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Chase tossed the doctor’s report onto the scarred Formica table and turned to the view of Bigfork Bay—a sight that soothed his scattered thoughts and calmed the edginess growing in his belly. It hurt too much to think about his dad being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. A disease that would steal his mobility, his independence and creativity, and the dream they’d built together at Calhoun Customs Garage.
As if life hadn’t stolen enough from the Calhouns, Chase would have to bring home his siblings to more bad news. None of them had ever given thought to their father’s mortality. Not Marty Calhoun, larger than life, tougher than nails, with a heart full of love for his children.
Chase lifted the carton of milk from the refrigerator and tested its weight. Mason had drunk all the damn milk again. And where was the sandwich Chase had left on the top shelf last night?
He walked out of the small kitchen into the garage. “Hey, Dad. Your coffee will have to be a while. Mason drank all the milk. I’ll need to go over to Molly’s to buy more.”
Marty chuckled. His hand shook a little on the wrench clenched in his palm. He rested his forearm on the fender of the ’57 Chevy they were restoring for use on the ranch. “A growing boy needs calcium.”
“He’s twenty-nine. Shouldn’t he be done growing by now?” Chase leaned on the opposite fender with a grin, ducking his head under the hood. “She’s a beauty.”
“She will be when she’s done.” His father sighed. “Not sure my hand will be steady enough to do the artwork Carter wants. Any response to that advertisement in the paper for a graphics artist?”
Chase pushed aside a stab of sadness. His dad would take the loss of his art hard. Harder than not being able to lift a wrench anymore. “No takers.”
“Have you spoken to your sister about coming home at the end of the NASCAR season?”
“Not yet, Dad. I’m going to FaceTime her over coffee. Will you be okay here on your own? I won’t be long, and Mason should be in as soon as he’s helped Carter with the horses at the ranch.”
Marty snorted. “I’m not darn useless yet, boy.”
Chase grinned and gripped his father’s shoulder, secure in knowing his dad would fight this disease with every ounce of his iron will. With the same spirit he’d fought for everything in his lifetime. “I’ll be back soon.”
He walked through into the showroom, his eye on the Montana sky outside the windows. The white-capped Swan Range Mountains soared above the river that snaked its way around the town, edged by the hectic colors of fall. Sunlight reflected off the bay where a group of boys fished off the dock.
Pushing through the side door, he crossed the road to Molly’s Old Time Five and Dime. The thought of Molly made him smile. Everyone had told her it was time for a name change, that five and dime stores were a thing of the past. But Molly, fourth generation owner of the store she’d inherited from her father, had pretty much told them all to mind their own business. It’s always been a five and dime and that’s what it’ll stay.
He opened the door and held it so Mrs. Thomas, bundled up in a warm coat and colorful scarf, could slip inside ahead of him. He closed it behind him, cutting off the icy blast of air blowing straight down the mountains.
A handful of customers wandered the aisles as he picked up a quart of milk from the double-door refrigerator and made his way to the checkout. Ahead of him, a young woman soothed a baby snug in a wrap-type carrier thing with straps over her shoulders and tied around her waist, kinda like a backpack for babies except in front.
“That’ll be ten dollars, please, honey.” Molly held out her hand and peered into the wrap. “How old is the baby?”
“She’s three months old.”
“They’re adorable when they’re so young. Every day there’s something new they discover.” Molly smiled warmly.
“So true.” The young woman searched the carryall and pulled out her wallet to pay.
Her fingers hovered over a credit card before she selected cash instead. Chase shifted his feet and looked over her shoulder to see what she’d bought. A packet of Molly’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. A pint of milk and a newspaper. A bar of soap, a travel-sized pack of laundry detergent and a can of beans.
He looked at her. A long blonde braid snaked over her shoulder. He caught the scent of a pleasant perfume as she turned to look at him apologetically. About twenty-five, green eyes with a hint of attitude touched by tired. Her captivating eyes widened in surprise as they met his before her glance quickly shifted back to the goods on the counter and she moved a step or two away. Not the reaction he was used to from women, even ones with babies, which fascinated him even more.
