The First Kiss
Book 2 in the Sweetest Kisses series
She’s doing just fine on her own…
Classical pianist Vera Waltham is recovering from a bad break up by taking a hiatus with her daughter in the Damson Valley countryside. She’s content with her music, and has no interest in complicating her life with further attempts at romance.
…and he swears he’s doing just fine too.
Attorney James Knightley is a numbers guy who reads contractual fine print for fun, and he wants nothing to do with damsels, in distress or otherwise. Nobody is more surprised than James when he falls for Vera, and the only deal on James’s mind when it comes to that talented lady is wedded bliss.
But why settle for merely fine?
Vera is gathering her resolve to resume performing, and handsome, lonely lawyers don’t have a place on her program. Then somebody starts threatening Vera, and her best shot a staying safe is to put her trust in James. Does she dare give him her heart as well?
NOTE: The Sweetest Kisses series was originally published in 2015, and went on hiatus in 2022. The republished versions have been slightly updated and are sporting spiffy new covers!
Enjoy An Excerpt
A year in divorce purgatory had taught Vera Waltham two lessons.
First lesson: When her ex acted like an idiot, she was allowed to be angry—she was getting good at it, in fact.
Second lesson: Vera could rely, absolutely and without hesitation, on her attorney’s word. If Trenton Knightley said somebody would soon be on her doorstep with a copy of the restraining order, that somebody was already headed her way. Vera’s emergency automotive repair service was a shakier bet.
“Ma’am, if this is the number where you can be reached,” the dispatcher said, “we’ll call you back when we’ve located a mechanic in your immediate area.”
“In my immediate area,” Vera replied, “you’ll find cows, chickens, and the occasional fat groundhog. The truck is sitting in my garage.”
“Then this isn’t a roadside emergency?” The dispatcher clearly had raised small children, because she’d hit the balance between dismay and shaming smack on the nose.
“I’m stranded without wheels, nothing but open fields, bad weather, and my lawyer’s phone number to comfort me. Please get somebody out to fix that tire, ASAP.”
Vera was stranded in her own toasty kitchen, but what if Twy came home from school with a sore throat? Long walk to the urgent care in freezing temperatures, that’s what, because bucolic Damson County boasted no rural ride service.
“We’ll do the best we can, ma’am. Please stay near your phone until a mechanic calls you.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
The line went dead, which meant the next step was locating the truck’s owner’s manual. Vera was still nose down in a description of something called the spare brace assembly when wheels crunched on the crushed gravel of her driveway.
Through the kitchen window, she saw that an SUV had pulled up at the foot of her steps. A man in a sheepskin jacket and cowboy hat got out.
Could be a mechanic. He was broad-shouldered, he drove a motorhead’s sort of vehicle, and he wasn’t wearing gloves.
A pianist noticed hands. His were holding a signature Hartman and Whitney navy blue folder. When he rapped on Vera’s door, she undid all three dead bolts and opened it.
Not Trent Knightley, but a close resemblance suggested Vera beheld one of the brothers with whom Trent shared a law practice. Same blue, blue eyes; same lean, muscular height; same wavy hair, though this guy was blond rather than brunette.
“Hello,” she said, opening the door wider. “You’re either from Hartman and Whitney, or you’re the best dressed truck mechanic I’ve ever seen. I’m Vera Waltham.”
“James Knightley. Pleased to meet you.” He stepped over the threshold, removed his hat, and hung it on the brass coatrack. “Trent asked me to bring you a copy of a restraining order. Said it was urgent.”
“My thanks, Mr. Knightley.” Vera closed the door behind him and shot the dead bolts, then extended her hand in anticipation of gaining possession of a copy of the court order.
Instead, Vera’s hand was enveloped by a big male paw, one graced with calluses she would not have expected to find on a lawyer.
James Knightley had manners—also warm hands. When he’d tended to the civilities—firm grip, not out to prove anything—he passed her the blue folder.
Vera flipped it open, needing to see with her own eyes that he’d brought her the right court order.
“Was there a reason to get it certified?” she asked.
“The courthouse was on my way here. If you needed a certified copy, then nothing less would do.”
Consideration and an eye for details were delightful qualities in any man.
