Read an excerpt from Love at Sunset Lake:
Tess Palmer didn’t need to be perfect. She only needed to get every detail right.
And as a special events caterer, her to-do list this Friday ran for three entire pages of details.
She stopped at a light in a pricey St. Louis suburb and glanced at the clipboard on the console of her van. For the next event, a simple surprise birthday party, she’d gone over her list so many times that the edges of the paper curled. The future of her catering business was at stake, after all.
She drove two blocks farther, passed a row of dogwoods in full bloom at the entrance to a subdivision, and parked as instructed in the client’s three-car garage, where her commercial van could be hidden from the guest of honor.
Up since five, Tess had triple-checked the food, recounted the plates, and examined every tablecloth for spots. She’d even taken more care than normal with her appearance, using a double coating of hairspray to keep her hair in a bun, dousing her white blouse with extra starch, and wearing her newest black pants. This event was going to be a success. She’d make sure of it.
A stack of plates in one arm, she walked to the door that led into the house from the garage and knocked.
Madeleine McCullen pulled the door open wide and, although she was well past sixty-five, fluttered her hands like an excited five year old. “My son just sent a text. His wife doesn’t suspect a thing, thinks I’m picking up drive-thru burgers for our lunch.” She ushered Tess into a huge kitchen.
“We can definitely do better than drive-thru.” Tess set the plates on the island and flashed an encouraging pre-event smile.
A silver-haired Peter Pan, at five-foot-nothing and maybe a hundred pounds, Madeleine made Tess—five seven and more on the sturdy side—feel like a Clydesdale.
But Clydesdales know how to work, and Tess was all about work.
Madeleine tapped Tess’s stack of plates with the click of a long, manicured nail. “You’ve got more of those?”
“Three more loads. Plenty for fifty guests.”
Madeleine stepped closer, surrounded by a cloud of magnolia perfume. The hot-pink sequins on her blouse caught the light. “Dear…” Her voice hit the same too-sweet note that it held each time she’d called to change the menu.
Tess gripped the edge of the granite countertop, stomach tightening. A week ago, she’d made it clear that everything had to be final, including the number of guests. “Fifty people, right?”
“Well…” Guilt flashed across Madeleine’s eyes. “My other daughter decided to fly in from Dallas. With her husband and teenage son.”
Tess released her death hold on the granite. “Three more people? No problem. I always allow ten-percent extra.” Paying attention to detail, planning for overages like this, riding herd on indecisive clients like Madeleine—it had taken four years, but Tess was getting good at catering.
“I told her she could bring her in-laws,” Madeleine said. “And her best friend.”
Tess stopped congratulating herself.
“And their families.” Madeleine slipped the words in soft and low, as if that made the news easier to take.
The nerves in Tess’s stomach contracted into a knot. “How many people total?” She tried to sound calm but failed.
“I added it up.” Madeleine pulled a small piece of paper from her pocket. “Sixty-five. That’s why I think you’ll need more plates.”
With effort, Tess kept her mouth shut. Sixty five? Fifteen extra people? Plates were the least of her problems.
She needed an additional dessert, more appetizers, and more drinks, all ready to serve in less than four hours. And her kitchen was thirty minutes away.
But she had to pull this off. In catering, there were no second chances, and she was counting on referrals from Madeleine to boost her business over the hump, safely into the world where she’d make a solid profit every year.
“Excuse me. I need to make a call.” Tess backed toward the garage. “And make sure I have more, um, plates.”
“I thought so.” Now smiling, Madeleine smoothed her gray pixie cut. “Good thing I asked about them when you first got here.”
Tess gave a tight nod.
“Hey, where’s my beautiful bride of forty-seven years?” A barrel-chested older man wearing a green golf shirt with a country club logo walked in from the garage and blocked Tess’s escape.
Madeleine’s brown eyes sparkled. “Right here, Harry.”