The baby fussed, and the woman hushed it as she handed a twenty-dollar bill over to Molly.
Molly took the cash and rung it up. The cash register dinged as the drawer released and she selected the change. “You new in town, honey?”
Green Eyes rocked on the balls of her feet, eager to leave. What had he done to make her nervous? “Yeah, just arrived.”
“Well, welcome to Bigfork. Where are you staying?”
“I … I have a reservation over at the Swan Inn.” She stashed the change, dropped her wallet in the carryall and gathered the baby closer to her in the carrier. “I’ve got to go, sorry.”
He could almost taste her sudden need to get away. Skittish. As if staying in one spot too long had consequences and Molly’s questions were making her nervous. A woman alone, new in town with a small baby, clearly a little on edge. Something about her didn’t quite add up. Not when the Swan Inn was closed for renovations because of a recently burst water main. He was intrigued enough to delay her escape, his inner warning system on alert.
Chase narrowed his eyes and studied her profile. “It’s cold out there. Maybe you should add one of Molly’s famous hot chocolates to your order.”
She looked at his boots instead of his face. “Maybe another time.”
He rocked back on his heels, trying to keep it casual. “No time like now.”
Her green gaze slammed into his, the message in them clear. Back off. Regardless of her warning, he couldn’t deny the attraction that tugged at his senses. Pretty would be too tame a word to describe her alabaster skin and Nordic beauty. Stunning would be admitting his knees had lost the power to hold him up. And he had no hope of denying she stole his breath away, because it took him a couple of heartbeats to find his words.
“Cookies aren’t enough for breakfast. Why don’t you try one of Molly’s famous breakfast muffins too? My treat.”
Her chin went up, a stubborn lift that made him want to take it between his forefinger and thumb and study the lips she’d pulled into a firm line.
“Okay. Thank you.” Her nonchalant shrug contradicted the urgent tap of her foot.
Molly dropped the items into a packet and added the muffin. “Here you go, honey. Caramel and banana. My favorite.”
“Thank you.” The woman hitched the carryall up over her shoulder with one hand and patted the baby with the other. She turned the full power of her gaze and a strained smile on Chase. “And thank you.”
His gut tightened in harmony with another part of his anatomy which had no business reacting to a woman with a baby. Then she walked away, leaving him feeling like he’d been Tasered by Sheriff Hutchins, and with an itchy feeling in his gut.
“That was a very sweet thing to do, Chase Calhoun.” A smile lifted Molly’s lips, wrinkling her already wrinkled face further, her nod making the pompoms on her knitted beanie jiggle.
Heat crept up his neck to warm his cheeks. “Yeah. Well…” Something about her had him wanting to follow her out the door and ask more questions. Something that shouted fish-out-of-water.
Molly frowned as she added his quart of milk to the register and held out her hand for payment. “I thought George closed the inn?”
He counted the cash out onto her palm before answering, “Same. Maybe he kept a couple of the undamaged rooms open. I might give him a call to ask.” If the place was damp, it might not be the best place for Green Eyes and her baby to stay. His gaze strayed to the window and the view beyond it.
“Hmmm.” Molly dropped the coins into the cash register and closed the drawer.
He looked at her. “What does ‘hmmm’ mean exactly, Miss Molly?”
She looked back at him over the top of her purple-framed glasses and smiled. “I haven’t seen you look at a girl like that in a long time.”
“A man can look as long as he doesn’t touch. Touching can get a man into an awful lot of trouble. Wrap it up, sweetheart, or Dad will be cranky by the time I get back.” He leaned forward and kissed her cheek with affection.
Molly had been like a grandmother to the Calhoun tribe, keeping them all in line when they’d tested their father’s patience. And with their mom gone, they’d needed her gentle, guiding touch. A lot.
She handed him his quart of milk. “You tell him I said hello. And maybe take that girl a thermos of tea. It’ll be a while before the day warms up some.” Molly nodded at where the young woman made her way over to the grassy area near the dock. “Oh, before I forget … I thought I saw a light on over at the garage last night, when I was locking up around eleven.”
