The crisp months of autumn are flying by and Catoctin Creek is booming, thanks to new businesses and the support of Caitlin Tuttle, human whirlwind and real estate investor. The new girl’s school has opened at Long Pond, bringing an influx of visitors and shoppers on weekends. Nikki’s bakery is thriving, Rosemary’s horse education classes are keeping her busy, and Nadine and Sean are settling into a rhythm running the school riding program. Things seem perfect—and the schedule is full!
So when Rosemary’s farm is suddenly asked to take in twelve rescue horses, the town rallies to support them with plans for a Christmas carnival such as Catoctin Creek hasn’t put on in forty years. There will music, rides, food, and more. It’s an exciting next step in the town’s comeback story.
But there are also secrets in town: a missing hiker making headlines, a reporter from Virginia with a secret agenda, and a long-lost friend intent on locking himself away in his family’s old mansion. When Kelly O’Connell comes to town in search of answers about the woman who went missing in the Catoctin Mountains, she has more than one run-in with reclusive William Cunningham – and something between them might just spark.
This book features multiple POV chapters, with storylines featuring Nadine, Nikki, Rosemary, and others, including some new friends you’ll love welcoming into your life!
Read the first chapter of Christmas at Catoctin Creek now!
Chapter One: Rosemary
“Twelve horses!” Rosemary stared at Ethel Hauffmann in dismay. “You’re sure there are twelve?”
“D’you think I miscounted?” The older woman gave Rosemary a sharp look. Then she shrugged her bony shoulders and glanced back at the dilapidated barn behind her. As if the inhabitants knew they were being watched, a thin whinny floated from the open door. “You don’t want ’em?”
Rosemary felt her heart twist at that hungry neigh. Of course she wanted them—Rosemary had never seen a horse she didn’t want. That was one of the reasons she’d started an equine sanctuary at her family farm in the first place. And these twelve horses were in need, with no one to stand up for them. She couldn’t say no, but…
Her farm was full. Her barn didn’t have a single spare stall, and while she might have left horses outside in fields for a few more weeks, winter was coming on. These horses were in no condition to take on freezing rain and bitter north winds. And what about when the first snowflakes fell?
“Well, I don’t know who else’ll take ’em,” Ethel went on, her tone matter-of-fact. “They’re all hungry. Dunno when’s they last ate anything besides hay.”
“What a nightmare.” Shaking her head, Rosemary looked around, as if she might spot a way out of this mess in the jungle of overgrowth surrounding the tumbledown barn, or maybe in the dark fir trees ringing the dilapidated brick farmhouse a short distance away.
But there was no comfort to be found on the old Wayne homestead. The bleak farm stretching around them was always desolate, but even more so on this gray November day. Rosemary had only been here once or twice; as a child, her mother and Mrs. Wayne had shared some duties on various church committees. Even then, the childless Waynes had been secretive and wary of visitors getting in their business. Her mother had warned her that even a big-hearted farming community like Catoctin Creek, there would be a few loners who wanted to be left alone. Best to just respect them, she’d advised her wide-eyed daughter. Don’t ask too many questions.
So she hadn’t, but now Rosemary wished she’d asked a few more questions before she’d answered Ethel’s request to meet her at the old Wayne farm. She’d been planning on going into Frederick and doing a little Christmas shopping, maybe picking up some new twinkle lights for the barn and front porch. With November blowing in so gray and gloomy, she thought it was time to cheer the place up a bit. Then her phone rang.
Ethel hadn’t said how many horses on the phone, just that the Waynes were gone and left behind some livestock, and she figured Rosemary was the person to call about the horses.
So Rosemary had taken off her nice black wool peacoat, bought on a weekend in Manhattan with Stephen, who thought even self-described country mice like his wife deserved to be pampered in the city (he hadn’t been wrong—she’d had a marvelous time) and tugged on a heavy old canvas barn coat, pulled on some rubber muck boots over her jeans, and drove through the wet countryside towards the Wayne farm, waving to friends who were out hanging their own Christmas lights and setting up their plastic snowmen on their lawns.
She’d heard about the Waynes’ passing, of course. It had been a surprising case. The elderly couple had passed away as quietly as they had lived, and the town of Catoctin Creek hadn’t realized they were gone until Dennis Wayne failed to pay his feed store bill on time. Luckily—if there could be luck in such a situation—they had a hired farmhand to care for the animals. But when no one refilled the feed bins, he hadn’t bothered to alert anyone. He’d just thrown the animals hay and gone on with his day. And when the last paycheck hadn’t come, he’d gotten into his battered old truck and headed for greener pastures.
That was the story going around, anyway. Rosemary thought she’d love to wrap her hands around the farmhand’s neck and throttle him for being so careless with the animals in his care, but the guy left no forwarding address. Wise of him.
She tugged her coat a little tighter; the wind out here on the flat valley floor was sharper than in her protected cove carved into the foothills. Time to get a plan in motion. “Well, I’ll manage feeding them. The rescue has a line of credit at the feed store, so I can tap into that. I’ll make sure they’re fed and watered, but can they stay here? I don’t have room for them at my farm.”
Ethel merely shrugged again. Annoying woman, Rosemary thought. No heart to speak of. She was Dennis Wayne’s second cousin by marriage, but according to Nikki, who got all the gossip first from her privileged positions as proprietress of both the Blue Plate Diner and the Catoctin Cafe & Bakery, Ethel had no interest in administering the estate a second longer than was required of her. There were already rumors swirling that she’d take the first offer on the property, whether it was from a farmer or a developer.
