Catoctin Creek Book 2: Snowfall at Catoctin Creek

Catoctin Creek sweet romance series

It’s time to get snowed in at Catoctin Creek…

Nikki Mercer inherited the Blue Plate Diner, Catoctin Creek’s favorite (and only) eatery, with all of its country traditions intact. She’s kept the restaurant running just as it has for generations — and just the way her customers like things. It’s only on her few hours off the clock that Nikki wanders past a certain old house on Main Street and conjures up impossible dreams…and then goes home to cook the wild and delicious recipes that make her heart happy. She wishes she could whip up something new for paying customers, but she knows Catoctin Creek isn’t ready for a change.

Kevin McRae is on the verge of collapse. Desperate for a change, positive he was never cut out for high-stakes investments, he follows his friend Stephen to Catoctin Creek, where the nights are quiet and the work pursuits feel more pure. He’s certain he can rebuild his life into something satisfying away from the gridlock of the city…and living near the fiery Nikki, who captivated him months before, doesn’t hurt. Kevin’s decision to learn horseshoeing and become a farrier surprises everyone who knows him, but when he said he wanted a change, he meant it.

Romance is quick to kindle between these two dreamers, but this relationship isn’t all roses. Nikki believes Catoctin Creek is too deeply rooted in the past to accept her dreams, while Kevin sees opportunity at every turn in town. She makes plans, he leaps without looking. Together, they might build something beautiful—if they can just find a shared vision of the future.

For everyone who fell in love with Catoctin Creek in Book 1, Sunset at Catoctin Creek, here is the return to this charming Maryland town that you’ve been asking for!

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Read the first two chapters below!

Chapter One: Nikki

“Ow, that’s hot!”

Nikki dropped the pan with a resounding crash and rubbed at her burned fingers. What a rookie mistake! It was like she was new in the kitchen or something, instead of a veteran who had been working in the Blue Plate Diner since she was eighteen.

Since she was eighteen…Nikki began to run the math in her head between eighteen and thirty, then stopped herself.

Oof. Don’t think about how many years you’ve been doing this.

She grabbed a couple of towels and picked up the pan she’d dropped, making another clatter as she set it back on the stainless steel countertop. The apple-cheeked cook working next to her paused slicing his onions just long enough to give Nikki a stone-faced glare. “Must you do that now?” he asked, injecting each word with venom.

Nikki held up her hands in surrender. “You’re right, I shouldn’t be in here on Thanksgiving eve. Sorry, Patrick. I just wanted to get a head start on these sweet potatoes for dinner tomorrow.”

Patrick grunted and went back to his carrots.

At the other end of the cramped kitchen, Betty looked up from the silverware she was sluicing clean. A matron of sixty with a youthful face, Betty picked up kitchen shifts at the Blue Plate Diner because she liked to get out of the farmhouse where she’d been cleaning up after an army of children for decades—all of whom were off at school or in the Navy now. “Don’t they need you out on the floor?” she asked.

Nikki forced a smile. No one needed her. Business was slow. “It’s early yet, I think the girls have got it under control.”

Betty shrugged and went back to her dishes.

Nikki sighed and looked around the tight kitchen. As usual, Patrick and Betty had the place running smoothly. From a dinner rush to a crawling afternoon slump, they knew how to pace themselves. The morning crew, Bobby and Michael, were the same. They’d been serving up the same dishes and washing the same plates since Nikki’s Aunt Evelyn had run the Blue Plate. Nikki’s job, for the past five years, had been to make sure she signed the purchase orders and make sure the paychecks went out on time.

No one seemed to know just how little she was needed here.

She hoped no one ever found out.

The only employees at the Blue Plate who actually needed managing were the dinner-shift servers. A revolving collection of teenagers with no good sense, her dinner waitresses could keep her hopping on a busy evening. And out on the floor, where she wasn’t in Patrick’s hair.

So to speak.

Nikki noticed his shoulders were still up near his ears and tried to apologize again. “I’ll be more quiet. This is your kitchen.”

Patrick snorted and ran a hand over his pink scalp. He’d never had much hair, but spending two decades in the steamy kitchen of a country diner had pretty much done in whatever he’d started with. Nikki wasn’t sure how old Patrick actually was; she’d always thought of him as her aunt’s contemporary, and Aunt Evelyn had moved to Arizona at the age of sixty, leaving Nikki the Blue Plate and a legacy she felt responsible for upholding.

The diner was a pillar of Catoctin Creek. An ugly mid-century brick pillar, with staring plate-glass windows around the dining room and country decor so old it had gone from cheesy to kitsch to museum collection, but a pillar nonetheless. The other eateries on Main Street, the soda fountain and the ice cream parlor and Mama Bella’s Italian Ristorante, had all closed up years ago. Catoctin Creek’s boom years were a hundred years in the rear-view mirror. The Blue Plate, Trout’s Market, and the feed store were the only commerce left in town.

