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Excerpt for Love on Lavender Lane by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Love on Lavender Lane

By Karis Walsh

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 Karis Walsh

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Love on Lavender Lane

For corporate consultant Paige Leighton, the ends always justify the means. She does whatever it takes to make her clients' businesses profitable. She has no room for sentimentality in business or in her personal life and loves nothing better than pushing others out of their comfort zones.


Kassidy Drake has spent a lifetime creating her comfort zone, and she has no intention of leaving. Her home is as orderly and as beautiful as the rows of lavender surrounding it, but she needs to make Lavender Lane Farm solvent or she might lose everything. She agrees to listen to Paige’s advice as long as Paige doesn’t expect much more from her than changing the font on her business cards.


Accompanied by the buzz of honeybees and the scent of lavender, Paige and Kassidy must find a way to compromise if they want to save Lavender Lane Farm—and find a way to make room for love along the way.

What Reviewers Say About Karis Walsh’s Work

Set the Stage


“Settings are an artwork for [Karis Walsh] as she creates these places that feel so real and vivid you wish you could hop in a car or plane to go walk where her characters are to experience what they get to on the pages of her book. …Her character work is as good as the places she’s created so they feel like realistic people making the whole picture enjoyable.”—Artistic Bent


“…a fun romance. It made me want to go this festival, which I’d never had any interest in before. Set the Stage is worth a read for fans of romance or theater.”—The Lesbrary


“I really adored this book. From the characters to the setting and the slow burn romance, I was in it for the long haul with this one. Karis Walsh to me is an expert in creating interesting characters that often have to face some type of adversity. While this book was no different, it felt like the author changed up her game a bit. There was something new, something fresh about this book from Walsh.”—The Romantic Reader Blog



You Make Me Tremble


“Another quality read from Karis Walsh. She is definitely a go-to for a heartwarming read.”—The Romantic Reader Blog



Amounting to Nothing


“Karis Walsh is known for quality books. Her characters are likable and well developed, her stories have interesting/realistic dialogue. She is one of my go-to authors for an easy, enjoyable read.”—The Romantic Reader Blog

“Great characters, excellent narration, solid pacing, interesting mystery, lovely romance. Everything worked for me!”—The Lesbian Review


“As always with Karis Walsh’s books the characters are well drawn and the inter-relationships well developed.”—Lesbian Reading Room



Tales From the Sea Glass Inn


“Karis Walsh has an appealing and easy writing style that always makes her stories a pleasant read and a keen eye for human frailties that captures the interest. Here she pulls out the quirks of each woman and shows us who they are and what they struggle with in swift brush strokes.”—Lesbian Reading Room


Tales from Sea Glass Inn is a lovely collection of stories about the women who visit the Inn and the relationships that they form with each other.”—Inked Rainbow Reads



Love on Tap


Love on Tap by Karis Walsh is a contemporary romance between an archaeologist and an artisanal brewer. That might sound like an odd match, but thanks to the author’s deft hand, it works very well and makes for a satisfying read.”—The Lesbian Review


“Karis Walsh writes excellent romances. They draw you in, engage your mind and capture your heart. …What really good romance writers do is make you dream of being that loved, that chosen. Love on Tap is exactly that novel—interesting characters, slightly different circumstances to anything you have read before, slightly different challenges. And although you KNOW the happy ending is coming, you still have that little bit of ‘oooh—make it happen.’ Loved it. Wish it was me. What more is there to say?”—The Lesbian Reading Room


“This is the second book I have read by this author and it certainly won’t be my last. Ms. Walsh is one of the few authors who can write a truly great and interesting love story without the need of a secondary story line or plot.”—Inked Rainbow Reads


“I liked this book, I really did. There was something about it that pulled me in and held my attention. Karis Walsh is an expert in creating interesting characters that often have to face some type of adversity. I love that she gives them strength to persevere in spite of this.”—The Romantic Reader Blog



Mounting Evidence


“[A]nother awesome Karis Walsh novel, and I have eternal hope that at some point there will be another book in this series. I liked the characters, the plot, the mystery and the romance so much. Danielle Kimerer, Librarian, Reading Public Library (MA)”—Library Thing


“[A] well paced and thrilling mystery revolving around two enigmatic women.”—Rainbow Book Reviews


“…great characters and development, a wonderful story line, lots of suspense and mystery and a truly sweet romance.”—Prism Book Alliance



Mounting Danger


“A mystery, a woman in a uniform and horses…YES!!!!… This book is brilliant in my opinion. Very well written with great flow and a fantastic plot. I enjoyed the horses in this dramatic saga. There is so much information on training and riding, and polo. Very interesting things to know.”—Prism Book Alliance


“Karis Walsh easily masters the most difficult pitfall of a traditional romance. Karis’ love for horses and for the Pacific Northwest is palpable throughout and adds a wonderful flavor to the story: The beauty of the oceanside at Tacoma, the smell of horses, the dogs, the excitement of Polo, the horses themselves (I am secretly in love with Bandit), the sounds of the forest. A most enjoyable read for cold winter days and nights.”—Curve



Blindsided


“Their slow-burn romance is a nuanced exploration of trust, desire, and negotiating boundaries, without a hint of schmaltz or pity. The sex scenes are sizzling hot, but it’s the slow burn that really allows Walsh to shine. …The deft dialogue and well-written characters make this a winner.”—Publishers Weekly


“This is definitely a good read, and it’s a good introduction to Karis Walsh and her books. The romance is good, the sex is hot, the dogs are endearing, and you finish the book feeling good. Why wouldn’t you want all that?”—The Lesbian Review


