“Your car’s here, Little Pen.”
Penelope zipped up the last bag on her bed and shouted, “I’ll be down soon, Mummy.”
She looked around her bedroom in her parents’ Victorian mansion in Mayfair and let out a sigh of relief. As much as she adored her parents, she’d had enough of being Little Pen. Once she got outside their door, she wasn’t Little Pen, the baby—she was Penny Huntingdon-Stewart, successful businesswoman and social media personality. Penny knew more than anyone the power of names, both on herself and others. The Huntingdon-Stewart name had been like a weight around her neck all her life.
A bark from her little dog brought her attention back to the bed. Princess Baby Bear, to give the dog its full name, was Penny’s brown toy poodle, and her baby. She co-starred on Penny’s YouTube channel, her Instagram account, and in the books and TV series she did, not to mention being the love of Penny’s life. They were a team and Penny didn’t go anywhere without her. She groomed her like a cute teddy bear and not like a traditional poodle, but Princess was never seen without the cutest little clothes that complemented Penny’s style.
“What is it?” Penny said to Princess. “You want to go and see Grandpa?”
Princess adored her father and enjoyed nothing more than lying on his lap by the fire. “Wait, I just need one photo and you can go.”
As if understanding what Penny needed, Princess sat on the suitcase on the bed while Penny gathered a few things to set up the picture she wanted for social media.
“Okay, we got the cute, the hint of new beginnings, and now…”
Penny grasped the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lovershe had borrowed from her parents’ library and placed it on the case.
“For the hint of sex.”
Penny held up her phone and, happy with the set-up, said, “Smile, Princess.”
After the click, Princess barked again excitedly. The photo was exactly what she needed so she said, “Off you go then. I’ll meet you downstairs in a few minutes.”
There was a knock on her door as Princess rushed out, and her big brother Hugo came into her room. “Are you ready, Pen? Let me take your bags.”
“Thanks Go-Go. It’s these last two.” Penny had found it difficult to pronounce Hugo when she began to talk as a child, and so Hugo became Go-Go, and it stuck.
She checked one of the bags for the hundredth time it seemed, to make sure her large stock of medication was all there. The medication that ruled her life, that she couldn’t havea life without.
Everything was there, so she put her book in her holdall and zipped it.
Hugo picked them up and said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you, just to help with the bags and boxes?”
Penny loved her big brother and her big sister very much, but she needed space. She needed space after living back with her parents for the past six months. Penny was fiercely independent, ran her own business, and she had not expected to be back in her old bedroom at age thirty, but her health problems had forced her to be.
“I’ll be fine with the boxes. I’ve got my two drivers. I’m more worried about the mud and muck than the heavy boxes.”
Hugo laughed. “I’m sorry, I just can’t imagine my little sister as a country girl. You live for shopping, art galleries, lunch with the girls at the best restaurants. I don’t know how you’ll survive.”
Penny frowned and looked down at her Gucci pumps and despaired at the thought of getting them dirty.
“It’s not my idea of a good time, Go-Go. The mud, the strange smells. Yuck. It’s Olivia’s idea, and she’s never steered me wrong yet…well, hardly.”
Olivia, Penny’s friend from school and business partner, had helped build Penny’s Kitchenfrom a small YouTube cookery show and vlog, to TV shows, branded food in supermarkets, and a social media sensation.
But since Penny collapsed on live TV and was taken to hospital with an epilepsy attack, she had withdrawn from her social media empire, and rumours and lies had spread about her health. So now Penny was ready to get back out there after recuperating with her mother and father.
Olivia suggested a country cooking web series to shoot while Penny wrote her own country cookbook.
Penny added, “It’s only for a few months, and it looks good to the public. Penny Huntingdon-Stewart, city girl, going back to basics and living in the country to renew myself and the brand. I’ll do anything to drive the business on.”
Hugo sighed. “When will it be enough? You don’t have to keep proving yourself all the time, Pen. Stress isn’t good for you, and your drive to build this business has taken its toll on you.”
Penny picked up her last Louis Vuitton bag. “So says the youngest ever maths professor at Cambridge. We all have to strive in this family, Go-Go. You know what the Huntingdon-Stewart name means. Besides, you know me—I’ll make the country fabulous,” Penny said with a wink.
Hugo walked over and kissed her on the cheek. “As long as you’re happy, Pen. Just look after yourself. Let’s get your bags downstairs.”
Penny nodded and double-checked she had her mobile in her bag. Her phone was the nerve centre of her and her business, and it was rarely out of her hand. She then had a quick look in the large mirror in the corner to make sure her long golden-blond hair wasn’t out of place.
It was early June, and the weather was warming up, so she’d decided a light duck egg wrap-around dress with pink flowers and a plunging neckline would be appropriate for the country.
As they walked down the big oak staircase, Penny was faced with the portrait of the man who made the Huntingdon-Stewart name the most famous, and who they all tried to aspire to—their great-great-grandfather, Horatio Huntingdon-Stewart, who was prime minister and one of the greatest statesmen the country had ever produced. He lived over one hundred years ago, but his legacy burned brightly.
A war hero, a great reformer, and an advocate for the poor—when people heard Penny’s surname they thought of Horatio. It was a difficult reputation to live up to when you were dyslexic, suffered from epilepsy, and left school without any qualifications. That feeling of inadequacy fuelled Penny to constantly strive and prove she was worthy of the name she bore, and now it was time to get back in the saddle.
Quade took the last bite of her bacon sandwich and lifted the local newspaper. She had finished all her early morning chores on the farm and was now eating breakfast before she went back out. Sitting across the breakfast table in her farmhouse kitchen was her black and white collie dog Dougal.
Dougal sat up on a chair just like her, eating bacon scraps Quade had given her. Apart from the rustle of the newspaper, the only other noises were the crackle of fire from the wood burning oven, and news playing on the radio in the background.
Quade wasn’t even listening. The radio was just on so there wasn’t silence in the room. She hated silence and being alone. She read through all the local news, from jumble sale notices to charity evenings at the local pub, The Witch’s Tavern. The pub was the hub of her social life, not because she was a big drinker—she wasn’t—but apart from church and special village events, the pub was the only time she got to socialize in this small village.
Quade got to the adverts page of the paper, and she said to Dougal, “Mr. Jones is selling an antique writing desk.” She looked over the top of her paper at Dougal. “Do we need a writing desk?”
Dougal cocked his head to the side as if trying to understand what Quade was saying.
Quade folded her newspaper up quickly and lifted her cup of tea. “If I keep talking to my dog, one day you’re going to reply and I’m going to shit myself.”
Talking to her dog was just another reminder of how empty this cottage was. Since her uncle died, she had thrown herself into making the farm a success, but as things settled down, she had more free time, and more time to realize she was alone, apart from Dougal. Quade had good friends in the village, friends who would do anything for each other, but when she met her best friends at the pub—Harry and Annie, Bridge and Finn—they each went home with a partner, while she went home to an empty cottage and Dougal.
