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“The cherry blossom countdown has officially begun!” With a flourish, Brianna Renton posted a photo of cherry blossom buds to the tourist website for Sweetheart, Montana. As the new tourism director, she was initiating the first annual cherry blossom festival.
“Stage one is a round green bud,” Sarah, her assistant, read over her shoulder. “Over the next three weeks or so, the florets emerge, the stems elongate, and by stage six, the blossoms are full blown with white petals.”
“We’ll take weekly photos as the blossoms emerge and invite the townsfolk to post their own photos,” Brianna said. “If the weather’s good and all the stars align, the orchards will be at peak bloom just in time for the festival in three weeks.”
“Awesome.” Sarah’s shiny mahogany-dark hair swung around her shoulders as she straightened. “I’ve been looking at websites of Japanese cherry blossom festivals. Their cherries are ornamental, not like our eating cherries, but we could get some ideas from them.”
“Show me.” Brianna followed Sarah to her computer. There, she flipped through page after page of flowering cherry blossom orchards. “It’s a massive event over there. Even small towns not much bigger than Sweetheart get thousands of visitors every year.”
“The town hosting this website could be our sister city.” Sarah was half-joking.
“That’s a terrific idea,” Brianna said, seizing on it. “I’ll write to their mayor and suggest it. While I do that, can you post a photo of their blossoms on our blog? In return, I’ll send them a link to our site. Nothing may come of it, but it’ll be fun.”
“This cherry blossom festival is going to be epic.” Sarah began to add the Japanese photos to their blog. “How’s the new community hall going, by the way? Will it be built in time for the festival?”
“It’s well underway,” Brianna assured her, as she began to compose an email to the Japanese mayor. “The foundations have been poured and the factory crew are cutting and notching the logs as we speak. It’s not a large building and is pretty basic. Plus, it’s prefabricated so, once building starts, it should go up quickly.”
“We’ve only got three weeks,” Sarah said—as if Brianna needed reminding. “The awards ceremony is being held there and the dance.”
“Sweetheart Log Homes always comes in on time and under budget,” Brianna said, quoting her father’s company slogan. Not that budget was an issue since they were building the hall for the town for free. “I just hope the cherry blossoms are as reliable.”
Despite her optimistic words, Brianna was actually a tad worried about the tight schedule. She badly wanted the festival to succeed and to make her mark in her new job. But her father’s business had expanded in recent years and their time was currently taken up by a large ranch construction project. If the hall wasn’t finished on time it would be a major embarrassment after she’d talked the town council into having the festival in the first place, and then urged them to hold it in the as-yet-unbuilt hall.
After sending the email, Brianna rose from her computer, stretched out the kinks in her shoulders, and then gathered her blonde curls into a messy knot on the top of her head. She wandered out of the office she shared with Sarah and into the public information center, nodding to the volunteer on the desk who looked up and smiled before going back to her computer.
The tourist center occupied one half of the lower floor of a Queen Anne residence renovated for commercial use. Racks of glossy brochures of local attractions and activities stood in orderly rows, maps of the town and the surrounding area were affixed to free-standing dividers, and the walls were adorned with posters of Flathead Lake, cherry orchards, and the many heritage buildings in the quaint small town.
“Do you think we could fit a display of cherry products in here?” she said to Sarah, who had followed her out. “It would be good to promote local producers.”
“Sure, I’ll move some racks.” Sarah straightened a pile of pamphlets that had slipped sideways. “By the way,” she added, in an overly casual tone that Brianna recognized instantly. “My cousin Dave is in town for the weekend. Do you feel like meeting us at the tavern tonight?”
“Thanks, but I can’t,” Brianna said, equally casually. This wasn’t the first time Sarah had tried to fix her up with someone. Brianna dated occasionally but mostly she tactfully declined invitations.
“Have you already got a date?” Sarah looked both surprised and hopeful.
“No, I have to contact the stall holders for the festival and confirm who is coming.”
“It’s Friday night,” Sarah protested. “I can help you with that on Monday.”
“The artisans and producers work during the day so it’s best done in the evening,” Brianna said. “I don’t mind. I know most of them so we have a chat.”
Turning to the plate-glass window, she gazed across Finley Road, a busy thoroughfare that ran between the town and Flathead Lake. On the shores of the lake, Finley Park stretched from the public pier at the north end to the building site for the community hall at the south end. In between, were wide green lawns dotted by picnic tables beneath shady trees and a central gazebo. The lawns sloped down to a sandy beach. It was too cold for swimming but the spring sunshine had coaxed a group of moms and their small children out to play.
Brianna’s gaze drifted to the pier where small boats could be rented for fishing. Seeing them always made her think of Angus, who had been a keen fisherman. He often used to go out at dawn or dusk with a thermos of coffee or a few cold beers. Did he miss those peaceful times on the lake? Or was the fishing better in California?
“How long are you going to pine over Angus?” Sarah came up beside her and touched her shoulder. “You always look at the boats when you think of him.”