She definitely didn’t plan to take care twelve half-starved horses. If Rosemary didn’t handle the horses, Ethel would have them shipped straight to auction, and in their state, they’d go for meat prices. Exactly what Rosemary’s rescue was supposed to prevent.
“I mean, I’ll find a place for them eventually,” Rosemary continued, trying to keep her voice neutral. “But at first—”
“I don’t see any good keeping them here. The outbuildings are falling down. Dennis didn’t take care of nothing. And if the real estate man I talk to wants the barn taken down, the barn’s going down.” Ethel shrugged. “I can’t say for sure how long it’ll even be there.”
“Give me a few days. I’ll find somewhere for them soon, I promise,” Rosemary assured her, then turned away, already tired of the woman’s callousness. She knew most of the old-fashioned farmers of Catoctin Creek didn’t believe in keeping horses for pleasure—which meant not keeping horses at all, since they hadn’t been used for agricultural work in decades. But there was no reason to shrug off their misery when something went wrong. For whatever reason, the Waynes had seen fit to acquire a dozen horses. Now they needed to be fed and housed. It was a simple matter of morality to Rosemary. She couldn’t understand why more people didn’t see things that way.
Putting a few feet between Ethel and herself, her rubber boots squashing into the late-autumn mud, Rosemary called her husband to tell him why she’d be home late. Stephen was quiet for a moment, absorbing the news. She bit her lip as she waited; Stephen was a very good sport, but he worried about people taking advantage of her kindness. Would he raise any objections?
The silence stretched out several seconds. Then, he asked, “Is there money in the rescue account to handle this many horses?”
“For a couple of weeks,” Rosemary guessed, hoping it was true. “There’s the account at the feed store. And I still have something left from selling Goliath to the school.” The large Belgian horse had appeared like a gift over the summer, offered cheaply at an auction where Rosemary sometimes picked up former Amish workhorses. Rosemary brought him home and called Sean at Long Pond, where he was putting together the riding school program at the girl’s school opening there. Rosemary was the head advisor on the program, but she left the horse decisions to Sean and his girlfriend Nadine. Luckily, Goliath had turned out to be saddle-broken and steady, an excellent addition to the program.
When the school opened for its first semester, both Goliath and Finn, another of Rosemary’s rescues, were instant favorites with the boarding school girls. Sean said they’d never seen anything like them. Rosemary wasn’t surprised by that. The big draft and draft crosses were nothing like the expensive warmbloods favored by the A-circuit horse show set. She was delighted to introduce some new experiences into the girls’ lives.
“Can the school use any of them?” Stephen asked now.
Rosemary didn’t want to explain how awkward she felt about using her clout in the riding program to place her rescue horses. “I think they’re full,” she hedged. “Maybe we can place some at other rescues. I’ll have to call around, see who has openings. But in the meantime, I’m it. I’ll have to stay a little later here and make sure they’re comfortable. The barn is…not the best.”
“Do what you have to do,” Stephen replied, as she knew he would. “I’ll feed our guys tonight.”
“Thanks, love,” Rosemary replied, endlessly grateful for his steady temper. If Stephen had freaked out about the horses, she might have, too.
But knowing his quiet support was waiting in the background, she could handle this challenge.
Before Rosemary went back to Ethel, she called the feed store and spoke with Tricia, the high school girl who propped up the counter on weekends. She confirmed the rescue’s credit limit, then ordered feed and hay for delivery. Tricia spoke with the team in the warehouse and promised she’d have it in an hour. “Special rush delivery for the rescue,” she promised.
“Thanks, Tricia.” Rosemary pocketed her phone and looked back at Ethel. The older woman was still gazing angrily across the land, looking as if she wished she could give the abandoned farm a kick in the rear. Rosemary sighed before joining her. Time for this grump to get out of here. She said, “The feed store’s sending me a delivery. They’ll be here in an hour. I can handle things from here, if you want to go.”
“Thanks,” Ethel said, jingling her keys in her coat pocket. “Oh, by the way, did you hear the latest about the lost hiker?”
“There’s an update?” Rosemary had been trying not to think too much about the story. The local news stations had reported a hiker’s disappearance a few days ago, and a few reporters from the D.C. area had made their way through Catoctin Creek, looking for background information. But she wasn’t from their town, and no one had anything to say other than to offer their best wishes. The journalists had quickly moved on to the other towns in the region. “Did they find her?”
“No, but there’s a person of interest,” Ethel said. “The boyfriend.” Her grin flashed, inappropriate and unwanted, and Rosemary felt the same sick feeling she’d gotten when she first saw the news, and again when the news vans pulled into town. Her old brush with agoraphobia rose up when she thought about being lost in the woods, and all she wanted to do was drive back behind the gate of Notch Gap Farm and stay there, safe and sound.
“That’s terrible,” she replied, looking towards the Catoctins. The mountains rose to their west, thickly forested with drab, past-peak fall color. Even with the calendar page insisting it was early November, many of the trees were still hanging onto their leaves. Their matted crowns of brown and burnt orange looked forbidding against the gray sky. Rosemary hated to imagine being lost up there—and yet at the same time, the Catoctin Mountains were hardly uncharted wilderness. The long mountain chain was surrounded on both sides by farmland. Civilization was always nearby. That meant something else was going on with this woman; something more than simply wandering in the forest.
That was what bothered Rosemary so much.
“Well, I’d better go.” Ethel clearly sensed Rosemary wasn’t interested in gossiping with her. “Call me if you need anything, but you don’t need to give me any updates. Whatever you do with them is fine. I’ll let you know if anything changes with the barn.”
Rosemary watched Ethel walk across the rutted driveway and climb into her truck. The woman drove away without so much as a wave goodbye.