Chase frowned. Impossible. He’d checked all the lights were out and the doors locked before he’d left. And he’d activated the showroom and garage alarms. Perhaps Mason had come back to the shop after the races up at Binney Hill.
“Thanks, Molly. Where exactly?”
“Upstairs in the attic.”
Okay, now that was strange. No one went into the attic anymore. All that was up there were a ton of obsolete parts his father refused to throw away and a lifetime of sad memories that made him afraid to climb the stairs.
He shrugged. Strange things had been happening ever since Mason had come home. He’d put it all down to his brother settling back in. “Maybe it was Mason looking for something up there. You work too hard, Molly, keeping such late hours.”
Molly laughed. “What else is an old girl like me to do in this town?”
“Get some rest, go see a movie, come hang out with us at the ranch. We’d like that.” He made a note to ask his brother about his late-night monkey business, along with what had happened to his missing chicken salad sandwich. The itch that had settled in his gut shifted to between his shoulder blades. Sometimes the memories that breathed in the attic still had the power to haunt them.
Charlie cuddled Zoe closer as she walked the short distance to the dock where the river ran into Bigfork Bay. The early morning chill bit into her cheeks. She pulled the protective covering of Zoe’s carrier higher to cut out the wind and keep her warm. How much longer could they survive on borrowed chicken salad sandwiches and milk?
She’d not expected to find her father’s PI, Ed Sullivan on her tail so quickly. Or the job waiting for her in Kalispell to be gone. The delay in getting there due to her car breaking down in Minneapolis had not been part of her big plan either. The reason Ed had found her was because she’d had no choice but to use her credit card to rent a replacement.
She’d planned every step of this trip to the nth degree, each stop, each room, each gallon of gas, each dollar of her expenses, right down to care for Zoe in the hours while she worked. Their breakaway, hers and Zoe’s. The stand she’d had to take or remain under her father’s control and allow him to make the decisions about Zoe’s future. Adoption being at the top of that list.
Going back was not an option. Not while her father remained stubbornly inflexible. Not while she was determined to prove she had changed and could take care of her baby. For the sake of the most precious, life-changing gift ever.
So, despite the odds piling up against her, she’d kept moving. On to Bigfork. An unexpected stop on her agenda with a vacancy she could fill. Another dead end when she’d arrived to find the inn closed due to the damage from a burst pipe and the vacancy of receptionist no longer on the cards. Accommodation and a job washed away in whirlpool of water.
She cursed the choices that had driven Charlotte Jackson, NASCAR brat, out of Daytona Beach and into the wilds of Montana. All she’d wanted was to establish her independence before she had to face her father again. Instead the fates had turned the tables and she’d had no choice but to resort to desperate measures.
“He won’t succeed, Zoe. He won’t make us come home. I won’t let him take you away.”
She had to make this work, find a way around the curve ball fate had thrown her. Curve balls. She hadn’t expected to face another one in the man behind her at the checkout. Heat flushed through her. Kind, warm eyes that reminded her of blue summer skies, and a voice like smooth, top-shelf brandy. And then he’d treated her to a muffin, as if she hadn’t taken enough from him already.
But desperate times called for desperate measures and using her credit card again would only bring Ed Sullivan roaring into town, hot on the trail of her transactions. She shivered at the thought. As much as she hated what she’d had to do, it had seemed like the safest place to hide while she kept her dwindling cash supply in her pocket and her whereabouts a secret for as long as she could.
She’d felt the inexplicable pull of the attic above the Calhoun’s garage the moment she’d seen the reflection of the setting sun on the window. As if someone had whispered her name and taken her by the hand. She’d been drawn to the staircase at the back of the building that led up to a door. The door had been bolted shut with a lock on it, but she’d found a loose panel she could wiggle through.
She’d debated long and hard on the consequences, when her only other option would have been to sleep in the car. But that would be too cold for Zoe and it would certainly attract the attention of the local sheriff. So, she’d grasped the idea and found a warm, safe, secure place to sleep. And when it came time, she’d explain to the Calhouns why she’d made the choice she had.
