Side Dish


Becca North doesn’t want a boyfriend but her best friend Nora certainly does. Becca is so off men. But when Nora, owner of Nora’s Novel Niche, meets Suzie the Matchmaking Chef during a book signing at her store, she finagles her way into a romantic picnic date lunch for her—and a blind date—on Suzie’s television show. Nora drags Becca along all the way from Pigeon Forge for moral support and to check out her date.

Thing is, Nora’s date would rather check out Becca, instead.

Chapter One
“Are you looking for an annual or a perennial?”
That sounded like a question she should know the answer to but didn’t. Looking the sales girl in the eye, Rebecca North replied, “Annual?”
“Sounds like you’re not certain.”
How she hated being clueless. “You’re right. I don’t know. An annual sounds like something I should make an appointment for with my doctor.”
The young girl laughed. “Well, you are sort of on the right track. You go to your doctor once a year, right? That’s annually. So a plant that is an annual only comes up once.”
“Once a year?”
“No. Once.”
“Sounds like it should be once a year.”
“That’s a perennial.”
“It comes up and keeps coming up year after year.”
“Oh.” Confusing. But sounded like what she needed to get her mother for her birthday. Something that kept coming back. The gift that kept on giving. “That’s what I want then.”
Turning, the girl pointed to the left of the nursery. This was the first time Becca had been to Haven’s Hill. She knew her mother loved the place, so she felt like she could find something here to please her. “The perennials are all back there,” the girl said, “next to the trees and shrubbery.”
“Which would also be perennial?”
She grimaced. “I suppose you could say that.”
Maybe she should just get her mother a tree. You can plant trees in the fall, right? Glancing back to the girl, who had now disappeared, she shrugged. She’d ask questions later. Right now, perhaps the best thing she could do was act like she knew what she was doing.
She had to get a gift today. Her mother’s birthday shindig was tonight.
Thing was, she had no clue where to start. Becca was a bookworm, not a gardener. Her mother had always had such a nicely landscaped lawn, with flowers everywhere, but Becca’s tiny apartment afforded her space only for a houseplant or two, and she was lucky to keep those alive.
She wandered the aisles of green, stopped once in a while to finger a feathery frond or bend to read the plant names on plastic tabs, only to realize that she still hadn’t a clue what she was doing.
About the time she was ready to head out, having decided that perhaps yet again she’d get her mother a book she wouldn’t read instead, she turned to find herself crowded up against a strong, male chest. A chest that wasn’t budging.
“Help you find something?” the chest said.
Well, actually, it wasn’t the chest, but the mouth attached to the face above the chest that spoke. Somehow, her hands had ended up flat on that chest and she could feel a quiet thump-thump-thump of what must have been his heartbeat against her palms. At once, her own heart echoed that thump-thump-thump, and she worried that it was beating so loudly, that the chest, er, man in front of her, would hear it.
Her gaze slowly lifted and she met twinkling, hazel eyes.
“Annual,” she said. “Uh. I mean perennial.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“Excuse me?”
“Need a plant. For my mother. Birthday.” What the hell had happened to her ability to speak?
“I’m sure we can find something.”
He backed away and Becca finally breathed. Her arms dropped lazily to her sides. He took a few steps to his left and she watched his black T-shirted, tight-jeaned body twist and bend over—did she really cock her head to the side watching as he did so?—and come up with a nice looking flat of colorful flowers.
“Pretty.” She wasn’t talking about the blooms.
“What are they?”
“Pansies. They’re hardy.”
Hardy. Sounded like another term she didn’t know the definition of. “Oh.”
“Yes. They’ll come back again in the spring.”
Are you hardy? Will you come back again in the spring?
Becca shook herself. He was a man. A pretty man, nonetheless, and she had had her fill of pretty men of late. All men, actually. But this specimen was, ah, intriguing. Even though he looked to be at least a dozen years her senior. Why would he be interested in a barely out of college bookworm?
She didn’t know. Perhaps he flirts with all his customers.
