Three weeks had passed since Portia Bishop mailed the letter she should have sent almost a year earlier. Three very long weeks.
She stood at the open door to the Copper Mountain Chocolate Shop and looked up and down Main Street, Marietta. It was three in the afternoon, and the only movement she could spy in the small Montana town was the fluttering of the golden-colored leaves on the aspen trees. No sign of the cowboy she’d glimpsed a few moments ago.
Had it been Austin Bradshaw?
It could have been.
The man had been tall and lanky. He’d worn his white cowboy hat at the exact same angle Austin did. The distance had been too far to make out the man’s features, but she could have sworn dark brown hair curled around the collar of his western-styled shirt.
So it could have been Austin Bradshaw.
But it might not have been, either.
This town practically crawled with good-looking cowboys, all dressed similarly in jeans, boots, western-styled shirts, and hats. But she’d had the impression this cowboy was watching the chocolate shop—her?—intently.
Portia slipped back inside the shop, resisting the urge to freshen her lipstick and release her long hair from the clip holding her ponytail. Even if she truly had seen Austin, it wasn’t like her appearance would matter. Not when there was someone much more important on the scene.
She peered over the counter to where her three-and-a-half-month-old son was sleeping in the portable cot she kept for him at the shop. His little hand was fisted and pressed up to his chin. Downy, white hair framed his chubby little face. Zavy was so darned cute. She had to resist the urge to pick him up for a cuddle.
But that would be breaking one of the cardinal rules of mothering—never disturb a sleeping baby. Portia was lucky Aunt Sage—who owned the chocolate shop and hand-made most products—was also a mother. Her advice and guidance had been so helpful the first month when Portia struggled with breastfeeding, interrupted sleep patterns, and a sometimes-colicky infant.
Portia wished her own mom—Sage’s sister Mattie—could have left the ranch she shared with her second husband Nat Diamond in the Flathead Valley to help her with the new baby. But her mom had only managed a two-day visit when the baby was born.
No doubt she was still upset with Portia for leaving college, one year shy of her degree, as was Portia’s twin sister Wren. Brilliant Wren, now working on her master’s degree at Berkley, thought nothing in the world was as important as a good education.
Portia realized her family had a point. But she would never regret her decision to carry Zavy to term and keep him, even though she was a young mom, staring down a future of living without a partner on a salesclerk’s salary.
Portia glanced out the front window again, this time searching for potential customers. There’d been a brief spike in business the first week of September when Sage offered a back-to-school promotion, but now sales had settled into a languorous lull.
She’d been told the shop would usually be gearing up for the rodeo by now—the influx of cowboys and spectators was terrific for business—but there’d been a terrible fire on the fairgrounds in August and the bleachers, pens, and loading docks had been lost. An official investigation into the suspected arson was being carried out by the authorities, but even if they found the culprit, it wouldn’t change anything.
Marietta’s famous Copper Mountain Rodeo simply had to be cancelled this year. And unless sufficient funds were found to rebuild the facilities, they might not take place next year either.
Portia dusted shelves for a while, admiring the beautiful displays of decadent treats, including her current favorite of eggnog and rum truffles. Somehow Sage had concocted the perfect blend of white chocolate, cream, spices, and rum. The creamy texture and rich flavors made Portia’s taste buds explode, every time.
Portia put away the duster and went to check her son again. Still sleeping like an angel. She was lucky Zavy took such long afternoon naps. Soon, she’d have to sort out childcare for when she was working, but every week she could postpone that decision allowed her to sock a little more into savings.
She was on the stepstool, rearranging the copper boxes on the top shelf at the front of the store, when the shop phone let out a chime. She scrambled down to answer before it could ring again and possibly wake the baby.
“Copper Mountain Chocolates, Portia speaking.”
“The is Penny Fulbright. Is Sage there?”
Penny was Sage’s accountant. She was working on a cash-flow statement to take to the bank in case their grouchy landlord, Stanley Scranton, agreed to let the chocolate shop lease the adjoining space that had once been used for a travel agency. Sage’s business was at a point now where expanding was crucial. Sage desperately needed more kitchen space, and the shop itself was too tiny to accommodate all the special events they hosted every month. Once the new lease was signed, Sage could go to the bank to secure a loan to cover leasehold improvements, and then construction could begin. Hopefully, they’d be able to open the deluxe, expanded shop in early November with plenty of time for the holiday rush.
“Sage isn’t available right now, but she’ll be in early tomorrow morning. Can you call back then?”
“I’d rather not put this off.”
Yikes. That didn’t sound good.
“Do you have the number for her cell?”
“Yes, but if I call her at home, she’ll only be distracted.”
Penny obviously knew Sage well. With a deputy for a husband, a chatty grade-school student for a stepdaughter, and an active toddler son, Sage’s house was usually the definition of organized chaos.
“I suppose this can wait until tomorrow,” Penny conceded.
“I’m glad to help, if I can.”
“Afraid that’s not possible. Thanks, though.”
Portia hung up feeling vaguely worried. Slow September aside, she’d had the impression cash flow and revenue were on an upswing at her aunt’s shop. She’d hoped the changes she’d implemented since her arrival last fall—especially the monthly PR events—would increase profits. Judging from Penny’s tone, that wish might have been optimistic.
Zavy let out a peeved cry, and Portia pushed aside financial concerns as she hurried to pick him up.
“You awake already, little guy?”
He peered up at her with his enormous blue eyes, a tiny tear glistening in the corner of one of them.
“Come to Mommy.”
It was so gratifying to see a smile suddenly brighten his face. She put a bottle of the milk she expressed every night into a pan of hot water to heat, then carried Zavy to the washroom to change his diaper.
