“Can I tempt you with one of our cocoa peanut melts?” Rosie Linn wished she, herself, could tempt the good-looking cowboy on the other side of her sales counter.
But in the three months he’d been frequenting the Copper Mountain Chocolate shop—regular as Friday’s happy hour at Grey’s Saloon—he hadn’t come close to asking her out. So she doubted that was going to happen.
Instead she pointed out one of the delicate and dreamy confections her boss, Sage Carrigan, had handcrafted just that morning. “Rich dark chocolate, swirled with creamy peanut goodness… what’s not to love?”
The cowboy standing on the other side of the display case gave her a charming, slightly teasing smile, a smile that always made Rosie’s day and often her entire week.
“I’m sure they’re great, but I’ll take the usual—a box of the dark chocolate salted caramels.”
“Give these a taste, at least?” She proffered a tray with a sample of the cocoa peanut melts.
He just shook his head no. For months Rosie had been trying to entice him to try something other than a box of twelve Pink Himalayan Salted Chocolate Caramels.
But he would not be swayed.
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
The cowboy leaned an arm on the counter, and cocked an eyebrow. “I’m sure you’re right, Rosie.”
His use of her first name would have flattered her if it wasn’t pinned to the front of her copper-colored apron.
“And if the chocolates were for me,” he continued, “I’d be going on your recommendation for sure.”
“But the chocolates aren’t for you.”
She waited, hoping he would tell her who they were for, but he said nothing further.
Rosie really wanted to know the name of the lucky recipient.
She had her speculations.
The most obvious, of course, was that he had a sweetheart with a chocolate addiction. This was not her favorite theory, however.
She far preferred the idea that he was a dutiful grandson, making a visit to an old folks’ home.
But Sunday, not Friday, was the traditional time to visit the ill and the infirm.
Rosie knew this because, for the past five years, she’d nursed her diabetic father through a host of ailments until he’d finally succumbed to kidney failure. Most of the week she’d had to manage on her own, but on Sunday she could generally count on at least one or two neighbors or old friends to pop in with a casserole, or a vase of flowers.
With a pair of silver tongs, Rosie selected a dozen caramels bathed in rich, dark chocolate and speckled with pink Himalayan sea salt, sneaking glances at the cowboy as she carefully layered them into one of the shop’s signature copper-colored boxes. She could tell by the dust on his boots, the worn leather of his belt, and the calluses on his hands, he was a working cowboy, not just someone dressing the part.
But that was pretty much all she knew about him.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Still trying to tempt me, Rosie?” His gaze swept over her, not the display of chocolates.
“Is it working?”
“Oh, I’m plenty tempted, Rosie. Just doing my best to resist.”
Her cheeks went hot as she wrapped the copper-colored box with some ribbon, wishing she could think of a clever retort. It was so frustrating that she excelled at writing clever dialogue for her brother’s screenplays, yet so often found herself tongue-tied in real life.
Maybe if she could say just the right thing, he would ask her out. Of course, it would help her cause if she wasn’t wearing her unbecoming work uniform.
The reddish-gold aprons looked fantastic on Sage, who had beautiful ginger hair and honey skin tones. But the hue did nothing for Rosie’s ordinary brown hair and eyes. Probably she was beyond hope.
She slipped the box into a logo-embossed bag before handing it to the cowboy.
He thanked her, but seemed in no hurry to leave. “Sure is quiet here today.”
“It’s been slow since the rodeo wrapped up. But last week was crazy.” They’d sold all out of the chocolate molded cowboy hats that Sage created especially for the weekend long festivities.
“I’d hoped to watch the finals on Sunday. But the boss decided on Saturday we needed to start moving cattle.”
“Is it big, the ranch where you work?”
She waited, hoping he would mention the ranch by name, but he didn’t.
“Thanks, Rosie. Have yourself a nice weekend, now.”
“Same to you.”
The enticing possibility of something more in the future hung in the air for a few moments, as his gaze lingered. Then he gave her a parting nod and left.
Outside, he stopped under the front awning.
Wherever he was headed, he didn’t seem in a hurry to get there.
Rosie leaned against the counter, watching as he settled his hat over his dark, curly hair, and then squared his shoulders. For a moment she thought he might turn on his heels and come back inside. But five seconds later, he was on his way.
Which meant she wouldn’t see him again for another week.
She sighed, not sure why, in a town that specialized in hot masculine dating material, it was this particular cowboy who’d caught her eye.
Maybe it was the hint of sadness she sometimes glimpsed in his eyes that intrigued her. Or it might be because of the time she’d seen him make funny faces at a crying baby, whose mother was trying to pick out a gift for her mother-in-law. The fussing baby had grown silent as he stared at the cowboy’s silly expressions. Then he’d smiled, and finally he’d chortled adorably.
The cowboy had brushed off the mother’s thanks, winking at Rosie before leaving the shop with his usual box of chocolate salted caramels.
A cowboy who was good with babies. What woman wouldn’t love that?
