Brent Peterson returns to Mount Ridge, Tennessee with a single goal-to win back Grace Spencer. He's loved her since kindergarten, and should have told her how he felt, but Dan Turner swooped in and stole Grace away before Brent had the chance. Now Grace is a widow with a young son, and while it's been three years since her husband's death, Brent isn't sure he should make his feelings known. When Brent comes around the family bakery, Grace longs to restore their friendship, but the thin gold wedding band on her finger-and memories of Dan-stand between them. Can Brent's gentle patience coax Grace to let go of her memories...and the ring, or is it time for Brent to move on alone, and leave Mount Ridge forever?
*Part of the Sweet Treats Bakery series
“Mama, how come the cake’s called a gold cake?” Adam’s sweet voice drew Grace’s attention. She smiled as Adam scrambled onto a stool behind the pastry counter for a better glimpse into the mixing bowl. Eyes wide, he watched Grace add lemon flavoring to the creamy mixture of eggs, butter and sugar.
“Because it looks golden when I take it from the oven.”
Adam brushed a lock of blond hair from his blue eyes as he peered into the bowl. “Like gold coins?”
“No, honey, not shiny like coins.” Grace added milk and a pinch of salt to the mix. “Just a pretty golden-brown.”
“Can I help stir?”
“Sure.” She handed him the spoon. “Give it a go.”
He took the wooden spoon and scrunched his face as he blended the ingredients. Milk sloshed over the side of the glass mixing bowl, but Grace didn’t mind. This was merely a sample—a test to see if the recipe she’d found in her grandmother’s Danish cookbook was something she and her sisters could add to the growing menu at Sweet Treats.
“Is this good, Mama?” Adam glanced her way and grunted as he worked the spoon along the edges of the bowl. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, and the mannerism gave Grace’s heart a jolt. He looked so much like Dan—with his deep blue eyes and determined gaze. How long had it been since the accident…since she’d lost Dan? Grace shook her head, releasing the thought. She had no desire to dwell on sad memories this sunshiny autumn morning.
“It’s great, honey.” Grace plastered on a grin as she watched Adam scrape the bowl, and found herself amazed at how quickly he was growing. Summer had eased into fall as his kindergarten year began. Soon enough they’d slip into the heart of winter and plow right on into spring. The jeans she’d bought him for back-to-school were already too short, exposing battered tennis shoes and cotton athletic socks, and sporting holes at the knees. His tousled mop of hair needed a trim, too. “Just a little bit more and we’ll drop the batter into a loaf pan and pop it in the oven.”
He attacked the batter with the spoon. “Then we can see it all golden and gobble it up.”
“Yes.” Grace laughed. “Then we can gobble it up.”
The bell over the door chimed, and Brent Peterson ambled in. Grace did a double take at his faded jeans that hugged thighs toned from years of riding horses, and drank in a ball cap tugged down tight over hair the color of rich coffee. His boots were scuffed and splattered with mud, and the clean scent of evergreen clung to him. Grace knew he must have been riding near Cade’s Cove again. She also knew the back country around the Cove was his go-to place when a problem stumped him and he needed to clear his head. They’d ridden there together enough times for her to know his favorite spots, depending on his mood. She wondered what gnawed at him now.
“Hey, Grace.” He nodded and pulled off his cap. “Hey, Adam.” He reached over the counter to fluff the boy’s hair. “What are you mixing there, champ?”
The nickname tugged at Grace’s heart, and Adam’s chubby little cheeks grew flush with excitement. His smile widened, exposing a wide gap where two front teeth were missing. Grace felt a familiar pang as her heart sank just a bit. Adam’s excitement at seeing Brent made her realize just how much he needed a father. How was she going to manage as he grew into adolescence, with all the questions and emotions that went hand in hand?
Grace chased away the thought. With God’s help, she’d manage. She didn’t want—or need—a husband. Losing Dan had been hard enough. No point in traveling that road again.
“Hey, Mr. Brent.” Adam hopped down from the stool, taking the bowl with him. “I’m helpin’ Mama.”
“Is that so?” Brent knelt to Adam’s height and splayed a hand across his shoulders. “Well, whatever you’re making, it sure smells good.”
“It’s gold.” Adam tipped the bowl toward Brent and the batter nearly tumbled to the floor. “And it’s really hard to stir.”
“Wow.” Brent helped him steady the bowl. “Gold?”
“Gold Cake,” Grace corrected as she wiped her hands on a kitchen towel. “It’s a recipe from one of the cookbooks I found in my grandmother’s things. I thought I’d give it a try.” She came around the counter to join him, and the clean scent of aftershave and evergreen mingled with sugar and vanilla. His hair tumbled back in waves that framed dark eyes and a wide smile. “We’re doing a taste-test to see if we should add it to the menu.”
