everyone, even at the risk of falling hard for Jake. She’s feeling so much better for the break already. New ideas come to mind and instead of going off on a tangent as she used to, Bella makes notes and puts them in a file for later.

Her sister, Mari, wants to do something special for Valentine’s Day. Her Christmas Tree Auction and Gala worked so well she wants to put the hotel on the map and make a name for it. Bella has an idea. She calls her producer and makes a suggestion for a spin-off to her show which would also make her life so much simpler. They go for it. Now she is confident she can make a move on the only man that has ever made her think to put down her cooking tools when he is around.

Chapter One

You’re kidding me! What the heck are we supposed to do for Sunday dinners now?” Cory huffed and dropped his shoulders, a typical fifteen-year-old’s response to bad news.

“It’s not the end of the world. I do know how to cook.” Not usually one for feeling guilty, Jake Woods looked to his father for a little bit of confirmation. Woodsie sighed, not quite the sound Jake wanted to hear. “Come on, Dad. When have I ever given you something that wasn’t edible?”

Woodsie dabbed his mouth with the napkin, smoothed down his trademark moustache and gave the hotel owner a quick glance. “Sure hope you have someone else lined up to cook for you, Mari. Not sure I can handle steak, steak, and more steak every night. Man’s gotta have a bit of variety, don’t you think?”

Her laughter turned more than a few heads which only added to Jake’s embarrassment. “Oh, I understand alright.” She patted Jake on the shoulder. “Sorry, Jake, but I feel their pain. Not that you don’t do a mean grill, from what I’ve heard, but choosing a range of different types of food is always a good idea if you want to keep the family happy.” She picked up his empty beer glass. “I’ve been advertising but, so far, no takers who’re capable of running the restaurant and helping me expand. I’d be more than willing to take on a novice chef if they had the right mindset.”

“Such a shame when you’re doing so well here. Best thing that happened to the town, you moving back and taking on the old place.” Jake leaned back in his chair, glanced around the restaurant, noticed Mari’s son Noah sitting at a table in the corner with a coloring book and a drink, his gaze going to the door every few minutes. Other diners seemed oblivious to the impending doom that was sending his family into decline. “Seems as though there’re going to be a few disappointed patrons who’ll have to go elsewhere for a decent family meal besides us. Shame my lot will starve since my cooking is so bad.”

Cory croaked. “I never said it was bad, Dad. Geez, talk about being a drama queen. All I meant was that I’ll miss the nice kind of food that we don’t get at home. It’s only one night a week we get to go out and try proper cooking, you know.”

His words earned him a quick hug from Mari. Jake loved how easily his son had fitted in with the Moore family. First Mari who had returned to Cherry Lake to bring up her son away from the rush of the big city and then her younger half-sister, Dakota, who’d fallen in love with his friend, Adam Clement, soccer player and idol of Cory’s. The Moore sisters had gone a long way to help fill the void left in his boy’s life since they’d been in town. It was understandable that losing their Sunday night tradition was going to leave him anxious.

“Don’t worry too much, Cory. I’ll make sure the restaurant won’t be closed for too long.” She scooped up another empty glass and stacked them in the crook of her arm. “Now, for her final hurrah, Penny has created a cherry cobbler for dessert that’s to die for. Noah had a small tester earlier and I couldn’t help but try it too. That warm sugary goodness is going to make your taste buds sit up and sing, I promise. Shall I tell her three servings?”

“Sounds good to me.” Jake was in the mood for something sweet to try and banish the sour mood that kept creeping in when he least expected it. “Thanks, and you’d better make Cory’s a double helping. Boy seems to be eating more than me nowadays. Must have a growth spurt happening because he can’t ever seem to get full. I swear, I’ve had to buy him so many new clothes this year too.”

“I train hard with Adam and the guys. ’Course I’m gonna need to bulk up. Gotta increase my calorie intake too.”

“So it’s got nothing to do with girls, all that preening you’re doing in the mirror these days, flexing those muscles of yours or the extra time you’re taking exercising?”

His remark earned him a glare from the teen. “No. Gotta bulk up a bit if I want to play in college. Adam thinks I’m good enough and you always say never let a chance go begging.”

“True, I do.” Even though Cory had a few more years to go before that was a possibility, Jake wasn’t looking forward to letting his son go.

He was the only connection to Lisa and there were days he still missed her more than life itself. He’d started to wonder if it was more a case of missing someone, of having a relationship, that gave him the hollow pain in his gut. He thought he’d mourned and moved on but it was hard to tell when loneliness hit.

“So long as you don’t fill up on junk food, you’ll fill out soon enough. Don’t go trying to rush things.”

Mari laughed and walked away to place their order for dessert.

“So, tell me the latest on how the training is going then?” Woodsie focused on his grandson, giving Jake time to relax and let his mind wander.

He was staring at the door, his mind blank when it burst open and a woman bolted in with all the energy of a small typhoon, a gust of cold wind helping her on the way.

“Aunt Bella!” Noah came running from the back of the room and charged right at her. She caught him as he launched himself into her arms. “You came. I knew you would.”