“Karis Walsh always comes up with charming Traditional Romances with interesting characters who have slightly unusual quirks.”—Curve



Wingspan


“As with all Karis Walsh’s wonderful books the characters are the story. Multifaceted, layered and beautifully drawn, Ken and Bailey hold our attention from the start. Their clashes, their attraction and the personal and shared development are what draw us in and hold us. The surrounding scenery, the wild rugged landscape and the birds at the center of the story are exquisitely drawn.”—Lesbian Reading Room


“I really enjoy Karis Walsh’s work. She writes wonderful novels that have interesting characters who aren’t perfect, but they are likable. This book pulls you into the story right from the beginning. The setting is the beautiful Olympic Peninsula and you can’t help but want to go there as you read Wingspan.”—The Romantic Reader Blog



The Sea Glass Inn


“Karis Walsh’s third book, excellently written and paced as always, takes us on a gentle but determined journey through two womens’ awakening. …Loved it, another great read that will stay on my re-visit shelf.”—Lesbian Reading Room



Worth the Risk


“The setting of this novel is exquisite, based on Karis Walsh’s own background in horsemanship and knowledge of showjumping. It provides a wonderful plot to the story, a great backdrop to the characters and an interesting insight for those of us who don’t know that world. …Another great book by Karis Walsh. Well written, well paced, amusing and warming. Definitely a hit for me.”—Lesbian Reading Room



Improvisation


“Walsh tells this story in achingly beautiful words, phrases and paragraphs, building a tension that is bittersweet. As the two main characters sway through life to the music of their souls, the reader may think she hears the strains of Tina’s violin. As the two women interact, there is always an undercurrent of sensuality buzzing around the edges of the pages, even while they exchange sometimes snappy, sometimes comic dialogue. Improvisation is a true romantic tale, Walsh’s fourth book, and she’s evolving into a master romantic storyteller.”—Lambda Literary



Harmony


“This was Karis Walsh’s first novel and what a great addition to the LesFic fold. It is very well written and flows effortlessly as it weaves together the story of Brooke and Andi’s worlds and their intriguing journey together. Ms Walsh has given space to more than just the heroines and we come to know the quartet and their partners, all of whom are likeable and interesting.”—Lesbian Reading Room



Risk Factor—Novella in Sweet Hearts


“Karis Walsh sensitively portrays the frustration of learning to live with a new disability through Ainslee, and the pain of living as a survivor of suicide loss through Myra.”—The Lesbian Review


“Another satisfying and exciting short novel. This one was set in an unusual setting, and covered an emotive and at times emotional subject. The characters although strong were very different woman, and both had individual weaknesses. The author used these differences to create an interesting and touching story line.”—Inked Rainbow Reads

Love on Lavender Lane

© 2019 By Karis Walsh. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-287-4


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185


First Edition: March 2019


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


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Jeanine Henning

By the Author

Harmony

Worth the Risk

Sea Glass Inn

Improvisation

Mounting Danger

Wingspan

Blindsided

Mounting Evidence

Love on Tap

Tales from Sea Glass Inn

Amounting to Nothing

You Make Me Tremble

Set the Stage

Seascape

Love on Lavender Lane

Chapter One

Paige Leighton turned to the next page in her neatly printed business plan and continued to review her assessment of Kenneth Drake’s commercial real estate firm. With no small effort, she ignored the thin wisp of hair that had escaped from her antique silver clip and was tickling the side of her cheek. Irritating. She kept her hair at just the right length to be smoothed back and held in place at the nape of her neck. Not long enough to be considered a ponytail, and not so short she felt the need to fuss with it during meetings. Like today.

Every aspect of her appearance was intentionally designed to give clients the impression that she was strong and in control, as well as to minimize the amount of time she needed to fuss over herself. When she had first started as a business consultant’s assistant, she had experimented with different styles and colors of suits. Now, as an independent contractor and sole employee of Leighton Consulting, she had settled on a wardrobe full of expensive but basic black pants and jackets, collared white shirts, and a few metallic clips for her hair. Nothing beat black-and-white and a sleek hairstyle for a display of power and simplicity.

Kenneth excused himself to answer his cell phone, and Paige took the opportunity to tuck the misbehaving lock of dark brown hair back into place. Her stylist had been unusually chatty last week—relating something about her baby learning to walk, or was it her dog learning to sit?—and she had seemed intent on continuing to cut Paige’s hair until she finished telling her story. Paige had been mentally wandering along a beach dotted with palm trees and had returned her attention to the mirror just in time to stop the rest of her hair from following the strands from the left side of her face to the floor.

She pushed the hair off her face again just as Kenneth turned toward her and came back to the table. Great, she was going to have to resort to using a handful of bobby pins until her hair grew out again. She’d look like a twelve-year-old getting ready for a ballet recital. She injected a more forceful, confident tone into her words as she continued her presentation, even though she realized it wasn’t really necessary. Her client was obviously impressed by her work and didn’t seem to care that her hair wasn’t perfectly in place.

He leaned back in the black leather chair when she finished and tapped the edge of the folder on the glass conference table. “How long will it take to make all the changes?”

He spoke in what Paige thought of as boss voice. Most of her clients had the same mannerisms, those of people who were accustomed to giving orders and having subordinates fall silent and listen whenever they spoke, then laugh at the appropriate time or rush off to do whatever task they had just been given. Her proposal was aggressive and would cause significant upheaval in the company, but Kenneth should be able to sell it to his board and employees just through force of voice alone.