With that kind of failure rate, Nikki wasn’t about to make any sudden moves and change the place. Or annoy the kitchen staff until they decided life was greener on the other side of retirement, like Aunt Evelyn had done. Nikki was fine with helping out on the floor. Talking to the restaurant patrons, most of whom she’d known for years from school or church or just living in such a tiny polka-dot of a town. But the cooking? Nikki loved to cook. Adored cooking. Spent hours in her apartment’s kitchen tinkering with flavors, toying with textures. Working in the Blue Plate kitchen would suck her spirit dry.

Whipping up the same old pot roast, meatloaf, fried chicken, and pan-fried trout every night sounded like her worst nightmare. The gravy-forward country cooking was all delicious in its own way, tasting of Friday nights celebrating good grades, Sundays after church, and the occasional weeknight when both farm chores and work ran late and her mom couldn’t beat the clock to get dinner on the table before bedtime. But Nikki’s tastes—and her cooking habits—ran far more modern than anything on the Blue Plate menu.

So she had to behave herself in her staff’s kitchen. Never give them any reason to walk out on her.

Not like Kevin.

Nikki ground her teeth and started looking for a spare few inches of counter. She needed to work. She couldn’t stand here and think. If she had too much time on her hands, she’d fixate on Kevin all afternoon. She needed work.

Work, and an affirmation.

You put too much stock in one guy, and now you need to get over him.

Plain and simple, to the point. Nikki took a deep breath. She was new to affirmations, but she was very good at making action plans. And now she needed one.

Action plan, Nikki. What needed handling right now?

The sweet potatoes, of course. Tomorrow she was celebrating Thanksgiving at Notch Gap Farm with her best friend Rosemary, and Rosemary’s husband Stephen, and she was responsible for the sweet potato casserole. She could make it at home in the morning, but the flavors would be better if it sat overnight. Plus, she needed the distraction.

Nikki shoved some loose curls of auburn hair beneath her white kerchief and tried again to give herself a little prep space in the shoebox kitchen. This time, Patrick obligingly moved a few feet out of her way, perhaps trying to avoid another flying pan if she burned herself a second time. Patrick: a silent, but astute man.

“Hey Nikki, you want some extra carrots to take to your dinner?” he asked, dumping the orange carrot coins into boiling water. “We got enough for the dinner rush and then some. They reheat just fine.”

“No thanks. You take them,” Nikki replied, smiling quickly. “You and Betty. I have a new recipe for carrots I’m going to try making tomorrow morning, before dinner.”

Patrick shrugged, supremely indifferent to her special new recipes. “Don’t know why you want to add anything special to carrots. They’re fine with just some salt, maybe a little pepper. Sweet and savory, carrots.”

“I know, you’re right. I’m just feeling creative, I guess. Can’t mess them up with a little honey, maybe some bourbon, right?”

Patrick grimaced in a way which suggested he found messing up carrots to be all too possible. He rubbed his hands on his grimy white shirt and leaned across the stove-top to nurse along some boiling green beans.

Privately, Nikki thought those boiled, squishy green beans were the most vile thing imaginable. The last time she’d eaten green beans, they’d been dressed in a vinaigrette and topped with feta cheese. Delicious. That had been in the privacy of her own home, of course. She was pretty sure if she put feta on the Blue Plate menu, her regulars would start a prayer circle for her soul. Green beans were boiled until soft, then heavily salted at the table. That was how they were eaten. Carrots? Pretty much the same.

Green beans and carrots: how drastically her taste buds had changed over the years! The Blue Plate served the classics she’d grown up on, the daughter of a truck-driver and a kindergarten teacher, and the granddaughter of farmers on both sides. As a child, nothing was better than snuggling into a corner booth of Aunt Evelyn’s diner for a chicken drumstick, a scoop of mashed potatoes, and a pile of those soggy green beans. Then, as a teenager, one very impassioned home economics teacher had awakened her passion for blending flavors, and Nikki had been developing into what her mother described as a “total food snob” ever since.

Nikki had washed off the masher and begun the assault on her bowl of sweet potatoes when the door from the dining room swung open. Lauren, a recent high school grad whom Nikki had been grooming into her assistant manager, poked her sleek head into the kitchen.  Her chocolate-brown hair was coiffed into a perfect bun, like a ballet dancer’s. Nikki couldn’t understand how the kids got their hair so smooth. Her own curls were like springs attached to her scalp. She’d love, just once, to have elegantly straight hair.

“Nikki, phone call,” Lauren lilted. “I think it’s your mom.”

“Good grief,” Nikki muttered, putting down the masher and forgetting all about her hair. “Now? She knows I’m at work.” 

“It’s not busy out here,” Lauren offered. “You can talk. No one else is calling.”

“I am aware it isn’t busy. That’s why I’m making my sweet potato casserole now.” Nikki sighed as she accepted the cordless phone, an old-fashioned model which usually lived on the restaurant’s front podium along with the menus and the crayons for restless children. “Hello, Mom.”

