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A sweet, simple, beautiful celebration of love.
And Amber McCall, middle-born sister of the bride, couldn’t wait for things to wrap up. She’d begged, bartered, and even threatened to quit her job in San Jose if her bosses didn’t honor her request for two weeks of family leave. “I’m needed in Montana,” she’d told them. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
A slight exaggeration. Dad wasn’t dying. But “Diamond Jim” McCall wasn’t going to enjoy the comfortable retirement he and Mom so rightly deserved if Amber didn’t step up to the plate and deliver on her promise to stage the family’s “flip house” before it went on the market.
Ruby and Boone did their share by remodeling the derelict farmhouse—and, remarkably, fell back in love in the process.
Amber had no fantasy of experiencing a similar fate. Love worked for other people. Work worked for her.
“Your sister is a beautiful bride. She and Boone look extremely happy.”
She repositioned herself on the padded seat of the wooden folding chair to look at her lone tablemate. After the delightful brunch, everyone got up to mingle, except for Trey Brandel—the slightly aloof, enigmatic son of Dinah Brandel, who owned Brandel’s Baubles, Fine Art and Collectibles. Amber’s new favorite place in the world.
“She and Boone were each other’s first loves, then life happened and they went their separate ways. I don’t think either of them saw this coming.”
Amber looked around the small private courtyard of the Graff Hotel. The day was warming up—not unusual for midsummer in Marietta, Montana—but a light breeze helped, as did the shade cloth overhead. Jade’s fun, jazzy playlist seemed to facilitate mingling, although Amber hadn’t left her table. Partly because the nervous energy dancing in her veins made it difficult to focus on small talk and partly because it would have been rude to abandon Trey—especially after he’d officiated at the nuptials.
She snagged the full mimosa from her mother’s spot, noticing Trey’s gaze follow her.
“Congratulations on your great job of officiating. You conducted yourself like a seasoned pro. Are you sure it was your first wedding?”
His soft snorting sound made her smile. “First and last.”
Hmm . . . maybe he doesn’t take himself as seriously as I thought. “Dinah said you got licensed to marry two friends who broke up on the way to Montana. That sounds like the plot of a screwball comedy Jade could use in a screenplay.” Her younger sister had written and submitted several treatments to her agent, but not a single bite yet.
He used his fork to chase down a few remaining crumbs of the herbed biscuit upon which had been piled fluffy scrambled eggs topped with a lemony béarnaise sauce. Amber had eaten every bite of hers too. “Dave and Maria were co-workers who kept their relationship a secret for like . . . three years. They only went public after they got engaged. Her parents offered to spring for the whole wedding if the happy couple agreed to hold it in Bozeman.”
“They were living in New Orleans at the time, I take it?” She knew that had been Dinah’s and Trey’s home for many years.
“Yes. The groom felt like he needed to have some say in the arrangements so he asked me to represent.” He nodded toward where his mother was standing with Mom and Dad, apparently discussing the welded arch Dad built for the wedding. “This was shortly after Mom’s fall, so they knew I was going to be in Marietta for a few weeks.”
“Do you know what happened? Why they broke up? Just too many miles in a confined space?”
He popped the fork in his mouth. His full gorgeous lips closed around it firmly and then he pulled it back sharply. After chewing and swallowing, he said, “Honestly, I think the secret was their glue. Without the intrigue and suspense, they were ordinary people with ordinary foibles.”
The perceptiveness of his insight surprised her. “Like in the TV show, Bones. Once the will-they? or won’t-they? was gone, the whole dynamic—and reason for watching the show—changed.”
“I’m not familiar with the show, but I’ve heard that said of others. And to make matters worse, this all took place about the same time our magazine shut down. Maria had a decent job offer in Nevada. Dave didn’t want to leave NOLA. I heard he’s selling ads for a newspaper in town. Damn waste. He was one of my best feature writers.”
She felt a small a-ha moment as another piece fell into place. “That’s right. I keep forgetting you’re an editor. When we met, I thought you and your mother owned Baubles together.”
