The Valentine Quest

by

Melissa McClone

Keep your competition close…and your heart even closer.

When Nevada Parker travels to Marietta, Montana, she anticipates enough peace and quiet to finish her PhD dissertation. Cupidville turns out to be anything but quiet. In fact, it looks like Valentine’s Day—her least favorite holiday—exploded all over the small town.

Among the sea of red hearts, “Be Mine” signs, and pink, pink, pink, Nevada spots a flyer for a multi-day race called The Valentine Quest. The grand prize—a luxury tropical vacation—would be the perfect welcome-home gift for her brother who’s leaving the military.

Dustin Decker sure could use a break from giving city slickers sleigh rides—and from the now ex-girlfriend who issued an ultimatum. Even with a bum knee from his bull riding days, the race’s grand prize is as good as his—until he realizes he needs a partner for some of the more complicated tasks.

He makes a strategic pact with the prim, bookish Nevada. But with a kiss, their unlikely alliance turns into something more…and soon racing isn’t the only thing on their minds. As the finish line nears, they must decide if the grand prize is worth more than what they’ve found together…or if one of them will walk away empty handed—and broken hearted.

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Cupid had gone on a rampage in Marietta, Montana. The over-the-top, sappy Valentine’s Day decorations covering Main Street store windows and street lamps made Nevada Parker nauseous. If not for skipping lunch, she might be sick to her stomach. February fourteenth was her least favorite holiday.

Gaze focused forward, she trudged through the white carpet of snow on the pavement with one destination in mind—Copper Mountain Chocolates where her sister, Dakota, worked. Nevada ignored the explosion of red and pink surrounding her.

The only way to escape the love-inspired decorations was to stay inside Dakota’s house for the next two weeks until Valentine’s Day was over. That would keep Nevada focused on her dissertation—what she should be working on right now—but she’d needed to go out this afternoon.

The winter storm predicted to bypass the small town, or leave only a dusting of snow, hadn’t listened to the weather forecast. Flurries had turned into inches of accumulation on the ground. The inches would likely become feet. That meant Dakota needed her snow boots so she could walk home after work.

No problem. Nevada had a plan—as usual.

She would drop off the boots and hurry back to the house before the snow worsened and one of the crazy cupid-wannabe residents in town handed her a Valentine headband to wear. Someone had already given her a shiny heart sticker, and it was only the first of February. She couldn’t imagine the frenzy as the fourteenth drew closer.

Why was this town so into Valentine’s Day?

A castle constructed from gingerbread caught Nevada’s attention. She took a closer look at the bakery’s front window. Hearts and more hearts, including heart-shaped pies and cakes.

Nevada’s muscles tightened, and she blew out a frustrated breath. The condensation hung on the cold air as if containing an imaginary exclamation point to highlight her current emotional state.

Keep walking.

The wind changed direction.

Snowflakes hit her glasses. She wiped the lens with her gloved finger, but that only distorted her vision more. If only she’d put on her contacts, but she’d been rushing to get to Bozeman, where she taught three mornings a week, and worn her glasses instead.

Her right foot skidded on the snow.

Oh, no.

She raised her arms to balance herself, but her foot slid out in front of her. Gravity took over.

Thud.

She landed on her butt.

Ouch.

Snow seeped through her pants.

Brrr. That was cold.

“Hey, are you okay?” a man asked.

“Yes.”

Her glasses were too wet to see clearly, but he seemed to be wearing something on his head.

“Here.” He reached out to her. “Let me help you up.”

Nevada placed her palm in his gloved hand—that much she could see if she looked under her lenses. He pulled her upright. He must be strong because he didn’t step back.

Wrong move because she found herself on her feet but up against his chest.

Her heart pounded. Or was that his?

He was taller than her. Six feet, at least.

Unfamiliar scents surrounded her. Earthy smells. Animals.

She stiffened, straightened, and then let go of his hand. “Thanks.”

“Do you want me to call anyone?”

She brushed the snow from her backside, which was sore. “Thanks, but my ego is bruised more than anything else.”

That made him laugh. “If you’re sure.”

“Positive.”

“Okay, then.” The man reached into his pocket, pulled out something bright, and handed her a red bandanna. “Wipe off your glasses. Wouldn’t want you to fall again.”

His words prickled. Her wet, blurry glasses had nothing to do with her fall. “I slipped on the snow.”

“If you say so.”

She might not be able to see his face, but the teasing note in his voice stung her pride. “I do.”

“Then good luck with that.” He walked away.

“Hey,” she called after him. “Don’t you want your bandanna?”

“Keep it.”

Nevada wiped her glasses, and then she tucked the bandanna into her jacket pocket. Embarrassed and annoyed from the fall, she plodded across the street.