“Nikki! I’m so sorry to call you at dinner! But I just missed you so much. Everyone is here for Thanksgiving but you.”

Ever since Nikki’s mother had followed her sister to Arizona, she made a plaintive phone call to her distant daughter on major holidays. In between the bold-faced days on the calendar, Nikki initiated all of their phone calls. For much of the year, her mother seemed happy enough having Nikki’s elder sister, aunt, and father all gathered together in the same clay-hued town. Nikki became an afterthought—out of sight, out of mind.

This was becoming her default position in life, she thought ruefully, perching the phone on her shoulder and cocking her neck to hold it there. She went back to mashing sweet potatoes with her freed hands. “I hope you all have a very nice Thanksgiving,” she told her mother. “I’m thinking of you.”

“You should be here. You couldn’t close the diner or let someone else be in charge for a few days?”

“Now’s not the time for the guilt, Mom,” Nikki replied stonily. Steam rose from the potatoes, bathing her face. “It’s too late to get a flight out there.” Not that she’d ever considered going, of course. She still filled an essential role in the diner, even if it was largely signing off on requests or chasing down the dinner servers.

Who would run the Blue Plate if she went on a trip? Things did happen. There were ice storms, broken pipes, missing shipments, medical emergencies. Who would handle the unexpected? The stick-in-the-mud kitchen staff who never left their greasy kingdom? The flighty teenaged night-shift servers who didn’t show up if they suddenly realized they had a paper to write, or snagged a last-minute date? The ancient, grizzled morning servers who wouldn’t have stayed past three in the afternoon even if Nikki offered them a bonus in gold coins?

Maybe Lauren? Nikki reflected suddenly. Not yet. Lauren was too new at the management gig to be running this place with Nikki in another time zone.

No, the Blue Plate only closed on major holidays, and this rule wasn’t changing anytime soon. Nikki left the place to Lauren on Sunday and Monday nights, but that was as far as she was willing to go right now. Someday, Lauren would take more weight onto her shoulders and let Nikki dabble in her own culinary dreams—and perhaps even take a vacation—but they weren’t there yet.

Nikki’s mother made a fussy sort of exhalation. “I get that you can’t come this time, but for Christmas, Nikki, come on—”

“Maybe,” Nikki said, knowing she wouldn’t be able to go to Arizona for Christmas. “Maybe then.”

When the call ended, she stood still for a long moment, looking into the depths of her sweet potato mash, before taking the phone back out to Lauren. The world on the other side of the swinging door was cozy and warm, a mile away from the cramped, fluorescent-lit kitchen.

She glanced around at the evening’s early supper trade. A few early bird diners were settled comfortably in the booths along the windows, but most of the tables in the center of the dining room were still empty. Well, it was early yet—six o’clock was when the farmers began to finish up and head inside for a shower, and the commuters were just arriving back in Catoctin Creek after spending their day in city offices. Not that many of the newcomers to the area ate here, but the long-term residents who had turned from farming to steady indoor jobs still brought the family back to the diner where they’d eaten as kids. The dinner rush was generally from six-thirty to just before eight, when the Open sign on the door was flipped to Closed.

Or so a normal weekday’s dinner service would run, anyway. On the day before Thanksgiving, all bets were off. Last-minute runs to the grocery store, long drives to grandma’s house, or trips to the Caribbean—the Blue Plate would probably have a quiet night while the residents of Catoctin Creek prepared for the holiday in their own ways.

Lauren glanced up from her smartphone as Nikki dropped the landline phone back on its charger. The young woman ran a hand over her smooth hair, as if checking for flyaways. Nikki’s wild hair had that effect on people. She looked over at Lauren, so slim under her loose black blouse and impossibly skinny jeans. Nikki was still pretty much rail-thin, so she didn’t resent Lauren or the other skinny high school girls on the night staff, but the older women who worked the day shift couldn’t stand them. Mom jeans and elastic-banded khakis were their favored uniforms for the hard work of pouring coffee and bussing syrupy plates. Nikki wondered if she’d ever make that switch herself. She stuck her thumb in the snug waist of her jeans, considering the fit. It still worked…for now.

Thirty, she thought. Going on sixty.

“So, is your mom doing okay?” Lauren asked.

“Yeah, just feeling guilty she left me here when she moved across the country to bask in the desert sun.” Nikki shrugged and bared her teeth in an attempted grin. “The usual holiday phone call.”

“That must be tough.” Lauren dragged a damp towel across a laminated menu. “I can’t even imagine. My entire family lives in Catoctin Creek. Well, except my brother. But he just lives in Frederick. I’ll probably move there, too, when I finally move out of my parents’ house.”

Nikki raised a slanting eyebrow. At least her eyebrows were good, slender and arching, dark to match her deep auburn hair. She didn’t have any lines in her forehead yet, either. Little blessings. “A whole half-hour away? Really? Why so daring?”

