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Chet Hardwick gazed dubiously at the exterior of the Bramble House B & B. The yard was unkempt, with an overgrown lawn, shaggy shrubbery and flower beds taken over by weeds. The house itself, a three-story brick Victorian, was in good shape though. It looked like the sort of place that would have bouquets of wildflowers in every room, tea and cookies in the parlor, and expensive chocolates on the plumped-up pillows at night. It was probably run by an older couple who would ask too many questions, or worse, talk incessantly about their grandchildren. The breakfast would be a sit-down affair forcing him to mingle with a bunch of strangers before his first cup of coffee, and to eat with his elbows off the table.
Stay at the Bramble House B & B? He’d rather sleep in the barn with his horses, thank you very much.
Unfortunately, his old rodeo friends Sage Carrigan and her husband Dawson O’Dell who had suggested Chet compete in the rodeo in Marietta, Montana, this year and had offered to put him up in their spare bedroom, had received an unexpected visit from Dawson’s mother and her current husband. End result was that while Chet’s horses were still welcome at Sage’s sister’s Circle C ranch there was no room for Chet. Instead, Sage had made reservations for him here. At the Bramble House B & B. Which supposedly was one of the top-rated places in town.
Which was probably why it was hate at first sight for him.
Chet did not stay at top-rated places. Mostly he camped or if the weather was especially miserable he might splurge on a budget motel. For Chet, comfort was a state of mind, not a pricey mattress with a fluffy duvet that was too white for him to put his feet on.
But Sage had prepaid here through to Sunday, so he’d need to get her money back before he moved someplace more to his liking. Reluctantly he set out on the path that cut through the overgrown lawn to the front porch. In his opinion a good porch needed a rocking chair and a table where you could rest your coffee mug when you weren’t drinking from it. The chair did not need a cushion—simple was best.
But this porch was not simple. It had more furniture than most living rooms he’d seen—and all the chairs were cushioned. There were baskets and tubs full of flowers and even a small water fountain in one corner. It would have made a perfect magazine cover except that the flowers had wilted in the hot afternoon air.
The front door was ajar—perhaps because of the beautiful weather—and as he opened it wide before stepping inside, a musical chime sounded. From the hallway beyond the foyer he heard a woman swear.
“Damn! Ouch! Damn!”
He almost grinned. That was a welcome that made him feel right at home. “Hello to you too.”
“Sorry about that. You caught me…at a bad moment.” A twenty-something woman was on the top rung of a stepladder, with a light bulb in hand. A broken light bulb, he saw, as he stepped closer. Blood dripped from one of her fingers.
“I can come back another time.” But even as he said this, he was moving toward the ladder and reaching out to steady it.
“No, no, that’s fine. Hang on.” She descended awkwardly, using just one hand, the other still holding the ill-fated bulb. “The old one burnt out, but now I’ve broken the new one and it was the last in the package.”
She made this sound like a tragedy of the highest order.
Dramatic, he decided. Also, cute, with long, messy, curly blonde hair and round intense blue eyes, which looked worried at the moment.
He grabbed the wastebasket from behind the desk—which was tucked into an alcove created by the grand staircase—and gestured for her to drop the broken bulb inside. Then he handed her a clean handkerchief. “You’re bleeding. Use this.”
She blanched at the sight of her own blood and quickly covered the cut with the square of cotton.
“I thought handkerchiefs were extinct. As well as the type of man who would carry one.”
“You can thank my grandmother. She had a thing against tissues.” His grandmother, the one person he had loved with all his heart, the one person who had felt the same about him, had died when he was eight, but not before instilling in him her strong views on many topics, not just handkerchiefs. Views about good manners and honesty and looking before you leapt. The last came in particularly handy when you made your living as a rodeo cowboy.
On the afternoon of his grandmother’s funeral, while the adults were eating and drinking and being boring in her living room, Chet had found a stash of her handkerchiefs in her night side table. He’d stuffed them into his pockets. Hidden them from his father. Carried them with him as they traveled from town to town, rodeo to rodeo, motel room to motel room. The cotton squares smelled like his grandmother and he buried his face in them at night to help him fall asleep.
Lilies. They had smelled like lilies.
“Step outside where the light is better so I can get a look at your hand.”
She stood rooted in place, looking at him like he’d suggested the two of them go rob a bank.
“There could be bits of glass in your finger.”