She needed a change in her life, some kind of fresh start. Quade looked around her kitchen and wondered if she should decorate, do something a bit different. She always kept the cottage in good order and freshly painted but never strayed from the style her aunt had. It was outdated, she knew, but Quade wouldn’t know where to start choosing a new style for her home.
That was the thing. Since her aunt and uncle died, it didn’t feel like a home. A home needed two or more loving people. Since ever Quade could remember, all she wanted was a wife and a simple life working the farm, but partners were thin on the ground in a tiny English village.
This had become even more evident to her since her good friend Bridget had found her partner Finn and fallen in love. She put down her tea and sighed. Time for dinner with her ladyship tonight. Quade enjoyed dining with her friends, and Annie’s cooking was amazing, but she felt awkward being the only one not in a couple. Dougal, though, always enjoyed the company.
“Dougal? We’re going to see Riley tonight for dinner.” Dougal barked and looked at her with a happy bright-eyed look. “It’s all right for you—you get to eat and play with Riley and her puppy.”
Puppy was a bit of an understatement. Caesar was only six months old and huge already. When Harry had told her stepdaughter Riley she could get any dog she wanted, both Annie and Harry were greatly surprised when she had chosen a blue Great Dane. Although large, he was a daft, goofy dog, and a good companion for Riley.
Would Quade ever meet anyone who would be more than a companion or friend to her? She looked at the picture of her aunt and uncle on the dresser and said, “Aunt Julia, if there’s anyone in the world out there for me, help me find them.”
She shook her head. “What am I doing? First my dog and then a picture.”
Quade stood and drank the last of her tea. “Come on, Dougal, let’s get back out to the fields. There’s fence to mend.”
“Mummy, I’ll be fine,” Penny said as her mother Lavinia squeezed the life out of her at the bottom of the stairs.
“You’ll be all alone in the country, with no one to check on you.” Her mother’s overprotectiveness wasn’t meant to be overbearing. She meant well, as did her father and all her family. Ever since her first epileptic attack at school, they had been constantly protective and vigilant.
But she couldn’t live like that twenty-four hours a day any longer, like the last few months.
“I’ll be around people all the time. It’s a small village,” Penny said.
Hugo added, “Mum, Harry lives there. She’ll watch out for Pen.”
Lavinia brushed Penny’s hair from her eyes. “Just promise me you’ll keep in touch all the time and take it easy. No stress. I don’t want you in hospital again.”
Penny kissed her mother on the cheek and smiled. No one would believe that a woman as accomplished and dedicated to her career as a Lavinia Huntingdon-Stewart, who had a long career in politics as a campaigner for women’s rights, and now sat in the House of Lords, found the time to be such a devoted mother. All her children adored her, as did her husband, and Penny felt guilty for pushing her away sometimes.
“I promise I’ll take care of myself.” Penny looked at Hugo. “I don’t need anyone to look in on me, but I promise I’ll call you all the time. Now let me say goodbye to Daddy.”
They walked into the drawing room, and she saw Princess sitting on her father’s lap by the fire. Her father, Guy, wasn’t in the best of health, having suffered with heart problems for the past year.
“Little Pen, come here, my darling.” Her father beckoned her over.
She went over and knelt by his armchair and stroked her dog. “Has this little rascal been keeping you company, Daddy?”
“Yes, she’s a good girl. Are you leaving now, Pen?” Guy said.
“Yes, all set. I’m going to miss you.” Penny took his hand and smiled.
“I wish you didn’t have to go. Your mother is going to worry terribly, and me. I don’t like the thought of you staying alone.”
“I promise you, I’ll take care of myself, but I have to get back out there. Into the business world, on social media, make videos, concentrate on my career and build it back up.”
Social media had always baffled her father and trying to explain to him how you could make money and run a business on it was hopeless, despite the fact he was the cleverest person she knew. Up until he retired from his professorship at Cambridge, he was one of the world’s top quantum physicists.
Guy took her hand and kissed it. “I’ll never understand what you do, but I’ll always defend your right to do it, my Little Pen.”
Pen stood and hugged her father. “Thank you, Daddy. I love you and I’m going to miss you.”
“I love you. Take care of yourself,” Guy said.
If Penny didn’t make tracks soon, she would never leave her loving family. She felt guilty for pushing them away. All they did was give, and she pushed.
She took a breath and found her steely resolve. “I better get going.”
Penny opened her Louis Vuitton dog bag and patted the floor. “Come on, Princess Baby Bear. Time to go.”
Princess jumped off her father’s lap and ran over to Penny. She sat nicely beside the bag, panting with excitement. Already wearing a white polka dotted pink jumper, Princess sat patiently while Penny slipped four shiny pink boots on her paws.
Once they were on Penny leaned down and said, “Kiss.” Princess gave her a kiss, then followed her instruction to jump into the bag. “We’re all set to go.”
One last kiss to her father and she was walking with her mother out to the car. Her brother was putting the last of her bags into the minivan in front of her white sports car.
Penny shouted to the driver of the minivan, “Just go ahead, Martin. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”
Her regular driver Tom opened up the door to her pride and joy, her white Ferrari. She climbed into the passenger seat and placed Princess on her lap.
Penny’s parents always thought it strange that she bought a car, and such an extravagant and powerful car, when she wasn’t allowed to drive because of her condition. But to Penny it was a symbol of what she’d achieved in business. She’d bought it with her own money and not her trust fund.
The minivan pulled away, and she said to her mother and brother, “You two go in. I need to shoot some video before I go.”
Lavinia rolled her eyes. “All right, well, phone me as soon as you get there.”
“And tell Harry we all miss her at Cambridge,” Hugo added.
Penny gave them a bright smile. “I will.”
Once they walked back inside, Penny said to Tom, “I just need to shoot some video before we leave.”
“No problem,” Tom said.
Penny stroked Princess’s head. “Mummy’s just got to make a quick video, and we’ll go to have fun in the country—well, as much fun as mud and cows can be,” she said with a sigh.
On her dashboard was an elaborate set-up of video camera and microphone. She set her phone in a holder beside it and checked her appearance in the mirror.
“Oh God, look at my lippy,” Penny said. She quickly pulled her handbag from the back seat and got out her make-up bag. She quickly reapplied her lipstick and looked to her dog. “How do I look?”
Princess barked happily in response, and Penny smiled. “Fabulous? Just like I thought.”
She put her things away and lifted Princess onto her lap before pressing the button on her video camera.
“Hello, friends!” Penny lifted Princess’s paw and waved it at the camera. “Say hi to Penny’s friends, Princess.”
She imitated a baby voice for her dog and said, “Hi, Penny’s friends.”
