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Late Sunday afternoon Lucas Kendrick parked the rental car in front of the Sunset Apartments on First Avenue in Marietta, Montana. A handful of residents had decorated for the holidays, but the strands of colored lights strung over the doors failed to disguise the building’s shabby appearance. Despite the frigid temperature this last day of December and six inches of snow on the ground, a pair of bicycles, a skateboard and a kids’ Big Wheel sat on the sidewalk.
His gaze swung to unit 10—the downstairs apartment his mother had lived in the first two years of Lucas’s life. He imagined a stroller parked on the stoop and a nineteen-year-old single mom pushing her baby down the block to her waitressing job at the diner thirty years ago.
His mother had never told him about her wish to one day return to this town and thank the residents who’d helped them when they’d been down on their luck. He’d only discovered the fact after she’d passed away and he’d found a collection of notes she’d written during their stay in Marietta. He wished she’d mentioned her desire to return to the town before she’d died because he would have gladly paid for the trip and accompanied her to Montana.
Only nine months had transpired between his mother’s diagnosis and her final breath. It had always been just the two of them and losing her had knocked Lucas to his knees. After she’d been cremated, he’d boxed up her belongings and had stowed them in a storage unit. This past summer on the two-year anniversary of her passing, he’d found the courage to sort through the possessions and he’d discovered that his mother had written her thoughts on pieces of scrap paper, cards and store receipts. It was the message scribbled on a place mat from the Main Street Diner that had stuck in his head.
We have to leave, Lucas. This place and these people are becoming our family. If we don’t go now, we never will. I miss my mother and I’m certain once my parents see you, they’ll forgive. I promise we’ll come back here when you’re older and we’ll thank our friends again for taking us in when we had nowhere to go.
Wanting to preserve the notes, Lucas had painstakingly typed each message on his laptop and then saved the file to a flash drive. Twenty-nine years had passed since his mother had left Marietta. Time would tell how many friends were still here. If he’d had his choice though, he would have waited until summer to make the trip.
A few too many glasses of spiked eggnog at the company Christmas party and a loose tongue had sent him to Montana in the dead of winter. If he hadn’t let it slip that he was Roger Belfour’s illegitimate son and not the new company employee, he’d be back in San Diego walking barefoot along the beach. Unfortunately Claire had freaked out, accusing Lucas of intentionally humiliating her in front of her high-society friends and she’d banned him from celebrating the holidays with the family.
In an effort to keep the peace, Roger had asked Lucas to take an extended vacation. Frustrated and a little hurt that his father had bowed to his wife’s demands, Lucas had chosen to serve out his banishment in the treasure state. Thanking a handful of people on his mother’s behalf would be a nice diversion from the hostile Belfour family.
Growing up Lucas had always wished for a father, but once he’d turned eighteen and learned who’d sired him, he had no desire to establish a relationship with the man, believing his mother deserved his loyalty because she’d made all the sacrifices and had raised Lucas alone.
Several Google searches had turned up a windfall of information on Roger Belfour, the CEO of Belfour Property Investments in San Diego. He had a wife and two sons a few years older than Lucas, which meant Roger, had cheated on Claire with Lucas’s mom. Lucas had asked about the affair, but his mother had dodged the questions, and he’d always wondered what she was hiding.
Life went on and Lucas had enrolled in college and focused on earning a business degree. After graduation he went to work as a business analyst for a grocery-store chain. He might never have reached out to Roger if his mother hadn’t asked him to before she’d died.
When Lucas met Roger in person for the first time he’d been surprised by their physical resemblance—Lucas looked more like his father than his half brothers did. What was supposed to have been a brief meeting had turned into a job offer and before Lucas had stopped to consider the ramifications, he’d accepted a position in Roger Belfour’s company.
He found out quickly that although his father was happy to have him working at the office, Claire, Seth and Brady objected to Lucas’s presence. Claire had warned Lucas that she’d be keeping a close eye on him and his half brothers accused Lucas on a daily basis of trying to make them look bad—which wasn’t hard to do when the men took three-hour lunches and spent most of the day reading online dating profiles.
Because Roger took a firm stand against firing his illegitimate son, Lucas was motivated to work hard on behalf of Belfour Investments. He was sure that once he proved he had the company’s best interests at heart, Claire and his half brothers would accept him and he’d be part of a family—something he’d always wished for growing up.
He glanced at the dashboard clock—he’d been parked in front of the apartments for fifteen minutes. He better leave before one of the tenants called the police and reported a suspicious man lurking in their neighborhood. Lucas drove off, keeping his eyes peeled for the Graff Hotel. The rental car didn’t have a GPS system but the town’s population was only a little over ten thousand—it shouldn’t be difficult to find an old hotel.
