In case anyone ever doubted it, getting up at four in the morning was all sorts of things. Jules Lamprey had been doing it for years so it wasn’t so much a matter of holy crap, it’s early anymore.
What she did like, she thought as she locked her front door and headed to her car, was the way the world held so much anticipation. No dawn yet. But it wasn’t the middle of the night anymore either. The promise of a new day was just beginning to manifest itself.
She liked that she pretty much had the road to herself as she made the short trip to Tart. Oh sure, in a while there’d be people waking up to get that first ferry to Seattle, but for now, it felt as if the entire world was all hers.
And for a brief, thrilling moment after she’d parked her car and walked up the block, she stood and looked at her shop.
Tart, in all its glory. Shiny red and chrome with black-and-white tiles on the floor. The place she’d been given so unexpectedly had become her heart. The place she always knew existed because she’d made it so.
Hers. She unlocked the back door and went through to the kitchen, hanging her things up and getting ready to start the day. She figured at least one of her friends would be by in the next hour either to help or seeking tarts and coffee, and that made her nearly as happy as seeing the front of Tart each and every morning.
True to her gut feeling, Gillian came in at six. Gillian Forrester had been Jules’s closest friend well over a decade and a frequent early bird visitor to Tart once she got her son Miles off to school.
Even so, six fifteen was early even for Gillian.
“So what? Did you have some hot, early morning nookie with your rock-star fiancé or what?”
Gillian sniffed, but the smile on her lips gave her away. “I really need some coffee.”
Jules grinned, leaning in for the hug. Tart had just opened for the morning commuters, and she’d already done all her prep and things were baking and her display case was full of delicious things.
But it was quiet enough for the time being that she could pause a moment to make Gillian a latte and slide a scone her way.
“Adrian was working pretty much the entire night in his new studio. He came home a while ago and told me he’d get Miles to school before he crashed. I sleep poorly when he’s working. It’s terrible and I should be ashamed of myself for apparently being addicted to him in my bed like some sort of comfort object.”
Her best friend had met Adrian Brown the year before in an unlikely way. He was the biological father of her son Miles. They’d had a rough start, but Jules had never seen Gillian happier and the two of them were getting married that summer.
“Ashamed, my ass. You’ve got love. Love in the form of a tattooed, tall, dark and handsome musician who adores you. Of course you like him in your bed. But it’s nice of him to deal with Miles.”
Gillian’s smile made Jules happy to the tip of her toes. “And we did, you know, get a little early morning—ahem—action in. So now I’m totally awake and he’s going to sleep once he gets Miles off to school so I figure I might as well come here, see you, which I don’t do often enough of late. And you’ll take pity on me and give me caffeine.”
It’d been a while since Jules had had early morning action, or action of any kind. Maybe she’d meet some hot rock-star friend of Adrian’s at the wedding.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. You’re right, I don’t see you often enough lately.”
“Are you mad at me? You must all feel like I’ve abandoned you.”
She squeezed Gillian’s hand. “Heck no. You have a few things going on in your life right now. A kid. A fiancé. A wedding. Your business. A new house. Hanging out with your friends tends to fall to the bottom of the list when you’re doing all that other stuff. We don’t feel like you’ve abandoned us. You should know us better than that.”
She handled a few of her regulars before turning her attention back to Gillian.
“I miss you. There’s so much going on.”
Jules studied Gillian carefully, worried suddenly that she’d missed something. “Is everything all right? Do you need me to kick anyone for you?”
“This is exactly what I miss. No one you need to kick, though you know how much it pleases me to have my own army of Amazonian warrior women ready to do my bidding and protect me should I need it.”
Jules laughed as she worked the counter for a few minutes.
“It’s just busy,” Gillian said as Jules got back to her. “Wedding stuff and thank you so much for all your help. And house stuff. We’re halfway between my house and the new place and Miles is bouncing off the walls with excitement. Little prat got a D on a big math test last week. I only found out when Adrian had taken out the recycling and found it in the papers.”
Jules winced. Gillian loved her son intensely, but she was a tough momma on the big stuff like school.
“Anyway, I figured if I came in here before my first lesson and while my men took care of themselves, we could visit and you could fill me in on how the new arrangement is working.”
The new arrangement was the business deal she’d worked out with her friends Mary and Daisy. Mary had moved her catering and dinner club business into Tart’s space and had already grown her business by 50 percent. Daisy’s art hung on the walls, where she sold it and other local artists’ work as well as handling the business and marketing for Tart and Mary’s catering business.