“The initial personnel shifts can be completed within two weeks, but you should give the second phase of restructuring job descriptions and responsibilities at least six months, to minimize confusion. Otherwise tasks might be duplicated or slip through the cracks entirely.” Paige tried to ignore the tinge of guilt she felt, as annoying and unproductive as the hair curling over her cheekbone. No matter how cutthroat she and her clients were, she always tried to minimize the number of staff who would lose their jobs under her new regimes. The problems her clients’ businesses were facing, however, were usually connected to overstaffing and underutilization of a few key players. And that meant pink slips and severance packages. “My contract covers the extended period of readjustment, so feel free to call me in if you have any questions or want to make any changes to the plan.”

“Perfect. We’ll get started right away. More coffee?”

Paige struggled to keep her face neutral. “Sure. Thank you,” she said, silently apologizing to her stomach lining. Kenneth’s coffee was undoubtedly expensive but bitter as hell. She got a sense that he wanted to chat, though, so she accepted the drink and promised her esophagus a bottle of antacids when she got home.

Usually at this point in her consultation, business owners and managers were ready to shoo her out, either to get started immediately on her suggestions or to get away from the discomfort they felt in the face of her evaluation of their companies. Those latter clients probably fed her proposals to an industrial-strength shredder as soon as she was out the door. Of course, they always had cause to regret that decision a few months later when they were filing for bankruptcy, but by then she had been paid and was moving on.

Thriving, streamlined businesses never hired her, but ones close to the brink did. If they didn’t choose to follow her drastic plans, they often went under within a year—a fact that made her feel proud and sad at the same time. Kenneth’s company had seemed successful on paper—in terms of number of sales and clients—but it hadn’t been showing the expected results in profits. Paige was confident she had found the worst of the leaks and plugged them securely.

He handed her a full mug without much room for adding the copious amounts of cream and sugar that would make the brew palatable. She stirred in as much as she dared, not wanting to add a coffee-stained shirt to her hair fiasco. Kenneth took a seat across from her and rested one ankle over the opposite knee, leaning back in the casual but posed position of boss at ease.

“My daughter’s birthday is coming up soon. This spring, sometime,” he said with a wave of his hand.

Paige took a careful sip from her too-full mug. His phrasing was odd. Who referred to a daughter’s birthday by a vague season and not a specific date? She joked to herself that maybe he was worried Paige would steal the daughter’s identity if she had too much detailed information. He surely couldn’t have forgotten the actual day of her birth.

“I’d like to hire you as her gift. Your services as a business consultant, of course.”

Paige set her mug on the table, focusing on watching the movement of her own hands as she struggled to contain a completely unprofessional burst of laughter that wanted to escape. His first sentence had implied that this polished businessman intended to purchase her as the present, which was ludicrous. The second cleared up the misinterpretation but still seemed equally funny to her. The gift of her professional services didn’t strike her as a heartfelt present from a loving dad.

Maybe it was a practical one from a father who didn’t remember his daughter’s birthdate?

“What type of company does she own?”

Kenneth waved his hand vaguely through the air again. “She has a little farm in the Willamette Valley, near McMinnville. She grows…herbs or something New Agey. Certainly nothing that would cover the property taxes and high cost of living in those fancy small towns that are within commuting distance of Portland. The last time I talked to her, she tried to sound confident and not at risk of losing the place, but I think she might be fooling herself. I tried to talk her into selling before she gets too deep in debt and finding a job with a regular salary, but she’s too stubborn.”

Paige’s mind seesawed between Kenneth’s appallingly dismissive attitude toward his daughter’s business and a sudden vision of leaving the city behind and driving to McMinnville for a paid vacation. The daydream won for the moment, and Paige pictured herself behind the wheel of a convertible, her hair loose and blowing in the wind, and her dog Dante grinning in the passenger seat. Somehow, the weather was sunny, warm, and springlike in her mind, even though she had only mentally traveled a few miles from Portland’s overcast skies. The air in her mind was fresh and filled with the green scents of growing things and fertile soil. She could walk Dante through vineyards and stop for samples of wine. Visit her old college roommate Sarai.

Of course, Paige didn’t own a convertible. She might be able to convince herself of the practicality of renting a car instead of racking up miles on her own if the trip from Portland would take more than two hours. She sighed and brought herself back to the conference room, where the heat was turned to a dehydrating level to counter the cold, rainy Pacific Northwest spring weather. Which was barely discernible from the cold, rainy Northwest winter. She shook her head. If she wanted a sunnier destination, she’d need to travel a lot farther than McMinnville.

“I really don’t know anything about the agricultural industry,” she said, but the argument sounded weak to her. She could study. Research. The same thing she did every time she took a new job and made her client’s business concerns and passions her own, at least during the term of her employment. She hadn’t been familiar with Kenneth’s industry when she was first hired, and now she would feel comfortable teaching a class on commercial real estate at the local college. Did she want to learn everything there was to know about New Age farming, though? Not particularly. “And how can I save her money if she doesn’t have much staff to fire?”

Kenneth laughed at her joke even as she cringed internally at her flippant reference to the people who would soon lose their jobs here because of her recommendations. “I know this isn’t your usual type of client,” he said, gesturing broadly with his hands. “I was hoping you would take the job as a favor to me.”

Paige took another sip of her coffee, giving herself time to think. She would surely get more clients because of her work at Kenneth’s company, but not because he liked her and recommended her to others. Other managers and owners would be watching the firm over the next few months, studying its bottom line and determining whether her advice translated to more financial success. Then they would see that her input had added value to the company. A lot of value, in the form of dollar signs. And they would hire her.

Eventually.