Rosie sure had. But he hadn’t asked her out then, or in any of the weeks that followed and it was probably for the best because Rosie had plans and they didn’t include Marietta.
As soon as the old family house was sold she was going to move to L.A. and live with her screenwriter, older brother, Daniel, and his actress wife, Glenda. Over the past few years she’d been helping Daniel with some of his scripts. She’d started out proofreading, then had begun making the odd suggestion.
Lately she’d progressed to entire scenes and at their father’s funeral Daniel had invited her to work with him full-time, with the credit and pay to go with it.
He’d already had a few minor successes with some low budget, made-for-TV movies. Now he—well, both of them actually—were working on a TV series for a major network. Daniel was hoping this would catapult his career—their careers—to the next level. Rosie prayed he was right.
She loved this town and working at the chocolate shop. And she’d never regret spending these last years with her father.
But she was tired of getting all her excitement vicariously—from books, movies, and Daniel’s accounts of the parties and night life he and Glenda enjoyed. She wanted to be part of the action.
If only the darn house would sell. It had been on the market now for over six months without so much as a hint of an offer. The leaves that had been a fresh new green at her father’s funeral now sparkled butterscotch yellow in the autumn sun. October already.
Rosie sighed, then turned to look down Main Street. The local merchants had already replaced the rustic fence posts, bales of hay, and posters advertising the Copper Mountain Rodeo with spooky Halloween ghosts, witches, and zombies in preparation for the next major holiday. Just last night Sage had decorated the chocolate shop’s window with fat, orange pumpkins and some matching Halloween inspired products.
Time was passing all too quickly.
Rosie made a promise to herself. She would be gone before the first snowfall. She couldn’t take another long, cold Montana winter.
Rosie was about to start closing up the shop for the night when a pretty woman, definitely under thirty, came through the door, rolling a large suitcase behind her.
“Hi! Is Sage Carrigan here?”
The woman had almond-colored eyes, creamy skin, and a lovely smile. She wasn’t tall, but she had a curvy figure, shown to perfection in her outfit of jeans, fashion boots, and a chunky wool sweater.
Not in a million years could Rosie have put together an outfit that looked so flattering and casually chic.
“Sage isn’t here right now. May I help you?”
The woman’s face fell and suddenly she looked younger than Rosie had first guessed. Early twenties, max, just a few years younger than Rosie herself.
“Thanks, but I really need to talk to Sage. She’s my aunt.”
Rosie knew Sage had three sisters. The youngest, Callan, was married without children and still lived and operated the family’s ranch, the Circle C. The next in line was Dani, who lived in Seattle with her husband and a daughter and newborn baby boy.
Which meant this girl must belong to Mattie, the oldest of the Carrigan sisters. Mattie and her second-husband had a ranch somewhere in the Flathead Valley.
“Are you one of Mattie’s twins?”
She blinked with surprise. “I’m Portia. How did you guess?”
“It’s a small town and I’ve been working for Sage since she opened her shop.” She’d been here when Sage’s ex, Dawson O’Dell, had shown up in town with his young daughter, Savannah, intent on winning back Sage’s heart. Now they were married and had added a cute baby boy to the family. Again, Rosie was reminded of how quickly the years were passing.
“I’m Rosie Linn by the way.”
“Nice to meet you.”
As Rosie stepped out from behind the counter to shake her hand, she noticed Portia’s gaze sweep down from her apron to her less-than-stylish black pants and the clogs she wore to work because they were so comfortable.
“Great outfit, huh? Sage insists we wear these copper-colored aprons. Dakota—she works here part-time as well—hates them, too.”
Portia rolled her eyes sympathetically. “I once worked in a restaurant where I had to wear this t-shirt with a picture of a chicken. It was pathetic. Still, the apron isn’t bad, it’s just too dull against the black shirt and trousers. If it were up to me, I’d pair it with a cobalt blue shirt and some really dark, crisp blue jeans.”
“Yeah?” Rosie made a mental note to do some online shopping later that evening.
“So, about my aunt, do you have any idea where I could find her?”
“She would have picked Savannah up from school at three-thirty. So they’re probably home by now.”
Portia wrinkled her nose. “I was hoping to talk to her here, rather than at her house. I thought it might be… easier.” As she spoke, she pulled out her phone. “I’ll send her a text.”
When she was finished, Portia wheeled her suitcase into a corner then strolled around the shop, pausing here and there to make minor adjustments to the stock. In every case, she managed to somehow make the displays look better. Rosie was impressed. This girl had a good eye. Rosie wondered if maybe she could get more fashion tips from Portia. She didn’t want to look like a country hick when she finally made her move to L.A.
“How is business?” Portia asked.
“This week has been slow. But rodeo week was terrific. And summer was quite good as well.”
“And with the holidays coming… Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas… the trend should continue upward, right?”
“November and December are two of our busier months, that’s true.” Rosie glanced from Portia to the big suitcase.
Before she could say anything more Portia came round the counter and put a hand on her arm.