“My, look how you’ve grown!” She twirled him around, her knitted cap falling from her head. Her long, unruly hair fell to her shoulders but she ignored it. Should have tied it up like she usually did but it was nice not to have to face the mirror and make herself look glamorous for the cameras. She laughed loudly before remembering she stood in her sister’s place of business. With a grimace, she put Noah down, glanced around the room. “Sorry, folks. Got a little bit carried away here. Missed the little guy.” She giggled as her nephew pulled her by the hand through the tables to the back of the room.

“Mom’s out in the kitchen. Come on, she’s going to be so happy you’re here at last.” He tugged her past the diners, some of whom had started to whisper in that staged “oh, my goodness, isn’t that Bella Moore” and whipped out their cell phones for a quick shot in the way she’d never gotten used to.

Once out of view from the restaurant patrons, she could breathe. So much had happened these last couple of weeks, her head still spun from the rush of it and being in front of people who knew her only made it worse.

A swish of a door followed by a squeal of delight came from behind her. “Bella, you came. I wasn’t sure you meant it when you called me because you’re always so busy.” Mari engulfed her in a hug, lifting her off her feet and squeezed her tight. “It’s so good to see you.” She put her down but didn’t let go.

“Of course I came. I told you I would.” She wriggled out of Mari’s arms and undid the buttons on her coat before she slipped it from her shoulders, glancing around the heritage hotel. The sweeping staircase, carved panels, and engraved glass gave her a quick sense of being somewhere comfortable and cozy. No wonder her sister had fallen in love with the place. It was gorgeous, or at least it would be when she finished refurbishing it. “So, this is the fabulous Lake Hotel.”

“Yes, it is.” She glanced at Bella and huffed out a sigh. “Well that was the plan anyway, to make it beautiful. I’ll get there eventually. Come and have a look around. Once dinner service is over and I can breathe, you can tell me all about the reason behind your visit.” She took Bella’s arm and walked her into the small open lounge room by the stairs, tossing the coat over the banister.

“I wanted to see you all. Is that a crime?” That excuse wasn’t going to work and she knew it even though it sounded good when she’d thought of it on the drive here. She tucked her arm around Noah’s shoulders. “And I missed this guy like you wouldn’t believe.”

Noah giggled and wriggled out of her reach. She grinned as he took a seat on the stairs and watched them. He’d always been a keen, quiet observer.

“Come on. As if you expect me to believe that. You can see us anytime you like, but aren’t you in the middle of filming next season’s show?”

“Kind of finished actually.” Bella looked around the foyer, poked her head into the ballroom and sighed. “This place is gorgeous.”

“It is, right? This is where we held the Christmas gala ball and in there”—she opened the door to the smaller ballroom next door where the stacked furniture was covered in drop sheets—“is where we displayed the Christmas trees we raffled off after the competition. The plan is to turn it into a romantic restaurant where lovers can get away from the burger and fries diners out front. I want something a little bit classier than what I have now. Something I can use for weddings and other functions if I ever get that organized.”

Bella walked into the smaller room, glanced around, her mind going full pelt on possibilities. She could see the tables, lit with candles, the sumptuous decorations only outdone by the food and wine list. She could even imagine the bride and groom sitting at the head table surrounded by family and friends.

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Mari knew her better than she thought if she could see what was going on in her head.

Some days Bella rued the ideas that ran through her mind without any effort at all. But not tonight. A new spark of interest made her smile. What she could do with this hotel given unlimited funds and free reign. Mari obviously already knew it, but this building would make the best venue for weddings and any other celebration if it was done right. Her sister wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. Bella almost wished she was here for longer than six months. Maybe when she’d finished taping the last season of her show, she could come back and do something to help her sister. This was something she could get her teeth into. She’d love nothing more than to help Mari bring the premises to their former glory with the added benefits of modern technology. But so much was up in the air and she didn’t dare make plans she couldn’t keep.

“You know what. You’re plotting already and you’ve only been here like five minutes if that. You need to tell me what’s going on, Bella, because something isn’t right. I never would’ve said you’re the type to walk out on your business for a little family visit even though I know you love us dearly. Work always comes first with you. Tell me what’s going on.”

Bella swallowed the pain still so close to the surface. She walked over to one of the high-set windows, glanced up at the stars twinkling in the ink-black sky. “It’s kind of complicated.”

Noah came in and tugged on Mari’s arm. “Mom, can I go and sit with Jake and Cory please while they eat their dessert? I won’t annoy them, promise.”

Mari smiled at her son. “Sure. But don’t go anywhere else and let me know when they’re ready to go home so I can say goodbye.” He raced out of the room before she turned back to her little sister. “Start talking and don’t try and hide anything. Give me the whole ugly knobbly truth as you see it.”

“Where to start?” Bella blew out a breath, blinked away the tears that rushed to the surface. Her emotions had been all over the place ever since she’d been pulled into that meeting. “I’ve been pretty busy these last eighteen months. The show, appearances, and the book deals have been hectic to say the least. I’ve loved every single minute of it.” She smiled, trying to appear upbeat. “It’s me, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. Miss ninety-miles-an-hour suits you down to the ground. So what’s gone wrong then?” Mari pulled out a chair from the stack against the wall under the dust sheet and sat down.

