If Elena Kingsley was a first grader instead of a first-grade teacher, being stranded on the side of the road would be the beginning of a grand summer adventure instead of a grand annoyance.
White smoke escaped from beneath the hood of the rental car, but calling for a tow was out of the question. She cursed her stupidity for leaving her phone charger plugged into an outlet at the Denver airport. If she hadn’t been determined to master Math Bumpies to impress next year’s students, she wouldn’t have drained the battery on her iPhone playing the game during the flight from Denver to Bozeman.
She shielded her eyes from the late-afternoon sun and stared down the highway—a strip of asphalt bordered on both sides by grassland. It wouldn’t be smart to be caught alone in the boonies after dark. Rural Montana was a far cry from her hometown of Las Vegas, and this city girl had seen her share of scary movies—there was no happy ever after for the woman who hitched a ride with a friendly rural psycho. Besides, after teaching a unit on stranger danger, how could she look a first grader in the eye if she accepted a lift from a person she’d never met?
You don’t have to tell them.
Until researchers discovered why seven-year-olds had trouble recalling 2 + 2 but no problem guessing when teachers fibbed, Elena was smart to follow the stranger-danger rule:
Don’t go with someone you don’t know.
According to the road sign she’d passed before the car had died, the Marietta, Montana fairground was less than five miles away. She’d just have to hoof it. After removing her suitcase on wheels from the trunk, she locked the vehicle, dropped the keys into her purse, and then began walking.
A dose of clean country air would clear the fog that had shrouded her brain since she’d broken off her engagement to Brad Wertheimer three months ago. A stupid argument over dress socks had morphed into him confessing that he’d been having an affair with a married coworker.
Brad’s betrayal had hurt Elena deeply. How could she have been so wrong about someone who had seemed so right? He’d been the first man she’d had a relationship with who, like her, hadn’t wanted children.
Her ex-fiancé wasn’t the only person who’d disappointed Elena. She was also miffed at her mother for guarding a family secret she had no right to keep. Elena planned to use her mini-vacation in Marietta to discover if the great-grandfather her mother neglected to tell her about was, in fact, the sourpuss she made him out to be.
If not for the unopened letters Elena discovered hidden in a dresser, she’d never have known the old man was alive. Even though her mom insisted she had good reason to keep them apart, Elena was angry she’d grown up believing she had no other family.
She had traveled less than a hundred yards when a vehicle crested the hill in the distance. She scurried into the gully alongside the road and ducked into the tall grass, then crossed her fingers and prayed the driver wouldn’t stop. After the car whizzed by, she waited an extra minute before checking to make sure the coast was clear. As she climbed out of the ravine, the heel of her sandal sank into the soft dirt. Her foot popped free and landed on a prickly weed. “Ouch!”
She’d wanted to look nice today in case she ran into her great-grandfather, but circumstances had changed. Hiking five miles in strappy sandals and a long skirt was stupid, especially if she had to run from an attacker. She unzipped the suitcase, then removed a pair of running shorts and a pink tank top she’d packed in case she had an opportunity to hike nearby Copper Mountain.
Elena slipped out of her peasant skirt but as she removed her blouse, a gust of wind tore the material from her grasp. She’d paid forty dollars for the shirt and darned if she’d surrender it to a cow pasture. Clad only in her matching black bikini panties and lace bra, she ran onto the road and snatched the garment off the pavement—then froze when a pickup appeared on the horizon. The voices of first graders screaming run sounded off in her brain, and she raced back to the ditch and dove out of sight.
The rumble of an engine reached her ears before fading to a gentle purr. Without looking, she couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like the driver stopped on the road. After the longest ten seconds of her life, the engine roared and the vehicle sped off.
Heart pounding, Elena stuffed the skirt and blouse into her luggage, then slipped into the shorts and tank top before sliding her bare feet into her running shoes. She dragged her suitcase up to the road and walked at a fast clip. Five miles was a bit of a hike, but at least she was in Montana and not Las Vegas. Early June temps in Vegas were already stifling compared to the Treasure State’s daytime highs in the low seventies.
Despite her predicament, the breathtaking beauty of the area wasn’t lost on Elena. The serene glow of the purple mountain peaks in the distance was at odds with the glittery brightness that lit up the Las Vegas strip at night. Miles of land enclosed by barbed wire went on for as far as the eye could see. A constant breeze stirred the dust on the pavement, but not enough to mask the fresh smell of pure sunshine and clean mountain air.
By the time she reached the fairground, dusk had descended. She’d booked a room at the Bramble House Bed & Breakfast on Bramble Lane because her grandfather lived on the same street, but she had no idea how to get there. When she reached the train tracks at the edge of town, she turned at the railroad crossing and walked behind the Graff Hotel. At the train depot, she took a side street and stopped at the corner of Third and Main. The Dalton Law Office was to her right, and the Big Sky Credit Union was to her left. Both businesses were closed. Farther up the block, a group of young women dressed for a night on the town entered a shop that apparently remained open on Saturday night. She’d ask one of those women for directions to Bramble Lane.
