Chapter 1

Ava

Life as a housekeeper and a cook didn’t sound glamorous, but for the most part, I loved it. But there were days when I wished I hadn’t ended up single at fifty. And spending my days taking care of rough and tumble cowboys left me exhausted at the end of the day, but this was my life. And I liked it.

I’d seen all the jokes about the odds of getting married after forty. I imagined those odds were even worse after fifty. But I’d come to believe it was based less on age and more on the person. And I wasn’t born for that kind of happily ever after.

Instead, I immersed myself in life at the ranch, doing what I did best—taking care of people and feeding them.

Today, I was trying to do both things at the same time.

Relaxing by the pool wasn’t possible with a five-year-old splashing in the water. I worried that if I took my eyes off him for even a second, he’d go under. “Mason, sweetie, you’ll have to get out soon. Miss Ava has to check on her pies.”

“Pie!” He spun in a circle, creating a giant wave.

Mason was the son of one of the ranch hands. Everyone pitched in to look after the kid. He was a sunny addition to the ranch. Unmarried at my age, I wasn’t ever going to have children of my own. And I enjoyed looking after the little guy. Especially because I could send him home to his dad at night.

“These pies are for the church. I’ll bake you a pie tomorrow.” I picked up the towel. “Hop out and dry off. You can stay out here but don’t get back in the pool while I’m inside.”

Beau walked into view. “I’ll watch him.” The plate in his hand soured my stomach. He’d gotten into the pies. “Oh, don’t worry about dinner. I’m preheating the oven to throw in some frozen pizzas. We’re having a poker night.”

“Stay with Mason.” I hurried inside, worried about what I’d find. The word preheating concerned me.

Pizza required a higher temp than the pies I had in the oven.

Clint sat at the counter with a slice of apple pie on his plate. “The pies were a nice surprise. They’re great. But something must’ve dripped in the oven. Something smells burnt.” My brother’s comment confirmed my fears.

I yanked open the oven door and waved away the smoke before pulling two black pies out of the oven. Holding back tears, I scanned the counter. All four of the pies I’d already made had at least one slice missing.

“The pies were for the church. I was supposed to drop them off in a bit.” I untied my apron, picked up my purse, and walked toward the door.

“We didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Clint ran after me. “Ava, are you okay?”

“I’ll figure it out.” I fished keys out of my purse. “Be sure Mason gets a piece. I’ll be back later.”

Getting mad wouldn’t do me any good. I hadn’t told anyone the pies were for the church, and I should’ve known their radar would kick in.

In my truck, I headed toward town. There wasn’t time to make more pies. And not giving pies to the church wasn’t an option. That left me with one choice, and I didn’t like it.

I’d have to buy them.

I was known for my homemade pies. When people talked about me, two words that were often mentioned were pies and helpful. Not a horrible way to be thought of.

Options in Stadtburg were limited when it came to getting amazing pies. Besides, I’d never hear the end of it if someone saw me buying pies. But I couldn’t lie and claim store-bought pies as my own.

They probably wouldn’t taste like mine anyway. If I needed doughnuts or cakes, there was a great place for that in Stadtburg, but I needed pies.

Before turning onto the road, I checked the time. If I hurried, I could make it to the bakery in San Antonio that sold pies almost as tasty as mine. Driving like I was late, I headed toward town.

My grand plan fell apart when I made it to the shop. The handwritten sign on the door made me want to cry.

Sold out. Closed for the day.

I was running out of time. The closest place that sold pies was a big warehouse store. That would have to do. Thankfully, I had a membership card.

In San Antonio I didn’t worry about bumping into someone I knew. If I were shopping in Stadtburg, seeing an acquaintance was inevitable.

I loved small-town living, but there were times when the anonymity was preferred. I wove my cart through the aisles to the bakery section. I scanned the flavors, studying the crusts to see which looked the best.

Six was what I’d promised the church. But because they were store-bought pies, I’d give them eight.

That seemed only fair.

I gathered a variety of flavors and stacked them in my cart. Then with my loaded cart, I rushed to the front and found the shortest line. Three people were in front of me.

Things were going smoothly. At this rate, I might even be early.

Waiting in line gave me time to think. If I was honest with myself, I cared less about the opinions of most of the people at church and more about the opinion of the pastor. He loved my pies. He always made his way to the food table and chatted with me when I was serving pie.

Standing there, I could almost smell his cologne.

“Hello, Ava.” The voice behind me was familiar and panic-provoking. Either my thoughts were creating auditory hallucinations, or the pastor was right behind me.

I turned, trying to block the view of my cart. “Pastor Miller.”

“Why so formal?” His question made me feel called out.

Most people called him Mad Dog, and my curiosity burned to know how he’d gotten that nickname. Had he been part of a biker gang? Or maybe he’d been in the military and was known for being fierce. There were no visible tattoos that gave away the reason for the name.

