Miranda Evans put the final flourish on the letter s, and stepped back to absorb the full effect of her freehand lettering in burnished copper—Found Objects.
The name of her own boutique in the sumptuously restored historic Graff Hotel in her hometown: Marietta, Montana.
“Best hometown in the world,” she stated and hugged herself. Her life was changing, and some of those changes made her sad, but others gleamed with promise.
“Looks good, girl.” Shane Knight, one of the bartenders for the hotel’s small horseshoe-shaped bar swatted her butt with a bar towel as she hurried by, long messy blonde braid bouncing down her back as she headed into the Graff bar for the beginning of her shift. Already several tables were occupied—likely why Shane hustled. Her mile-long, denim-clad legs practically blurred. “Come get a drink to celebrate your sign. One step closer to opening.”
“I’ll come by a little later,” Miranda promised like she had yesterday and the day before although she hadn’t kept her promises because she’d gotten caught up in remodeling her store’s space.
“Now’s always better,” Shane called out as she bore down on a second table. She shook her finger playfully at Miranda. “All work and no play…” She let the phrase dangle. “Am I right?” Shane asked the two businesswomen in suits who were clearly having a meeting although indulging in an early happy hour.
Miranda smiled. Since Found Objects was her shop, decorating and organizing it hardly seemed like work. She walked back into the small, slightly awkward space that had been carved out of a storage room and part of the hall that led to the back parking lot. She lit up seeing the thin, elderly woman with blue eyes that still sparkled, with a puff of white hair like a dandelion.
“Gran.” Miranda rushed forward to hug her grandmother who had helped to make all this possible. “I didn’t know you were coming in today. Look at you, all dressed up.”
She was thrilled to see her grandmother out of the small apartment she’d recently moved into at an assisted living facility in town to be close to her husband of over sixty years. Miranda’s grandfather now needed memory care. Miranda and her grandmother had finally made the tough decision a few months ago that they were unable to sufficiently care for him.
“I’m meeting a few friends in the bar.” Her grandmother’s eyes twinkled. “We’re tired of afternoon popcorn and drip coffee. We’re going rogue.”
Miranda laughed, her heart lighter seeing a glimpse of her spunky gran who’d dimmed during the past few, hard years. “Good for you.”
“You should try it.”
Miranda smiled. “Gran, I am going to make my boutique so beautiful and original that you’ll be so proud.” She looked around her store. “So my rogue days will have to wait.”
Her grandmother patted her hand.
“You are the kindest, most generous and loving person. You’ve always made me proud, Miranda Panda.”
Miranda felt tears prick her eyes. Her grandparents had always been there for her. Always believed in her and accepted her. Even turning her early obsession with pandas into a cute nickname that stuck and reminded her of happy times—baking and knitting with her grandmother and spending weekends and after school helping take care of the cutting horses her grandfather bred until his health started failing too badly.
“But I don’t want you to put off fun anymore. You’re young and need to enjoy it. You’ve given so much to me and your grandad and to so many others. I want you to build your business and renew some friendships and find a man who makes you sparkle.”
“Gran,” Miranda interrupted, blinking back tears and feeling a rush of affection so fierce that she nearly staggered.
“I want you to find the happiness that was mine for so long.” Her grandmother seemed to force her rush of emotion under control. “You of all people deserve to be deeply loved.”
“Gran.” Miranda dashed away the tears.
Having a relationship like her grandad and gran had had was a beautiful dream, and as hard as it had been to admit that her grandfather needed more care, now she would have the chance at more of a life outside the defunct ranch that her grandmother had recently sold.
“This is not a time for tears.” Her gran smiled tremulously, her eyes bright. “I expect an invitation to your grand opening. I’ll bring my posse and your grandad and hopefully be your first official sale. Oh, there are my friends. I should join them, but first, I wanted to bring you something to remind you of home.”
Miranda caught her breath. Her grandmother had brought a pale green decorated Chinese-style ceramic pot with a striking white orchid flower.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, recognizing the pot instantly.
“That lovely gal, Risa Davidson of Sweet Pea Flowers, ordered the orchid for me and repotted it in my cherished pot. Your grandfather bought it for me as a housewarming present when he finished our ranch house.”
“Sixty years ago,” Miranda said.
“Valentine’s Day,” her grandmother added, blinking back a tear.
Miranda squeezed her grandmother’s frail hands, and already her agile imagination started dreaming of ways she could make this Valentine’s Day special for her grandparents. It might be their last together. Her stomach clenched in dread.
“Gran, thank you,” she said softly, feeling the words were totally inadequate to express how much the cherished pot meant to her. She’d moved in with her grandparents junior year of high school when her parents moved from Marietta to Seattle and her grandfather had had his first health scare. She didn’t regret the time with them for a second even though her family accused her of wasting her life.
Thirty minutes later Miranda entered the bar wanting to greet her grandmother’s friends and to get Shane’s opinion on her store’s sign she’d hand painted after researching old-fashioned font styles in Marietta during the late eighteen hundreds when copper was briefly king. She caught Shane in a no doubt brief lull. Several tables had couples at them, most drinking hot drinks. Miranda loved winter. She loved wearing sweaters, especially the ones she knit at night when she was watching TV with her grandparents and had a moment to herself when no one needed her and she could be idle.
“Hey,” Shane called out. “Storefront lettering looks amazing. Popped my eyes right out.”
Miranda laughed at the exaggeration.
“Want me to make you a cinnamon candy kiss mocha?”
Miranda looked quickly around and stepped closer to the bar. “That doesn’t have alcohol in it does it?” she whispered.
Shane laughed. “What are we, spies? And this is a bar so the alcohol is not a secret, but no, I was planning to test the virgin version on you.”
