Excerpt for Valentine's at the Graff by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Valentine’s Day at the Graff

A Holiday at the Graff Romance

Sinclair Jayne

 

 

Valentine’s Day at the Graff

Copyright© 2018 Sinclair Jayne

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-948342-24-7

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Epilogue

Holiday at the Graff Series

About the Author

Prologue

Miranda Evans put the final flourish on the letter s, and stepped back to absorb the full effect of her freehand lettering in burnished copper—Found Objects.

Mine.

The name of her own boutique in the sumptuously restored historic Graff Hotel in her hometown: Marietta, Montana.

“Best hometown in the world,” she stated and hugged herself. Her life was changing, and some of those changes made her sad, but others gleamed with promise.

“Looks good, girl.” Shane Knight, one of the bartenders for the hotel’s small horseshoe-shaped bar swatted her butt with a bar towel as she hurried by, long messy blonde braid bouncing down her back as she headed into the Graff bar for the beginning of her shift. Already several tables were occupied—likely why Shane hustled. Her mile-long, denim-clad legs practically blurred. “Come get a drink to celebrate your sign. One step closer to opening.”

“I’ll come by a little later,” Miranda promised like she had yesterday and the day before although she hadn’t kept her promises because she’d gotten caught up in remodeling her store’s space.

“Now’s always better,” Shane called out as she bore down on a second table. She shook her finger playfully at Miranda. “All work and no play…” She let the phrase dangle. “Am I right?” Shane asked the two businesswomen in suits who were clearly having a meeting although indulging in an early happy hour.

Miranda smiled. Since Found Objects was her shop, decorating and organizing it hardly seemed like work. She walked back into the small, slightly awkward space that had been carved out of a storage room and part of the hall that led to the back parking lot. She lit up seeing the thin, elderly woman with blue eyes that still sparkled, with a puff of white hair like a dandelion.

“Gran.” Miranda rushed forward to hug her grandmother who had helped to make all this possible. “I didn’t know you were coming in today. Look at you, all dressed up.”

She was thrilled to see her grandmother out of the small apartment she’d recently moved into at an assisted living facility in town to be close to her husband of over sixty years. Miranda’s grandfather now needed memory care. Miranda and her grandmother had finally made the tough decision a few months ago that they were unable to sufficiently care for him.

“I’m meeting a few friends in the bar.” Her grandmother’s eyes twinkled. “We’re tired of afternoon popcorn and drip coffee. We’re going rogue.”

Miranda laughed, her heart lighter seeing a glimpse of her spunky gran who’d dimmed during the past few, hard years. “Good for you.”

“You should try it.”

Miranda smiled. “Gran, I am going to make my boutique so beautiful and original that you’ll be so proud.” She looked around her store. “So my rogue days will have to wait.”

Her grandmother patted her hand.

“You are the kindest, most generous and loving person. You’ve always made me proud, Miranda Panda.”

Miranda felt tears prick her eyes. Her grandparents had always been there for her. Always believed in her and accepted her. Even turning her early obsession with pandas into a cute nickname that stuck and reminded her of happy times—baking and knitting with her grandmother and spending weekends and after school helping take care of the cutting horses her grandfather bred until his health started failing too badly.

“But I don’t want you to put off fun anymore. You’re young and need to enjoy it. You’ve given so much to me and your grandad and to so many others. I want you to build your business and renew some friendships and find a man who makes you sparkle.”

“Gran,” Miranda interrupted, blinking back tears and feeling a rush of affection so fierce that she nearly staggered.

“I want you to find the happiness that was mine for so long.” Her grandmother seemed to force her rush of emotion under control. “You of all people deserve to be deeply loved.”

“Gran.” Miranda dashed away the tears.

Having a relationship like her grandad and gran had had was a beautiful dream, and as hard as it had been to admit that her grandfather needed more care, now she would have the chance at more of a life outside the defunct ranch that her grandmother had recently sold.

“This is not a time for tears.” Her gran smiled tremulously, her eyes bright. “I expect an invitation to your grand opening. I’ll bring my posse and your grandad and hopefully be your first official sale. Oh, there are my friends. I should join them, but first, I wanted to bring you something to remind you of home.”

Miranda caught her breath. Her grandmother had brought a pale green decorated Chinese-style ceramic pot with a striking white orchid flower.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, recognizing the pot instantly.