As she drew closer to the store, she detected a hint of chocolate in the air, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten anything since the bag of chips she’d purchased from the vending machine at the rental-car agency in Bozeman.
She paused in front of Copper Mountain Chocolate and studied the fancy confections in the display window. Should she bring a gift when she showed up unannounced on her grandfather’s doorstep? A box of pink Himalayan-salted chocolate caramels might ease his shock.
A bell jingled when the door next to her opened, and a masculine voice asked, “Going in?”
Eyes as dark as the chocolate candies on display in the window peeked at her from beneath a black cowboy hat. His heavy-lidded gaze conjured up images of moonlit walks and romantic dinners. His blue western shirt was tucked into a pair of freshly pressed jeans, which sported a belt buckle the size of a drink coaster. The cowboy’s chest moved, drawing her attention to his broad shoulders. Elena was small in stature, and this man stood an inch over six feet. There weren’t any men like this in Vegas. A chuckle escaped his mouth, and he flashed his pearly whites.
Good grief, he’d caught her gawking like a first grader. She couldn’t remember what he’d asked. “I’m sorry?”
“Are you going inside?”
She nodded. “Thank you.” Towing her suitcase behind her, she stepped past him, catching the scent of sandalwood and musk. Hopefully, the heavenly smell of chocolate would mask the outdoor freshness clinging to her after her trek into town.
The shop was crowded with pretty young women and handsome men who appeared to be in their twenties. A row of numbered tables for two covered in white cloths took up most of the space in the store. Notecards, pens, and a plate of chocolate treats sat on each table—someone had booked the business for a party. Before Elena had a chance to ask for directions, a woman in dark jeans and a cobalt-blue shirt covered by a reddish-gold apron emerged from behind the candy counter.
“Wesley, you made it!” The brunette weaved through the crowd, but stopped short when she noticed Elena. “Hi, I’m Rosie.” Her gaze dropped to the luggage. “I didn’t know we had someone coming to the speed dating event from out of town.”
Speed dating? “Oh, no, I—”
Rosie grabbed the suitcase handle and rolled it into a corner. “We’re running behind schedule. Otherwise, I’d give you time to freshen up,” she said. “But don’t worry, you still look great.” Rosie peered behind Elena. “Right, Wesley?”
The cowboy who’d held the door for her kept a straight face, but his eyes twinkled. “Yes, ma’am. You look great.”
Elena’s long hair was a snarled mess. She was sweaty, dusty, and dressed like she’d come from the gym—she did not look great.
Rosie took her arm. “What’s your name?”
“Since you already know each other…” Rosie handed Elena and Wesley a sticker with a number one on it. “Sit together at the first table.”
Rosie leaned over and whispered in Elena’s ear. “You can pay the twenty-five-dollar fee later.” She turned to the man named Wesley. “I put aside a box of chocolate-covered nut clusters for your boss. Don’t forget to take it when you leave.” Rosie went off to hand out numbered stickers to the remaining daters. When she finished, she clapped her hands. “Find your table and take your seat.”
“I just came in here to get directions,” Elena muttered.
Wesley pulled out a chair for her and grinned, obviously finding her predicament amusing.
She supposed it wasn’t every day that a crazy, suitcase-towing woman hiked into Marietta and crashed a speed-dating party. Not wanting to make a scene, she sat down. “Thank you.”
“Welcome to Marietta’s first ever speed-dating event at Copper Mountain Chocolate. My cohost, Portia, is at home tonight taking care of her newborn son Zavy.” Rosie smiled. “The little guy is so darn cute, and his mother can’t stand being away from him for very long. But rest assured I have everything under control.”
“Hey, Rosie.” The pretty brunette at table five spoke up. “Is it true you and Brant are planning a September wedding?”
“We are, Siena.” Rosie blushed. “Nothing in this town stays a secret.”
Elena reminded herself to use caution when speaking to people about her grandfather.
“I heard the TV series you’re working on with your brother got picked up again and you’re writing more episodes,” the woman seated by Siena said.
“Nadia”—Rosie’s gaze narrowed—“I would think a nurse at the May Bell Care Home would be too busy to gossip about my brother and me.”
Nadia laughed. “Blame Sara Maria. She stops by at least once a week and updates us on you and Brant.”
“As long as were gossiping…” The woman next to Elena pointed down the row of tables. “How come you came tonight, Wren? Portia said you’re not in town for long.”
“I’m starting grad school in the fall.” Wren winked. “I’m here purely out of intellectual curiosity.”
Rosie opened her mouth to speak, but then frowned at a woman two tables away from Elena. “Gretchen, I thought you were dating someone?”
