By Olivia Miles
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If there’s anything Anna Madison knows, it’s how to turn life’s lemons into a lemonade cocktail served in a vintage glass. So when her beloved Briar Creek cafe burns down, she sees it as an opportunity to start fresh. But the only kitchen available to her is in the diner down the street-owned by her sinfully sexy ex.
If Anna thinks she can take over his greasy-spoon kitchen with her high-end cuisine, Mark Hastings is about to set her straight fast. Their breakup is his biggest regret-not that he’ll ever admit it to her. Nope, he’d rather show her exactly what she’s been missing. With desire set on a high simmer, their menu is about to get a whole lot spicier . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of Hope Springs on Main Street
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A strong friendship is always the best foundation for a lasting romantic relationship."
Anna Madison stopped arranging the wild blueberry scones on a ceramic tray and frowned. Not always, she thought.
Up until now the chatter from the weekly book club had been nothing but a pleasant buzz, a lively and comfortable backdrop to an otherwise quiet morning in the shop, but now Anna strained her ears over the percolating coffee machine to hear the details of the conversation. Sliding the tray onto the polished wood counter, she narrowed her eyes at the group of women who were gathered around the antique farm table near the big bay window of Main Street Books—or the Annex, as the café extension was called—as they were every Saturday morning since the bookstore had reopened. From her distance behind the counter, she watched them sipping cappuccinos and enjoying fresh pastries, and wondered which of them would be foolish enough to make such a grand statement.
Her gaze fell on Rosemary Hastings, sitting at the head of the table, clutching this month's book club selection, Sense and Sensibility, with determined hands. Rosemary's ruby-stained lips were pinched with certainty, her back straight and proud, revealing years of professional dance training, her graying hair pulled back in her famous bun.
"I always told my children to start with a friendship first. If you build on that, true love will follow," she continued sagely. The rest of the group nodded their consent or politely sipped their coffee and tea, knowing better than to voice an opinion to the contrary. "Men and women are never only friends," she went on. "A friendship is just the beginning. It always blossoms into something more meaningful."
Oh, now this was too much! "Yeah right," Anna muttered. She shook her head and turned her attention to a basket of ginger-fig muffins, a popular item this morning, she noted with satisfaction as she mentally counted out just seven of the twelve she had brought over fresh from her primary restaurant, Fireside Café, down the road.
"Do you disagree, Anna?"
Well, now she'd done it. Anna glanced up to see Rosemary peering at her sharply from across the room, her head tipped in expectation. She sighed, feeling her shoulders sag slightly as ten pairs of eyes waited for her reply. She knew she should leave it—no good would come from starting an argument with Rosemary—and get on with her ever growing to-do list. Since Main Street Books had reopened, Anna was busier than she could have imagined. The expansion of the bookstore's café was a hit, just as her older sister, Grace, had predicted, and business at Fireside hadn't slowed either. She supposed she should be thrilled that everything was off to a good start—God knew she relied on both establishments to be a success so she could pay off the loan she'd taken out to help reinvent their late father's struggling store—but a business didn't run itself.
"What's that, Rosemary?" Anna's younger sister, Jane, came around the corner, clutching a stack of books to her chest. She glanced at the cover of the one on top and then slipped it into its proper slot in the cookbooks section, which bordered the café.
"Your sister here was disagreeing with my statement that men and women cannot just be friends."
"Sure they can!" Jane smiled. "Look at Luke and Grace. They were friends for years before—"
"Before!" Rosemary raised her finger triumphantly into the air. "They were friends before they started dating. But I know my son." She began to wag her finger, oddly enough in Anna's direction rather than Jane's. Anna bit back a sigh and swept the crumbs from the counter into her palm, before dusting her hands off over the trash can. "He didn't want to only be friends with Grace. A pretty girl like that? No, no, no. He befriended her as a way of getting to know her. To be close to her." She shrugged smugly. "There's always more to it."
