New York Times bestselling author Alice Clayton is back with BUNS, the third book in the hilarious yet sizzling Hudson Valley series, out today!
Clara Morgan, a runner of marathons and rebrander of hotels, has always been too busy to settle down, and being raised in foster care, she is charmed by the family rituals of old resorts, especially the Bryant Mountain House and its irresistible Hot Cross Buns. But when the owner of the fifth-generation house offers Clara the opportunity to reinvent the resort home, she doesn’t anticipate the opposition from Archie Bryant, the owner’s son and hotel’s heir … or his sticky, sweet buns.
Check out the excerpt below!
When I’d booked my original reservation, they’d informed me that while breakfast and lunch were casual, guests dressed for dinner. Men were required to wear a jacket and tie, women were expected to appear in business casual or “resort wear.” Knowing this, I’d packed my suitcase full of fun swingy dresses and kicky heels. For my first official Bryant Mountain House dinner I’d chosen a deep-pink wrap dress that was sprinkled with darling little cherries. Pairing it with red pumps, a liberal application of cherry-red lipstick and a sleeked-back ’do for my blond bob, I looked every inch the retro dynamo. If I did say so myself.
And I did say so myself.
Dressing for dinner, what a lovely and, at times forgotten, concept. Too often my meals consisted of takeout on the couch in front of the TV, which was not going to happen here if Archie had anything to do with it, so I relished the opportunity to dress up a bit. I was excited to see my friends; it’d been a while since all my girls were together, and I was happy to finally be seeing the famous Bryant Mountain House dining room.
I was downstairs promptly at six fifteen and could hear my girls before I could see them. Per usual.
“This is it, I swear, Rox, this is where you and Leo should tie the knot.”
“I don’t know, it’s so formal. I always saw us getting married somewhere a little less showy, something a little more homegrown.”
“A little less showy? You mean than Maxwell Farms, with its enormous mansion and barn made out of marble?”
“The barn is not made out of marble, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Is there or is there not a marble cornerstone that was laid down by the former governor of New York?”
“The president of New York?”
“No, the actual president, like of the country. Apparently he was a friend of Leo’s great-great-great-grandfather.”
“I literally can’t even talk to you anymore, I’m not fancy enough for this conversation. And this is coming from a woman wearing next season’s Louboutins.”
I shook my head in amazement and peeked around the staircase to see both of my friends shrugging out of their coats and scarves and drawing looks from every male over fourteen and under eighty in the vicinity. Roxie was all girl-next-door, with curly brown hair and sparkling eyes that just radiated good health and happiness. Most of the happiness these days came from her smoking-hot boyfriend, Leo Maxwell, the local farmer with the old blue-blood New York family name, whom she’d wrapped around her finger, and then wrapped around his torso, to his absolute delight.
If Roxie was the girl next door then Natalie was the devil across the street, the one you hope your husband never sees when she comes out in her T-shirt in the morning to pick up her newspaper.
Stunningly beautiful, with ivory skin and strawberry-blond hair, she had a head full of Manhattan and a mouth full of Bronx. She was all curves, all the time, and woe to any man who thought he stood a chance before the force of nature that was Natalie. So it made sense that the man who did stand a chance was an equal force of nature—an incredible-looking, football-playing, cow-milking, butter-churning ridiculous hunk, and I mean hunk of man, Oscar Mendoza, the dairy farmer she’d been plowing for months now.
My girls shared the details whenever we were all together, and over the phone when we weren’t, and it seemed obvious that they were convinced that the next plowing that’d be taking place would be in my field.
But wait, speaking of field . . .
“Did I miss something? Are you getting married?” I asked, coming down the last few stairs and interrupting their bicker.
“Girl, get your ass over here,” Natalie shouted, surprising more than a few guests and delighting at least one. “Good goddamn, you look fantastic.”
“Watch your mouth, Grayson,” I shot back, launching myself at them both and letting them hug me tight. Where they were tall, I was tiny, and it was nice to be in our sandwich again. “Seriously, what’s with the wedding talk?”
“She’s engaged,” Natalie said, and I turned to squeal.
“She is not engaged,” Roxie corrected, holding up the still-naked third finger on her left hand, but then switching it out for another finger. “Quit saying that.”