Paige rubbed at a drop of coffee that had spilled on the table, but she ended up smudging the glass more than cleaning it. While she had been building her reputation as a consultant with her own firm, she experienced the expected highs and lows in terms of workload. She’d get a new client and work tirelessly to create a prospective plan for them. Then she—and the people who were considering hiring her—would wait to see how well her ideas worked. Those downtimes always came to an end, but she hated being in the middle of them. Idle, with an emptiness that she longed to fill with research on her next venture. She never quite knew what to do with herself in those middle places.

Working for Kenneth’s daughter was an answer, but not a great one. Paige had no idea what to expect. Would she be as cutthroat as her father, or a flake, as he seemed to imply? Or maybe a witch who used her herbs to make love potions and spells to make ex-lovers go bald? Paige could only hope—that would at least make for some interesting research.

“It’s an intriguing proposition,” she said. “I’m sure I can find ways for her to cut costs by either diversifying or specializing, although I can’t make a business concept that doesn’t have intrinsic potential work, no matter what I suggest. Usually, I only take clients that have the elements for success buried somewhere in their companies.” Then she knew they would thrive, as long as they followed her proposals. If Kenneth’s daughter was facing a weak market with an undesirable product, Paige would never be able to fix the broken parts short of telling her to start from scratch and try something else.

Kenneth propped his elbows on the table and leaned toward her. “Truthfully, that’s the reason I want to hire you. If you tell her the farm idea’s a bust, then she might be more inclined to take your advice than mine and get out of it while she still can.”

Paige frowned. “So you want me to fail.”

“Of course not,” he said, but it was accompanied by a smile and a nod of his head, as if he was relieved she understood. “I want you to succeed in helping her move toward a more financially responsible future.”

Her initial irritation with his dismissive attitude had taken a back seat to the convertible-fresh-air-spring working-vacation daydream, but now annoyance moved to the forefront of her mind again.

“I’ll do it,” she said. It wasn’t the type of work she wanted, and it definitely wouldn’t lead to useful contacts for future jobs. She’d help Kenneth’s daughter, though, but not in the way he wanted. She’d do her best to make the farm as profitable as it could be, and only as a last resort would she try to convince this woman to give up her dream and sell her farm, if it proved to be something she really cared about. Paige’s aggressive tactics might be more suitable for the boardroom than a garden patch, but how different could it really be? Business sense was business sense, no matter the location.


* * *


“So I’ll be spending a few weekends in McMinnville helping someone named Kassidy and staying in Portland during the week, in case Kenneth needs me to help during his transition period.” Paige toyed with the fragile stem of her wineglass and watched Evie to see how she would react. Paige wasn’t sure if she should ask Evie to go with her or not. She was planning to make this a vacation as well, after all, since she rarely left town and figured her work on the farm could be handled quickly and efficiently, leaving plenty of time to taste wine and sightsee. At least, to do whatever passed for sightseeing in the country. Looking at trees? Taking walks through nature? Dante would love those, but Paige was decidedly ambivalent about them. She usually preferred her nature to come in the form of paved walking paths that wended through city parks.

“Are those bobby pins in your hair? I hope you didn’t pay your stylist since she cut you too short,” Evie said, taking a small bite of her grilled salmon. “Anyway, I get that you want to keep your client happy by taking on this job with his daughter, but it’s a dead end. Unless you’re planning to hand out business cards to every hobby farmer hovering on the outskirts of Portland, of course.”

Evie laughed at this comment, and Paige covered up her lack of response by taking a sip of her merlot. Why did everyone want to belittle Kassidy’s profession? Even though Paige had no interest in cultivating either plants or plant-growing clients, she didn’t feel a need to put down the farming community in general.

“I thought it would be nice to get out of the city for a bit. Plus, I don’t have any other jobs lined up right now, and I hate to sit around and do nothing.”

“I’ve been thinking of getting away, too,” Evie said, fiddling with her asparagus and not looking at Paige. “I thought I’d drive up to Seattle and visit some friends. Do some shopping and see what’s new in the art galleries. I’ve been meaning to redecorate my bedroom, so I want to find a new painting to hang in there. Or maybe a collage.”

Just like that…Paige realized she wouldn’t be asking Evie to go to McMinnville with her—and Evie wouldn’t say yes even if she did. Paige didn’t need to hear the precise words to recognize that she was one of the things Evie would be removing from her bedroom when she redecorated. No eye contact. Decisions that sounded as if they’d been made for a while now, but this was the first Paige was hearing about them.

She couldn’t complain or act too affronted, though, since most of her own sentences—like Evie’s—had started with the word I. It was all very civilized and drama-free, like the rest of their relationship had been. They had spent a pleasant six months together, and now it was time to move on. Paige exhaled in a long sigh, which she tried to cover with a small cough because too much of her sense of relief was evident in it.

“I think some time in Seattle sounds great. For you,” she added quickly, in case Evie thought she was trying to include herself in the trip.

Evie met her gaze again and gave her a smile that had as much relief etched in it as Paige’s sigh. “And I’m sure McMinnville would be great for some people. I’ll bet you die of boredom there, though.”

Paige shrugged. “That’s why I’m coming back to the city during the week. Short doses of country life shouldn’t prove fatal.”

Evie made a skeptical-sounding noise. Paige watched her as she attacked her meal with gusto now, apparently relieved that their breakup had been simple and nonconfrontational, and no longer too nervous to do more than pick at her food.

Evie was everything Paige should want in a woman. She was smart and a successful interior designer—her business never had any need for Paige’s professional assistance. She was gorgeous. Well-read. Informed on current events.