She settled Zoe in for a feed, covering her with a baby blanket, and nibbled on the muffin, alternating with sips of milk as she absorbed the peace of her surroundings. The rustle of the wind in the trees, the lap of the water against the shore. Laughter off the street, whoops from the boys fishing on the dock. No shouting or arguing. No one forcing her to make decisions she didn’t want to make about adoption. Pushing the blanket back a little, she traced a finger down Zoe’s cheek, her heart full of love. How had she created a human being so beautiful? She couldn’t undo the poor choices that had brought Zoe into the world, but she could do everything in her power to secure her baby’s future and be a good mom.
Heavy footfalls rustled the fallen leaves on the grass. “We meet again.”
She looked up at the sound of Chase Calhoun’s voice. “We do.”
No longer hedged in by questions and small spaces, the unease his earlier presence had raised, eased a little. A twinge of regret pinched at her belly. She hated telling lies, even small ones that would protect her and her baby.
Long legs encased in denim, a black long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with the Calhoun Customs logo under a thick jacket, opened by one hand pushed into the pocket of his jeans. Holy hotness. Another time, another place, and she might have been interested. A time before she’d become solely responsible for another precious life. Still, Chase Calhoun was eye candy, and there was no harm in appreciating his presence.
“I’m Chase Calhoun.”
He frowned. “I guess you’re one up on me then,” he said as he held out a thermos.
“Hi, Charlie. We kinda got off on the wrong foot earlier. I brought you some herbal tea to go with that muffin as a peace offering. Molly said coffee wouldn’t be good for you when you’re … you know …” He waved a hand at where Zoe had let go of her breast, exposing her naked skin to the cold.
She tugged the blanket up to cover Zoe as she reattached. “Thank you again.”
Chase leaned down to place the thermos on the grass next to her. “You’re welcome. So, I’m guessing if you’ve only just arrived in town, you’re killing time until check-in? Do you like cars?”
The irony of his questions had her lips curving against her will. If only he knew. “I like custom-built cars. I’m a fan of your dad’s work. He’s a genius in design and graphics.” The moment she’d seen the sign above the garage, she’d recognized she was in Calhoun country and her sketching fingers had started to itch.
He laughed. “Dad would love hearing that. How about I give you a tour of the garage when you return the thermos later? It will get you out of the wind for a while.”
Excitement trickled through her bloodstream. “I’d like that, thank you.” No way would she pass up the opportunity to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of a Calhoun custom build up close rather than in magazines.
His mouth curved in a smile that almost stopped her heart. A smile filled with pride and excitement that spoke of his passion for the garage. The kind of passion she wanted to harness and capture, to release back into the artwork that came alive on their custom builds.
“I guess I’ll see you later then.” He took a few steps backward, retreating slowly.
She watched him walk away for the pure beauty of it. One hand in the pocket of his short-length jacket, the other raking through his hair, hips that moved with grace and an invitation that brought a different kind of rhythm to mind. An ass that begged for a starring role in a Levi’s commercial. Long legs that made short work of the distance as they carried him out of reach.
On the dock, the boys packed up their rods and their catch, ready to move on. Waves lapped at their feet as the wind that swirled through the bay whipped up a swell. She shivered and reached for the thermos, careful to keep it away from Zoe. Securing it between her knees, she unscrewed the top and poured the liquid into the plastic cup. Not too hot, not too cold. Perfect.
In her spot, sheltered by the trees, Charlie sipped the tea, enjoying the view and flipping through the newspaper until Zoe finished feeding. Her attention snagged on an ad for a graphics artist and her heart pounded against her ribs. Maybe the fates were smiling on her after all. In the most unexpected way. A design artist at Calhoun Customs was her dream come true. And she’d embrace the opportunity she’d been given with both hands.
Warm, content, energized, she cleared her impromptu picnic, threw the wrappers and carton in the nearby trash can, then dropped the thermos into her carryall. She tucked the blanket around Zoe’s wrap carrier to ward off the chill of the walk ahead and tried to suppress the excitement of seeing Chase again in the comfort of his own environment. Chase Calhoun was a nice guy and, if she was successful in gaining an interview, her prospective employer. That was all he could be to her.