If she did, it wouldn’t be surprising. Angus had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember—her playmate as a kid growing up in Sweetheart and her unrequited crush as a teenager. After high school, she’d gone away to college, and then worked in other states and traveled. In her late twenties, she’d come home and found Angus had a job in her father’s factory. She’d been thrilled when they’d started dating and things seemed to be getting serious. But less than a year later, he’d won a scholarship to a prestigious college in California to study architecture. She’d urged him to go—how could she hold him back?—and broken off their relationship to set him free. Now, five years on, her dreams of making a life with Angus were buried deep in a recess of her heart that she kept locked at all times.
“I’m worried about you,” Sarah added. “All work and no play isn’t good for anyone.”
“I love my work,” Brianna insisted, turning away from the window. “I enjoy being busy. I have way too much to do to pine over Angus. Just to ease our minds, I’ll check with Blake about the community hall.”
She fished her phone from the pocket of her dress and punched in the number of her father’s partner. It rang a few times and went to voicemail. “Hey, Blake, it’s me,” she said, leaving a message. “What’s the word on the hall? No pressure or anything.”
Then she glanced at the time and was startled to see it was nearly six p.m. “It’s past quitting time,” she said to Sarah. “Don’t you have to be somewhere?”
“Oh, my goodness, you’re right. I’ve got to pick up Jeffy from Mom’s place and the sitter is coming at six thirty. I’m out of here.” Sarah went back to their office for her purse and jacket and then headed for the exit. “See you in the morning for a run?”
“You bet,” Brianna said.
The volunteer was leaving, too. Brianna locked up and went out through the small lobby and across to her favorite vintage clothing boutique which occupied the other half of the ground floor.
Kylie, the owner, was also closing for the day. “Hey, Brianna. I got a new consignment of clothes. I’m still unpacking but stop in next week and have a look.”
“I’ll do that.” She asked after Kylie’s elderly father, and the pair chatted for a few minutes before parting. “Have a good weekend.”
Brianna crossed at the traffic light at the corner of Swan Street and Finley Road and walked through the park to where she’d parked her car. The moms and kids had gone but couples were strolling hand in hand, and out on the lake, a windsurfer skimmed the rippling surface. As she walked, she unzipped her puffer jacket halfway, feeling the unseasonably warm weather. With cherry blossom season fast approaching, spring was in the air.
Over at the pier, a rental boat had just returned to the dock. A man slipped the painter over a bollard and jumped out of the boat and onto the wharf. The sun was behind him, so she could only see his outline, but something about the way he moved reminded her of Angus. She shook her head. No, it was the power of suggestion. She only thought she saw a resemblance because she and Sarah had been talking about him earlier.
Her phone rang. It was Blake, calling back. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said.
“Give me the bad first.”
“It comes in two parts,” Blake said. “I have to stay onsite at the ranch build for a few weeks. Would you be able to take over project managing the community hall?”
“Sure, I guess so,” she said, even though it meant adding to her already substantial workload with the festival. “You’ve got everything organized. I just need to tick boxes, right?”
“Sort of. The second part of the bad news is that the foreman of the construction team for the hall has to go into the hospital for a procedure. It’s not serious but he’ll be off sick for a couple of weeks.”
“Oh, no.” Brianna shut her eyes briefly, and then rallied. “The good news?”
“I might have found someone else to take over as foreman.”
“Who is he, or she?” she asked. “Is this person qualified? There’s a lot at stake.”
“If anything, he’s overqualified. He’s an architect but he also has hands-on experience in all facets of log home construction.” Blake hesitated. “As a matter of fact, he used to work for us.”
Brianna’s stomach did a funny flip-flop. It couldn’t be, surely. “Who is he?”
Blake was silent.
“Just tell me.” Her gaze flicked to the man who had returned the boat. He was no longer on the wharf but weaving through the parking lot, opening the door of a white SUV. He was too far away to identify for certain, but she knew that loose-limbed, athletic walk.
“It’s not…” She swallowed. “Is it Angus?”
“Yeah,” Blake said. “He graduated last year, top of his class. Did you know that?”
“Uh, no, I didn’t.”
“Nothing’s set in stone but your dad is going to talk to him about it,” Blake went on. “Would you be okay with us hiring him? If you take on project managing the hall you’ll have to work closely with him.”
“I… I don’t know.” She could hardly think. “Is he, has he moved back here?”
“He’s only in town for three weeks, to visit his mother before he starts a new job in Sacramento,” Blake said. “The timing couldn’t be better from our point of view.”
“And he’s willing to work on his vacation?”
“That we don’t know yet. I’m sounding you out.”
“I’ll have to think about it and call you later.”
“Talk directly to your dad,” Blake said. “I won’t be around much now that the ranch house project is starting.”
Brianna hung up, not knowing what she felt. Five years ago Angus had left with barely a backward glance. Now he was home, and he hadn’t even called her. Well, she had broken up with him, after all.
Could she work with him? It wouldn’t be easy but she had a responsibility on several levels to get the job done. If Angus was the only person available who could get the community hall built on time for the festival, did she even have a choice?
End of Excerpt