Authors: Linda Winstead Jones
It started with a baseball...
Which shattered Lauren Russell’s perfectly ordered life. Lauren’s new neighbors were about to see the Southern lifestyle columnist’s temper! Then she met Cole Donovan, the sexy single dad. He was not the man from her husband list; he was too tall, too sexy—and definitely had too many kids! But somehow, looking into his blue, blue eyes, she forgot all that....
Lauren was too elegant, too prim and didn’t understand that his three rambunctious kids were the focus of his life. But his tempting neighbor smelled delicious, looked luscious and cooked like a dream. Cole wasn’t looking for a wife, but he couldn’t stay away from Lauren. Was it a recipe for disaster—or marriage?
“I’m going to ask you out on a date,” Cole said.
“I’m a little afraid, though,” he continued. My last few dates were…”
Lauren laughed and turned her head. Their lips brushed, met, settled together for a kiss that rocked him to the core.
She took her lips from his and whispered, “Let’s not overthink this. If we do, we might end up talking ourselves out of something good.”
“You don’t strike me as a ‘go with the flow’ kinda girl.”
“I’m usually not. For you, I’ll make an exception.” She tilted her head, touched her lips to his.
Before the kiss had a chance to grow into more, a sharp crash from next door—too close—interrupted.
“I have to go,” he said, reluctantly stepping away.
Lauren nodded. “If you ask me on a date,” she said, “I think I’ll say yes and take my chances.”
You never know where inspiration will come from, when or where characters will come to life—and then refuse to let go. I’ve recently started following baseball rather fanatically, thanks to a nephew’s success in that sport. When you watch every game of the season, when you get to know the players, you see well beyond the games. You begin to get a small glimpse of their lives. These very talented ballplayers travel all the time, during the long season. Their families make a big sacrifice. And there was my “what if?” What if a father was suddenly left to raise three kids on his own? It would be a sacrifice to walk away from a lucrative career in order to be a single parent, but that’s what Cole Donovan did, and that shaped his character for me.
Having three kids of my own, I know what a rowdy household can be like.
Lauren Russell comes from a world I know well. The South. Her grandmother was a big influence on her, and is still around to help shape her life. Cooking is at the center of Lauren’s world. She’s also organized to a fault and she has plans for her life, personal and professional. Plans thrown into chaos by a handsome man and three adorable (if occasionally unmanageable) children who move into the house next door and turn her neat life upside down.
Sometimes chaos is a good thing. Sometimes it’s the
planned that shapes us.
I hope you enjoy their story!
Linda Winstead Jones
The Husband Recipe
Books by Linda Winstead Jones
Harlequin Special Edition
The Husband Recipe
In Bed with Boone
Clint’s Wild Ride
On Dean’s Watch
A Touch of the Beast
Truly, Madly, Dangerously
One Major Distraction
The Sheik and I
Come to Me
*Last Chance Heroes
Last of the Ravens
Love Is Murder:
“Calling after Midnight”
Beyond the Dark:
LINDA WINSTEAD JONES
is a bestselling author of more than fifty romance books in several subgenres—historical, fairy tale, paranormal and, of course, romantic suspense. She’s won a Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence twice. She is also a three-time RITA® Award finalist and (writing as Linda Fallon) winner of the 2004 RITA® Award for paranormal romance.
Linda lives in north Alabama with her husband of thirty-seven years. She can be reached via www.Harlequin.com or her own website, www.lindawinsteadjones.com.
With special thanks to The Cooking Women, Doris and Joyce. Fried chicken, pinto beans and cornbread, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, fried squash, seven-layer cake, peach cobbler…and that’s just a part of one meal. Y’all have inspired me to go back to my grandmother’s cookbooks and give some of those recipes a whirl. And of course a thanks to Benny, as well. Because when I’m not around,
has to take care of the eating.
Something hit the side of her house, right outside her office. Lauren Russell jumped half out of her skin, jarring against the desk and sending hot tea sloshing over the edge of the cup and running under the stack of articles she’d printed out, as well as coming dangerously close to her optical mouse.
She leaped up and grabbed her napkin—high quality linen, of course—and swabbed at the spill. When she’d rescued the mouse, she left the rest for a moment and hot-footed it over to the window to see what the heck had happened. She was just in time to spot a little boy pick up a baseball and hurl it to his sister in the yard next door, then race back into his own territory.
She should have known. The monsters were loose again.
Lauren immediately felt guilty, because in general she liked children. Maybe the pertinent phrase was
because these particular children were driving her nuts.