“Russell, my producer, has been watching me like a hawk. He’s a bit like everyone’s mother hen, always has been from the start but he can be over-demanding too when he wants to be, bossy and unreasonable even. He’s a professional but underneath all that hard exterior sits a soft heart. That’s all fine but in his wisdom he decided I was heading for burnout.” Even saying the words scalded her chest.

“And are you?” Mari’s gaze drilled into her.

“That’s the problem. I don’t know.” And how could she tell when her life was so hectic? “I mean, you know me, right? This is how I’ve always been. Even as a little kid, I was on the go. Mom could never get me to slow down so she gave up trying. I think she decided I was just an overactive toddler that never grew up.”

“And what did he do to make you hightail it to Cherry Lake?”

Bella blew out a sigh, avoided the penetrating stare from her big sister. Apart from the sleaze bag that she was doing her best to avoid? “Made me take six months off.” It hurt to say the words out loud. They left an achy hollow in her gut.

“What? Wow!” She shook her head. “And you did it without fighting back? I don’t believe it, Bella. You never do anything you don’t want to.”

“Normally, no.” She screwed up her face, hating the way she’d given in so easily.

Anyone would think she was the compliant debut actress the way she’d nodded her head, held back the tears, and did exactly what Russell had ordered. Just went to show how correct he might have been about her state of being and how much the deceit of her “friend” had affected her. Normally, Bella would have reacted differently. “The thing is, we usually have a break between seasons anyway. The crew goes to another job and I have things I like to take on. Corporate deals that bring in plenty of money and exposure as well as the planning I do for the next season.”

“But what about your commitments, like your books?”

Bella wiped a hand over her eyes and chided herself for being so emotional. The black-and-white photos that were slipped underneath her door had been the tipping point.

“The last show’s already been taped. There’s only editing to do and they might require a couple of shots to be done again but that’s not really a big deal. I have a book due soon and I know I can get that done. I need to be the one to do the final layout and deal with the photographer. When I’m happy with the finished product, I’ll pass it on to be edited and that will be that.”

“Okay, that’s all under control. So why the long face then? If you can get it all done, you should be happy. And you’re more than welcome to stay here. We can sort out a room for you, we have plenty.” She indicated the staircase. “Go pick one, any one. You know Dakota’s going to be thrilled to see you, and she has a spare room too. Does she even know you’re coming? She’s having a couple of days away.”

“Thanks, but my producer Russell went ahead and rented a cottage so I’ll feel ‘more obligated to stay for the duration’ as he put it. He knows me too well. If I’d stayed with you there was nothing to stop me sneaking back to Seattle, but with the studio forking out big bucks for a house, well of course I’ll stay put. And, no, I didn’t tell Dakota. I only told you because I knew you’d be home when I got here. Plus, I wasn’t ready to spread the word yet.” If she had her way, it’d be kept under wraps forever. “Besides, doesn’t she have a hot new fiancé? I’m hardly going to crash that party.”

“She does and they look so good together. I can’t wait for you to meet him.”

“Me either. I’m very happy for her. Mom was excited when she called me after the gala ball and the photos she sent me were lovely. I so wish I’d had time to come down for that but, you know, busy as I was, not possible.”

“I wish you could’ve been here too but I understood when you couldn’t make it. We all had a fabulous time. But back to the long face and the reason you’re here. I get that you’re probably feeling a bit out of your comfort zone not being in control of what’s going on but if your producer is happy and you have the chance for a break, make the most of it. You’ve been going flat out ever since you won Masterchef.”

“And I love it like that. It’s my life, Mari. I live to cook, to be creative. You know that.”

“I do but it sounds as though you’re going to have enough to keep you busy. You still haven’t said why the long face. Is there anything you’re not telling me?”

Bella bit her lip. She wasn’t ready to talk about that yet. “I didn’t realize how much money the studio had put into me. Not just the show but branding and products. They seem to have a finger in just about everything I’m doing. If I crack, which does happen when you hit the big time, they stand to lose heaps. But I know it’s not just about the money, the investment they’ve made. Russell cares about the people he works with and he and his wife have a soft spot for me for some reason.” As much as she loved her sister, Bella didn’t want to discuss the smear campaign against her by a disgruntled staff member who wanted more than she was prepared to give. It was another reason the studio wanted her out of town. If she kept a lower profile, things might die a natural death. A rental cottage for six months didn’t seem such a waste of money to protect their brightest star if she looked at it from their point of view.

“I see. Well, the last thing we need is for you to lose it. Make the most of being here then. Let your creative energy refill the well and relax while you can. You’ll be fine here, Bella.”

“Only if I have somewhere to test out my recipes.” She looked down at her fingers, touched the small dry patch on her hand from a healing burn. One of the perils of being a chef. “I wondered if you’d let me play in your kitchen? I promise not to get in your chef’s way or stand on her toes. I can even come in and use it early in the morning so it won’t affect your dinner service.” It was a huge ask but the only thing that would let her keep her sanity while she was on enforced leave.

“Dinner service?” Mari gave a strangled laugh. “Sweetheart, it’s all yours as of tomorrow. Penny’s finishing up tonight and I haven’t been able to find a chef to take over for her. And believe me, I’ve tried my hardest to replace her too. Just when I get the restaurant working well, she has to leave me.”