“That lovely gal, Risa Davidson of Sweet Pea Flowers, ordered the orchid for me and repotted it in my cherished pot. Your grandfather bought it for me as a housewarming present when he finished our ranch house.”

“Sixty years ago,” Miranda said.

“Valentine’s Day,” her grandmother added, blinking back a tear.

Miranda squeezed her grandmother’s frail hands, and already her agile imagination started dreaming of ways she could make this Valentine’s Day special for her grandparents. It might be their last together. Her stomach clenched in dread.

“Gran, thank you,” she said softly, feeling the words were totally inadequate to express how much the cherished pot meant to her. She’d moved in with her grandparents junior year of high school when her parents moved from Marietta to Seattle and her grandfather had had his first health scare. She didn’t regret the time with them for a second even though her family accused her of wasting her life.

Never.

Thirty minutes later Miranda entered the bar wanting to greet her grandmother’s friends and to get Shane’s opinion on her store’s sign she’d hand painted after researching old-fashioned font styles in Marietta during the late eighteen hundreds when copper was briefly king. She caught Shane in a no doubt brief lull. Several tables had couples at them, most drinking hot drinks. Miranda loved winter. She loved wearing sweaters, especially the ones she knit at night when she was watching TV with her grandparents and had a moment to herself when no one needed her and she could be idle.

“Hey,” Shane called out. “Storefront lettering looks amazing. Popped my eyes right out.”

Miranda laughed at the exaggeration.

“Want me to make you a cinnamon candy kiss mocha?”

Miranda looked quickly around and stepped closer to the bar. “That doesn’t have alcohol in it does it?” she whispered.

Shane laughed. “What are we, spies? And this is a bar so the alcohol is not a secret, but no, I was planning to test the virgin version on you.”

Miranda found herself flushing a deep red. She felt hot and itchy all over and she couldn’t quite meet Shane’s gaze. Was it that obvious? Even though she liked Shane, she felt a stab of humiliation even as she told herself that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Sex wasn’t everything, and it wasn’t like she had no experience exactly. She just hadn’t had a lot of opportunities. And that would change once she got her business up and humming. Hopefully. But still there was so much more in life than sex.

A lot!

“Yes, please—that sounds lovely,” she said primly, curious about the drink. No wonder Shane could throw the V word around with ease. She’d probably not lost hers but had flung it off in her teens like a cape.

Miranda couldn’t imagine any man saying no to Shane Knight.

Shane stood at the large copper-colored Italian espresso machine expertly pulling shots and steaming milk. Miranda hovered, feeling tempted by the swooshing sound of the steaming milk and then the heavenly dulled roar of whipped cream.

Shane Knight was a goddess at the bar whether it was espresso or cocktails. Miranda’s eyes lit up appreciatively when Shane shaved a cinnamon stick on top of the whipped cream and then sprinkled a few cinnamon candy hearts on top. She plunged a dark chocolate straw into the drink and then pushed it encouragingly toward Miranda.

“What do you think?”

Miranda had only been working on opening her small space a little over a week, but this was the third time Shane had tried a signature espresso drink on her. Miranda had tried to pay for the drinks, but Shane had shrugged the money off. Miranda felt guilty about feeling relieved. Now that she was paying rent—something she should have been doing a decade ago, her mother and sisters reminded her during her dutiful phone calls—and she no longer had the small but steady income from her former job at the clothing boutique Copper Mountain Chic, she was adjusting to her new economic normal. She wanted to prove to her grandparents that the money they’d given her after selling their beloved ranch to move into the care center was not wasted.

“It’s sinful,” Miranda sighed as the flavors exploded and danced in her mouth.

Shane smiled. “I hope so.”

Shane saved her creative cocktail concoction test runs for off-duty Graff staff and customers. One night, Miranda vowed, perhaps the opening night of Found Objects, she would celebrate with a couple of sips of a cocktail. Or champagne. She loved flavored sparkling water. She bet champagne would be even better.

Miranda sipped through the straw more deeply and nearly melted on the spot.

“Wow,” she breathed trying to come up with the right words. “Just wow.”

“Good to know. It’s one of four Valentine-themed coffee drinks I’m putting on the bar menu for February.”

Shane grinned and turned away, repeated the process only in smaller espresso cups, and she added a dash of clear liquor—gin or maybe vodka Miranda speculated—before placing her samples on a distressed metal antique tray and making a swing through the half full bar, chatting and smiling as she handed out her drinks.