Going back to her desk, she finished mopping up, drying off the papers as best she could, then taking them into the bathroom and using her blow dryer to finish the job. They were crisp and wrinkly, but readable. She didn’t like the fact that they were now less than perfect, but it would take too much time to go to each and every website and reprint everything. Later, maybe.
She sat at her desk again and did her best to tune out the happy screams and shrieks of what sounded like fifty children romping around a sprinkler on a hot summer day, as well as the occasional thump of a ball hitting the side of her house. Every time it hit, she jumped. How could three kids make so much noise? Weren’t children supposed to spend hours indoors playing video games these days? How was she supposed to work with this going on?
She had a deadline, an article to finish and send off by noon. The first thump had alarmed her, but now that she knew what was going on she should be able to dismiss the noise and concentrate on her work. Though it was tempting, she didn’t march outside to tell the kids to take it easy. Yesterday she’d had to tell them not to tramp in her flower bed, and last week she’d had a talk with them about Frisbees in her tomato garden. She didn’t want to be
neighbor, the grumpy woman all the neighborhood children were afraid of, the witch who did her best to squelch the kids’ fun. Might as well get herself a pointy hat and construct her house out of candy. No, thanks.
Still, a very tall privacy fence was looking more and more like a necessary investment. That would ruin the ambience of her carefully landscaped backyard, but if this continued she might have no choice. Her office was on the newly noisy side of the house, as was the spare bedroom. Unless she wanted to try to move her bedroom furniture into these rooms and convert the master suite into a large office, she was out of luck. Yeah, like she wanted to try to sleep on this side of the house.
The Garrisons had been such good, quiet neighbors! Why had they moved? Lauren was happy that the older couple now lived closer to their eldest daughter and their two grandchildren, but why couldn’t the daughter have moved here? Why did being close to family mean going to Arizona, of all places? Maybe Alabama was hot in the summertime, even if Huntsville was about as far north as you could get and still be in the state, but it couldn’t be any hotter than Arizona. Worse, the Garrisons had sold their house to a family with three children. At least, she’d seen three so far—two boys and a girl. Good Lord, she hoped there weren’t more.
Lauren stared at the computer screen, concentrating diligently in an effort to mentally block the noises from next door. Naturally, trying so hard only made her more aware of every sound. A piercing squeal. A shouted taunt. Laughter. She just had a couple of hours to finish this piece for the local paper, and then she needed to tackle the edits on her book. They were due back in three days, and she was hoping to make quick work of them this afternoon and evening, and then tomorrow morning overnight the changes so they’d be there a day early. It was her first book, a collection of recipes and household tips—many of which had come from her weekly newspaper articles—and she was certainly hoping there would be other books to follow. Being late wouldn’t endear her to her editor. Besides, Lauren hated to be late, almost as much as she hated it when others were late. It was a…well, a
she had. Everyone was allowed a
or two, in her opinion.
As she was attempting to place herself in a magic bubble of silence, a loud crash jerked her back to reality. A loud crash accompanied by shards of glass that flew into her office, landing on the area rug and her grandmother’s occasional table and into the vase of fresh flowers there. Lauren’s heart almost jumped out of her chest. She screamed—just a little—and then, a split second later, she realized that all screams and laughter from next door had gone silent.
When she’d gathered her composure she stood carefully, stepping over the pieces of glass on the floor, glad that she wasn’t working barefoot as she often did. And there, on top of her edits, sat a baseball. The offending, intruding, destructive and
baseball, which was now perched on top of the once-pristine top page of a once-perfectly-aligned stack.
Lauren had heard the term
her blood boiled,
and now she knew exactly what that felt like. She experienced an intense physical response to the sight of that baseball on her work, to the broken glass and the ruined papers. That was it. She literally couldn’t take any more.
She snatched up the baseball and stalked to the back door, bursting onto her small stone patio like a woman on a mission. In her fury she noted—not for the first time—the crushed flowers and the broken tomato stalk. The trampled grass and the discarded juice box. The juice box was new, tossed into her backyard as if this were the city dump. Like her office, the backyard had been in perfect condition before the new family next door had moved in and disrupted her life.
In the neighboring yard—where the recently added trampoline and soccer net marred the landscape—the sprinkler continued to spurt a jerking stream of water this way and that, but the children were nowhere to be seen. For once, all was quiet. Lauren cut in between the two houses, glancing at her broken window as she walked by on her way to the front door. She’d never before really noticed how close the two houses were. Little more than an alleyway separated her home from the one next door.