Anna snorted, causing Rosemary's smile to immediately fade. She bristled, glancing around her group with an incredulous look, her blue eyes wide with indignation. At least five of the women ducked their heads, pretending to leaf through the pages of their well-thumbed paperbacks. Anna found herself wishing her mother had decided to join the group, but Saturdays were busy for Kathleen's interior design business. Still, a little backup would be nice, and Jane was much too polite to stand up to the likes of Rosemary Hastings, especially because she now worked for her at the dance studio.
"Always is a pretty strong word, Mrs. Hastings. Sometimes friendships do evolve, but sometimes they don't." And sometimes they shouldn't, she thought, frowning.
"Well, I'm speaking from personal experience," Rosemary huffed.
"As am I." Anna straightened the baskets of pastries on the counter and untied the strings of her apron. She should have left ten minutes ago, and here she was engaging in an utterly pointless debate.
"Oh?" This bit of news seemed to pique Rosemary's interest.
Refusing to elaborate, Anna handed her apron to Jane, who was taking over the afternoon shift while Grace manned the storefront and register. "Well, it's been lovely, but I'm afraid I have to get to the café. Enjoy your book club, ladies!" She smiled warmly, hoping that would put a gracious end to the conversation, but the expression on Rosemary's face said otherwise.
"Anna Madison, in all the years I have known you, I have never once seen you with a male friend. Romantically or otherwise."
Oh, how little she knew. Anna folded her arms across her chest and looked to Jane for reinforcement, but her sister simply raised her eyebrows and turned back to the coffee machine, adding to Anna's mounting frustration.
"Well, that's not true. I've dated plenty of men." One in particular, but she needn't mention that. Ever. No one in Briar Creek knew about the relationship she'd had in culinary school, and she intended to keep it that way. "Maybe not recently, but there have been men. Lots and lots of men."
From behind her she heard Jane quickly fumble for the tap. The rush of water did little to drown out her soft laughter. Rosemary, however, was not amused. Her lips pinched as she roamed her gaze over Anna's defensive stance. "You work too hard. A pretty girl like you should be married by now."
A gasp escaped from somewhere deep in her gut. Anna gaped at Rosemary's army of hopeless romantics, now all nervously staring at their open paperbacks as if cramming for a test, and looked around the room for someone, anyone, who would find Rosemary's opinions as appalling as she did. She turned to Jane, who had decided to keep her back firmly to the room, and tossed her hands in the air before slapping them down at her hips. "This is the twenty-first century. I'm a career girl. It happens to suit me perfectly fine."
"Now, calm down," Rosemary ordered. "You clearly misunderstood me."
"Did I?" Anna glanced at her watch, and her pulse kicked with fresh anxiety. Already noon and the lunch crowd was probably in full swing.
"I meant you're all work and no play. You deserve to have a little fun."
All work and no play. Anna could think of one person in this town to whom the exact opposite applied. None other than Rosemary's own nephew, Mark Hastings. Yet somehow she didn't hear Rosemary complaining about his single status.
Not that Mark was ever single, she corrected herself. More like Mark was never committed.
"Last I checked, Briar Creek wasn't exactly crawling with available men," she pointed out, leaning back against a bookshelf. Oh, how her legs ached from standing so much. She hadn't stopped since she climbed out of bed this morning. At four o'clock. A vision of a steaming bath and good glass of Cabernet brought a faint smile to her lips. It was Saturday after all, and it wasn't like she had any other plans for her evening. By the time the dinner crowd trickled out and the receipts were looked over, she could be on the couch and in her flannel pajamas by eleven, easy.
She grimaced. Better to keep that thought to herself.
"Oh, I can think of a few available men around here," Rosemary said cryptically, a sly smile playing on her painted lips.
"Well, that's a few more than I can think of," Anna declared. A familiar pang tightened her chest when she thought of Mark, working just down the street at the diner.
Why was she even thinking about him? She knew his reputation, knew it all too well, and she'd decided long ago to stop hoping one day he'd snap out of it. Mark was a flirt. A gorgeous, irresistible flirt. And a cad. Yes, he was a complete cad. And worse was that he knew it. And he had no intention of doing anything about it, either. So really, this had to stop. Right now.