Each step hurt. Her bottom was wet from the snow.

Not many cars were out. People, either.

Surprising given the time of day, but then again, the snow was falling harder by the minute.

She stopped in front of Copper Mountain Chocolates. The window was decked out with hearts, cupids with arrows, and Be Mine signs.

Molded heart-shaped chocolates on sticks, covered with cellophane, and tied with red and pink ribbons were arranged like flowers in a pretty red vase. Fancy heart-shaped boxes and white doilies held pyramids of gourmet chocolates. Shoppers would be enticed—or guilt tripped—into spending a fortune on their valentine.

No boyfriend would be giving her a card or chocolate or flowers. She hadn’t received anything last year or the year before that or…

Nevada turned toward the door. Something on the window caught her gaze—a flyer taped to the inside of the glass. She scanned the colorful, heart-decorated page.

“The Valentine Quest,” she read aloud.

That sounded like a cutesy activity for couples to do together. Though the flyer said individuals, pairs of friends, or couples were welcome to enter.

Not her thing, but knowing that didn’t stop her chest from tightening as if a pair of imaginary arms wrapped around her and squeezed. Hard.

Nevada tamped down the feelings of loneliness and inadequacy that swelled inside her. She didn’t need that with the pressure of her dissertation and teaching bearing on her shoulders like cement pilings.

Ignore the red and pink hearts.

Ignore the gnawing feeling inside.

Ignore the memory of being rejected because you were too smart. A nerd. A freak.

She didn’t need to be one half of a couple to define herself. Getting caught up in the sentimentality of a commercial holiday that arose from the feast day of a saint was ridiculous.

Nevada knew better.

If anything, her dissertation topic about romantic love as a bourgeois myth was proving itself to be as true in life as in nineteenth-century literature.

Tucking her emotions safely away, Nevada focused on the flyer. The multi-day event required participants to be smart—she was—willing to volunteer—she could—and to be adventurous—no with a capital N-O.

Not a trait of hers. Not one she cared to possess, either.

Reading was as adventurous as she got, and no one would call her spontaneous. She often skipped to the final chapter and read the ending of the story first because she didn’t want to be disappointed after investing her time.

Uh-oh. Snowflakes were falling faster. Smaller ones than before. She’d better drop off her sister’s boots, so she wouldn’t be walking back to the house in a whiteout.

Nevada wiped her shoes on the mat outside the chocolate shop, brushed the snow from her shoulders, and then opened the door.

A bell jingled. The sound reverberated along her spine.

She wasn’t a fish out of water in this small town but an alien from another universe. That was how she’d always been, even growing up, when they had her skip a grade so she wouldn’t be bored in class. Changing schools every other year or so because of her father’s new army assignments hadn’t helped.

“Welcome to Copper Mountain Chocolates,” her sister said from behind the counter. Dakota didn’t look up as she used silver tongs to fill a large box with chocolates.

The delicious smell—a mix of chocolate, vanilla, and other spices—made Nevada forget her troubles. No wonder Dakota enjoyed working here. Pure, sweet goodness defined the aroma.

Nevada walked to the counter. “I have your boots.”

“Great.” Dakota’s smile brightened her pretty face. Her light brown hair was in a French braid, and her brown eyes matched the color of milk chocolate. She wore an indigo-blue shirt with long sleeves, dark jeans, and a copper-colored apron. “I should know better than to trust one of Dylan Morgan’s weather forecasts.”

Nevada unzipped her backpack, removed the plastic bag holding her sister’s boots, and placed it on the floor next to the counter. “Is he the one on the radio? KCMC?”

“Yes. Copper Mountain Country radio.” Dakota placed two more chocolates in the box and then closed the lid. “He’s a nice guy, but an awful weatherman.”

“Sounds like the station needs a better meteorologist.”

“Yes, but in Dylan’s defense, the weather can be unpredictable.”

Dakota would feel that way. Her sister always saw the good in others. She grabbed a mug from a shelf and used a ladle to fill it with whatever was in the copper pot on the stovetop behind her.

Nevada pulled off her black gloves. She touched the seat of her jeans—wet. Maybe she’d get into her pajamas when she got home. Why not? She had nowhere else to go today.

Dakota swirled whipped cream over the contents of the cup, sprinkled chocolate shavings on top, and pushed the drink toward Nevada. “Here’s a hot chocolate for venturing out in the cold for me.”

Her sister’s sweet gesture didn’t surprise Nevada. Dakota was always helping people and animals. She’d done that when she was a child, too.