He drew in a breath and let it out slowly, as if fact-checking his future words.
She hated to admit she hadn’t been able to keep her eyes off him when she was supposed to be watching Ruby and Boone—the sister and future brother-in-law she loved—say their vows. Trey owned his look in a way that appealed to her much too much. He’d removed his tie and pale-gray suit jacket before helping his mother take her seat at the table after the ceremony. At some point over the delicious luncheon they’d been served, he’d also unbuttoned a couple of buttons and rolled up the sleeves of his crisp white shirt.
Fully dressed, he was gorgeous. Chillaxed? Downright dangerous for a girl who’d been flying solo for well over a year.
“Mom would love it if I gave up editing and moved back here to help her with the shop, but that’s not going to happen.”
“Because you have a new job waiting for you in New York City.” Another reason to keep my wayward interest in him to myself. Even if I had time to spare in the next two weeks, jumping into a bi-coastal relationship would be the ultimate folly.
“Yes. And my boss is not the patient type. He’s also my father, so he and Mom have history that makes everything more complicated.”
She could imagine. Even with parents who’d been married for over thirty years, old hurts and long-held secrets could flare up to cause problems. “Dinah looks much better today. When you two came to the flip house before the barn sale, I thought she seemed very fragile. She’s really quite stunning in that gorgeous outfit.”
“Mom loves to dress up. That might be the only thing she misses about NOLA. People around here tend to dress pretty casually.”
Amber brushed a few crumbs from the neckline of her burnished-gold satin dress. Thankfully, Jade had brought a few dresses from a vintage collection for both of her sisters to try on. Amber had fallen in love with the classy, fitted, cocktail-length dress with a matching jacket. If left up to her, the dress code would have been skinny jeans and a clean shirt.
“Except on special occasions. Like today,” he quickly added. “You and your sisters are fashion-plate stylish.”
A hint of blush further warmed the color of his skin, which she’d already decided was burnished walnut with copper overtones.
Trey looked over Amber’s shoulder. “Did you say Boone and Ruby were high school sweethearts?”
Quick save. No harm, no foul odor, as Jade might say. “Boone worked for my dad a couple of summers when we girls were in high school. Ruby had a major crush on him. But their timing was off. Instead of going to college together as planned, Boone dropped out and moved home to help his mother get back on her feet after his dad died suddenly from a heart attack.”
“So, he stayed in Marietta, and Ruby went to college?”
“Yes. And their relationship went south pretty quickly after that.”
Amber look over her shoulder. Ruby—now barefoot—stood with Boone, locked in a sweet embrace that made Amber’s heart lift and fall.
She was happy for her sister. Truly happy. And maybe a tiny bit envious, even though she didn’t get FOMO too often. “Fear of missing out” was a waste of time. If you want something, set a goal and work until you have it. Love had been scratched off her wish list the day her almost-fiancé stole her million-dollar idea and eloped with another woman.
From the ashes of that failed relationship, Amber had crafted a life in the Silicon Valley that fit her needs perfectly and made her a great deal of money—although not the millions she’d expected to have accumulated before thirty.
Was there the occasional bout of loneliness? Of course. But she dealt in trade-offs. A lucrative short-term stock might be sacrificed for a dark-horse company that would pay out big in the long run. Instead of the sort of flashy cars her two bosses drove, she owned a beat-up Ford-150 pickup truck that never got broken into, stolen or tagged. It carried every piece of cast-off furniture she bought at flea markets and estate sales and brought home to refinish or paint in one of the whimsical, crazy quilt patterns she’d dreamed up.
The same went for men. Her heart might race in the company of a sleek and handsome Jaguar-type hunk—such as the man sitting across from her—but she’d learned the hard way the cost of maintaining such high-end models. If she were back on her own playing field, she might consider “leasing” Trey for a quick fling, but this was Marietta, and her time was spoken for.