“I might as well tell you what’s going on, Rosie. I’ve just dropped out of college and I’m hoping my Aunt Sage will give me a job. Do you think I have a chance?”
“I don’t know.” Seeing the worry in Portia’s eyes, Rosie instinctively wanted to give her hope. “Chances are pretty good actually, since I’m going to be leaving soon.”
“My dad passed away this spring. He was my last tie to this town. As soon as our house sells, I’m moving to L.A. Sage knows this, it’s not a secret or anything.” And then, before she could stop herself, she asked, “Why did you drop out of college?”
Portia turned away, wrapping her arms around her body. “Sorry to hear about your father. That’s rough. As for college, I was only going to please my mother. I decided it was time I stopped wasting her money and my time.”
Sounded logical. But Rosie knew how emotional parents could get about higher education. Her own father had argued for months when she’d told him she was turning down her scholarship to stay home and look after him.
“What were you taking?”
“How far along?”
Again Portia looked away. “Senior year.”
Rosie bit back the obvious question. Why not finish after going so far? But Portia, who was so friendly in most respects, clearly wasn’t open to further discussion on this topic. She moved to the far end of the shop and then pulled out her phone again and began scrolling.
“My aunt’s coming to pick me up.” She announced a minute later. “Mind if I hang out until she gets here?”
“No problem. Want a cup of hot cocoa while you’re waiting?”
“Oh, I’d love that. Aunt Sage sends me chocolates all the time, but I’ve never tasted her cocoa.”
“It’s to die for.” Rosie turned to the back counter, where a copper pot rested on the built-in gas range top. She raised the heat and then used a wooden spoon to stir the molten chocolate concoction.
Lured by the aroma, Portia moved closer again.
“Oh, my God, that looks so decadent. What’s in it?”
“It’s your aunt’s secret recipe. But I know she uses pure chocolate, lots of cream, and a dash of cinnamon. Would you like whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top?”
“Not normally. But after all those hours on the bus, I’d say I deserve a treat. Sure, go for it.”
Once the cocoa was steaming, Rosie ladled a serving into a tall mug, then added a spoonful of thick, sweet cream, and a generous shaking of dark chocolate shavings.
One sip had Portia moaning. “I can’t believe I’ve never tried this until now.”
Rosie smiled. She loved witnessing someone tasting Sage’s hot cocoa for the first time.
Portia savored a few more mouthfuls, then nodded at the copper pot. “Why don’t you have some too, then sit and talk with me for a while.”
They hadn’t had a customer since Portia arrived, so Rosie saw no reason not to agree, but first she slipped the pages of the screenplay she’d been working on during the lulls in business into her large purse.
She only worked on her stories when there was absolutely nothing left for her to do in the shop, but she still felt guilty about it. Besides, no one but family knew she helped Daniel with his screenplays.
She and Portia sat at one of the small tables at the rear of the shop, next to the door to the kitchen. Sage had added this small sitting area a few years ago when it became clear that some visitors wanted to linger and enjoy their cocoa inside—especially during the winter months.
It had proven so popular Sage had begun to consider expanding her square footage. But so far she hadn’t taken any action on the plan.
“So, Rosie,” Portia said, “tell me about yourself.”
Rosie swirled her spoon through the whipped cream and cocoa. “Not much to say. I’m probably the most boring person in Marietta.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I’ve lived here all my life. Only had one job and that’s this one.”
“What about guys? Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No one serious. To be honest, I haven’t dated anyone in at least six months.”
Portia’s eyes rounded. No doubt she would consider a month to be an intolerable dry spell.
“I’m in a rut, and not a good one,” Rosie admitted. “When I was in high school, my father began suffering from serious complications from his diabetes. Against his protests, I put off going to college so he wouldn’t have to go into a care home.”
“You must have been really close.”
“It’s been just the two of us for a long time. My brother is twelve years older. I can hardly remember when he lived at home. And my mom died from cancer several years ago.”
“Dad took her death especially hard. He used to write bestselling thrillers, but after Mom died he never wrote again.”
“Yes. It’s been tough.”
“I can see why you want to move. What are your plans when you get to L.A.?”
Rosie told her about Daniel and his wife. “They’ve promised to find me a job of some sort,” she finished vaguely, not wanting to reveal her writing aspirations. “I’m willing to try anything to get out of this town.”
“Not that Marietta is a bad place,” Rosie added quickly. “I just need a change.”
“I know that feeling,”
Rosie raised her eyebrows inquiringly.
Portia seemed on the verge of elaborating, but then the door opened and Sage rushed in. Even with her hair in a messy updo, and wearing yoga gear with a toddler perched on her hip, Sage looked gorgeous.
Rosie immediately leapt to her feet, worried her boss would think she’d been lazing around. While Sage was one of the sweetest people Rosie knew, she had exacting standards when it came to her chocolate shop.
But Sage wasn’t even looking at Rosie.
“Portia what’s going on? Shouldn’t you be at college in Seattle?”
And suddenly, shockingly, Portia started to cry.
End of Excerpt