“Well, judging by aroma alone, it gets my vote.” Brent took the batter-covered spoon Adam offered and tasted the mixture. “Yum…yeah. How long ’til it’s ready?”
“You wanna wait with us?” Adam handed the bowl back to Grace. “We could play with my Legos. Mama let me bring them today, ’cause we gotta be here all day, since it’s a school holiday and Auntie Kate’s at the doctor.”
“The doctor?” Concern shadowed Brent’s eyes as he stood to face Grace. “Is she OK?”
“I’m not sure. She wouldn’t say.” Grace drew a breath. “I wanted to ride along with her, but she insisted she go alone.”
“Sounds fishy.” Brent rubbed his chin and a shadow of stubble bristled. “Do you want me to call Logan and see if he’ll shed some light?”
“No.” Grace shook her head. She had an inkling what the doctor’s visit was about and silently counted back on her fingers to verify the guess. “Kate will let us know what’s going on when she’s ready. You know how stubborn she can be—tighter than Fort Knox.”
“Oh, yeah.” Brent laughed. “I think it runs in the Spencer family.”
“Mr. Brent.” Adam wiggled between them. “You wanna lick the spoon after Mama pours the batter into a pan? I’ll share with you.”
“Not this time.” Brent shook his head. “I’ll wait for the finished product. You dig in. I have to talk to your mom a minute.”
“Then maybe you’ll play Legos?”
“Sure.” He offered Adam a high five. “Go ahead and set them up. I’ll be over soon. What do you want to build today—a castle or a fort?”
Brent’s warm eyes caught the bakery lights as he grinned. “A castle it is.”
Brent couldn’t pull his gaze from Grace as she spooned lemon-scented batter into a greased bread pan. Blonde hair spilled over her neck in a sassy blunt cut that kissed her shoulders as she moved gracefully between the counter and oven. Blue eyes sparkled in sunlight that cascaded through the front window of the bakery, but a hint of sadness lurked beneath. Brent knew she still thought of Dan, the husband she’d lost in a construction accident three years ago—Adam’s father.
And he aimed to change that. A pre-dawn ride through cool mountain air in the Cove had cleared cobwebs from his head and strengthened his resolve. As the sun had risen over the horizon to kiss a clear-blue morning sky, a need intensified that could no longer be denied.
He wanted Grace.
He’d had a thing for her since the first day of kindergarten, when he saw her across the story circle. Her blonde hair and blue eyes had captivated him, even though he didn’t know what the odd tugging in his belly meant at the time. And that “thing” had roared into much, much more over the years they’d spent hanging out together, swapping lunches and swimming in the creek that bisected his horse farm. Theirs was an easy friendship that had grown into something deeper…at least for him.
He’d taken things slow during all the days they’d spent together roaming the pastures that fit together like giant puzzle pieces spanning the farm, assuming he had forever to make his feelings known. Their friendship grew strong as the roots of the old oak that stood as a sentinel behind his parents’ barn. But when Brent was with her, beside her—watching the sun glint off her huge blue eyes as she laughed at a little joke he shared—and he thought of taking it to the next level…of kissing her…his gut squeezed so tight he grew lightheaded and couldn’t seem to gather a breath. As days eased into months, then years, Grace traded ball caps and pigtails for makeup and a sleek hairstyle, and something else—something wonderful—changed, also. The way she wrapped her arms around him, pressed a warm cheek against his neck while they rode one of his parents’ prized black racing mares through the Cove, told him she felt the same. Yet a little voice niggled…what if he pushed too hard—too fast? Would it ruin everything?
Then Dan Taylor moved to town the spring before their senior year. The star quarterback took one look at Grace and made no bones about what he wanted. He swooped in like a thief in the night and swept Grace away before Brent even had a chance to tell her how he felt.
No more lazy summer rides through the Cove. No more sparkling eyes and laughter.
The scrape of chair legs jarred him from the memory. He glanced up to find Grace staring at him.
“What do you want to talk about?” She slipped into a seat at one of the wrought iron tables that fanned the length of the shop-front window. The sweet scent of honeysuckle shampoo mingled with warm cinnamon and vanilla. Brent loved the bakery…the soothing, homey feel that chased morning cold away. Fresh-cut flowers in fluted glass vases gave the room an airy, outdoor feel that made customers want to linger and chat over gourmet coffee and moist slices of cake. The way Grace’s hair slipped over the delicate curve of her jaw made him want to linger, too.
Brent propped his elbows on the table and leaned toward her. “I need your help with a fundraiser.”
“For what?” Grace offered him cream for his coffee and a sugar-glazed chocolate cruller—the kind she knew was his favorite. Her fingers were long and delicate, and the thin white-gold wedding band Dan had given her still graced her left hand. How long would she continue to wear it? “Are you thinking along the lines of another crisis center?”
He bit into the cruller…delicious…and shook his head. “Not another center—just an expansion to the programs we offer. And that will require additional space.”