Valentine’s Day, Miranda thought dreamily. So romantic and beautiful, a time to reaffirm love and do something special for people in your life. Make cards and drop them off to friends so they knew you were thinking of them. Make a special dinner for her grandparents or call a girlfriend and make several batches of cookies and deliver them to the kids at the after-school program at Harry’s House. This year she was going to…

“Don’t even come near me with that drink.” One of the women sitting in the bar with a laptop and nursing a chardonnay with her co-worker made the sign of the cross as Shane approached. “Valentine’s is a day of disappointment, disaster and despair.”

Miranda startled out of her daydream.

“It’s the commercialization of our pain, mocking us,” the other woman said. “February 14th should be banned from the calendar.”

“From the American psyche,” someone else called out.

“Burned, hung, poisoned and drawn and quartered,” one of Miranda’s new neighbors chimed in.

“And then beheaded and put on a spike at the gates of the town.”

Miranda stared at the people in the bar in dismay. She knew more than a few of them. Her grandmother and her friends had been talking softly, each of them drinking one of Shane’s specialty coffees, likely sans alcohol. Miranda felt like she had to pick her jaw up off the floor.

“Marietta doesn’t have gates,” she said faintly.

“An opportunity to fleece men and suck them dry!” a man practically shouted in a deep baritone even as he took the last sample from Shane’s tray and held it up in a mock toast.

It seemed popular to heap scorn on a day that should be held in tender esteem.

Not me.

“Well, that was fun,” Shane mocked breezily. Her samples gone. Her smile intact. “Can’t say I blame them.”

“You too?” Miranda could barely gulp back her gasp of dismay.

Shane shrugged. “It’s no longer an active hate, just more of a bored ignoring, but since I’m in the business of being hospitable…” she smiled and winked “…specialty drinks, hearts and flowers and cutesy cocktail napkins it is, in about…” she broke off and looked at the large, beautiful watch that always reminded Miranda of a starlit sky “…four days.”

“You of all people should have many fond memories of Valentine’s Day—getting cards from friends, romantic dinners and candles and dashing through the rain while a man drapes his jacket over your shoulders as you run to a theater for a concert. And if you don’t have a date, you can bake specialty cupcakes and bring them to work, distribute candy kisses to the shops on Main Street and customers.” Miranda’s fertile mind fired up more possibilities.

Now it was Shane’s turn to stare. “That’s a movie Valentine’s Day. Not real. No one enjoys the day except little kids and dumb new couples stupidly in love. Everyone else hates it.” Shane nodded toward the bar of people happily finishing her signature Valentine spiked espresso sample or toasting their empty espresso cups high in the air.

Miranda wondered if there were a Scrooge for Valentine’s Day and if so what his name was. She definitely required a word or two with him.

Or her.

Miranda looked again at the small crowd in the bar, a few still mocking Valentine’s Day. And romance. The women seemed as disappointed, verging on bitter as the men.

“Really,” she said hands on hips, her brown eyes narrowed in challenge. “Really. You don’t like Valentine’s Day. We’ll just see about that, Shane Knight and other Valentine haters.”

Chapter One

Lady Gaga belted about a million reasons to stay. Whitman Telford pulled up in the circular drive of the Graff Hotel, which had been a sad ruin when he’d lived in town. He hit the power button of the satellite radio of the rented Acura MDX that still smelled new. Silence. He couldn’t give Lady G, himself or anyone he’d ever met one good reason to stay in cold-as-hell Marietta at the end of January, but he could definitely think of a million reasons why he wanted to drive away. And he hadn’t even stepped out of the absurd gas-guzzling SUV he’d been forced to rent due to the Montana winter he was about to experience.

Again.

Damn.

Even a promised “month only,” followed by a hearty handshake was a month too long.

A smiling valet hurried down the sweeping staircase to his door. He looked painfully young and happy. Shouldn’t he be in school? It was a Monday afternoon. Whitman didn’t remember high school getting out so early, but then he’d played soccer and basketball and had run track—anything to keep from going home. Whitman read his name tag. Joseph. Maybe school was out for the day. Or perhaps he’d just graduated. Or got his GED so he could work full time and help his family with the bills—always the bills. Remembered despair knocked on Whitman’s memory, but like always, he kept that door firmly shut.

