Authors: Alicia Hunter Pace
Tags: #romance, #contemporary
This edition published by
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
10151 Carver Road, Suite 200
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2012 by Jean Hovey and Stephanie Jones
ISBN 10: 1-4405-6042-0
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6042-2
eISBN 10: 1-4405-6043-9
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6043-9
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 123rf.com; istockphoto.com/Chris Johnson, Randy Pinsky, Francesco Ridolfi, piccerella, tunart
For Ken Hovey, thank you for never saying, if but when
For Rhonda Nelson, a great writer, fabulous cheerleader, and friend of the heart. This would not have happened without you. We cherish you and this bond we share.
Our special thanks to the following people:
Jennifer Lawler, of Crimson Romance, for her consummate professionalism and for taking a chance on us and our story.
Jess Verdi from Crimson, for her attention to detail and for making edits so clear and easy.
Anna Davis, who shared her extensive knowledge of the workings of the judicial system.
Cheryl Crisona, who advised us on courtroom procedure.
Pamela Wade, who shared her experiences with hospital procedures and head injury patients
Jack Bryan, Julie Cochran, and Michelle Gray who helped us know what a three-year-old would do and say.
Katherine Bone, who helped us find the black moment when we had hit a wall.
Tom Gray, who, many years ago, wore his Halloween costume five days a week for a year. It was a great inspiration.
And finally, the Fabulous Lynn Raye Harris, who was there with her heart outstretched every time we looked up.
— Jean Hovey and Stephanie Jones
The smell of cooking fudge is only sweet if the candy maker isn’t dead tired and sick of the smell of chocolate. Lanie Heaven wearily crossed the floor of the Heavenly Confections kitchen to check the temperature of the vat of dark brown bubbling syrup. Almost there. She looked at her watch. 6:20
No time to make truffles, but she could do it when she returned home. There was just enough time to pour up the fudge and pack some candy to take to book club.
There was a knock at the front door. Damn. Why hadn’t she turned off the lights at five o’clock when she’d locked the shop door? Not that it would have mattered. The people of Merritt, Alabama knew she was in here and had no compunction about pounding on the door — or trotting around back and ringing her apartment bell, for that matter. With her luck, it would be Sophie Ann McGowan, who would want a single chocolate star and then complain that it wasn’t as creamy as the ones Lanie’s grandmother used to make. Sophie Ann wouldn’t go away but she could wait; the fudge could not.
Lanie grabbed the copper pot and headed toward the marble candy table. The throbbing fatigue between her shoulder blades turned to a sharp pain and Lanie shifted the pot. The knocking resumed and escalated to banging. Lanie jumped and the pot began to tip. She jerked it back but not soon enough. Pools, rivers, oceans, of thick chocolate spread at her feet and beyond. Self-preservation made her jump back to avoid being burned.
She would have cursed if she had known a word bad enough to equal the situation. And that was saying a lot because she knew some pretty bad words. Money, time, and energy gone because she’d let herself be distracted. Another person might have gone into a cleaning frenzy, grabbing towels and mopping up chocolate but Lanie knew better. It was best to let it harden, and then scrape it up and steam clean the floor. It would be hours before the molten liquid would be cool enough to come up easily in chunks so there was no need to even miss book club — not that they got around to discussing books very often. She sometimes wondered why they didn’t just go ahead and call it Drinking, Eating, and Gossiping Club. But either way, she was ready for an evening of good wine, good food, and good gossip with her three best friends.
The banging at the front door increased to pounding. Sophie Ann must be having a real chocolate emergency. Maybe she’d like to eat off the floor like a starving dog. Lanie wiped her hands on her splattered apron and hurried from the calamity of the kitchen to the cheerful little storefront. She looked out the door and, again, would have cursed if there had been an adequate word in her bad girl vocabulary.
Not Sophie Ann. Luke Avery. And that was worse, a million times worse. She’d met Luke at a party right after he’d moved to Merritt from Mobile last fall. He’d bitten into one of the peanut butter filled chocolates she’d brought and ended up on the floor with an EpiPen stuck in his thigh. Intellectually, she knew it wasn’t her fault. Yet every time she saw him, she couldn’t stop herself from sheepishly apologizing again — and it clearly annoyed him. Well, she wouldn’t do it tonight. She unlocked the door and jerked it open with more vehemence than she knew she had.
“I don’t have any espresso made,” she said, “and the machines are clean and ready for the morning.” Seven in the morning was usually Luke’s favorite time to pound on the door and make demands, though she didn’t open until nine.