Anna patted her pockets for her sunglasses and realized they were in her bag. Scolding herself for letting her mind wander down paths that should have been long forgotten, she retraced her steps behind the counter and crouched down to collect her belongings from a cabinet. "Are you going to be all right on your own?" she asked her sister as she stood and gestured with her chin to the increasingly troublesome book club.
Jane gave her a rueful smile. "Don't worry. You're forgetting that Rosemary is my boss for twenty hours a week. If you think this is bad, you haven't seen her at the studio. Trust me, you can never plié low enough for that woman."
Rosemary had a good heart despite her firm exterior, but nevertheless Anna didn't appreciate being on the receiving end of unwanted attention. If anyone deserved to be given the third degree in the romance department, it was Mark.
Mark. There she went again, thinking of the one man she should have put out of her mind years ago. Leave it to Rosemary to stir things up.
From across the room, a murmur arose, followed by what sounded an awful lot like squeals of suppressed glee. Jane's eyes sparked with interest. "Do we want to guess?"
"I don't think I even want to know," Anna groaned, hitching her handbag strap higher on her shoulder. She turned slowly to the group, sensing that Rosemary had one last matter to discuss before she could slip out the door.
"The gals and I have discussed it, and we have an idea." Rosemary paused for dramatic effect. "I am going to find you a man."
"Excuse me?" Anna choked on a burst of laughter, but Rosemary's wide smile did not slip. Her hands remained folded primly on her lap, her back ramrod straight, her gaze locked firmly with Anna's, whose eyes had widened in horror.
"You heard me," she said calmly. "I am going to find you a suitable match."
"Oh… please don't."
"Wait, what about me?" Jane interjected, and at that, every woman who had previously been pretending to ignore the conversation snapped to attention. It wasn't like Jane to have an outburst. "Why Anna and not me?" she repeated, setting her hands on her hips.
Rosemary did a poor job of disguising her shock. "My dear… Anna's been unattached for her entire life! Why, she must be coming up on thirty by now!"
Anna felt her nails embed deeper into her hip, until she feared she might have poked a hole right through her cotton shirt. Only twenty-eight and she was already earning a reputation as an old maid. This was getting worse and worse. Deciding she would only escalate matters by reacting to the insinuation, she said briskly, "I'm the same age as Kara, Mrs. Hastings. And what about her? Why not set up one of your daughters?"
Rosemary waved her hand through the air. "Kara and Molly don't want me meddling in their personal affairs."
And I do? Anna looked past the café to the pedestal tables artfully arranged with books that dotted the storefront, craning her neck to see if another soul could be seen over the tall wooden stacks, but there was no one in sight. Grace was most likely in the back room, going over the inventory lists or joyfully opening the latest shipment of books and planning a new window display, and that left the two younger Madison sisters to keep things afloat. And my, what a mess of it they were making.
"What about me?" Jane said again.
Anna stared at her, trying to mask her bewilderment. For a moment she had thought this was Jane's creative way of diverting Rosemary's fixation, but the conviction in her hazel eyes and the pert little lilt of her nose said otherwise, even though it had been only a matter of months since Jane had filed for divorce. "Don't you think it's a little soon?" Anna asked gently.
"It wasn't too soon for Adam! He got a jump start while we were still married!" Jane retorted with a lift of her chin. Sensing the alarm in Anna's expression, she added, "Oh, please. It's hardly a secret." She looked at Rosemary. "Fair's fair. If you can find someone for Anna, you can find someone for me, too."
"But I don't even want to be set up!" Anna wrapped her arm around Jane's shoulder and announced, "Perfect. Mrs. Hastings, you can call on all these so-called available men in Briar Creek and give them Jane's number."
"Nope." Rosemary made a grand show of shaking her head until her dangling earrings caught on her red cashmere scarf, which was loosely draped around her neck. She winced as she gingerly unhooked it, and frowned as she inspected the snag in the material.