“That’s fine. I can take care of it later.” She gave him a closer look. “You must be the rodeo cowboy Sage Carrigan reserved a room for. Chet Hardwick.”
“What gave me away?” He glanced down at his western shirt, jeans and favorite boots.
“Not exactly a mental leap, was it? I’m Amy Arden, the new owner of Bramble House. Let me sign you in and show you to your room.”
As she moved toward the desk, he noticed she had a slight limp. He also caught a whiff of her perfume. Something sweet and exotic. He wanted to move closer, instead he took a step back.
“Owner? Aren’t you a little young?” In his mind he was paying her a compliment, but she seemed affronted.
“I’ve got an undergrad degree in finance from Cornell and a master’s from Harvard. I suppose I’m qualified to run a small-town bed-and-breakfast.”
It took a few moments to absorb her impressive credentials. “Overqualified, some would say.”
She glanced back at her finger. “And yet it seems I can’t change a simple light bulb.”
“You might need a PhD for that. Or…you could just ask a cowboy.”
“But that was the last bulb,” she reminded him. “I’ll have to order more on Amazon.”
“You could just head over to the local hardware store. Take fifteen minutes tops.”
City girl, he figured. “New York?” he guessed.
“Born and raised.”
“So…what brings you to Montana?”
“Good question,” he was sure he heard her mutter, before she said with what he felt sure was fake cheerfulness, “Fresh air and wide-open spaces.”
“Right.” There had to be more to her story. Not that it mattered to him. “Look, I’m sure you’re busy so—”
“Busy, that’s an understatement. I’m supposed to be in the kitchen baking cookies by now. And making a fresh pot of coffee. But I had three rooms to clean and prepare for guests this morning and it put me behind.”
The place was so quiet. She seemed to be the only one here. “Don’t you have staff?”
“There was staff when I bought the place. But…” Out came her fake-cheerful voice again: “I’m doing it all now. Gardens, laundry, cleaning and baking.” She emphasized the latter item, as if it was the baking that really had pushed her over the edge. “As well as bookings, paperwork, and regular maintenance.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Damn right.” She bit her lip. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be swearing in front of a guest. Or complaining. It’s just, I’m used to being competent at my job. More than competent, actually.” She sighed. “Do you mind signing the guest register?” She held up her injured right hand. “I don’t want to get any blood on it. Sage asked me to reserve the Blue room for you. It has the best view of Copper Mountain.”
With her left hand she’d grabbed a key from one of the desk drawers. She glanced down at the register book, which he still hadn’t signed. “Is there a problem?”
“I came in here to cancel the reservation. Sage meant well and all, but I’m not a bed-and-breakfast kind of guy.”
“Not a bed-and-breakfast kind of guy,” she said softly. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He took another backward step. “No offence. I just—”
“I may be new at the job, but the beds are clean and comfortable and the breakfast is hearty enough for the largest appetite.”
“I usually just have coffee in the morning. And I’m sure your beds are great, but my tastes are simple. I’d be happier in a barn than a bed-and-breakfast.”
“A barn.” She looked at him as if he was nuts. “Not a fan of indoor plumbing?”
“A lot of barns have that.”
“For the animals?”
“For the people who look after them. Look, if you’d just refund Sage’s money… I assume she paid by credit card?”
Amy crossed her arms over her chest, his grandmother’s handkerchief still wound around her index finger. “I’m sorry, but if you check our website, you’ll see there are no refunds within forty-eight hours of your stay. This past week I turned down several reservation requests for your room. Sage told me you’d be staying through to the end of rodeo weekend. Have your plans changed?”
He was floored by the forty-eight-hour policy. Was that a thing? He wasn’t the kind of guy who booked hotel rooms—or restaurants for that matter. He took what was available or he moved on.
He became aware that Amy Arden was now anxiously working a silver bracelet up and down her arm like a horse fighting a bit. Sounded like she was having some adjustment issues with her new business, and he didn’t want to add to her problems. But he hated feeling cornered into doing something that made him uncomfortable.
“Yeah, I’m here for the rodeo. Which is exactly my point. When I’m competing I need to focus. I can’t be making chitchat with strangers around the breakfast table. I need to be taking care of my horses, not munching cookies and tea in some fancy parlor.”
