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“This is Lacey Hathaway and you’re listening to drive time here on KMCM, Paradise Valley’s very own radio station. I hope everyone’s enjoying this glorious sunny January day. Later on today we’ll be chatting to Lisa Renee about winter celebrity weddings and Nell will be popping in to answer your questions on how to deal with hat hair, so get texting and calling. I’ll even respond to the odd tweet!
“Just a reminder it’s cold out there, folks, and the roads are iiiicyyyy! Watch yourselves on the drive home, it doesn’t matter if it takes a little longer, I’m here keeping you company through till six. Now I don’t know about you guys but when the snow’s on the ground and the mercury’s dropped, I’m like a bear fattening up for hibernation. I want baked goods and plenty of them, give me cake and pie and cookies until I burst! Well, my luck is in because we’re just two weeks away from Marietta’s first Bachelor Bake-Off and there are going to be plenty of tasty treats in the kitchen. Insert your own pun here, ladies!”
Zac Malone sighed and hit the button on the car radio. The only thing he disliked more than small towns was small-town radio, especially chipper small-town radio hosts who rabbited on about small-town concerns. He searched for the nearest public radio station and cursed under his breath as a stream of static hissed out of the speakers. Looked like it was Miss Chipper or nothing. Luckily he was a man who didn’t mind the sound of his own thoughts.
The radio host had been right about one thing: it was icy out despite the winter blue skies and the pale sliver of sun low in the sky. Snow coated the mountains all around him and dusted the windy mountain road, hiding the worst of the patches of black ice and making the driving treacherous going. Zac checked his GPS. Not far now, luckily; the sun was beginning to drop behind the mountains and he didn’t much fancy being out on these unknown roads on a late January night. He hit dial on his hands-free, tapping the steering wheel impatiently until his PA’s voice rang out. “Hi there, Zac.”
“Katie,” he acknowledged more curtly than he intended. Her naturally flirty manner always made him tense up. He sensed that she was fully aware of that fact and ramped up her manner accordingly.
Sure enough her voice dropped suggestively. “How’s cowboy country? Make sure you send us some pictures if you go native. I bet you look good on a horse.”
Zac ignored her second comment. “So far Montana is covered in snow and ridiculously cold.” He didn’t usually venture this far north. Luckily the car he’d rented at the airport was fully equipped with winter tires, a shovel, and a blanket. If he didn’t reach his destination soon he had an inkling he might need them. “You haven’t sent me the coordinates yet. Where’s the motel?”
“Ah, about that…”
“There isn’t actually a motel in town. Marietta isn’t big on chains. And the main hotel is a little over budget for a long stay, and booked out at the weekends anyway for weddings and all…” Katie finally stopped for breath.
“So you’re booked in at an adorable-sounding guesthouse. The Crooked Corner—isn’t that the quaintest thing you ever heard?”
Zac’s jaw set. Quaint was another thing on the list of things he didn’t do. “A guesthouse?” He wasn’t a fussy guy. He just insisted that Katie book him into a nice anonymous motel somewhere. The kind where people minded their own business and nobody made small talk over coffee. Or, indeed, at any time. “Katie…”
“Zac, there’s nowhere else in town,” she said hurriedly. “It’s all B&Bs and guesthouses and inns. Tourist-friendly place, you know? And, with the weather and all, I didn’t think you would want to be in the next town over. This place isn’t a full-time guesthouse, the owners have a suite of rooms they let out every now and then on a medium-term basis. It comes with breakfast and dinner but there are no other guests. It’s more like lodging than anything else. It’s run by two sisters-in-law, Priscilla and Patty Hathaway—according to their website everyone calls them Aunt Patty and Aunt Priscilla. How cute do they sound?”
Cute was the last thing he wanted in a temporary home and he certainly didn’t need two pseudo aunts fussing over him. Zac drummed his fingers harder on the wheel. This was far from ideal—but then everything about this assignment was wrong. An audit, training, and consultancy all in one package meant an extended stay of possibly a couple of months.
Normally he specialized in quick jobs in the southwest of the country, preferring to work in cities wherever possible, but one of his most trusted employees was ill and there was no one else free at short notice Zac could rely on to cover such an important job. So here he was, far out of his comfort zone. And now he had nowhere suitable to stay. He’d just have to work harder than ever so he could get out as fast as he could. “Fine. Send me the coordinates.”
It only took another quarter of an hour to reach Crooked Corner. That was plenty long enough for Zac to realize that Marietta was everything he’d been dreading it would be; a small town, all chocolate box storefronts and rosy-cheeked children playing in the snow. The kind of place where everyone knew everyone else’s name and everyone else’s business. The kind of place he’d spent his entire adult life escaping from.
He slowed down as a teen boy mooched past, his thin jacket inadequate against the cold, his face set with a weary determination that Zac recognized all too well. “Dammit,” he said softly. He’d spent far too long burying his demons to let this one-horse town dig them up again.
He turned his attention back to his route, following the GPS down Bramble Lane, his eyes skimming indifferently over the old mansions lining the road until the anonymous voice told him to pull in at a large Victorian house, all interesting angles and turrets, on the corner of Bramble Lane and 2nd Avenue. Painted white with a red trim, wide steps led up to a wraparound porch, several bird feeders hanging from the rail. The front door was also a cherry red, the rocker next to it painted the same color and heaped with bright cushions. He should’ve brought his sunglasses.
Zac decided to leave his bags in the car until he’d seen his rooms. Any sign of communal living space or a repeat of that glossy red in his rooms and he was heading to the nearest motel, wintry roads or not. He made his way to the porch steps, feet slipping a little on the packed snow. He was going to need winter boots. And—he shivered as a chill wind whistled past and through him—a thicker coat. His mind flew to the boy he’d seen just a few moments earlier. Did he have a thick coat at home he’d refused to wear with a teen’s disdain or was he doing the best with what little he had?
“Zac Malone? Come in, come in!” Zac blinked in surprise as the red door was flung open and a tall figure stood beaming at him. “I’m Patty Hathaway but everyone calls me Aunt Patty and you must absolutely do the same. Is that the only coat you have? We’ll need to send you over to Marietta Western Wear first thing tomorrow to get properly outfitted; it’s going to get colder they say. I bet you’re freezing. Coffee? Hot chocolate? Or how about something stronger? It’s after six after all.”
Patty Hathaway was in her sixties, as slim and stylish as a catwalk model. Her gray hair was cut into a choppy bob, the ends colored black in a striking contrast to her silver roots. Anything less like the apple-cheeked landlady Zac assumed would run a place like this was hard to imagine.
“No, thank you.” Coffee did sound good but it also hinted at informality, at small talk. Zac wanted to make sure any relationship between himself and his landlady remained strictly civil but brief. And he never touched the something stronger.
If Miss Hathaway—no way was he going to call her Aunt Patty—was discomfited she didn’t show it. Instead her blue eyes twinkled as she nodded at him. “I’ll show you where the kitchen is in case you change your mind.”
The door opened into a large wooden-floored hallway, painted a more sober cream Zac was relieved to notice, although the walls were hung with a variety of brightly colored paintings: landscapes, still lifes, and abstracts all jostling for notice. “The kitchen’s that way,” Patty Hathaway said pointing to an ajar door at the end of the hall. “Our living room is through here, and there’s a cozy den in there. You’re welcome to use either; make yourself completely at home.”
Zac didn’t respond and the twinkle in his hostess’s eyes intensified as she led him through the hallway and down a back corridor. This one was home to an exhibition’s worth of photographs, many black and white with stern-faced family groups featuring mutton-chopped patriarchs. Miss Hathaway stopped outside the white-painted door at the end of the corridor and put her hand on the handle. “Here you are. I hope you’ll be comfortable. Yours is the only bedroom on the first floor, the family all sleep upstairs so it’s nice and private.”
The room she ushered him into was as unlike his usual anonymous motel rooms as a space could be. Thick patterned drapes were already drawn against the winter night and several lamps cast a warm glow over the room. The walls were the same cream as the hallway, the pictures confined to just a couple of large watercolors of the Montana mountains in summer. A blue couch heaped with cushions faced the fireplace, a matching easy chair on either side. A small dining table sat by the window, a cheerful tablecloth draped over it and a bowl filled with fresh fruit placed invitingly in the center.
“Your bedroom is through there.” She gestured at another door opposite the window. “And your bath is off that. You should have everything you need but if not just come into the kitchen. There’s coffee and snacks in there if you’re hungry at any time. Please just help yourself if there’s no one around—although either my sister-in-law, Priscilla, or I should be there most of the time. Now, we usually eat at seven after my niece gets home from work, I hope that’s okay. You’re very welcome to join us but if you’re tired then we can put together a tray and bring it to your room.”
“Yes, thank you. A tray would be perfect.”
She paused, the blue eyes keen. “Of course. I’ll leave you to settle in. Remember, there’s always a hot drink in the kitchen if you change your mind.”
Zac waited until she closed the door behind her before checking out the bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom had the same cozy, comfortable vibe as the living room and the bath boasted a walk-in shower as well as a claw-foot bath. It was a long time since Zac had stayed anywhere that looked so like a home. There was a good reason for that. His hands clenched into fists and he took a deep breath. He might only be here for a few weeks, but he sensed that the sooner he got out of Marietta the better.
“Lacey, put that down. You’ll ruin your appetite.” Aunt Patty’s words might be stern but her face was anything but as Lacey pulled out a chair and sank into it, the purloined corn muffin, still warm from the oven, in her hand.
“I promise you I won’t. Talking nonstop is hungry work.”
“Then you must be hungry all the time. How was work today?”
“Great! We’re nearly there with all the Bachelor Bake-Off promotional material. We have eight bachelors all signed up and ready to go, tickets are selling well, and there’s a real buzz around town.”
“It’s for a good cause,” her aunt said.
Lacey nodded. “It really is and of course everyone really wants to make sure the center is a fitting memorial to Harry.” Her smile faded as she remembered the young firefighter so tragically killed. “That’s why the station has put so much work and time into helping promote the Bachelor Bake-Off. Not just because Marietta really needs a place like Harry’s House, but also because it’s the only way we can make sense of something so tragic. Everyone is so enthusiastic it’s been a dream to help organize so far. Thanks for agreeing to sponsor a bachelor, Aunt Patty.”
“I just hope that brother of yours doesn’t let us down; your Aunt Priscilla and I have a reputation to uphold you know. Who’s going to buy their wedding cakes from us if Nat produces concrete cookies?”
“You’d better prepare yourself for last place. You know neither Nat nor I inherited the Hathaway baking gene,” Lacey warned her aunt. She clasped her hands as excitement quivered through her. “I can’t believe Nat’s coming to Marietta for a whole month. It almost makes up for him missing Christmas.”
“It’ll be lovely to see him.” Her aunt looked wistful as she turned back to the rich stew bubbling away on the huge range stove. Nat was a real favorite with his aunts and they missed him just as much as his little sister did. Unlike Lacey he didn’t live in Marietta anymore, preferring to travel with their musician parents while he developed his own music career. He had spent the whole of his high school senior year in Marietta though, living at Crooked Corner.
“So,” Lacey said through a mouthful of corn muffin, “how’s the new lodger? No, hang on, let me guess. He’s an auditor isn’t he? I’m going to go with fiftyish, sporting one of those paunches men get when they spend too long on the road. Graying hair, with a comb-over to hide the bald patch. A good value suit and loafers with tassels on. Am I right?”
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” her aunt suggested with a nod toward the door behind Lacey. “He’s standing right there. Hello, Zac. Changed your mind about the coffee?”
Lacey choked as the corn muffin stuck in her throat, her cheeks on fire as she turned around, an apology—or a bluff—on her lips, only for the words to dry up as she drank in the vision framed in her aunts’ kitchen doorway. No paunchy, graying accountant here, rather over six foot of lean masculinity, dark hair cropped close, darker eyes narrowed. His well-shaped mouth would have looked made for sin if it wasn’t thin with disapproval—disapproval firmly directed right at Lacey.
“Please excuse my niece,” Aunt Patty said, smothering a smile unsuccessfully. “She never knows when to stop talking. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Lacey swallowed the rest of the suddenly dry muffin hastily, and pinned an apologetic look onto her face. “She’s right, I do have a bad habit of just saying the first thing that comes into my head and I rarely mean it. I’m a radio host for the local station here in Marietta—well I’m the station manager as well. We’re mostly staffed by volunteers…” Now is the time to stop talking, Lacey, but the words kept on spilling out. “I’m the only paid member of staff right now but we have ambitions to grow. I do the drive time show but we have a real varied program. Aunt Patty here does a fashion segment and Aunt Priscilla a Saturday morning baking show…” She gulped some scalding hot coffee in an attempt to stop her runaway mouth.
Zac Malone had barely raised an eyebrow in response to her one-woman monologue on the current status of Radio KMCM. “I was wondering if that offer of a cup of coffee was still available?” he addressed Aunt Patty right over Lacey’s head.
“Of course, come on in. There’s usually coffee on the go here” Aunt Patty indicated the percolator, which was pressed into service fourteen hours a day. “And you’ll always find something freshly baked on the second shelf in the pantry. You can help yourself to anything in this kitchen. We just ask guests—and relatives—” she fixed Lacey with a meaningful look “—to stay out of the other kitchen.”
“Aunt Patty and Priscilla are bakers,” Lacey said, taking pity on the bemused expression on Zac’s face. “They have a professional kitchen through there. No matter how enticing the smells, do not follow your nose. The witch in Hansel and Gretel has nothing on these two if you enter their lair.”
Silence. She was making quite the impression here. Two strikes down. She had one chance left. “So, Zac. An auditor huh? That must be interesting?”
“Keeps me busy.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and nodded over at Aunt Patty. “Thanks for this. I appreciate it.” And with that he was gone.
End of Excerpt