He wrapped her in a huge hug and then, one arm still around her sequined shoulders, beamed at her as though she was his own personal Miss America.
Tess looked away and braced herself for the all-too-familiar wave of sadness. Now was not the time to dwell on what was missing in her life. She had a food crisis to handle. “I’ll be back.” In the garage, she climbed into the van and wiped the moisture from her palms on her pants. Then she pulled out her cell phone, dialed Rose, and hurriedly explained about Madeleine’s extra guests.
“How are we supposed to feed heavy hors d’oeuvres and birthday cake to another fifteen people?” Rose’s voice shot up an octave on the last word.
“I don’t know. But remember what the sous-chef at her country club said?”
“‘If we get Madeleine’s approval, the jobs will roll in,’ but—”
“No ‘buts.’ We have to do this.” Sometimes when a job went off course, Tess had to push Rose past panic. “It’s a buffet, that helps.”
“True,” Rose said with less tension, more resignation.
“I’ll take stuff inside and then pick up more crackers and some fancy olives. Call you from the store.”
The second Tess hung up, her phone rang.
An unfamiliar number with the area code for Sunset Lake, out in north-central Missouri, where Great-Aunt Leticia had lived.
The reality of her death two days ago swept over Tess anew.
But the call wasn’t from the funeral home or the minister. She knew those numbers.
With exactly three hours and twenty-seven minutes until the McCullen party, anybody else would have to wait.
She let the call roll to voice mail and unloaded the rest of the food, squeezing what she had to into Madeleine’s refrigerator, then backed out of the driveway and headed toward the highway. Ten minutes later she reached her exit and steered up the off-ramp.
On the incline, the van slowed dramatically, even when she punched her foot on the gas. What was going on?
The van inched up the ramp, finally reaching the top. Back on level ground, it drove normally again.
Tess blew out an exasperated breath. Once this event was finished, she’d have to get the engine checked. Silver Platter Catering couldn’t survive without wheels, even if van repair wasn’t in the budget. But how was she going to pay for it? Forget about borrowing from family. Her brother, the boy genius, was doing his residency in pediatrics and struggling with student loans. And asking Mom for money would only lead to a resounding no, followed by a discussion of Tess’s failures.
Tess snagged a parking spot, grabbed her phone, and called Rose. “I played with a new ice cream last night, Coconut Lemon Bliss. We can have a server put mini scoops in glass dessert cups at the end of the buffet.
“I saw that in the freezer.”
Wait, she hadn’t made that much ice cream. “Why don’t you crush some graham crackers to line the bottom of the cups?”
“Okay. And I found dough for those yummy cheese straws.”
“Perfect. Start those. I’ll be there soon.”
An hour and a half later, with small culinary miracles complete, Tess turned off the highway and headed back to the McCullens’.
Rose sat in the passenger seat, cheeks still pink from their frantic loading. Although a year younger than Tess, Rose appeared older than her twenty-six years, the toll of late nights as the single mother of a toddler. She balanced the birthday cake on her lap, and the scent of its buttercream frosting filled the front of the van.
The rest of the food—enough for sixty-five—was secured in the back.
“I can’t believe we did it.” Rose pushed her dark bangs off her forehead. “I’m glad you had that new ice cream made. It’s amazing, like nothing I ever tasted.”
“Thanks.” Tess looked over at Rose. “But Madeleine’s daughter-in-law isn’t the only one with a birthday today, and don’t think I’ve forgotten. I didn’t have time to give it to you, but I got you a present. It’s nothing huge, just a season pass to the zoo for you and Charlie. I figure he’s old enough—”
“Nothing huge?” Rose’s voice grew higher and filled with emotion. “It’s way more than you should have done.”
“Nonsense. You know I love birthdays. And you’re one of my best friends.” A bit of an understatement. Tess’s old friends had moved to another galaxy, orbiting husbands and babies. If she didn’t count clients and wait staff, on most days, Rose was the only person Tess talked to.
