I’d always liked this part of the day, when the breeze was gentle and the sun was warm and the cows all seemed content to sit there and listen to me ramble, like good cows should. Even when I was a little girl, I’d come out here to the sprawling pasture and spend hours watching the wind make ripples in the grass, chased by the clouds’ shadows. Coming out here made me feel free instead of stuck in the same place I’d been my whole life.
“Just imagine it, Stella,” I said, leaning forward a little to rub the horse’s neck. Like the cows, Stella had spent years listening to me ramble on and on about my dreams, though I didn’t think she really minded. She liked being out here too. “Someday, I’ll have the most beautiful hotel out there, and people will come from all over the world because it feels like home.”
Stella snorted a little, shaking her head.
I scowled down at her. “What?” I said. “You don’t think I’ll actually do it? Just you wait, old girl. My hotel will be the best there ever was.” But maybe the horse was right, and I needed to be a little more realistic. I didn’t know much about hotels outside of what my Aunt Louise had told me, and my mother’s bed and breakfast didn’t mean much. Few people ever came to stay. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t build something amazing someday. It would be huge and fancy and attract all sorts of incredible people from around the world.
“Assuming I ever make it out of here and actually get some money,” I added.
Not exactly easy when I spent most of my time helping out on the family ranch. A part-time job in the local garden center didn’t bring in the big bucks, but I couldn’t just abandon my parents.
I sighed. It was starting to get late, and I could only chat with animals for so long before my little slice of freedom turned into being late for work. Besides, if I thought too long and hard about how difficult it was going to be when I inevitably did leave, I ended up with an anxious stomachache and wanting to eat a whole lot of chocolate, which was definitely not a good combination.
“Time to get back to reality.”
Reality, it turned out, was a lot closer than I expected, because when I turned around to head back, I caught sight of a car at the far end of our property, where the road came into town. The engine was steaming, and someone was standing nearby and staring at the open hood with limp shoulders, as if he had no idea what to do.
Clicking my tongue, I nudged Stella in the direction of the car. I knew nothing about cars, but at least I could figure out if the man really needed help or not.
“Excuse me?” I called when I got closer.
He glanced over, one hand stuffed into his dark hair, and I had no idea if he was actually looking at me because his sunglasses were too busy reflecting back at me. I didn’t have to look at him for long to realize he was completely out of place here in the middle of nowhere Montana, with his fancy jeans and leather jacket and shiny shoes.
“Do you need some help?” I asked, though I wasn’t as eager now that I was just on the other side of the fence from him. He was probably only a few years older than me, somewhere in his mid-twenties, and he slid his sunglasses down and wasn’t subtle about looking me over.
Oh heavens, he was handsome.
Then he smiled—leered would have been a better word—and said, “Hey, beautiful. Looks like I’ve found my guardian angel.”
And I’d found a great reason to leave. “Yeah, never mind,” I said, then kicked Stella into a gallop without looking back.
The smug jerk could find his own help.
After brushing Stella down and making sure she had plenty of hay, I found Mom in the kitchen, busy canning the last of her famous jam. I thought about telling her about the guy I’d found, but then I considered how angry she would be when she found out that I’d just left him. She wouldn’t care that he was clearly checking me out and she would probably drive out there herself and invite him over for dinner. Better if she didn’t know about him at all.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said as I hugged her from behind. “Do you want to help?”
I kissed her cheek. “Gotta go to work. It smells delicious in here.”
“You work too hard,” she said, like she did every time I headed into town to do my job.
I ignored her comment, just like I did every time she subtly tried to convince me to spend more time at home. Working that garden center was the only way I would ever have a chance to get out of here and finally start living my life.
The store was completely dead. It shouldn’t have surprised me. It wasn’t like a lot of people needed begonias on a Friday night, but I had already deep cleaned the floors and rearranged the pansies into a color-gradient. I wasn’t sure if the night could possibly get any duller. I was in a bad mood, and that wasn’t likely to change.