"Jane just told you she needs help getting back out there."
"Oh, I heard," Rosemary mused, dropping her scarf with a sigh of defeat. She smiled at Jane fondly. "And I'm going to help you, my dear. On one condition."
Beside her Jane was beaming, but Anna was no fool when it came to matters of the heart. She had been once, but that was a long time ago. "What's that?" Anna hedged, her chest heavy with dread.
"You have to let me set you up, too, Anna." Rosemary hid her triumphant smile behind the rim of her mug.
"Oh, come on!" Jane begged, elbowing her gently. Anna stared into the pleading eyes of her sister, noting the flicker of disappointment she saw pass through them. It was the same look that had been there for months now, a lingering sadness behind that brave smile. Jane was the strong one, the supportive one, not the demanding one. Jane was the one who would hand you the last ten bucks in her wallet and then silently go without herself. Jane never asked for anything. And here she was, asking Anna for the one thing she didn't want to give.
She'd spent how many years avoiding the very thing she was being asked to do: date. Dating led to falling in love, and falling in love led to heartbreak. Jane of all people should have learned that lesson by now, but from the hopeful look in her expression, for some reason it appeared she had not. Somehow, having the father of her child and the man who had vowed to love her 'til death repeatedly cheat on her, lie to her, and then leave her had not destroyed her sister's belief in love.
"Fine," Anna said through gritted teeth, ignoring the whoop that went up from the table of women. She was too busy focusing on Jane's grateful smile. It was the happiest she had seen her younger sister in months, possibly more, she realized. She blinked quickly, never wanting to think of Jane hurting that way again. "And with that, I'm really leaving now."
"Go, go!" Rosemary said over the ruckus. "I don't know how you can expect to run that place if you spend all day chatting with us."
Anna took a deep breath, this time forcing herself to remain silent, and turned to leave. Jane grabbed her by the arm. "Thank you," she said.
"You owe me," Anna warned as she slid her sunglasses over her nose. She wound her way through the maze of bookshelves and pushed out into the early spring sunshine, wondering how she could get out of this little promise she had made. There was no time in her life for men or dating or any of that nonsense. There was only time for work. That's how it had to be, and that's how she preferred it. Most of the time.
She lifted her chin, focusing on the sidewalk ahead, on the hours of work that would give her the sense of purpose she craved, when panic stopped her dead in her tracks. There, at the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue, was a gray cloud of smoke. A crowd had gathered opposite the familiar brick storefront, and people along the way had stopped to stare.
A fire truck with sirens blazing whizzed by her, forcing her long blond hair to whip across her face, and it was then that Anna started to run. Not the café, she silently begged, please not the café. She weaved her way through the shocked onlookers, almost knocking over a small child who was grinning at the trucks rushing by, knowing with each step that her worst nightmare was coming true.
Smoke was billowing out the windows now, and broken glass littered the sidewalk. A team of firefighters was jumping off the truck, clutching a long hose. By the time Anna arrived at the Fireside Café, gasping for breath that felt thick and tight in her lungs, there was so much commotion that she couldn't get a straight answer from anyone. Red lights flashed through the soot that filled the air and caused her to cough. The sheriff was marching forward, barking commands, ordering people to stand back. Firemen stretched their arms wide as they formed a barrier and the mass moved slowly back, gathering Anna into its frantic progression.
She stared at the crowd as she stumbled backward, searching through the blur of her vision for a familiar face, for someone, anyone, to tell her it was all going to be okay, that it was nothing, just a scare.
"Anna, oh God!" Anna whirled around to face her assistant manager, finding some relief in the sight of her friend. Kara's face was stained with tears.
Panic tightened her chest, forcing her out of her haze. "Is anyone in the building?"
"No. No, I don't think so," Kara muttered, shaking her head. She covered her face with both hands as a loud crash split through the town, eliciting a wave of cries from the crowd.