He’d driven a block when he noticed a middle-aged woman with bright orange hair, brushing the snow off of a menagerie of plaster of paris wildlife in her yard. Her tiny turquoise home was an eyesore. Instead of the traditional evergreen, a fuchsia wreath hung on the front door. Snowflake decals covered the house windows and three-foot-tall candy canes lined both sides of the walk. Plastic replicas of Santa, the Abominable Snowman and the Island of Misfit Toys stood near a sleigh pulled by four prancing reindeer—one with a missing leg.
Green extension cords crisscrossed the snow, supplying power to the lights wrapped around an oak tree with a smirking Grinch leaning against the trunk. Lucas smiled, thinking his mother would have loved the gaudy holiday display.
He lowered the passenger-side window. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
The Lucille Ball look-alike approached the car, her curls bouncing around her head. She rested the broom against the door and then stuck her head through the window. Her gaze zigzagged between Lucas and the empty passenger seat. “Good afternoon,” she said.
“I’m looking for the Graff Hotel.”
She pointed west. “Two blocks that way across the railroad tracks.”
“Are you here for the ball?”
“What ball?” he asked.
“The Big Sky Mavericks Ball at the Graff.” She smiled. “The charitable group is raising money to update the fairgrounds and rebuild the grandstand.”
“I don’t know anything about a party for the fairgrounds.” When he’d booked his room he hadn’t been told there’d be a New Year’s Eve bash at the hotel.
Her eyes shifted to the empty passenger seat again. “You didn’t hear?”
There was something peculiar about the woman. “Hear what?”
She looked at him. “The fairgrounds caught fire last year and they had to cancel the annual Copper Mountain Rodeo. Thank goodness, no one was injured.” Tiny white puffs of air escaped her mouth as she continued to talk. “The sheriff’s department suspects arson, but they’re still investigating.”
Despite her nose and ears turning pink from the frigid temps, the woman would continue talking if Lucas didn’t end the conversation. “Thank you for the directions.” His finger hovered over the button to raise the window, but her gloved hand remained on the doorframe.
“You should go to the ball,” she said.
He was better off avoiding parties after the ruckus he’d caused at the last one he’d attended. “I don’t have a tux.”
The red curls shook. “It’s a rodeo-themed party. Boots, western shirts and—” she winked at the seat next to him “—big belt buckles.”
Yep, the lady was an oddball.
She grabbed the broom and backed away from the car.
“I didn’t get your name,” he said.
The name sounded like a cartoon character’s moniker.
“Have fun at the ball, Lucas.” She went into her house, leaving the broom on the porch.
Not until he’d pulled into the parking lot of the Graff Hotel, did Lucas realize that the redhead had called him by name. He couldn’t remember if he’d introduced himself or not. A bellman appeared as soon as he stepped from the rental car.
“Good afternoon, sir. May I help with your bags?”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” Lucas pressed the key fob to unlock the trunk then took his briefcase and followed the bellman into the hotel where he came face-to-face with a giant fur tree covered in glass ornaments, tiny white lights and wide velvet ribbons. He had to crane his neck to see the star at the top—an inch below the lobby’s vaulted ceiling.
“Welcome to the Graff, sir.”
Lucas glanced at the bellman’s nametag. “Thank you, Ron.” He nodded to the tables displaying a variety of gingerbread houses. “What’s all this?”
“Marietta’s annual gingerbread-house competition.” Ron walked over to a house with a blue ribbon attached to its copper-colored cookie roof. “Copper Mountain Chic won the award this year in the merchant’s category.”
Ron set the luggage by the check-in desk and tapped the silver bell on the counter. “The ski slopes will be crowded after the dusting of snow heading our way in a couple of days.”
“I don’t ski.” Lucas preferred warm sand between his toes not icy snow.
“They offer free lessons on the bunny slope. If you change your mind, the Graff rents ski equipment.” Ron backed up a step when a young man wearing navy pants, a white dress shirt and a navy blazer appeared behind the desk.
Lucas reached into his jean pocket for the five-dollar bill he’d gotten in change after buying coffee at the airport. He handed the money to the bellman. “Appreciate your help.”
“Thank you, sir. Enjoy your stay.”
“Welcome to the Graff, Mr.—”
“Kendrick. Lucas Kendrick.” He set his credit card on the counter.
“I’m Bob.” The employee smiled. “It will take just a moment to check you in.”
When Lucas agreed to vanish for a while, his father had insisted he use the company credit card to pay for his hotel and meals. He was only too happy to spend Roger’s money, figuring once Claire saw the bill for his mini-vacation she’d think twice about exiling him when he accidently offended her.
“Mr. Kendrick,” Bob said, “I’ll need the license plate number of the car you’re driving.”
Lucas took the rental agreement out of his briefcase.
While Bob finished checking him in, he studied the lobby’s opulence, wondering if his mother had ever stepped foot inside the hotel.
Despite the holiday décor there was no disguising the elegance of the historic building. Marble floors, tall columns and rich walnut paneling catered to the privileged and wealthy.