It didn’t help that I’d been late, and it was entirely the stranger’s fault. He’d gotten into my head, and I had spent way longer in the shower than I should have because I’d been thinking about his ridiculously blue eyes. They were such a pale shade that they were bright against his dark hair, like the ice that spread across the lake up in the hills beyond the ranch during the winter. I had been trying to figure out why he would come to a sleepy place like Rockwell, where nothing ever happened. Time had just gotten away from me.
I was never late, and disappointing Mr. Buehler like I did had started my shift off on a sour note.
Finally the little bell over the door rang, and I hoped it was Old Man Hughes here to pick up his roses for his wife like he did every week. Since the man was the sweetest person in the world, I absolutely adored him.
When I straightened up and turned to greet him, though, I found myself face to face with the guy on the road and his smug grin.
“It’s you,” he said, once again letting his eyes take me in without shame. “I was told I could find a room to rent in here,” he added, squinting as he looked around, “but I’m starting to think he was just messing with me.”
The only reason I didn’t immediately accuse him of following me was because Old Man Hughes stepped in just after him and gave me his toothy smile.
“Mr. Hughes!” I said brightly, choosing to ignore the city boy and focus on the man who had never once looked at me like something to play with. That hungry gaze that I had seen in some of the boys from rival high schools was not something I wanted to experience again. “Are you here for Mrs. Hughes’s bouquet?”
He took the arm that I offered him, letting me guide him back to the counter. “That’s right, Little Annie. But actually, it’s a good thing you’re here tonight.”
“Why is that?”
Mr. Hughes waved a trembling arm behind him, making me realize the stranger was following us. “This delightful young man needs a place to stay, and I was just telling him that your lovely mother turned that house of yours into a bed and breakfast. It’s the best place to get a blueberry muffin for thirty miles.”
I threw a glare toward the stranger, since I had no idea how someone like him could convince Old Man Hughes to call him delightful.
He just shrugged. “I love blueberry muffins,” he said, as if that made all of this make sense.
“I found him walking down the road, you see,” Hughes said, completely ignorant of my tension as I left his side to gather up his flowers. “Poor fellow looks half-starved.”
The guy’s arms were way too big for anyone to call him half-starved, and he bit the inside of his lips as if to keep from laughing. Whether that was from Mr. Hughes’s comment or because he read my thoughts as I spent a little too long looking at him, I didn’t know, but it made me like him even less.
Considering how little I liked him to begin with, that was pretty impressive.
And then, as I handed Mr. Hughes his roses, the guy had the nerve to offer to pay for them as a thank you for giving him a ride into town, and I was absolutely sure that he wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t been trying to impress me.
“Give Mrs. Hughes my love,” I said as the old man hobbled out of the shop.
The instant the door closed, the stranger leaned one elbow on the counter, looking way too at ease for someone who was one wink away from getting slapped. “His wife sounds enchanting,” he said brightly.
I rolled my eyes. I so did not want to make conversation with this guy. “His wife is dead.”
“Oh. Really?” His smile dropped, and he seemed to take a moment to decide if he should believe me. “Are you sure? He was talking about her the whole drive over and how tonight is date night. He never said—”
“He brings flowers to her grave every Friday. Date night.” And then I stood there, waiting for him to pick himself up off the counter and leave me alone.
He was too busy looking behind him at the door that had just closed, as if he could see Mr. Hughes on the other side of it. “Well now I feel bad.” Then he turned back to me, full of his ridiculously cocky smile again. “So was that whole bed and breakfast thing real, or…?”
A knot formed in my stomach at the change in topic. If there was one thing my parents taught me, it was not to leave someone in need. Besides, they could really use the money, and this city boy could probably pay them well. “Yes,” I said, though it took a whole lot of effort to get the word out.
He reminded me of the guys from schools in bigger towns, the ones who showed up to football games and thought they were too cool to be decent human beings to us “small-town” girls.