He sat the flat down on a wooden counter, lifted one plant from the tray, and thrust it toward her. “Here. Take a look.”
Her hands went out. She took the plant. And his big hands covered hers. Warmth raced from her knuckles to her face.
Was she blushing?
Swallowing hard, she looked again into his eyes, noted a shock of dark brown hair hanging over the right one, and registered the roguish grin on his face. “You know a lot about flowers,” she told him.
“I should. I own this place.”
Her brow arched. “Oh? Congratulations. Nice place. My mother comes here often.”
“You’re mother has good taste.”
“She knows plants.”
His hands were still cupping hers. “Somehow that interest didn’t get passed along to you, did it?”
Becca shook her head. “I know books. English major. I don’t know plants.”
“I can teach you.” His balmy smile melted something in her chest. What was happening here? She didn’t do this sort of thing.
Shifting his stance, he stepped closer. “How about this? You can teach me about books. I can teach you about plants. Sounds like a date. How about tomorrow night?”
Shit. Shit! What a flirt. Date? Tomorrow?
All of a sudden, The Vow hit her and she’d be damned if she’d back out on it. If anything, it was a good excuse to ditch his date offer. She’d promised her best friend, Nora, and by God, she was sticking to her vow because she wanted Nora to stick to her vow. Becca had to set a good example.
The scene of just the other night flashed through her head…she and Nora having appetizers and martinis at a local nightspot, swearing off men from here to eternity.
Nora had pledged. Becca was going to hold her to it.
Nora had been hurt one too many times of late by pretty men who promised lots and took away even more. Nora needed a break, and Becca—even if she had to sacrifice the one flirty encounter she’d had in months in the process—was going to stick to her guns.
There. She could do this.
His fingers clasped her hands a little tighter and he traced small circles over her knuckles. Oh, please don’t do that...
She wriggled one hand away and fiddled with the little plastic thingy in the pot. “I’m sure I can read this and figure out what to do with them…and I, um, have plans for Saturday. Sorry.”
The guy frowned then and dropped his hands. “Of course.”
Perhaps that was too blunt.
“I’ll just get these,” she added, not sure whether her mother would like them, or not.
“I’ll carry them to the front for you.” Without a second’s hesitation, he took the small pot from her hand and added it to the flat. She watched from behind as he carried her purchase to the cash register.
Sigh. Yes. Nice ass.
But she was off men. Even men with nice asses.
She had no clue what to do with hardy pansies and hoped her mother did.
The cute owner spoke briefly to the sales girl—the one who had pointed her to the perennials moments earlier—and then nodded to her with an obligatory smile and a nod. The flirty guy was gone. Her heart sank.
Well, what did she expect?
But no matter. All’s well that ends well. The temptation was over. Disaster averted.
Becca grimaced and twitched her nose. A burnt-smoke smell wafted up from the canister of, um...were those supposed to be chocolate chip cookies? Without a sound, she replaced the metal lid, turned away, and sighed.
“I so wanted a chocolate chip cookie,” she muttered, then reached to straighten the counter area around her.
Bookmarks. Sales fliers. A tabletop cardboard display of Jed McDermott’s latest paperback release. “But not one of those burnt things. Definitely, not one of those.”
She shook herself a little and eased out behind the counter, straightening a nearby end cap. “Face out,” she said as she turned several copies of her favorite suspense author, Brit Calloway’s latest, Born to Run, out to show the cover.
“Face in,” she echoed, feeling only semi-bad about turning an unknown author’s books around, making them disappear into the fold.
“Slow. Ass. Day.” But no matter. Tomorrow was going to be a doozey.
Behind her, the hard click of heels tatting across the tile floor met her ear. She’d know that walk anywhere. “Hi, Nora.”
“Hey.” A tired-sounding whoosh and a scrape of metal against metal came next. Becca rotated back toward the counter and found her best friend, former college roommate, and owner of Nora’s Novel Niche, leaning a hip against the counter, while nibbling on a burnt cookie. “Good party for your mom last night, Bec.”