Whitman opened the door, keys in one hand. The top of the door in the other because once he let go, it was official. He would be in Marietta for at least one long, cold, dark, boring month. Filling in as an orthopedic surgeon at Marietta Regional Hospital instead of starting his fellowship at University Hospital in Santa Monica. Blocks from the beach. Instead he was here. Small town entombed in snow, Montana, being supervised by an orthopedic specialist with not much more experience than he had. Not that Whitman would need the help. That’s what burned. He’d wanted the fellowship so he could be at the peak of his game. Have his pick of jobs after. Control of his life. Respect. Acceptance. He’d honed his discipline since he was twelve to get to where he was except yesterday looked a hell of a lot better than today.

“You must be Doctor Telford,” Joseph said cheerily rubbing his leather-gloved hands together and stomping a little as if to shake off the cold. Whitman had thought he was done with all gloves except surgical ones. “I can park your car after I help you with your luggage.” Joseph smiled brightly.

“I can get my own luggage.” Whitman pulled out a garment bag, a suitcase, and his laptop case. He hadn’t brought a lot.

A Month.

Most of his clothes and all of his furniture had already been sent to the apartment he’d rented in Santa Monica anticipating his February first start. And now they would sit boxed up waiting for his March arrival.

Joseph smoothed his hands down his wool navy vest that poked between the western-style, fleece-lined duster that was clearly part of the western-themed, historic uniform and a nod to the devastating deep freeze of the season. He was clearly uncomfortable with Whitman carrying the luggage.

“I’ll show you in,” he said sounding a bit miserable as if Whitman’s bad mood was a virus he’d caught, but Whitman didn’t relent—as if giving up the two bags and Coach leather satchel would somehow mean that he would relax a little, enjoy a part of his stay. Then Joseph drew himself up to his full height that still barely met Whitman’s broad shoulders and held out his hand.

Whitman reluctantly handed over the car keys.

Is he even old enough to drive?

“Thank you,” and even he heard the stiffness in his voice “I’ll check in on my own.”

“Dr. Telford. Welcome to Marietta.”

Whitman could barely manage a nod.

“And welcome to the Graff.”

The words sent a shot of doom to his gut.

It was really more of a staff than a stick, Miranda thought, running the broken branch through her hands. And if she could find or make a base for it, the staff would become drumroll please…her Tree of Kindness. Miranda hadn’t worked out all the details of her Valentine’s…hmm…she didn’t even have a name for it yet, but she wanted February to be the month of kindness and giving. She wanted to involve more than couples so that everyone—children, adults and older residents; singles and couples—would have a chance to celebrate the day of love far more broadly than romantic love. Love for their friends, family and community.

Since the trashing of Valentine’s Day earlier, Miranda had become imbued with grim purpose. She would make Valentine’s Day in Marietta a day of celebration. The entire month would become an ode to generosity of spirit where people had open hearts. Performed random acts of spontaneous kindness that they didn’t just post on social media for a pat on the back.

She scowled thinking of the bitterness in the bar earlier. Not on her watch.

Her mind spun with plans that she knew she’d have to finalize and clear with the Graff management because she wanted to have an open house in her store, and since it was small, she was hoping that some of it could spill out into the bar, the one part of the hotel she could see from her tucked-away boutique. And then she’d have to check with local businesses if they would post her flyer—which she’d have to make. And Dylan at the radio station, would he give her a plug on air? Maybe interview her? Her stomach lurched with nerves even as her mind conjured the bold colors and the words to explain her concept.

She climbed up a six-foot ladder she’d borrowed from maintenance so that she could hang her red twinkle lights on the top of the wide, worn, western-style doorframe that had been custom-made for her before the Graff had ordered the glass for the front of the store. It made the entrance look more thematically western and historic.

Miranda hummed as she twisted little hooks into the reclaimed wood framing the entrance that a former high school classmate had brought from a job site and cut to fit. And then Colt had drilled the frame in and hung the glass door with the twisted copper handle that his sister-in-law had made for her for free. Just one of the many reasons why she loved Marietta and wanted to make Valentine’s Day and her boutique special.

Miranda decided to make the small, nearly hidden hooks permanent so that she could always have twinkling lights silver and gold for Christmas and the New Year, red for Valentine’s, Green for Saint Patrick’s Day and spring and then…

“I need to buy shaving cream, please.”

“Oh!”