“Really?” The wheels turned at a dizzying rate. “Why?”

“Family ill health. Of course she must go but it’s been impossible to find someone anywhere near as good as her and I was so looking forward to starting work on renovations now that I’ve found my feet here.”

“Show me your kitchen.” Bella walked away and found the hub of the hotel. It was hard to miss the double swing doors with the word “kitchen” emblazoned on them. She pushed them open, strode in, stood in the middle of the room. Bella watched the chef and her assistant at work, ignoring the quick glances they threw her way.

Bella!” Mari grabbed her arm. “Slow down.”

“I can’t. You know me. This is perfect. A little old and in need of an upgrade compared to what I’m used to.” She grinned at her sister, the first inkling of satisfaction warming her belly since she’d been given the orders to relax and lie low out of the public eye. “No offense, but you know what I mean. Nothing but the best for the television execs because they think it’s what keeps the high ratings. Heaven forbid it shouldn’t look top class. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. This will be perfect for now.” She strode over and checked out the oven. “Excuse me.” She slid past Penny and started opening cupboards and looking at kitchen utensils.

Penny stood gaping open-mouthed at her. “Hey, aren’t you that girl, the one that won Masterchef a few years ago?”

“Yep, that’d be me.” She held out her hand. “Bella Moore. Nice to meet you.”

“You didn’t tell me you were related to her, Mari.” Bella didn’t miss the frown that the chef shot her sister.

“Sorry, Penny. Slipped my mind.”

Penny continued to stare at Bella as if that was impossible. “Got your last book, I did.”

Bella gave the star struck chef a winning smile. “Thank you. I hope you enjoyed it.” Bella opened the fridge, poked around inside, pulling out tubs of pre-made food. She lifted the lid on one tub and sniffed, picked up the scent of garlic and lemongrass. “Is that my special marinade?”

Penny smiled, pink rushing up her cheeks. “Yes. It’s turned into a favorite here. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Bella, what are you doing?” Mari strode over, leaned on the prep counter and stared at her as if she’d lost her mind.

Bella shut the refrigerator and smiled, folded her arms across her chest. The look of shock on her sister’s face was almost comical, the first bit of light-heartedness since this whole debacle had reared its ugly head and threatened to derail everything she’d worked so hard for. “I’m going to take over the restaurant on the condition that you let me play here during the day when you aren’t open. That way we both get what we want.”

Chapter Two

Bella gazed at her surroundings. Waking up in the cottage had bordered on a traumatic experience. Peace and quiet, so foreign, it frightened her. No bright lights, no assistants chattering in her ear about what she had to produce that day. No emails flashed under her nose for approval for the next public appearance. For once, her cell phone was silent. She checked it to make sure it wasn’t dead before remembering what had happened and the reason she was here.

Now she stood in the house alone, fighting the urge to get in her car and speed back to the city. It made her sick to her stomach that something had to happen to her before the police could take action against her stalker. In the meantime, the studio refused to let her put herself at risk and she was grateful for their concern.

This morning she’d climbed out of bed in a panic, feeling as though she’d fallen into a nightmare until she remembered arriving here last night and being given the keys to the cottage. The reason she was here. The gorgeous hotel her sister owned, the rundown kitchen and her mad offer to take over cooking duties the three nights a week the restaurant was open. The cute old guy that had come in and introduced himself as her landlord and offered to show her where her cottage was. She’d followed him meekly. The quiet man and gangly teenager that were with him, hovering in the background watching her.

Bella had driven behind the work truck the short distance down the road to the rental her producer had arranged for her. When Rupert Woods—call me Woodsie—handed her the keys, he left her alone with the promise that if she needed something, he was only a short distance away. Only two houses down. Can’t miss it. If she wanted anything at all, all she had to do was ask. People in Cherry Lake were like that.

In the cool light of day, the tiny pink fisherman’s cottage looked as though it belonged in a painting. High-pitched roof with gray shingles and white scrolled timber edging, it could easily have been crafted from sugar, a gingerbread house. Window boxes filled with flowers she could mold from confectioners icing, stunning with their vibrant colors that belied belief. All so foreign to her usual way of life, her streamlined white on white apartment without a blade of grass or a real house plant.

The fresh crisp air that greeted her instead of the smog and bustle of city life when she opened the door made her pause. Even the nip of frost in the air seemed foreign compared to the coddled studio Bella spent most of her time in. She was a world away from her usual lifestyle and, now that she was here, it scared her to death. How on earth would she cope with the sudden change after the last couple of years of being on the go, night and day? She was out of her comfort zone and it freaked her out.

The peaceful backdrop of Flathead Lake, Montana only added to her initial fears. A bird skimmed over the water, a dog ran along the lake’s frozen shore with a huge stick in its mouth, dragging it through the icy sand. Where had all the bustle of traffic and people rushing past gone? This calm made her feel itchy and ready to implode. Had she really agreed to commit to this place for the next six months? Where was the sound of the city that soothed her? The constant rush of bodies around her that made her blood flow, made her feel alive?

