From Summer Love...To Forever Family?
In all her life, Izzy Lambert has told only one lie—fourteen years ago. Now that her teenage summer love is back in town she’s on a mission to cover it up. But how do you hide a gangly fourteen-year-old boy?
Years ago, when golden boy Nate Thayer left Thunder Ridge, he never looked back. Izzy was from the wrong side of the tracks and they weren’t ready to be parents to their unborn baby. Adoption was the answer. Now Nate’s back home, and seeing Izzy is like pouring gasoline on a fire that never died. But an even bigger surprise awaits him—finding out she wasn’t the only one he left behind...
“I’d like to get to know you again.”
His eyes turned serious when he added, “How about if we start fresh, pretend we just met? Could we do that tonight?”
She tried to speak but could get nothing past her throat, not even breath.
You can’t pretend that
, her conscience protested.
Tell him about his son. He needs to know.
“Nate,” she finally managed. “I think it would be best if—”
He touched her lips. “Think less. This one time.”
He pulled her chair closer, close enough for him to cup the back of her head. “On second thought, you should know my intentions before we set our plans in stone.” His voice was so soft.
Her heart beat so hard she could barely draw the breath to speak. “What are your intentions?”
Tenderly his lips settled on hers, soft as down. How could she have forgotten the feel of them, the scent of his skin? It was a homecoming.
She kissed him back with yearning and passion and a hunger she couldn’t satisfy on a neighborhood porch.
This is wrong
, her conscience cried out.
If it was, it was an exquisite, magnificent mistake.
THE MEN OF THUNDER RIDGE: Once you meet the men of this Oregon town, you may never want to leave!
In a valley below a snowcapped mountain called Thunder Ridge
lies a small Oregon community with wooden sidewalks, a winding river and one
down-on-her-luck waitress who, a long time ago, fell in love with local golden
boy Nate Thayer.
Theirs was a true Cinderella story...only without the happy
ending. Until, fifteen years later, fate gave them a second chance...
I loved creating the town of Thunder Ridge and the people who
live there. They’re strong and passionate, funny and, ultimately, I think, very
brave. Love requires courage, doesn’t it? Sometimes we have to overcome our
fears and hesitations and dive in. Izzy and Nate’s relationship is like that.
It’s going to take all the courage they can muster to overcome past mistakes,
big secrets and hurt hearts. But they can do it. We all can.
I hope you enjoy Izzy and Nate’s story, the first book in my
new miniseries, The Men of Thunder Ridge. And don’t forget: every day you’re
writing the most important story of all—your own!
His Surprise Son
loves to write about ordinary people who find extraordinary love.
Laughter, family and close-knit communities figure prominently, too. Her books
have won two Romance Writers of America RITA® Awards and have been nominated for
numerous others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with human and non-human
critters who don’t read nearly as much as she’d like, but they sure do make her
laugh and feel loved.
Books by Wendy Warren
Once More, At Midnight
The Baby Bargain
The Boss and Miss
The Oldest Virgin in
The Drifter’s Gift
Just Say I Do
Her Very Own Husband
Visit the Author Profile page at
Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin
Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards
For my daughters, Liberty and Elliana, beautiful through and through. Thank you for being my teachers, my miracles, and for having the best laughs in the world. I love you.
Thunder Ridge, Oregon
zzy Lambert considered herself an honest person, and she’d bet her last dollar that most people who knew her would agree. In her whole life, she’d told only two whoppers. And if you wanted to get technical about it, the first was really more a lie of omission than an outright fib.
She’d spent a whole lot of time afraid her secrets would be discovered and nearly a decade and a half on the lookout for the man from whom she’d withheld the truth. Sometimes she’d think she was seeing him...
...at the Thunderbird Market, reaching for a quart of creamer in the dairy aisle...
...in line at the bank...
...in the car behind hers at the Macho Taco drive-through in Bend...
And once she’d nearly choked on a Mickey Mouse pancake at Disneyland, because she thought he was there, pushing a double stroller.
In reality, it never had been him—
thank you, God
—but each time Izzy thought she saw Nate Thayer, her heart began to pound, her pulse would race, she’d feel hot and dizzy, and flop sweat drenched her in seconds.
Kinda like right now.
“Join us for lunch at The Pickle Jar. A joke and a pickle for only a nickel,” she said distractedly as she handed a flyer to a group of tourists. Her eyes darted from their sunburned faces to the tall, dark-haired man at the far end of the opposite side of the block.
One of the women waggled the flyer. “Is this a genuine New York deli?”
“It’s a genuine Oregon deli,” Izzy murmured, squinting into the distance. She remembered a headful of thick black hair just like on the man down the block. And broad, proud shoulders like his.
“Where is it?” one of the other women asked.
“About a hundred feet that way.” Taking several mincing steps, Izzy made a half turn and pointed. As she turned back, a tour bus pulled up, blocking the man from her view.
“Is that why you’re dressed like a pickle?” asked an elderly gentleman who was perspiring in the sun almost as much as she was.
Admonishing herself to concentrate on the prospective customers, she forced a smile. “I’m not just any pickle—I’m a kosher dill.”