Not the most romantic list of attributes, but then again, Paige wasn’t looking for flowers, pink hearts, and love notes left on bathroom mirrors. She and Evie had never defined their relationship, and Paige preferred it that way. She wanted nothing more than heated, explosive beginnings, ambiguous but pleasant middles, and vague, unemotional endings. Exactly what she had gotten with Evie.

She felt sort of hollow, but she couldn’t tell if it was because she and Evie were through or because it was simply the way she always felt when she finished a consulting job and faced the stretch of empty days before she got to work again.

“Are you going to start your farming research soon?” Evie asked.

“Not yet. I don’t even know what she grows there, so I’ll wait until I see the place before I start formulating any sort of plan.” Paige always preferred to begin a new job without any preconceived ideas about how she wanted to fix a business. If she didn’t go in with a blank slate, then she might overlook key issues that were unique to the individual firm. In the case of Kassidy’s farm, Paige didn’t have any biases in place because she didn’t know what she’d find in McMinnville. Kenneth might have been correct about the herbs, but given his indifferent attitude, Paige thought it was just as likely that Kassidy was a chicken farmer or even something else entirely.

Paige would find out soon. She’d observe the farm, locate the areas of mismanagement, and formulate a proposal just like she always did. She might not have a job with a high-end corporate client right now, but she at least had a temporary place where she could channel her energy and attention. She suddenly realized how hungry she really was and, like Evie, turned to her dinner with renewed enthusiasm.

Chapter Two

A burst of steamy fragrance filled the kitchen when the chopped garlic hit sizzling oil in the heavy enamel pan. Kassidy Drake stirred the mixture, careful not to burn the garlic, and then added a large plateful of diced chicken. While the meat browned, she returned her attention to wiping the last few morels with a damp tea towel and slicing them into thin half rounds. She added the mushrooms and a few leaves of sage from her garden to the pan and breathed in the earthy blend of aromas as the ingredients finished cooking.

Kassidy didn’t have an abundance of fresh vegetables available to her this early in the growing season, but the ones she had been able to scrounge from her yard and some nearby woods made up for the lack of variety with a depth of flavor. She took the Dutch oven off the heat and set it on a trivet on the counter, somehow managing to fight the temptation to stand by the kitchen island with a fork and eat everything right now, all by herself. Then she wouldn’t have anything to bring to tonight’s potluck, but she could always stop by the grocery store and pick up a premade veggie tray. She smiled at the thought. Her friends from the neighborhood farming community wouldn’t recognize her if she wasn’t carrying a dish of something homemade.

She scraped the chicken mixture out of the pan and returned it to the heat, moving through the process of creating a meal with the comfortable ease of long familiarity. She had been cooking since she was six, and she somehow continued to enjoy it as a hobby even though it had been an overwhelming responsibility when she was a child. She had started with burnt grilled cheeses and undercooked scrambled eggs, gradually teaching herself what she needed to know in order to feed her siblings and her mother—as well as not burning down the house. Cooking equaled love to her. And she hadn’t done more than microwave a frozen dinner since Audrey left.

Of course, she hadn’t done much of anything since Audrey left. Kassidy slid a large hunk of butter into the still-hot pan and let it sizzle and sputter until it started to look a little foamy. Tonight’s get together was good for her beyond just getting her into the kitchen again, she decided, as she beat a blend of all-purpose and hazelnut flours into the butter. She had spent more time talking to the grafted plants in her greenhouse than her friends for the past couple of months, and her hermit-like behavior had gone on long enough. Sure, she had needed time and space to heal, but now she was scared of how much distance she had put between herself and other people.

The toxicity of her relationship with Audrey had snuck up on her, but the moment she realized how dysfunctional things had become, she severed the relationship without a backward glance. Audrey had seemed honestly perplexed by the breakup, and maybe she hadn’t been consciously aware of what she was doing to Kassidy. That didn’t make it better, though. Kassidy had opened up to Audrey and shared parts of her childhood that made her vulnerable. Audrey had used that information to punish Kassidy every time she got angry, withdrawing from Kassidy and distancing herself with a cold, emotionless expression.

Kassidy added milk to the pan and whisked with more vigor than was necessary, splashing herself with a few drops of hot liquid. She took a deep breath and calmed her movements. She had reacted to Audrey’s silences in ways that were deeply ingrained in her. She had apologized, cooked Audrey’s favorite foods, left her small gifts. Eventually, Audrey would turn to her with that dazzling smile again, and all would be forgiven. At least Kassidy hadn’t taken very long to recognize the old patterns, and she had pulled herself out of the messed-up game the moment she clearly saw what was happening.

Old habits died hard. The proverb had stuck around for ages because it was true. Kassidy uncorked a bulbous glass jar and sprinkled a palmful of dried purple buds into her hand. She scattered the Sharon Roberts lavender over the surface of the steaming milk and was rewarded with the sudden release of a calming floral scent. A few sprinkles of freshly grated nutmeg, some twists of black pepper, and the béchamel was done.

She strained the liquid to remove the lavender pieces before mixing the chicken with the sauce, then covered the pan and set it aside to cool. She had already packed a small army of tiny puff pastry cups, and she’d assemble the hors d’oeuvres at the party. She had to be more vigilant with her romantic relationships and not let them lead her down the path she had taken with Audrey—and one or two past girlfriends—but she didn’t need to maintain the same distrust and carefulness around her friends. She knew she could rely on them for anything, just like they could turn to her without hesitation. And given the challenges they all were facing with increasing taxes and fickle markets, they needed to band together as much as possible if they wanted their artisan community to survive. And it had to survive. The world would be a much grayer place without it.