The Garrison house, which wasn’t the Garrison house any longer, was larger than her own. Some years ago, long before Lauren had bought her home, Mr. Garrison had built an addition that consisted of two bedrooms and another bath. At one time he’d had children of his own living there, and they’d needed the space. Once the children moved out, that extra space had been unnecessary. Helen Garrison had happily told Lauren all about the small condo they’d bought in Phoenix. The older woman was thrilled to have less house to clean, no yard to tend.
Ringing the doorbell would be too passive for Lauren’s mood, so she knocked soundly on the front door. She knocked so hard her knuckles stung. As she waited for an answer she shook out her hand and studied the mess on the small porch. A baseball glove, Frisbees, a Barbie doll with one leg and a frighteningly original haircut, and a skateboard. It could be such a cute porch, with a couple of white wicker chairs and a pair of hanging ferns, but instead the space was messy, untended and chaotic. She imagined whatever lay beyond the door was no better.
No one immediately answered her knock, so she rang the doorbell. Twice. Inside she heard whispering. The heathens were ignoring her. Heaven above, surely those kids weren’t in there alone! No, the family car, a white minivan that had seen better days, was parked in the driveway. It was the only vehicle she’d seen in front of the house since the new family had moved in, not that she spent her time watching the neighbors. She couldn’t help but notice a few details, as she collected the mail or drove into her own driveway. For all she knew there was another vehicle parked in the one-car garage.
All was quiet now. She didn’t even hear whispering. She rang the doorbell for the third time and then lifted her hand to knock once more. Harder this time around.
The door swung open on a very tall, broad-shouldered man who held a cell phone to his ear. Obviously distracted, and also obviously not in a good mood, he held up one finger to indicate that he needed another minute.
The heathens’ father needed a lesson in manners as much as his children did. It was all she could do not to snatch the cell phone out of his hand! What she really wanted to do was grab the offending finger and bend it back.
would get his attention.
But of course, she did no such thing. The hand holding the offending baseball dropped, and some of the wind went out of her sails. She’d never been very good when it came time to confront a man—especially a good-looking one. In most situations she was confident and in command, but most situations didn’t require her to look up quite so far.
He who had spawned three little devils was much too tall for her tastes, which didn’t help matters at all since Lauren was barely five foot three. Her new neighbor was six feet tall, at least, which meant she was at a serious disadvantage when it came to talking to him face-to-face. A step stool would come in handy right about now. The man needed a shave; he didn’t have a beard, but that face hadn’t seen a razor in a day or two. He had shaggy-ish dark brown hair which wasn’t long but wasn’t freshly cut either, fabulous bone structure, a perfect nose—Lauren always noticed noses—and big hands with long fingers. Dressed in jeans and a plain, faded gray T-shirt, he still managed to give off an “I’m in charge” vibe.
Great. Maybe she should’ve tacked a scathing note to the front door.
“Look, I’ll have to call you back.” For the first time, the man who’d shaken his finger at Lauren really looked at her. And he smiled. “A woman in bunny slippers and her pj’s is on my doorstep holding a muddy baseball and looking like someone spit in her Cheerios this morning, so she must be here about something important.”
Lauren tried not to be obvious about turning her gaze downward, but yes—she
still in her pajamas. Long, soft cotton pants and a matching tank just a touch too thin for someone who wore no bra. Not for the first time, she thanked her lucky stars that she didn’t have much to brag about in that department.
But still…she loses her temper in the first time in
and this is where it gets her. Embarrassed. No, mortified.
And she was still holding the damn baseball.
Her new neighbor, the father of the heathens who were tearing Lauren’s neat schedule to pieces, ended his phone call and looked at her. He really looked at her, his gaze cutting to the bone. He had blue eyes. Not just a little blue, either, but wowza blue. Cut-to-the-bone blue. His eyes were the color of a perfectly clear spring sky shot with disturbingly piercing shards of ice. Lauren shifted her own gaze down and stared at his chin, which was perfectly normal and not at all eye-catching like his nose or his eyes or any of the rest of him. It was just a stubbly chin, thank goodness, not at all out of the ordinary.
Lauren handed over the baseball, which he took, then she crossed her arms over her chest in a too-late attempt at modesty. She had quite a few things to say, and she’d played a few of them through her mind as she’d waited. But suddenly she lost her nerve. “Is your wife at home?”
Cole had been amused, but with a few words that amusement died entirely. He should be used to the question by now, but he wasn’t. He’d given up beating around the bush long ago. “She’s dead. You’ll have to deal with me. Sorry.”
He was accustomed to the change in expression, the shift from annoyance to pity.
“I didn’t mean to… I apologize.” The pity turned to confusion. “I saw a woman carrying in suitcases when you moved in, and I just assumed…”
“That was my sister-in-law. She helped us move.” Grudgingly, yes, but Janet