He looked her up and down and frowned disdainfully. Luke was a no nonsense kind of man and she suspected he didn’t appropriately appreciate her work clothes. Today her chef’s pants and matching apron were black, printed with multicolored jellybeans. The black chef’s clogs were ugly but they just made sense for anyone who had to stand on a concrete floor. What was she supposed to wear? Stilettos?
“I don’t want any espresso,” he said, like he was surprised, though she couldn’t fathom why. He never bought anything else. He was probably afraid there were peanuts lurking in all the candy. “I want to talk to you for a minute.”
a minute. I’m on my way to book club.” She stepped aside and allowed him to enter.
Luke Avery’s eyes preceded him into the room — big heartbreak eyes the color of Windex, accented by dark circles and black lashes that Lanie couldn’t have achieved with an extension job and a triple dose of mascara. Those eyes hadn’t been built for sadness but they had learned it well. His mouth looked sad too and it was a shame — full lips like his ought to be smiling. Even his high cheekbones and the smooth pronounced plains of his face looked sad, probably because he could use ten pounds. A good cut had coaxed his dark thick hair into smooth neat layers but it looked like it would curl when it was wet. His hair might be the only thing about him that wasn’t sad.
“What can I do for you, Luke?” Lanie crossed her arms and leaned on the wall.
“I suppose you’ve heard the governor appointed me to Judge Gilliam’s seat.”
Of course, she’d heard it. This was Merritt; everybody had heard. At thirty-two, he was now the youngest circuit judge in the state. After Judge Coleman Gilliam had dropped dead on the golf course, everyone had said Luke got the appointment because his father, the state senator, was tight with the governor and because people felt sorry for him at being a widower with such a young child.
“Congratulations,” Lanie said. “Are you here to alert me to start calling you Judge Avery?”
“Of course not!”
“Don’t look so offended. I was joking. Sort of.”
“I’m not offended.” He closed his eyes and opened them again, as if he was signaling that he was closing one subject and moving on to the next. “I’ve been living with my parents on their farm right outside town.”
“I know. I drove you there that time I nearly killed you. Remember?”
He frowned some more. “Now that I’m on the bench, I need to live nearer to the courthouse. Besides, my little girl just turned three and started nursery school in town. I think we need to move.”
“You have my blessing and permission to move to town.”
He rolled his eyes — those big blue eyes. “I hear you have an apartment for rent.”
Lanie uncrossed her arms and straightened up. That got her attention. Indeed, the apartment upstairs, across the hall from her own, was empty and she needed to rent it. Business had been good but she’d gotten carried away and spent too much on too many upscale renovations to the shop and the apartments. The rent she needed to charge was unheard of for an apartment in a town the size of Merritt — and she needed that rent to hire some staff. Kathryn, the shop manager, and Allison, Internet sales manager, were hard workers but if they were stretched thin, Lanie was practically transparent.
She wanted — needed — to hire someone to help with the Internet sales and open the shop earlier so the coffee bar she’d installed could live up to its potential. When she’d bought the thing, she’d fanaticized about chatting with the good people of Merritt in the early morning hours while she made them lattes and sold them muffins. She thought it would be fun but had never found out. Unfortunately — or fortunately — to keep up with the candy making, she found herself in the industrial kitchen earlier every morning and later every night. Still, her good business sense wouldn’t allow her to hire a new person until she rented that apartment. Luke might be just the person to pay what she was asking. Everybody knew Luke Avery was a trust fund baby and the widower of a real estate heiress.
Everybody also knew the story of how Carrie Avery had wrapped her Mercedes SUV around a telephone pole — and how Luke’s best friend had been with her. Some claimed the two of them were cheating on Luke. Others said Carrie was just driving Jake Hampton to the airport. Either way, the story would have never made it from Mobile to Merritt if Luke’s father hadn’t been a state senator and Jake hadn’t been a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints.
“You want an
?” She would have figured he’d want a house in the historical district or out by the country club.
“I want to move. Soon. How many bedrooms does it have?”
“Three, though one of them barely deserves to be called a room, let alone a bedroom.” She wanted to bite her tongue. This was no way to go about renting an apartment.
But he didn’t appear to be put off. “That’s what I need. I have to hire a nanny. I’m not looking for a live-in, but she might have to stay over sometimes. Emma goes to school half days. My mother has been picking her up but she’s about to go back to the state capital with my father.”
“Do you want to see the apartment?” Book club could wait for this.
Luke looked at his watch. She liked that he wore a watch. These days, most people pulled out their phones to check the time. “I need to get home now but I could come back tomorrow.”
“Three-thirty would be good for me.”
“I’ll see you then.”
Without so much as a goodbye or a backward glance, Luke got in his green Porsche and drove away.
Lanie wondered if she should have the website completely revamped or just update what she had. That kept her from dwelling on what it would be like to have a child underfoot.