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Madison Porter was so bored she could watch paint dry. If that wasn’t what she was already doing. She lifted her gaze away from the yellow-and-black caution tape that encircled the gazebo area she’d been instructed to keep watch over and glanced down to her white fluffy partner for this assignment, who appeared quite content to take a snooze on the soft green grass.
“How about you take this next shift, Belle?” she said, sliding one perfectly pedicured foot out of her flats and toeing the cat’s back.
Belle opened her blue eyes, gave a gigantic yawn, and rolled onto her side, facing away from the gazebo.
“My thoughts exactly.” Madison leaned back on the wooden bench. Last week, she’d been given strict marching orders by Bea Davies, owner of the Queen Bea Diner and self-appointed co-chair for the upcoming Hometown Honeybee Festival—the biggest honor, in Bea’s words, ever to be bestowed to the town of Honey Springs.
She ran a hand through her long hair, bringing her wavy red locks to the side. Why she’d ever willingly volunteered last spring to co-chair the event with Bea was beyond her.
Sure, it was indeed a big deal that Honey Springs, California, was selected from more than five thousand small towns across America vying to be one of a handful of hosts for this August’s national Honeybee Day activities, but Madison quickly learned that her co-chair ruled with an iron fist. Nothing was going to stand in the way of the diner owner’s fifteen minutes of fame and the grand trophy that apparently was bestowed on the small town with the most unique activities that celebrated the honeybee.
Bea Davies was pulling out all the stops to win that award.
Reaching into her purse, Madison pulled out a small bottle of sunblock she’d brought for this outing and slid down the thin spaghetti straps of her light blue sundress, giving each shoulder a generous spritz before spraying her face.
She rubbed the sunblock into her nose and cheeks, always the first areas to freckle. Today was on tap to be exceptionally hot and sunny. If she was going to be out here baking in the sun, at least she could get a dose of vitamin D and work on her tan.
She’d volunteered for the festival last spring to give her something new to do. It’d been a long winter and her day-to-day existence had felt like one lackluster lather, rinse, repeat, routine.
Since moving to the small town just south of San Francisco, she’d held the same responsibilities in the mayor’s office and on Aunt Etta’s Honey farm for eight years. Though, she’d always been grateful for her late boss’s warm generosity and the extra income, Madison could perform both jobs in her sleep.
She closed her eyes, and tilted her head up to the sky, letting the sun warm her face. Case in point.
“Madison, you’re not paying attention.”
Bea’s stern voice rang through her ears. Figures. The old woman had probably been watching her all this time behind her diner’s front door.
“It’s paint drying, Bea. The caution tape is up. No one is going to cross it.” Madison cracked open one lid, hoping Bea stayed on the other side of it too. She’d learned early on that the way to handle her co-chair was not to give in to her frequent dramatic rants.
“I told you last week,” Bea stepped over the caution tape, “we can’t risk anyone getting within ten feet of this precious landmark.” She bent down and lifted Belle’s front white paws, inspecting each. “Including those with four furry legs.”
Madison pulled up her spaghetti straps, squinting up at Bea. “It’s a wooden gazebo.”
“It’s more than that. It represents our history.” Bea straightened her white apron, her face twisting at the fact that Madison would dismiss the beloved public landmark so easily. “It’s here where my granddaddy, Mayor Byron Davies, stood on those very steps and proudly accepted the offering of four thousand honeybees.”
Bea had a German Shepherd named Byron. She must have named him after her grandfather. Madison couldn’t help but smirk.
“The Honey Springs that we know and love was born that day,” she said, each word delivered with pride. “That reminds me…” She reached into her apron pocket, pulling out her phone. “I need to make sure the welcome sign is retouched. My goodness, a festival chair’s work is never done.”
Co-chair. Madison bit down on her lip. The aforementioned sign not only paid tribute to those initial four thousand stinging residents but highlighted that this town had only one queen bee and—festival co-chair or not—she was looking at her.
Bea’d called all the shots in their pre-planning. Now that they had only two weeks to go until the festival, she was shouting orders left and right. Madison straightened her back. “I will make sure no one”—she pointed to Belle—“I mean no one interrupts the process of this yellow paint drying.”
“That’s the spirit.” Bea gave Belle a pat on the head. “I’ll see you both at tonight’s barbeque for the big announcement. Too-da-loo.”
“See ya.” Madison rolled her eyes and picked up Belle’s pink leash, placing it in her lap. Not only were residents preoccupied with the Hometown Honeybee Festival, but there was a lot of buzz around town about this evening’s event. Tonight, the mayor’s office had planned a street party in front of the municipal building for the much-anticipated announcement of the names of three of Belle’s four kittens.