Kassidy shook her head, trying to ignore—just for tonight—the near constant worry she felt when she thought about the future of her farm. She felt a little better when she focused on the fate of the community as a whole, because then she didn’t feel so overwhelmingly alone when she contemplated her financial situation. She went into her bedroom and pulled off the sauce-splattered shirt and soft flannel pants she had been wearing while she cooked. She tossed them into the clothes hamper and put on a pair of faded jeans and a gray T-shirt that showed a frowning cartoon grape holding an empty wine bottle upside down with the words I’m crushed underneath the image. She wouldn’t have to worry about empty wine bottles tonight, though. Over half of the members of their local business community were connected to the wine trade in some way, and all of them would be sure to bring plenty of bottles for everyone to sample. She added a thin sweater because the early spring evening promised to be a cool one and hurried out to the car with her heavy containers of food.

The drive from her rural farm to Drew and Jessica’s tasting room in downtown McMinnville was a quick one. Most of the businesses except for a few pubs and restaurants along the small main street were closed for the evening, and the strings of colorful lights around the Bête Noir’s large paned windows provided a splash of brightness in the deepening dusk. The party was meant to give the local farmers and artists a chance to gather together after the quiet isolation of the winter season and before the bustle of spring and summer arrived, but no tourists or other passersby would be turned away from the welcoming room, the plentiful glasses of Oregon’s pinot noir, and the lavish food.

Kassidy’s stomach growled at the thought of food. She had spent hours fussing over her chicken dish but hadn’t had anything to eat since her breakfast of fruit and a cinnamon roll. She gathered her bowl of sauce and boxes of pastry off the back seat and crossed the street. Once inside the store, she hesitated in the doorway for a moment, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light and as her mind adjusted to the presence of the crowd that filled the room. The winter had been a lonely, dreary one, and she felt overwhelmed by wall-to-wall people.

Not for long, though. Drew was at her side before she had a chance to give in to her initial reaction and escape back into the anonymously dark evening.

“Ah, our lavender keeper has finally arrived,” he said, bending down to kiss her cheek and take the containers out of her hands in one smooth movement. “This smells heavenly. Does anything need to be reheated or prepped?”

Kassidy felt the knots that had been forming inside her loosen. She had needed privacy while she healed and shored up her personal defenses again, and now she was ready to be back in the world. Among friends who cared about the same things she did and who cared about her, but who never intruded on her privacy as a person.

“Thank you, Drew,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze, grateful for more than his offer to help with the food. “They don’t need reheating. Just put a scoop of chicken in each of the pastry cups, and that’ll be perfect.”

“Will do. Now, go find Jessica and make sure you try a glass of the reserve. She’s been moping because she hasn’t seen you for ages.” He held her food with one hand and used the other to turn her toward the corner of the room and give her a gentle push toward the bar.

Jessica was waving at her, so Kassidy bypassed the loaded food table with a longing look and headed toward her friend. Jessica was an ex-model who had come to the Willamette Valley to do a photo shoot, met Drew when she stopped to taste some wine, and never left. She still had the ultrathin physique and angular cheekbones of a high-fashion model, but a ruffled peasant blouse and genuine smile softened her look. She came around the bar and gave Kassidy a tight hug.

“Don’t even,” she said, slapping Kassidy’s hand away when she reached for one of the prefilled wineglasses. She took her place behind the counter again and surreptitiously poured some wine out of a bottle hidden under the lip of the bar. “We’ve already sold out of most of this year’s Best Bête, even though Drew just announced it a few weeks ago, but we put a couple bottles aside to share with special friends.”

“Thank you,” Kassidy said, touched by the gesture. Drew and Jessica were giving her more than a glass of fancy wine. This gift encompassed all the time and effort and passion they put into their winery, and Kassidy took the time to fully appreciate it. The color of the wine was deeper than the less mature ones in the glasses on the bar, but it was still the clear burgundy of Oregon’s ubiquitous pinot noir. She had been surprised by the flavor of these wines when she first came to the Willamette Valley because she had expected the lighter-colored wines to lack dimension and flavor. If she hadn’t recognized how wrong she was before, then tonight’s wine would have clearly shown her the error in her thinking. She sipped it slowly, savoring the strong taste of cherry and the underlying hint of earthiness. She had been transplanting some new varietals this week and had marveled at the rich, healthy smell of the soil and how substantial and nourishing it felt in her hands. Drew and Jessica had captured that in a glass.

“I taste Oregon,” she said, and Jessica grinned at her.

“Exactly,” she said. “Every year the wine gets better and tastes more like a place instead of just a handful of anonymous grapes.”

Jessica turned away for a moment to hand glasses to a couple Kassidy didn’t recognize. She noticed more drop-in traffic than she had seen last year. Word must be spreading about the so-called private party. When Jessica looked back at her, Kassidy saw an expression of concern on her face. Here it came…

“How are you doing? We haven’t seen much of you this winter, and I’ve been worried. I was going to come by, but I didn’t know if you needed some time alone after…”

Her words trailed off, but Kassidy knew exactly what she meant. The community was too small for it to have gone unnoticed when Audrey had moved in with her, and then moved out again not long after.

“I’m fine,” Kassidy said, forcing a smile. It didn’t feel convincing, so she covered it by taking another drink of her wine. She nudged the conversation out of the personal sphere. “I’ve been keeping busy, expanding the number of plants I have in the north field and experimenting with some new varietals.”

“I think it’s a good idea for you to experiment with someone…oops, I meant something new,” Jessica said, apparently not fooled by Kassidy’s deflection of the conversation from personal to business related subjects. “If you ever need a friend to talk to about these varietals, or anything else, I’m here for you.”