“As I keep telling people—my sister in particular—one date does not a relationship make.” Gretchen bent over and fussed with the strap on her sandal.
“Especially when the female half of the equation disappears without leaving so much as a glass slipper behind.”
Gretchen’s spine snapped straight, and she stared at the handsome man who sat across the table from her. “Hi, Cinderella. Fancy meeting you here,” he said.
“Let’s save the chitchat for the event,” Rosie said. “Each date will last three minutes, and the lady will ask the first question. After the gentleman answers, he’ll ask the next question and so on and so forth.”
“What are these for?” Gretchen’s new tablemate asked, holding up a notepad and pen with the chocolate shop’s logo on them.
“Feel free to use the paper and pens to jot down names, phone numbers, or anything else that will help you remember each other,” Rosie said. “When the timer goes off, the ladies will remain seated and the gentlemen will move down one table, then we’ll begin another date.”
“When do we get to sample Sage’s chocolate candy?” Wren asked.
“After the first round, we’ll take a break. Sage picked out a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon donated by the Two Old Goats wine store to go with her coconut-stuffed dates covered in chocolate wine.” Rosie held up the plate of chocolates from Elena’s table. “Sage would like to know what you think of her chocolates, so please fill out the questionnaire before you leave.”
Rosie returned the dish to the table. “I forget to mention the chocolate shop will host a second speed-dating event a week from today. If you’re interested, there’s a sign-up sheet on the counter.” She twisted the knob on the timer. “Ready…set…begin.”
“What’s your last name, Wesley?” Elena asked.
“Banks,” he said. “Where are you from, Elena?”
She frowned. “You’re not going to ask my last name?”
“You can’t answer a question with a question.”
“Las Vegas.” She pointed to his hat. “Are you a real cowboy?”
“Born and raised on a ranch north of Livingston. How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven.” He narrowed his eyes. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I had a fiancé but not anymore.” She ignored the questions in his eyes and asked, “Do you live on your family’s ranch?”
“No. I’m the caretaker of a rural property outside of Marietta. What do you do?”
“I’m an elementary schoolteacher. What’s your favorite color?”
“Then why are you wearing a blue shirt?”
He shook his head. “My turn.”
The cowboy was a stickler for rules.
“What grade do you teach?” he asked.
Surprised he cared, she said, “First. What’s your favorite food?”
“Macaroni and cheese.” She had her room mothers to thank for her obsession with the comfort food. There were at least four or five different macaroni-and-cheese casseroles at every class party. “Favorite hobby?”
A cowboy who skied? Interesting.
“What’s your reason for visiting Marietta?” he asked.
“I’ve never been to Montana.” Although she suspected Wes wasn’t the kind to gossip, she’d rather not reveal the true reason for her visit. “How long have you lived in Marietta?”
“Since I turned eighteen.” Elena resisted squirming under his warm gaze—he’d yet to take his eyes off her face. “Was that your car I passed on the side of the road outside of town?” he asked.
“Yes. Do you wear your cowboy hat when you ski?”
He chuckled. “No. What’s wrong with the car?”
“The engine began smoking. Why didn’t you stop?”
“I didn’t see anyone. Where were you?”
“Hiding in the ditch. Would you have offered me a ride?”
His brown eyes warmed. “Of course. Why didn’t you show yourself when I slowed down?”
“Because I was only wearing my panties and a bra.”
The timer went off, saving Elena from answering any follow-up questions about her lingerie. A man walked up to the table and nudged Wesley’s shoulder. “Move over, buddy.” Wesley sat at table two after a nod and a muttered, “Bobby,” in greeting, but his gaze remained on Elena until Rosie set the timer for another three minutes.
The dates flew by. Less than a half hour later, Elena had answered the same questions ten times: her name, age, what she did for a living, where she was from, and how long she’d planned to remain in town.
“Ready for wine and chocolate?” Rosie stood behind the candy display case, pouring wine into plastic glasses.
Elena accepted a cup and finished her wine in three swallows.
“Slow down, outlander.” Wesley’s words drifted into her ear.
“I’m thirsty from my hike into town,” she said as a shiver passed through her body. She’d done a whole lot more with Brad than ask and answer questions, and she’d never felt this off-balance when he’d stood close to her.
“I’ll be right back,” Wes said to Rosie before disappearing through a doorway behind the counter.
A moment later, he returned with a glass of water. The man wasn’t only good-looking—he was considerate, too. “Thank you.” She locked gazes with him as she gulped it down.
“Would you like to try a chocolate?” Wes held the plate out and waited for her to select a piece, then helped himself. Before he had a chance to sample Sage’s latest recipe, Elena clutched his arm.
“Wow. This is delicious.”
His stomach clenched when she took another bite and her lips closed around the treat. Her dark lashes swept down as she moaned—a long, deep sound, which made him want to turn off the store lights, back Elena into the corner, and nibble the smudge of chocolate that clung to her lips.