As were warm hands and a mellow baritone voice. “May I offer you a cup of tea, some hot chocolate? It’s cold out, and this errand brought you several miles from town.” Vera offered out of basic good manners, but also because anger eventually burned itself out, while a front tire on her only serviceable vehicle was still slashed, and the intricacies of the spare brace assembly thingy had yet to reveal themselves to her.
Then too, James Knightley had something of his brother’s reassuring air. Maybe lawyers took classes in how to be reassuring, the way a pianist took a master class in Brahms or Rachmaninoff.
As he unbuttoned his jacket, James glanced around at the foyer’s twelve-foot ceilings, the crown molding, the beveled glass in the windows on either side of the foyer. Vera had the sense he did this not with a mercenary eye—not pricing property in anticipation of litigation— but rather with the slow, thorough appraisal of the craftsman. Pine dowels in the cross beam, handmade stained glass insets for the oriel window—he inspected these, the way Vera had to stop and listen for a moment to any piano playing in any venue, however faintly.
“A cup of hot chocolate would hit the spot,” he said, shrugging out of his jacket. “Trent said you had a lovely old house, and he did not lie.”
Good heavens, that smile. Trent Knightley was tall, dark, and handsome, a charming and very intelligent man whom Vera had happily flaunted in Donal’s face, but this James…
He left a subtly more masculine impression. Donal would hate him on sight.
James’s gaze held a warmth Trent’s lacked, at least when aimed at Vera. His smile reached his eyes, eyes a peculiarly dark shade of blue fringed with long lashes.
Vera had no business admiring a man’s eyelashes, for the love of St. Cecelia. Or his hands, or his voice.
“To the kitchen, then,” she said, leading James through the music room and into the back of the house. “My favorite room in the house.”
“I’d guess this place predates the Civil War. Did you have a lot of work done?”
“I intend to raise my daughter here, so I had the house fitted out exactly as I wanted it.” Right down to the security system, which had done her absolutely no good earlier that very afternoon.
“I have a renovated farmhouse of my own,” James said. “Every night when I tool up my driveway, and she’s sitting under the oaks waiting for me in all her drafty splendor, I am glad to call her mine.”
A poet lawyer, who composed odes to his farmhouse. Different, indeed.
“But we’re not so glad to pay the heating bills,” Vera said as they reached the kitchen. The room was blessedly cozy because of the pellet stove sitting in one corner of the fireplace.
“Good Lord, this must be original.” James ran a hand over the gray fieldstones of the hearth. “Five feet square at least, and these look like genuine buggy axles.”
He fingered the pot swings on either side of the enormous fireplace, then draped his jacket over the back of a chair.
“I don’t know what they are,” Vera said. “An old Mennonite gentleman came to point and parge, and he ended up doing a great deal more than that. I love that fireplace, but I also love the exposed chestnut logs and the flagstone floor. This time of year, I wear two pairs of wool socks twenty-four-seven. Have a seat.”
James wandered around the kitchen a while longer, a man who apparently enjoyed tactile exploration. He touched the mantel, the cabinets, the marble counters, the drawer pulls of the antique breakfront that stored her mother’s china. He caressed wood and stone as if he’d coax secrets from Vera’s counters and chimney, while she wondered where he’d acquired his calluses.
“Whipped cream, Mr. Knightley?”
“Please, and a little nutmeg, if you have it.”
“A connoisseur.” And lo, lurking next to the oregano in Vera’s spice rack was a canister of nutmeg, probably leftover from holiday baking. A connoisseur would appreciate fresh, homemade cookies, so she got down her cookie tin and peered inside. “We’re in luck. My daughter has left us a few cookies.”
Half a batch of homemade chocolate-chip pecan turtles remained, and they’d be scrumptious with hot chocolate.
“Don’t bother putting them on a plate,” James said. “I can dip into the tin, same as any other civilian. How long have you lived here?”
He could probably finish the rest of the batch without gaining an ounce, too, and keep up the small talk the entire time. Which was…charming? A lifetime spent in practice rooms and concert halls didn’t equip a woman with a ready ability to analyze men.
“I moved here with my daughter a little over a year ago,” Vera said, putting a plain white mug of whole milk into the microwave. “Twyla will get off the school bus in about fifteen minutes, and if I’m walking to the foot of the lane, I’d better not linger over my hot chocolate.” A bit rude, offering the man a drink one minute and hustling him along the next. Anger could leave a woman that rattled, but Vera’s guest didn’t seem offended.