Kassidy smiled and thanked her, but she knew she wouldn’t accept the offer, even though she was grateful to receive it.

“Ugh, here comes Alexandra,” Jessica said, looking over Kassidy’s shoulder. “She always compliments our wines while managing to let me know how much worse they are than her own.”

Kassidy laughed and held up her glass. “You should give her some of this. That’ll shut her up.”

“No way. She doesn’t deserve its deliciousness.” Jessica topped off Kassidy’s glass with more of the reserve and nodded toward the food. “You should get something to eat before everything is gone. Plus, you might want to be out of the line of fire in case I dump a glass of wine on her head.”

“Your wines are too good to be wasted like that,” Kassidy said.

She slipped away as Alexandra approached the bar, and turned her attention to the food. Finally. Jessica’s dire prediction about everything being gone wasn’t holding true, and the table was overflowing with offerings from all the local farms and restaurants, showcasing the best products they had. The invitations sent by Drew and Jessica had included a small decorative card used to identify the dish, and Kassidy had written Lavender Chicken Cups on hers and put it in the box with the pastries. She found it on the table where Drew had placed it next to an artfully arranged plate of her hors d’oeuvres.

In the center of the table, looking sadly out of place among the gourmet dishes, was a large bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa. There wasn’t a handwritten card next to this selection, since all one had to do was read the bag to know what it was. Kassidy moved around the table, putting a small taste of everything around the edge of her plate. Spicy onion pakoras from Sarai’s Pakistani restaurant. Panzanella with bright red tomatoes, vibrant green strips of basil, and chunks of what was surely homemade bread, glistening with a hefty drizzle of Everett and Brian’s olive oil. Tiny rhubarb and pear tarts from the Moorhouses’ orchard. When she finished the circuit of the table, she added a huge pile of chips in the middle, topped with a generous dollop of salsa.

She happily crammed a loaded tortilla chip into her mouth and looked up just in time to see a woman watching her from the far corner of the room. Kassidy swallowed the chip and looked away quickly, but she could still picture the woman in her mind with a disturbing clarity of detail. She was standing next to Sarai and some other local restaurant owners, seeming to be part of their conversation but still looking like an outsider. She held her wineglass like someone unfamiliar with the tenets of wine tasting, cradling the bowl so her hand would warm the liquid instead of holding the stem. Kassidy tried to fixate on that fact instead of letting her mind wander to the stranger’s shiny brown hair and the way it curled across her jawline and barely brushed her shoulders. Her hazel eyes that had held a look of amusement, as if she was carrying on a private and funny conversation with herself while she observed the world around her. Kassidy was struck by how much she wanted to know what thoughts were taking place inside her mind.

Experiment with someone new. Jessica’s advice leaped unbidden into her mind. No way. Kassidy wanted to focus on what was old and comfortable. Her farm, her solitude, her privacy. Salty chips and earthy wine. The smell of lavender. She put all her attention on the plate of food she was holding, resolutely banishing the image of a beautiful stranger from her thoughts.


* * *


Paige was feeling out of place. Oddly disjointed, as if she had entered another dimension instead of merely driven to a town that was a couple hundred miles from her own. Not because she had been shunned for being an outsider, but because she had been welcomed in with open arms. She had been to parties before, of course, but never ones that were as equally welcoming to people wandering in off the streets as they were to invited guests. She had come with her friend Sarai, but she saw random people stumbling through the door as if inexplicably drawn to the lights and crowds, and they were gathered into the fold by their hosts as if they were long-lost family members.

Sarai had said it was a potluck but insisted Paige didn’t need to bring anything. Paige had, of course, ignored her advice and brought what would be a nondescript and acceptable appetizer at any other party. Chips and dip. How could she go wrong? Ha. At least she hadn’t opted for the bottle of Italian wine that had been her second choice. Paige thought she should probably feel embarrassed, but instead she had an irresistible urge to laugh every time she looked at the table with its ring of elegant hors d’oeuvres surrounding her plastic bag of chips.

And then a goddess had descended from the heavens and accepted her offering. Well, not a goddess. A beautiful mortal woman wearing a cute T-shirt and incredibly well-fitting jeans. With asymmetrical hair that walked a fine line between being light brown and honey blond, tucked neatly behind one ear and softly curling a little longer over her other cheek. Eating chips and salsa as if it was as perfect an example of epicurean delight as anything else on the table.

Paige couldn’t stop herself from walking over to the table, even though she tried. She had just broken up with Evie—or what constituted a breakup in their overly subtle relationship. She was in town to work, not to engage in some sort of ill-conceived fling. She had no idea what to say to someone who would be at this kind of party.

All too soon, she was standing right behind her chip-munching goddess with no idea how to initiate a conversation. The woman smelled intoxicatingly wonderful, with an aura of something floral and delicate surrounding her, and the scent obviously had the ability to make Paige completely lose the ability to form words. Talk about the food. Make a joke. The woman was obviously not a food snob, so she’d surely appreciate a little self-deprecating gourmet humor from the outsider who had brought store-bought chips.

“Hi,” she said, rolling her eyes internally at her awkwardness.

The woman turned around quickly, as if surprised to have someone approach and talk to her. At a party filled with a crowd of people. Paige wasn’t sure why she should be startled, since she must be accustomed to having random women fling themselves at her all the time.

“Hi.”

Paige gestured at her plate. “Do you like those chips? I picked them myself just this morning.”

The woman looked toward the door, then back at Paige, seemingly trying to decide between the two options she faced. Luckily, she chose Paige and gave her a small but pulse-affecting smile. “I’m surprised to see them this time of year because I thought they were only harvested during football season. You must use a lot of fertilizer to keep them crisp after February.”