Miranda was so startled by the voice below that she dropped the handful of hooks that rained down on a face so familiar from her girlhood fantasies that for a millisecond she thought she’d conjured him from the adolescent recesses of her overactive imagination like a fantasy Valentine date. Her grip loosened on the ladder and then she started to tip. Never athletic, but physically active especially the past few years when she’d helped take care of so many of her grandparents’ needs and their ranch while still working a part-time job, Miranda jumped so she had a chance of landing on her feet.

Only she didn’t.

She jumped straight into the arms of the most beautiful boy ever to breathe Montana air. The arms of the boy who’d featured at the top of her hottest, smartest, most brooding, most gorgeous eyes, best hair, most everything list from high school. Except now, twelve years later, the boy was a man. She jumped from mostly buried fantasies into the reality of the arms of Witt Telford.

He’d been braced to catch her but hadn’t anticipated that she’d jump, adding momentum. Still, years of athletics supplemented by regular gym attendance kept him rooted. Plus, she seemed to weigh less than the hay bales he’d been forced to toss around from age twelve until he escaped to college far from Montana’s snowbound winters. The woman pressed against his chest, with astonishing closeness and warmth, which both shocked him and slapped him hard with the reality that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d held a woman. He immediately let go.

Only she didn’t.

Her arms looped around his neck. Her small breasts pressed against his chest, and her scent—something tropical and fresh like eucalyptus that reminded him of the Southern California beaches—teased his senses, and he had to fight not to inhale deeply.

He wasn’t quite sure what to do. Her eyes were caramel brown and sparkled with life and humor. And her lips curved up in a crooked smile that unnerved him with its warmth like he knew her and they were in the middle of a scene but he didn’t know the play or the lines. Her hair was the weirdest color—it was no one color—like it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be blonde or very light brown. And it hung thick and straight to her shoulders like a bob that had grown out badly and long ago.

“Well, how’s that for a welcome home, Witt,” she said using the abbreviation that had started his first day he’d moved bewildered, too shocked to yet grieve, to Marietta and began middle school the very next day. “It’s good to see you,” she said, her eyes searching his face. “I didn’t hear you were coming for a visit.”

His stomach bottomed out. She sounded like she knew him. Damn. In this town, she probably did.

“Thank you.” Even he heard that his voice sounded doubtful. What was he thanking her for? Typical. Give him the tools of his trade, and his OR, and he was in his zone. Confident. Cool under pressure. Knowing exactly what to do. What to say. How to lead.

Out of the OR: unmitigated social disaster. Probably why he kept mostly to himself and his mouth shut.

“Riley didn’t say you were coming home when I saw her over the holidays.”

His sister didn’t know.

None of them knew.

“Oh.” One of her hands, small and pale, lightly freckled, rested on his forearm. “I get it.” She moved her hand away, and he stared at the empty space where the cuff of his tailored white Oxford button-down peeked out from beneath his dark gray cashmere sweater. She gave his forearm a little squeeze, and the contact while not expected wasn’t unpleasant. But she didn’t know him. Not really. Why was she being so open and friendly? He couldn’t shake the feeling she thought he was someone else.

He looked at her and was startled when she pressed a slim finger against her pursed bow-shaped lips that were a little puffy like she had an allergic reaction or collagen although in Marietta he doubted it. “It’s a secret. Shhh.”

He wasn’t quite sure how to respond and so he did what he often did when in doubt. Said nothing.

“Am I right?”

She seemed so cheerful. Confident. Sure of her place in the world. He hated to let her down, which was, he knew, more than stupid. She might have known his half-sister in high school perhaps. She did look young. Twenty-two or twenty-three at most. No wonder he didn’t remember her. Nothing at all was familiar about her. Except her voice, a little.

“Witt? Do they know you are here?”

Damn. It was going to start again. The awkwardness. Being pulled in half, even though his mother was long past the ability to physically pull anything. He hadn’t fit in Marietta eighteen years ago. He hadn’t wanted to. And he still didn’t. But he was here for a month, an eternity. He could hardly expect his “homecoming” to stay under wraps. Not contacting his biological dad, stepmother or half siblings would be near impossible and worse if he didn’t than if he did. But he never knew what to say. He always felt like the outlier. The spurious point on the graft of their lives. The awkward embarrassment.

“It will be a surprise,” he finally managed through stiff lips.