A lot of new things happening. So much she found herself juggling her life a lot more lately than she ever had. But she felt like things were really looking up.
“I’m getting used to sharing my space, but it’s going well. Profits are up for all three of us. I’m going out to Patrick Carter’s farm after I close today. I’m expanding my menu to include locally grown produce.”
“He’ll love that. I’ve been worried about him after losing his wife.”
“He seemed all right when I spoke to him on the phone. But you know, I can’t imagine losing the love of my life after all those decades together. He still comes in here at least once a month though. And I think he’s slowly moving forward.” The Carters had been one of those couples who seemed to light up at the sight of one another.
“Here, try this one. It’s a new recipe.” She gave Gillian one of the strawberry buttermilk muffins she’d made earlier.
“If I must.” Gillian winked and then tried it, humming her delight. “This is really good. Which pretty much is my answer every time you have me try something new of yours.”
“The strawberries were frozen, but once they’re in season I have a local supplier. I’m taking some out to Patrick’s to give him a sample of what I can do.” Along with the cherry turnovers he loved so much. Hey, she wasn’t above a little bribery.
“No one is going to complain when you arrive carrying one of your red-and-white bakery boxes.” Gillian grinned.
Pride filled Jules at the compliment. She’d worked hard to make the place her own after she’d inherited the building. It pleased her so much that she’d been as successful as she had.
She’d never wake up one day to have her entire life turned upside down and not have a backup plan. Like her mother had.
Jules had been out to Patrick Carter’s farm just a few months before. Unfortunately it had been a less-than-happy occasion. His wife Clara had battled cancer for the better part of the last several years and had finally succumbed to it. The wake had been lovely, filled with friends and family. It had been a lovely tribute to just what an amazing person Clara Carter had been.
Patrick was hale and hearty in that way some men grew into as they hit eighty. Barrel-chested and broad shouldered, he’d spent his entire life on the farm he still worked. He still came into Tart once a month when he came into town to run errands and she’d sit with him and visit for the better part of an hour or two. He was a terrible flirt, which always made her smile. And he knew about stuff. His stories always entertained her.
But the sadness in his eyes had stuck with Jules. Her friend Daisy, who in addition to being an artist and a dancer, also had a great mind for business. It was her idea to bring Mary and Jules together to combine their resources. Using locally sourced ingredients in the food Tart put out would add another facet to the business. It was smart and would strengthen her ties and commitment to the community.
So when the idea had come up, Patrick was one of the first names that had come to mind. It was probably a little thing for him, but hopefully it gave her the chance to see him more often and also get him connected to a new and fun project.
The island was small enough that it didn’t take long to get out to his place. The curved drive up to the pretty farmhouse was lined with trees. His bees were out in the orchards behind the house. She wanted his fruit and his honey.
But it wasn’t until she’d parked and gotten out of the car, her arms laden with the pastry she’d brought, that she noted Patrick was sitting on his big front porch. But he wasn’t alone.
Both men stood as she headed up the steps and she realized the other was Gideon, Patrick’s grandson.
It was an unexpected pleasure to see him. Which was probably why just looking at him sent a little zing through her. That or the fact that he was ridiculously gorgeous. Either way, a zing was a zing and who was she to go looking any zing askance when she’d been sort of zing-less of late?
“Two Carter men in one place? I’m not sure Bainbridge Island is big enough to handle all this handsome.” She winked at Patrick, who kissed her cheek and grabbed the pastry box with a happy sound and a grin.
“If these have cherry turnovers in them, you can have whatever you like, girlie.” He indicated Gideon, who stood, smiling at her. “You remember my grandson, don’t you?”
Gideon’s gold-blond hair was to his shoulders. His beard was neatly groomed and framed a sinfully full mouth. Jeans and boots were part of his job, much like the ones his grandfather had on. But Gideon only made her think, “hot cowboy.”
“I do,” she managed to say instead of drooling. He’d been a cute older boy she’d crushed on growing up. But this Gideon was a man . Damn.
Before she could say anything else, Gideon stepped to her and pulled her into a hug. He smelled like sunshine and hard work and a hint of the shampoo he used.
“It’s really good to see you, Jules. Come sit. Granddad has made coffee. I told him we should have offered you food, but he insisted you’d bring it so why bother.”
Oh. His accent. Not pronounced or even that noticeable, but it was there. A general slowing of his speech. Sexy.
“Patrick, I brought you some other things in addition to the cherry turnovers.” She tipped her head to the boxes, though she didn’t bother to hide her flattered smile when she noted he’d already started eating.