Not that Rose knew that. When she wasn’t at Silver Platter, Rose spent time with her son and her mommy friends.
When Tess wasn’t at Silver Platter, she made checklists.
“I’m so glad we work togeth—” Tess glanced down at the floorboard, then at the huge hill they were climbing—or trying to climb. Only a fourth of the way up. She jammed her foot down.
Instead of an encouraging vroom, the engine made a weak moan.
Useless. Her pulse sped and she shot a look at Rose.
“Are we out of gas?” Lines formed around the edges of Rose’s mouth.
Tess pointed at the full gas gauge. “And I was fine on the highway where it was flat.”
“We’re at least two miles away.” Rose’s tone said she’d given up, like it might as well be two hundred miles.
Tess yanked the steering wheel hard to the right and turned onto a side street. Not. Giving. Up. “We’ll cut through by The Ice Cream Station and avoid that big hill. Maybe we can make it that way.”
“Leave it to you to know a back way past a place that sells ice cream.”
In spite of her worry, Tess grinned. She did sample a lot of ice cream. But she liked to think of it as research.
On the side street, the van eased along, almost as if nothing was wrong. Two minutes later they reached a stop sign. Beyond it, the road dipped, then climbed again.
Rose leaned forward, peering ahead.
Tess tightened her grip on the steering wheel. They only had that hill and about half a mile to go. But with the time they’d lost cooking for fifteen more guests, there was no way to carry all the food in on foot. She studied the road ahead and looked back at Rose. “If I get up enough speed going down this hill, maybe I can coast up the next one.”
Rose lowered her head and began to pray under her breath.
Tess kept her focus on the road, not heaven. God probably wouldn’t help her, but maybe he would intervene—for Rose.
Jaw tight, Tess floored the gas.
The old van raced down the hill, bottomed out, and began to climb. Three-fourths of the way up, however, gravity took hold.
“C’mon, c’mon.” Tess’s heart pounded. She sucked in a breath and pressed harder on the gas, straining her thigh muscle to ram her black clog against the floorboard.
Yard by sluggish yard, the van crept up the hill.
With a jolt, as if fueled by its dying breath, it rose the final inches to the crest.
Tess exhaled. “We made it.”
Rose slumped against the seat. “Once we unload, I’ll call my cousin’s friend and see if he can look at the van tomorrow.”
Tess turned into the McCullen driveway and, with one hand, lifted the collar of her blouse off her chest to let in some cool air. Time to act like nothing had happened. Time to wow Madeleine McCullen and ensure the future of Silver Platter Catering.
Six hours later, packing up in the kitchen as the last guest left, Tess leaned against the counter and caught her breath. In spite of fifteen extra guests, her ancient van, and the hills, the party had been a success.
Madeleine walked in, looking less fresh-from-the-salon, more droopy pixie.
Though Tess and her staff did the heavy lifting, being a good hostess was exhausting.
“You were fantastic.” Madeleine’s eyes met Tess’s, her sincerity clear. “Those crab things. And that ice cream… Give me a week or two to talk you up, and your phone will be ringing off the hook.”
Excitement filled Tess’s chest like a swig of carbonated soda. Exactly what she needed—good reviews that would bring in more catering jobs. Her hard work would pay off in success. “Thank you, Madeleine. Your recommendation will mean a lot.”
“You’ve got it.” Madeleine rubbed her lower back. “I’m going upstairs to take something for this. Just show yourself out when you’re done.” She slid off her pink mules, picked them up, and padded toward the hall, leaving behind a faint scent of magnolias.
Tess bundled up the dirty tablecloths, the last load. Now she only needed to help Rose strap the trays back in the van.
Oh, the call she hadn’t taken. Probably some question about the funeral. With Dad long dead and Leticia’s brother in the hospital, Tess had ended up in charge.
She pulled up her voice mail and hit Play.