Then she kissed the dog’s snout and addressed the camera. “This is just a quick video to tell you about the start of life’s next great adventure for Princess and me. We are just about to drive to a little village in Kent—yes, that’s right, we’re bringing Penny’s Kitchento the country. Let the fun begin!”
Penny shut off the camera and posted the video, as well as the photo she took earlier, and turned to Princess. “Let’s make this fabulous, Princess.” Then to her driver, “Let’s go, Tom.”
Quade left her farmhands to finish the fence without her. She was due up at the estate manager’s office for a planning meeting with Mr. Stevens. Since Harry had appointed Quade assistant estate manager, much of her farm work had to be delegated to her farmhands. It certainly kept her busy, and Quade liked to keep busy.
“Come on, Dougal,” she called to her dog, and he ran after her. She was just coming out of her field when she heard a sports car roaring up the road. They didn’t see many sports cars in Axedale. Lady Harry had a couple, but nowadays a Land Rover was more her style.
She stopped and watched a white Ferrari slow as it approached her. The blacked out window lowered halfway and revealed a woman with long blond hair, sunglasses, and glittery bright pink nails. There was a man driving and a little dog barking on the seat with the woman, making Dougal bark back excitedly. “Quiet, Dougal.”
The woman still hadn’t looked up and was animatedly engaged in a phone conversation.
“Hang on a sec, Olivia. We need to ask directions.”
She looked up and Quade saw the woman’s lips were the same luscious pink colour as her nails.
“Excuse me? Could you tell me where Northwood Cottage is?”
“Northwood?” Quade said with surprise. No one had lived in Northwood Cottage for years. “It’s just a mile up the road and to the right—”
Before Quade could say any more, the woman said, “Thanks. Got that, Tom?” The woman put something in Quade’s hand and zoomed off.
Quade looked down at her hand and saw she had given her a five pound coin. “She tipped me? What am I, a bloody waiter?” City people. “Come on, Dougal. We need to make a quick call before we head up to Axedale.”
Penny walked around the living room of Northwood Cottage while talking to Olivia on speakerphone. “I know I said traditional cottage, but there’s traditional and too traditional. It looks like it hasn’t been redecorated in a hundred years.”
Penny’s suitcases were sitting at the bottom of the stairs, and her camera and editing equipment was piled on the sofa and chairs in front of the fireplace.
“It’s rustic, Pen. That was the brief. I sent cleaners, people to set up your internet connection, and filled your freezer, fridge, and cupboards with all the supplies you’ll need to start with. What more do you need?”
Penny sighed and looked at the fireplace. It was empty and desolate just like the rest of the house. How on earth was she meant to make a fire?
“I thought it would be cosy and warm at least. This place hasn’t been lived in for a long time. I’ve got to make it look warm and inviting for the viewers and set up the camera and sound equipment”—Penny threw her hands up in the air—“and write the book. I don’t know how I’ll ever get it all done.”
She walked into the kitchen and laid her phone down on the kitchen table, then held her face in her hands. It was all so overwhelming.
Olivia was quiet for a few seconds then said, “Do you want me to send down a production team for you? You know that’s what I wanted for you.”
“No,” Penny said quickly. “You know I do this on my own, Olivia.”
She heard Olivia sigh. “You’re so stubborn. If that’s what you want. Besides, stumbling and learning new things is part of the charm of your show. This could be big for you, Pen. I’ve got some American networks sniffing around.”
Penny, who was looking in the Aga and trying to figure out how it worked, stood up suddenly. “What do you mean sniffing around?”
“They’re interested in bringing you to American TV. They love the idea of the upper-middle-class socialite with a cooking show. They love your YouTube channel, and this new little English village vibe just adds to the charm.”
Penny started to feel the buzz of excitement that success in business gave her. It was everything she wanted, for Penny’s Kitchento be a household name on both sides of the pond.
Suddenly the cottage was now a challenge, a means to an end for success. “I can do this, Olivia—just keep them interested. If we want to launch a Penny’s Kitchen range in America, a TV show could be a perfect vehicle. Only, no live shows. You did tell them that?”
“Of course. I promised you I would never ask you to do that again after…” Olivia hesitated.
Penny remembered the fear and dread of being on one of the biggest live daytime shows and feeling the telltale signs of a fit coming on. The video of her fitting had gone viral and embarrassed her to her core.
When she woke up in hospital, she thought her business and career, her way to succeed, had been ruined, but this idea of Olivia’s was her chance to give a shot in the arm to her company.
“I’m going to make it fabulous.” Penny smiled.
“That’s my girl. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.”
Once Penny hung up, her dog started to bark at the front door. “What is it, Princess?”
She walked over and opened the front door just in time to see a Land Rover driving away. She looked down on the doorstep and saw a box of chocolates with a note sitting there. Penny lifted them up and read the note.
I don’t need a tip for giving directions. I own the farm next door. I used your money and bought these chocolates for you. Enjoy them.
Penny laughed. “Oh my God, how old-fashioned. Dear Missand Yours faithfully?” She hadn’t really noticed who had given her directions, and it was just second nature to tip anyone who helped her in her social circles.
Penny looked down at Princess and said, “Someone’s feathers are ruffled. We better smooth them over. We don’t want to make enemies this quickly.”
Princess barked and followed her inside.
A few hours later Penny got a box of her signature muffins she had brought from London to give to Harry and changed into a short pink floral-print dress. She popped Princess into her bag and walked down to where she had asked for directions. There was a small dirt road which led up to a farmhouse just over the brow of the hill.
Penny looked down at her heels, then back to the dirt road. “Princess? Do we really walk up there?”
It was a tough choice, but she didn’t need any enemies already, so she said to Princess, “Looks like we’re walking. Let’s hope this grumpy farmer appreciates my sacrifice.”
Gingerly Penny began to walk up the dirt road. She swayed as her heel stuck in the mud, nearly toppling. “Bloody Olivia. City girl in the country will be great. Yes, funny for everyone else that sees me falling on my backside at every turn.”
She finally got to the top of the hill and lifted her head. Penny stopped breathing when she saw the most delicious, tall, sturdy, well-made butch chopping wood at the front door of the farmhouse.
“How very Lady Chatterley,” Penny said smiling.
That must have been the woman on the road. She never noticed how gorgeous she was when she stopped to ask for the directions.
Penny stood silently, gazing at her swinging the axe. The butch was wearing just a white sleeveless T-shirt, and every time she swung the axe, Penny could see the play of her solid muscles and broad shoulders. Her jeans hung perfectly on her hips, and she wore heavy work boots that just added to her sexy ruggedness. Penny had never really seen anything like her. No one she had ever been out with in London had been quite like this rural farmer.
Maybe the country would have its compensations.