He pointed at the box. “You can have one, boy. Just don’t get greedy.”
Gideon looked to his grandfather. “So says the guy who’s shoving one into his face already like a starving man.”
Patrick looked over and snorted. “I’m still growing, Gideon. I need it.”
She laughed, liking the sight of a far more lighthearted Patrick than she’d seen in some time. It was clear Gideon’s presence wasn’t just candy for the ladies in the area.
“How long are you in town for, Gideon?” She hoped she didn’t sound like a breathless schoolgirl hinting at being asked out. It wasn’t as if he was a stranger after all. She’d known him since they were both kids and he came to Bainbridge every summer and over the winter holidays to visit his grandparents.
But the zing? Well, she didn’t get any zing when she hung out with Mary’s brother Ryan, who was also gorgeous and she’d known equally long. Mary’s other brother Cal was a whole different story though.
“For good.” He handed a mug to Jules. The day was crisp so the coffee was much appreciated. “Granddad and Grandma ran this place my whole life. I figured it wasn’t a bad thing to get into the family business.”
Patrick gave a wheezy sort of laugh and patted Gideon’s knee. “That’s a pretty way of saying that since Clara’s death I’ve needed a little help. He’s good at saying things in pretty ways.”
They had good energy, Gideon and his grandfather. Gideon seemed at ease, his body language relaxed and open. It was a choice he’d made happily, apparently, which Jules was glad of. And not just because if he was around on the regular, she could look into the zing a little closer.
“I’m glad you’re back in town. I suppose, then, I need to talk to you both. I’m doing some expansion of Tart and part of that is a new, locally sourced line of baked goods. My partner Mary, she’s a caterer and she’d also be interested in local ingredients for her food. We thought it would be nice to have a notation on the menu for the local farms and dairies we buy our ingredients from.”
“Really? That’s a great idea. Granddad and I were just talking about this earlier in the week. The cattle ranch I ran for years had some relationships with local restaurants. It’s win/win for both and for the locals who are customers.”
She liked that he seemed so engaged with the farm there already.
“That’s a big part of it. I really love the idea of eating and sourcing as much local ingredients and goods as I can. There’s so much around here that it’s not that difficult to create a menu with at least fifty percent local products. My aim, after a year, is to be up at sixty percent or higher. I like that it gets me in contact with local farmers and ranchers and that it gives my customers a new perspective on the businesses they use without even knowing it.”
Gideon leaned closer, his eyes bright, body language engaged with hers. She could smell him, which was entirely pleasant when a breeze kicked up from time to time.
“I sure do like the idea of the family farm moving into the future this way. When I took over from my father we took our produce to market in an old truck.” Patrick snorted his amusement as he snuck another turnover, winking when he caught her eye.
“We’re talking about doing a produce and honey stand from late spring into the fall.”
“That’s a great idea. Have you thought about the farmer’s market?” She was considering it herself, maybe later on, she could work it out with some of her local suppliers to have some of their stuff at her stall so people could check them out too. Hm.
They spent the next hour or so working on schedules for delivery, pricing, talking about the season for each product and those sorts of details. Patrick Carter knew his land. Knew what would be good when and that helped a lot. Gideon knew these things as well, but he also had new ideas and seemed excited about what he could bring to Carter Farms as well.
He was smart. Ambitious. Really hot in those jeans he had on and it warmed her to watch him with his granddad. A man who valued family was pretty irresistible.
She really did need to get going. Even so, it took her another twenty minutes until she could finally work up the wherewithal to stand. “I really should head out. I appreciate the company, the coffee and the new business relationship.”
Gideon stood as well. “I’ll walk you to your car.” Gideon hefted the flat of fruit she’d planned to take back to Tart.
“Thanks! You’re handy.” She bent to kiss Patrick’s cheek. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“Course not. Though I do expect you to bring me sweet things. I need to supervise what’s going on with my product, after all.” He winked at her and she followed Gideon to her car.
She might have looked at his long legs and perfect ass in those faded jeans a time or six. It was too nice not to look. Like art. It would have been disrespectful, like ignoring a fine painting. Or something. Anyway, he had a nice butt and she wanted to look.
He loaded the tray and closed her rear door before standing straight again. Man, he was tall. She looked up and up some more and she wasn’t a short woman. Just standing next to him made her feel delicate.
“Thanks for the heavy lifting.” Jules cocked her head and shaded her eyes as she looked up into his face. “I’ve been worrying over him being out here alone. It’s good you’re back.”
“Ah well. He’d have been just fine here without me. He’s got a foreman who’s been with us for fifteen years. But”—he shrugged—“it was time to come back and do something with my life. I love the farm, I love my granddad and why not?”