“What possessed you to make such a ridiculous offer to your sister? Your big ego, that’s what! You can’t let a chance go by to prove how good you are, how well you can cope. Maybe this time, you’ve taken on more than you should have, Bella Moore. Serves you right if you don’t last the week.”

“Always talking to yourself like that?”

Bella jumped, spun around to the voice. The teen from last night sat on his bike outside her white picket fence, staring at her over the manicured lavender bushes. She gulped down a breath and tried to steady the sudden rush of fright. The place was far too quiet for her liking.

“You scared me half to death!”

He threw his bike down and grinned. “Sorry. Granddad asked me to come down and see if you needed anything. Make sure you found the coffee and the stuff he left for you in the refrigerator.”

“Oh, he did? That’s very sweet. Thank you.”

“Dad said you’re going to be running the restaurant now that Penny’s left.”

Bella frowned. She’d proffered her services, and now there was no getting out of it. After seeing the joyous look on Mari’s face when Bella made the offer, how could she back out now without causing her sister more stress? She’d had enough over the last couple of years losing her husband and making the move to try and reconnect with her foster family. Bella didn’t need to change her mind and let her down. “Yes, I did. At least for now anyway. Mari might decide to close it down and renovate before I head back to the city. Who knows?” A seaplane droned overhead and she watched as it turned around, skimmed over the still water and landed, sending ripples across the surface.

“Cool. Thank goodness for that. I was kinda worried there for a minute but looks like you’ve saved us. Sunday is our only night eating out and it’d be painful to miss out.”

“Saved you? Painful? I don’t understand.” She walked closer and leaned on the gate, watching the puff of icy breath each time he spoke, intrigued as the grin spread on his face.

His hair was a little long around the ears and hung in his eyes but he tossed it back with a practiced flick of his chin, the grin still firmly in place despite the chill in the air.

“Dad.” He rolled his eyes as if he was sharing a secret code for parenthood blunders, one he fully expected her to understand.

At least that was what she thought he was doing; she could well be wrong, considering her lack of teenage knowledge.

“He was at dinner last night when you came in. Tall guy, quiet, looks a bit like me but not as good-looking. See, Sunday night is our thing as a family ever since Mari bought the hotel. We eat there just so we get something different from steak. It’s all Dad knows how to cook, you know? Gets kinda boring after a while.”

“Really? At least he tries, I guess. Your mom doesn’t like to be in the kitchen, I gather?” This kid was cute and easy to talk to. Probably frightfully honest too by the sound of it.

“She died when I was eight. Dad and I moved in with Granddad so I wouldn’t be alone when Dad was at work. Like after school and stuff.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Nah, it’s alright. Not like we tell everyone we meet. Anyway, now that you’re taking over the restaurant, we won’t have to suffer steak on Sunday nights as well as every other night. Works for us. And Dad’s idea of dessert is a tub of ice cream with a couple of Oreo cookies. At least Penny tried different stuff like last night. That was the best dessert she’s ever made and I really liked it.” He tilted his head, gave her a squinty look. “You do desserts, right?”

“Of course.” Bella smiled. “Glad to be of service.” She held out her hand. “My name is Bella.”

The teen reached over, grabbed hers and gave it a quick shake.

“Cory Woods. My dad’s Jake and you already met Granddad.”

Jake. The guy with the brooding good looks from last night that hardly spoke a word when they were introduced. She remembered him more for his silence than anything else, mainly because his father was so outgoing. “Yes, Mari introduced us but we didn’t really get to talk.”

“Nobody does with Granddad around.”

“Well, tell your granddad thank you. I’ll have a coffee and then get to the hotel. See you around, Cory.”

“Bye.” He climbed on his bike and pedaled down the road and skidded into a driveway a few hundred yards down.

Jake climbed into his truck just as Cory came hurtling into the driveway. The boy’s cheeks were flushed with the cold and a huge grin spread across his mouth. “What’s happening?”

“Nothing. Granddad asked me to check on the new lady and see if she needed anything.”

“Good. I’m sure it won’t take her long to find out where things are in town. I’m off for my shift. Don’t forget to clean your room up before you go to school.” He started his truck.

“She’s going to take over the restaurant. She told me so, guess you were right then.”

And this is the reason you’re looking flushed with cheeks the color of ripe beets when I thought it was the weather? “That’s good then. Sounds like you’re going to still be able to go out for dinner after all. Let’s hope she cooks as well as Penny does.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Okay, have a great day, Cory. I’ll see you tonight.”

“See ya, Dad.” Cory ran up the path and slammed the front door behind him as Jake reversed out of the driveway. He glanced in his mirror toward the pink cottage but couldn’t see anyone. Whatever this woman’s claim to fame was, she seemed to have made an impression on his son. Hopefully she could cook as well as Penny. Last thing Jake needed was someone else ribbing him about his limited repertoire, so it was probably a good thing she’d arrived when she had. It wasn’t as though they starved exactly. His father could cook but wholesome food wasn’t his forte. He preferred frozen pizza and pies. Not the kind of food Jake wanted his son growing up eating every day.

Jake’s day consisted of paperwork and more paperwork and since he was the fire chief, it was his job, he found himself stuck in his office most of the morning. He glanced at the clock when his stomach rumbled and thought it was time to find something to eat. The fire station bells drowned out the groans of hunger.