Did I really have to take this guy home? I took a deep breath, reminding myself that it was because my parents needed the money. “And lucky for you, I’m closing up in a minute, so I can take you there.” I paused, feeling a little hopeful. “Unless your car is working.”
He snorted a laugh, his smile way too big for me to feel all that comfortable. “I’ve been fixing that car for years,” he said. “I think it finally crapped out on me for good this time. I would love a ride.”
Thankfully, he just wandered the center and looked at the flowers as I finished up and got the store ready to close. I’d half expected him to follow me around, but if he had, I would have politely but forcefully asked him to leave and find his own place to stay. And hopefully he would have listened to me. He was a lot stronger than me, from the looks of how tightly his too-small t-shirt hugged his arms, but that didn’t mean I was helpless. My years of playing softball in high school would have come in handy if I had to take a swing at him with the broom.
He must have sensed my uneasiness, because when I told him to follow me out to the truck so I could take him home, he kept his distance, whistling softly to himself as if to make it easy for me to know exactly where he was. Or maybe he was just lulling me into a false sense of security.
“I can sit in the bed, if you want,” he said when we reached the old truck.
It was tempting, but if Mom happened to look out the window and see that I brought a guest over in the bed of the truck, she would launch into a full-blown lecture on hospitality and being neighborly. Nothing like being told to mind my manners to make me feel like a kid again.
Besides, if I ever ended up opening a hotel, I would have all sorts of annoying guests to deal with. This guy would just be practice.
“Just don’t do anything stupid,” I said and opened the passenger door for him.
As I turned the ignition and shifted the truck into gear, I glanced at him to make sure he was definitely going to keep to his side of the seat. He had his eyes fixed out the side window, watching the fields go by. Nothing about this man made much sense, and I just hoped he wasn’t planning on staying in town for long. Knowing nothing about him, I couldn’t predict what he might do. And I didn’t like that.
“I’m Lucas, by the way,” he said when we were halfway to the ranch. “Lucas Hawthorne.”
Not that I needed to get to know the guy, but it was nice to actually have a name to put to the handsome face. “Marianne Macintosh,” I replied, and when I glanced his way again, he did the same to me. Then he turned back to the window to watch the fields roll by in the dying sunlight.
“How long have you lived here in Rockwell, Marianne?”
“My whole life.” Did I sound bitter? I probably sounded bitter, but I hoped he didn’t notice. I didn’t need him asking why I didn’t like living here when he thought it was so charming. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Rockwell, but there was so much more out there! And the only way I was going to actually see the world was to get out of this sleepy little town.
People like Lucas had no idea how nice they had it.
“That’s impressive,” Lucas said, and I looked at him again, trying to figure out what his tone of voice meant. He was either laughing at me or completely jealous. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the second one.
“Not all of us can afford to live in a big city,” I snapped.
His lips twitched in a smile that he only just managed to hold back. “That’s not what I meant. No, I… I’ve never been all that settled before. It sounds nice.”
He was making it really difficult to concentrate on the road in front of me. There was something I just couldn’t figure out about this guy, and he was a little too attractive to avoid looking at him for long. He looked so different from the guys I knew around here, and it was like I could sense a whole other world he was a part of. The kind of world I was desperate to get to.
“Where were you before you came here?” I asked.
“All over. But the last place I called home was near San Francisco.”
“And why did you come here?” Of all the places for a guy like him to turn up, Rockwell wasn’t exactly top of the list.
We’d reached the ranch, and Lucas waited until we’d both stepped out of the truck before he answered. “Technically,” he said as he slung his bag over his shoulder, “I didn’t choose it. The car did. But it feels like a good place to stop for a day or two.” His eyes swept over the ranch with appreciation, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I wouldn’t have to deal with him for long. “You grew up here?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t really know what else to say to that, so I just led the way inside, glad when I found Mom in the kitchen as always because it meant I could quickly and effectively dump Lucas and get back to normal. “Hey Mom, I found someone who needs to rent a room.”
