The small mountain town of Nugget, California, is way off the beaten path. But somehow it helps the lost and lonely find a new beginning in life—and in love. . . One solitary day at a time is the only way cookbook writer Emily Mathews can restart her life—and cope with consuming loss. Still, the former city girl is finding all kinds of odd inspiration and advice from Nugget's proudly eccentric residents on everything from new recipes to opening her heart again. Especially when it comes to her rugged rancher landlord . . . His no-drama new tenant is the first break Clay McCreedy has had in a long time. He's got his hands full enough dealing with his wife's scandalous death and his sons' unresolved grief. Clay can't help but be drawn to Emily's quiet understanding and strength. When their fragile trust turns into passionate healing, he longs for much more. And when both their pasts come calling, he's determined not to walk away. . . Praise For Stacy Finz “Finz is a unique new voice. Nugget, California is a charming small town filled with inventive characters and sweet romance."--Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author of the Lucky Harbor Series "Tender and touching, Stacy Finz writes romance with heart."--Marina Adair, #1 National bestselling author of Summer in Napa 101,000 Words
Release date: September 15, 2015
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 308
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It was amazing how much stuff people accumulated over the years. Her cookbooks and kitchen equipment alone would take up most of a large U-Haul. At least Drew, her ex-husband, was taking the furniture, and the rest could be donated to the Goodwill. Where she was going, she wouldn’t need half the contents of this big house.
She did a quick appraisal of the table with its last-minute centerpiece—a bouquet of hydrangeas cut from the backyard—and began setting her best Laguiole steak knives at each of the six place settings. The knives had languished in storage since the last lunch.
Emily knew that etiquette dictated that the sharp edge of the knife face the plate. To point the blade toward a guest was an ancient sign of aggression.
Not good in a room full of FBI agents and police detectives, she reflected wryly. But this would be the last time. The last lunch. Soon she’d be leaving here, the only home Hope had ever known.
Her hands shook as she tried to rearrange the glasses. The guests were due to arrive in thirty minutes and Emily needed every second of that time to pull herself together. Even though it had been four years, the anniversaries were particularly difficult. Every painful detail of that July day—the chaos, the frenzy, the terror—looped through her brain like a skipping record.
Drew and her attorney had warned her against hosting that first anniversary lunch.
“The police will use it to try to slip you up,” Drew had said. “They’re not coming because they’re your friends, Em. I’m a lawyer, I know.” She had learned in those first few days of the investigation that the parents are always the primary suspects.
But it had been a full year since Hope had been taken from them, and even if the police weren’t her friends, she needed them. The lunches had been Emily’s attempt at keeping Hope’s memory alive and her case file active, instead of being relegated to a dusty basement somewhere.
Later, the lunches seemed to serve as a combination vigil/healing ceremony. The investigators were no closer to solving what had happened to her daughter than they were four years ago. And that had left indelible scars—even on jaded law enforcement.
To paraphrase the news clips, the trail had gone cold. The reporters had pounced on the next sensational story and the police had new, more pressing crimes to solve.
Everyone except for her had moved on. Even Drew. He was getting remarried. And more than anything she owed him a fresh start, a chance at happiness. Even if it meant relocating to the ends of the earth.
She hadn’t been able to bring back their daughter, but she could at least make amends for what she’d done.
Four days later, Emily climbed the steep grade into the Sierra mountains. Her old friend Joe had certainly been right about this part of the state being unbelievably beautiful. Verdant fields and miles and miles of pine trees. Snow still dusted the highest peaks of the mountains and her ears popped from the altitude. With the back of her hand she touched the driver’s-side window. Surprisingly, it felt warm.
She’d been driving for nearly four hours from the Bay Area and figured she had to be close to her destination. Nugget. She’d lived in California her whole life and had never heard of the little railroad town.
Not only did the town have a paltry population of six thousand people, but she would be living in a barn. If the pictures did the place justice, it was a very nice barn indeed. Joe had gone on and on about Nugget and his friend Clay McCreedy’s cattle ranch—“It’s exactly what you need. Fresh air and a fresh start.”
What she needed was to get her business rolling again so she could afford to pay her own way. At least in this mountain hamlet the rent was a pittance compared to the mortgage on her and Drew’s Palo Alto house. Even after the hefty sum they’d sold it for, there was little left. They’d racked up a pile of debt paying lawyers and private investigators.
Not only would it be far cheaper than anything she could afford in the Bay Area, but here, her neighbors weren’t likely to connect her to Hope. No longer would she have to suffer pitying looks. Or worse. Faces filled with suspicion and condemnation.
