Widower Caleb Lawson has resigned himself to a life of farming and family functions. He never expects to find another love like he had with his wife, much less remarry. But once his mother brings home Sofia Nogales to help her get back on her feet, he starts to reconsider his expectations. Sofia is beautiful, witty, and so full of life that his arms ache to hold her.Determined to make a new life for herself, former head chef Sofia Nogales hopped on the first bus to the east coast and refused to look back. However, she never dreamed a series of bad events would have her end up in Jessamine, North Carolina as the guest of Dinah Lawson. Nor did she ever dream of meeting someone like Dinah’s son Caleb—the sexy farmer, who keeps everything to himself… except the heated look in his eyes.
But when the opportunity comes knocking—to the tune of cooking at an already established and popular restaurant two states away, will Caleb be able to convince her to stay?
Thirteen years later
Caleb was tired of being pitied by his family. Sure, no one came out and said as much, but he wasn’t a fool. He could see it in their gazes, in the way they carefully guarded their conversations around him, like he was a ticking time bomb.
Not that he could blame them because he didn’t exactly give them any reason to think otherwise. However, a man shouldn’t be punished for being slow to speak his mind. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have opinions. He just wasn’t keen on sharing everything.
Never had been.
As a kid, he’d been so quiet that a few of his teachers thought something was wrong with him, but his momma had taken care of that. Dinah had always fought for him, had always talked for him, and had made sure that every teacher understood how special he was.
In his eyes, that made Dinah special. She wasn’t his mother by blood, but she was the only one he’d ever known, and had never treated him, or his brother, Adam, for that matter, any differently, not even after she started having babies of her own.
He never connected with anything like he did farming; his dad said it was in his DNA. There was always a Lawson who farmed, one who passed down land from generation to generation. Usually, it was the oldest son, but Adam had found a different calling. Caleb was thankful for that, because he wasn’t sure where he’d fit in, in his large family.
Besides, farming never demanded that he talked, never demanded that he have an opinion on politics or the latest social media fad. All it demanded was his time, water, and sunlight. Most of the time, he had a farmer’s tan and a red neck from working in the sun all day. He had dirt under his nails and scars on his skin.
But it was honest work. Hard work. It took time and patience. Two things he had in spades. When Iris had been alive, he’d made sure to take time to be with just her, take her out dancing on a Saturday night because he knew if he wasn’t careful, farming would consume him. Her smile and laughter … and love had been worth letting things set.
Once he’d stopped grieving, he’d thrown himself whole-hog back into farming, back into the very thing that demanded nothing he couldn’t give. However, he was tired of being the one who went with the flow and rarely made waves … or rarely left the farm for that matter.
Most of all, he was tired of being a widower.
But there was nothing he could do about that.
Well, he could do something about that. However, that would require him to step out of his comfort zone and actually talk to a woman. Ask her out on a date … maybe even hold her in his arms while they danced.
Hold up. You remember how to dance?
But it’s been a decade since you’ve … danced.
Caleb inwardly sighed. Even his brain didn’t think he was up to it.
“…camping this weekend,” Brody said, breaking into his thoughts. “Been looking forward to it for weeks.”
“You and Sydney?” Caleb asked, and everyone at the dinner table stopped eating to stare at him. Heat traveled up his neck, but he refused to pull at his collar. Or say anything more.
“Actually, it’s just the guys going,” Sydney said, her brow wrinkling. “Y’all have been planning this for a while now. All the brothers go camping while all the wives go relax in a place not infested with mosquitos or bears.”
Just the guys? His gut clenched. “My invitation must have gotten lost.”
The silence that greeted him was deafening.
“We thought you were helping Mom and Dad with the kids—ouch,” Lucas gave his wife Bailey a look. “What was that for?”
“Thinking and confirmation are two different, very important things,” Caleb pointed out.
“C’mon Caleb, don’t be that way,” Brody said on a groan. “You never go. Why would this time be any different?”
His brother’s response was exactly why he shouldn’t have said a word, why he should have stayed all locked up in his own head. “Thanks for dinner. I have to go check on things in the barn.” He stood and started to gather his things to take to the sink.