Mom’s eyes went wide, and she brushed her hands over her apron as if smoothing the wrinkles. “You certainly have,” she said with a smile. I almost laughed. There was nothing Sylvia Macintosh loved more than playing hostess, and she was more eager than ever to please. “Welcome! I’m Sylvia.”
“Lucas,” he said and took her outstretched hand in both of his. “Thank you so much for taking me in without any notice. I don’t want to put you out.”
“Oh nonsense. Come, let me give you a tour.”
And then they were gone. I settled in a seat at the kitchen table because there was enough of an aroma from Mom’s cooking that I was pretty sure Dad would be showing up any minute. He never could stay away for long when there was food about.
Sure enough, it only took a couple of minutes before he stepped in through the back door, nudging off his boots before he tracked mud inside. “Hey, Sweet Pea!” he said as soon as he saw me. “Where’s that mother of yours run off to?”
“We have a new lodger.”
“That’s good.” He sank heavily into a chair, looking completely exhausted. That was nothing new, and neither was what I said to him:
“Dad, you really need to hire someone to work the ranch full-time. I know it’ll cost a lot at the start, but it will be worth it in the long run.”
He gave me a tired sort of smile that twisted the sun-worn lines of his face. He looked old, and I didn’t like it. He was only fifty-two. “Maybe,” he said in his deep voice, “but that’s not really in the cards right now.”
I had my next argument ready to go, since I had had this conversation plenty of times in my head. If my parents hired a full-time ranch hand instead of trying to do everything themselves, I wouldn’t feel so guilty about leaving them. “Then at least let someone else run the Harvest Festival tomorrow. You’ve done all the planning, and you deserve a day off.”
He pressed his lips in a thin line as he looked over at me, not angry but stubborn. I liked to think I was stubborn, but I was nothing compared to my father. “Now, Annie, I’ve been running that festival for twenty years now. I ain’t stopping now just because my troubles have gotten the better of me.”
That didn’t exactly make me feel better about the situation, but I couldn’t say anything because Mom finally returned, both her and Lucas laughing about something. Wait, was she blushing? As they entered the kitchen, she put a hand on his arm. Lucas took hold of that hand and planted a kiss on her knuckles, and why in the heck was Dad just sitting there watching all of this when he should have been throwing Lucas out into the dirt?
“Dear,” Mom said, a little breathless from laughing, “this is our new lodger, Lucas. Lucas, this is my husband, Wesley Macintosh.”
Dad grunted as he rose to his feet and held out a rough and calloused hand. “Mac,” he corrected as he sized up the new temporary tenant.
“You are one lucky man,” Lucas replied and sent a flirtatious smile toward my mother. “Sylvia can’t stop telling me all about you, and you must be really something to have won over the likes of her.”
I held my breath, waiting for Dad to throw a punch or start yelling. That was not the kind of behavior my dad would tolerate under his roof. But my father—my always stoic father--smiled.
“I just got lucky,” he said, then leaned over and planted a kiss on Mom’s lips.
I was pretty sure I’d never seen him kiss his wife. Not on the mouth, anyway. My dad never showed anyone what he was feeling, and his displays of affection always came in more subtle ways. I stared at the weirdness going on in the kitchen, trying to understand how Lucas had managed to charm my parents without even trying. Why couldn’t they see the smug, self-important, cocky--
“Annie, are you okay?”
I jumped, realized I was scowling, and tried to smile. “Tired,” I said, as if that could explain why I’d been glaring at the man who seemed to be holding back laughter again. What was it about me that he found so funny?
Neither of my parents noticed, and the four of us gathered around the table, leaving me to wonder if I’d missed something. It seemed there was a lot more to Lucas Hawthorne than I thought. Whatever he was, I didn’t want to trust him. He definitely knew what he was doing.