Lauren laughed, abashed. “I know, I know. But why would I leave the area? My friend Kristi talks about going to D.C. or maybe New York for college…I just don’t see it, personally. I like it up here. It’s not crowded. And I like the mountains.” She glanced out the front windows, as if they could see the hazy blue humps of the Catoctin Mountains looming behind the two-story buildings across Main Street. Sunset was long past, though. “This is a good place, you know? We just need more to do here.”

Catoctin Creek was a good place. That was why Nikki stayed, too. Even though she had only inherited an old restaurant built in the sixties, and not an elegant red-brick Victorian with a turret and wrap-around porch like the house where Lauren had grown up, she could feel her roots here, tugging at her every time she chanced going too far away.

Though just a few cross-streets around the quiet commerce of Main Street, Catoctin Creek had the bones of a more memorable country town: a village of modest frame houses and a few aging mansions from nineteenth-century farmers who’d managed to make small fortunes. Sadly, most of the houses were falling into disrepair. Catoctin Creek had ceased to be a place where people raised their families. It was a place people left.

Those who didn’t leave ate dinner at the Blue Plate and went quietly about their business. Nikki watched them pick at their plates of country-fried steak and their bowls of chicken noodle soup, and then gazed into the darkness outside, dreaming her own personal little fantasy: a big house with deep verandas, the kind of place where she could set up a restaurant very different from her little diner.

She knew exactly where she wanted to put her dream restaurant: the old Schubert place. The elegant Queen Anne sat at the edge of the little town, aloof on a sloping lawn above Main Street, shaded by stately elm trees. She had fond memories of that porch: she used to sneak onto it and ride on the porch swing when she was a kid. The elderly Schubert couple hadn’t minded her, but her mother had swatted her a few times for using that swing without permission.

The Schuberts passed away a few years back and the house sat empty now. Nikki slipped onto the porch and peered inside from time to time. The enormous windows, stripped of their heavy curtains, gaped lonesomely, and sunlight slanted across dusty hardwood floors. She always reassured herself that the ceilings were still intact, no mice were nibbling at the wainscoting. Just in case she could somehow acquire a lease, or even buy the place—but that was impossible. The Schubert children had long since left Catoctin Creek, but as far as she knew, the house had never even gone on the market.

The bells on the restaurant door jingled as another elderly couple paid their bill and left. Nikki watched them shuffle to their car. Martin and Shelly Wolf, who had farmed north of town for years. Their fields were fallow now, their barn collapsing, but they still lived in their old wooden farmhouse, watching the seasons change around them.

“That’s what happens when you don’t leave,” Nikki murmured.

“Is that good or bad?” Lauren asked.

“I can’t say for sure.”

“Seriously, though, you wouldn’t leave Catoctin Creek, would you, Nikki?” Lauren asked. “I mean, I know your family did. But that must have been weird. Arizona.” Lauren shook her head at the impossible oddity of it all.

Restless, Nikki picked up a menu and a wet towel from the bleach bucket. She might as well clean menus, keep her hands busy. “Well, no one exactly gave up the family homestead when they moved. The Mercer farm was sold a long time ago. My dad didn’t want to be a farmer. And…I guess once it was gone, people didn’t feel so rooted here. My parents figured they raised their family here, and that was enough. My aunt didn’t have kids, so family wasn’t even an issue for her. Nothing was really tying her down.”

“But, are you going to raise your family here?”

“Where? In my apartment? That used to be the McKinley’s garage? In fact, before that it was the McKinley’s carriage house. My bed is in the old hay-loft.” Nikki had always seen herself bringing up two kids, a boy and a girl, in a big house with shining hardwood floors and a wraparound porch—a house like the Schubert place. “I couldn’t wedge a family into my place.”

“I guess you could move,” Lauren pointed out with a pert little snort, which was as close as she’d come to sarcasm on the clock.

“You going to make me say it, Lauren? I’m short on a mate to make the kids with, too.”

Lauren laughed. “Okay, that’s fair. But you’re gorgeous and funny and run your own business. I’m sure you could find a guy who wants to have babies with you.” She paused and glanced at Nikki speculatively. “Unless you’re just looking for a sperm donor. In which case, what are you waiting for?”

Nikki heard Mrs. Babson choke on her green beans. “Okay, enough of this,” she hissed. “I’m not looking for anything, as a matter of fact. Not a man, not a woman, and definitely not any children of my own.”

“What do you want, then?” Lauren asked, undeterred. “I mean, I love working here, but we both get it’s not my career. I realize you own the place, and that makes leaving hard, but don’t you want something else?”

Nikki wondered when teenagers had gotten so concerned with other people’s business. This new generation was way too in touch with feelings. Not just their feelings, either. They wanted to experience everyone else’s feelings, too. Nikki would rather not think about her own feelings, and she definitely didn’t want anyone else to notice them. This went for every hope and dream and sorrow she had, from her absent family to her frustrated cooking ambitions to that jerk, Kevin, who had gone back to New York City after Rosemary and Stephen’s wedding and hadn’t been back here since.