“What a witch,” Rosemary muttered, then turned back towards the rotting barn. The sight wasn’t a cheerful one. Gray boards with wide black gaps, a shingled roof peeling back at the corners, an overhang over the barnyard that was slowly sinking towards the muddy ground. The opposite of her own cozy farm, and she hated to think that horses had been locked up in there for what, a week? More? But she couldn’t let them out now. With the threat of cold rain on the wind, and the sucking mud of the barnyard, and the tumbledown fences surrounding the farm, they’d be in even worse shape before the next morning. They might even end up on the road.
But if she couldn’t move them to greener pastures, at least she could cheer them up with a good grooming and some warming food. With a little help. Rosemary picked up her phone again and called Nadine at Long Pond. “Nadine? I know you’re busy with the school, but…could I borrow you?”
Chapter Two: Nadine
Nadine showed up within twenty minutes of Rosemary’s call. She liked to be needed; it was a reminder she belonged in Catoctin Creek. She wasn’t an outsider here. After traveling the northeast for most of her late teens and twenties, working at dozens of stables and farms, she was beyond relieved to have found a place at last in the hometown which she’d never felt a part of in her school years.
And Rosemary was a big part of that—Rosemary had essentially gotten her the job as manager at Long Pond—so she would have made time for Rosemary even if she’d been asleep, or sick with a head cold, or in the middle of a particularly good lunch. She glanced down at her good paddock boots as she slipped out of the shiny silver truck with the Long Pond logo on the door; the ground wasn’t exactly leather-friendly. Maybe she should have slowed down long enough to put on a pair of Wellingtons. But Rosemary was coming out of the barn, her usually serene face anxious, and Nadine knew she was right to have gotten here in a rush.
She squelched over to meet Rosemary. “Got here as fast as I can. Jeez, it’s freezing out here. Makes my day so far feel like summer. Why’s it colder here than at Long Pond?”
“This place has absolutely no protection from the wind.” Rosemary gestured to the lonely, gray-brown pastures and stubble fields surrounding them. “This has to be an awful place all winter, I’m sure.”
“The Waynes could have planted a windbreak,” Nadine observed, looking at the ramshackle brick house beyond the barn. “Just for giggles.”
“I don’t think this was a happy place. I don’t know what was going on out here, but the Waynes were never outgoing people. I can’t think of a time I saw them at the Blue Plate or at the spring fundraiser…I can’t even remember them at the Christmas carnival, and no one missed that.”
“Hey, I remember the Christmas carnival!” Nadine’s childhood had its ups and downs, but she still savored the memory of those carnivals, held on the field behind the volunteer firefighters’ station just off Main Street. She remembered the smell of funnel cakes sizzling in oil, the sound of church choirs singing Christmas carols from a holly-draped stage, the rattle of the midway rides, throwing golf balls at fish bowls to try and win a goldfish of her own. Those carnivals had been the highlight of winter for her. “Whatever happened to those? I don’t think I’ve been to one since I was seven or eight.”
“No money to run it,” Rosemary said with a little shrug. “The same reason everything else gets cancelled.”
“Other small towns manage them,” Nadine grumbled. She didn’t have a lot of super childhood memories; it annoyed her that the Christmas carnival had been snatched away when she was so young. “I wonder if the school could put up some cash. Want to help me present it to Admin?”
“Interesting idea.” Nadine could tell Rosemary wasn’t really listening. She looked distracted, probably mentally listing all the work ahead of her. Twelve horses could easily be a full-time job. Nadine was responsible for twenty-two back at Long Pond, but she had Darby to help her, and the girls who joined the barn program as their physical fitness requirement, and still more who were joining the small but growing Horsemanship Club. And Sean, though he was generally an afterthought, since he spent most of his time in the arena, either riding or teaching.
“Yeah, it’s not the right time,” Nadine said apologetically. “Sorry, I just get excited sometimes.”
“You’re so high-energy.” Rosemary gave her a fond look, then snapped back to work mode. “Listen, can you help me get these horses cleaned up and blanketed? They’re all hayed and watered, and no one’s in any danger of colic, but it’s going to freeze tonight and that barn is missing half its boards. And I’ve got the feed delivery coming in half an hour, so we’ll have to give them a small dinner.”
“Of course, I’ll help.” Nadine fell into step beside Rosemary and they trudged through the mud to the barn door. “Gosh, this is a wet November. Makes me want to hole up next to a fireplace for the next six months.” She remembered something. “Did you hear the latest about the woman in the mountains?”
Rosemary seemed to hesitate before replying, “Yes…I heard they were investigating the boyfriend.”
“Yeah, it’s always the boyfriend.” Nadine glanced at Rosemary. “You okay? You look a little pale.”
“Oh, just cold,” Rosemary said, trying to brush off Nadine’s concern. “I’ve been out here for an hour.”
“Cold, that’s for sure. Feels like we might get a white Christmas.”
“Hah! That won’t happen.” Rosemary’s voice was assured.
“Didn’t it happen last year?” Nadine challenged, amused.
“One time isn’t a pattern.”
Nadine couldn’t help but grin. “Better than a zero chance, though, wouldn’t you say?”
“Take it from me…” Rosemary tugged open the creaking barn door. “A cold November means a warm December…oh. Hello, there.”
Nadine leaned over Rosemary’s shoulder and laughed. “Oh, boy. One of them.”
“Chestnut mare, beware,” Rosemary muttered. “I hate stereotypes, but…”
“Everything happens for a reason,” Nadine finished, still chuckling. Then she addressed the large chestnut horse in the narrow barn aisle. “What are you doing in the aisle, mama?”