“The Graff has really stepped up its game from when I was a kid. It sat empty for years until Troy Sheenan brought it back to life.” She ran a hand across the white linen tablecloth. “The wedding turned out perfect, didn’t it?”
She hoped Trey didn’t catch the wistful tinge to her question.
His mouth pulled slightly to one side. She really hated that she noticed—and responded at a gut level. “Absolutely. One would never guess this was spur of the moment. Or, do they call this a ‘shotgun’ wedding in Montana?”
She smiled at his attempt to lighten the moment. “Ruby swears no blood was spilled. But once she sets her mind on something, obstacles best get out of her way.”
Trey’s low chuckle keyed something long-stalled and half-forgotten. Men and women flirt. Are we flirting?
“The same must apply to your other sister too. Mom told me Jade is trying to sell your house-flipping story to Hollywood. How do you feel about becoming a household name in the realm of home improvement?”
Amber looked around until she spotted her younger sister—still on her phone. “The idea is preposterous, of course. I researched the odds of pitching a reality show to Hollywood and seeing it through to fruition. Let’s just say they’re slim.”
Trey cleared his throat in a sort of continental way that sent a shiver down her spine. “And, yet, I overheard Jade talking about a production company that’s very interested in buying the rights to your family’s story.”
Jade had shared her idea for the so-called Property Sisters of Montana at Ruby’s rehearsal dinner, but Amber hadn’t paid much attention. She was far more focused on figuring out the best way to showcase the flip house, now that Boone and Ruby were done with the final “punch list.”
“There’s an interest, but who knows if it will really happen? Or when. My only focus is staging the house on Carlton Road so it sells for a bundle and gets my parents off the hook for a really bad investment.”
She polished off the last of her drink and reached for her purse strap on the back of the folding chair. “I only have two weeks of family leave, so I don’t plan on hanging around here much longer. Boone’s friend is meeting me at the flip house to move the pieces your mother suggested we keep out of the sale.”
Trey refilled both their coffee cups from a thermal carafe on the table then added cream and sugar to his, slowly stirring it with a spoon.
How does he burn off calories working in an antique store? The man looked as fit as her new brother-in-law, who was a carpenter by trade.
He lifted the cup to his lips, his gaze meeting hers. “We should talk about the remaining inventory you’re going to need. If you email me your ideas, I can tag some pieces I think will work and they’ll be ready to load up when you get to Baubles.”
A funny stabbing sensation in her chest caught her by surprise. She recalled all too clearly the last time she’d put her trust in a man’s hands. He’d waited until Amber was too preoccupied with design issues on their revolutionary app for buying and selling stocks to notice she was being set up for betrayal. His duplicity made her wary where business and future affairs of the heart were concerned—even a long-shot, here-today/gone-tomorrow type of affair with a sexy guy who had one foot out the door.
“It’s very nice of you to offer, but if this silly Hollywood thing happens, I’m supposed to be the sister doing the staging. I have a ton of ideas, and I really think I should pick out the decor myself, don’t you?”
His expression changed, and yet it didn’t. “Ideas are one thing, but the actual process of staging is far different. Have you done this before?”
Her shoulders went back as her spine stiffened. “No. But I’ve watched a gazillion home improvement shows on TV, and I bought a design app for my laptop. How hard can it be?”
Apparently her audacious question caught him off guard. His sip of coffee mingled with a laugh, which set off a coughing fit. She tossed her purse on the table and raced around to pound—firmly—between his shoulder blades.
“Stop. I’m fine. Please. You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
She faked a look of chagrin. “Too much gusto? Sorry. Your mother sorta volunteered you to be my mentor for as long as we’re both here. I didn’t want you to choke to death and deprive me of all your years and years and years—of editing experience.”
His slightly strangled laugh sounded both amused and galled. “If I were to take you on as my apprentice, believe me, you would get your money’s worth. I lived and breathed antiques growing up, and interior design paid my way through college. My title at NOLA Alive! was lifestyle editor. Art, crafts, design, D.I.Y. home improvements . . . all that and more came across my desk.”