She glanced down at the directions she’d printed off Google Maps as she traveled the two-lane highway. There it was, to the left, McCreedy Road. She pulled in, drove for less than a mile, and parked on the shoulder to reread Mr. McCreedy’s instructions. They said to meet him at the big white farmhouse at one o’clock to collect the key. Up ahead, in the distance, she saw an outcropping of trees and assumed that must be the location of the house.
According to Joe, McCreedy Ranch, one of the first cattle spreads in the area, covered thousands of acres. He said Clay’s great-grandfather drove his cattle across the Nevada desert into Plumas County in the eighteen hundreds to sell beef to the gold miners.
She had no idea where on the property her new home was located, whether it was near the house, or somewhere remote. The whole rental transaction had been done via email and Emily braced herself for the possibility that the place would turn out to be a total disaster. Although the photographs had been lovely, she knew from experience the tricks a camera and a good stylist could play. How many times had she sprayed the outside of a cocktail glass with glycerin to make it look frosty for the lens, or drenched a day-old, dried-out pastry with hairspray to make it look fresh-out-of-the-oven luscious? Too many times to count.
But she’d gotten the impression that Mr. McCreedy couldn’t care less about renting out the barn, that he was only doing it as a favor to Joe. So hopefully he wasn’t trying to sell her a sow’s ear.
Emily glanced down at her watch. It was nearly one o’clock. She nosed the van out onto the road again when a man on horseback caught her attention. On the other side of the split-rail fence, in a field carpeted with orange poppies, he galloped so fast it made her heart pound. With his head and shoulders pushed forward over the horse’s flowing mane, they beat across the pasture fast as a freight train. For a second, she thought her imagination had conjured him, a centaur, untamed and magnificent. From this distance she couldn’t make out the man’s features, just a black cowboy hat that began to blur as he faded into the copse of trees up ahead.
She sat back to catch her breath; the sight and speed, so exhilarating, stirred something dormant in Emily’s breast. Something she hadn’t felt in four years.
When she reached the white farmhouse, she found the man dismounting from the horse. Not a centaur at all, Emily noted, but a tall, strapping cowboy. Besides the hat, he wore leather chaps that fit snuggly over his jeans and a scarred pair of brown boots. In all the time she’d known Joe, she’d never seen him ride a horse. And he wore tennis shoes.
“Hello.” He tipped his hat, tied the horse in a shady spot, and deftly removed the saddle. His large hands moved quickly, like he’d done this a thousand times. “You Emily Mathews?”
A squat man with a big belly and silver hair materialized out of nowhere and started brushing the sweaty steed.
The rider took the brush. “I’ve got it, Ramon. I’ll take Big Red back to the stable when I’m done.”
The squat man seemed reluctant to relinquish the chore, but eventually wandered off.
The cowboy looked at her and arched his brows with impatience. “Emily, right?”
“Oh. Yes.” There was so much to take in, she’d become distracted. The house with its long, sweeping porch and the yard’s expansive lawns were gorgeous. If not for the musky smell of horse and cows, it would have felt like she had wandered onto a Hollywood set.
He continued to rub the comb in circles over Big Red’s coat, occasionally scratching the horse behind his ears. “Your moving truck came this morning.”
Emily nodded. The man still hadn’t introduced himself, but she presumed he must be Clay McCreedy. She’d expected a much older man to own such a big cattle operation. But he was about her age, thirty-seven, forty at the most.
“As soon as I’m done here we’ll put Big Red up and I’ll take you over to the barn,” he said, bending over to lift and clean the horse’s hooves with some kind of a pick. Emily tried not to notice how the chaps nicely framed his backside.
“Great.” She had a million questions to ask him: Where’s the nearest grocery store and gas station? Who did she need to call for cable? Instead, she stood there like a mute, her hands stuffed inside the pockets of her khakis. There was a time when she’d been adroit at small talk and at socializing. In fact, Drew used to call her the “belle of the ball.” But years of hiding in her house had made her rusty.
Even when she’d been good at it, Emily suspected Clay McCreedy would’ve made her stammer. The man, with his low, gravelly voice and that rough-and-tumble cowboy thing he had going on, was larger than life.
“So you did Joe’s cookbook, huh?” He untied the horse’s lead and grabbed the saddle with one hand, beckoning her to follow him down the driveway. Big Red’s hooves made clip-clop noises on the blacktop.
“Yes, I did,” she said, hugging his side. The only thing she knew about horses was not to get behind them. They kicked.
His lips quirked. “Didn’t know old Joe could cook.”
“He’s pretty good at it, actually.” In fact, he’d been one of Emily’s few clients who had recipes that worked. They’d met through the Bay Area’s vast food community, worked together, and become fast friends.