“Yeah, I really pile it on,” Paige said. She was rewarded for her small joke when the woman’s shy-looking smile turned into a real grin, making her nearly drop her wineglass. She had been beautiful when she had been eating chips with a slightly rapturous expression, but once her nose scrunched with laughter, Paige was lost. She needed to keep this conversation going and find more ways to make her laugh. If they joked around long enough, Paige might dredge up enough courage to ask her out, even though she was feeling decidedly out of her element in this community.

Paige turned to the table for inspiration and luckily found it right in front of her. She gestured toward a plate of creamy discs labeled as Herb and Garlic Chevre. “I’m guessing this town has outlawed microwaves, but if we can find a wood-fired oven in the back we can make some nachos.”

The woman shook her head with an exaggerated sigh. “And here I thought I was talking to a real gourmet. Nachos need to be made with shredded orange cheese from a plastic pouch. You didn’t happen to harvest any of that, did you?”

Paige mimicked the deep sigh. “Sorry. I picked my orange cheese vines clean a couple months ago. Blame it on the Seahawks for making it to postseason.”

They shared another smile, and Paige moved on to the next platter of hors d’oeuvres as a source for her jokes. If she worked her way around the table and kept talking about food, an invitation to dinner would seem like a natural segue from their banter. Halfway around, ask for her name. After the circuit had been completed, ask for her phone number. Paige loved an organized plan, and she struggled for something comical to say about the dainty pastries on the next tray. “Look at this one. Lavender chicken. Who puts perfume in food, right?”

She picked up one of the little puff pastry cups and crammed it in her mouth, more to stop herself from saying something stupid than because she wanted it, but once she started to chew she was hooked. The flavors exploded in her mouth, filling her with earthy and floral notes as if she had taken a very deep, delicious breath while standing in the middle of a forest. “Oh my God, this is amazing. Is it really lavender? I expected it to be nasty and perfume-y, but it isn’t.”

She paused, giving the other woman a chance to add to the conversation while Paige swallowed the tasty morsel and snagged another pastry cup. She was met with only silence, and when she looked around, she was standing all alone.

“Huh,” she said. Hadn’t their conversation been going well? Paige had thought the woman’s laughter seemed genuine, but maybe she had been merely humoring her and waiting for a chance to escape. Paige ate the second hors d’oeuvre as a consolation prize and picked up a third as Sarai walked over to her.

“Oh, good. You got a chance to meet Kassidy.”

Paige choked on her third appetizer. “What? When?”

“The woman you were just talking to,” Sarai said, with a confused-looking frown. “Didn’t you say you were here to work with Kassidy Drake? Something to do with her lavender farm?”

Shit. Had she really just insulted her new client’s product directly to her face? And in a completely unwarranted way, since it was wonderful?

Paige sighed. This was why she always met with clients in their boardrooms and offices, where they usually had a placard announcing their names and titles. That way she could pick them out of a crowd and be sure not to inadvertently cram her foot into her mouth. She supposed she should count herself as fortunate because Kassidy’s hors d’oeuvres had been at the beginning of Paige’s attempt to joke her way around the table and not at the end, when her comments might have been paired with a request for a date. If that had been the case, Kassidy might have dumped the jar of salsa over Paige’s head instead of simply walking away from her. Paige ate another lavender chicken cup, just to ease the feeling of anxiety creeping over her. She had some serious groveling to do tomorrow when she went to visit Kassidy’s farm.

Chapter Three

Paige pulled to the side of the road and parked next to the Lavender Lane Farm sign. She wasn’t quite ready to face Kassidy in person yet, so she decided to get a tourist-eye view of the farm first.

A thick hedge of large domed shrubs lined the street, with spiky green stems and small dots of deep purple. The plants were almost a yard high and would likely be stunning when in full bloom. Paige got a glimpse of the neat rows of shorter plants beyond the border and a small cottage in the distance. The place was beautiful—like its owner—and Paige wished yet again that she could go back in time and not say anything derogatory about lavender. She had replayed the evening over and over in her head, always imagining a different scenario than the one that actually took place. She had called Sarai from the road yesterday, and when she was invited along to the party, she had been more concerned about getting some food to bring than with finding out about Kassidy Drake. She had mentioned Kassidy’s name but must have given Sarai the impression that she knew all about her new client. Unfortunately, she had been missing the key parts of the equation, including Kassidy’s occupation and what she looked like. Of course, knowing that she was entering a realm dedicated to the Slow Food movement would have been helpful, too.

Oh, well. She couldn’t change what had already happened, but she could move forward and make the best of the situation. While completely ignoring the fact that she had been awkwardly angling toward Kassidy as a potential date last night, against her better judgment. She was here to work and she had just broken up with Evie, she reminded herself yet again. Even though the dissolution of their relationship hadn’t induced any trauma in either of them, she still wasn’t ready to jump into another cycle of meeting someone, getting bored, and moving on. Luckily, the only woman who had managed to make her rethink her decision was her new client.

She needed to focus on the business aspect of Kassidy’s life, not on her sexy blue eyes or the way she had eaten Paige’s chips and salsa as enthusiastically as if they had been rare truffles or some other exotic treat. Paige brought her full attention to the farm and her first impressions of it as she stood facing the road with her hands on her hips. She hadn’t seen many cars since leaving McMinnville and following the rural streets to Kassidy’s farm, and she hoped this would change in tourist season. For now, though, she enjoyed the peace and quiet, and she let Dante out of the ancient Tercel so he could explore with her. He smiled exuberantly, tongue lolling out to one side, as she unbuckled his safety harness and set him free.


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