“Your lane has to be half a mile long,” James said, “and it’s not quite thirty degrees out with a mighty brisk breeze. Are you sure you want to walk that distance?”
“I’m sure I do not,” she said, giving his hot chocolate a final stir. “But somebody has broken into my garage. Today, I don’t expect an eight-year-old to trudge that distance by herself.” Though Twyla did, on the days when her mother wasn’t feeling paranoid.
Angry, not paranoid. Rattled, anyway.
And mildly charmed.
Something in James’s expression changed, became more focused. “Your garage was broken into? You mentioned a mechanic.”
“One of my tires is flat,” Vera replied. “I’ve called the road service, but I’m off the beaten path, and finding somebody to put on the spare will take a while. I’m pretty sure I can figure it out. I’ve changed a tire or two.”
Half a lifetime ago, on a vintage Bug, while one of her brothers had alternately coached her and laughed uproariously.
Now would be a good time for a guy with broad shoulders and competent hands to tell her that tires went flat for no reason. Even brand-new tires that had cost a bundle to have put on and balanced and aligned.
When Vera had squirted whipped cream onto James’s hot chocolate, he appropriated the nutmeg from her and did the honors, then spun the lazy Susan that held her spices and added a dash of cinnamon.
They worked in the same assembly line fashion on Vera’s drink, the spices contributing a soothing note to the kitchen fragrances.
“Ladies first,” James said, saluting with his mug.
Because James looked like he’d wait all winter, Vera took a sip of her hot chocolate.
Rich, interesting, sweet, and nourishing—an altogether lovely concoction in the middle of a dreadful day. A small increment of Vera’s upset slid away, or at least from her immediate grasp.
“Your vehicle was vandalized while your car sat in a garage that I’ll presume you keep locked,” James said, staring at his mug. “You suspect your ex is behind this?”
Lawyers, even hot chocolate-swilling lawyers with interesting blue eyes, were good at putting together facts. Right now, that was a helpful quality.
“I’m fairly certain my ex is carrying a grudge,” Vera said, “and fairly certain he stole my copy of the restraining order. Without it, when I call the cops, they might show up, but they won’t do anything if they find Donal here. If I can wave the order at them, they might lock him up.”
James helped himself to a paper towel and passed one to Vera, folding his up to use as a coaster on her butcher-block counter. He wasn’t shy about sharing personal space, and he smelled good—piney, outdoorsy, and—best of all—not like Donal.
“Domestic relations law hasn’t been my area for several years,” he said, “but I think you have the gist of it. If you like, I can reach Trent on his cell and verify that.”
“Please don’t. I already feel like a ninny for calling him. He’s newly married, isn’t he?”
“Very, and he chose well this time.”
James’s tone suggested the first Mrs. Knightley had not enjoyed her brother-in-law’s wholehearted approval, though her successor apparently did.
“I chose reasonably well the first time,” Vera said, “not so well on the rebound.”
“Whereas I have yet to choose. You make a mean hot chocolate, Mrs. Waltham.” James touched his mug to Vera’s, probably signaling an end to the self-disclosure session.
“Call me Vera, and have some cookies.”
He took a bite of cookie, catching the crumbs in his hand. “What time did you say the bus came?”
“Any minute. Why?”
He put a key fob on the counter. “We can take my car.”
“That’s not necessary.” In truth, as charming as he was, as handsome as he was, the idea of getting into a vehicle with James left Vera uneasy. Donal was handsome and occasionally gruffly charming. He could also be a damned conniving snake with a bad temper.
“You take the SUV then.” James slid the key toward her. “It’s colder than a well digger’s…boots out there, and I have a niece who’s seven—a pair of them, actually. This isn’t weather a lady should have to face alone at the end of a long day.”
Twyla bounced up the lane on colder days than this, and James had to know that—the Knightley family was local, after all. He’d passed Vera his key for another reason, one having to do with her near panic at having no wheels, and ladies facing bad weather all on their own.
“I can put your spare on, and you can wait for the bus,” he said, while the key sat three inches from Vera’s hand.