The mare snorted at them and shook her head. She was a pretty horse—or she ought to be, anyway. That ratty forelock and the witches locks in her mane weren’t doing her any favors; and she had enough mud caked on her thick winter coat to officially qualify as more dirt than horse. But her bold white blaze was pretty impressive, and the way it dropped across the mare’s left eye, coloring the iris blue instead of brown, was a sure attention-getter. Nadine wondered what her story was. She knew a few girls who would go bananas for a horse with a blue eye.
“She’s pretty,” Nadine said. “Very fancy.”
“She looks like trouble,” Rosemary said, clearly not impressed. “Scoot in and let me close this door before she gets out.”
“So you typecast the chestnut mare with the blaze,” Nadine laughed, slipping into the barn’s narrow aisle. The rutted clay seemed to slide beneath her boots. She held out a hand to the mare, who considered her warily. “That doesn’t seem like you, Rosemary.”
“I guess I’m just expecting the worst, in general, today.” Rosemary pointed at the ground. “See that plastic bag? About ten minutes ago it was full of carrots. The one treat I had in the truck for them.”
Nadine laughed and picked up the damp bag. Five pounds of carrots, gone. The mare shifted her head to look at the bag fluttering in the dim glow filtering from the dusty lightbulb overhead, and Nadine saw the tell-tale orange slobber on her lips and chin. “Well, you’re a big old piggy, aren’t you?”
The mare made a chewing motion, her molars working beneath her taut jaws. Pretty easy to translate that language. More carrots? she was asking.
“I like her.” Nadine decided.
“She’s trouble.” Rosemary put her hand on the mare’s chest, asking her to back up. “You need to get back in your stall, miss.”
“Could be.” Nadine stuffed the plastic bag into a blue barrel overflowing the hay twine and rolled up feed bags. “Maybe good trouble? I like a sassy mare every now and then.”
“Well, you’re welcome to her.”
“You think? What’s the plan for these horses?” Nadine didn’t hate the idea of taking the chestnut mare back to Long Pond. She might make one of the girls a cool project.
Rosemary maneuvered the mare into a dark stall and closed the door. “Listen, if you have the stalls and you think the horse can work in the program, you’re welcome to any of them. I have no idea what I’m going to do with these horses. I wanted to expand the rescue since I started taking in rehab projects instead of just life-long rescues, but this is not the way to do it.”
“Don’t worry. We can figure out twelve horses.” Nadine glanced around the gloomy barn. The lower level of a bank barn could be cozy or depressing, depending on the farm owner’s management style, and the Waynes had clearly used cobwebs in all of their decorating. The horses nosed through hay in stalls that were mostly built of patchwork old lumber, the walls just high enough to keep them from wandering around and harassing one another. Nadine wondered what the point of all these horses had been. The Waynes had grown corn and run dairy cattle—all of it done half-heartedly, as far as Nadine could tell. They didn’t need a herd of horses in any way, shape or form. “Do you have any idea what they were doing with all these horses?”
“I really don’t,” Rosemary sighed, tugging at the red loops of a big trash bag. Nadine spotted the duct tape label on it: BLANKETS. “But they weren’t abused or starved. Look at them—they need cleaned up, sure, but no one here is skin and bone. And these rugs—” She tugged out a few musty green horse blankets. “They’re not new, but they’re not rags, either. And there are brushes and supplements in the feed room. It’s like they had a purpose for them, but didn’t tell anyone. Which would be just like the Waynes. They never talked to anyone.”
“Are their feet taken care of?” Nadine peered over the wall of the nearest stall, where a dark bay horse with big, sloping shoulders was eating hay. He shoved his nose at her companionably as she tried to get a look at his hooves. “This guy is wearing shoes! And they’re not old, either. So his feet have been done recently.”
“So weird.” Rosemary opened another bag of blankets and tugged them out, brushing aside a few small spiders. “The chestnut’s hooves are pretty recent trims, too. I wonder if Kevin’s been shoeing them.”
“Oh, worth asking Nikki about. She can find out for us. You want to go over to the cafe when we’re done and find out?” Nadine wondered if Nikki had any blueberry muffins left. Might as well make the most of a rare evening away from the school.
“You know what? That sounds like exactly what I need. Even if she doesn’t know, I could use a quick catch-up with Nikki. We’ve all been so busy.” Rosemary handed Nadine a horse blanket. It was heavy, and smelled of dust and horse hair. Nadine sneezed. “That should fit the horse you’re standing by,” Rosemary went on. “It’s a seventy-six. Bless you, by the way,” she added absently, digging through the blankets, checking the size labels and sorting them into piles.
Nadine went into the stall, noticing the old brown shavings had been freshly picked clean, and tossed the blanket over the bay horse’s back. He ignored her as she worked, buckling up the chest and reaching beneath his barrel to grab the straps hanging down the far side. “I think this guy’s a Standardbred,” she said as she worked. “Got those big old leg bones and that crazy shoulder.”
“Look under his mane and see if there’s a brand,” Rosemary called from the neighboring stall. “If he raced, there’ll be a freeze brand.”
Nadine flipped up the horse’s heavy black mane. Sure enough, there were fuzzy white markings just below the line of his crest. “Yeah, he’s branded alright. I don’t know if we could ever read it, though.”
“Too bad,” Rosemary said. “But at least we know his breeding. That’s helpful when we’re trying to rehome him down the road.”
“I’ve never ridden a Standardbred.” Nadine let the horse’s mane fall back over his neck. He turned to look at her, and she ran a finger down the squiggly white stripe that ran between his eyes and over one nostril. “Super cute, though.”
“Good, so you’ll take that one, too.” Rosemary’s voice was absent.