And then she was down at his feet. Like she was bowing to him. What the…hooks, he remembered with a startled flush. The gold metal hooks were scattered around his feet, and she picked them up while he stood there like the dumbest, most arrogant prig on the planet.

“Let me help you,” he said, bending down just as she stood up.

“Ow,” she nearly yipped as the top of his jaw collided with the crown of her head. “Rumors are true. That romance-novel-worthy heroic jaw is made of iron.” She rubbed the top of her head and her eyes sparkled at him.

He felt…he didn’t know what he felt. Out of place. Uncomfortable. Was she teasing him? What rumors? Did she know him? He decided to ditch the shaving cream and just get to the hospital. He’d be more comfortable there. He was familiar with Marietta Regional Hospital from when he’d job shadowed and volunteered as a teen. He’d just go check into the hospital to see if his credentials had cleared and meet with Dr. Wyatt Gallagher. He did remember the Gallaghers from high school. They had always been top students, ambitious and as charming as he had been stiff and determined.

“Ahhhh,” he failed to answer her, but wasn’t sure there’d been a question in her bursts of speech.

“You don’t remember me do you, Witt?”

Chapter Two

It shouldn’t hurt. It really shouldn’t. He’d been in AP classes. College prep all the way. More her older siblings’ caliber of a student. And he’d been an athlete—soccer, basketball and track. And she’d been none of those things. But still they’d attended Marietta High School together for four years. And middle school before that. And their graduating class had not been huge. And he hadn’t noticed her enough to remember her or even know that he should.

But she’d noticed him.

She’d remembered him.

Usually stuff like this she could blow off. Laugh at. Forget. But her nonchalance, her sunny-side up seemed stuck behind a cloud. Twelve years had passed since she’d had her last glimpse of him striding across the high school stage, diploma in hand, eyes looking far away. He looked taller, fitter, face more carved and angular and cologne-ad ready—aloof expression in place as if the photographer had already started shooting. And his posture just screamed ‘get me out of here.’ Or maybe it was true what the other kids had said about him in school. He’d just thought he was better than any of them.

Something in Miranda just couldn’t quite believe that assessment. She hadn’t then. She’d defended him hotly, coveting and explaining away his brooding, aloof personality fiercely. In her mind, he’d been a non-blood-sucking Edward Cullen, horribly alone and misunderstood. And standing here in her store, closer to him than she’d ever been. And him more handsome and more removed and in her mind more awkward than ever, she still believed she was right.

He was lonely and shy.

It seemed impossible if you just accounted for his physical beauty—face and tall, athletic body, coupled with the fact she knew he’d finished medical school and residency so he was officially a doctor, it seemed like he’d be striding around feeling like he was all that. But she got the feeling he didn’t feel like he fit in his skin.

Her heart ached.

“High school.” He dug up the two words as if they were a foreign language.

His tone made it worse.

So Miranda did what she did best. Made it better. She waved her hand and laughed it off, and she let her eyes look around her store—the stacked recycled wood shelves Colt Wilder had helped her to make after he’d seen her scavenging some scraps from an old barn east of town that he’d been rebuilding with a crew. Then she looked up at the vintage chandelier she’d cleaned and repaired and had had an electrician rewire—anywhere but at him.

“That was a long time ago,” she said. “A lifetime.”

She knew he’d gone back east to college, Davidson College in North Carolina. Then Duke Medical School. She’d stayed in Marietta by choice even as her family scattered far away conquering their dreams and building empires.

“Miranda Evans,” she said.

“What?” He looked startled. Uncertain. Almost icy cool.

Give it up.

“What brand?” she asked perkily, years of retail easing her way through this embarrassing moment for them both.

She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t disappointed. Not that she’d expected anything, but still. It did make her feel a little smaller, and her store a little emptier. He stared at her. Gosh he was gorgeous. A million miles away. Tall, angular and sophisticated in a way she wasn’t used to seeing. And his hair was perfect. Thick and springy and ink black. It waved back from his face as if sculpted and frozen in time in a photo. And it probably was. Even gravity didn’t defy Whitman Telford.

Edward Cullen my ass, she thought cheekily. He made Rob Pattinson average and Edward Cullen a warm breeze instead of stone. She bit her lip to hold back a smile.