“It was okay.” She’d never again buy plants for her mother. How could she know she’d already planted dozens of pansies the day before? And icing on the cake, she’d been bothered all evening by the fact that she’d been too abrupt with Mr. Gardener Man back at the nursery. Even though it was for the best. She sure hoped her mother didn’t know him, being that Haven’s Hill was her favorite nursery and all. So far today she’d kept her distraction to a minimum, but for some odd reason those hazel eyes of his kept sneaking back into her consciousness. “Ready for tomorrow?” Changing the subject was always a good tack.
A wrinkle waved over Nora’s forehead.
“Something wrong?”
“Worried as hell about the book signing.”
“As long as you don’t serve those cookies, things will go fine.”
“Seriously, you’ve seen to every detail. I can’t imagine what could go wrong.”
Nora pulled the cookie away from her mouth and looked at it. “Wow. I thought these were pretty darned good. Baked them late last night. I love a crisp cookie.”
Frowning, Becca shivered again. Those gems were way past crisp. “I prefer chewy.”
“To each their own.”
“Just like men, huh?”
Nora sputtered and crumbs flew. “That’s not a subject I want to get into today.” Still chewing, she tossed the remainder of her cookie into a wastebasket under the counter and snapped the lid back on the can. “Men,” she continued, “are the furthest thing from my mind. Men, are like, off my ‘to do’ list. Men, are pretty much non-existent in my book. In fact,” she glanced around, “the word man is not even in my vocabulary anymore.”
Becca didn’t want to get into the subject either, especially since her encounter from yesterday lingered on her mind.
She’d not had a serious boyfriend in ages—not since college—and truth be told, she really didn’t care if she had one for some time. Men just complicated life. They screwed with her head and made her think and do things she normally wouldn’t do.
That thought sort of affirmed her bluntness with Mr. Gardener Man.
She knew, though, that Nora didn’t feel the same. Nora really, really wanted a man in her life. Her career was set, her father having left the bookstore to her when he retired. Now, she was all about the happily-ever-after. You know, searching for it, finding the man of her dreams, settling down with kids and dogs and a picket fence. Heck, the romance section was the largest in the bookstore! Thing was, romance always seemed to elude Nora, no matter how hard she tried.
And she tried hard. Believe you, me.
But she needed a pause after her last breakup, and so, yes, they’d vowed the other evening over martinis and fried calamari that they were off men. For a while. Becca silently bet that she could outlast Nora with that vow.
Because Nora was always looking. It was instinctual.
Becca, on the other hand, would rather stay home and watch a movie or read a book alone, than invite some man into her humble abode who would upset her perfect little apple cart life. Because that, indeed, had happened to her while in college. Her sweetheart had literally taken over her life for most of their college years—until they graduated, and he found a nice blonde in graduate school that met his needs a little more fully.
And that was exactly what he had told Becca. She just didn’t meet his needs anymore.
Talk about a blow to the ego. But no matter. She was better off. Without a man in her life, she was in control.
But this was about Nora, not Becca. Nora, bless her heart, was constantly on the search.
“Men are not in my vocabulary either,” she told her friend.
Nora smirked and began shuffling things around on the counter—the very things that Becca had just straightened moments earlier. Nervous. She could tell with that tic of Nora’s lip and the twitch of her hands as they fidgeted over the items like nobody’s business. After all, they’d been best friends since high school and lived together in the dorm for four years after that.
To say they knew each other well was an understatement.
Nora’s jumpiness was probably what kept her so damned thin. Becca gave her friend a once-over. In fact, Nora appeared more thin than normal. She always lost weight when something was preying on her mind. Becca actually envied her of that fact. She, herself, always grew a little pudgy around the middle when she was stressed. But Nora was always beautiful. Blonde, blue-eyed, thin, and long legs to die for.
Becca was the exact opposite in most every respect.