Him, most of all. On Nikki’s list of frustrations, what could come higher than Kevin? Dancing with her at the wedding, kissing her softly on her lips, telling her she was beautiful.

Vanishing without a word.

It wasn’t like Kevin had been hit by a bus or something, either. No, he was just fine! Stephen went to New York City for work occasionally and saw him there, but the last time she’d had the nerve to ask about him, Stephen had told Nikki that Kevin was, quote, “Pretty busy with work stuff.” Nikki figured this answer meant he wasn’t interested in her, after all.

Which was fine. She wasn’t about to moon over some guy she barely knew, some guy she’d found hopelessly attractive because of his fox-colored hair and his kind eyes and his silly sense of humor. Sure, she liked redheads, and she was a sucker for a sweet and soft personality, but Nikki Mercer would not waste her time chasing a guy who lived three hours away and liked it that way.

“I’m doing fine as I am,” she told Lauren. “And since it’s still dead out here, I’m going back to the kitchen.” She’d find something else to cook, or clean, if Patrick and Betty didn’t chase her out first.

“Fine,” Lauren retorted. “Don’t tell me. But we both know you’re looking for something better…even if you won’t admit it out loud.”

Chapter Two: Kevin

“Come on. Let me move in,” Kevin wheedled, fixing Rosemary with a pleading look. His mother had always told him he had eyes which could beg like a basset hound. He was going to use that talent today. “Let me stay here forever and never go back to the mean old city.”

Rosemary just shook her head and laughed at him before she bent over the oven again, checking her pies. The farmhouse kitchen smelled exactly as one would imagine it should on Thanksgiving eve: spicy and sweet, the air filled with cinnamon and caramelizing sugar. Kevin’s own kitchen had never smelled this good. Granted, he rarely cooked anything more intoxicating than toast in it. The gleaming marble counters and stainless steel appliances of his condo with Midtown and East River views were more for showing off at parties than for actual cooking. The rare meal eaten at home came from delivery guys.

“Really, Rosemary, I’ll shrivel up and die if I go back to New York City. My condo hates me. My job hates me. The entire city hates me.”

Rosemary didn’t turn around, but he could see her ears move. She was smiling. “I bet it’s more likely the city doesn’t think about you at all, right? Isn’t that the problem with New York? It’s nothing personal. It’s not you—it’s them. And no, you can’t move in. That’s final. I love you, but I’m not looking for a roommate, and neither is my husband.”

Cruel creature! Kevin thought dramatically. He liked to be dramatic sometimes, in his head. Adding some old-fashioned verbiage to his mental monologue made his life, which never seemed to be moving on a trajectory of his choosing, feel more exciting. He wasn’t actually dramatic, or exciting, in real life. He was a very normal guy—possibly too normal. In truth, his normality was the cause of all his problems, from career to love.

Rosemary wasn’t actually cruel, of course. She was a sweetheart. Rosemary was his best friend Stephen’s wife, a perfect gem of a human, and if she didn’t want Kevin to move into her beautiful farmhouse with herself and Stephen, he’d respect her decision. But not without just a little moaning. She had to know he was dead serious about the whole thing: moving to Catoctin Creek, abandoning his New York life, starting all over again here. Hell, it had worked for Stephen. And he and Stephen were like brothers.

Ergo, it would work for him.

Kevin ran his hands through his red-gold hair, which was falling into his eyes as usual, and concentrated on smiling just as hard as he could at Rosemary until she turned around and saw his face.

She burst out laughing, and her dark hair came loose from its bun, swinging in front of her face. “Kevin, I have faith you can figure out this move without taking up my spare bedroom or eating me out of house and home. I already have eight horses doing that, plus Stephen. And he’s honestly a bigger expense than I expected. Thank God he pays his own way.”

“Stephen! Pah!” The drama was vocal this time. Kevin raked a hand through his hair. He needed a haircut again—he always needed a haircut, it seemed like. Then again, the drooping locks might give him a more sympathetic look—a kind of elegant, desperate poet, he hoped. His green eyes glittered at the idea. “Look here, Rosemary. Let’s be real. Stephen eats like a bird. I’ll eat like a smaller bird. And I’ll pay your room and board—I’ll pay for half the groceries.”

“You’re going to pay me? With what?” Rosemary turned her back on Kevin with a grin and a swish of her long paisley skirt. “You’re wrong about Stephen, by the way. He eats more than you think.”

Kevin subsided, watching her work at the uneven wooden countertops. She was dressed for a chilly day in a drafty house, wearing wool-lined house clogs, the aforementioned skirt, and a long sweater. Kevin thought she looked just like a good witch. A young, spritely good witch, who seduced her customers into her cottage with smiles and apple pies.

Well, she had certainly enchanted Stephen. What had started last winter as a little vacation fling—well, not exactly a vacation, as Stephen had come down to Maryland to settle his father’s estate and get his detoured life back on track—had turned into a happy marriage. The two of them had been married since September. Hard to believe that pretty autumn day was nearly three months ago, and harder still to believe that was the last time Kevin had come down from the city.