Two free horses, no questions asked? Nadine shook her head as she left the horse to his hay and went back to the blanket pile, tugging out one she thought would fit the next horse in the row. She’d have loved that as a kid. She’d have found some way to keep a horse, working off board in an empty pasture or something, if only she’d known how to find one. Instead, she’d had to wait until she was a teenager with a driver’s license and could use her mother’s lack of attention as a way to sneak out to ride dangerous horses for work instead of going to school. Well, either way, she figured. She had her equestrian life now, she had a good job and a dresser drawer full of expensive riding breeches and a boyfriend who was just as passionate about horses as she was. Twelve-year-old Nadine would be seriously impressed.
She tried to channel that lifelong passion for horses every day when she dealt with girls who didn’t want to be at Long Pond. The group of department heads they all called The Admin tended to send Nadine girls who were having trouble fitting in, assuming that the magic of horses would fix them, and Nadine tried her best to use barn chores, grooming, and even riding lessons to help the girls find self-confidence and a feeling of belonging. It stuck for a few of them. Others found their passion elsewhere, on the lacrosse field or in the chemistry lab. Long Pond wasn’t lacking for expensive facilities where a teenage girl could find herself—or lose herself—in hard work.
Nadine didn’t let her feelings get hurt when a girl didn’t manage to fall in love with horses after a week of afterschool sessions spent in the barn; she sent them off to their next assignment with lots of well wishes and a reminder they were always welcome if they changed their minds. Since school started two months ago, she’d gotten six girls working their way through the extracurricular rotation, but just two of them had stayed on, one of them signing on for lessons with Sean and one of them content to stay on the ground, helping Darby and Nadine with stall cleaning and grooming.
It was one of the most satisfying parts of her day, seeing those girls in the barn, learning about horses and growing more confident in themselves. More fit, too—that was why barn work counted as their phys. ed. requirement. She had a new girl slated to start on Monday—Addy Doyle, who apparently absolutely hated Long Pond, according to the email Admin had sent down about her. Nadine buckled a blanket onto the cheeky chestnut mare, glancing again at that wild blue eye, and wondered if Addy would be the next new equestrian of Long Pond.
If she kept adding girls on, she would need more horses.
It was all very interesting timing, Nadine thought.
Chapter Three: Nikki
The Catoctin Cafe & Bakery was pleasantly empty in the evenings. Nikki only left the front door unlocked and the open sign turned on because she used that time to work on the books, whether it was orders or actual accounting for one of the restaurants, and she didn’t mind filling coffee cups and gossiping on the side. Preferred it, as a matter of fact. Since Kevin had started making rounds without Gus, the old blacksmith who was teaching him the farrier trade, he worked late every night, and she was tired of sitting upstairs without him, poring over spreadsheets all alone.
And of course, she’d never close her door if Rosemary wanted her support. They’d been best friends since they were little girls. If Rosemary needed help, the rest of the world could just sit and wait, as far as Nikki was concerned.
So when Nadine and Rosemary came in, shivering and muddy, at half past seven, Nikki just picked up the bag of coffee beans and poured them into the grinder. Time for a fresh pot. Her years of working at the Blue Plate Diner had taught her a lot about the amount of coffee consumed in an average crisis. She closed her laptop while the coffee machine started rumbling to itself. Business could wait.
Rosemary explained what they’d been up to. By the time she was finished, Nikki could feel her eyebrows arching all the way to the loose auburn curls falling around her forehead. “Twelve horses, and of course she doesn’t call Caitlin! Who probably has plenty of room over at Elmwood? Oh, no, Ethel called you, the woman with a full barn, because she knew you’d never say no.”
Sitting at the round table in front of the dining room’s broad picture window, Rosemary shrugged off Nikki’s complaints. “Caitlin doesn’t have room. Since she leased Elmwood to that fancy horse show trainer, she has next to nothing to do with the place. Nadine doesn’t even work there anymore.”
Nadine, sitting across from her, offered a small smile. “It’s true. I don’t. And Ellen hired Richie and Rose to groom for her. Caitlin lives at the house and that’s it…and to be honest, I think she might be moving.”
“Moving?” Nikki went back behind the counter and pulled down heavy white mugs for the coffee. “Excuse me, where is she moving to? I haven’t heard a thing about that.”
“I think somewhere in town?” Nadine looked sorry she’d brought it up. “I heard her talking about buying a smaller place. She was at Connie’s place.”
“If the ice cream parlor is getting the town gossip, Connie Foltz is going to have to start calling me with updates.” Nikki tugged the pot out of the coffeemaker with a little too much force. She was only half-joking about Connie getting the gossip. People relied on Nikki—relied on her to know the latest on everyone in Catoctin Creek—comings and goings, births and deaths, marriages and divorces, the works. That was why Elaine brought the news about the Waynes straight to the Blue Plate. She knew who the queen was in this town. Nikki shook her head, pouring coffee. “I gotta tell ya, I just don’t know about Caitlin. Too busy building empires. I mean, yes, she’s doing amazing things for Catoctin Creek, but…yeah. She’s still Caitlin.”
Rosemary lifted her eyebrows.
A little too pointedly, Nikki thought. “Fine,” she admitted. “I owe Caitlin for helping me get this house.” She looked around the cafe’s dining room; it had originally been the big front parlor of the Schubert house, and the shining wooden floors, wide front windows, and soaring ceiling with white-painted trim was part of the cafe’s sensational charm. The woodwork glowed beneath the Edison bulbs hanging above the counter and the warm globe lighting above the tables where customers sat and exclaimed over Nikki’s baking.
This cafe was a realization of Nikki’s dreams, and she never could have afforded it if Caitlin hadn’t given her an exceptional deal.