Early on, Cassie had named the first, Hope, and the mayor’s office decided on a contest to let the town’s people name the others. That reveal kept getting pushed back due to schedule conflicts and an unfortunate rainy forecast for three weeks straight.
They were almost half a year old now, more young cats than kittens really. It was high time to stop calling them two, three and four.
Madison’s four-legged roommate had once belonged to Etta St. James, the beloved former mayor, which made Belle town royalty. When Etta passed away last winter, her niece, Cassie Wilkerson, had inherited the mayor title and the pregnant feline.
Unfortunately, Belle had other plans and made Madison her new owner on Valentine’s Day. Or rather, she started to. The less her kittens needed her, the more time she spent at Madison’s. And when Madison moved into Nick’s cabin, Belle—along with kitten number four—took up residence there as well.
When you were known around town as the supreme matchmaker, apparently you could pick up and claim a new human to take care of you whenever you felt like it.
Madison wrapped the leash around her wrist. Yeah, walking a white fluffy cat on a leash, never mind one so well-known as this one, tended to get her all kinds of side-eye, but she wasn’t taking any chances. Left to roam freely, there was no telling who Belle would chase down as Madison’s soul mate.
The furry matchmaker had met her match. One engagement had been enough for Madison, and she had no desire to repeat history. She certainly wasn’t going to stand off to the side and let this cat decide who she should marry.
Although, maybe Belle would do a better job at it.
She watched as Bea stopped to chat with Cassie, who’d entered the park, no doubt complaining how inept Madison was at following her orders.
Eventually, the mayor made her way to the bench, stepping over the caution tape with an iced coffee in hand. Madison marveled how the New York City transplant easily acclimated to small-town living, including the casual jean shirt coupled with a flowery skirt and ballerina flats. Such a change from the pencil skirt and black high heels Cassie had worn around town earlier this year.
“Why didn’t you yank my hand down when I raised it to co-chair the festival with that woman?” Madison asked as Cassie took a seat.
“Because I knew you would be good at it. Besides, you’re the only one in this town who can stand up to her.” Cassie took a long sip of her coffee. “Man, I don’t know how Patrick does it, but this is, hands down, the best peanut butter iced coffee I’ve had all summer. Have you tried it?”
Madison wrinkled her nose. “I’ll pass.” She’d rather swallow shards of glass than drink anything made by the hands of Patrick Manning, the owner of The Bean & Brew. That smug city dweller was nothing but a fly in her honey and had been since he moved to town three years ago.
Back then, she’d wanted to purchase the Honey Cone ice cream shop when Mary Mooney retired. It’d been the perfect opportunity at the right time, and Madison couldn’t wait to be a Honey Springs business owner.
Not that she had the foggiest idea how to run a business, let alone an ice cream shop, but she’d been excited to learn. Plus, she was somewhat a pro around a kitchen and had been making ice cream from scratch since she was sixteen and wanted to impress her high school boyfriend with homemade hot fudge sundaes. Owning an ice cream parlor seemed to be in her lane.
She’d even splurged on a fancy notebook from the Book Buzz and filled it with all the new ice cream dishes she’d unveil to customers at her grand opening.
That dream melted around her when, out of nowhere, the mysterious Midwesterner, with no apparent roots in Honey Spring, came out of nowhere and outbid her for the space.
The fact that he’d gone against tradition and wouldn’t name his business after the beloved honey moniker, even when Etta had personally asked him to reconsider, was just a further slap in the face.
Her gaze moved across the park in the direction of the coffee shop. If Patrick had never waltzed into Honey Springs, she’d now be in her ice cream shop running a successful business, not doing this mundane assignment. She’d be getting ready for the festival with a special, signature ice cream that proudly paid tribute to the honeybee and her love for this town.
“How did my life come to this?”
“Like what?” Cassie asked, sipping on her straw.
“Bea has me guarding the gazebo to make sure no one goes near it. I’m making sure the caution tape does its job.” She closed her eyes and then cracked one open. “How am I doing?”
Cassie chuckled. “Superb.”
“Can’t wait to add this to my résumé.” Madison shook her head and leaned further back. Bored or not, with two weeks until the festival, she couldn’t quit now. She had a reputation for not following through. Something Bea seemed to be quick to exploit.
Not only did taking on this responsibility give her something to do, but it was a chance to prove that she could finish something she started and be successful at it to boot. The last thing she needed was Bea running up and down Honey Lane lamenting on how her co-chair was not living up to her responsibilities.
Not that she cared.
Okay, she kind of did.