Just then a black and white collie dog came out of the house barking excitedly, and the farmer looked up. Penny took a step forward, tripped, and came crashing to the ground.
Princess was barking, and suddenly Penny had a flashback of falling as she fitted on live TV. Panic and embarrassment spread through her.
Quade ran over and lifted the woman’s head off the ground, supporting it gently. Dougal was barking, and a little poodle dog the woman was carrying was barking, making the scene all the more chaotic.
“Are you all right, miss?”
“Let me up,” the woman said angrily.
Quade held her there. “Take it easy. You could have broken something. I’ll check you over.”
“No.” The woman pushed against her, and Quade had no choice but to help her to her feet but took care to take her weight.
“What’s your name?”
Quade wasn’t expecting that accent or that name. She sounded just like Harry and Bridge, and there wasn’t a person in the country who was taught history at school that didn’t know the name Huntingdon-Stewart.
“Okay, Penny, I’ve got you. Just be careful.”
Penny put her right foot down and cried out in pain. Quade scooped her up in her arms without a second thought and started for the farmhouse.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
Quade ignored her and said to Dougal, “Watch out for the little dog, Dougal. I’ll come back for it in a minute.”
She looked down at the beautiful woman in her arms, and her heart skipped a beat, despite the scowl on Penny’s face. When she had looked up and saw what Dougal was barking at, she nearly dropped the axe on her foot. The vision of Penelope Huntingdon-Stewart looked so out of place in her driveway. She appeared as if she had just stepped out of a designer store in London and had a chauffeur-driven car waiting for her. Was she dreaming? Penelope was like some kind of vision she had concocted in her mind of everything she found attractive in a woman. A tumble of long wavy blond hair, a beautiful figure, and with her luscious pink lips and nails, so utterly female.
“You better put me down, right now,” Penny demanded.
“I will in a second—I’m just trying to help you,” Quade said.
Why was she being so difficult?
Quade kicked open the living room door and carried Penny over to a leather armchair in front of the fire. She got her seated and brought over a footstool.
“Okay, let’s put your foot up here, and I’ll go and get your dog.” Penny grimaced as Quade lifted her leg onto the stool. “What’s his name?”
“It’s a she. Princess Baby Bear,” Penny said while she shifted about trying to get comfortable.
Quade burst out laughing. “Princess Baby Bear? You’re having me on.”
Penny looked up at her with indignation. “Her name is Princess Baby Bear.”
Quade held up her hands, “Okay, okay, touchy. I’ll get Princess Baby Bear.”
When Quade walked away, Penny brought her hands to her face. Her ankle was throbbing, she’d just made a complete fool of herself, in front of the stud farmer, and had to be carried in like a child. Like an object of ridicule.
More than the pain of hurting her leg, she felt the remembered humiliation of all the other pupils laughing at her and imitating her epileptic fit. Children were so cruel. And not just children. Even as she grew up, Penny always seemed to find herself on the ground, and feeling stupid.
Although she had to admit being carried in the sexy farmer’s strong arms was nice, she’d laughed at her. People always laughed.
Quade walked back in with Princess licking and kissing Quade’s face relentlessly.
Little traitor, Penny thought.
Quade handed the bag over to Penny and she took Princess out of it and let her jump down to the floor. She immediately went over to Quade’s dog, who wagged his tail and made a fuss over her.
“I called the doctor. He’ll be out in ten minutes,” Quade said.
“You did what?” Penny said angrily. “I don’t want a doctor.”
“You could have broken your ankle. It needs to be checked over,” Quade insisted.
Penny had enough of this. Who did this farmer think she was? She carefully took her leg from the footrest and tried to stand, but she cried out at the intense pain that shot from her ankle up her leg.
“What are you doing?” Quade knelt and cradled her ankle gently in her hands. “Don’t be daft. Sit back and rest your leg before you do more injury to yourself.”
Penny had no choice but to sit back. It was so frustrating. Her first day here and she was already relying on someone else because of her clumsiness.
“I’m not daft. I just don’t need people fussing around me. I can take care of myself.”
Quade put her leg back on the footstool and stood up. “Well, you can’t do much about it now. The doctor won’t be long. Are you just passing through the village?”
“No, I’m staying at Northwood Cottage,” Penny said more sharply than she meant to.
Quade stuffed her hands in her pockets and let out a breath. “I’ll go and get us some tea, and some ice for your ankle.”
Penny felt bad but was soon more annoyed when Princess went running after Quade and her dog. “Bloody turncoat.”
Quade stirred the tea in the pot, then turned her attention to the little dog trying to get her attention by her leg. Dougal, far from being jealous, was sitting happily at her side, seemingly pleased by the dog’s company.
Quade knelt down and ruffled the dog’s curly fur. “Hi, pal. So you’re Princess Baby Bear? A bit fluffy for a dog, isn’t it?” Princess lapped up her attention. “Although going by these silly pink clothes, you are a perfect match for your owner, apart from your personality.”
She lifted one of Princess’s booted paws and said, “What on God’s green earth is this? Shoes on a dog? Bloody hell.”
Quade shook her head and sighed. She never thought her day would go like this. One of the famous Huntingdon-Stewarts in her front room. Aunt Mabel would be so proud.
She got up to get some biscuits for her guest as well as some dog treats for Dougal and Princess, then carried the tea tray through to the front room.
The sight of Penny made Quade catch her breath and stop in the doorway. She focused on the manicured pink fingernails that seemed to sum up the perfect picture of femininity that Penny was.
Quade wished she could have had a wash and brush up before meeting her. Strangely, Penny was holding her phone up and taking a picture of her leg.
She carried over the tray and laid it on the coffee table. “Why are you taking a picture of your leg?”
Penny looked at her as if that was the most stupid question she’d ever been asked.
“So I can post it on my social media, and let my followers know what’s happened to me,” Penny said slowly as if Quade was an idiot for asking.
Quade was not on social media and didn’t pretend to understand it. She’d heard Riley talk about it, and the only time she really used the internet was at the Axedale estate office or for her own business—ordering farm supplies, the cattle market website, things like that.
She gave the dogs their biscuits and sat across from Penny. “Why would you share something so personal on the internet?” Quade asked as she poured out the tea.
Penny rolled her eyes. “Have I stepped back into the eighteenth century or something? Because I run a business on a social media platform, and my followers follow my life events.”
Quade didn’t understand what Penny was talking about but decided to leave it for the moment.
“Milk and sugar?” Quade asked.
“No sugar, and do you have any dairy-free milk?” Penny said.
Quade looked up at her quizzically. “Dairy-free milk? What do you mean?”
“You know, almond, hazelnut, any nut milk?”
“Nut milk,” Quade said as if she was talking a foreign language. She tried the words again. “You want nut milk? How do you milk a nut?”
Penny smacked her hand on her forehead. “Where have you sent me, Olivia? Hicksville? Black tea will be fine.”