“I see.” She leaned back in the chair and steepled a pair of fingers beneath her chin as her brows knit together. “What did you have in mind?”
“Logan and I would like to add a few transitional studio apartments for short-term use by families in crisis. We’re going to coordinate their use through the hospital—for out-of-town families who have a member undergoing long-term treatment, who might need a place to stay while they wait it out.” He washed the cruller down with a sip of steaming vanilla-bean coffee and felt the chill leave his bones. The morning’s ride was long and unseasonably cold—and he’d pushed his stallion, Rocky, to the limit as they raced across the Cove’s pasture and into a brilliant sunrise. “Logan and I planned for this expansion at the outset, because we didn’t have enough funding at the inception of the program to do everything we wanted. But Logan has agreed to work an expansion if we can raise the funds. We can complete the project quickly—within two weeks—once we have the money in hand.”
“Wow.” Grace whistled softly. “That’s fast.”
“I know, but there’s a real need, and we don’t want to keep people waiting.”
“And you want me to help you?” Grace leaned in, shifting her weight in the seat.
“Yes. You did such a great job last year, catering the opening of the center. People still talk about the bakery…the sweets and the coffee.” Brent finished the last bite of cruller and drew a napkin from the table dispenser to wipe his mouth. “Who could have imagined, when Mattie suggested using your parents’ insurance money to open a bakery…?”
He watched her eyes shadow and then shimmer with a hint of tears and knew what she was feeling. She was thinking of her parents, gone more than six years now as the result of a fatal car accident on their way into Knoxville. Grace and her sisters had been orphaned, and oldest sisters Mattie and Kate had sacrificed dreams to raise their youngest sister Tessa and help Grace, who’d just returned from eloping—pregnant with Adam. The thought caused his gut to knot—the memory of the pain he’d felt when he realized she was bound to Dan in marriage and gone from him forever. “It’s amazing how well we’ve done, considering the initial struggle.”
“Yes.” Brent leaned back in the chair and stretched his legs beneath the table, losing himself to the past. As Grace’s belly ballooned with proof of the baby that grew inside her, Brent forced himself to move on. He left Mount Ridge long enough to earn a degree in business management, and thought about taking a job clear across the country. But then one gray, rainy day, while the wind howled through the trees outside his apartment window, Mattie Spencer called with word of Dan’s accident—and funeral—and to ask him to come home for just a little while.
Well, that little while had grown into three years and counting. And he found himself buried under the same dilemma he’d had when he was seventeen. Should he tell Grace how he really felt and risk losing her friendship, or remain silent, and wait for someone else to swoop in and steal her away again?
Well, he wasn’t seventeen anymore, so the choice was simple—but the how, not so much. The ring on her finger—the band she twisted and fiddled with as they spoke—assured him of that.
“Of course I’ll help you, Brent.” Grace reached for his hand.
Her fingers were warm and Brent’s gut jolted as they brushed a callus that crossed his palm. He struggled to keep his breathing steady.
“You know what a crisis center would have meant to me—to my sisters—after my parents died. We were in a crisis of the worst sort, and we could have used resources to lean on.” Grace glanced at Adam and nodded. “There was no center, but you were there for us to help produce a business plan and renovations to this building so we could make Sweet Treats a reality.”
Yes, he’d helped with the plan despite the pain it cost him. Watching Dan and Grace build a life together had nearly killed him, but with his business degree, and after watching his parents run Mount Ridge Farms for so many years, he had the tools to help the Spencer sisters. His parents also held a lot of clout in the small town, and he implored them to call in some favors. His father did—just before he took off with one of the stable girls and left Brent and his mother to fend for themselves. Not long after that, his mother left, too. Brent had kept the farm going…somehow.
Grace’s touch filled Brent with a pang of regret because he knew the gesture was meant in friendship only. He’d been so foolish to let her slip through his hands, and he was determined not to let it happen again.
“I was thinking we’d have a huge gala event at Mount Ridge Farms, maybe breathe a little life back into the place. What do you think?”
“I’ll help you, Brent, with whatever you need.” Grace squeezed his hand. “Count me in, OK?”
“OK.” He nodded, but his chest clenched at her words. The help he needed wasn’t even on her radar. Her vision was still eclipsed by Dan. Would she ever lay that memory to rest and see him?
Brent leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms as he listened to Adam hum a tune while he stacked Legos on the table behind them. The child tugged at him in a way he couldn’t explain. And Grace…well…he’d loved her for as long as he could remember.
“When do you want to get together to…um…plan things out?” Grace asked.
“How about we talk over dinner tomorrow night?”
“That will work.” She nodded. “Tessa will be home from classes for the weekend. She’s been asking to spend a little time with Adam. I’ll phone her this afternoon to confirm.”
“Six o’clock, then?”
Grace nodded. “I’ll be waiting.”