It wasn’t often that she had a stranger in her chair at The Wright Salon, much less a thirty-something-year-old male, that also happened to be ruggedly handsome, as in the handsome of the inscrutable romance cover hero.
Amanda Wright knew her romance cover heroes, too, as she and her sister Charity had lived off them growing up, surviving their harsh reality by living on fantasies and fairy tales. Jenny, their oldest sister, had been appalled, and would confiscate their paperbacks, tossing them out if she found them. Which was why Amanda and Charity learned to hide their romances between their mattresses, or stuff them inside the sleeves of their ugly, thrift store rainbow-hued winter coats.
Romance cover heroes were usually darkly handsome as well as brooding and enigmatic, traits found perhaps in the Highlands or Mediterranean principalities, but not in most small Montana towns. No, in small Montana towns like Marietta, men tended to be polite, practical, and dependable, and there was nothing wrong with practical and dependable men, but it just wasn’t exciting, and Amanda was holding out for a true romance hero, one that wasn’t just handsome, but a man that was powerful, successful, complex. Enigmatic.
And her client, Ty James, could easily pass for the enigmatic romance hero with his thick brown hair, light eyes the color of the sea, chiseled jaw, and firm chin. Never mind his lips which were pretty much perfect, especially when he smiled, which he didn’t do a lot. But when he did, it was the smile of movie stars—confident, easy, sexy—which made it almost impossible to focus, which wasn’t a good thing as she was wielding very sharp scissors, very close to his strong, tanned nape. True, he had what romance novels called a Roman nose, which meant it wasn’t small and straight, but a little bit prominent, but that just made his features all the more interesting. Amanda liked a good nose on a man, it kept him from being too pretty, and a nose with a hook or bump at the bridge implied he’d had it broken, maybe in a fistfight, maybe through sports. Either way, it was manly. Masculine.
“You’ve been a stylist for a long time?” he asked, as she gently pressed his head forward a bit, trying to give her a better view of his hairline while also trying to hide his gorgeous reflection from her line of sight. His masculine good looks were distracting. He was distracting, and she didn’t normally fall for just every handsome face. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time a man made her heart pitter-pat, and it wasn’t just doing a pitter-pat right now, but a full-on, racing horse gallop.
“Nine years,” she answered, “six full-time. The first three I was in college.”
“You did both?”
“I needed a job and it turned out I was good at it.”
“Where did you go to college?”
“I stayed local. Montana State, in Bozeman.”
“And what did you study?”
“Psychology.” She paused, ran her comb through the back of his hair, checking the length, making sure lines were straight. She glanced up into the mirror, caught his eye, and noted his surprise. She shrugged, lips curving. “I like people.”
“You must get to know your customers quite well.”
“I do. I’m very attached to my customers.” She paused, smiled again, a little more ruefully. “Well, most of them. There are a couple that drive me slightly bonkers, but they just make me appreciate the rest all the more.”
“What do the frustrating ones do to drive you bonkers?”
“Arrive thirty minutes late for a forty-five minute appointment, or forget to show at all.”
She smiled again, and shrugged. “I have really good customers.”
His green gaze held hers in the mirror and for a moment she completely lost focus.
“I noticed you had more starred reviews on Yelp than any other stylist in town,” he said, snapping her attention back.
“I do encourage them to leave a review if they’re happy,” she answered.
“Clearly, they’re happy.”
“It’s a win-win, then.” Amanda felt herself growing warmer by the moment.
What on earth was wrong with her? Hand shaking, she reached for her colorful bottle on her station shelf and took a quick drink of water, trying to cool herself off. It had obviously been far too long since she’d spent time with an attractive man because this was ridiculous. She was genuinely flustered.
“You have a name on the back of one of your chairs,” he said, watching her in the mirror. “Is it a memorial?”
She looked to see where he was pointing and laughed. “Oh, no. No! Bette is very much alive, as well as a very dear client and friend. She did something nice for me and so I gave her her very own chair. Only Bette is allowed to sit there, and that way she always knows I have time—and a spot—for her.”
“She must have liked that.”
“I think so.” Mandy took a comb and drew it through his hair, checking the length. “So you’re in town for a meeting tomorrow?”
“And you’re staying at the Graff?”
“It’s a nice hotel.”
“I’ve never actually stayed there, but it’s fun to go for drinks or their Sunday brunch.”
“Do you go often?”
“A couple times a year. Just for special occasions. Most of the time my sister and friends head to Grey’s. More our style, as well as a lot less spendy.”
Tyler James Justice had expected Amanda Wright to be polished and stylish—she did hair for a living, after all—but he hadn’t expected her to be quite so pretty.