Quade handed her the cup, still somewhat confused. “Biscuit?”
“No, thank you. Listen, could I ask you to drive me home? I’ll be okay tomorrow, I’m sure.”
“No, you have to see a doctor,” Quade repeated. Penny looked really angry. What was wrong with this woman?
“People don’t tell Penelope Huntingdon-Stewart no.”
“Well, I just did, so get comfortable. The doctor won’t be long, and then I’ll take you home,” Quade said.
Penny drank her tea but didn’t look happy. A beautiful face like that shouldn’t be angry, Quade thought.
A silence hung between them, and Quade felt compelled to fill it. “I’m sorry you caught me so underdressed. I was just chopping wood and then was going to have a shower.” Penny looked at her bare arms and then looked away quickly. Penny had no reply, but her dog jumped into Quade’s lap and started to kiss her face. “Hey, at least your dog likes me. She’s very sweet.” That actually got her a ghost of smile from her guest.
“She’s friendly,” Penny said.
Unlike her owner, Quade thought. “Can I ask you something?”
Penny sighed. “If you like.”
“Why does your dog wear shoes?”
Again Penny looked at her like she was crazy to ask the question. “To protect her little paws from the dirt and stones, from anything that could harm her.”
“But that’s what paws are for—dogs are meant to get muddy and run through water, and have fun. You need to let a dog be a dog.”
“Clearly city dogs have different needs to country dogs, but Princess doesn’t like her paws to get dirty,” Penny said sharply.
On cue Dougal went to Penny and laid his head on the armrest of Penny’s chair. She smiled and started to stroke his head. Good old Dougal could make anyone smile.
There was a knock at the door. “That’ll be the doctor.” Thank God.
The Axedale kitchen was filled with the beautiful smell of Annie’s delicious food. Harry was meant to be getting the wine, but she found herself gazing over at her wife as she dished their dinner into serving bowls. Harry would have laughed if someone had told her five years ago that she’d be a happily married woman with a stepchild, and not only that but blissfully happy.
And that’s what Annie had done for her and Axedale—she had brought bliss and happiness. It was strange. She wasn’t a believer in anything spiritual or supernatural, but she had always felt Axedale had a gloomy cloud of darkness hanging over it as she grew up, but now she would swear the house itself felt different, as if love had chased away the blackness and brought peace.
“What are you gazing at so intently, your ladyship?” Annie said pulling Harry from her thoughts.
She smiled and walked over, taking Annie in her arms. “You and the happiness you have brought to me and Axedale.”
Annie smiled and traced her fingertips down Harry’s cheek. “I’m glad to hear it. Kiss me.”
Harry did and started to deepen the kiss, but Annie pushed her back. “Oh no, we have guests. You know where deep kisses lead.”
Harry grinned and lifted Annie onto the kitchen table. “That was my plan. Let’s cancel dinner and go to bed.”
Annie gave her a mock glare and smacked her lightly on the bottom. “Now, now, your ladyship. We have the vicar upstairs.”
She gave light kisses to Annie’s neck. “It’s Finn’s last night before she leaves on tour. I’m sure Bridge would be glad of the excuse to go home and get her whip out.”
Annie laughed. “Come on, the food’s ready to go. I promise you’ll have my full attention later.”
“Cross my heart and hope to get—well, you know the rest. Come on.” She slipped off the table and began to put the serving dishes onto trays. “Can you take this heavy one, sweetheart?”
“Of course.” Harry looked at her watch. “I wonder where Quade’s got to. She’s not usually late.”
Annie took the last dish out of the oven and then looked at the kitchen clock. “Yes, it’s not like her. I hope everything’s all right.”
Harry started to walk up the kitchen stairs. “I’ll give her a call once I get this to the dining room.”
Quade was flustered as she jogged from her Land Rover up to the doors of Axedale Hall. Being flustered was not a usual state of being for Quade. She was calm, diligent, and usually laid-back, but that had changed this afternoon when Penelope Huntingdon-Stewart came walking up to her farmhouse.
Dr. McTavish had arrived and confirmed that Penny had a sprained ankle, not a broken bone. Penny had made everything such a fuss. Despite her bad attitude, Quade had offered to take her home and sleep on the couch to make sure she could get around, and help with anything she needed, but of course she refused. She had at least taken her aunt’s old walking stick, when offered. That would help her move around.
Quade stopped inside to catch her breath. “Bloody stubborn woman.”
She heard the thunder of running footsteps coming down the huge staircase. Quade looked up and smiled when she saw Riley, her best friend Sophie, and the gigantic puppy, Caesar.
Dougal ran off excitedly to meet them at the bottom of the stairs. “Hi, Quade,” both kids said, and then began to make a fuss over Dougal.
“Hello, Riley, Sophie,” Quade replied and stroked Caesar’s large head after he came to greet her. “Hey, pal. You get bigger every time I see you.”
Riley came over and gave her a hug. “Sophie is staying for a sleepover.”
Quade smiled. “That’s great.”
It was lovely to see Riley happy and settled. When she had arrived in Axedale with Annie, she had found it hard to fit in to the small village school, but the pretty Sophie arrived in the village with her parents a few months later and the pair had been inseparable since.
“Can we take Dougal with us, Quade?” Sophie asked.
Riley added, “Yeah, we’re going to look for treasure on the grounds with my metal detector.”
“Sure, but aren’t you coming for dinner first?” Quade asked.
Riley shook her head. “We had pizza earlier. Come on, Dougal.”
The two dogs and two kids went running off out the front door. Quade looked up at the ceiling and let out a long breath.
Fantastic. Two couples and just me.
Usually Riley would eat with them and it wasn’t quite as awkward. Tonight would be awkward and remind her how alone she was.
She hurried along the corridor and walked into the dining room to find what she feared. The two couples sitting across from one another, and intimately close.
“Quade. We thought you’d never get here.” Harry stood and took her jacket.
“Sorry, I got held up.” Quade sat down at the end of the table and said hello to Bridge and Finn.
This was Finn’s last night in Axedale before going on a national tour for two weeks. With Bridge’s encouragement, Finn had gone back to magic and her touring shows, although Finn only booked dates for a few weeks at a time so she wasn’t away from her lover for long, especially now they were engaged. Bridge and Finn’s wedding was due to take place at Axedale when Finn got back from her tour.
Quade envied the bond both couples had, and her loneliness felt worse when she was in their company.
Annie placed her hand over hers and smiled. “Well, you’re here now. That’s the main thing. Let me get you some dinner.”
“Is there anything wrong, Quade?” Finn asked.
“Nothing wrong. I just had an unexpected afternoon,” Quade said.
Bridge said with a smile, “Oh, do tell.”
Harry handed Quade a beer. “Thanks, mate.” She poured her beer into her glass and took a drink. “This woman—”
“Woman, a good start,” Bridge joked.