Amy stared at him for several moments. Then she went to the drawer and exchanged one key for another. “How about this. I’ve got a room over the garage. It’s in the process of being repainted—the guys I hired suddenly got a bigger project and left with the job half-done—but if you don’t mind a little mess, you can stay there. It’s got a separate entrance so you won’t run into any of the other guests. I’ll bring you up a thermos of coffee and some muffins in the morning and leave them outside your door. You won’t even have to deal with me.”
He’d still rather be someplace cheap and simple. But it was nice of her to try and accommodate him. “Add a little straw and a water trough and you’ve got a deal.”
She stared at him.
“That was a joke.”
“It better be. We have a strict no straw policy at Bramble House.”
Amy had never met anyone like Chet Hardwick. Since moving to Marietta she’d grown accustomed to seeing men and women dressed western from their hats to their boots. But none had worn the garb like it was their second skin, and none of the men had made her feel like she was looking at a young Clint Eastwood—only not an actor, the real deal.
Everything about Chet felt real. Authentic. The man did not bend to accommodate others. Being around him made her miss her old self, the one who had blazed through life fearlessly, whether she was running a marathon or closing a business deal or out on a date with a handsome guy.
It had been more than a year now since she’d felt that confidence and she missed it.
“Come with me and I’ll show you the room.”
She didn’t look, but she could hear his cowboy boots on the wood floor, so she knew he was following her as she went outside. She paused for a moment on the porch. The flowers needed watering. The lawn mowing.
At least the view was still stunning. It had been three weeks and she still couldn’t get over the piercing blue of the sky. On the other side of the street, the pristine Marietta River flowed and beyond that were the majestic Absaroka mountains.
“Quite the setting,” Chet said.
“It is. A big change from the brick wall our New York apartment looked out on.” In the evening when she stole a moment to sit out here and enjoy the setting sun, Amy could almost convince herself that moving here hadn’t been a mistake.
She took the stairs carefully. She was still getting used to the way her legs worked post-surgery and didn’t want to risk a fall. On the path to the garage, Chet asked her to wait a minute.
“Let me see your finger.”
She hesitated. She could tell by the throbbing pain that there was still some glass in there. But Chet was a guest and she could deal with it on her own. “It’s fine.”
“I may not look like it, but I’ve got a delicate touch. Fished many a thorn from a good dog’s paw. Not one of them complained.”
“You have a dog?” He hadn’t mentioned a pet at check-in, but it wouldn’t be a problem.
“Been around dogs all my life, but never had one of my own.” Before she could protest again, he unwrapped the cloth from her finger. “Yup. There’s a piece of glass in here all right.”
Her mother’s silver bracelet slid down her arm as he raised her finger toward the sunlight. Amy didn’t have the stomach to look at her bleeding finger. So she focused on Chet’s eyes instead. Unlike Clint Eastwood, Chet’s eyes were brown, like melting milk chocolate. For a hard man, he sure had soft eyes. And an even softer touch. She didn’t feel a thing as he removed the shard of glass, except relief from the pain.
“Thank you.” As she brought her wounded hand in close to her heart, the sunlight caught the silver of her bracelet, sending a shaft of light to her eyes and reminding her to step back. “The room,” she said, more to orient herself than anything else.
He followed her up the stairs and she unlocked the door, hoping the painters hadn’t left a big mess. She hadn’t been up here since they’d informed her they couldn’t finish the job—about the same time Jo, Ella and Robert had walked out on her.
Their dramatic resignations had come at the end of her first orientation meeting. All she’d done was suggest a few minor décor and menu changes, and they’d bolted like rats off a sinking ship. Except Bramble House wasn’t sinking.
At least not yet.
She pushed open the door and was instantly relieved. The painters had left their supplies on a tarp in one corner of the space and the baseboards were outlined with green tape, but other than that, the room was tidy. Yes, half of the walls were a calming taupe while the others were still fern green, but surely Chet wouldn’t care about that.
“This is fine,” he said. “I’ll settle in later. First I need to drive out to the Circle C and take care of my horses.”
“How many do you travel with?”
“Just two. Bourbon and Hunter. Beautiful quarter horses, both of them.”
She couldn’t imagine a life where you traveled with two horses. “Where do you live? When you’re not on the road?”
“I’m almost always on the road. But in the winter I work at a ranch in Boulder.”
“Is that where your family is, then?”
“No family.” His mouth hardened. “At least none worth speaking about.”
Me either, she thought sadly. Like her bum leg, that was another thing she was having a difficult time getting used to.
End of Excerpt