Their mother, however, had pushed Dakota to study and work harder at school. That had only caused frustrations because academics hadn’t come as easily to Dakota due to a learning disability. It hadn’t helped that Nevada and their brother, York, were often in advanced classes. But the kindness Dakota showered on all—human and animal—surpassed any GPA or standardized test scores. Few had the same kind and caring heart she did.

“Thanks.” Nevada picked up the mug. “This is just what I need to chase away the chill.”

She took a sip. The warm liquid slid down her throat. Heavenly. Every kind of chocolate she’d tried at the shop was to die for, but this drink heated her from the inside.

Perfection.

“Did class go well?” Dakota asked.

“Not well, but better than last week. Stepping in for the original instructor is an adjustment for the students and for me.”

“You’ll do great.” Dakota placed the box of chocolates into a large bag and tied the handles with a copper-colored ribbon. “How’s the dissertation?”

“It’s coming along.”

Slowly, painfully so.

Thank goodness that she’d been required to turn in chapters the past couple of years or she would be flailing.

Nevada had come to Montana to find peace and quiet, a place where she could work on her dissertation. Dakota’s house had sounded ideal—especially after Nevada had been hired to fill in for a college instructor who needed to take an emergency medical leave—but since arriving a couple of weeks ago, Nevada had found only distractions.

Three to be exact.

Dakota’s foster animals wanted Nevada’s constant attention. The two dogs, Chance and Frodo, and one cat, Kimba, were sweet, but the definition of needy unless they were asleep. That meant tiring them out, but Nevada didn’t want to make her sister feel bad. Dakota loved her foster animals and doted on them like they were her kids.

“The three amigos wanted to play when I got home, so we did,” Nevada added.

Dakota made a face. “You’re spoiling them.”

Barks, meows, and being bumped by muzzles and paws weren’t easy to ignore. Playing fetch and holding a laser pointer so the red dot could be chased wasn’t all bad. The three seemed to appreciate Nevada’s efforts. “They miss you when you’re gone.”

Dakota only worked at the chocolate shop three days a week—Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Nevada was looking forward to Friday. When she returned from teaching, she would close the bedroom door and catch up on her work.

“Crate the dogs. They’re used to it when I’m gone.”

“They bark and whimper.”

“They’ll stop,” Dakota said. “At least Kimba sleeps most of the time.”

But not always in the most convenient of places.

When Nevada had opened her laptop earlier, the white cat plopped herself on the keyboard.

“The three aren’t used to having someone home during the day, so they are taking advantage of you. Don’t let that happen,” Dakota continued. “You’re the one in charge, not them.”

Nevada nodded, even though she felt more like the animals’ servant.

Dakota sighed. “All of us miss Bryce and Rascal, so that could have something to do with their behavior, too.”

Bryce Grayson was Dakota’s boyfriend. He was over on the west side of the state for a design project and had taken his dog with him. Nevada hadn’t known the guy long, but he seemed nice and made her sister happy. Bryce’s dad, Walt, was also a great guy, who treated Dakota like a daughter and welcomed Nevada into the family when she’d arrived in town.

A marriage proposal seemed to be a given to those who knew the couple, but Dakota wasn’t in any rush for that to happen. She’d said the two needed more time before taking the next step.

Nevada was relieved to see her sister being smart about this new relationship, but her sister’s feelings for Bryce seemed different—deeper—than with past boyfriends, and he acted like Dakota was the center of his universe.

“When will he be back?” Nevada asked.

“This weekend, but only for two days.” Disappointment colored Dakota’s voice.

“Two days is better than none.”

Dakota nodded, but her gaze clouded. “I’m realizing how Mom must have felt whenever Dad went away.”

Their father, now retired, had been in the army for over thirty years. The family followed him wherever he was stationed, but deployments were another story. He’d left them for what seemed like forever when Nevada was young. Now she realized the separation had been hardest on their mom. Nevada still remembered counting the days until their father returned home by marking them off on a big calendar.

She sipped the cocoa. She’d never felt that kind of love for someone. Nothing close to it. Only crushes or attraction. Maybe the hint of possibility…

“Bryce promised he’d be home for Valentine’s Day,” Dakota said.

Nevada nearly choked on her drink. She coughed and then swallowed.

Not Dakota, too!

“You okay?” her sister asked.

“Fine. It’s just…” Nevada wiped her mouth with her hand. “Everyone around here seems into Valentine’s Day. I’ve never seen so many heart decorations in my life. They should rename the town Cupidville.”

Dakota’s shoulders dropped. “Please tell me you don’t still hate Valentine’s Day after all this time.”

Some days it felt like yesterday, not Nevada’s freshman year of college. Yes, she’d put what happened behind her, but she hadn’t forgotten.

She couldn’t.

No matter how hard she tried.

“Hate is a strong adjective, but it’s still my least favorite holiday.”