Annie raised an eyebrow to her friend. “Carry on, Quade.”
Harry sat down and suddenly there were four pairs of eyes staring at her, making her feel a little uncomfortable. Quade didn’t like being the centre of attention.
She stared at her glass and cleared her throat. “It’s nothing very exciting.”
Quade explained how the woman had asked for directions and gave her a tip.
“I bet that went down like a lead balloon,” Harry said.
“I know, like I was some hotel porter. Anyway, I bought her chocolates with the money and left them at her door. Then this afternoon she comes marching up to my cottage, up the muddy driveway in heels higher than Bridge’s, with a little dog.”
“I like her already,” Finn joked, and got a swat on the arm from Bridge.
“Is she staying in the village?” Annie asked.
Quade nodded. “She looks like she’s walked out of a fashion magazine. Anyway, I look up to talk to her and she fell on her ar—backside.”
“What’s her name?” Bridge asked. “She sounds quite the dish.”
“Penelope Huntingdon-Stewart,” Quade said.
“Pen’s here already? I wasn’t expecting her for a few days,” Harry said.
“Pen?” Bridge said. “You didn’t tell me she was coming.”
Quade was quite confused. “You all know her?”
“Her parents are friends with my mother,” Harry explained. “She’s younger than Bridge and I, but we saw her and the family often as we grew up.”
Annie frowned. “You said she fell. Is she okay?”
“As far as I could tell,” Quade said.
“What are you not saying?” Annie said.
Quade couldn’t say what she really thought of her. “I can’t. You know her.”
“Spit it out, Quade,” Harry said.
“She’s a bloody stubborn woman who complained the whole time I tried to help her,” Quade said quickly, getting her frustrations off her chest.
Both Harry and Bridge laughed.
“What?” Quade asked.
Bridge replied, “Stubborn is Little Pen’s middle name. She’s well known for it.”
“So what happened?” Annie said.
Quade explained everything, how her help was rebuffed at every turn, how she insisted on the doctor examining her, how her offer to stay on the couch this evening was rebuffed.
“Her little dog was friendly, but Penny…I mean, she asked me if I had nut milk. Can you believe that?”
They all chuckled, and Harry said, “Oh capital offence in the countryside.”
Bridge leaned across the table and patted Quade’s hand. “I know she seems prickly, Quade, but she has her share of problems that make her self-sufficient and stubborn.”
“Really? What?” Quade asked.
Bridge looked over at Harry, and Harry said, “Her brother Hugo was a colleague and friend at Cambridge, so I know she had a difficult time growing up. Pen suffers from epilepsy, and it’s been quite severe over the years.”
“Poor thing,” Annie said, “we’ll need to make sure she’s well looked after.”
“She’s a lesbian and just your type too,” Bridge said.
“She is?” Quade almost squeaked as she said that. She just never expected Penny to be gay.
“We’ll need to set you up, Quade,” Bridget said with a grin.
“Bridge, she’s a city girl and a Huntingdon-Stewart. I’m a farmer.”
“Oh, don’t talk such nonsense.” Bridge snorted. “Annie fell in love with a countess, and I fell in love with a magician, a bloody dishy one at that. Don’t create barriers where there are none.”
Quade nodded but inside she knew that she just didn’t have that kind of luck. She pictured Penny with someone in a suit, suave and sophisticated. Quade didn’t think herself sophisticated in the slightest.
The evening ended after a good meal, and Quade drove back to the farmhouse. She sat in her car for a few minutes, thinking about Penny. She had been too hard on her, especially with the challenges she faced, and guilt twisted inside her.
She knew how debilitating epilepsy could be. Her aunt had suffered with it her whole life.
Harry said she’d had the cottage checked and set up for Penny, but it was a big change for someone coming from city life, and her little dog wouldn’t get a walk either with Penny’s ankle the way it was. She resolved to go around to the cottage tomorrow with some firewood and offer to take her dog out with Dougal. Hopefully she wouldn’t get rebuffed this time.
The next morning Quade put some firewood in the back of her Land Rover and drove to Northwood Cottage. She stopped outside and sat for a few moments, looking for any signs of life. Quade turned to Dougal who was sitting in the passenger seat and said, “Everything looks quiet. Maybe she’s not up yet.”
She looked at the time, and then tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “Half past nine. Maybe I should just leave the wood by the door with a note.”
Dougal just looked at her quizzically. Quade was looking for excuses. She could feel a nervousness creep into her stomach as she drove over there. She didn’t know why. Penny had been rude, ungrateful, and standoffish, but yet she held herself with such grace, elegance, and femininity that Quade couldn’t help but admire her beauty, and feel somewhat in awe of her. Not to mention the fact that she was a Huntingdon-Stewart.
Quade let out a breath and looked into the driver’s mirror. She tried to smooth down her choppy sandy-blond hair, but really she was never going to look smart after spending the morning feeding cattle and mucking out.
“Okay, Dougal. Ms. Independence will just have to take us as we are. Come on.”
When they got out of the car she heard Penny’s little dog barking. “Your little pal is awake, anyway.”
Quade walked up to the door, took a breath and lifted her hand to knock. Before she did Quade heard a cry of pain and a bang.
She knocked quickly. “Penny? It’s Quade. Are you okay?”
Quade heard shuffling and then the door opened. She tried to speak but she was too transfixed by Penny. She was wearing a pink unicorn onesie with the hood pulled up. The hood had a yellow horn and two eyes, while Penny’s gorgeous hair tumbled out the sides of the hood.
Quade had never seen anything like it, or anything like Penny. She would have imagined the woman she met yesterday to wear silky designer nightwear, not this. Penny obviously had a playful side.
As Quade stared, Penny said, “Have you never seen anyone in a unicorn onesie or something?”
“Honestly, no I haven’t.”
“Well, I’m glad I have broadened your horizons.” Penny gave her the smallest of smiles and Quade’s mouth went dry.
“So, how can I help you, Quade?” Penny said.
Quade shook herself from her thoughts. “Oh yes. Sorry, I thought I would bring you over some firewood, and then I heard you shout. Is everything okay?”
Penny was cradling her hand. “I was trying to light the wretched fire and burned my hand.”
Quade immediately wanted to react, to take control of the situation and help, but she remembered her conversation with her friends last night, and the problems that coloured Penny’s reactions.
She took a moment and then said carefully, “Would you allow me to help you?”
Penny narrowed her eyes and gazed at her. She clearly wasn’t expecting that question. After a few seconds she said, “Yes, I could use the help. Come in.”
When Penny turned, Quade saw there was a tail swishing at the back of her humorous onesie, but instead of smiling, the sight and the sway of Penny’s hips and the cute tail made her stomach flip, which caught her by surprise.