“Hello, this is Jewel, from the law firm of Redmond and Sons. Mr. Al Redmond would like you to come by Monday right after the funeral for Leticia Palmer. You’re named as a beneficiary in her estate.”
Tess stopped in the doorway to the garage, leaned against the door frame, and listened to the message again.
One more sign that Leticia was really gone. If only Tess had visited her great aunt more often after high school.
She blinked back tears. It was okay. Leticia had lived a long, healthy life.
But that message…
A tingle of hope began to rise in her chest. Years ago, Leticia had hinted that she might leave Tess some money.
Maybe, if her luck held out, it would be enough to fix the van.
Jack Hamlin tugged on his hiking boots, grabbed a jacket, and stepped onto his back deck, ready to check on the wood ducks.
Sunset Lake spread before him, forty acres shimmering in the morning light. The air smelled of last night’s rain and rang with the conversations of red-winged blackbirds.
In the shallow cove near his house, several Canada geese and a pair of blue-winged teals were feeding. Beautiful birds, but not his favorite, not the baby wood ducks. Not yet. Their unhatched eggs were still in their nests, high in trees or in manmade boxes on metal poles.
But it was mid-April. One day soon the ducklings would start to hatch. Then each baby wood duck would make a bold leap from its nest and plummet until it bounced on the ground or splashed into the water. But they would never leap from those nests, never reach the lake, if their eggs were eaten by raccoons or snakes.
Jack squinted at one of the nesting boxes, far across the lake on one of three dead trees knee-deep in water. His urge to check the boxes, to make sure the storm hadn’t affected them, was probably paranoid.
The weatherman hadn’t called the storm that hit mid-Missouri last night a tornado, but one of the three trees looked wrong, like the wind had definitely done a number on it.
Halfway down the deck stairs, Jack spotted a different type of problem on the far side of the lake. In the distance, behind the home of his neighbor, Leticia Palmer, a cedar leaned at a precarious angle and threatened her power line. Further proof the weatherman might have been wrong.
Jack would check on the nesting boxes, then deal with the cedar by the power line.
Leticia wouldn’t be needing electricity, seeing as he was attending her funeral today, but he’d taken care of her property for years. It didn’t feel right to stop now, even if the church was going to inherit the place.
He took a hatchet and a pruning saw out to the dock and went back to the garage for his canoe—the same canoe he’d used here since he was a kid. Soon he was on the water, paddling toward the first nesting box.
Sunset Lake was his home, his solace, and—when he loaded his backpack with gear and set up his easel by the water—his studio.
Near Kaitlyn’s Point, where a long finger of land stretched into the water, he startled a frog, sending it into the lake. Jack drew in a deep breath and watched the ripples fan out from the frog’s entry point.
After several minutes, he passed the dam and rounded a bend. There, the first nesting box sat five feet over the water, atop a pole a few feet from shore. A metal cone encircled the pole beneath the box to protect it from predators.
The box looked fine.
Probably, he should assume the rest of the boxes were all right, deal with the cedar, and get to work. He needed to add more detail to his current painting of a pair of American black ducks. The gallery where he showed his work wanted it for an event late next month.
But he’d paddled all this way already. Might as well keep going.
Around the next bend, he had a clear view of Leticia’s house. Two stories, but designed to look long and low, with a huge deck facing the lake.
He’d liked Leticia. Ever since she moved in fifteen years ago, the retired Latin teacher had been a good neighbor. When he’d bought his childhood home from his parents and suggested a mutual covenant to protect the habitat at Sunset Lake, she’d readily agreed. And she’d left him alone.
No “come over for dessert,” no mention of a friend’s daughter she wanted to introduce, no invitations to church.
Because he didn’t need to socialize, didn’t want to get involved with another woman, and didn’t have much use for God.
He paddled closer to the next box, which at Leticia’s request was directly out from her house, where she’d been able to view it easily with binoculars.
There it was. Good thing he’d come to check on it.