Officially, Emily was a freelance cookbook editor. In truth, she was a cookbook ghostwriter. The dirty little secret about famous chefs and celebrity cooks is that they couldn’t formulate recipes to save their lives. She’d never met one who measured or weighed, paid attention to cooking times, or didn’t use exotic ingredients unavailable to home cooks.
So publishing houses, and sometimes the authors themselves, hired her to do everything from creating and testing recipes to styling dishes and writing the text. Essentially, she wrote the whole book and slapped someone else’s name on the cover. In Joe’s case, he’d needed help telling the story of how his ranch had grown from a backyard hobby to one of the most popular gourmet beef businesses in the country. He was a cattleman, not a writer.
“You’ll be writing cookbooks here, then?” Clay asked.
“Editing them,” she corrected. “Yes, that’s the plan.”
“You don’t need to be near the action?”
It figured that he would be curious why she’d come to Nugget instead of staying close to San Francisco’s thriving food scene. “Nope. All I need is a computer and a kitchen.” And a fresh start.
When they reached the stables, he opened a gate to a large paddock, took off Big Red’s halter, and gave him a slap on the rump. The horse nickered and trotted away.
“Colin’s installed your electric stove,” he said. “So you’re set.”
The kitchen already had a gas range—it had been the first question she’d asked in her emails—but she liked to test recipes on both types of stoves so she could tweak cooking times accordingly. She’d bought an electric brand popular with home cooks online at the Sears in Reno, the nearest city, and had it delivered. “I’ll write you a check for your man’s labor. Thanks for letting me make the modification.”
He shrugged. “No big deal. Just means you’ll have fewer cabinets.”
She followed him inside the stable and peered into a row of horse stalls. The man, Ramon, was laying down fresh straw with a pitchfork. Clay said something to him in Spanish and the man let out a loud belly laugh. When they got to a small room filled with saddles and bridles, Clay began to unbuckle his chaps. Although he was fully dressed under the sturdy leg coverings, she could feel her face heat, and turned away.
“We can walk to the barn from here,” he said. “Afterward, if you want, you can drive the van over.”
“Sounds good.” She was getting impatient to see the place.
Two boys came rounding the driveway as they headed back up.
“Hey, Dad,” the younger boy called, and gazed at her with open curiosity. The older one never looked up from his phone.
When they reached Clay, he asked, “How was camp?”
“Okay, I guess,” the boy said, while Clay waited for a reply from the eldest.
When he didn’t give one, Clay pulled out one of the boy’s earbuds. “When I ask you a question, I expect an answer.”
“Yes. Sir.” The boy clicked his heels and saluted.
“How was camp?” Clay asked, annoyance at the boy’s insolence edging his voice.
Clay turned to Emily. “These are my sons, Justin and Cody. This is Ms. Mathews, our new neighbor.”
Cody stuck his hand out for a shake. “Good to meet you, ma’am.”
Justin grunted something unintelligible.
Clay gave him a quelling look and the preteen simulated the voice of a robot. “Nice. To. Meet. You. Ms. Mathews.”
Even sullen and disrespectful, he was a beautiful boy. Dark hair and deep blue eyes like his father. He was still filling out but would eventually have his dad’s frame too. Sinewy and broad shouldered. Cody had the same blue eyes, but fairer hair and complexion; he was maybe a year or two older than ten, the age Hope would be now.
“Nice to meet the both of you,” Emily said brightly, hoping to smooth the awkwardness. Clay seemed a hair away from smacking Justin.
“There are snacks in the house,” he told the boys. “Then get started on your chores.”
“Are they good-for-you snacks?” Cody wanted to know.
“Brownies. Mandy brought them by earlier.”
Cody raced for the house, his pack bouncing up and down against his back.
“Hey, save some for me,” Clay shouted after him.
Justin also turned for the house, but not before giving Clay a spiteful glare.
Clay shook his head, let out a sigh, and led Emily off the driveway to a flagstone trail. They climbed a slight knoll and she could hear water, maybe a creek. Before she could ask what it was, they came to the top of the hill and the sight stopped her in her tracks.
“The Feather River,” Clay said.
“It’s beautiful.” The wide tributary snaked through the land, wild and rugged. Her gaze followed the river upstream where a waterfall cascaded down an outcropping of boulders.
“Glad you like it,” he said, “because that’s your view from the barn. But it comes with a price. There’s a sandy beach down there, where the boys like to put in their tubes and kayaks. It’ll cut into your privacy—at least during the summer.”
“I don’t mind,” she lied. Watching those children so alive, playing in the water, would be a constant reminder of what she’d lost. But July would hopefully pass quickly, and the seasons had to be short around here, she thought as she looked up at the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
A short distance later, through a grove of trees, sat the barn. It was red with white trim, had a double Dutch front door, a set of barn-door sliders, dormer windows, old-timey lantern light fixtures, and a rooster weather vane.
It was so charming from the outside that Emily held her breath in anticipation while Clay unlocked the door. He flipped on the lights, then ushered her across the threshold. All she could do was goggle. With the exception of her moving boxes, which had been neatly stacked against the rear wall, the place looked like one of those showcase houses in Country Living magazine.
“Those pictures you sent didn’t come close to doing this place justice,” she said. “My God, it’s spectacular.”
“Yeah, well it ought to be for all the fuh—” He stopped himself, stuck his hands in his pockets, and leaned against the wall, silently inviting her to take her fill.
Sounded like the barn was a bit of a sore spot between Clay McCreedy and the missus, Emily surmised as she walked the big front room. The beams had to be a hundred years old, pitted and weathered with character. The plank walls and floors reminded her of frontier houses she’d seen on a trip to Old Baylor Park in Texas, where historians had preserved some of the state’s first homes.
She stared up at the massive twig chandelier hanging over the center of the room. A stone fireplace, kilim rug, two leather couches, and a cowhide chair set off the living room, while a pine farm table and eight Windsor chairs anchored the dining area.
“Your wife must be very successful as an interior decorator. Her taste is impeccable.” Emily couldn’t believe all the furniture came with the place. Some of the pieces looked expensive. If they weren’t antiques, they were damned good replicas.
She found the bedroom, which was small but more than adequate. The bathroom had a claw-foot tub and tiled shower. And there was a small loft that would serve as an office. But it was the kitchen that nearly made her swoon. Open shelves galore, state-of-the-art appliances—except for her new electric range—a spacious center island and windows that faced the river. It wasn’t laid out as well as her Palo Alto kitchen, which she had personally designed. Still, she felt like she had struck gold.
“So she used this as her showroom and office?” Emily asked, chagrined that she didn’t even know Clay’s wife’s name. She’d been dealing strictly with him.
“Yeah,” he said, then walked over to the fireplace, stuck his head in the box, and inspected the flue. “In the winter, I’d suggest using this as much as possible. Heating bills can get steep up here. The phone, cable, and Internet are still in my name. It’s a local company and they give me a package deal for the entire ranch. Since it’s not costing me anything extra, I’ll throw those services in for free. We can settle up at the end of each month on any extras—pay-per-view movies, whatever. That work for you?”
“I left the barn’s phone number over there.” He nodded his head toward the center island, where she saw a sticky note stuck to the counter. “You may occasionally get a call for Jennifer. You can refer them to the main house. That number is on there too.”
“Thanks,” she said, relieved to have one fewer chore to do and happy to save the money.
“I’ll let you get to your unpacking, then. If you want to bring your van around, just take the driveway past the stable. It’ll loop you to the barn.”
“Thank you, Mr. McCreedy.”
“Call me Clay.”
“Okay, Clay. Thank you.” He tipped his black hat and made his way to the door. Emily, unable to believe her good fortune, couldn’t help being inquisitive. “Why doesn’t your wife use it anymore?”
“She’s dead,” he said, and slipped out.
The woman seemed reliable enough, Clay mused as he walked back to the house. Her check had cleared and according to Joe, her ex-husband was a big-time Silicon Valley lawyer. Clay might not be the best judge of character, but she certainly hadn’t struck him as the type to throw wild parties, or to be so irresponsible as to burn the barn down. Hell, even if she destroyed the place, insurance would cover it.
At first, he’d balked at Joe’s request to rent the barn to his lady friend. Joe had said she needed a change of scenery due to some extenuating circumstances. Clay hadn’t bothered to ask about those circumstances. Didn’t care. He had enough responsibilities running a cattle ranch and raising two boys. Adding landlord to the list . . . Well, he didn’t need the headache.
But Joe had cajoled, and the barn was just sitting there, collecting dust. Clay didn’t give two shits about the stuff in it—the antiques, the rugs, the pictures that Jennifer had purchased in one fell swoop from a design center showroom in San Francisco. The McCreedys had been living in these mountains since the gold rush. He slept in the same bed where his great-grandmother had given birth, ate off the same wake table that his ancestors brought with them on a ship from Ireland. His family’s history is what mattered to him, not some meaningless bric-a-brac with a hefty price tag.