For all of those months since he’d been dreaming of nothing but coming back to Catoctin Creek: the sunsets, the silence, the serenity, and the sweet vixen of a bride’s best friend. Nikki. He was pretty sure Stephen had made the right choice in marrying a local girl and settling down on a farm in the middle of nowhere, even if their mutuals in New York City had lost their collective minds. Stephen’s move had been the main subject at every dinner party, get-together, and after-work drink for weeks after the wedding announcement. Kevin had been faced with the unenviable task of explaining his best friend’s escape from New York at dozens of gatherings.

But even with such intimate knowledge of Stephen’s wooing and wedding, Kevin was not so certain he’d manage the same stunt. For one thing, Stephen had managed to find work which was almost entirely remote; he only had to go up to New York once or twice a month for client meetings, contract signings, that kind of thing. Kevin was still expected to show up at his office daily, or, at the very least, be ready at a moment’s notice to cross the Queensborough Bridge and make it to Manhattan boardrooms for presentations and evaluations. Managing investments sounded like it should be a virtual job, but for some reason the gig seemed to require an awful lot of in-house work.

And of course, Stephen had seen no trouble in leasing out his prewar apartment just off Riverside Drive, even if it was a walk-up. Kevin, on the other hand, had paid new construction prices for a floor-to-ceiling view of Midtown from a skinny glass tower in Queens, but the building wasn’t sold out yet, rendering his attempt to sell the apartment and the units he’d invested in completely futile. Why buy Kevin’s lived-in spaces when an oligarch or an influencer or another investment banker could get something completely sterile and new?

To make matters worse, word had spread around NYC’s real estate circles—which was to say all circles, as everyone talked incessantly about real estate—of the needle-slim building’s single most nauseating flaw. High-floor views of the city were great; the motions of a tall tower in a strong wind were not. Even the silvery glow of the Citibank Building outside his windows each night seemed a cold comfort while his living room swayed ominously through summer storms and autumn gales. On gusty nights, Kevin clung to the cold marble counters and dreamed of the stable, solid earth of Catoctin Creek.

And here he was—for as long as he could manage it. Kevin leaned back in a creaking old kitchen chair and sighed. He loved the Notch Gap Farm kitchen, so old-fashioned and peaceful. Vintage wallpaper on the walls, creaking floorboards at his feet, a window of wavy old glass overlooking the pastures and the sloping foothills beneath Notch Gap at the far end. Rosemary moaned that the space hadn’t been updated since her grandmother’s day, but Kevin privately believed any improvements to the mismatched cupboards and cabinets would be criminal.

He watched her pick up a little tin box of recipe cards. “What are you going to make next, Rosemary?” 

She’d already baked an apple pie and a pumpkin, and he had designs on whatever was coming out of that oven next. No one’s stomach could withstand the delightful smells floating around that kitchen. He had eaten half a sub and an entire bag of potato chips on the drive down from New York, but ten seconds in Rosemary’s kitchen and he felt like he hadn’t eaten in days.

“I’m leaning towards green beans,” Rosemary said, flicking through the yellowed cards. “They’ll reheat well tomorrow.”

“The green beans with crunchy onions on top?”

“No, those are gross.”

“How can you think crunchy onions are gross? Does Stephen know this? Was it mentioned in the wedding vows?”

“Nikki says green bean casserole with crunchy onions is a crime against humanity and side-dishes,” Rosemary replied, casting him an arch glance.

Kevin had been trying to keep Nikki out of his thoughts. A fool’s errand, no doubt. With her wild coils of dark auburn hair, skinny legs, and a tightly wound personality which he found delightfully different from his own devil-may-care attitude, Nikki’s presence was always a plus for him when he was visiting Notch Gap Farm. A very big plus.

At the wedding, they’d steamed up the downstairs bathroom. She’d seemed on the verge of inviting him back to her place—so he’d driven back to New York before she had time to make a move she’d ultimately regret. Nikki wasn’t a one-nighter to him, a bridesmaid to bag while everyone was feeling the pinch of being single at a best friend’s wedding. There was something special there, something he wasn’t going to wreck by making an impulsive move.

Kevin hadn’t gone home without a plan. He’d driven back to New York with nothing on his mind but the idea of returning to Catoctin Creek to properly court Nikki.

So he’d put his head down and worked like a dog for two months straight, doing everything he could to strengthen his position at work, only to be refused remote work yet again. He’d talked to every real estate agent representing property in western Queens. He’d cold-called headhunters. He’d even asked Stephen if there were openings on his team. He’d chased down every idea he could cook up in the attempt to make his life more portable, instead of being locked down in the city.

Because the simple truth was that he couldn’t have Nikki if he couldn’t stay in Catoctin Creek. She was just as devoted to this little town as Rosemary, and look where that had landed Stephen! He was outside checking the horses’ water buckets right now. You’d never know the guy was an investment genius. He’d traded the Financial District for feeding horses, and there was no regret on his face when he came inside smelling of manure and mud.