He grabbed his turnout gear and helmet from the peg by the truck and jumped in as his driver, Ben, gunned the engine. “The Lake Hotel. Kitchen fire. That place will go up like tinder, Chief. So old and dry, all that timber.”

“Crap!” Jake’d been thinking about the hotel off and on all morning. Funny this should be happening now, just when he thought his only night out had been saved by the newcomer to town.

Jake flicked the switch and the lights and siren started, clearing their way for the short drive to the hotel.

First impression as they drove up was relief. No flames, no smoke that he could see. With any luck it would be contained to one area with minimal damage. He jumped from the truck as soon as it stopped, eyes scanning the back of the hotel for plumes of smoke. Luckily there were none here either.

He grabbed his axe and instructed his junior to pull out the hoses. “Ben, find the gas, turn it off. Then grab your extinguisher, follow me. Aron, get the hoses out, wait for my signal but be prepared. This old place is so flammable. It won’t take much for it to get out of control.”

Jake ran toward the hotel, the acrid smell of smoke already heavy in the back foyer. Mari ran out of the bar, calling to him. “Kitchen, Jake. My sister Bella’s in there.”

“Is there anyone else in the hotel? Noah?”

“No. He’s at school and the bar staff haven’t arrived yet. Just my sister. Get her out, please.”

“Get out and stay out until I tell you any different.” He pushed her away from the door and pulled down his mask, heading for the kitchen. Smoke billowed out as he pushed through the door, the sound of choked coughing guiding him toward the new chef. Jake found her, fire extinguisher in hand, sagged against the prep counter.

He grabbed her despite her weak protests and threw her over his shoulder. Ben hurried in behind him, sent a stream of foam over the stove, knocking back the last licks of flame.

“Bella!” Mari grabbed at her as Jake set her down away from the hotel on the grass by the edge of the car park.

He rolled Bella over on her side, checked to make sure she was breathing. “Are you okay?”

She coughed then inhaled gulps of fresh air before looking up at him. Soot smeared her pale face; her eyes were huge and streamed tears down her cheeks leaving trails to her chin.

Mari grabbed her sister’s hand and Jake stood to get her oxygen from the truck when she gasped out a few words. “I’m fine.” She coughed again, a rasping sound that ended with a gulp of suppressed tears.

Jake hurried to the truck and back and knelt down with an oxygen mask in his hand. He slipped it over her face, made sure it fitted properly before turning on the tank. “It’s okay to be upset. I see it all the time, people crying in relief when they’ve survived a fire. You’ve inhaled plenty of smoke.” He held her wrist, checked her pulse while he decided whether or not to take her to the clinic for David to check over. Ben came out, gave him the thumbs-up, and returned his fire extinguisher to the truck before he ambled over.

She pushed her hair back from her face and spoke through the mask. “I’m not upset. I’m really annoyed.” She wiped the tears from her face, coughed again, pushing the mask from her mouth.

Jake shared a worried glance with Mari when she coughed again.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I cannot believe anyone could treat a kitchen like that. That stove was disgusting. Not a wonder it caught on fire.” She leaned over the grass, a coughing fit taking over again.

Ben crouched down beside Jake. “Grease fire, Chief. I think the stove is past saving. Sorry, Mari. Everything else looks fine though. Might take a bit of elbow grease to clean the smoke away but once the chief checks the kitchen out, I think he’ll agree with me.”

“I don’t care about the stove. I only care that my sister is okay.” She leaned in and tucked a strand of hair around Bella’s ear, cradled her cheek as she gasped for air. “You sure you’re alright, honey? I can take you to the clinic and get you checked out. You sound terrible.”

Bella smiled, took her sisters hand. “I’m fine. I flicked off the gas as soon as the grease caught alight and got most of the fire out before our heroes here arrived. Thank goodness the fire extinguisher was working or things might have been a bit different.” Her breath rattled, her lungs full of smoke still.

Bella tried to calm her breathing. She needed to be checked out even though he figured she’d protest.

Jake shared a glance with Ben. They were often called heroes but to them it was a job. A job they loved. So engrossed in his own thoughts last night, he hadn’t taken much notice when Mari’s sister had come into the restaurant apart from the scream of joy from Noah. Petite like her sister, Dakota, but that was where the similarity ended. Dakota was blonde and bubbly. Bella had dark, sultry looks and it would seem a firecracker temperament to match. Lucky for her, she knew her way around a kitchen fire. Mari would have been devastated if the hotel had been blazed to the ground. She’d put so much work into it already.

“You sure you’re feeling okay?” Jake helped Bella to her feet when she struggled to get up on her own.

She wobbled and he grabbed her, held her close. Before she could protest, he scooped her up and carried her over to an outdoor setting where he placed her down on a chair.

“I think you should go and get checked out just to be on the safe side.”

“I’ll take her right now if you wouldn’t mind taking her to my car, Jake. I’ll grab my keys. Can I go inside now?”

Bella protested, her voice wheezy. “Stop! I’m fine. Just a little light-headed is all.” Her sister ignored her and ran into the hotel with Ben in close pursuit.