Yeah, she was dressed in a foam rubber pickle suit, the latest in her series of desperate attempts to scare up some new customers for the aged deli. “The Pickle Jar has quarter-done, half-done and full dill pickles, all homemade from a secret family recipe. You can take some home in a collector jar, too.”
According to her online class, Branding is Your Business, having a mascot emphasized the idea behind the product, built connections with customers and humanized the company. Although one could argue that a pickle was not human.
It wasn’t as if she
dressing as a giant briny cucumber. Once upon a time Izzy had imagined herself in college, studying business, then having an office of her own and wearing beautiful professional attire. Of course, once upon a time she’d imagined a lot of things that had turned out to be nothing more than fantasies. She’d learned several years back that you couldn’t move forward unless you were first willing to accept reality. So with The Pickle Jar losing potential customers every day to the newer, hipper eateries in town, Izzy had succumbed to desperate measures, even going online to purchase this warty green pickle suit, only “slightly” used.
It was swelteringly hot and dark inside the costume, and the cylindrical interior could use a good steam cleaning. None of the other deli employees would even consider putting it on. But she did, because the costume was a marketing tool and allowing the business to close was not an option.
The tourist to whom she’d been speaking, dressed in the same Keep Portland Weird T-shirt as his wife, crossed his arms. “Can we really get a joke and a pickle for just a nickel?”
She spared one last glance across the street, but the tour bus was still in the way. With perspiration trickling below the wimple-style head of the pickle suit, she swiped her brow. The man she’d thought she recognized was probably gone, anyway. Believing she saw Nate Thayer was nothing more than a weird function of her overanxious mind. For some reason, it was almost always in times of personal stress that she would imagine she saw him. Probably because she could think of few things
stressful than having to confront him again.
Focus on business
, she counseled herself.
Business is real.
The Pickle Jar wasn’t only her place of employment; it was her home. It was where she’d discovered family for the first time in her life. She was the manager of a failing restaurant, but she could fix it. She
Forgetting about everything else, Izzy returned her focus to the tourists and gave them her most gracious smile. “I’ve got a million jokes, but the pickles are even better. Follow me to the best little deli west of the Hudson.”
* * *
So far, Nate Thayer’s trip down memory lane was proving bumpier than anticipated. Seated across from Jackson Fleming, who’d quarterbacked for Ridge High back in the day, Nate listened with half an ear as his former teammate complained about...ah, pretty much everything, from the boredom of driving a milk truck for a living to the pressures of raising four kids who sucked up every penny he made, to the slowness of the service at The Pickle Jar, where, in fact, they hadn’t been seated for more than a couple of minutes and were currently perusing the plastic-coated menus.
In Thunder Ridge on business, this was Nate’s first trip home in fifteen years. It had been his suggestion to have lunch here, and while Jack griped about life post high school, Nate allowed his attention to wander around the deli. On the surface, not much had changed. He remembered sitting at that chipped Formica counter, studying for his final high school exams, nursing a drink and eating his fill of mouth-puckering pickles until Sam Bernstein started sending over free corned beef on rye. “Eat,” the older man, short of stature but huge of heart, had insisted when Nate refused the gratis meals at first. “I see you in here all the time, studying hard.” Sam had nodded his approval. “The brain needs food. I’m making a contribution to your college education. You’ll thank me by having a good career.”
He did have a good career, a great career actually, as a commercial architect based in Chicago. Over the years, when he’d thought of Thunder Ridge, he’d found himself hoping the Bernstein brothers would approve. Today Nate didn’t see either of the two old men who owned the deli. The force of his desire to find them alive and well surprised him. He had written once or twice after he’d left for college, but there’d been a lot of water under the bridge, too many complicated feelings for the communication not to feel awkward; soon it had fallen away altogether. Nate wouldn’t be in town long, but it would feel good to mend that particular fence.
His relationship with the brothers was not the only casualty from his past, of course, but the other issue was unlikely to ever be repaired. Isabelle Lambert had left town shortly after he had. In high school, he and Izzy had been in different grades and had run with different crowds; he hadn’t so much as heard her name in a decade and a half. More than once he’d thought about looking her up but had always talked himself out of it.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to return to Central Oregon and not think about the girl with the caramel hair, skin soft as a pillow and lake-colored eyes so big and deep Nate had wanted to dive into them.
When he noticed his fingers clutching the menu too tightly, he forced himself to relax. After fifteen years, his feelings still had jagged, unfinished edges where Izzy was concerned.
“Are you ready to order?”
Distracted by his thoughts, Nate hadn’t noticed the waitress’s arrival. She filled their water glasses, then set the plastic pitcher on the table and stood looking down at them. Her name tag read Willa, a good name for the petite, fair beauty whose long auburn waves and serene appearance made her look as if she’d emerged from another era.
Jack grinned at the waitress. “What’s special today? Besides you?” Despite being married and having a houseful of children, he was obviously smitten.
Nate winced, but the woman remained unfazed, her cool expression revealing nothing as she responded. “We’re serving a hot brisket sandwich on a kaiser roll. It comes with a side salad. The soup today is chicken in the pot.”