“You’ll be staying on the third floor, Mr. Kendrick.” Bob held out a keycard. “Room 311.” He motioned to his right. “The bank of elevators is around the corner and—” his finger swung in the other direction “—the stairs are on the other side of the tree.” The desk attendant held up a glossy notecard with the words Boots, Chaps & Cowboy Hats printed across the front. “We’re offering hotel guests a discount on tickets for tonight’s New Year’s Eve party.”
“I’ll pass, thank you.”
“It’s for a great cause, sir and—” Bob’s gaze traveled over Lucas “—if I may say so, you look like a man who gambles.”
Lucas had never considered himself a gambler but he’d taken a huge one when he’d reached out to his biological father, and Roger hadn’t slammed the door in his face.
Bob continued his sales pitch but Lucas stopped listening when he heard feminine laughter behind him. He turned and spotted a petite brunette in a hotel uniform speaking with Ron. The bellman helped her on with her coat and when she turned to put her arms through the sleeves, her gaze clashed with Lucas’s. As if the marble floor had turned to quicksand, Lucas felt himself being sucked into deep, dark pools of luminous brown. Then a cold blast of air swept through the lobby, breaking the spell. The woman’s lashes fluttered down and she looked away.
A deep voice cut through Lucas’s fogged brain and he turned to the desk clerk. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“The party will be held in the main ballroom and there’ll be lots of casino-style games. Appetizers will be served until midnight and a cash bar will be open until one a.m.”
More cold air hit the back of his legs and he glanced over his shoulder and watched the brown-eyed beauty leave the hotel. He tracked her progress across the parking lot to a small compact vehicle. After she opened the door and tossed her purse inside, she looked back at the building. She couldn’t see into the lobby because of the tinted windows but maybe she’d felt the same zap of excitement as he had when they’d stared into each other’s eyes.
“Would you like to attend the ball, sir?”
Lucas tapped his knuckles against the counter. “Hold that thought, Bob.” He walked over to the bellman. “Ron.”
“May I help you, sir?”
How did he tell the bellman that it was imperative he meet the woman who’d just left the hotel without sounding like a stalker? “The lady…”
“Which lady would that be, sir?”
Why did the woman feel familiar? “She was wearing a hotel uniform.”
Ron didn’t offer a name—he was protecting the employee’s identity. Lucas stared out the window, catching the back end of her car as it left the lot. He’d dated his share of women and had one semi-serious relationship but he’d never felt this desperate urgency to know more about a woman he’d never met before. “Forget it, Ron.”
“Sir.” The bellman’s eyes glinted with humor. “She’ll be back later to help out with the casino games in the ballroom.”
Lucas smiled his thanks then returned to the desk. “Bob, it looks like I’ll be going to the ball after all.”
“The ticket is forty dollars, Mr. Kendrick.”
Lucas removed the cash from his wallet and Bob handed him the invitation. “You won’t regret going, sir.”
Especially if Lucas ran into the brown-eyed goddess.
“Would you like Ron to take your things to your room while you relax in the bar?”
“No, thank you.”
“If there’s anything the staff can do to make your stay more enjoyable please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Lucas wheeled his suitcase to the bank of elevators and rode to the third floor. When the doors opened, plush carpet, gilded lighting and more walnut woodwork greeted him. He keyed into the room, turned on the lights and then stepped back in time to the early 1900s. The queen-size bed sported a fancy wrought-iron headboard and the navy duvet matched the floor-length curtains on the window overlooking the railroad tracks behind the hotel. An antique slant-front mahogany desk sat in one corner and a mini fridge had been tucked beneath the table near a leather chair and ottoman.
He poked his head inside the en-suite bathroom. The black-and-white penny tile and claw-foot tub were a nice touch. Light gray towels and an array of high-end bath products sat on the marble countertop. Even the toilet tissue was fancy—the end piece folded into a fan.
He returned to the bedroom, hung up his coat and opened the complimentary bottle of water on the TV stand then picked up the chocolate treat that had been left on the bed pillow. He rubbed his thumb over the foil wrapper, wondering if the brown-eyed angel had placed the chocolate on his pillow.
Lucas shook his head. How could a stranger completely mesmerize him?
Before he got carried away with his fantasy, he kicked off his shoes and then connected his laptop to the Internet so he could check email. Unbeknownst to his father or half brothers, Lucas had reached out to his alumni contacts at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and had struck up a conversation with Stan Mueller. Mueller was a well-known developer who turned unique properties into loft apartments and high-end condos for the wealthy.
Stan’s work had been highlighted in major magazines and his properties could be found in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles as well as smaller cities like Aspen, Colorado, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Stan said he’d entertain doing a business deal with Belfour Investments if Lucas found a unique property. Lucas was flying under the radar on this project because he didn’t want his father to get his hopes up. But a deal with Mueller would take Roger’s company to the next level and show Claire and his half brothers that Lucas wasn’t out to sabotage his father’s business.
End of Excerpt