But she was pretty, strikingly pretty, and disarmingly sweet. Make that charming. For a moment he’d wondered if she’d had work done, and then he spotted the photo of three gorgeous blonde women tucked into her mirror, their faces close, arms wrapped around each other, and they were all beautiful. “Girlfriends or sisters?” he asked, nodding to the photo.
She steadied his head, preventing him from moving again. “Sisters. I’m the baby.”
“When was this picture taken?”
“My sister’s wedding a couple years ago.”
“Do your sisters live here in Marietta, too?”
“Charity does. Jenny and her husband have a ranch in Colorado.”
“What does Charity do?”
Mandy didn’t answer immediately, her elegantly arched brows flattening as she concentrated on trimming the hair close to the tip of his right ear. On one hand he was impatient for her to answer, but on the other he appreciated her attention to detail and not nicking his ear.
“She works as the receptionist for a Realtor on Main Street,” Amanda finally said, before tipping his head forward and taking a razor to his nape, cleaning up the back of his neck. “I’m hoping, though, to eventually bring her here to help me manage the salon.”
“It wouldn’t be hard working with her?”
“Not at all. Charity is my best friend. We’re two peas in a pod. Mom used to say we were more like twins than twins. What about you?” she asked. “Do you have brothers or sisters?”
He hesitated. “I had a brother. He died serving the country.”
Her hand went to his shoulder, her touch firm, warm. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
He swallowed around the unexpected lump in his throat. He rarely talked about Coby, and he never got emotional when he did, and he wasn’t at all sure why he’d mentioned his brother to her, and he certainly didn’t want to continue with such a personal conversation. He hadn’t come here to Marietta to be anyone’s friend. He was worried about his grandmother, and in particular, this young woman’s influence over his grandmother. It was a difficult time to be away from work, too, but when he’d heard his grandmother was considering amending her will to leave her house to Amanda ‘Mandy’ Wright, he knew he had to come and sort things out.
“I couldn’t imagine losing one of my sisters,” Amanda said after a moment. “It must have devastated your parents.”
He nodded, unable to say more, because it had devastated them, and Coby’s death had changed the dynamics of the family, not that their family had ever been the perfect family. His father and grandfather had no relationship, which meant Tyler really never knew his grandfather, either. His grandmother, Bette, was another matter. His grandmother was sweetness and light… the kind of grandmother that deserved those silly mugs that read World’s Best Grandmother.
“You said you were here for business,” the stylist added, thankfully changing the subject. “You must be in the ranching business then.”
“No. I’m in tech.”
Her full lips pursed. “Tech?”
“I design games.”
“Games?” she repeated, a delicate eyebrow arching.
“That must be fun.” Her eyes met his in the mirror. She was smiling and her smile did something funny to his chest.
“It’s creative,” he answered.
“You’re giving people something fun to do. Good for you. People need entertainment to help us unplug from the world, don’t you think?”
He found himself watching her as she took the big soft brush and went over his nape, brushing off stray hair. He hated being so cynical, but was she for real? “I do.”
“I’ve never played games, but I love to read, and go to the movies. Feel-good movies. I avoid the depressing ones.”
He wished he’d been prepared for her, and not just how pretty she was with her high cheekbones and gleaming blonde hair pulled back in a high teased ponytail, but her kindness and good nature. She reminded him of spring rain—sweet and refreshing—which wasn’t at all his impression of her before he came.
“How is the length?” she asked, turning the chair and handing him a mirror so he could see the back of his head. “Any shorter?”
“It’s a little longer than I usually wear it,” Tyler said. “But I like it. Looks good.”
“I think so, too. It gives you a ’70s rock star vibe.”
He felt a strange rumble of laughter in his chest, strange because he didn’t really laugh much, not anymore. His world had become so weighty and serious. “I’m far from that.”
“I don’t know.” A dimple appeared at the corner of her full lips. “If you’re a game designer, you can be anyone you want to be.” She unsnapped the black plastic cape, removing it from around his shoulders. “How long are you in town?”
“Through the weekend.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your stay. Marietta is a great little town. Everyone that comes here, falls in love—”
“Don’t say that.”
“With the town,” she finished, laughing again. “But what’s wrong with falling in love?”
“Nothing. But I’m not looking for love. Or a new place to live. I like Austin.”
“A Texas boy.”
California, he wanted to correct her, as he’d only relocated to Austin two years ago, but there was no point in telling her any of that. They weren’t friends, and furthermore, once she knew who he really was, they’d never be friends. The warmth inside of him cooled, and his faint smile faded. Standing, he reached for his wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
“Thirty-five. And you can pay Emily. She’s at the desk in reception.”
“You did a good job.”