“Well, it is a nice bright yellow,” Cassie offered. “Perfect color for a bee, really,” she joked and tapped Madison’s shoulder. “You just need a new perspective.”
Madison shot her some serious side-eye. “Any suggestions?”
It took only a few seconds to tick by before Cassie snapped her fingers. “You are guarding the integrity of the colored substance that protects this cherished historical landmark.”
“No wonder you were so successful as a big-time advertising executive,” Madison deadpanned. “Ever miss it?”
Cassie pulled out her straw, licking the whipped cream that had formed around it. “Not at all. I’m finding being the mayor both challenging and rewarding.” She tucked a strand of her blond hair behind her ear. “Plus, helping Nick with his honey-based wound cream feeds my adrenaline anytime I start to miss it.”
Madison loosened Belle’s leash around her wrist. Her cousin, Nick Porter, had sold the patent to his wound cream to a global skincare client of Cassie’s.
And while all that was going down, Nick and Cassie also rekindled their teenage romance and fell back in love. The two were now a happy couple and business partners.
Madison was truly thrilled for her cousin. She’d never seen Nick smile as much as he had this year. Sure, she could admit feeling a little jealous too. She hadn’t had a date in forever, let alone been in a serious relationship since her engagement crumbled eight years ago.
Cassie finished her coffee, cocking her head down in Belle’s direction. “Is it normal to walk cats on a leash?”
“No.” Madison set the leash down beside her. “I just don’t want to take any chances.”
“Any chances?” Cassie repeated.
“You know. With who…” she lowered her voice, nodding down to Belle “…you-know-who might choose for me.”
Cassie grinned, running a finger across her lips. “You really believe the talk about her matchmaking abilities is true?”
It most certainly was true. Madison could tick off no less than a half dozen bachelorettes who’d been the target of Belle’s affection. All now married. Yeah, Cassie and Nick weren’t engaged, but Madison was sure it was only a matter of time, and the mayor would probably be flashing a diamond on her left ring finger by Christmas. “You of all people know what this tiny cupid is capable of if given a little freedom to roam.”
Cassie laughed. “So, has Belle given any signs?”
“Not a single solitary one.” Madison dropped her hand and gave the cat’s back a soft pat. “Keep up the good work.” Although… She caught sight of the town’s new veterinarian, Josh Sandler, strolling down the sidewalk. Tall, blond, and handsome, Josh had been the subject of whispers since he arrived earlier this summer.
Rumor had circulated up and down Honey Lane that he was indeed single.
She tugged on Belle’s leash. Just because she wasn’t eager to tie the knot didn’t mean she wouldn’t be interested in enjoying a nice pasta dinner at the Cozy Comb and a bottle of red wine with an attractive man. “Belle, cute single guy ahead.”
The cat gave a big yawn and rolled on her back.
Madison heaved a sigh. “See? Nothing. Maybe I’ll take Belle in for her shots this week and try again.”
At that, the cat flicked her tail, not bothering to open her eyes.
“I guess not.”
Cassie chuckled, rising off the bench. “Well, I should get to the office. I have a ton of files to purge.”
“That’s right. Your new cabinets are coming on Wednesday.” Her boss had decided to give the mayor’s office an update with new furniture. Her three staff members, including Madison, had all lent a hand last week to repaint the office.
“Yeah, nothing like waiting until the last minute. I’m going to be running around town all day getting ready for tonight’s reveal, and then Nick needs me to assist him on the farm tomorrow.”
“I’ll sort your files.” God knows it would be better than her current task. “I can get started on it today and finish up tomorrow.”
“That would be a huge help. Thank you.” Cassie bent down and scratched Belle behind the ears. “Are you finally ready to learn the names of your kittens?”
“I’m sure she’s much more interested in what kind of tuna treat we might be serving.”
“I’m sure we can arrange that.” Cassie held her phone to her mouth. “Don’t forget to pick up cat treats for the party.”
“A mayor’s work is never done,” Madison teased and said goodbye to Cassie, turning her attention to Belle. “You might as well get some shut-eye. We might be here awhile.”
Without any warning, the sleepy cat bolted up and sprinted across the lawn, taking her pink leash with her.
“Belle, get back here!” Madison jumped off the bench, her gaze following the speedy feline. Her stomach tightened. Standing on the sidewalk was Patrick Manning, head down, tapping on his phone.
Oh, no. No. No! She watched in horror as Belle zeroed in on her target. This can’t be happening. “Belle! Get back here, now!” she screamed, running straight through the barrier, taking the caution tape with her, it quickly wrapping around her waist.
“Do not touch that cat!” she ordered, marching right up to her enemy.