“Why is she saying that?” I asked, confused.
“Ask her where she went last weekend. Go on, ask her,” Natalie instructed. Before I opened my mouth, however, she answered her own question. “She went into the city, my city, without telling me, and looked at motherfucking engagement rings at motherfucking VC&A.”
“VC&A?” I whispered to Roxie.
“Van Cleef & Arpels.” She blushed.
“Who calls it that?” I whispered back.
Natalie finally realized she’d lost her audience and brought us back by pinching us both on our cheeks. “Anyone who has a house account calls it that, which the Maxwell family does, for fuck’s sake.”
“But wait, wait, hold on, let me see your hand,” I said, rolling my eyes at Natalie’s chatter. “I don’t see a ring.”
“That’s because for all this nitwit is going on about, I’m not actually engaged. We merely . . . looked.”
“At giant diamonds,” Natalie interjected.
“Yes, at giant diamonds,” Roxie answered, a bashful smile creeping in. “Which I made him stop looking at, honestly, how does he expect me to cook with an ice cube sitting on top of my finger?”
“Call Leo right now, tell him I’ll take the ice cube. I will take the ice cube!” Natalie made to get out her phone, but I placed a calming hand on her shoulder.
“How about we wait for Oscar to do that, huh? And in the meantime, we’ll eat dinner, sound like a plan?” I asked.
“Yes. Done. Let’s eat,” Natalie said, nodding her head. “But while we eat I’m going to make her draw you a picture on her napkin of what this ring looks like.”
“You really think they have paper napkins at Bryant Mountain House? This place is all linen, all the time, right, Clara?” Roxie asked, and I smiled.
“Whatever, I’ll find some scratch paper so you can draw that ring. Huge. Huge! And I’m with Oscar, so you know I know huge.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, come on,” I said, tugging the two of them to the dining room.
As we traipsed down the hallway, Roxie was marveling at everything she saw. “I haven’t been up here in ages, not since I was a kid! Mom used to bring me here every year for Easter—they’ve got the most incredible Sunday brunch, after the egg hunt on the front lawn, of course. But what I remember best were the hot cross buns.”
“Hot cross buns, as in, one a penny, two a penny?” Natalie asked.
“Oh, I’m sure these cost more than a penny. These were the best, all puffy and flaky and cinnamony on the inside with the tiniest little currants you’ve ever seen, glossy golden brown on the outside, and this perfect white cross made out of glaze on the top. I used to take them apart piece by piece, bite by bite, to try and figure out which spices other than cinnamon they put in, whether they stirred or folded in the currants, oh, they were the best.”
Natalie and I were used to Roxie waxing poetic about her food; it was clear it’d always been her calling. Once she spent twenty minutes—and I know this because I looked at my watch when the story was over—telling us the history of the carrot and how orange carrots edged all the other colored carrots out of the marketplace and into our hearts forever. And I’d like to tell you I was paraphrasing, but she used that exact wording.
“I like hot cross buns. I like to eat them with my mouth. I don’t really care how they got made.” Natalie never could resist.
“Okay, weirdos, be on your best behavior tonight, please and thank you,” I instructed as we made our way toward the entrance to the dining room. We’d passed by it earlier on the guided tour, but I hadn’t actually been inside yet.
It was gorgeous! As we followed the hostess to our table, my head swiveled like an owl as I took in the soaring ceilings, the artistry that went into the carvings on the walls, the sheer amount of wood that went into the construction of this room. And once more, a fireplace big enough and wide enough to roast a pig.
Once we were seated, I took a look at the rest of the dinner guests. Making mental notes all the while, I realized that not only was the dining room barely half full, I only counted two couples even close to my age, and only one family with small children. Nearly everyone else was retirement age at least, older in many cases. Great for client loyalty, but realistically they’d need to be replaced with new clients, new families and couples who viewed Bryant Mountain House as their special place in the mountains.
“You’re working, aren’t you?” I heard Roxie ask, and I turned to find her looking at me expectantly.
“Hmm?” I shook out my napkin and placed it in my lap. A napkin that had been folded together and placed inside a ring, an honest to God napkin ring. And finger bowls, good night, there were finger bowls on the table. I hadn’t seen a setting like this since I toured the Queen Mary.