“Indeed. Though plenty would have found many reasons not to.”
He took her hand. “I’m not them. And maybe they don’t have someone like my granddad.” He shrugged and she noted the faint blush on his neck and then wondered what his skin would taste like. Like the hussy she was.
“You’re not them at all. Which is a nice thing. Well, you know where I am if you get a hankering for something sweet. Or want to check out the product.” She fought a blush, which in and of itself made her a little giggly inside.
Jules loved men. Most of them anyway. She wasn’t shy when she was attracted to someone—and they were available of course. So she wasn’t a stranger to flirting, but he made her . . . shy.
He still had her hand in his. She couldn’t take her gaze from it. So big, his hand compared to hers. Big and callused, work-worn in places. It was the hand of a man who worked with his hands. Who made and managed things.
It sent a shiver through her and when her gaze returned to his face, he was looking down at her, a hungry look on his features.
Her breath caught a moment as he stood so close. There was something between them. She didn’t know what exactly, but certainly attraction. She could work with that.
“I should go.”
He let go of her hand before opening her door. “Drive safely, Jules. Maybe I’ll stop in to Tart this week.”
She nodded after she slid into her seat and got her belt on. “I think you should.”
He shut the door and stepped back, leaving her in total silence for a moment before she turned the engine over and Chemical Brothers poured from the speakers. He stepped back and gave her a small wave and she pulled away.
A new deal and an interesting man who made her warm and sort of, well, tingly. The sweetness of the beginnings of a maybe-something spiced the zing of the attraction between them.
Possibility. She could totally get behind some of that.
Gideon watched her pull away and head back to town. His heart beat a little faster as he caught the subtle scent she wore. Low and sultry. He’d have pegged her for a brighter, more classical scent.
But Jules Lamprey wasn’t all that she seemed on the surface.
At first glance, Jules was brilliantly-blonde-girl-next-door beautiful. Sunny hair she wore in a high, sleeked-back ponytail. Her eyes were large and sky-blue. A wide, open smile. Her clothing flattered. She was friendly, funny, a little flirty. The pretty girl he’d grown up with.
But another layer in? Well, that red-lipped mouth had a little cant up at the left. Like she had a secret. The turtleneck she wore was cashmere. And her perfume was rich and sexy. Like her laugh.
He watched the way she drank her coffee. She’d held the cup, cradling it to take its warmth. Her first sip had been with her eyes closed and a happy sigh. She had enjoyed the hell out of the different fruits she’d tried when they’d been working over schedules.
Jules Lamprey was a sensualist. There was something fairly irresistible about a woman who took pleasure in everything around her.
On top of all that, she was articulate, successful and fair in her dealings with his granddad. Independent and intelligent too. The whole package.
Unless he was sorely mistaken—and he didn’t think he was—she was attracted to him in equal measure.
Gideon wanted a taste of the rather delicious Ms. Lamprey.
With a pleased sigh, he sat back on the porch with his granddad. “Is she seeing anyone do you know?”
All around them was land his family had lived on and worked for generations. He’d been away from ranching for a while so it had taken a week or two to really get back into the life of a farmer. He wasn’t a stranger to farming, wasn’t a stranger to hard work with hands and body. And this was his in a way the Bar M never was.
Even better, he’d done it at Patrick’s side, which had filled him with humility and pride. His grandfather trusted him to take Carter Farms into the next generation. It was a weight, but one he’d chosen freely.
Patrick gave him a sly smile and an elbow nudge. “Don’t think so. She sure is a pretty one. All that pale hair and those big blue eyes. She’s like a soap ad from the old days.” Patrick chuckled. “Tart is always busy. She’s built it up from nothing. That diner her parents ran did all right, but I never much got the feeling they did it for love of it. You walk into Tart and you know someone who loves the place is running it. And she makes a mean cherry turnover. So really if you get sweet on her, that’s a win for me.”
Gideon did love his granddad’s sense of humor. Such a wily old guy. “One of these days you’ll have to tell me how it is you’ve survived all these years being so shy with your opinions.”
“Good to have you around, boy. Your father and your aunt never did indulge me the way your grandmother did. And you do too. Man’s got something right when his grandson will laugh at his bad jokes.”
Gideon agreed. It was good to be around. It fit. He wished his parents had come back to help, but his dad was an engineer, not a farmer. And his mother loved Patrick but she had a life in Oakland. They had offered to move Patrick down there and it had been a genuine offer. His aunt had done the same. But his grandfather belonged here on this land he’d raised children on, the land he and his wife had made into something special.