“I know we’ve had our differences with Caitlin, but she has done a lot for us,” Rosemary reminded her.
“I know, I know.” Nikki put coffees in front of each of them, and the tray with a little milk jug, a saucer of rough brown sugar cubes. Embarrassing, getting called out by Rosemary…although nothing new. Rosie was the sweet one in their relationship, even if Nikki was the baker. And she really was thankful for Caitlin’s help in acquiring the Schubert house. She still woke up and felt a moment of shock when she realized she was on the second floor of the graceful Queen Anne house at the far end of town, instead of back in the loft bed of her old garage apartment, about to start another grind at the Blue Plate.
And she wasn’t the only one in Catoctin Creek to benefit from Caitlin’s recent shift into real estate investment. The entire town was changing: Connie Foltz reopening the old ice cream parlor, with its antique tiles and whimsical pressed-tin ceiling; the two antique shops now open on Main Street, and an expensive bed and breakfast in a lovely turreted Victorian back on Brunner Lane. All of it funded in some way by Caitlin. She even helped the prospective business owners find and apply to historical preservation grants, or assistance for women starting small businesses.
And the outside world noticed. While the cafe still didn’t see much weeknight traffic, their weekends were growing stronger every month. Catoctin Creek was getting more buzz in blogs and weekend newspaper supplements. People from D.C. and Baltimore and beyond were coming to stay in the quaint town which hadn’t quite been “discovered” by tourists yet.
Of course, the missing hiker story was putting the town name into the world for the wrong reasons, but Nikki was confident that would blow over. Who could get lost in the Catoctins, for heaven’s sake? They were a series of long hills surrounded by farms. Barely mountains at all. That woman would turn up in a few days, hale and hearty. Nikki was sure of it.
She put a plate of round, buttery cookies between Rosemary and Nadine and pulled up a chair to sit between them. “At least it’s a nice, quiet Sunday night and we can talk this out. You said you thought Kevin might have some goods on the horses. What do you want to know, exactly?”
“I want to know their backstory, if I can find it out,” Rosemary said, picking up a cookie and examining it from all angles. Her chipped fingernails looked red and sore, probably from the cold and wet outside. “Obviously I’m going to have to find somewhere to put them, but I’m hoping they can be adopted out quickly. That would be easier if I knew what their backgrounds were. If I knew for sure they had been ridden, for example.”
“Someone has been trimming and shoeing them,” Nadine said. “Fairly recently. So we thought maybe Kevin would know…maybe he said something to you yesterday, when the news broke…”
“You’d think so,” Nikki sighed. “But I never see him for more than a few minutes at night. With the hours he’s working, I’d swear he’s handling every client in Gus’s book and then some. Gus claims that he’s still working but I’m not entirely sure I believe him. He stays far away from here, obviously. He knows what I’d like to say to him.”
She was so tired of Kevin’s constant work. When he’d moved to Catoctin Creek, ostensibly to find a new course for his life but also because he was intent on pursuing her, Nikki had obviously hoped he would find happiness in his new career. She just hadn’t realized that his life’s work would involve working thirteen-hour days as a journeyman farrier, just a man and his dog, driving from farm to farm, trimming and shaping and nailing on shoes. Sometimes Nikki sat in her empty cafe and felt a little cheated. She hadn’t counted on spending so much time alone when she finally had a partner.
“He takes Grover every morning and they’re out the door and that’s usually that,” Nikki finished, aware the other two women were watching her warily—she must have that grumpy expression on her face again. “I feed him supper and then he falls asleep on the sofa.”
“He’s a really good farrier,” Nadine ventured. “I think you should be proud of how far he’s come. I mean, he’s only been doing it for like a year…”
“And he’s supposedly taking over for Gus, slowly, but did Gus work days like this? You know, I could probably hire someone part-time to give me a break with this place, but I just haven’t seen the point.” The coffeemaker chimed and Nikki hopped up to get refills for everyone’s cups. “As for the horse issue,” she said over her shoulder, “can you fundraise to build a new barn? If you wanted to expand anyway…”
“I did,” Rosemary said. She picked up another cookie and sighed at it. “But now the ground is about to freeze. No one’s going to take on a project until spring as it is. And the horses need placed now.”
“Nadine, are you taking any?” Nikki refilled the younger woman’s cup. “Between you and Sean, you should be able to handle a few more horses.”
“I’m going to try,” Nadine said. “But of course any horses we want to add to the program have to be cleared by the faculty heads and ultimately the headmistress. They’re considered a pretty big expenditure, obviously. So they really have to serve a purpose right away. I think I can make a case for training them as community service, but it would really help if they were rideable right away.”
A bell rang, interrupting her. They glanced as one towards the door. A couple were coming inside, slowly shedding layers of cold weather gear. They were clearly out-of-towners. Nikki sighed to herself. They’d probably read that blog post about her chocolate-peanut butter layer cake; it had been making the rounds on social media and she’d even fielded a few calls asking about the recipe. Her eyes lingered on the pair for a moment, wondering where they were from. Their expensive knits and fleece-lined booties said someplace with a lot less mud than western Maryland in November. “Let me go serve these two, and I’ll be right back,” she promised. “Talk amongst yourselves.”
“I should really get going,” Rosemary said regretfully. “Stephen fed everyone at home, and he’ll be getting dinner for me, as well. Can I grab some dessert for him, Niks?”
“Of course you can. Help yourself.” She glanced back at the couple, who were making encouraging noises near the bakery case. “Be right there!”
“Go, don’t let me keep you,” Rosemary said. “Only, is there any lemon meringue in the back?”
