A Recipe for Romance

by

Lara Van Hulzen

Wes planned a drive by trip to Marietta, Montana to help his dad close a business deal and then to head back to his life in New York. But when his dad volunteers him for the Bachelor Bake Off to commemorate a local fallen first responder, Wes can’t say no, even though Marietta holds painful memories and baking eludes his skill set.

After an accident sidelines Noelle Olsen’s career as a dancer, she moves to Montana to pursue a new dream: opening a dance studio in Marietta’s historic and charming downtown. When one of her students suckers her into helping the handsome Wes St. Clare whip up some winning recipes, Noelle finds herself dreaming about more than teaching dance.

Falling in love wasn’t part of Wes’ plans, and definitely not in Marietta, and as Noelle learns more about Wes and his business dealings, she fears she’ll lose her business along with her heart. Will cozy kitchens and a nudge from the St. Claire family help Wes and Noelle find the love they didn’t know they were looking for?

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“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”

Noelle stood inside the doorway of Grey’s Saloon, her younger sister, Holly, beside her, already swaying to the music as Cole Swindell sang about all the ways he wanted to see his girl.

“Come on, Noey! This is a great way to get to know people in town.”

“A bar? You think our best chance at making new friends will be at a bar?”

Holly rolled her eyes. She did that a lot lately when talking to Noelle. “It’s a Salooon, sister. Not a bar.”

Noelle looked around. She’d learned a little bit about Marietta since moving there with Holly, but not too much about Grey’s Saloon. It was on Main Street on the back side of her dance studio, so she’d seen it, was aware of its popularity, but she had yet to come inside. It lived up to its name. There was a battered bar along one wall with booths along the other. With tarnished mirrors and scarred floorboards, Noelle could picture it in its heyday of women, drinks, and an occasional gunfight.

“You can dress up the name all you want. A bar is a bar.”

“Whatever.” Holly took her by the arm. “There’s two empty barstools down here. Come on.”

Noelle let her sister drag her toward the other end of the bar, away from the action at the center, but closer to the dance floor. The song was upbeat and the music a bit louder than where they’d stood by the door. She had to lean in close to Holly as they claimed their seats and set their clutch purses on the bar. “I’m not sure about this, Holl. I told you before we left the house, I’m not up for this.”

Her sister turned so they sat on the barstools with their knees touching. “You’re ready.” She lifted Noelle’s face to hers with a gentle hand under her chin. “I promise. I wouldn’t have brought you here if I didn’t think so.”

Noelle nodded, not trusting herself to any other answer.

“I’ll have a whiskey soda and she’ll have a glass of white wine,” Holly said to the bartender who had come down to take their order. He nodded and turned to make their drinks.

Noelle turned a bit on her seat to look around. A few booths were full: one with couples on a double date from the looks of it, and a group of guys out on the town for the evening. She recognized one as a dad of one of her students. The man beside him glanced her way, but she turned back to Holly to avoid making eye contact. She wasn’t here looking for a man, that was for sure. In fact, she questioned yet again why she sat on a barstool, in a saloon, on her one night off when she’d much rather be soaking in a bubble bath and reading a good book.

“Don’t do it.”

“Don’t do what?”

Holly scooted the glass of wine closer to her that the bartender had just put down. “Just take a sip and relax.”

“I’m relaxed.” She obeyed and took a sip.

“No you’re not. You’re thinking about all the things you’d rather be doing than be here and I’m telling you—again—you have more than enough time in life to prune yourself in a tub and read.” She took a swig of her whiskey and lifted an eyebrow.

Noelle shook her head and fought back a laugh. “Uncanny how you do that.”

“It’s a gift.”

“Reading my mind is a gift?”

“Yes. One bestowed upon me to keep you from wallowing or overthinking or holing yourself up away from the world.”

“I don’t do any of those things.” Noelle’s attempt to defend herself fell flat because, damn it, her sister was right.

She sipped her wine as Holly rolled her eyes again, snagged a peanut from the wooden bowl in front of her, and popped it in her mouth.

“I’m not much of a drinker,” Noelle said as she took another sip of wine.

“Yet another thing I’m painfully aware of about you. One glass of white wine. That’s it. No more. The occasional few sips of scotch during the holidays. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and be with people and dance and have some fun. Right?”

Noelle took a deep breath in and let it out. Dancing. Yes. She loved to dance. And had been doing it since she could walk, maybe even before then. On instinct, she rubbed her right thigh.

Holly noticed and put a hand on her arm. “You okay? You hurting?”

Noelle shook her head. “No. Sorry. I’m fine.”

The song had changed and a group of people were line dancing, two of them men from the table she’d glanced at earlier. The one who had looked her way had his back to her, his sandy blond hair cut neat, black dress slacks, and a white button-down forming to his body as if made for him and him alone. He was dressed way too nice for a saloon.

She could tell by his body language he was not enjoying the line dancing as much as his friend beside him. Four women stood in a line in front of them, trying to teach them the steps. Not to mention making sure each guy had a good view of their backsides.

“See? We could do that,” Holly offered.

Do what? Wave our butts in front of guys? Noelle snickered to herself.

“And it would give you the chance to get close to the guy you’re checking out.”

Noelle’s cheeks flushed with heat as she turned back toward her sister, who was now looking quite smug.

“I was doing no such thing!”

“I believe she doth protest too much.” Holly winked and sipped her whiskey.

“Ugh. Again, remind me why I hang out with you?”

“Because you love me. Because we’re related and because…” The flow of Holly’s words stopped when Noelle lurched forward, her wineglass in hand and her drink spilling onto the bar then dripping onto Holly’s jeans.

Noelle set her glass down, grabbed napkins, and handed them to Holly who swiped her pants a few times then started mopping up the bar.

“Oh man, I am SO sorry! My buddy and I have two left feet here.”

Noelle turned to see the guy she’d been ogling—damn Holly for being right again—next to the friend he’d been attempting to line dance beside.

“Let me help you.” Cute Guy’s friend reached for more napkins and helped Holly with the rest of the mess.

“It’s really fine. The bar took the brunt of it.” Holly smiled. “No harm, no foul.”

“The least we can do is get you another glass of wine.” Cute Guy waved to the bartender then pointed at Noelle’s glass. All she could think was his voice was like scotch: smooth and rich. Deep, with a timbre that sent warmth all the way to her toes.

Unsure of how she found her voice she said, “It’s okay. Really. I only drink one glass and I was almost done.”

“You’d taken two sips,” Holly offered. “Let the nice man buy you a drink.”

“Or even better, ask you to dance.” Cute Guy’s friend jumped in with a grin that told Noelle something more than a dancing misstep was going on.

Cute Guy nodded. “Would you like to dance?” He held his hand out to her, but Noelle could only stare.

“I’m not so sure you guys are safe to dance with,” Holly teased as she eyed the now empty wineglass on the bar.

Cute Guy’s friend laughed. “Lucky for us, it’s a slow song now. We’re a guarantee there. Just no more line dancing.” He winced and shook his head.

Holly laughed, hopped off her stool, and strolled to the floor without looking back.

Cute Guy hadn’t taken his eyes off Noelle. “Well, what do you say?” He tilted his head, his hand still outstretched, waiting for hers.

Wes was surprised she’d said yes. As he led her to the dance floor, he thought for sure she’d turn him down. He’d noticed her the second she’d walked into Grey’s. To say she was giving off a vibe of wanting to be anywhere but in a saloon on a Saturday night was an understatement. Hell, he was questioning it himself. But he’d let his brother, Mike, and their buddy, Jeff, who lived in Marietta, talk him into a drink or two.

She wasn’t insecure by any means. With great posture and a high sense of self-awareness, she moved like someone who was used to being watched. Someone who’d performed on stage before. By the way she walked, he’d guess she was a dancer.

No, any hesitancy she had was in her eyes. Someone or something had taken a bit of that swagger and brought it down a notch. It was as if her light had been dimmed. And even though he couldn’t explain it, everything in him wanted to know why.

He held her close, one arm wrapped around her waist, the other holding her hand. They moved to the beat of the music, falling in step with one another with ease, the singer crooning about doing things right with the woman in his arms.

“You’re a good dancer,” she said.

“Thank you. I should be. My mother made us all learn when we were young.”

“I like her already.”

He smiled down at her. Round, blue eyes looked up at him.

“I really am sorry about spilling your drink.”

“It’s okay. My sister’s the one who got wet, not me.” She turned and looked at his friend, Jeff, laughing at something her sister had said. “Although I have a feeling there was a bit of a setup going on, not just clumsy line dancing.”

“It pains me to admit that you’re right. Jeff wanted to meet your sister…”

“Holly.”

“Holly.” He nodded. “I tried to talk him out of it, but he thought it was a foolproof plan.

“And you were just an innocent bystander.”

“I guess you could say that.” Truth was, Wes wanted to dance with the woman with mile-long legs, soft brown curls that floated down her back, and a perfect pink mouth he could see hadn’t smiled in way too long. So when Jeff suggested his plan, Wes agreed to go along with it. A bonus was to get them both away from the line dancing. Spilling a drink on anyone had not been the goal, just a mere bumping into to start a conversation. But it had worked, so who was he to complain?

“So what brings a guy like you into a place like this?”

He pulled back a bit and tilted his head. “A guy like me? I’m not sure I understand the question.”

She smiled. And the rest of the world melted away. Yeah. This woman smiling needed to happen more often. Pretty much all the time.

“You’re dressed quite nice. Did you leave a black-tie event to party with the boys or something?”

He had to chuckle at that. “Thankfully, no black-tie event. Not tonight. But I did come straight from work to meet my brother and some friends for a drink. So, should I be offended that you think my work attire looks like a tuxedo?”

Her laughter floated through the air, the sound even better than her smile.

“No. You look nice. I’m sorry.”

He continued to move them around the dance floor, her body moving gracefully against his. She didn’t miss a step. Definitely a dancer.

“You said your mother made all of you take dance lessons. How many siblings do you have?”

“Three. I’m the oldest. The guy at the booth with dark hair is my brother, Michael. I have another brother, Lucas, and our sister, McKenna, is the youngest.”

“Wow. Four kids. And you all live here?”

“No. Well, Mike does now.” As kind as the woman in his arms seemed, he didn’t feel right giving away too much of Mike’s story without his permission.

“You don’t live here?”

“Not really. No. I’m here because…”

Wes had spun them around and didn’t see Mike had stepped up behind him. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Wes. But we need to go.”

Wes still held the woman in his arms but stopped dancing. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. It’s fine.” Mike turned to the woman. “I’m so sorry. Really. My daughter needs us at home…”

“Of course. Please don’t apologize.”

Mike nodded then headed for the door.

Wes turned to her. “I’m sorry. I hate to cut out on you like this, but…”

“It’s okay. Really. Go. It’s family. Thank you for the dance. And the glass of wine.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“Come on, Wes! We need to go,” Mike shouted from their table where he’d collected his coat and had Wes’s in hand.

Wes turned to his brother then back again. The woman was returning to her spot at the bar with a wave in his direction.

Damn it! He strode toward his brother, grabbed his coat, and headed into the cold night toward the car.

“You don’t normally race out of a place like that. What’s going on?” Wes asked his brother when they got outside.

They tucked into the back seat of the Town Car before Mike answered. Their driver, Wilson, pulled from the curb and headed home without a word.

“Dad called and said that Annalise was having a rough time. Needed me. She wanted us home.”

Wes nodded. Annalise was Mike’s daughter. At only five years old, she’d been through the horrendous pain of losing her mother. Mike’s wife’s death had rocked Wes’s world, to say the least. And Wes would do anything for that little girl. Anything.

Wes had been back in Marietta less than twenty-four hours but could see changes in his niece already. She was still the bright, beautiful little girl who could light up a room, but she had moments where that light faded and it broke his heart in two.

“She wakes up crying. Wanting Anna. She’ll only calm down if I hold her. Stay with her through the night.”

Wes could only nod. Having no children himself, he couldn’t fathom the pain of losing a spouse and having to help a young child through the loss of her mother. Their move to Marietta was a good one for Mike and Annalise, as far as he could tell. Although that wasn’t the family’s full-time residence, it was becoming so with their father having moved there and now Mike, too.

As they drove down Main Street out of town and toward home, Wes’s thoughts wandered to the woman he’d danced with. He hadn’t even caught her name. Her sister was Holly though. Maybe he could find her that way. Unable to explain why, he wanted to see her again. Which made no sense. He lived in New York, not Marietta. He was here for a short family visit.

Short time or not, he was intrigued by the dancer and was determined to know more.

End of Excerpt

A Recipe for Romance is available in the following formats:

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March 7, 2017

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