“Then leave a review,” she teased, reaching for the broom and dustpan tucked in the corner next to her station. “And enjoy Marietta. It’s a great place to be.”
“I’ll try,” he answered.
“Not good enough,” she called after him.
He turned in the doorway to look back at her, all golden blonde and astonishingly pretty in the winter sunlight, and yet she was smiling at him in a way that made his chest ache.
She made him feel young and hopeful, just as he’d felt as a boy when he’d see a cute girl. But he wasn’t a boy, and he wasn’t in town because he wanted to be, but because he needed to be. He’d arrived to put distance between this woman and his grandmother, a move that wasn’t going to make him popular with anyone, but he was a man who did what needed to be done. That was what had made him who he was today. “Good-bye.”
“Good luck tomorrow.”
Tyler felt strangely out of sorts as he left the salon on Church Avenue and walked to his car. A few patches of dirty snow still dotted some of the neighboring lawns, but otherwise the streets and sidewalks were clear. In the distance he could see the peak of Copper Mountain rising behind the small Montana town. So far, he didn’t love or hate Marietta. It was just a small town in the middle of nowhere and not easy to reach. He’d taken two flights to get here from Austin, flying Austin to Denver, and Denver to Bozeman, and then he’d needed a rental car to drive the thirty-five miles from Bozeman to Marietta. Not impossible, just by no means convenient, particularly when there were power struggles internally at TexTron. He’d survive the power struggles, but it would be less stressful weathering storms if he were in the office than here in remote Crawford County, Montana.
As he crossed the street, he wondered what his grandmother, Bette Justice, would think when she found out he’d booked an appointment with her favorite stylist, Amanda Wright, a young woman she claimed was one of her best friends, and so important to her that in the past few years she’d given her a large financial gift, and was now wanting to leave the young woman her house on Bramble.
Tyler was a self-made man. He didn’t need his grandmother’s money. But at the same time, he wanted to be sure his grandmother wasn’t being unduly influenced, or pressured in any way. Gram had been on her own for almost seven years now, and it was probably too much isolation from her family, so he wasn’t entirely surprised that she’d come to depend on outsiders, which was why he was here now. He’d wanted her to move in with him for years, and he’d been trying to convince her that the move would be good for both of them, because he wanted to take care of her. But he couldn’t do that with her in Montana while he was in Austin.
He’d arrived today in Marietta thinking the worst of Amanda Wright, but after thirty minutes in her chair, he discovered she was nice, and rather charming, and he could see why Gram was fond of her. But there was a difference between being fond of someone and giving them sizeable financial gifts… or a sizable chunk of her estate.
Gram’s announcement that she would soon amend her will got his attention and he cleared his schedule at work, booked the flights, and now here he was, in his father’s hometown, a town his father absolutely hated.
Bette Justice arrived at The Wright Salon twenty minutes early for her two o’clock appointment because she’d come bearing gifts—two chicken salads from Java Café.
“Emily said you had a short break between appointments,” Bette said as Amanda appeared at the receptionist desk. “So we’re going to eat first.”
“What if I already ate?” Amanda answered, smiling indulgently.
“But you haven’t. Emily said so.”
Amanda shot her receptionist an amused glance before leading Bette to the white painted table in the corner of what once had been the dining room but was now a mix of small round tables and comfortable seating for salon guests to use for meals and relaxing in between appointments.
“By the way, I have news,” Bette said, opening their salads and arranging the place settings on the table.
“Oh?” Mandy replied, bringing two glasses of water to the table and sitting down opposite Bette.
“As you know, my grandson wants me to move to California. But he’s getting serious now. He thinks I must move… that it’s not good for me to be living alone.”
“He worries I might fall or have an accident.”
“He’s been watching too much TV.”
“Agreed. But he’s now taking action. He’s arriving this weekend. He’s determined to get me to move—”
“But he can’t force you!”
“No. He can’t. But I don’t want to alienate him, either. I appreciate that he’s concerned about me. He’s the only family I have left, but I don’t want to live in San Jose or Saratoga or wherever he’s calling home now.” She poked her salad with her fork but didn’t even try to eat. “Marietta is my home. It’s always been my home. It’s where I raised my family and all my friends live—” She broke off and blinked back tears. “I wish I could make him understand, but he truly believes I will be better off with him in California than Montana.”
Amanda frowned. Bette was one of the sunniest, most cheerful women she knew, and it was hard to see her like this. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, covering Bette’s hand with hers. “He isn’t even here yet, and when he does arrive, you’ll just have to show him why you love Marietta so much so that he understands why you’re happy here.”