Raven-haired, green eyes, pale complexion with freckles, five-foot-two with thighs of a gymnast. Came from all of that bicycling she did as a kid, she guessed. And hardy, German stock on her Grandmother’s side. Oh, she supposed she was okay to look at on a good day, but Nora was always the one who caught the attention of the boys when they were in school.
So, it wasn’t that Nora was homely or anything. Quite the opposite. If Becca had to define it, she’d be pressed to say that perhaps Nora was a mite too eager. It sent a lot of men running for the hills, um, mountains. Nora often didn’t realize how she came off until the next best relationship fell through and she was crying in her martini not understanding where it went wrong.
It was an ugly cycle Becca had hoped to get her best friend out of, but to no avail. Honestly, picking up after Nora’s disaster-of-a-love life left her very little time to concentrate on one of her own, which she didn’t want anyway.
What a convoluted mess!
About then, the front door opened with a chime and they turned toward the sound. Becca watched Nora’s profile as she took in the tall, dark-headed, and oh-so-handsome stranger who sauntered in. Immediately, her chin lifted, her back straightened, and a hand fluttered to her chest. She swallowed and cocked her head to one side. Looking.
Becca stepped up beside her and whispered. “He doesn’t exist. Not in your vocabulary.”
“You need a man like you need a hole in the head.”
“Keep reminding me.” Her stare never left the man, who had shifted toward the Business section. From their vantage point, they had a good look at his backside.
Becca bent her head in the same direction as Nora’s.
Together, both women sighed. “Nice...”
The man twisted and looked at the women, who immediately shifted and twiddled with things on the counter.
“We’re off men,” Becca said a little louder, removing the cookie tin from the counter and stashing it underneath.
“Ditto.” Nora started rearranging the counter-top display again. “Let’s think about something else.”
“What about the book signing tomorrow? Anything I can help with?”
Nora exhaled like she’d been holding a breath for days.
Becca noticed the worry lines etching deeper across her friend’s forehead, again. There, that got her mind off the man.
“I think all is ready,” she said. “I didn’t realize this was going to be such a big deal! I had no clue that this woman from Legend had developed this big following. The television people are going to be here from Knoxville and the author’s NY publicist and we had to order more books yesterday. I hope they get here in time. Had them overnighted, which cost me a bundle. People will start lining up early, I assume.” She drummed her fingers on the counter and looked Becca straight in the eyes. “Just keep me sane, Becca. This could be the best thing to hit my bookstore ever. In this economy, we need the business and the promo. Oh, God! I’m so excited!”
“I’ll take this one.”
Becca pulled her gaze away from Nora’s animated face to look at the man from the Business section, who was standing at the register holding a book on project management. Taking the book from him, Becca scanned it while he thoroughly scanned Nora—see? Their eyes always went straight to Nora—who was preening like a peacock.
“Not in your vocabulary.” Becca nudged her.
“Right,” Nora replied, and gave her a half-hearted smile.
Sam Ackerman angled his shovel at the ground, gave it a hefty thrust, then kicked the back of it pushing the blade deep into the soil. It wasn’t that he was frustrated, but there was no doubt he was tired. Suzie Matthews rattled on behind him. “No, no. I was thinking of moving the hostas over there. The sun eats them up like crazy on that side of the house. I think they need more shade.”
That’s what I told you last spring when we planted them.
Thank goodness they’d worked in some sand and topsoil to the hard-packed clay soil around Suzie’s house last year—an excellent decision on his and his brother’s part—or the job would have been a lot more difficult. And thank God the hostas were young, just a few months in the ground and not yet established. Easier to move to the other side of the house.
Where I wanted to put them last year.
“Sam, thank you for being tolerant with me.”
Grinning at the ground, he raised his face to meet Suzie’s infectious smile.
“I know sometimes I’m a pain in the ass,” she said. “And you know that if I could get all of this done myself, I would do it. It’s just that I’ve been so crazy busy the past months and I’ve let the landscaping and gardening slip. Once we get it spruced up this fall, and I get this book tour out of the way, I’ll be ready to settle back in and get ready for spring. You know how I love Legend’s Landing to look in the spring.”