Of course, Murphy’s Law dictated that just as it was time to feed him, the first customer in an hour had to show up. Portia’s stress turned to pleasure when she saw it was one of her favorite regulars, Josie Morgan, a fragile senior who lived at Kindred Spirits and was addicted to Sage’s hot chocolate.
“Josie! I was wondering why I hadn’t seen you yet today.”
“I had an unexpected visit from my grandson Dylan. He’s extremely happy these days—don’t you think his weather reports have been getting more accurate?”
“For sure.” Portia was certain a little white lie was called for here. “Would you mind holding Zavy while I get your hot chocolate?”
“Are you kidding?” Josie settled in one of the chairs and then held out her arms. “I’m not sure which I’m more addicted to now. The hot chocolate or my baby cuddles.”
“I was just starting to feed him.”
“Hand me the bottle, too, then.”
Portia totally trusted Josie, but the elderly woman was so frail she made sure her son was safely ensconced in Josie’s arms, and feeding happily, before she turned to the copper pot where the hot chocolate was made. As she heated a fresh batch, aromas of rich chocolate with subtle notes of vanilla and cinnamon made her taste buds water. In the background, she could hear Josie cooing to her son.
“You are the sweetest thing, aren’t you? Absolutely perfect. Rather strange name your mother gave you, but there are so many weird names these days it shouldn’t make for problems on the playground.”
Portia rolled her eyes. Josie wasn’t one to withhold her opinions. But she wasn’t the first who had raised her eyebrows about the name Xavier.
Portia felt a lump of sadness and worry well up in her throat as she thought of the one person who would understand why she’d chosen that name. Automatically, her gaze went to the window.
Had she seen Austin Bradshaw?
Or only wished she had?
* * *
As he settled in with his late lunch—a beef and cheddar wrap and a green smoothie—Austin Bradshaw felt as if he were visiting an eccentric old aunt. The Java Café was filled was mismatched chairs and sofas, all upholstered in a variety of colored fabrics. He had to admit the chairs were comfortable, though.
Before taking his first bite, he glanced out the window at the chocolate shop across the way. He couldn’t see beyond the display of artfully arranged copper boxes and chocolate temptations. Probably a good thing. If he could actually see Portia, there was no way he’d have the appetite to eat his lunch. Just knowing she was a stone’s throw away made his gut tighten the way it did in the seconds before the starting horn in a rodeo competition.
But he’d been on the road since five that morning, subsisting on roadside coffee and packets of peanuts. He needed real food.
Deliberately, he shifted his chair until he was facing the interior of the restaurant. Only then could he manage a bite of his wrap. The beef and cheddar blended perfectly with the tangy horseradish sauce and crunchy lettuce. His stomach rumbled thanks, and Austin took a second bite.
At the table next to him, a pretty redhead who looked around twenty gave him a shy smile. He pretended he hadn’t noticed. Attention from strange women still made him uncomfortable even after five summers on the rodeo circuit. Partly for this reason, and partly for reasons of his own, he avoided the bars and saloons his buddies flocked to after competitions.
Austin preferred to hang out at coffee shops, usually with his laptop and a good book.
He had neither with him right now. He’d sprung out of his truck without any plan whatsoever, just a compelling need to see Portia.
It was only when he’d glimpsed her through the window of the chocolate shop—her honey-colored hair in a ponytail showing off her pretty, heart-shaped face—that he’d panicked.
After all this time, he couldn’t show up grimy from a ten-hour drive, practically insane from months—hell, an entire year—of not seeing or hearing from her.
From the front pocket of his shirt, Austin pulled out the letter. He’d read it so often the paper was starting to tear at the creases. He studied it again now, searching for answers that simply weren’t there.
It’s time we talked.
Damn right it was time they talked. He’d tried reaching out to her in every way he could think of, but she’d closed her Facebook and Instagram accounts shortly after she’d dropped out of college, leaving him hurt, confused, and lonely in Seattle. He still couldn’t believe she’d forfeited her degree just one year shy of graduation.
Did she hate him that much?
If so, why? More than anything, Austin wished he knew what he’d done wrong. He’d thought they were perfectly happy when he’d left for his last rodeo competition before starting the fall semester at the University of Washington. But when he’d returned—with a thousand bucks of prize money in his wallet—Portia had been gone. She’d left only the briefest of farewell notes, with a request he give her some time to think things over.
Okay, maybe he’d been the perfectly happy one.
And there had been a few signs—especially since their summer weekend in Reno—that she was feeling on edge. But he had never guessed she was about to leave him.
And it had just about killed him. For Portia, he’d do almost anything. If she would just tell him the problem, he knew he could fix it.
But during the past year, she’d closed all potential avenues of communication, rejecting his attempted phone calls, not answering his texts. He’d tried contacting her mother and her sister. Via Wren, he’d discovered she moved to Montana to work at her aunt’s chocolate shop.
He’d lost no time in traveling to Marietta, but she’d deliberated avoided him again, at which point he’d asked a friend to look in on her. But Jamie had no luck either. On Valentine’s Day, Austin had sent red roses, hoping to finally get a reply. But there’d been nothing.
Until this. He read the letter again, even though he knew it held no answers for him. Those could only come from the woman in the building across the street. He allowed himself to look again. A tiny elderly lady exited the shop, a to-go cup in her hand. Behind the lady he caught a brief glance of Portia holding something close as she walked past the open door. Then nothing.
Austin took the last bite of his wrap, then downed his smoothie. He hadn’t booked a place to stay, but in happier times, Portia had told him about a bed and breakfast in town. The Bramble House was owned by some old relative of hers and managed by a second cousin. He’d try there first.
Once he was settled, showered, and changed into clean clothes, he’d come back to find Portia.
He couldn’t agree more. It was time they talked.
End of Excerpt