“Leave it, son. Brody and Lucas are in charge of dishes this evening,” his dad said.
Caleb nodded once, grateful for the quick exit provided. “’Night.”
He heard chairs scraping back, voices rising, but he kept on a straight path, pushing open the screen door and heading to the barn.
“Wait up,” Austin called after him, but he didn’t slow down. If his baby brother wanted to talk, he could do it while they walked. “I do have things I have to take care of, you know. Farm doesn’t run itself.”
Austin caught up to him. “I didn’t know you weren’t included.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Caleb said, trying in vain to not let his irritation show. None of this was Austin’s fault. “I can’t go anyway, but it would have been nice to get the chance to decide on my own.”
His brother groaned. “I knew I should have said something to you, but Brody said that he—”
“Took care of everything, right?” Caleb opened the barn door and walked inside. “He always takes care of everything.”
“Look, I know I haven’t been around much, but that’s going to change.”
“Not really. You got married, and, just like everyone else, you’ll focus on your own life.” Caleb grabbed a pitchfork and marched to the nearest empty stall, intent on cleaning it out—whether fresh hay was needed or not.
“Am I supposed to focus on someone else’s?”
Caleb shot him a look. “What kind of question is that?”
“One that I apparently need to ask you.” Austin leaned against the stall. “What’s holding you back?”
“You are in my way.” Caleb made to move past him, but Austin grabbed his shoulder.
“Not what I mean, and you know it.” Austin let go of him. “Wasn’t that long ago you were lecturing me about my love life, so I figure it’s my turn to do you a solid.”
“I don’t have a love life.”
“You don’t have life.”
Caleb grunted. His brother was and was not correct. His life centered around the farm and every living creature on it.
“See, you can’t even deny it.”
“What do you want me to do?” Caleb threw the pitchfork into a stack of hay. “Go into town and screw the first willing woman? Get drunk and raise hell? Go off the deep end and lose my damn mind? Let me tell you something, little brother, I did all that after Iris died. I did all that and more, and I reckon I don’t want to go down that path again.”
Austin stared at him in obvious shock. “I’m sorry … I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. You were only eleven or twelve at the time.” Caleb sat down on a bale of hay. “Hell, only Adam and Elijah know.” They’d been the ones to drag him out of places he had no business being, out of bedrooms of women he had no business sleeping with. He’d been so messed up. So angry and confused. Hurt. A twenty-one-year-old with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Appalachian Mountain Range.
“You still miss her?”
“Every day, but uh … it’s duller now. Still visit her grave once a week to bring her flowers. She always liked flowers,” Caleb admitted. “Probably not the healthiest thing to do, but…” He shrugged, unable to explain himself.
“Whatever gets you through.” Austin made a face. “That doesn’t involve going down that path again.”
“Yeah.” Caleb stared off into the distance, not focusing on anything. “Just wish I could find a new path.” Maybe one that had a woman waiting for him on it. Someone to come home to. Someone he could talk to at night, share his dreams with … she would do the same with him.
“You could always go camping with us,” Austin said.
“No thanks. Unlike the rest of y’all, mosquitos and bears besiege me every day. Rather go to the spa with the ladies.”
His brother threw his head back and laughed. “They’d probably like it.”
“I’d never hear the end of it.”
Austin lightly punched him in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone but Harper.”
“Good call.” Envy rose inside of him, scraping at his heart with sharp claws.
Yeah, a new path would be nice, but that hadn’t happened in over a decade; no use in getting his hopes up now.
Marquita Valentine is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of the Holland Springs and Boys of the South series.Since first taking the plunge in July of 2012 to self publish, Marquita Valentine has sold over a quarter of a million books around the world. She’s appeared on the Top 100 Bestselling Ebooks Lists on iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes&Noble. She’s been called “one of the best new voices in romance” (Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews) and her books have been accused of being “a sexy, fun, and slightly addicting contemporary read” (The Book Queen).
When she’s not writing sexy heroes who adore their sassy heroines, she enjoys shopping, reading, and spending time with her family and friends. Married to her high school sweetheart, Marquita lives in a seriously small town in the south with her husband, two kids, and a dog.