“I am torn, though. I would love to be closer to my grandson. He reminds me so much of my son. And I suppose that’s both good and bad, because Tyler’s father, Patrick, was really my heart. I had such difficulty conceiving, and had five miscarriages. Patrick was really my miracle baby. We’d given up thinking I could have a child, and then I was pregnant and he somehow made it all the way through, and so of course I was protective of him. Don, my husband, thought I spoiled him, but how could I not? Patrick was a joy… smart, busy, gregarious. He had the most delightful sense of humor and loved to make people laugh. Unfortunately, Don didn’t have a sense of humor and, from the beginning, he and Patrick butted heads. It didn’t help that Patrick was extremely independent, and he wanted to do things his way.”
“But isn’t that normal? Kids rebel. It’s part of growing up.”
“They do, yes, absolutely, but my late husband was a former military man, and he expected his son to follow orders. Only Patrick didn’t follow anyone’s orders, not unless they made sense to him, and the more Donald tried to discipline Patrick, the more Patrick resented his father. And then they had a huge fight over a girl Patrick was dating. Donald didn’t approve of her, and Patrick was told that we wouldn’t help him with college if he didn’t stop seeing her. Patrick didn’t, and Donald threw him out, a month before his high school graduation.”
“What happened then?”
“Patrick graduated, and left for the West Coast, where he went to school on an ROTC scholarship, and he came home only one more time, and then never again.”
Bette sighed. “It was a mess, and heartbreaking.”
“Especially if he was your only child.”
“I was constantly in the middle of those two, and so it was something of a relief when Patrick went away to school, but in some ways it was even worse when he never returned after that first visit.”
“Did you not see him then?”
“I’d go see him in California, but Don wouldn’t go with me.”
“So you were always in the middle.”
Bette’s eyes filled with tears. “Patrick died a year after Don in a skiing accident. It was just one of those freaks accidents.”
“I remember that.”
Bette nodded. “And now I have this chance with my grandson, and while I don’t want to leave Marietta, I don’t want to risk losing out on this chance to know him better, and have him in my life.”
“I completely understand that.”
“He doesn’t understand Montana, though. He thinks our winters are too long and harsh. He worries about me being here all alone.”
“You can’t blame him, not if he’s a Californian. But you’re also far from alone.”
“I know, and that’s why I want you to help me when he comes to visit this weekend. I want you to show him around Marietta. Give him a tour of the area… let him see the Marietta we know and love.”
“You’re young and pretty—”
“This is a very bad idea.”
“He’ll love you.”
“I don’t want him to love me. I want him to love you. And I want him to support your desire to remain in Marietta for as long as you wish to be here.” Amanda’s gaze met Bette’s. “You do want to still be here, don’t you? Or, are you maybe ready for a move to Northern California?”
“Marietta is home,” Bette answered firmly. “This is where I want to be.”
“You could always come back here for visits—”
“And leave all my friends? Leave my bridge group? And my birthday group? The girls and I have been together for over fifty years!”
Amanda smiled, because she knew Bette’s bridge club and birthday club and the ‘girls’ were all in their eighties as well. “You do have great friends here.”
“Exactly! I just need a little help convincing him that Marietta, Montana is where I belong.”
Mandy gave Bette a long look. “Just know that I won’t be part of your matchmaker schemes.”
“You have. Several times.”
“Well, I promised you I wouldn’t interfere, and I haven’t again, have I?”
“No. And that’s good, because I’ve never been happier, nor have I ever worked harder. The last thing I want, or need, is a man. He’d only complicate everything—” She broke off, her brow creasing. “What did you say his name was?”
So not Ty James, Mandy thought. But just to be on the safe side, she had to ask. “Does he ever go by Ty? Or Ty James?”
“Well, his middle name is James, and I suppose people might call him Ty. His parents called him Tyler, and I’ve only ever called him Tyler.” Bette paused. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“I do somewhere. Not here.”
“Not on your iPhone?”
“I still don’t know how to do that, Amanda.”
Mandy hid her smile. “What does he look like?”
“Why all these questions?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. Just humor me. Is he tall or short? Does he have dark hair or is he blond? Does he even have hair?”
“Of course he has hair! He has thick brown hair and green eyes, and he’s a little over six feet tall. Maybe six feet one. And he’s handsome. He has a lovely face—he inherited his dad’s good looks. I know I’m his grandmother but Tyler is swoon worthy.”
She pictured the tall, broad shouldered man in her chair earlier, and the high hard cheekbones, as well as the firm chin and strong brow. “I was just curious. Just in case I… bump… into him here in town.”
“He’s not arriving until Friday night.”
“And then he’ll be staying at the Graff?”
“No! With me, of course.” Bette looked indignant. “I’d never let family say at a hotel. That’s dreadful.”
End of Excerpt