Miranda found herself flushing a deep red. She felt hot and itchy all over and she couldn’t quite meet Shane’s gaze. Was it that obvious? Even though she liked Shane, she felt a stab of humiliation even as she told herself that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Sex wasn’t everything, and it wasn’t like she had no experience exactly. She just hadn’t had a lot of opportunities. And that would change once she got her business up and humming. Hopefully. But still there was so much more in life than sex.
“Yes, please—that sounds lovely,” she said primly, curious about the drink. No wonder Shane could throw the V word around with ease. She’d probably not lost hers but had flung it off in her teens like a cape.
Miranda couldn’t imagine any man saying no to Shane Knight.
Shane stood at the large copper-colored Italian espresso machine expertly pulling shots and steaming milk. Miranda hovered, feeling tempted by the swooshing sound of the steaming milk and then the heavenly dulled roar of whipped cream.
Shane Knight was a goddess at the bar whether it was espresso or cocktails. Miranda’s eyes lit up appreciatively when Shane shaved a cinnamon stick on top of the whipped cream and then sprinkled a few cinnamon candy hearts on top. She plunged a dark chocolate straw into the drink and then pushed it encouragingly toward Miranda.
“What do you think?”
Miranda had only been working on opening her small space a little over a week, but this was the third time Shane had tried a signature espresso drink on her. Miranda had tried to pay for the drinks, but Shane had shrugged the money off. Miranda felt guilty about feeling relieved. Now that she was paying rent—something she should have been doing a decade ago, her mother and sisters reminded her during her dutiful phone calls—and she no longer had the small but steady income from her former job at the clothing boutique Copper Mountain Chic, she was adjusting to her new economic normal. She wanted to prove to her grandparents that the money they’d given her after selling their beloved ranch to move into the care center was not wasted.
“It’s sinful,” Miranda sighed as the flavors exploded and danced in her mouth.
Shane smiled. “I hope so.”
Shane saved her creative cocktail concoction test runs for off-duty Graff staff and customers. One night, Miranda vowed, perhaps the opening night of Found Objects, she would celebrate with a couple of sips of a cocktail. Or champagne. She loved flavored sparkling water. She bet champagne would be even better.
Miranda sipped through the straw more deeply and nearly melted on the spot.
“Wow,” she breathed trying to come up with the right words. “Just wow.”
“Good to know. It’s one of four Valentine-themed coffee drinks I’m putting on the bar menu for February.”
Shane grinned and turned away, repeated the process only in smaller espresso cups, and she added a dash of clear liquor—gin or maybe vodka Miranda speculated—before placing her samples on a distressed metal antique tray and making a swing through the half full bar, chatting and smiling as she handed out her drinks.
Valentine’s Day, Miranda thought dreamily. So romantic and beautiful, a time to reaffirm love and do something special for people in your life. Make cards and drop them off to friends so they knew you were thinking of them. Make a special dinner for her grandparents or call a girlfriend and make several batches of cookies and deliver them to the kids at the after-school program at Harry’s House. This year she was going to…
“Don’t even come near me with that drink.” One of the women sitting in the bar with a laptop and nursing a chardonnay with her co-worker made the sign of the cross as Shane approached. “Valentine’s is a day of disappointment, disaster and despair.”
Miranda startled out of her daydream.
“It’s the commercialization of our pain, mocking us,” the other woman said. “February 14th should be banned from the calendar.”
“From the American psyche,” someone else called out.
“Burned, hung, poisoned and drawn and quartered,” one of Miranda’s new neighbors chimed in.
“And then beheaded and put on a spike at the gates of the town.”
Miranda stared at the people in the bar in dismay. She knew more than a few of them. Her grandmother and her friends had been talking softly, each of them drinking one of Shane’s specialty coffees, likely sans alcohol. Miranda felt like she had to pick her jaw up off the floor.
“Marietta doesn’t have gates,” she said faintly.
“An opportunity to fleece men and suck them dry!” a man practically shouted in a deep baritone even as he took the last sample from Shane’s tray and held it up in a mock toast.
It seemed popular to heap scorn on a day that should be held in tender esteem.
“Well, that was fun,” Shane mocked breezily. Her samples gone. Her smile intact. “Can’t say I blame them.”
“You too?” Miranda could barely gulp back her gasp of dismay.
Shane shrugged. “It’s no longer an active hate, just more of a bored ignoring, but since I’m in the business of being hospitable…” she smiled and winked “…specialty drinks, hearts and flowers and cutesy cocktail napkins it is, in about…” she broke off and looked at the large, beautiful watch that always reminded Miranda of a starlit sky “…four days.”
“You of all people should have many fond memories of Valentine’s Day—getting cards from friends, romantic dinners and candles and dashing through the rain while a man drapes his jacket over your shoulders as you run to a theater for a concert. And if you don’t have a date, you can bake specialty cupcakes and bring them to work, distribute candy kisses to the shops on Main Street and customers.” Miranda’s fertile mind fired up more possibilities.
Now it was Shane’s turn to stare. “That’s a movie Valentine’s Day. Not real. No one enjoys the day except little kids and dumb new couples stupidly in love. Everyone else hates it.” Shane nodded toward the bar of people happily finishing her signature Valentine spiked espresso sample or toasting their empty espresso cups high in the air.
Miranda wondered if there were a Scrooge for Valentine’s Day and if so what his name was. She definitely required a word or two with him.
Miranda looked again at the small crowd in the bar, a few still mocking Valentine’s Day. And romance. The women seemed as disappointed, verging on bitter as the men.
“Really,” she said hands on hips, her brown eyes narrowed in challenge. “Really. You don’t like Valentine’s Day. We’ll just see about that, Shane Knight and other Valentine haters.”
End of Excerpt