A Chester Farms Novel, book 1
December 2, 2013
At eighteen, Kara Duncan had already made her fair share of mistakes, choosing the wrong boy and earning herself a bad reputation in the process. Hurt and humiliated, she’d packed up and moved on, sure that everyone in Bella Warren, Arkansas, would be better off without her. She’d planned never to return, but when crisis strikes, she has nowhere else to turn.
After seven years, Wade Chester thought his feelings for Kara were finally ancient history. Until he sees her again, standing on his front porch just as she’d done a million times before. She needs his help—and his family’s crops—if her canning business is going to survive. The rest of his family has let bygones be bygones, so why is it so hard for him to let go of the past?
While Kara claims to be interested only in putting things right, the old heat flaring between them is undeniable. But Wade will need to risk his heart—and the reputation of his farm—to prove that they’re meant to be together.
Middle fingers were good for a lot of things. They were long enough to reach the bottom corner of a salsa jar when the chips were gone. Spinning a basketball on the tip was always a good trick. After those late nights, efficient for applying makeup to dark circles around the eyes.
They should never be used for telling an ex-boyfriend to piss off in sign language. Ever. Especially when the ex-boyfriend used to be a friend.
With a rough swallow and a swipe at the sweat oozing down the back of her neck, Kara Duncan climbed the steps she’d traveled so many times. Steps belonging to a house she once thought of as another home. She knew the chips of the bricks, how the sharp edges felt against her thighs on warm summer days, and the best place to put a glass of iced sweet tea so it wouldn’t tip over. She knew everything about this two-story house as well as the brother and sister who now owned the home.
Seven years away and little had changed. The same, but now weatherworn bird feeders were staked in the ground around the same bushes that had made for great hide-and-go-seek spots. Those bushes would bloom large white flowers in just a few months. The fragrance would come through the windows at night as a comforting sleep aid.
From the big magnolia tree in the front yard that was made for climbing to the worn path leading to the fields she’d skipped over countless times—it was all part of the magic of Chester Farms. A longing full of hope and shame thudded across her shoulders as she stared at the places that had saved her childhood.
Everybody knew that creaking, swinging back door was always open. The light over the sink was always on and the refrigerator never left empty.
With her heart weighted extra heavy from bittersweet memories, Kara walked the last few steps over the porch dinged from dragging rocking chairs and patio furniture over it, and stopped at the door. It was time to face her past, if only she could lift her hand and knock. She wiped her eyes clear as the long line of mistakes that ended with her middle finger shivered over her spine. Her future and livelihood was behind this door so long as she didn’t screw it up. With a clearing of her throat to get the knot of emotions out, she pressed the doorbell. It was either that or not work.
The da-ding should have sounded hopeful.
Instead the sound was more like a coffin closing. Dun-dun-dun of a hammer driving nails through the cold chill wrapping around her shoulders all the way to the center of her bones. The front door cracked open, swung wide and she came face-to-face with that ex-boyfriend who had been on the receiving end of her middle finger all those years ago.
Air came to a shuddering stall in her throat and she curled her fingers around her binder as her heart skipped a beat. Or four. A ball cap ripped at the edges of the curved bill over his dark hair had always been able to toss her insides for a loop. This was the time for a classy response or something witty. One of those many lines she’d delivered right to her bathroom mirror without a blink. She had nothing. After all these years, a leaping jolt of heat shouldn’t be scattering over her skin by the mere sight of him. Wanting to get lost in his puppy-dog brown eyes was going to be hell on her work here.
He leaned a shoulder against the door frame and blocked her entrance as well as any door. A smile turned up one corner of his lips, but she was no fool. It wasn’t friendly. She hadn’t seen him in years, but she knew well enough the difference between Wade Chester genuinely happy and this Wade, who stood deceptively relaxed. It didn’t matter if he was happy, sad, angry or just sleepy, he had the ability to turn her stomach into a shaken snow globe that had the flurries landing in a pit of twisted knots.
His arms crossed over his chest. “Well, well, look what the cat dragged in. Kara Duncan.”
She pasted on a familiar forced smile and gave him a quick nod. Unfair that he had something to say. “Wade.”
“Last time I saw you, you were flipping me the bird.”
Yes. Well, considering she was a frustrated, confused and heartbroken eighteen-year-old girl, it’s a miracle she’d only flashed him the canary. “It seemed the proper reaction at the moment.”
The fake smile on his face fell as he suddenly seemed to remember what had caused her to give him the bird. “I thought he was attacking you.”
“That’s what you said then, even though I plainly said ‘go away, Wade’ before you grabbed John by the shirt collar and broke his nose.”
He straightened then. “That’s not the whole of it and you know it.”
Her mind went back to that hot summer night. Those friendly but ignorant flutters dancing in her belly while the thick, wet humidity of a summer night wrapped her in a hug. Then the hard, cold slap of reality. Hope and a sense of finally! changed to a fiery pit of indigestion driven on regret within the span of an hour. Yeah, his confusion with John wasn’t the whole of it. As she’d walked away that night, Wade had grabbed John and cursed him thoroughly for making her look like a whore.
Not the look she’d been going for.
Even now the shame burned from the freckles on her nose all the way to the center of her regret-filled heart. She couldn’t possibly tell Wade the truth, so she picked up the same lie she’d pulled back then. “If I wanted to date your best friend after we broke up, that was my business. Our breakup didn’t stop you from dating whoever you wanted.”
He seemed somehow taller and more imposing, like a giant bear hunkering over with steady eyes on his prey and ready to claw her skin off. Amazing since he was only a couple of inches taller than her. The hairs along her skin prickled all the same and she rubbed at the itching chill. “I didn’t date your best friend.”
“Because she’s your sister.” Her temper flooded to her clenched jaw. This was Wade Chester and he always did this to her. “You did every other girl in town.”
That irritating brow of his cocked. “So you’re saying you’re still friends with my sister? Could have fooled me.”
She sucked in a breath with that stinging wash of regrets and mistakes being dumped back over her. Kara had made many. She wasn’t here to relive or rehash. They were behind her. As was Wade, no matter how much her chest ached at the moment. Whoever said you never got over a first love was right. She cleared her throat and flicked hair off her still-sweating neck. “Is Whitney here?”
Oh no. She was here. Kara’s mind was made up; she wasn’t going away easy now. “Her truck is parked next to the house.”
The sound of Whitney’s voice echoed from inside as she called Wade’s name. “Who’s at the door?”
Those knots in her belly braided themselves all the way up to her throat. Kara stuck a smile back on her face as Wade moved to the side. Whitney, every bouncing and shrieking inch of her, with her blond, tight, curly hair dancing, launched herself at Kara as she crossed the threshold. Her arms wound around her, top of her head at Kara’s jawline, and Whitney brought her in as a best friend should do after years apart. Or sisters.
A breath trapped in Kara’s throat and was only released by the tears pooling in her eyes. Whitney shook her side to side in an old-friends-reunited kind of hug. If Kara clung hard enough and closed her eyes tight enough, she wanted to believe that they would go back in time to when campouts and clothes were the most important parts of their world.
Those tears itched the corners of her eyes, but she blinked them off. God, the last time she’d seen Whitney, her best friend had been hurt, confused and water had streaked over her cheeks. Kara had walked away and blown her off with a cutting turn of her shoulder. By that point, Kara had been so far out of control, she had no answers to explain herself. She refused to believe the explanation for her behavior that had come to her later.
All she knew for certain was if she hadn’t screwed up and given in to Wade that one night, she wouldn’t have this problem. She’d be able to hug the childhood friend she’d shared broken bones, fingernail polish and clothes with and tug her upstairs for immediate updates just like old times.
Whitney squeezed her a little tighter, fingers curled against her back. It should’ve felt good, but all Kara could feel was the guilt pulsing out of her bleeding heart.
Whitney stood back and tugged Kara inside. “Did you have any problems coming into town?”
“None.” Bella Warren, Arkansas, wasn’t that large of a place and nothing had changed in the past few years she’d been away. Other than a little age on the signs in town, the bushes and trees a little bigger on the streets, it was all the same. As if time had frozen from when she’d left and un-paused on her return. Oh joy about the promises that thought held, but she refused to let it stop her. It’d taken all she had to drag her butt here. If she backed down now, she wouldn’t have the guts to stay. “I came straight here.”
Because like hell had she risked going anywhere and possibly running into her biggest past mistake. God, she’d completely lost all thought of herself for two months in a stupid plot of revenge and an attempt to be noticed.
Worst of all, she’d known better. Had watched her mother tear apart everyone in an attempt to get what she’d wanted and lose it all in the end. As a girl she’d sworn to grow up better than her mom and in the end, Kara became the same woman.
Almost. Almost had been close enough.
The plan had been so simple. Get Wade’s attention by dating his best friend. Mission accomplished, but not at all how she’d wanted.
Whitney led her through the narrow entranceway. Stairs were up to the right. To the left an office, straight ahead were her favorite rooms, the kitchen and connected dining room. She let her fingers touch the textured yellowed walls she’d run by countless times as Whitney pulled her down the hall. If they were laughing and running, she could nearly believe they were about to slip ice cream sandwiches from the deep freezer. Wade trailing after them with that dark look etched across his face kept that belief in check.
Whitney pulled her to the left in what used to be her mom’s office. Same carpet, same curtains. Same desk. Instead of the top being adorned with straightened stacks of papers, it was a scattered mess marking Whitney’s space. Kara held tight to her binder to resist straightening the paperwork so parts of the desktop could be visible.
Being away for so long, she had forgotten how Whitney could be cluttery. Once upon a time, she’d been drawn to Whitney for her scattered ways. Looking at dolls and ribbons and toys and stuffed animals coating much of Whitney’s room had seemed so normal and like home in an otherwise tidy and fresh-smelling house.
Whitney’s smile was still on her face, but it was fading along with her eyes shifting away. And it was time for the awkward part, but Whitney kept up the smile though it was strained at the edges. “I thought you’d want a look around the farm. Not too much has changed, but Wade added a few new crops. You can leave your stuff on my desk.”
Kara glanced to Wade for a moment, then looked away before she could even focus on the dark whiskers marking his jaw. Staring in that direction would find her nothing but more problems and her hands were plenty full at the moment with Whitney. To be able to work here, she was going to have to fix this gap she’d created between herself and Whitney. It would take time, and time was something she had now. In fact, it was pretty much all she had. “Sounds great. I can’t wait for the weekend for the soft opening with the townspeople. I brought my portfolio so you could see what I do.”
Lies, lies, lies. The soft opening. Already. A good chunk of the town would show up for the first pick of the season at a discounted price. One set rate, whatever they could fit in a basket. Usually a fun-filled family event. For Kara it would be the day of facing all the people who’d called her names and who’d witnessed the many displays of public affection—to put it lightly—with John. It was the last thing she ever wanted to do.
Whitney flipped her wrist. “I know you’ll be great. You said you use all your grandma’s recipes?”
Kara nodded as a pang slammed through her chest and rocked her back on her heels. After she ruined her life and moved to her dad’s, her grandmother had been a lifesaver. She’d been the only one, it seemed, who had any faith in Kara. Now it was Whitney with that salt. Kara couldn’t say why. “Yep. Everything just like she taught me.”
Wade stopped next to them both, his hands hung low off his hips. “What’s going on?”
Kara blinked and stared up at him. He looked between them both and fixed his gaze on Whitney as his left brow lifted. Oh, God. He didn’t know? Somewhere thereabouts her toes lay her thudding heart that he’d already knocked loose.
Whitney’s already-weak smile was slipping more and more by the moment. “We’re in partnership with Kara.”
Kara bit her lower lip as Whitney continued to explain. “Kara makes jams and gift baskets. She’ll use our produce to can them with a Chester label and we’ll take part of the profits. She has a website and everything.”
“That’s—” He shifted his gaze to Kara and back to Whitney. “I want a word with you.”
Kara held her binder in front of her chest to protect her from everything Wade might have on his mind. A one-inch binder stuffed with paper. And that was it. The heat of his eyes would burn through it in an instant, never mind the hard bite of his mind. It was a scary thought, but one she had to face because she wouldn’t let Whitney take the butt-chewing that was surely on Wade’s mind. “Just say it, Wade. You’ve never had a problem hiding what you thought of me in the past.”
He winced at that, grunted and walked away. The back screen door slapped against the wooden frame and announced his exit. That screen-door pop used to be a comforting sound that came with laughing kids making memories. Not so much anymore.
Whitney swallowed and rubbed her arms. “That went over as well as I expected.”
Wade walking out with a furious set of his brow was pretty much one of the worst-case scenarios Kara had dreamed up happening on this day. It came in second to her arrival bringing a natural disaster.
She’d been prepared for this to be hard. She hadn’t considered how much it was going to hurt with a constant clamp on her chest. She squeezed the binder tight as she could to try to hide the trembling. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell him.”
A hollow laugh raked over Whitney’s tongue. “I wasn’t telling him a thing. It’s all a done deal now, so it doesn’t matter what he thinks.”
Oh, but it did. It always mattered what Wade thought. She couldn’t help it. To this day she could still feel that glow of teenage love he put in her by just a compliment or a smile. When they dated, she all but walked on air. Years spent dreaming of a prince coming and there he was. Until they broke up.
As strong as she felt the fluttering hope from the past that he’d ask her out, the sharp pain ripping her in half as her teenage dreams crumbled was stronger. Back then, she just knew he’d realize he was wrong about them. That he lay in bed at night thinking and cursing for breaking up with her, and that he missed his chance. That he was plotting ways to take her on another date and see the chemistry they had. She’d have bet everything she had that was true. And she did. She gambled it all and lost.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
They say don’t date your friends. They say don’t date your friend’s brother. They say those things for a reason. She placed her binder over the messy desk and smiled at it. The unorganized papers turned every which way still signaled home, but for far different reasons than what she thought as a child.
She faced Whitney. Forgive and you will be forgiven? Kara was about to test what they say because she would never forgive herself, but hoped Whitney could. “I would love to walk around. Just to see the place.”
Copyright © 2013 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited | Copyright © 2013 by Keri Ford.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.
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