“You’re working. I can see those wheels turning.”
“Oh, sorry, I guess.”
“She’s always working, this one, always with the working. You can’t turn it off, can you?” Natalie pointed a finger at me.
“Excuse me, that is why I’m here,” I said, pointing a finger right back at her. “And I’m not technically working, I’m here with you fools.” They were right, though. It was hard to turn off. Even the rare vacation I took, I couldn’t help but look critically at whatever hotel I was staying in.
Usually I was alone, so no one had to watch me jump through my mental hoops.
These two, however. They knew me too well.
A waiter with a tray of glasses appeared out of nowhere. “Ladies, your cocktails.”
“We didn’t order any cocktails,” I started to say, as a glass of bubbly was set down before me.
“Every meal at Bryant Mountain House begins with a champagne cocktail,” he said, setting down the final glass with a flourish.
I inspected the flute, filled to the brim with bubbles and with a tiny sugar cube nestled at the bottom and topped off with a twist of lemon. “Every meal?”
“Or another cocktail if you prefer, maybe a Grasshopper? Pink Squirrel?”
“A Pink Squirrel? What the hell year is this?” Natalie asked through the side of her mouth.
“I’m no longer sure,” I answered, raising the glass to my lips. “Well, shall we?”
We each sipped at the same time, grimaced at the same time like we’d planned it, and quickly set them aside.
“A champagne cocktail, I can’t wait to tell my mom about this, I had no idea they were still doing this up here!” Roxie laughed, reaching into her purse and firing off a quick text to Trudy.
“I take it this is another one of those long-standing mountain house traditions?” I asked. “I’ll add that to my list of wow, seriously?”
“How’s it going, by the way? Too soon to tell?” Roxie asked.
“I’m just barely scratching the surface, but I’ve got some thoughts,” I mused.
“It’s amazing up here, isn’t it? I mean, we could never afford to stay here when I was growing up, but we still made it up here for some of the bigger events. Christmas, sometimes Halloween, and they always had the most beautiful Easter Sunday celebration.”
“With the buns,” I reminded her, and she smiled.
“Totally with the buns.”
“Speaking of buns . . .” Natalie said, and I followed her gaze. There was my tour guide, moving smoothly from table to table, chatting up the guests and charming the blue hair right off those little old ladies. Dressed in a charcoal-gray suit, powder-blue tie, and yet another coordinated pocket square, Archie filled out his attire quite nicely, I had to admit. If Leo was the rugby player and Oscar was the football player, Archie looked like he’d play water polo. Long and lean, his shoulders were broad, his waist slim. And the buns?
Yeah. Even I had to admit they were pretty great.
But I worked for those buns. So . . .
“Let us not discuss Archie’s buns, okay?” I said, picking up my menu card and examining my choices.
“How’d you know I was talking about Archie?” Natalie said, casting a quick glance at Roxie.
“You weren’t?” I asked.
“Oh, I totally was, but it’s just interesting that you knew immediately who I was talking about when I mentioned that someone in this room, other than me, had a great ass.”
I looked to Roxie for help. “Tell her to stuff it, please and thank you.”
She nodded. “I’ll tell her to stuff it right after you tell us how you knew exactly who she was talking about.”
“We’re not having this discussion, he’s my boss. And an asshole.”
“She’s blushing, she’s totally blushing. Clara never blushes.” Natalie laughed, and I held my head in my hands. “You’ve got a crush. You got here yesterday and you’ve got a crush.”
“I’m not blushing. I’m not crushing. I’m trying to eat dinner with my two lunatic friends who came up here to visit me in my new place of work, mind you, and instead all we’re talking about is Archie Bryant’s buns!”
“Samuel,” I heard a deep voice say over my shoulder, “it seems the ladies at table fourteen haven’t gotten their bread basket yet, can you bring that right over?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Bryant!”
Because fate is a funny fucker, standing there with an amused look on his face, knowing full well when I prattled on about his buns they were not of the bread basket variety, was Archie Bryant.
Now I blushed.
Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything. Smoothly taking control of the situation, the situation being Natalie and Roxie looking like this was the funniest thing ever and me looking like I’d rather be swallowed by the floorboards than still be sitting here, Archie extended his hand to Roxie.
“Roxie, good to see you, how’s Zombie Cakes coming along?”
“Good. Really good, actually.” Roxie had started Zombie Cakes last fall, a food truck out of a very cool retro Airstream trailer. Specializing in old-fashioned cakes with an updated twist, Zombie Cakes was making quite a name for itself not only in the Hudson Valley but in Manhattan as well.
“I still need to get you up here sometime for an official chat. We’d love to start featuring some of your cakes on our menu.”
“Oh my God, seriously?” she asked, beaming. “Any time!”
“And speaking of any time,” Natalie interjected, and I held my breath, not knowing what was coming next, “we gotta talk soon about getting you into my Bailey Falls campaign. Why in the world did we not photograph you when I was up here last fall? You’re way too cute not to be in those commercials—you’ve seen them, right?”
Archie nodded. “I’ve seen them, Ms. Grayson.”
“Call me Natalie.”
“Very well, Natalie. I’ve seen them, although I’m not sure the overall tone of your advertisements sends the right message to the kind of clientele we’ve tried to cultivate here at Bryant Mountain House.”
“You don’t want young hip twenty- and thirty-somethings with disposable incomes taking pictures of everything they love about this place and posting it to all of their friends, who also have disposable incomes?” Natalie asked, arching an eyebrow at him.
“Yes, in fact, that’s exactly the kind of clientele we’re looking to bring in,” I interjected, before it could go any further.
“And another thing,” Natalie went on, and I dropped my head back into my hands. So much for not going further. “When I said you’re too cute to not be featured, I meant it. You’re smoking hot so take it as a compliment, okay, Arch?”
I saw him do a double take at Natalie, undoubtedly taken aback by her say-it-when-she-thinks-it delivery, but he rallied as any good host will do. “Natalie, although I’m not sure what me being cute has to do with my resort, I do thank you for the compliment.” He turned to me. “It was a compliment, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was,” I said quickly, wanting to avoid another argument. “Sorry about the buns thing, I—”
“Buns thing, Ms. Morgan? What buns thing is that exactly?”
I stammered. “Um . . . I . . . uh . . .”
“Well put, Ms. Morgan. Ah yes, thank you, Samuel, very good. Ladies, enjoy your meal.” And as Archie reached down with silver tongs to place an actual bun on my plate, he turned toward me, away from my girls, with those gorgeous indigo eyes dancing, and gave me a very purposeful wink. “And your buns.”
He knew about the buns.
He brought me the buns.
And still . . . he winked.
Maybe there was more to him than meets the eye. Especially when what was meeting the eye was extremely good-looking.
“Flirt. Flirt. Flirt,” Natalie chanted as soon as Archie was out of earshot.
“Oh please,” I replied, picking up my warm roll and noticing instantly how perfectly it fit in my hand. Oh lordy.
“Bailey Falls strikes again,” Roxie murmured, and Natalie threw her head back and squealed.
“Okay, everyone settle down. Pick your entrée. Bailey Falls didn’t strike anything, can we all just please be adults for like a minute? Honestly, you two are children and . . . Natalie, what the hell are you doing?”
“Trying to see if he’s looking at you.” She was perched precariously on the side of her chair with her compact mirror open and angled nowhere near her face.
“Not encouraging this right now. So, Roxie, what are you going to get, the steak medallions or the salmon en papillote—that means it’s baked in parchment paper, right?”
Roxie herself could’ve been baked in parchment paper for all the attention she was paying me. “Dude, he’s not looking, he’s not looking . . .”
“Not you too. I have zero, and let me repeat, zero interest in Archie Bry—”
Roxie interrupted me. “—he looked! He totally just looked back at you, Clara!”
“He did?” I squeaked, and just then Natalie was no longer perched on her chair. The precarious became nefarious and down she tumbled to the floor, her skirt flaring up and exposing a ruby-red garter belt. Three busboys and an eighty-year-old man tumbled after her to try to be the one to help her up.
“I’ll have the steak medallions, medium rare, please,” I told Samuel, who was still standing there holding buns.