"Probably just a support beam," a gruff voice called out, and Anna felt her knees begin to buckle. Just a support beam. Just a café. No one was hurt—she was safe, she should focus on that. Yet somehow she couldn't. All she could do was stand there, clutching Kara's arm and watching helplessly as everything she had built for herself, everything she depended on, came crashing down around her. Just like everything did in the end.
The Saturday crowd was bustling in Hastings. Every table was filled and the counter was lined with the regulars, mostly bachelors and widowers looking for good company, strong coffee, and Mark's popular weekend special, the Hastings Scramble, which was about as creative as things got around here, much to Mark's disappointment.
The wait was seven families deep, huddled together near the front door or lining the benches outside the glass window that gave a full view of Main Street's shops. Even Jackson Jones, Briar Creek's mayor, was staring down the man and woman lingering at his favorite table in the corner, clutching coffee mugs, and skimming the newspaper. From across the crowded room, Mark could sense the impatience in his face, but like the mayor or the tired-looking couple with a squirming toddler, no one showed any sign of turning away. If they wanted Saturday brunch, there was only one place in town that delivered, and this was it.
Of course, Mark supposed there was always the Fireside Café, but that was different—a little trendier, a little less kid-friendly. Or so he'd been told by loyal patrons. Mark had never stepped foot in that establishment and he didn't intend to start now. He and Anna Madison weren't exactly on speaking terms these days, and her restaurant made him uneasy. Even if his mother owned the building, the entire place was just a longstanding reminder of how cruel life could be.
"Refill?" Mark took the pot of premium roast from the burner and held it up to his cousin Luke, another Saturday staple, though Mark had to wonder how much longer that would last. Since Luke and Grace Madison had rekindled their relationship over Christmas, Luke was spending less time shooting pool and meeting for a beer and more time holed up in his luxury log cabin making up for lost time with his high school sweetheart.
"You know you can kick me out at any time," Luke said as Mark topped him off.
Mark spared a wry grin and started a fresh brew, relieved that Luke was sticking around a few minutes longer, even though he hated to admit it. After Luke's wife died two years ago, Luke quietly immersed himself in Mark's life, joining him for dinners and holidays, and any other excuse not to be alone. Mark knew the feeling and was happy to return the favor Luke had paid him all those years ago, when they were just kids and Mark's entire world felt like it had been ripped out from under him. But now Luke had Grace and Mark had… He stiffened. He had what he needed. Himself. His dog. His dreams of something better than this joint. Anything beyond that was trouble.
From across the room Mark heard a plate crash to the floor and a baby wail at a decibel level that caused him to wince. His newest waitress scrambled to the counter, red-faced and frazzled, hissing to the cook through the service window, "Another garden omelet with extra hash browns. And, um, hurry, if you can." She met Mark's gaze and lowered her lashes before ducking back into the throngs, nearly crashing into Jackson Jones, who was finally being seated after his twenty-minute wait.
"Popular spot today," Luke commented, stirring his coffee.
Mark grunted something of a response.
Luke set down the spoon and frowned. "I'd think you'd be pleased with all the foot traffic. It's what you set out to do, after all."
Hardly. Mark tossed a rag over his shoulder and poured himself a coffee, drinking it black. Frustration tightened his gut, and he pushed back the things he really wanted to say. "Maybe I'll mix things up around here. Change the menu."
He was compromising again, selling himself short, and the lack of energy he felt for the idea was evident in his voice. He leaned back against the far counter and stared into his mug, feeling like he was looking into the black hole of his future, and swallowed the last of it.
Hastings was supposed to be a temporary stop, a way to help out his mother and earn a few bucks while he figured things out. It was never supposed to be a long-term plan, yet somehow there didn't seem to be an end date. He'd been thinking about leaving this town for years. At a certain point, he just had to pack his bags and do it. Start fresh. Stop holding on to things that were never meant to be. Leave the past in the past. Where it belonged.
"What kind of food would you offer?" Luke asked, and Mark felt himself getting downright excited, the way he always did when he started brainstorming his plans.
"I was thinking modern American. A fresh twist on classic comfort foods." Only he wasn't thinking of this menu for Hastings. Or for any place in Briar Creek. But Luke didn't need to know that. Not yet, at least.