Expectation fired her imagination as she walked the short distance up the main street to Calhoun Customs Garage. She peered in through the big windows. Up front, examples of their work took pride of place. A Studebaker restored to its original state—polished chrome and baby-blue paint, whitewall tires and cereal bowl hubcaps. A ’66 Mustang in cherry red with black stripes and a mean air scoop on the hood, flares on the rear, and chrome wheels no one would dare let loose on a racetrack for fear of damage. A Pontiac Trans Am with artwork all over it that made her heart thump with excitement. This was where she wanted to be. With people who had a passion for the car not the race, for the power and beauty not the win.
She looked left toward a shadowy corner in the back where a project stood hidden under cover with no hint of what might be underneath. To the right, a low wall ran the length of the showroom, topped by windows that showcased the garage where the restorations took place.
Behind the glass, Chase leaned on the fender of a ’57 Chevy, deep in conversation with Marty Calhoun, track legend and the artist she’d always dreamed of meeting. The Calhouns had a vision her father would never have. Custom design, an art her father considered a hobby not a career, but something the Calhouns took seriously.
Charlie opened the door and entered the showroom. The faint scent of polish and leather teased her senses. She moved to the Trans Am and ran her hand over the smooth surface of the artwork. Not a decal anywhere. Only art, airbrushed directly on the body with a steady hand, the way she wanted to do it. She sensed Chase rather than saw him as his shadow crossed the hood under the spotlights. He filled the space beside her.
“How was the tea?”
She smiled. “Perfect, thank you. Is this your dad’s work?”
Pride lit his features before it was chased by sadness. “Yeah. He struggles to keep a steady hand these days. He’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. We’ve had to advertise for an artist to take over the work.”
“That’s so sad.” She couldn’t imagine a world without his designs. It would be the end of an era in custom cars.
“He wants to find someone he can mentor in the way we do things to prepare for a time when he can’t do it anymore. Dad’s a tough guy. He’ll keep doing it until he finds the right person to take over.” He nodded toward the garage. “Come on in and meet him. He’s expecting you.”
Chase stepped back for her to precede him, guiding her with a light hand on her elbow. She liked the gentleness of his touch, the comfort and reassurance in it, the pleasant tingle of goose bumps it created on her skin. She stepped into the garage with its sealed floors and walls lined with tool drawers and equipment. Excitement rippled through her again. Back home, she’d been allocated to a desk, designing team merchandise or collating images for advertising and articles in their team magazine.
This was the real thing. This was the hands-on stuff she’d dreamed of doing. She stepped toward the Chevy and her fingers itched for sketch pad and pencils to create a design for the hood and the sides. Maybe even one for the tailgate.
Marty Calhoun straightened as she approached. “You must be Charlie.”
She held out her hand. “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Calhoun.”
“Call me Marty.” He shook her hand with only the slightest tremble to his fingers. “So, what do you think about the place?”
“It’s everything I expected it to be and more.”
“Well, that’s a good thing, right? And who is this?” He nodded toward the bundle under the blanket.
“This is Zoe, my little girl.” Pride touched her voice as she peeled back the blanket. Zoe slept peacefully snuggled inside the carrier.
“Been a long time since my kids were that small.” Marty smiled. “What brings you to Bigfork in the fall? Most folks prefer to hang out here in the summertime when the water’s warmer and the fish are biting.”
“I had a job lined up in Kalispell, but it fell through. So, I kept going and found Bigfork.”
And if the Calhouns were looking for a graphic design artist, this could be her and Zoe’s new hometown, their new life. Her lucky break. The perfect job, except it would be in the enemy’s camp. That wouldn’t go down well with her father. Could she afford the risk? Not let an old feud stop her from grasping this opportunity when she needed it so badly? Yes, she could. Wasn’t that what finding her independence was all about? Standing up for what she believed in rather than allowing her father to make her decisions for her?