Kevin wanted that. He wanted all of it: the girl and the town and the dirt under his fingernails. He wanted people to look up when he walked into a restaurant—even if that restaurant was only the Blue Plate, not a Soho bistro—and he wanted to sit down after a hard day’s work and know he’d done something real with the hours he’d been allotted. Even remote work was losing its allure. The more he made money for other people, the more Kevin wished he wasn’t.

Kevin couldn’t seem to buy Stephen’s kind of luck, the fortune which had granted him income, a loving wife, a meaningful life. He had done all that work, and stayed away from Nikki all that time, and nothing had come from any of it. No headhunters called him back. No real estate agents had managed to make his condo budge on the glutted luxury market. He was stuck.

The chief problem, of course, was that he wasn’t good at his job. Not the way Stephen was, anyway. Stephen had managed to find dream work: lenient bosses, worthwhile clients, and virtual meetings. He’d gotten this kind of job because he was damn good at investments. Kevin was just doing the job he’d had since graduating from college, and ten years at a job might buy you forgiveness, but not mobility.

Still, he had a little in savings. He’d already pooled all his vacation time and taken leave from his job. Every realtor in New York City had the code to his condos. He was here to rip off the Band-Aid, start a new life, or die trying.

But if Rosemary would not let him stay here, he had to figure out a new place to crash.

And it was hard to focus when Nikki was on his mind.

Rosemary was still smiling at him, waiting for a reaction to her little bomb.

“I guess Nikki and I differ on green beans,” Kevin said finally, leaving out the thousand and one thoughts which surfaced from just mentioning her name.

Rosemary pulled out an index card and studied the crabby old handwriting on it. “You know, Nikki asks about you all the time,” she said breezily.

Kevin looked down at the tabletop and traced a knot in the wood grain with one finger. “She does, does she?” That was nice. It was nice to be asked after. Didn’t mean anything. Didn’t mean she wasn’t mad at him for leaving, or that she wasn’t seeing someone else. A nice farmer, perhaps, with a hundred acres and a mooing cow for each of them.

“She says we don’t see enough of you down here. And I agree. You should visit more.”

“Well, I was trying to work things out with the job, the condo, all of that. And it just wouldn’t come together. That’s why I asked you if I could stay here,” he added. “I’m really not trying to be an imposition, I’m just trying to figure my life out so I can make some headway with Nikki. I can’t do it from New York.”

And she really was at the heart of all of this. There was no brand-new, sparkling Kevin without Nikki at his side. If she didn’t want him, he might as well stay in Queens, up all night as his bed swayed in the wind, and keep making half-assed decisions at a job he didn’t care about.

Rosemary pushed the recipe tin back to its spot beside the rooster-shaped cookie jar. She turned and faced Kevin, a serious expression replacing her usual serenity. “Kevin, are you going to do this for real, or just halfway? If this is the real thing, I’m sure Stephen would let you stay in the brick house. Just ask him.”

Kevin considered the brick house. That’s what they’d taken to calling the house Stephen had inherited from his father. The ugly little rancher sat on a hill about ten minutes away from Notch Gap Farm, with a big square of green lawn and a magnificent view of the Catoctin Mountains and Notch Gap, the dip where two mountains in the chain sat shoulder to shoulder. Stephen’s father had enjoyed spectacular sunset views from that house, and Stephen had enjoyed them himself until he’d moved down to Notch Gap Farm just before the wedding. Now, the house sat empty, while Stephen tried to decide what to do with it.

Kevin considered the brick house’s few charms. The view was sensational, the furnace worked, the location was remote but somewhat close to the farm, and Stephen had at least updated the furniture while he’d lived there. It wasn’t quite as depressing as it had been the first time Kevin had stayed there, back when he’d first come to Catoctin Creek. The day he’d met Nikki.

The day he’d known, without really understanding it, that his life had changed.

Maybe there was a chance here. “You really think he’d let me stay there?”

“Of course he would. You’re his best friend.”

“He might want to rent it out, or sell it.” In Kevin’s experience, friendship came second to the demands of real estate. Stephen was still a New Yorker, after all.

“He hasn’t decided yet. If you beat him to the punch, he’ll say yes to you.” Rosemary dug a casserole dish out of a cabinet with a deafening clatter. “I know he’d say yes to you. Even if he already had some idea about selling it. Go on, ask him when he comes in from the barn.”

“You’re probably right,” Kevin mused. “If you convinced Stephen to help take care of your horses so you don’t have to go out in the cold, I can convince him to let me stay in his empty house.”

Rosemary laughed.

The front door opened and closed with a thunk of stuck wood. “I gotta fix that door,” a voice mumbled from down the hall.

Rosemary winked at Kevin. “He doesn’t know how to fix that door,” she whispered.

“Neither do I,” Kevin whispered back, grinning. “We’re worthless city people.”

“I can hear you,” Stephen called. “Strange acoustics in this hallway.”