“I suggest you let her take you to the clinic, if only to make her happy. You inhaled a fair bit of smoke which can be dangerous. We’ll stay here and make sure the fire doesn’t start up again and by the time you get back, hopefully I’ll have confirmed the source of the fire and see if you can have access.”

“Of course we can have access. You just let Mari back inside now.” She rubbed at her eyes, trying to stay the tears she couldn’t hold back.

“Sure I did but that was to get her keys and Ben was with her so I doubt there was any danger. He wouldn’t have let her in if that was the case.”

Mari came running out and headed to her car. Jake lifted the protesting woman up and carried her to the vehicle, depositing her in the front seat.

“Thanks, Jake. You don’t know how glad I am you were on duty. It could have been so much worse if the flames had managed to take hold before Bella put them out.”

“It could but your sister seemed to have it pretty much under control. See you both soon.” He slammed the door and watched as they drove out before he followed Ben back into the hotel.

After scrutinizing the smoke damaged kitchen, he agreed with Ben. “Stove is ruined but it’s probably a good thing the fire was contained to such a small area.” He stood with hands on hips and studied the walls, the smoke shadowing the corners and staining the light fittings. “They’ll need to get an electrician in to do a safety check first before I give them the okay to operate again but I think a good clean, a new stove and it should be fine to go.”

“Yep. You want to do the fire report or shall I? They’ll need it for insurance, I suppose.”

“Add it to my list for tomorrow. I’ll get it done as soon as I can. Mari will want to send it off to her insurance company.” He walked through the rest of the hotel, noted no damage anywhere else and even checked upstairs in Mari’s apartment. Bella must have been quick to attack the blaze for there to be no smoke through the air conditioning ducts. “I’ll wait for them to come back. You take the truck and Aron back to the station, do the hand over. I’ll radio control that I’m staying then find my way once Mari comes back. Give her the news.”

“Righto, Chief.”

Chapter Three

The following morning Bella surveyed the mess. What a way to start the new project – by setting the place on fire. Even though it wasn’t her fault, it was hardly the start she was hoping for. The only bonus had been being rescued by the hunky fireman. She’d found herself struggling from the smoke inhalation and seeing his gorgeous blue eyes hovering over her hadn’t helped matters any.

The embarrassment of it all. She, who’d risen so far in the last couple of years, setting fire to a kitchen. Unheard of. If word got out, she’d be ridiculed, it would be in all the gossip magazines. Bella could see the headlines now. That would go down well with the studio. Bella shuddered, imagining the fuss that would cause even though it wasn’t her fault. Nobody ever admitted to something like that. She stared at the smoke-stained walls. So much had changed in such a short space of time. Not having control killed her.

Mari walked in, faltering when she spied Bella. Her usually calm appearance slipped, annoyance tugging at the corners of her lips. “What’re you doing here? I told you to sleep in today and I’d see you later once I had Noah to school. The doctor might have given you the all clear but still…”

“I couldn’t sleep. Wanted to see how much damage had been done, since you wouldn’t bring me back here yesterday. See if we could salvage anything.” She ran her finger over the work prep area and grimaced. Soot made the grime seem even worse than it’d looked before.

“Jake said everything is fine apart from the stove.” Mari relaxed and gave her a smile.

“Oh, thank goodness someone agrees. That ancient piece of machinery was diabolical. It worked but, seriously, that was a horrid relic that’d seen better days.”

Mari tapped her foot.

Bella stopped and stared. “Sorry. Me and my big mouth.” She strode over and hugged her sister, embarrassed at being caught out voicing her true opinion. Again! She needed to remember to filter her words. “It’s not that disgusting, not really. It’s just old and now it’s unserviceable. Things are different now, streamlined to make chefs work easier. This place is behind the times. Sorry, I hate being picky but you asked.”

Mari patted her on the back. “Joking. I know this place is a nightmare and I wanted to redo it anyway. Part of the long-term plan but I wanted to get a feel for the place before I spend all Rake’s insurance money.” She glanced at the charred stove. “That belongs in the deepest gully I can find but, sadly, Penny wanted to keep it so I went along with her. She was used to the old relic and horrified I wanted to change things. I wasn’t prepared to lose my chef the minute I walked in the door. Figured it was better to tread softly until the locals got to know me and I’d made my mark.”

“You wanted to? You’re not just saying that?” Things looked brighter by the minute.

“Yeah I want to but—and it’s a big but—I may have to get new plans drawn up, get permission if I want to make structural changes and that’s going to be hard to keep the restaurant afloat while I’m doing it. Not that there’s much chance of that now but see my dilemma?”

Bella chewed on her lip. “Yeah.”

“To tell the truth, I don’t even know what I want to do in here. So the question is, do I close down for months on end, completely rip this out and replace it or do I do it in stages so there’s a workable kitchen? I mean, is that even possible? You’d know more about that side of things than I would. The restaurant is a big part of the income for the hotel. Not sure I want to lose that now that I have the customers coming in regularly.”

“You catered for the Christmas gala out of this kitchen, right? Even with that horrid stove.”

“Yeah, we did.”

“So it’s serviceable or at least it will be once you replace the stove and get the place cleaned up.”