Quickly Nate ordered the sandwich, hoping his friend would do the same without further embarrassing himself, but Jack had other plans. “I’ll take the sandwich, and bring me a cold drink, too, gorgeous. ’Cause the more I look at you, the hotter I get.”
“Jack,” Nate began in a warning undertone, but the former Thunder Ridge Huskies football hero—emphasis on
—clearly thought he still had the goods.
Jack grinned at Nate. “You’re in town awhile, right? Maybe Willa’s got a friend, and we can double-date.”
Willa picked up the pitcher of water, murmuring, “I’ll get your sandwiches,” but Jack, who had clearly lost his mind, patted the woman’s butt, then reached for her wrist. The redhead tried to jerk away. Jack held on.
What came next happened so quickly Nate wasn’t sure exactly what had occurred. He was aware of a voice hollering, “Hey!” and the next thing he knew, a large green...cucumber?...appeared at the table concurrent with a tidal wave of ice-cold water washing over him and Jack. Mostly Jack.
Jack yelled, the cucumber yelled back, and then it slipped in the puddle of water, falling in a heap of flailing green arms and legs.
“Pickle down!” a busboy shouted.
Ah, it was a pickle.
Nate rose to help.
“You threw that water on purpose,” Jack accused.
“Shut up,” Nate suggested as he knelt next to what appeared to be a life-size vegetable mascot. “Don’t move,” he said, unsure of where to check first for injuries. At least there was an abundance of padding. “Let’s make sure you’re not hurt before you try to get up.”
Ignoring him, the irate dill pointed toward Jack. “You need to leave this restaurant. Now.” Then it turned back to Nate. “And you. You—”
She stopped—it was definitely a she.
Half a lifetime fell away.
“Izzy?” Her name escaped on a rush of breath.
It took her longer to say his name, and when she did, her voice crackled. “Nate.”
“You know her?” Jack glared. “She got water on my Wallabees.” He raised a leg, pointing to his boot. “These are suede, man, and I haven’t Scotchgarded them yet. I want to see the manager.”
Because he found it impossible to break eye contact with Izzy, Nate felt rather than saw the small crowd that was gathering around them. He heard someone say, “She
the manager,” and then people started talking over one another, their voices seeming distant and irrelevant.
That’s what was relevant. The fact that Izzy Lambert was here, right where he’d left her—despite her avowal that she would leave this town someday and head for a big city with opportunities that were bigger and better than anything she’d known in Oregon.
“What happened?” he murmured.
“I slipped on the water.”
He shook his head. Not what he’d meant. But he hadn’t intended to speak his thought out loud, anyway.
He’d been told she left town and recalled his tangled emotions at the time. It had taken some work, but he’d finally made peace with the fact that they’d been kids when they’d dated, that their relationship had been meant to last a summer not a lifetime and that, thankfully, the only people they’d truly hurt were themselves. Still, Izzy Lambert remained the big unanswered question of his life.
“Coming through. What happened here?”
Khaki-colored trousers appeared in Nate’s peripheral vision. He glanced up to see a sheriff, who stood with his hands on his hips, looking amusedly down at Izzy.
“Izz. You hurt?”
“Okay. Up you go, then.” The lawman, a big, good-looking guy, extended a hand.
“Wait a minute.” Rising, Nate faced the sheriff. Now that he was standing, he realized the man was about his height...
a half inch taller...and roughly the same weight. Nate didn’t like the slight smile around the other man’s lips. “She shouldn’t get up until we know for sure she hasn’t broken something.”
To the casual observer, the sheriff’s smile appeared friendly, but there was a distinct challenge in the dark gaze that connected with Nate’s.
“Sheriff Derek Neel.” He introduced himself with a nod. No handshake. “And you are?”
Nate glanced at Izzy. Her eyes looked huge. “An old friend,” he responded, not above a twinge of satisfaction when the sheriff’s brow lowered a bit.
“Must be really old,” Sheriff Neel surmised. “I’ve known Izz twelve years. I can’t recall ever seeing you around.”
It was Nate’s turn to frown, and it felt more like a scowl. “Izz” must not have left Thunder Ridge for very long. She’d gone without getting in touch with him, without leaving a forwarding address. And back then she hadn’t had email or a cell phone. Nate had already moved to Chicago to attend college, was already deeply immersed in that life. Other than phoning Henry to ask if he knew where Izzy was—and Henry had claimed he had no information about Izzy—there had been no way, really, to track her down.
Out of nowhere, the feelings he’d had half a lifetime ago came rushing back, brief but surprisingly powerful. The tight throat, the sick gut, the confusion, even the desire to punch something when he’d heard Izzy was gone—all those sensations were there again, despite the years and the experiences between then and now.
Izzy seemed frozen in place, but his glance unlocked her, and she struggled to sit up. The bulky costume impeded her efforts.
The sheriff grabbed her beneath the left elbow the same moment that Nate’s fingers closed around her right arm. She looked at him, not at the other man, her eyes alarmed. Her soft, perfectly formed lips parted...and damned if he didn’t feel it again—the old desire, the possessiveness he’d never felt about anyone or anything except Izzy Lambert.