And for good reason.

She’d had a huge crush on a senior in one of her classes. He was gorgeous with an amazing body. If her Mr. Right existed, it was him. When he invited her to an off-campus Valentine’s Day party, she’d thought all her dreams would come true.

He’d arrived at her dorm wearing a tuxedo and carrying a single red rose. He’d been so attentive and complimentary over dinner. They’d laughed and chatted. When he’d kissed her hand during dessert, violins had played in her head. She’d thought she found true love. She’d put her first name with his last name to see how it sounded.

Later, at the dance, she’d been having so much fun. She thought that he was, too. And then came the big announcement complete with a drumroll. She’d been chosen out of all the other women there to receive the Cupid Crown. She’d felt like the belle of the ball and believed her life would change that night.

Her pride, however, had quickly turned to humiliation when she discovered that winning the Cupid Crown meant she’d been voted the worst date at the party and only cupid’s arrow could make a guy want to have sex with her. Because of her win, her date—the antithesis of Mr. Right—had received a heart-shaped box full of cash that more than covered dinner and his tux rental.

None of the women there had known the entire evening had been nothing more than a set-up. A cruel joke with each guy paying a fee to enter his Valentine’s date into the competition.

The mocking laughter still burned.

Wearing high heels and her party dress, Nevada had run back to her dorm during a thunderstorm at midnight. Her date hadn’t cared. He was too busy counting his prize money.

No one else had followed her to make sure she was okay. The teasing about her winning the crown had continued until her brother York had shown up a few days later. He’d taken emergency leave after she’d called him crying and, between sobs, explaining what happened. Her brother had saved her in more ways than one with that visit. She’d been considering transferring to a different school.

Dakota’s eyes darkened. “You shut down those guys and their ridiculous antics.”

“Yes.” Instead of transferring, Nevada had made putting an end to the annual Cupid Crown event her goal. During her junior year, she’d succeeded. “It had to be done.”

“So why do you still dislike the holiday?”

“Valentine’s Day only reinforces an outdated mode of courtship. Couples are forced to pretend they’re happy by spending money and doing lovey-dovey things for each other.”

With a dreamy expression on her face, Dakota sighed. “Some are happy.”

Nevada could see that. Perhaps romantic love could transform into something more, something lasting. Their parents would celebrate their thirty-fourth anniversary next month. Something had kept them together all these years.

Love, friendship, companionship, or familiarity?

She wanted to believe in love for her sister’s sake, but who knew why one couple stayed together and another didn’t?

“Emphasis on some,” Nevada said. “Mom and Dad. You and Bryce. But you’re not the norm. To many people, Valentine’s Day is a slap-to-the-face reminder of being single. Especially those who would rather be in a relationship than alone.”

“What about you?”

“I’m happy with how things are right now. No need to make any changes.” She didn’t want to go over her views on relationships with her sister after their mom had been on Nevada about finding a guy to date for the past two months. Best not to set herself up for more rejection. “I’ve survived February fourteenth on my own. This year will be no different.”

Dakota tsked. “Just wait until a hot guy catches your eye. You’ll be singing the words to “My Funny Valentine” and running out to buy a sappy card before you know it.”

“There’s no room in my life for romance. I need to finish my dissertation, complete this teaching position, and then—”

“I was the same way until I met Bryce.”

Sort of, but not really. Nevada loved her sister, but Dakota’s life had been all about working at the chocolate shop and volunteering at an animal rescue on her days off until she met Bryce. Nothing wrong with that. Still, she didn’t have any professional goals she was working for, not like Nevada did.

She raised her chin. “I have a plan.”

Amusement filled her sister’s gaze. “Plans change.”

“Not mine.” Nevada had known what she wanted to do since her sophomore year of college. Merging her two interests—foreign languages and literature—had given her a direction… a goal.

“When the right person comes along, plans don’t seem as important.” Dakota’s tone was logical, but she looked more like a bubbly and smiling theme-park princess than a salesclerk at a small shop.

Nevada didn’t want to argue over this. She took another sip of her hot cocoa.

The bell on the door rang.

Relief washed over Nevada. They wouldn’t have to keep talking about this.

“Welcome to Copper Mountain Chocolates,” Dakota said on cue.

The door closed.

“Nothing like being greeted with a smiling face and a chocolate sample.”

The male voice was as warm and rich as the chocolate Nevada was drinking… and familiar.

She glanced his way.

Her heart thudded.

Strands of blond hair stuck out randomly from his blue beanie. A stunning blue-eyed gaze sharpened and then met hers. A bright smile followed, and his lips parted. “Well, hello there.”

End of Excerpt

The Valentine Quest is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

February 2, 2017