She didn’t get long to think about that as Princess ran at her and Dougal excitedly. Quade reached down and stroked the dog’s head as Dougal greeted her too. “Hi, Princess.”
Princess was dressed in little pink pyjamas, and Quade shook her head disapprovingly. She wasn’t going to say anything and get on Penny’s bad side when she had just got in the door.
When she looked up, she saw that Penny was walking with difficulty on her sprained ankle and again had to stop her instinct of going to her aid.
“How’s the ankle?” Quade asked.
“Painful, but I can move around, which is the main thing,” Penny said as she led Quade into the cottage front room.
The room was chaos. All sorts of what looked like photography and video equipment was strewn over the table by the window, across the coffee table, and throughout the room. By the fireplace there was a small video camera set up, pointing directly at the fire, for some reason.
Penny sat on the couch and held out her hand. “I burnt my hand on the bloody fire. It’s so cold in this old place.”
“Do you have ice?” Quade asked.
“I suppose. My assistant had the place stocked up before I got here.”
Penny cradled her hand and watched Quade stride off into the kitchen, and of course Princess ran after her. “What is she, the Pied Piper of dogs or something?”
Penny was secretly pleased Quade came back today. It gave her the chance to apologize for yesterday. Last night as she lay awake, in pain and quite alone in this empty cottage, all she could do was think and replay the memories of falling and making a fool of herself.
Quade had only tried to help. She never laughed or made Penny feel silly, but Penny realized she’d been in one of her moods and taken it out on her new neighbour.
When something like that happened, the shutters of protection came down, and she knew she could be defensive and prickly.
Quade came back with some ice wrapped in a tea towel. Instead of handing it to her, Quade knelt in front of her and said, “Give me your hand.”
Unusually for Penny, she did as she was told and held out her hand. Quade wrapped the towel around her hand, and she hissed with pain.
Quade covered her hand with hers and looked up at Penny with what she could only describe as dreamy blue eyes. Oh my goodness.
Quade held her gaze and her hand silently, affording Penny the time to study the chiselled features in front of her.
When she first saw Quade yesterday, before she made a fool of herself and everything got out of hand, she had taken her breath away. In her social circle, butch had almost become a bad word, and those women who tended towards the masculine end of the scale did not look like the woman before her.
Quade looked like the butch characters whom she had read about in the romance novels she so adored. The kind of butch who strode on to the scene with extreme confidence, swept the girl off her feet while defeating the bad guys, and made lesbians hearts flutter.
Quade was this. She was authentic and, Penny suspected, lived authentically.
“What’s wrong?” Quade said.
Penny looked down and Quade was still holding her hand. “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
Quade gave her a smile that made her stomach loop the loop. “Well, I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone like you, Penny, so that’s makes two of us.” She pointed to the fireplace where the two logs that refused to light sat. “Would you let me show you how to make a fire?”
There was the question again, just like at the door. Would you let me? Would you allow me? Why the change from yesterday? Yesterday Quade just steamed in and took charge. She had definitely changed her attitude for some reason.
“Yes, please. I was freezing last night.”
Quade started to roll up the sleeves of her checked shirt and said, “How could you be cold in that fluffy unicorn get-up?”
“It’s freezing here. Mind you, I’m always cold,” Penny admitted.
Quade went onto all fours and crawled a few paces in front of the fire. Penny forgot about the pain in her hand and her ankle instantly. Wow! Just look at that muscled bum. Talk about eye candy.
Penny was used to observing and being generally sexually frustrated. She was always seen with the right people at social events—actresses, singers, businesswomen—but that was as far as she got with anyone. Her carefully constructed image meant everyone assumed her sex life was full and one to be envied. No one, not even her family, knew the truth.
“Penny? Penny?” she finally heard Quade say.
She’d been caught looking, and looking was all she ever could do. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“Why have you got a camera set up here?” Quade asked.
“So I could film myself lighting my first fire. To share on social media.”
“I don’t understand. I thought you were into cooking,” Quade said.
Penny rolled her eyes. She forgot she was in Axedale, where the wonders of the internet age had yet to penetrate, it seemed. “Cooking and lifestyle. My followers want to see my life,” Penny said.
Quade narrowed her eyes and said slowly, “Okay.”
Penny watched as Quade cleared out the mess she had made trying to light the fire. Maybe now was a good time to make peace.
“Quade? I wanted to say sorry for being so bad tempered yesterday. I felt a fool and—”
“That’s all right,” Quade said generously and gave her a big smile.
“Oh, I…” Penny wasn’t expecting to be let off that easily. No one was that easy-going and nice, were they? “Thanks. I was actually bringing you a box of muffins to make up for the tip misunderstanding.”
“Don’t worry about it, really. Let’s get you warmed up, eh?”
Penny was already warming up in Quade’s company without the fire. Princess and Dougal were sitting by Quade’s side, as good as gold. They made such a sweet picture.
“Oh, can I film you? I’ll remember how to do it then.”
Quade raised her eyebrow. “If you like.”
Penny reached over to the camera and pressed record. “Go.”
“To begin, you have to start out with a clean grate. So I’ll brush this out. It hasn’t been lit in a long time,” Quade said, picking up the hard brush sitting amongst the fire tools at the side.
A billow of dust puffed up into the air as she brushed out the fireplace. Penny felt even worse about yesterday, considering how kind Quade was being.
“Thank you for this. Once I’ve seen you do it, then I’ll be able to do it myself.” Penny was reassuring herself as well as telling Quade. She hated to get help for anything, but after this she would be self-sufficient.
“You’re welcome. It’s what we do in the country. Help each other.” Quade gave her that disarming smile again. The kind that made her heart beat extra fast.
She decided to change the subject. “Tell me about your job. Is it your farm, or do you work for someone?”
“No, it’s mine. It’s been in my family for generations.”
“Beef,” Quade said.
Penny could just imagine what kind of cattle. If social media and the internet hadn’t penetrated in Axedale, she doubted organic farming had.
Quade finished cleaning and picked up some sticks of wood from a holder by the side of the fire and broke them into various lengths. “Okay, the two most important things about making a fire are fuel and air. These little bits of wood are your fuel, called kindling.”
Penny watched as Quade piled small sticks on the grate. “The other thing a fire needs is air, so space between the kindling is essential. Fuel and air make fire, okay?”
“Fuel and air make fire.” Penny imitated Quade’s deeper voice and laughed gently.
“Exactly. Now you put the logs on top, facing lengthways so they don’t roll onto the carpet.”
Penny was just fascinated watching Quade teach her, and she could watch and listen to her all day. Of course it helped that Quade was so good looking. Penny was really surprised not to see a wedding ring on her finger.
Quade continued, “Next, you add paper.”
There was a pile of old newspapers by the side of the fire, and Penny had wondered what they were for. Quade ripped them into strips and piled them under the grate.