Until fifteen months ago, Vera had never lived on her own, ever. She’d given up leaning on a man, and so far, the results had been wonderful—when they weren’t scary.
“I can’t let you do that, James. It’s too much trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all to a guy who was tearing down engines from little up. I like the smell of axle grease, and I haven’t had homemade cookies since I don’t know when. Scat,” he said, taking her hand and slapping the key into her palm. “If you leave now, you can have the seats nice and toasty by the time your daughter gets off the bus.”
He brought his mug to the sink and rinsed it out, leaving it in the drain rack. The line of his back was long and lean in the vest of what looked like a very expensive three-piece suit.
What was Vera doing, ogling the man’s back?
James Knightley washed his dishes, and for some reason, that reassured Vera he could be trusted to change a tire. Even so, she had to wonder what Trent Knightley had told his brother of her divorce. Attorney-client privilege was one thing, but James was both brother and law partner to Trent.
Men gossiped. Alexander had assured her they gossiped as much as women did, and Vera’s first husband had not lied to her…all that often.
“The garage is this way,” she said, leaving her hot chocolate unfinished. “You can take the cookies with you.”
“They’re good.” James took one more and set the tin back up on top of the fridge with the casual ease of a tall man. “Trent recalls your cookies fondly.”
Not a hint of innuendo in that line—not that innuendo would have been welcome.
“I’ll drop a batch off the next time I’m in town,” Vera said, turning on the garage lights. “Call it a wedding present. I think the temperature has fallen as the day has gone on.”
“We’re supposed to get a dump of snow later this week and—Vera Waltham, I am in love. You own a 1964 Ford Falcon, and this blue is probably the original paint color. My, my, my. Does she run?”
Cars and houses were female to James Knightley. Would he also consider pianos female?
“Not at the moment. The Faithful Falcon needs a battery, among other things, but some fine day, I want to see my daughter behind that wheel. The car belonged to Alexander’s grandmother, and he wanted Twyla to have it.”
James left off perusing the old car and scowled at Vera’s other vehicle, a late-model bright red Tundra, listing slightly.
“That’s why nobody wants to come change your tire.”
“These pickups have the spare up under the bed,” he said, opening the truck’s driver’s side door.
His movements and his voice were brisk, all male-in-anticipation-of-using-tools-and-getting-his-hands-dirty. “The mechanism for holding the spare in its brace always gets rusted, and to get the tire down, you have to thread this puppy here”—he rummaged under her backseat—“through a little doodad over the tag, and into a slot about”—he emerged holding the jack and a long metal rod—“the size of a pea, and then get it to work, despite the corrosion. I love me a sturdy truck, but the design of the spare brace assembly leaves something to be desired. Why are you looking at me like that?”
Like Vera had heard no sweeter music that day than a man recounting the pleasures of intimate association with a truck? James cradled the jack assembly the way some violinists held their concert instruments.
“You reminded me of my oldest brother,” she said. “I forget not all men are like Donal.”
Some men dropped their afternoon plans, took time to get a court order certified, minded their manners, and rinsed out their dishes. Some men changed tires without being asked. Vera would never be in love again—Olga had an entire lecture about the pitfalls of romantic attraction—but Vera could appreciate a nice guy when one came to her door.
“I couldn’t stop you from changing that tire if I tried, could I?”
“No. You could not. Trucks and I go way back, and I don’t like this Donal character very much.” James’s gold cuff links had gone into a pocket, and he was already turning back his sleeves. “Don’t you have a school bus to catch?”
He said it with one of those charming, endearing smiles. Could he know that for Vera to even drive down the lane alone would take a bit of courage?
Fortunately, nobody embarked on a solo career at age seventeen without saving up some stores of courage.
“You’re right. I have a bus to catch,” Vera said. “You’re sure this is OK?”
“Shoo,” he replied, positioning the jack under the axle with his foot. “I may not be done by the time you get back, but I will put the hurt to the rest of those cookies before I go, if your daughter doesn’t beat me to it.”
Vera left him in her garage, cheerfully popping loose lug nuts. If she’d had to do that, she’d probably have been jumping up and down on the tire iron while calling on St. Jude, and still the blasted bolts would not have budged.
Order your copy of The First Kiss!
End of Excerpt
The First Kiss is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
March 18, 2023