The three dead trees rose from the water, the bases of their trunks submerged. Two of the trees were little more than stumps. The third was taller and retained a few branches.
Well, sort of retained, after the storm. Now one huge branch dangled, halfway broken off the trunk, and stretched into the water a few inches from shore. Another branch, higher and also partly broken off by wind, now leaned toward the top of the nesting box.
A raccoon could scamper out from shore on the lower branch, scoot up the tree to the second branch, and shimmy down it to the nesting box—a sneaky way to skirt the protective metal cone and access the box from above.
And have duck eggs for dinner.
Jack leaned back and considered his options. The lower branch lay toward the shore in a particularly shallow area. If he cut that branch, it would land in a position that would still allow a raccoon access to the tree.
If he cut the top branch, though, the one that hung down toward the nesting box, it should fall in the water completely. A raccoon would be able to get to the dead tree, but not the nesting box.
That should work. If he could reach the upper branch.
With a bit of maneuvering, he positioned his canoe beside the tallest dead tree and wedged the stern between two branches—broken off long ago—that stuck out of the water. Not perfect stability, not by a long shot, but better than nothing.
He picked up the hatchet from the floor of the canoe, made sure the blade cover was securely in place, and slid the hatchet handle through a belt loop on his jeans.
Now came the hard part.
On both sides of the canoe, in addition to the two branches that stabilized it, other branches stuck up through the surface of the water. Underneath, hidden by the reflection of blue sky, peril lurked. If he fell…
The back of his throat tightened. This probably was not the time to consider which arm or leg he’d prefer to impale on a submerged stake.
“This is such a great idea,” he said under his breath.
The mother wood duck poked her head out of the box and peered at him, giving no indication that she appreciated his sarcasm.
Jack grabbed the trunk of the dead tree, and—ever so slowly—stood.
He clung to the tree trunk with both arms, sucked in a breath, and forced himself to steady the canoe with his feet.
Thanks in large part to the restraining branches, it worked. He exhaled.
At last, he was in position.
He held the tree trunk with one arm and freed the hatchet from his belt loop. Then he flipped off the blade cover and hacked at the branch.
Three whacks later, it gave a loud creeee-eeech and broke apart.
As he’d envisioned, it fell into the water. The pathway to the nesting box was removed. Raccoons around the lake cursed his name.
Jack leaned forward a fraction and gently tossed the hatchet into the bow of the canoe. Then he straightened back up. He’d ease straight down in to his seat and—
“You shouldn’t stand up in a canoe!” The warning cut through the air like a tornado siren.
Jack jerked toward the sound.
A blonde woman stood on the shore.
The canoe thrust forward, away from the stabilizing branches.
His throat slammed closed and he lurched for the tree.
If he could grab—
The canoe shot toward deeper water.
For a fraction of a second, he remained standing, like a surfer riding a wave. Then the canoe slowed.
Before he could sit, he swayed right.
He leaned left and hunkered over, trying to steady the canoe.
But he overcorrected.
The canoe tipped.
And he splashed into the water.
His elbow rammed into an underwater branch, and his feet hit the bottom and sank into the muck.
He gasped and stood up. The water didn’t even come to his waist, but it was so cold that chunks of ice should have been floating on the lake. His elbow throbbed. And he must have hit his shin against the canoe as he fell. All because of some blonde.
“Are you okay?” She ran to the edge of the lake.
He wiped a slimy bit of duckweed from his cheek. “I’m fine.” What a ridiculous question. Of course he wasn’t okay.
The canoe bobbed a few feet away, upside down, with the paddles close by.
His hatchet and pruning saw had to be at the bottom of the lake. Sunk in the mud and impossible to find.
And he needed to get out of the water before he froze to death.
He bent his elbow and drew in a sharp breath. Probably not broken but plenty painful. Carefully he navigated the underwater branches, righted the canoe, and slid the paddles inside.
Mama Duck gave a series of faint, unsettled squawks.