“I haven’t eaten,” she said, “since my flight arrived in Bozeman earlier today.”
Mesmerized by her mouth, he waited until she swallowed, but then they both spoke at once.
“You go first,” he said.
“Okay. Why are you here tonight? A cowboy as good-looking as you should be able to find a date on his own.”
Wes grinned. “Are you always this blunt?”
“It’s a trait I picked up from teaching first graders.”
He had a suspicion nothing fazed Elena. The women he’d dated in the past would have run the other way if they’d been shanghaied by Rosie and forced to attend a speed-dating event while wearing shorts and a tank top. But Elena didn’t seem to care that she stood out like a sore thumb among the women in pretty sundresses, high heels, and makeup.
“Aren’t you going to have another one?” She picked up a second chocolate.
“I’m not a huge fan of candy, but my boss is. I buy Sage’s chocolate-covered nut clusters for him whenever I’m in town.” The sweets were about the only thing that made the old man smile.
“Why are you here tonight?” she asked.
“I lost a bet to a fourteen-year-old.”
“A teen I’m trying to steer back onto the right path.”
Her eyebrows dipped. “So you’re a caretaker of rural properties and delinquent troublemakers?”
He laughed. “You could say that.”
“What was the bet you lost to your young charge?”
“Ricky finished mucking horse stalls before I cleared debris from a stream.” Wes rubbed the side of his nose. “He thinks I don’t know how to get a girl.”
“Is he right?”
Wes rolled his shoulders. “I’m between girls right now.” Elena didn’t need to know he hadn’t had a date in almost a year. “You mentioned an ex-fiancé?”
“What happened?” He winced. “Forget I asked the question. It’s none of my business.”
“I’m used to being put on the spot. Six-year-olds have no filter.” She licked her lips clean, and it was all Wes could do not to stare at her mouth. “My ex cheated on me.”
“You’re better off without him.”
“I’ve moved on.”
She sounded confident, but there was no way to tell if she was still nursing a broken heart. He noticed the shop had emptied out and Rosie was cleaning up, making trips back and forth to the kitchen. She stopped at their table and reached for the empty candy dish. “You liked Sage’s coconut-stuffed dates covered in chocolate wine.”
“Very much.” Elena opened her purse. “I owe you twenty-five dollars.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Wes pulled out his wallet and handed Rosie the cash.
“Thanks, but I have money,” Elena said.
Rosie ignored Elena and snatched the cash from his hand, then hurried into the kitchen.
“Will you still be in town next Saturday?” Wes asked.
“If things go as planned, I hope to be in Marietta for a few weeks.”
He wondered what things Elena referred to, but decided he’d asked enough questions for one night.
“No…no,” Rosie said, speaking into her cell when she walked out of the kitchen. “Don’t get upset with her. I’m on my way.”
The alarm in Rosie’s voice drew Wes to his feet.
“Stay with Sara Maria and don’t leave her alone. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Rosie ended the call and slipped her purse over her shoulder. “I have to go.”
“Is everything okay?” Wes asked.
Rosie looked at Elena. “My fiancé’s sister is autistic and can get quite agitated. Brant needs my help to calm her down.” Rosie glanced around the room. “I’ll return later tonight to clean.”
“We’ll finish up for you.” Wes looked at Elena for confirmation, and she nodded. “I’m in no hurry to get home, Rosie,” he said. “I can put the tables back where they belong and sweep the floor.”
“And I’ll wash the dishes and take care of the garbage,” Elena said.
“You wouldn’t mind? Sage is coming into the store tomorrow to work on a new recipe, and I’d hate for her to see the place a wreck.”
“We’ve got it covered,” Wes said. “After I lock up, I’ll stop by your house and leave the key under the front mat.”
Rosie removed the lanyard from around her neck and handed it to him. “Thank you.” She turned to Elena. “Enjoy your stay in Marietta. I hope to see you again.”
As soon as Rosie left, Elena pointed to the key in Wes’s hand. “Is everyone so trusting in this town?”
“I’m friends with her fiancé.” He set the key on the counter and removed his phone from his pocket. “I’m hungry, and I know you are.” He dialed the number for the local pizza joint. “It’s Wes Banks. The usual but deliver it to Copper Mountain Chocolate. Yeah, I’m sure Sage doesn’t mind. Thanks.”
“What’s the usual?” she asked.
“Cheese, pepperoni, and sausage.” When she crinkled her nose, he said, “What?”
“That’s a lot of meat.”
“You’re a vegetarian?”
“No, but I like more than meat and cheese.”
“Next time, I’ll let you order the pizza.” He began folding the chairs. “While we wait for dinner, I’d like to hear more about the panties and bra you mentioned during our speed date.”
She laughed. “I bet you would.”
End of Excerpt