“Whoops,” Rosemary giggled, that charming little bubble of laughter of hers that had driven Stephen crazy when he was chasing her. Kevin remembered the way Stephen used to talk about her, like she was a siren and an angel all at once. He’d listened amiably enough; he was a nice enough guy to be happy for his friend…but he’d been envious, too. He wanted that feeling—the hungry, trembling rush of falling in love. When he looked at Nikki, he really believed he was almost there. She did something to him, something that might be the prelude to falling in love, as if he was slipping at the edge of a deep pool, half-hoping he’d just tumble in.

If he could just stay a while, he could find out what the water was like.

“Okay. I’m going to ask him,” Kevin told Rosemary. “Wish me luck.”

“What are we asking me?” Stephen appeared in the kitchen door, his face pink with cold. “It’s freezing out there. Rosemary, I know you say it never snows before the New Year, but damn. Feels like a white Thanksgiving to me.”

“No such thing,” she said, turning back to her green beans. “Stephen, Kev has a question for you.”

“If you’d like to fix the front door, you don’t have to ask,” Stephen declared. “Be my guest.” He shrugged off his quilted plaid shirt, revealing a much more elegant French blue button-down beneath it. Kevin grinned. Stephen still sported his tailored office wear around the farmhouse like he was going to be called up in front of a boardroom at any moment. Kevin’s own ensemble was much more country: he tugged on flannel shirts and jeans the moment he left New York.

Now he ran a finger along the soft cuff of his blue-and-white plaid shirt, nervously fingering a loose thread around the button. Of course Stephen would let him stay…it was just the asking that was hard. “I was wondering if you’d let me have the brick house for a little while—to stay in, I mean. To see if I can figure out something down here.”

Stephen lifted an eyebrow. “To rent?”

“No. I can’t rent it.” It was painful to admit. The investment in Excelsior East had been a supposed slam dunk. He should have known by the stupid name it was a failure waiting to happen. “Not until one of the condos sells. I can’t afford another payment. I have enough in savings to keep my mortgage paid, but that’s it.” His last year’s bonus was still sitting in the bank, too. He could manage making payments on the condos without a job for another six months—and it just had to sell in the next six months, didn’t it?

Stephen poured himself a cup of coffee. He gestured questioningly with the pot, and Kevin nodded. Rosemary handed down another mug from the cabinet. Kevin liked the way everything between them was a team effort, with no words required.

“But,” Stephen began, setting the mugs down on the table. He rubbed at his stubbled chin. “Not that I don’t want to help you, but, can I ask why?”

Rosemary slammed the refrigerator door with unnecessary force.

“It’s okay,” Kevin said. “I guess I thought you knew.”

Stephen slid into the chair across from him. “I know you were trying to get out of the city. Any reason you can’t wait another minute? At least until your condo sells, and you find another job?”

Kevin took a swallow of coffee, considering the question. He might have said a lot of things, like: I’m terrible at my job and it’s starting to show, or, I feel like I’m living someone else’s version of life, or even, I just want to sleep through the night without dreaming I’m on a sinking ship. He could have said all of those things, and they would have been true, if they would just make it past his cold lips.

But Stephen and Rosemary didn’t need to hear all of that. It was a holiday, for heaven’s sake. So Kevin smiled and said, “I just really need a fresh start right now. And I’d like to see more of Nikki.”

Stephen nodded knowingly. “Well, fine. You can have it. I owe you one, taking a hit on the Long Pond investment like that. The least I can do is let you stay in the brick house.”

Kevin drew in a shaky breath. “You don’t have to worry about that,” he managed to say. “We did the best thing we could with Long Pond.”

Rosemary smiled over her shoulder at him. “You really did. Both of you. I know it didn’t end the way you expected, but I appreciate it.”

“I’m glad we saved the Kelbaugh farm,” Stephen agreed. “But I promised Kev a huge return on that investment, and when we shifted gears from subdivision to boarding school, the huge part went away. Sometimes I think the return part is going to vanish, too. I had no idea it would take this long to get a deal through.”

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Rosemary said soothingly. “What’s important is the contracts are signed and you’ll get paid eventually and Long Pond will be a beautiful girls’ school instead of a bunch of McMansions.”

And Stephen gets you as the perfect wife, Kevin added privately. There was no way anything would have lasted between Rosemary and Stephen if his friend had gone ahead with his original plan to turn the farm next door into a subdivision. Rosemary loved Long Pond too much to see it flattened, even if the elderly couple who had lived there, and served as her surrogate family after her parents died, had used the sale money to move to Florida for a warm and sunny retirement.

“So that’s settled,” Stephen said. “You’re moving in.” He took a long pull of coffee. “I can’t wait to see Nikki’s reaction to that.”

Rosemary flicked Stephen on the back of the head.

Kevin just leaned back in his chair, considering the next few days. He was pretty interested in Nikki’s reaction, too.

Suddenly, he couldn’t wait one more minute to see her.

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