“For you, always.” Nikki laughed. “You never change.”
Nikki served the couple—they did, in fact, want the chocolate-peanut butter cake they’d read about online—and then start to clean up things for the night. It was nearly eight o’clock and she felt like closing. When the bell on the door jingled once more, she glanced up with resignation and was a little surprised to see a young woman she didn’t know.
The weekenders they saw in Catoctin Creek were generally older couples—well-heeled D.C. beltway types, heading out to the country to find horse brasses and reclaimed wood for their shabby chic farmhouse interior design. Or whatever it was people called their decor these days. Nikki couldn’t keep up with trends. She was too busy.
This woman standing before her counter was much younger than the normal weekender—maybe thirty—and her outfit was more city sleek than L.L. Bean. Black and gray wool. Heeled boots. Sleek ash-blonde hair. She hadn’t driven out here hoping for a hike and deal on estate china.
And that made Nikki suspicious.
“Is it alright to order a latte?” The woman asked cautiously. “I know it’s late, but I didn’t see hours posted…”
“I close when I’m done working,” Nikki said. “I’ll make you a latte. And anything else you want, barring a sandwich. I don’t feel like cleaning the panini press again.”
“That’s no problem,” the young woman laughed, sounding a little startled by Nikki’s frankness. “Maybe just something sweet…I ate back in the city, but I’m pretty easily tempted by sugar and everything in this case looks incredible.”
“It’s all incredible,” Nikki said with a smirk, before disappearing behind the espresso machine. “And it’s all made here.”
“Amazing. All amazing. This seems like an amazing town, though. So I guess I’m not surprised that the most beautiful bakery in the world is here.”
“You’re getting the fancy new version of Catoctin Creek.” Nikki tamped down the espresso. “Just last year this was still barely a wide spot in the road. We’ve been doing a lot of work to spruce the old girl up.”
“Wait, you’re Nikki Mercer, right?” The woman’s face suddenly lit up with recognition. She had bold blue eyes, lined dark to make them stand out even more. When she widened them, they were almost cartoon-princess enormous. “You run the Blue Plate Diner, too.”
“Yeah?” Nikki poured the espresso shot into a paper to-go cup. No more dishes tonight. “You know that’s an odd way to introduce yourself to someone, right?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m Kelly O’Connell. I’m up here from Arlington…I’m a reporter with WDCN.”
“Mmhmm.” So, Nikki had been right to be suspicious. She congratulated her instincts on being correct, as usual. “So I guess you’re here to cover the missing woman?”
“I am,” Kelly confessed, dipping her head so her straight blonde hair fell over the face. “But I’m not here looking for quotes or anything. Just wanted to get a feel for the place. Look around and understand what she was doing up here.”
Nikki lifted her brows. That didn’t sound right at all. Reporters didn’t show up looking for a vibe. They were looking for facts. Right? She put the latte on the counter. “Did you decide on a sweet?”
“Oh—a maple pecan roll, please.” Kelly O’Connell of WDCN News gave Nikki a hopeful smile. “I imagine you’ll get more traffic from people like me. You might want to keep your bakery case well-stocked. This cafe has an urban kind of feel…folks from the city will like it.”
“I’ll try not to take that as an insult,” Nikki said, but she gave Kelly a grin, anyway. She knew what she meant: hardwood and Edison bulbs were part of city canon these days. “Thanks for the warning. I guess I better make more muffins in the morning.”
“Oh, there will be muffins?” Kelly’s round eyes sparkled with anticipation. “I’ll set my alarm.”
Nikki started to ring up the sale as she answered. “There will be muffins. Blueberry, lemon poppyseed, and apple spice. But you better stay away from the poppyseed if you’re going to be on TV afterwards. I don’t mess around with my fillings.”
“Good advice,” Kelly said, passing her credit card across the reader. “Thanks. It was really nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Nikki said. “Feel free to sit for a few minutes. I have some stuff to clean up back here. No rush.” Why crowd her out? There was no one upstairs, anyway. Kevin was still out somewhere, driving a country road or shoeing someone’s horse.
She watched Kelly walk to a table by one of the wide front windows. There wasn’t much to see; the interior lights hid the house’s wraparound front porch and the lawn that sloped down to Main Street. But the woman still glanced through the glass as if she was seeing something beautiful in the November night.
Or maybe, Nikki thought, she was just looking at her own reflection. It was pretty enough.
* * * * *
Nikki hung around in the cafe after Kelly left. The place was clean, but the silence of their rooms upstairs wasn’t appealing enough to make her close up her laptop and climb the stairs. She crumbled a piece of cake with her fingers, nibbling bite by bite as she punched in numbers on her spreadsheets, making two restaurants hum along.
When she finally spotted the headlights of Kevin’s truck pulling into the gravel parking lot behind the house, the clock told her it was just before nine o’clock. By now she was worn out, and in desperate need of some food that hadn’t been baked with several pounds of butter, but she gave Kevin twenty minutes alone upstairs, to settle in for the evening. She figured everyone needed a little bit of decompression time. Luckily, she got hers sitting in an armchair off to one side of her empty dining room, playing games on her phone.
When she finally opened the door at the top of the stairs, she heard Kevin hop up from the sofa and run into the kitchen, while Grover’s paws clicked on the hardwood. “Hello, puppy,” she said gently, giving Kevin’s fluffy yellow dog a good pat and a scratch around the ears. “Did you have a nice day at farrier school?”
The dog did a quick, happy spin and then he took off for the kitchen.
She smiled to herself, pausing to take off her shoes and leave them on the landing. By the time she made it to the living room—a former bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall—Kevin was putting a pizza box on the coffee table. The cardboard was warm from the oven, and smelled of garlic and cured meat.