“More fuel to get the fire going. And lastly, you light the paper.” She used a fire lighter, and in seconds the fire was consuming the paper, and then spread to the pile of kindling on the grate, and finally to the logs.
“That’s beautiful,” Penny said. The fire danced, crackled, and popped, and already the cottage felt cosier. “Thank you, Quade.”
Quade felt her chest puff up with pride. Penny was actually being nice to her, and it made Quade happy to help the damsel in distress.
“No problem. A fire makes all the difference in a home.”
She prodded the fire with a poker a few times. Quade saw a flash and looked up. Penny was pointing her phone at her, taking her picture.
“Great picture.” Penny smiled and turned the phone to show Quade what she’d taken. “Would you mind if I shared this picture?”
“Shared it with who?” Quade didn’t quite understand.
“Shared it online with my followers.”
Quade narrowed her eyes. “Why would they want to see me?”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Because I share my life, I document my life. My followers want to see what I do with my day.”
Penny sighed in frustration. “Is that all you can ask?
Quade went back to tending the fire. Clearly Penny was quick to anger, and from experience she knew not to antagonize someone like that. Her aunt had been similarly temperamental, a fiery Irishwoman, but the most loving you could find. Her uncle was very laid-back and he took it all in his stride. Luckily Quade took after him. Nothing much fazed Sam McQuade.
“Sorry, I don’t understand all this social media stuff. I heard you were a cook, but can you explain how you do that online?”
Penny looked as if she had been ready to say something pithy, but the wind had been taken from her sails by Quade’s open, non-confrontational question.
Quade looked up and smiled. It appeared to make Penny falter.
“I run my own company, Penny’s Kitchen, a cooking and lifestyle company. It’s a multimedia platform. I have a website, a blog, a YouTube channel, and Facebook, Twitter, all that kind of thing.”
“And people watch your cooking demonstrations on YouTube?”
Penny nodded. “Sometimes Facebook too. I’m a lifestyle brand—the videos and pictures are part of that.”
Quade stopped prodding the fire. “You’re a brand? How can a person be a brand?”
“Dear God,” Penny said with a sigh, “I’m a brand because my followers buy into the way I live, my philosophies of life.”
Quade couldn’t help but laugh. “Your philosophies?”
Penny’s face went red with anger. “Don’t laugh at me. My philosophies are clean eating, intuitive eating, non-processed foods. Only eating meat from quality organically fed sources.”
“Okay.” Quade hadn’t a clue what clean eating or intuitive eating was, but she wasn’t going to ask and appear stupid again. She placed the fire poker in its holder and stood up quickly. “Do you want me to make the fire in your bedroom?”
Penny sat up sharply. “No, no one goes in my bedroom.”
That was a strange thing to say. No one goes in her bedroom?
“Okay. How’s your hand?” Quade asked.
Penny pulled off the ice and waggled her fingers. “I think it’s less stingy. Let me get you those muffins before you go. To say thanks.”
Penny started to get up gingerly, and Quade offered her hand. “Let me help.”
“No, I’m fine,” Penny said.
Bridge and Harry were so right about Penny. She was the most stubborn woman she had ever come across, even when they were being nice to each other.
Penny walked towards the kitchen, and Dougal and Princess ran ahead, followed by Quade.
The cottage kitchen had more equipment spread out, and there didn’t seem to be much room for what Penny had in mind. It was a lot smaller than her farmhouse kitchen.
Penny picked up a box of muffins and handed them to her. The label showed a picture of Penny holding a mixing bowl and spoon, with a dazzling smile. Something Quade hadn’t seen in real life yet, but wished she had.
“I hope you’ll like these, Quade. They’re made from non-dairy products, all organic and gluten free,” Penny said.
Quade read out the quote printed on the box. “Clean, healthy, and delicious.”
“Yes, that’s my catchphrase. That’s my brand identity.”
Finally, Quade saw the beaming smile in real life, and her heart skipped a beat. Penny seemed to come alive when talking about her business.
“And you can buy these in the big supermarkets?” Quade asked.
“Yes.” Penny’s eyes appeared to sparkle with enthusiasm. “I have a range of foods in the supermarket now. Including these.” Penny reached behind her and picked up a second box. “This is for Dougal.”
Quade’s eyes went wide when she saw it was a box of dog treats with a picture of Princess on the front. “Dog biscuits too?”
Penny reached down and picked up Princess. “Not just any dog biscuits. Quality organic dog biscuits. Isn’t that right, Princess?” Penny kissed her dog’s little nose.
“You really are a big businesswoman,” Quade said.
She remembered her conversation with Bridget last night.
She’s a lesbian and just your type too. We’ll need to set you up, Quade.
Bridge, she’s a city girl, and a Huntingdon-Stewart. I’m a farmer.
Add to that successful businesswoman, and it created yet another barrier between them. Not that she had ever taken Bridge’s suggestion seriously, but seeing Penny this morning in her unicorn PJs had only amplified her attraction. She could tell there was a sweet, beautiful girl in there, underneath that stubborn shell.
“Thanks. I’m sure Dougal will love them.”
Penny put Princess down and said, “Come here a second.”
Quade was confused when Penny reached out to touch her cheek. “You have a smudge of ash from the fire.”
She held her breath while Penny rubbed her cheekbone with her thumb. Penny looked into her eyes, and a warmth spread from Penny’s fingers onto her cheek and throughout her body.
Penny’s rubbing thumb became a caress, and Penny’s lips parted. They looked silently at each other, Quade seeing everything she had ever dreamed about in Penny’s eyes.
When Penny’s fingernails gently scratched the short hairs above her ear, Quade shivered, and Penny snatched her hand away.
Quade felt an awkwardness between them now. She looked down at Dougal playing with Princess and her ball.
“Looks like they’re getting on well,” Quade said, trying to make conversation.
Penny was cradling her injured hand, with her arms crossed defensively across her body. Something had changed.
“So it seems,” Penny said flatly.
Great. Miss Attitude is back. Time to go, Quade thought.
“Do you want me to take Princess for a walk for you since your ankle is in a bad way?”
“What? No, Princess doesn’t like to walk.”
“Of course she likes to walk. She’s a dog—she was made for walking. I can call for her tonight, if you like?”
“If she needs to be walked, I can walk her. I don’t need anyone’s help.”
“Maybe if you didn’t dress her like a doll and put shoes on her, then maybe she’d remember she was a dog.”
Penny’s face was like thunder. She walked back into the living room and said, “Thank you for your help with the fire, but I mustn’t keep you.”
Quade let out a breath and said to Dougal. “Come on, pal. We’re going.”
When they got outside, Penny slammed the door shut. Quade looked up at the sky. “Why did I say that.”
It wasn’t like Quade to react in anger, but Penny was making her hot, in more ways than one.