From the end of the counter, Arnie Schultz coughed and sputtered, "Modern American? Fresh twist on classic comfort food?" He snorted and bit into a greasy strip of bacon, shaking his head with a chuckle. "You getting all fancy on us, Mark? Too good for the diner?"
Mark inwardly cursed. Yep, he never should have said anything. Not until he had the idea off the ground, anyway. If he ever had it off the ground. Ideas cost money, and then there was this place to think about…
"Forget him," Luke said, finishing his coffee. He leaned into his elbows on the counter, meeting Arnie's eye, and jerked his thumb in Mark's direction. "This guy is a certified chef, you know."
Arnie nodded and gulped his orange juice. "And he slings the best hash around. That's the kind of food I like. That's why I'm here seven mornings a week."
"It's just talk, Arnie. Just an idea." Just a pipe dream. Mark scrubbed at some spilled syrup on the counter, grumbling to himself.
It was the same internal argument he had every time he started letting his mind run with thoughts of a new place. Thinking about what it could be was one thing, setting things into motion was another. The restaurant business was volatile—you could be hot one month and out of business by the next—he'd seen it with his own father to know how quickly things could turn. Hastings was a steady stream of income. A sure thing. Few things in life were.
He rubbed at his forehead, feeling the onset of a headache. The noise from the room often did it to him, which was why he kept a bottle of aspirin in his back pocket. He pulled it out now and shook one into his palm before bringing it to his mouth and swallowing it dry.
A fire truck roared by at full speed, lights blaring, its horn warning cars to clear Briar Creek's main strip. The group of people waiting outside the diner rose from their benches, and through the glass Mark could see the frantic movement in their hands, the way their gazes all trailed to something in the distance.
Mark jutted his chin to Luke. "That's the second one." He tossed the empty aspirin bottle in the trash and frowned out the window. "Think there's something going on?"
Standing, Luke pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket and peeled off a twenty. "Only one way to find out."
Mark handed a menu to the next customer, who eagerly slid into his cousin's place, and began reciting the daily specials—though he didn't think there was anything particularly special about them—when Luke's voice jarred his attention to the front of the room.
"It's Fireside!" Luke shouted. The squeak of metal chair legs pushing against the well-worn floorboards was the only sound louder than the murmurs and gasps from every customer in the room, who abandoned their eggs and pancakes to run to the window and take in the scene.
A hard knot formed in Mark's stomach. Anna.
Tossing down his rag, he stepped around the counter, heading for the door. Even through the mass of people pushing their way to the front of the diner, he could see the anguish in Luke's face and the panic in his eyes. He knew what Luke was thinking, where his mind had gone: Grace.
Luke had already lost his first wife. Mark knew all too well how it felt to fear another loss.
"She's at the bookstore," Mark said firmly, stepping quickly into the role he'd occupied since he was ten, the head of the Hastings family, the provider, the rock, but his mind was spinning, his heart hammering in his chest, and even as he said the words, he was thinking not of Grace, but of her sister. "It's Saturday. Grace is always at Main Street Books on Saturdays." But Anna never leaves Fireside. It was her passion, her life. A dark thought took hold when he considered it her possible undoing. Nothing good ever came from that place.
- "4 stars! In the latest in her Briar Creek series, Miles brings us a book filled with crisp storytelling, amusing banter and charming, endearing characters. The love between Mark and Anna is genuinely deep, and the tension between them is fiery. Miles' modern romance will lure readers in and keep them turning the pages."—RT Book Reviews
"The passion and tension between Luke and Grace is equal parts tender and intense, and their journey back toward each other is a sweet and nostalgic one. With a down-home feel throughout, this story is sure to warm any reader's heart. A delightful read."
--RT Book Reviews on Mistletoe on Main Street
- "Captivating, passionate...descriptive prose allows the story to come to life and makes you want to snuggle up to by a warm fireside."—Romance Junkies on 'Twas the Week Before Christmas
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages