All’s Fair in Love and Wine (Love in the Valley Book 2)
UNLIKE A FINE WINE…
some memories don’t age well.
Unexpectedly back in town, Jack Clayton acted as if he’d never crushed Sierra James’s teenage heart. When he offered to buy her family’s vineyard, the former navy lieutenant knew Jack was turning on the charm, hoping to win her over. No way would Sierra melt for him again; she was ready for battle. But would denying what she still felt for Jack prove to be a victory she could savor?
- Publisher : Harlequin Special Edition; Original edition (March 28, 2023)
- Language : English
- Mass Market Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1335724591one
- ISBN-13 : 978-1335724595
- Item Weight : 4.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.19 x 0.72 x 6.63 inches
Read an Excerpt
Cake flour. Brown sugar. Softened butter. Chocolate chips. A top-secret family recipe known to a rare few trustworthy souls. Funny how, even after years of flying fighter jets, the step-by-step directions remained as routine as a preflight checklist. Taking comfort in the task’s familiarity, Sierra James opened the commercial refrigerator and removed a metal sheet covered with a dozen chocolate chip cookies, all formed with slightly hollowed out centers. Into each depression she dropped a #40 scoop full of chilled batter, until all twelve cookies mimicked the shape of tiny sombreros created from delicious dough.
She put the current batch into oven three. After she set the timer for ten minutes, the oven to her left chimed. When she pulled on the handle, oven two blasted out 375-degree heat and sent an aroma of melted chocolate wafting to her nose. She removed the cookie sheet. Once she set that on a rack to cool, she started the entire process over, using the same steps her grandmother had taught her daughter, Sierra’s mom—who’d showed them to Sierra and her younger sister, Zoe. It had been Zoe’s dream to follow in her mom’s footsteps and be next generation to own the store, and Sierra was glad of it. She’d help out, like she was doing today, but that was enough for her. She’d followed her dad and gone into the Navy.
Tradition meant quality, even if baking this way was slow and cumbersome. Six wall ovens ran simultaneously, baking the two-inch-high chocolate chip cookies that had made Auntie Jayne’s Cookies world famous. Some in town would say the store had helped to put Beaumont’s historic Main Street on the map. Sierra agreed cookies were a tastier draw than the riverside town that had hosted Lewis and Clark’s expedition, or the Woman in White, the town’s resident ghost and current star of this month’s Halloween ghost tours. She’d been sighted for hundreds of years wandering along several blocks of Main Street, including this one. However, Sierra had never seen the famous spirit, nor had her sister, Zoe.
Sierra didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts, even if she had seen some strange things while flying. But it was cookies that commanded her attention today, not unexplainable atmospheric disturbances. Since she’d had a free Saturday afternoon—when lately did she not?—she scooped more dough, satisfied she’d prepared it correctly.
Like life, baking could be unpredictable and temperamental. The dough might not rise correctly for any number of reasons, including Missouri’s fluctuating humidity or a slight temperature differential inside the oven. One or two degrees this way or that could ruin an entire batch. But Sierra enjoyed the challenge of beating the odds. Besides, there was something about creating the cookies the old-fashioned way, or crafting them with love as her mom said. It soothed a weary soul, and Sierra’s could use all the help it could get.
Sierra stirred M&M candies into sugar cookie dough, moving the lever of the commercial stand mixer to speed four. The dough spun, thumped into submission and decadent deliciousness. No wonder her mom called baking therapy. The routine kept Sierra calm and stopped her from climbing the walls as she figured out her next steps. And there was the benefit of a tangible and tasty result.
At age thirty, she hadn’t thought her career choices included baking cookies in her childhood hometown or working at her family’s winery, but here she was. After the crash that ended her career, she’d had nowhere else to go, proverbial tail between her legs.
As a child, she’d loved living here and listening to her dad’s tales of flying fighter jets over the ocean. Beaumont, though, was located in the center of the Midwest, hundreds of miles from the closest ocean shore. The Gulf of Mexico was twelve hours south down Interstate 55 or ninety minutes flight time. Sierra’s zodiac sign—and her soul—demanded she be by water, and the older she grew, the more the Missouri River, rolling along two short blocks to the east of the store, failed to feed Sierra’s soul. For her, the Emerald Coast had been paradise.
On a clear day, she’d fly her jet toward where water met sky, the greens and blues merging along the horizon, at that point where the only way to know which way was right side up was via instrumentation. Flying meant freedom and infinity. That moment, where one element started and the other began, that was when a navy pilot was master of her instruments and destiny. That life had been glorious.
Using more force than necessary, Sierra shoved the mixer lever into the off position. Those heady, deliberate days were done. They’d crashed and burned in a brilliant, blazing fireball that had lit up the Alabama night sky and brought bright orange daylight to a farmer’s blackened field.
She lifted the bowl containing the cookie dough and held it tightly to her apron-covered chest, the pressure stopping her body’s desire to sit down. Inhaling deeply, Sierra concentrated on the task in front of her: grab a fresh scoop. Dip it into the bowl, then drop the cookie dough onto parchment paper. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Calmer, Sierra put the M&M’s candy cookies into an oven, set the timer and began laying out another sheet of parchment paper. Like a phoenix, she’d rise from the literal ashes. Returning to her childhood hometown had seemed a logical choice. Thankfully the well-meaning townsfolk, who knew her dream had died in the wreckage, had stopped giving her sympathetic smiles.
“Hey, Sierra!” Zoe hollered from the front room where she served customers. “We need more sprinkles and chips.”
“Be right out.” Sierra glanced at the digital display ticking down—she had plenty of time to refill the display cases before the cookies needed removing. She swapped out her plastic food-service gloves for a fresh pair. She opened the airtight storage container and removed a previously prepped display tray. Sugar cookies with sprinkles were a perennial favorite of younger kids, like Sierra’s seven-year-old niece, Megan, and Megan’s best friend, Anna Thornburg. In high school, Sierra had been a year behind Anna’s dad, Luke. Luke had married his former high school sweetheart, Shelby, a few weeks ago. Shelby and Sierra had taken flying lessons together before the global adventure photographer had moved to Seattle for college. Now she was back permanently, and the town was delighted the two lovebirds had finally reunited after twelve years apart.
The only thing Sierra wanted to be reunited with was her plane.
But instead of doing loops in her navy-issued T-6B, she shuttled between her mom’s cookie store and her dad’s vineyard. The words honorable discharge tormented her—the papers finalized three months ago, a full year after the accident that clipped her wings. Navy Lieutenant Sierra James was no longer a flight instructor, but rather a civilian with PTSD that often kept her awake at night. When Luke and Shelby climbed into a hot-air balloon during Beaumont’s annual balloon race the last weekend in September, Sierra had suffered a panic attack and needed to leave. The incident, only a few weeks old, remained another ugly reminder of Sierra’s failings.
“Sierra!” Zoe yelled, her urging more insistent.
“Coming!” Irritated by how much her reflexes had dulled since arriving home, Sierra double-fisted two trays through the swinging door and into the front room. About eight people queued in a loose line, waiting for their turn to reach the counter. Two groups, Sierra assessed. Three minutes wait for each, at most. Her sister moved aside and Sierra traded the empty tray of chocolate chip cookies for a fresh, full one. She was in the process of swapping out the sprinkle cookies located on the bottom shelf of the glass display case when she heard a deep, masculine voice calling her name.
“Sierra? Is that you?”
Sierra lifted her hairnet-covered head and peered over the upper shelf. Only years of military training kept her eyes from widening in shock.
Jerk Clayton was standing in her store.