“I suppose. It’s just that you’re used to a higher standard than this old place. Planning commission checked it and passed it when I took over so it’s safe if not the prettiest kitchen in the world. I know what you’re used to, Bella. I’ve watched your shows too and I can’t see you working in something like this, no matter how much you insist it will be fine. I should have thought of that before I said you could take over the restaurant. I’m sorry I can’t offer you better.”

“Don’t be silly. I’ve been spoiled, I’ll admit that but that’s okay. I started with far worse.” She walked over to the stove and looked at it, letting her mind drift back. “Don’t you remember that dingy little café I started out in? The cringe-worthy kitchen was way worse than this place. I can’t believe I stayed there so long before I moved along to something better but at least I learned heaps.” She stared at the stove. “You can replace this one without spending a fortune, you know. And since the kitchen will be out of action for a while anyway, maybe it’s time to go ahead and do what you need to do.”

“Maybe. But enough, you didn’t come here to rebuild my kitchen as much as I would appreciate someone else taking over that chore for me. Tell me more about what you want to do apart from rest up?”

“No, honestly, I want to help and you’d be doing me a favor. I can’t sit on my butt and look at the view. It’s not me, Mari. You know that.”

Her sister stood staring at her, silent.

“Oh, come on. Have pity on me for goodness’ sake. I need to work or I’ll go nuts. Besides, I actually have a deadline for my next book. I need to try out my recipes and I was all set to use this kitchen. Now I’ve ruined it. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“You haven’t had a vacation for years. Don’t you think it would be a good idea now that you have time? You could go on a world cruise, go take a gondola down the canals in Venice, or climb a mountain if you really wanted to.”

“No!” She stamped her foot, frustration rising as the idea of laying back in a hammock with an iced tea and a book took hold. Not going to happen! Not this century anyway. “If I miss my deadline, Jason, my photographer, will never work for me again. I’ve had to book him months ahead to use him, Mari. Guys that good don’t grow on trees you know. Besides, if I let my publisher down, they’ll never give me another contract. That I know for a fact and I like doing the books.”

“I doubt that. They’d be silly to let you go over a late book.”

“You have no idea how it works. They slot the release day in over a year in advance. Everything comes down to meticulous planning that I can’t afford to screw up. They’ll mark me up as ‘precious’ and decide it’s too hard to work with me.” She tugged at her hair, twisted it around her finger. “I need to keep on track or risk losing everything I’ve worked for, enforced break or not.”

“Seriously, Bella, you have more energy than anyone I know. Come on, come and have a coffee and say hello to your nephew. We can talk more about this once he’s at school.” Mari turned and walked out, leaving Bella to follow her.

She fist pumped the air, did a little foot dance, and wiggled her hips before racing out to follow her sister. And ran smack into the hunky fireman who held her in his arms yesterday.

“Ooph!” The breath was knocked out of her and she reached out for something, anything to stop her fall.

Her fingers latched onto a soft T-shirt with muscles underneath. Arms folded around her and kept her upright against a hard chest. The fresh smell of cologne filled her nose as she sucked in a breath. Unlike yesterday, when all she could smell was smoke, this morning she caught the undertones of vanilla and coffee, a hint of lime. And very hunky male. Unattached male as she now knew.

Bella unwrapped her arms from around his chest, brushed his arms away, her face flaming in embarrassment. “Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”

Jake smiled. “I gathered that but don’t worry. I’m a fireman, we’re built tough enough to handle a whirlwind like you.”

“Jake, you haven’t formally met my little sister, have you? This is Bella. Bella Moore.”

The name suited her. He held out his hand. “Bella, lovely to meet you. Apart from a quick hello when you arrived and our encounter yesterday, we haven’t had a chance to do the whole greet and meet. Welcome to Cherry Lake.”

“Thanks. Not used to such an exciting entry into the local community but it could have been worse as everyone keeps saying.”

She withdrew her hand and jammed it in the pockets of her jeans. Jeans that looked like they cost a fortune and they’d been sprayed on, hand ripped at the knees showing the barest hint of flesh. Her feet were incased in the most ridiculously sexy strappy red sandals he’d ever seen. A slash of shocking red nail polish on her toes did something to his stomach he couldn’t fathom. Breathe, Jake. Just breathe.

“Yes, it could have.” He turned to Mari, tried to swallow down the bolt of lust that rose in his gut. Lust he hadn’t felt in years. “Any idea of what you’re going to do with the kitchen? I can put you in touch with someone who cleans after a fire if you like.”

“That’d be great, thanks. I don’t have the time to start scrubbing walls and fittings. Listen, I have to get Noah ready for school. Bella and I were just talking about the kitchen and what our options are and whether or not we should go all out and gut the place. Since you’re going to have to make sure it fits fire regulations once we’re ready to open again, did you want to chat about it together? I’ll be back as soon as I can get my child organized.” She grinned and skipped up the stairs leaving them standing in the foyer.

“Look, if you don’t have time, I’ll understand. I’d hate to hold you up.” She looked toward the kitchen, avoiding his gaze. How intriguing. All that achieved was ratcheting his interest up a notch or two.

“No, I’m not in a hurry. Show me what you’re thinking of.” He hooked his arm through hers and guided her back into the kitchen.


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