Damn. The man had the cred she could only lust after.
Lust. Bad word choice.
“So, is there any chance I could hire you to tutor me on this project? The flip house is very important to my family. I am a novice and I want to get it right.”
He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, obviously pleased to have gained the upper hand in their bargaining match.
“Between keeping Baubles open and getting Mom to her physical therapy appointments, I’m spread a little thin. I don’t suppose you know anyone who might be looking for a job, do you? Full or part time.”
Amber looked around until she spotted both their mothers, now talking with Boone’s mom and stepfather. Dinah and Mom made an interesting dichotomy—one vivid in a colorful and bold print dress, the other in a stylish, but demure, pale-green sheath.
“Umm . . . my sisters and I were talking about Mom this morning. She seems a little lost . . . or bored. Dad’s health is back, and she’s not doing the bookkeeping for Summit Construction anymore. She might be interested. I could ask her.”
He got up and moved close enough to see where she was looking. His scent worked its way into her consciousness. Woodsy, lemon, and something exotic. Like him. She fought to keep her wits firmly off the path they seemed determined to tread.
“That would be great.” He leaned a bit closer, his voice intimate, confidential. “There’s a whole container of furniture Mom unwisely bought from an online auction house after accidentally taking one too many painkillers. She doesn’t have room in the shop for any of it. Staging your house would open up space for new inventory.”
She could tell he was growing more attached to the idea by the moment. So was she, but probably for different reasons. Working together, side by side, could be two parts informative and four parts dangerous.
“If you’re not opposed, we’d leave a discreet price tag on the larger pieces. Every sale helps to keep Baubles solvent and both our mothers employed.”
Which puts him on the next plane to New York even faster. No worries. No looking back.
Damn my luck.
Her expression must have betrayed her disappointment that they weren’t going to have time for a full-blown—if quick—fling because his beautiful lips compressed to a flat line. “Did I hear you say you’re still here for another ten days?”
“More or less. One of my bosses texted me this morning begging me to cut my trip short because they’ve decided to take their company public and desperately need my help.” She still hadn’t replied.
“Then we need to jump on this. I’ll teach you everything I can while we stage your house if you can talk your mother into filling in at Baubles. And keeping Dinah out of trouble,” he added with a tiny wink that made her pulse jump.
Stop it, already. Yes. He’s gorgeous and smart and looks out for his mother, but that’s no reason to start picking out china.
He’s also leaving Montana ASAP.
As are you, dork.
She held out her hand. “You have a deal. I’ll talk to Mom tonight. I don’t want to put her on the spot in front of your mother or I’d say something now. Besides, shouldn’t you run this past Dinah?”
He took her hand, pumped it twice, then squeezed her fingers softly for good measure. His touch activated a part of her brain she’d assumed had withered from neglect.
“Mom won’t admit it, but she’s been lonely for quite a while. Dad says she twisted her ankle to get attention, but he’s always been a bit cynical when it comes to Mom. Rosemary will be good for her.”
The warmness in his tone reminded her of Sage’s hot cocoa on a chilly Montana morning. She made a mental note to hit Copper Mountain Chocolates before leaving Marietta. Even a little taste of home could stave off the homesickness she’d been feeling lately.
“And your experience—even if you haven’t been actively working in the design business recently—beats mine all to heck. Sounds like a win-win to me.”
She took a step back—for breathing space—and picked up her purse. “I need to say my goodbyes and get to work. As my silly sister Jade might say, ‘No rest for a dog with a new bone.’” For some reason, her ad lib sounded faintly suggestive to her ears. Probably because she’d done nothing besides lust after Trey since the day they met.
Her cheeks turned hot, and when she glanced at Trey, their gazes held for a few seconds too long. The twinkle of humor in his complexly hued brown eyes was just enough to send a rush of womanly delight surging through her system.
No. No. No. Hands off the potential mentor. Pick his brain but absolutely no touching of any other body parts.
End of Excerpt