Also, there was no ring on his left hand. I’d checked. Multiple times.

I overcame the temptation to ask him about it—the nickname, not the tattoos or the wedding ring. But in truth, I wondered about all three. “Sorry. Habit, I guess.”

He leaned in close and looked over my shoulder. “Your donation to the church supper?”

Did he think I was planning to pass them off as my own? Having the pastor think I was a liar was worse than losing my pie reputation.

“I’m so embarrassed. I’ve never taken store-bought pies to a function. But the guys at the ranch cut into the pies because they didn’t know they were for the church. Which is my fault. Those guys can sniff out a pie from a mile away. And I hadn’t told them not to eat them. But then one of the other men turned up the oven when I had the last of the pies cooking.” Complaining to the pastor wasn’t my best look.

He touched my arm which always sent my brain haywire. “Ava, it’s fine. If you want, I can carry them in, and no one will know.”

“But I signed up.”

“Things happen. That’s life.” He nodded as the person in front of me moved forward.

“Thank you. Is there any way I can help you?”

“I’m a little behind setting up for this reception for Rev. Saunders. The church secretary was going to do all this shopping, but she had a family emergency. That’s why I’m here. And I’m cutting it close. That part is all my fault.” He nodded toward the plates and cups in his cart. “I could use help setting up. But only if you have time.”

“I’m happy to help. Whatever you need.” I often volunteered to help when in my heart I didn’t want to, but when it came to the pastor, I wanted to help.

Not only was the man incredibly good-looking, but he had a kindness to him that I found mesmerizingly attractive. I’d never admit to anyone that I enjoyed his attention, but I did. And if helping earned me a little time with him, I was happy.

“Great. And I’ll pay for those pies. That way when someone asks about them, I can honestly say I bought them at the warehouse store.”

“You’re a saint.”

“I try.” He winked.

I’d never met a pastor who winked before, and I wasn’t sure how to react, so I went with flaming cheeks and awkward silence.

“How is everyone out at the ranch?” Pastor Mad Dog was great at salvaging conversations.

“Good. We’re all good. Clint and Joji are settling into married life. Beau and Lilith keep talking about going on a delayed honeymoon, but the venue has her busy. Things are good.” I silently berated myself. One good was plenty, but no, I had to work three into my answer.

He inched forward when I moved up. “How are you?”

I stopped myself before responding with another ‘good.’ “I can’t complain.” And now I’d just lied to the pastor. I was more than capable of complaining, and I’d been complaining to him moments ago. This was why I stuck to conversations about pie.

But we’d already discussed the pie debacle.

“The weather is beautiful today.” Weather was always a safe topic. If I’d learned anything growing up in Texas, it was that.

He nodded, and his soft brown eyes made my heart palpitate. “Very beautiful.”

My heartbeat sent blood pulsing against my eardrums, and I stared at the man. We’d covered the two safe topics, and staring at him wasn’t making the silence any less uncomfortable.

“Next.” The cashier came to my rescue.

After Mad Dog paid for everything, he moved the pies to his cart. “I guess I’ll meet you at the church.”

“Yes. Do you need help loading?” I stayed beside him as we walked into the parking lot.

A man with muscular arms like his didn’t require my help loading, but I always offered to help. It was a habit I wasn’t sure I’d ever break. Did I need to? Helping people was a good thing.

“I’d love your help.” He looked at the stack of pies. “What’s the best way to get these to the church without destroying them during the drive? Would you want to ride with me? I can drive you back to get your truck afterward.”

The thought of a half hour in the car with Mad Dog terrified me. What would we talk about? The bigger worry was what I would say. When I was nervous, I either talked about pies or I rambled, and sometimes that included saying nonsensical and stupid things. My words bypassed my normal filter, which was never a good thing.

I’d made it this long without embarrassing myself. Risking a car ride was out of the question. I couldn’t make myself tell him no, but I could offer a helpful alternative. “When I deliver pies, I sit them in boxes on the floorboard. I have some in the truck. Want me to grab them?”

“Sure.” He seemed almost disappointed with my answer.

I hated disappointing people. “Actually, I will just ride with you. Let me lock up my truck.”

He smiled. “Thank you for all your help.”

“Anytime. I’m always happy to help.” I walked to my truck before I volunteered to do the man’s laundry. Hopefully, I wouldn’t offer anything like that on the drive to the church.

Why did I get so flustered around him? He definitely qualified as what many women called a silver fox. And when he wasn’t praying, he was probably working out. The muscles hidden under his shirt gave that away. Not that I’d seen under his shirt.

Thinking about his arms wasn’t going to make the drive easier. I fanned myself and locked my truck.

Breathing exercises for the next thirty minutes would hopefully get me to the church without embarrassing myself. Unless he noticed what I was doing. Maybe breathing exercises were a bad idea.


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