He didn’t know for sure, but judging by the tone, she was glad he was leaving.
Farther from Leticia’s, in a spot where the lake bottom was clear, he dragged the canoe toward shore. He wasn’t going to attempt to climb into it in the middle of the lake while wearing stiff jeans and a bulky canvas jacket. Not with his elbow and shin hurting. And not with an audience.
Because the woman was still there, watching and leaning out toward the water like a concerned mom at camp. At thirty-two he didn’t need mothering.
He pulled the canoe out of the lake and limped, dripping, onto the grass, boots globbed with mud, clothes strewn with duckweed.
The blonde scurried over.
Jack narrowed his eyes, trying to place her.
Pale hair in a tight bun. A face without makeup, authentic and attractive, despite the obvious lack of a brain behind it.
“Can I help you?” she said, now right beside him, her blue-gray eyes wide.
“I think you’ve helped quite enough.” He took a step back. Favoring his left arm, he stripped off his jacket and examined his elbow. The jacket was torn, but the skin was unbroken. And, though it felt like he’d have a massive bruise on his shin, his jeans weren’t even ripped.
“What were you doing out there?” Her tone implied he needed mental help.
“Removing a branch brought down by the storm.” He wrung out the hem of his T-shirt and put his jacket back on. At least it blocked the wind. “If you’d left me alone…”
Her mouth tightened and her chin shot out. “That branch wasn’t hurting anything. It would have simply fallen in the lake one day.”
Heat rose in Jack’s chest. The woman didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. “That branch”—he jabbed a finger toward where it had hung—“was the perfect access for a raccoon to reach that nesting box.”
“So if no one eats the eggs, in a few days they will hatch. Which is what we want, unless you hate baby ducklings.”
Her lips grew even tighter, bunched up into an uneven line. “I do not hate ducklings. But why do you care so much? Are you from the state conservation department?”
“Jack Hamlin. I live over there.” He pointed at his house. “And you’re here because…?”
“I’m Tess Palmer, Leticia’s great-niece. Here for the funeral.”
Jack didn’t respond. That explained her black skirt, dark blouse, and black high heels, but not why she was at the lake.
“I wanted to come here before the service, to say goodbye.” She made a vague gesture toward the water. “It seemed fitting.” She trailed off.
All right, she understood Leticia. He’d give her that. He tipped his head a few degrees in acknowledgment.
“I figured Trevor wouldn’t mind me walking around.” Tess gazed at the lake.
“Trevor?” Jack looked around. He didn’t need to be surprised by another stranger.
“Leticia’s brother, the one who will inherit the place.”
“Really?” She had a surprise coming. Everyone in town knew Leticia was leaving her house to the Abundance Community Church. Jack took a step back. Whatever, he’d had enough chit-chat. He needed to take a hot shower and get dressed for the funeral.
“Trevor lives in Oregon, but he’s in the hospital, so he won’t be here today. May never be here. I remember when I was in high school, he told my mom that if he owned this place, he’d sell it to someone who’d put in a hotel.”
Jack flinched. “A hotel?”
“Can’t you see something small and rustic? With kayaks, paddle boards, a few of those personal watercraft?” She sounded ready to write the brochure.
“No, I can’t.” Jack repositioned the canoe. There was no need to let the mere mention of personal watercraft spike his blood pressure. Trevor’s scheme was a non-issue, because the church would not be building a hotel. “I’ll be over on Leticia’s land this afternoon.” He pointed to the leaning cedar. “To make sure nothing falls on that power line. I had planned to take care of it after the nesting boxes.”
“You’re really serious about protecting the ducks. From raccoons and all.”
“Yep.” Jack shoved off and climbed in the canoe.
His kind of serious included very strong opinions about the right and wrong places for noisy, intrusive personal watercraft. And about hotels.
If anybody in Leticia’s family tried some stupid development scheme, they’d hear how serious he was—from his lawyer.
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