Patrick straightened looking all sorts of confused. His gaze dropped to the caution tape, and his mouth curled up. “Looks like instead I shouldn’t be touching you.”
She yanked the tape from around her waist, letting it fall to the ground as she straightened her sundress. “Don’t pet Belle. She bites.”
“She looks pretty friendly to me.” He bent down and scratched the cat’s head.
Darn Benedict Belle.
“Well, she’s not.” Madison scooped up the cat, who let it be known she was miffed with a loud whine followed by injecting her claws into Madison’s bare arm. She grimaced, “Not at all.”
Patrick’s smile only widened. “Good thing you cautioned me.” He picked up the tape.
Madison could feel her cheeks flaming. Darned if her enemy didn’t have the cutest smile with his one pronounced dimple on his left side. Not to mention he smelled great. “I didn’t do it for you,” she said, ignoring that his spicy cologne was seeping into her lungs. “If she bites, I’d have to alert animal control. Then the guest of honor would be quarantined and wouldn’t be able to attend tonight’s barbeque.”
“Right, the block party. I’m looking forward to it.”
Last week, Madison had learned that her coworker, Darla, had invited Patrick to serve iced coffee at the event, which was completely bizarre. Coffee didn’t even go with honey hot wings. “Yeah, well, don’t get too excited. I mean, I doubt you’ll turn a profit.” She planned on making quarts of her old-fashioned honey lemonade to make sure he didn’t.
“Not doing it for the money.”
Hmmph. Patrick Manning, as far as she was concerned, only looked out for himself. He rarely participated in any of the events the mayor’s office put on or any other town-sanctioned event for that matter.
Which was a good thing. Her eyes locked with his electric-blue ones, causing her knees to wobble. She immediately looked down at Belle. Yep, it was a good thing.
“Thank you again for saving me from imminent danger.” He reached out and rubbed Belle’s chin with the back of his finger.
Just then, Bea flew out of her diner. “Patrick. There you are. The man I’ve been waiting for.”
“I am?” He raked one hand through his hair, the other still holding on to the caution tape.
“Dear heavens. What happened here?”
Oh geez. Madison braced herself. No doubt Bea was going to rip into her for destroying the barrier. “I accidentally ran through it.”
Bea raised an eyebrow up—way up. “Were you running from a robber?”
Madison adjusted her hold on Belle. “No.”
“I see.” Bea leveled Madison with a stare. “Bumblebee?”
“Well, no.” Madison sighed, adding her lame excuse. “Belle ran away from me.”
Bea reached over and patted the cat’s head. “I don’t blame you.”
What does that mean? Madison set Belle on the sidewalk and yanked the caution tape from Patrick. “I’ll go put it back.”
“I think you’ve done enough for the day.” Bea intercepted the tape. “It needs to be put up a certain way. Patrick, can you walk with me? I could use…” She paused and narrowed her eyes in Madison’s direction. “Some competent help.”
Madison’s face tightened. There were a lot of things she could do to demonstrate her competency.
Patrick looked from Madison to Bea. “Happy to assist.”
“Good.” Bea gave Belle a scratch behind the ears. “I wanted to talk to you about the Hometown Honeybee Festival, anyway.”
Madison tipped her head to the side. Hold up! Why on earth did she need to talk to him? None of their plans involved Patrick Manning or The Bean & Brew. She mentally went through the lengthy checklists Bea created each week and ordered Madison have with her at all times.
Of course, this week’s checklist was in her glove compartment with all the others. She’d barely scanned it before shoving it in there.
Bea dismissed Madison’s questioning stare. “I’ve got a big idea to involve your coffee shop that is going to put you front and center.”
“You do?” Both Madison and Patrick asked in unison. Madison looked away, pretending to fiddle with Belle’s leash.
“I’m happy to help with whatever you need.” He paused. “But I’m not renaming my business after something that stings.”
“I would never suggest that, sugar. Shall we?” Bea grinned and linked her arm through Patrick’s. “My, you’re quite tall. Have you ever had my honey chocolate pie?”
Madison watched, her stomach uneasy, as Bea escorted Patrick back into the park. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but fix her gaze on Patrick’s tanned, broad arms. Why did the enemy have to be so physically fit?
All of a sudden, he turned around, catching her in mid-check. She turned fast and scooped Belle up again, scurrying down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
“You were a very bad kitty,” she muttered close to the cat’s ear. “And for future reference, that pompous, self-righteous man is not the one. So, don’t get any ideas.”
She reached the corner, glancing back in the gazebo’s direction while ignoring her heart now beating fast against her rib cage.
No, Patrick Manning was definitely not the one.
End of Excerpt