“You’re not from around here, are you? Do I detect an East Coast inflection?” Marty’s question stilled her thoughts.
Charlie wrinkled her nose. “Florida, mostly, but my family traveled a lot.”
“Brave move coming all the way over from Florida with a baby to start a new job.”
Her father would call it rebellious. Her mother would say it was stupid and irresponsible. She’d prove them wrong. “It’s time I made a life for Zoe and me outside the family circle.”
“Hmm…” Marty studied her carefully. “You look kinda familiar. Do I know your family?”
Her breath hitched in her throat. With her black and pink hair dye and heavy makeup long gone, she looked a lot like her mom, who was easily recognizable through her charity work and society page appearances. If the Calhouns knew who she was, would they still be prepared to consider her for the artist’s job? Would they give a job to the daughter of a man who hated them and everything their success stood for? Doubt edged into her thoughts, making her take a step back as she tried to think of an answer.
Chase stepped in with a touch to her shoulder. “Dad knows so many people, he sees someone he recognizes in everyone.” He offered her a smile that did little to settle the thoughts chasing each other through her mind. “The Chevy Dad’s working on belongs to my brother, Carter. He has a few running around the ranch he wants restored and painted. Why don’t I show you the rest of the setup? We recently installed a spray booth with a high-tech extraction system to minimize fumes during spraying and airbrushing.”
She followed Chase to the rear of the garage where the booth stood empty and silent, the double doors closed and the lights off. Could she do this? The airbrushing she’d done had been in less sophisticated places than this. Backyard painting projects done in secret, in the company of people her parents would turn their noses up at. Artwork they snubbed as little more than somewhat stylish graffiti.
“It’s fully automated, so it’s a case of simply selecting the program you want. Makes things a lot easier when we’re doing undercoats and topcoats on whole bodies. Shaves off a lot of the waiting time.”
Chase’s words eased the doubt. She could learn to work with new technology. For Zoe. For herself. She had to take one last rebellious stand. There’d be too much to lose if she didn’t. “I saw your advertisement in the paper for a graphics artist. Airbrush art is something I’ve always loved to do, but it’s been more of a hobby than a career because there was no scope for it in the job I did back in Florida.”
Interest fired in his eyes. “Have you worked on custom designs before? You said you were a fan.”
“I did airbrushing privately, but it was backyard art for a small clientele. I’d be happy to show you some of my work?” Her heart beat a nervous tattoo in her chest.
“I’d like to see it and I’m sure Dad would too. How about you drop by with it tomorrow? I’d say we do it this afternoon, but we’ve got a big reveal scheduled for today.”
His smile widened with encouragement and fresh hope bloomed in her chest. For once, the skills she’d learned as a rebellious teenager could be used to get her out of trouble instead of into it. “I’d like that. Tomorrow morning it is.”
“It’s a date.” He held out his hand to shake on it, his fingers closing around hers as she placed her palm against his.
She ignored the lurch of excitement in her belly that came from more than the promise of an official interview. “Thank you for giving me a chance.”
“You’re welcome. So, have you checked in at the Swan Inn yet?”
Charlie stiffened. How to answer that one? She’d prefer him not to know quite yet that she’d arrived in town last night and had to take refuge in the attic above his garage. “Er … no, not yet.” Evading the question wasn’t lying, right? Guilt niggled at her again. She hated having to do what she’d done, but she’d had little choice.
“Well, then you probably don’t know that the inn is inhabitable due to a burst water main.”
Oh, she knew all right. That was what had put her in this pickle and thrown a huge sledgehammer on her well-laid-out plans. She’d make it up to them. She had to. “Oh.”
“There is another inn about ten miles out of town.”
“Thank you, I’ll look it up.”
“And make sure George gives you a refund if you’ve paid the deposit on the room.”
“Okay, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow with my portfolio.” Tomorrow, she’d confess to seeking refuge in their attic, explain the circumstances that had put her there. With a job secured, she could afford to pay out cash for a room somewhere and stay card-untraceable until she had her feet back under her. Tomorrow her future would begin.
End of Excerpt