So he’d finally relented to Joe. Cattlemen helped each other, and Joe would’ve done the same thing for him. Clay only hoped he wouldn’t live to regret his decision. He had enough responsibilities without Emily turning into a high-maintenance tenant.
At least she wasn’t much to look at. Plain old mousy, if you asked him.
Granted, he was close to six-three, but she barely reached his chin. He liked statuesque women, long and leggy. Charitably, he would call Emily scrawny. Maybe, just maybe, she was hiding a voluptuous figure under all those baggy clothes. But Clay sincerely doubted it. In his experience, women liked to show off their assets. God knew Jen had—like a grand champion at the county fair, strutting all those USDA prime cuts. Especially the ones he’d paid for.
He couldn’t even remember the color of Emily’s hair; only that it hung around her face like a dead animal. Her eyes were a nice shade of blue, though. Just devoid of any signs of life—no twinkle, no spark. Not quite cold, just detached.
“Thank you, Joe,” he said aloud, and meant it from the bottom of his heart.
Because the last complication Clayton McCreedy needed in his life right now was another hot-looking woman.
Emily awoke to birdsong and the sound of the rushing Feather River. Stretching her toes until they touched the iron footboard, she lingered under the comforter. Sometime before the eleven o’clock news, she’d drifted off. Despite the eeriness of a new home and a strange bed, she’d slept like a rock. No nightmares or dreams about Hope.
Reluctantly, she pushed off the covers and forced her feet onto the floor. Bathroom. Coffee. But halfway to the loo, she reversed the order. The java could be brewing while she tended to her morning ablutions—a better use of time, Emily decided. She’d already made a decent dent unpacking boxes, but rummaged through a straggler to find the coffee beans, then dumped a large mound into the grind-and-brew and hit the switch.
By the time she got out of the shower, the smell of coffee filled the air. Wrapped in a towel, she waded into the kitchen, poured herself a cup, pulled open the barn door sliders, and wandered onto the small deck. Although she was a short walking distance to the main house, the rise of the hills and the cluster of trees made the barn feel completely private.
A person could get used to all this sunshine and clean air, she marveled, staring out at the views. Cows dotted the breathtaking landscape. Big black ones that she presumed were Clay’s.
He’d thrown her a curveball with that bit about his wife. Emily wondered how she’d died. The poor man. And those children—to lose their mother so young.
A little heads-up from Joe would’ve been nice. Then she wouldn’t have made the faux pas of asking. But Joe wasn’t one to dish about other people’s business. That’s a big part of why they’d stayed such good friends all these years. If she had to wager a guess, Joe had held back on telling Clay anything about Hope, too.
She padded back into the barn, yawned, and stretched. Lots of work to be done. She sighed. For the last four years she’d mostly stuck to proofreading and recipe testing, lacking the wherewithal to do a book from start to finish. But to make a living, even a measly one, she’d need to sign on to at least three big projects a year, which meant full-time cooking and writing. Although her generous ex-husband would pay alimony until the end of time, Emily knew it was time to cut the strings. She didn’t want to be the financial albatross in Drew and Kristy’s new life together. He deserved better. And Emily deserved nothing.
After getting dressed, she checked her email, took a quick glance at her new website, and dialed her agent. Fifteen years ago, Marge Morgenstern had walked away from her job as the editorial director of food and wine at A la Carte Press, leased a quirky Edwardian in Dogpatch, and opened a San Francisco literary agency for cookbook and food authors. Emily had met her at an Association of Food Journalists conference.
They’d sat next to each other during a food-blogging panel discussion, where five prepubescent-looking speakers declared that traditional publishing and print journalism were dead. “Just like the rain forest,” they’d said.
Marge had stood up, cleared her throat, and brashly asked, “How much did you all make last year?” The panelists stared back at her vacantly. “Income? Money? How much did you earn from your lucrative careers as bloggers?” More blank stares.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” She picked up her program and walked out of the room.
Emily had scurried after her, practically pinning her against the wall to pitch her a book idea—a collection of “Quick Dish” columns she’d written for California Taste, a food and lifestyle magazine.
“It sounds a little too Rachael Ray, 30-Minute Meals to me,” she said. “Have you ever tasted one of Rach’s thirty-minute meals? They’re disgusting.”
A week later, Emily invited Marge to her house for dinner. By the end of the evening Marge had agreed to represent her. Although she’d pushed Emily’s “Quick Dish” proposal to large and small publishing houses, no one had been interested.
“It’s all these farkakte Food Network stars,” Marge had lamented. “That’s all anyone wants anymore. Now, if you were that Italian girl . . . what’s her name . . . the one with the freakishly large mouth?”
“Giada De Laurentiis.”
“Yea. . .
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