“Picked this up from town on the way home,” he announced, as proudly as if he’d Mae it himself, then leaned in to give her a kiss. “Hungry?”
Nikki sighed with contentment. She instantly forgave him for another late evening of work. Seriously, pizza could work wonders on a mood. “You are the best man in the world.”
“I am,” Kevin agreed. “Would you like a glass of wine?”
“I would like two glasses of wine,” she said, picking up a slice of pizza. It burned her fingers, but she chanced a bite anyway. Spicy sausage—delicious.
“So, a bottle for the table.” Kevin hustled back to the kitchen and returned with an open bottle of red and two glasses, Grover tagging at his heels. “I stayed late at Elmwood with the new trainer…she’s exacting, let me tell you. Two horses I had to leave unfinished and promised Gus would come over and look at them.” He shook his head. “How was cafe life today?”
“Well, you missed drama with Rosemary, unfortunately. And I just met a reporter a little while before we closed. She thinks more journalists are going to end up here.”
“Not exactly the press Catoctin Creek could use,” Kevin mused, turning the TV down as a detergent commercial came on, a woman gushing about stain removal power with way too much enthusiasm. “And how is Rosemary? What happened?”
“Oh, poor girl. She’s swamped. You remember the Waynes out on Route 9?” Nikki shrugged as Kevin shook his head. “No, you wouldn’t. Although Gus might know them. Someone was trimming their horses’ hooves, apparently. She and Nadine came over to ask about that. They’re trying to figure out where the horses came from, and why the Waynes had them at all.”
“Maybe Gus kept them on as clients,” Kevin suggested. He’d taken over almost half of the clients in his mentor’s book, but Gus wasn’t ready to fully retire yet. That was what Gus and Kevin said, anyway. Town gossip said that Gus’s wife wasn’t ready for him to fully retire and hang around at home all day, bugging her.
“Well, either way, Ethel Hauffmann is socking Rosemary with all twelve of their horses. So she has to find a place to keep them, because the Wayne property is falling apart. And I hear Ethel’s dying to sell it to a developer, which means the barn goes, either way.”
“God. Twelve horses out of the blue. That’s a lot.”
“Yeah. Nadine’s helping her take care of them, but the bottom line is, her barn is full.”
“That’s true,” Kevin muttered. He took a sip of wine, his gaze going distant. Nikki knew he was running through his client list, wondering if he knew anyone with space to take twelve horses. But even if winter wasn’t coming on, taking on that many horses would be a pretty huge ask. Plenty of commercial boarding stables had fewer than twelve stalls in total. “I’ll have to ask around, see if anyone has interest in taking one or two of them.”
Nikki reached for another slice of pizza. “I get the impression Long Pond might take a couple. If we can place a few more, maybe Rosemary can find a way to keep the rest at her farm. I was thinking, Stephen might have some ideas, too. Can you talk to him tomorrow?”
“I presume Rosemary will be talking to him…right about now, actually.”
“Yeah, but the conversations you have with your wife and the conversations you have with your best friend are really different. And you and he have the same business-y background. See if you two can get together and come up with some brilliant fundraising idea that can get a barn extension built. It’s for charity, so it shouldn’t be that hard, right? Not like pulling teeth to get a bank loan.”
Kevin laughed. “You know it’s hard to get money just like, in general, all the time, right? But especially at Christmas?”
“Well, maybe it shouldn’t be.” Nikki shrugged, taking a gulp of wine. “Here we are, heading into the holiday season, we’ve got horses in need of help and a person willing to do it, and oh, by the way, we’ve got a bunch of reporters driving up here from the nation’s capital. I’m just saying, if we want attention and money for a local charity, this is probably a good time to ask for it. Maybe we need to put on some big attention-grabbing event.”
“An event?” Kevin reached for another slice of pizza. “Like a charity auction?”
“No,” Nikki said, feeling reckless. It must be the wine. “Like something big. Like—like a carnival. Remember the Christmas carnival? No, you’re not from here.” She hiccuped, and put her fingers to her lips, smiling sheepishly. “Oops, got a little too excited for a minute there.”
Kevin studied her for a moment. He was smiling in that maddening way he had, as if he just adored her so much, he was going to burst with pride. It made her want to kiss him and pull his hair and steal his lunch money, all at once. He said, “You’re really a pistol, you know that?”
She smirked. “A pistol? Who taught you to say that? Some old farmwife? No one calls anyone a pistol anymore.”
“It’s a good word for you,” Kevin said, leaning back to sip at his wine. “It’s very accurate. I have to believe, as usual, that you can do anything you’ve set your mind to do. So if you say I’m going to talk to Stephen and come up with a brilliant fundraiser idea, then you’re probably right.”
She smiled at him, tipping her head back on the sofa. The wine and pizza were making her sleepy in record time tonight. “Thanks, Kev,” she said dreamily.
“But there’s an even larger chance that you’re going to come up with the idea before I do.”
“No. I’m too tired. I run two restaurants, remember? You do this for me.”
“No problem. I’ll bounce over to their farm tomorrow.”
Nikki squeezed his free hand. “You’re a good guy to have on my side.”
“I am but a tool in your belt, fair Nikki. But, uh…got any other compliments for me? I could use some praise. I had a lot of horses to get under today, and more than one of them tried to shit on me. This job can be hard on a man’s ego.”
“Okay. Umm…you’re also a good provider.” She nodded at the pizza box. “My hero, and all that.”
“Anything else? Anything at all.”
“And I love you,” she told him, and then she hit him with a throw pillow, just to make sure he wouldn’t get a big head about it.