Speaking of special, Jules had come back into his thoughts. “When I first met her she couldn’t have been more than five or so. Still has the freckles, I see. Even in middle school she was a tall, gangly girl. But the woman she’s turned into is amazing. Funny how that works with women.” Gideon snorted a laugh. “Can’t imagine why she hasn’t been claimed by someone.”
“Jules is the kind of woman who can’t be claimed by anyone but the man she thinks is worthy. Everything else is a game. She’s smart that way.” Patrick pulled another turnover from the box and Gideon considered mentioning it was his third but decided against it.
Patrick peered up at Gideon. “Question is, are you ready to date again?”
“I’ve been divorced three years. It’s not like I haven’t dated since. I’ve been over Alana a long time.” Probably even before the ink had been dry on the divorce decree. Though it certainly hadn’t been any fun to see her with other men. Sadly that had been a fact of life until he’d finally just sold his half of the Bar M to his ex-brother-in-law and gotten the hell out of Wyoming.
The longer he’d been away from Alana, the more he understood his own behavior. The more he knew he’d made the right choice to get away. It had all brought him back here anyway.
Three years of making a new start. It was long overdue. But it had all led him to that very moment and he couldn’t help but think it was exactly what he should have been doing.
When Jules arrived back at Tart it was to find Daisy in the kitchen giving orders to a carpenter as he stretched to finish installing shelving on one of the far walls.
“Hey you.” Daisy smiled quick and easy as Jules put the flat down on her worktable. “How’d it go?”
“Really well. Patrick was pleased to do it. Oh and hey, did you know Gideon was there? He’s going to help Patrick run the place.”
“The grandson, right? He’s blond like you? He and Cal were tight? I have vague memories of having a crush on him when I was eleven or twelve.”
“Join the club.” Jules had a vivid memory of the two of them, Cal with his dark hair and olive skin, head back, laughing uproariously at something Gideon had said. They’d been cute teenage boys back in the day. “Yes. He and Cal used to run around a lot.”
“Is he still cute?”
Jules put her hands on her hips. “Girl, you have a hot man already. Don’t be greedy.”
“Ha! Levi is more than enough for one woman to handle. But I have several single friends who are all awesome and gorgeous so it helps to know when a new, cute single dude comes into the mix. Or even for that one gorgeous single friend who also likes boys as well as girls.”
Jules tried very hard not to frown. If Cal and Gideon got together, it would suck. Mainly because she was tired of watching Cal date everyone but her over the years. But also because they were both so hot it would suck to know they were together and she wasn’t gettin’ any of it.
“I really do think you should just make a move on Cal. God, you just frowned at the mere mention of him dating. You two should be together.”
But they weren’t. And it was Cal’s choice. “It’s not up to me.” She muttered this as the carpenter used the drill to get the last screws and brackets in. “It’s stupid to even imagine there’s going to be anything between us. He kissed me once, back when I was fifteen. And apparently it was so horrible he never tried it again. It’s worse when he dates men because while I can work the being-a-woman thing pretty well when I put my mind to it, I can’t be a dude. I don’t have what he needs.”
Now it was Daisy’s turn to frown, and of course she looked just as adorable as she did when she smiled. “Just because he likes it doesn’t mean he needs it. He needs someone who will love him for him, who will understand how close he is to his family, how important all his charity work is to him. So far I’ve seen him parade men and women who don’t seem to get it. And it makes me wonder, Jules.”
Jules braced herself, knowing Daisy would call it like she saw it. “Wonder what?”
“If he doesn’t choose people he’ll never end up with permanently because there’s one person he’s wanted all along but is too shy to just finally make that move and grab your ass and take you to bed and give it to you the way he so clearly wants to.”
Jules laughed and hugged Daisy. “You know I love you, right? Thank God you’re here today. But I’ve been amenable to being jumped for years now and he’s never made a move. We have a great, close friendship. I have to be happy with it and move on. So Gideon is totally cute and I think I may need to put some of my attention his way. One look at the way he moves, sort of slow and lanky, and you know he’d make a girl all boneless and sweaty between the sheets.”
“Always one of my favorite qualities in a man. And it’s been a while, if I recall and you know I do, since you’ve had a man in your bed. So tick tock, time’s a running. Grab this Gideon while the getting’s good.”
They laughed and Jules began to sketch out tomorrow’s menu. But Jules thought Daisy’s advice was pretty darned good and planned to give it a go. Getting some Gideon sounded like just the thing.