Never Too Hot
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“Who? Don't tell me your ex came all the way out here?”
Ginger had told her all about her marriage to Jeremy, that her relationship had fizzled out pretty much right after her new husband slid the wedding ring onto her left hand. And even though Ginger said they were both to blame for it not working out, Isabel had painted a fairly vivid picture in her head of the ex-husband as a self-obsessed bully who had once masqueraded — very briefly — as Mr. Right. She didn't have a much better image of Ginger's parents.
Ginger made a face. “No. Jeremy wouldn't come all the way out here to see me. From what I've heard he's already moved on to a tiny little brunette with a button nose and hollow cheekbones. And my mother would absolutely lose it out here with all the bugs, so no chance of that.”
And yet, Isabel noted, Ginger's cheeks were growing more flushed in the empty space between sentences.
“His name is Connor. Connor MacKenzie. His grandparents own Poplar Cove. He thought he was going to be moving in today. Until he found me on the porch. He's here now, in the diner. Sitting at the counter.”
Isabel heard her own sudden intake of breath and had to ask herself why it felt like her world had just been rocked, why she was reaching for the hood of the nearest car with a death grip.
So one of the grandkids next door was in town for a visit. So what?
“Do you know why Connor came back to the lake?”
“He wants to fix up the cabin for his brother's wedding.”
Isabel felt the rock sink deeper into her gut. Weddings meant family. Mothers.
“When's the wedding?”
Four weeks away. Long enough, Isabel reckoned, to get a new haircut. No, a complete makeover. To make sure she blew Andrew away when she saw him.
If she saw him.
God, what was wrong with her? She hadn't seen Connor's father in thirty years. Ancient history. She had a full, wonderful life; a thriving business, lots of friends, and a great son.
“Connor told me the house is unsafe. That it's a fire hazard and he needs to work on it. But even though he's probably right, I'm freaking out about having a guy all up in my space. Especially him.”
“Why?” Isabel asked, feeling very protective of her friend. “What did he do? Did he try something?”
Ginger blushed. “Oh God, no. Of course not. It's just that…”
“What? You can tell me.” And then Isabel would head back into the restaurant and kill him.
The last thing she was prepared for was Ginger saying, “Oh Isabel, there's just something about him. Not just that he's big and strong and gorgeous, but it's like there's this weird connection between us. Like we're supposed to be…”
Isabel tried to think how she would have normally responded if she didn't know the MacKenzies. Probably would have encouraged Ginger to break her year of celibacy with the guy.
Fortunately, Ginger was already laughing at herself. “Listen to me. You'd think I was fifteen again with a crush on the quarterback. Talking about how the stars are aligning to bring us together. Could we both forget I said any of that?”
But the thing was, Isabel remembered what good-looking kids the MacKenzie boys were. There was a reason for Ginger's bright eyes and flushed skin. MacKenzie men were a force to be reckoned with. As a teenager, Isabel had half wondered if their father did indeed hold the strings to the stars.
“Hey, your family has lived next door to the MacKenzies for a long time. Is there something I should know about them? Some sort of warning you should be giving me about him?”
Isabel shook her head no, but she put too much force in it and ended up feeling dizzy. “Well, Helen and George are great. But you already know that from dealing with them over the phone.”
She should stop there, shut her mouth. But somehow, she couldn't.
“I knew Connor's father, Andrew. We dated for a while. A very long time ago.”
Seeing the interest on Ginger's face, Isabel moved to quickly stamp it out. “We were just kids. Like Josh and the girl he went to the movies with. I haven't thought about him in years. I probably wouldn't even recognize him if he walked into the diner.”
Too late she realized it sounded like she was trying way too hard to convince Ginger about just how no-big-deal it was. A clear case of “she who doth protest too much.”
Fortunately, Ginger was too wrapped up in her own problems to pay much attention. “Guess I'd better get back out there before the customers start a mutiny.”
Isabel said “Sure” in an easy voice. But when she went back into the kitchen and picked up her knife, her hands were shaking.
This was usually the time of day she liked best, when the dinner crush had erupted in organized chaos; but it was hard to focus on her job, impossible to stop her brain from rewinding, from retracing the steps that had brought her here. To this diner on the lake.
Ten years had passed since the day she'd bought the run-down building on Blue Mountain Lake's small main street.
At that time, the town had barely been more than a grocery store, a post office, a liquor store, and a gas station.
Lately, though, she'd step outside to mail a letter and surprise would catch her at just how far the small town had come.
A bustling caf that often housed live music occupied an old white post-and-beam house on the corner. Anderson's Market, a grocery store that had been around since her grandparents had built their cabin on the lake, had done major upgrades in the past couple of years, going so far as to stock organic fruits and vegetables all year long, rather than just July and August to appease the summer folks. And the Inn now had huge plantings of bright flowers all along the fence that bordered the street.
Only the knitting store was showing signs of wear and tear. Isabel remembered learning to knit on the comfortable couches in the middle of the store one summer when Josh was still an infant — mostly for the help of extra hands to take her baby, less because she had any affinity whatsoever for yarn.