His heart warmed, and any annoying thoughts about moving the hostas dissipated. Friends since elementary school, he could never be mad at her for long. “Hey, that’s what you pay Jack and me for. To do the things you can’t get to, honey.”
A corner of her mouth turned up. “You guys know what I want and how I want it to look.”
Obviously. And we were right about the hostas.
“Besides, you’re the best.” She reached out and laid a hand on his forearm. “I wouldn’t have anyone but Haven’s Hill landscape my property.”
Well, that was mighty sweet of her. Now, it was time to get back to moving the plants, pruning back a few trees and bushes, and readying the beds for winter. “Well, hon, that’s exactly what we aim to do, please our friends and customers.”
Again, Suzie smiled. “You’re a godsend.” Glancing about, she added. “Wow, I really did add to your workload here today, didn’t I? And it’s getting late. Were you planning to finish today, or can you come back tomorrow?”
“What time is it?”
“Nearly five.”
“Oh.” He’d lost track of the time. Sam kicked the shovel into the ground again and pulled back on the handle to loosen the soil around the root ball. Glancing up, he surveyed the clear blue sky behind her head. “I think we’re safe to put the rest of this off until tomorrow, if okay with you. Weather is supposed to be good.”
“Fine with me.” She reached for a basket sitting at her feet. “Got a date tonight?”
“Harrumph.” Date. He wished.
Suzie laid a hand on his arm. “Sam Ackerman, it’s Saturday night! Go out and find a girl and have some fun!”
“No, thanks. I’m looking forward to having a cold beer while sitting on your deck and looking out over the lake, followed by a nice hot shower and an early bedtime.”
“Sam, that makes me so sad.”
Funny, it didn’t make him sad, at all. Women weren’t in the cards for him right now and it was okay. Hell, even the innocent flirting he’d done yesterday with the one woman who had stepped into his nursery that stirred something in him, had gotten him shot down. Sort of. Thing was, he was probably coming on a little stronger than he normally would have, but the raven-haired minx had caught his eye and just wouldn’t let go.
Smiling, he grasped her hand. “Hey, don’t worry about me.
I’m perfectly happy with my life. I’m too damned busy right now to add a woman to it. Maybe down the road some.”
“Just as long as you haven’t given up on women altogether.”
Not in this lifetime. “No ma’am.”
“Good. Then when you are ready, let me know, and I’ll fix you up. They are calling me the Matchmaking Chef these days, you know?”
He harrumphed again. He had heard that. Might as well go with it and change the subject. “Okay, Suze. Hey, we’ll be back in the morning, all right?”
“Sure.” She fiddled with some tools in the basket. “I have a book signing at two in Pigeon Forge so will be gone, oh, from about noon until six or so. Brad and Petey will be with me, but you know where we keep everything.”
“Sounds good.”
“I hate to make you work on a Saturday.”
He grinned. “Suzie, you know I’d be working somewhere, anyway. I love what I do.”
“I do know that.”
Truth is, growing plants and landscaping was his passion.
He’d not wanted to do anything else since he was a kid growing up on his parents’ farm. Biggest reason why he’d gone to college was to major in Agriculture, then quite by surprise, he found his way into a horticulture class which opened up a whole other venue for him. What surprised him even more, was that his younger brother Jack followed in his footsteps. Haven’s Hill Nursery & Landscaping was ten year’s old and prospering. Largely because he and Jack did a lot of the grunt work, alongside his crews. Hey, it kept him fit and tan, and he’d heard the girls liked that.
Girls. He was thirty-seven. Women, not girls. But just where were all the available women in Legend?
The raven-haired one was definitely not from Legend. But from where?
“So she wants to move them, huh?”
Sam swiped his brow. Jack had joined him, and Suzie was now tottering off toward her wildflower garden with a pair of scissors in one hand and her basket in the other. “Could have predicted that.”
Jack chuckled. “Here. Let’s get this done. Maybe we can con her into a cold one on her deck before we leave.”
“I was counting on that.”
Both men started digging.

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