She wondered if he ever got aggravated and ran those long fingers through his hair when he was searching for a cure to some mysterious ailment, although he was an orthopedic surgeon so probably not too many diseases tormented his professional milieu. Infections though. She used to work early mornings at the Java Café and a lot of the doctors and nurses would come in early for coffee before their shifts started so she heard a lot of medical terminology as she’d caught snippets of conversation in between steaming various milks.

“I beg your pardon?”

No one spoke like that in town. Miranda imagined a king or prince maybe. This time the smile dancing on her lips was genuine.

“Shaving cream.”

He was an awkward idiot who managed to make a hash of a simple purchase. Imagine if he’d needed to purchase condoms and the salesperson had been one of his retired teachers or a preacher’s wife. And why was he thinking about condoms? He couldn’t have been more of a douche not remembering a girl from high school who’d so clearly remembered him. Why? He didn’t know. He’d kept his head down, face planted into books and his computer on a single-minded soul quest to get off his biological father’s struggling ranch where he hadn’t wanted to be in the first place and into college so he could get his life back on track. Prove his mother’s parents wrong. Make his mom proud even though she was dead. He’d been determined to not “turn out like the cowboy.” He’d make his own name for himself in the medical field. Live the life he was meant to. The life his mother had set him up for before she’d died so young and randomly.

Not here.

Not with them.

He squirted the gel on his brush and worked the lather into his face. He loved a clean shave and couldn’t believe that even in his haste packing he’d left behind his specialty brand of shaving cream. That was what the Internet was for he thought as he began to scrape the blade in a practiced pattern across his jawline.

He shouldn’t care about…Miranda. That was her name. He didn’t care, he reminded himself although he could still see her dark caramel eyes rounding. Fluttering and blinking. Hear her sucked-in breath. The telltale flush across her cheekbones. The step back she’d taken. He didn’t care. He shouldn’t care. He wouldn’t care. He was in Marietta for a month, or two tops.

And then she’d packaged up some locally made Russian olive jelly for his “mother.”

“Stepmother,” he’d quickly and automatically corrected, and then he’d wanted to kick himself for sounding defensive and obvious. Clearly TMI for Miranda, who’d been packaging up the jelly as well as a lavender sachet or something along those lines that his stepmother, Sarah, could chill for thirty minutes and then put on her forehead or the back of her neck to help soothe her headaches.

Lord, small towns. Some girl from high school remembered his stepmother, Sarah, got migraines.

And now he was back here as socially lame as he’d been when he’d left. He’d not been this ridiculous in school. Definitely not.

When he’d told Miranda he didn’t yet have plans to see his stepmother, her look of astonishment would have been funny if he’d been someone else—someone who laughed easily and delighted in the absurd. Neither of which he did.

And then he’d dug himself deeper by staying in the store instead of hurrying out.

“It is a surprise, Witt. They will be so happy to see you. I can make up a gift basket for you to bring. I’m not really open yet and haven’t organized all my vendors but this is my store, and I’m going to be officially open in a few days so plenty of time to shop for Valentine’s Day.” She’d smiled and winked like he had a sweetheart stashed in his pocket. And then her voice had gushed like she was a town tour guide. “And I’m going to carry only locally made products and feature local Montana artists along with all the other products that hotel guests will need: sundries, snacks, drinks, magazines. I’m going to carry a few books too by Montana authors.”

Her enthusiasm made him feel exhausted. Overwhelmed. And somehow he’d agreed to a gift basket.

“No rush,” was all he’d managed to choke out before a feigned look at his watch had him striding back out through the door to the quiet sanctuary of his room. Had he even paid for the shaving cream? And the…he’d looked down at the book she’d tucked under his arm—a book about Marietta hauntings.

Really. Someone had written and self-published a book about possible haunted sites and experiences with spirits from the beyond in Marietta? He tossed the book across the room into a chair.

He’d never read a ghost story in his life and wasn’t about to start at age thirty.

Although, he thought grimly rinsing off his razor, this town did haunt him.

Déjà vu.

“Surprised as hell to see you here.” Dr. Wyatt Gallagher shook his hand with force and then pulled him into some sort of man hug that involved an arm that felt like a steel cable, a chest bump like a sport and beer should be involved, and then a slap on his shoulder that was hard enough to rock him.

Wyatt laughed as if he knew he’d startled him and made him uncomfortable.

“Opportunity for a do-over,” Wyatt said. “You’re a long way out of high school. Your folks must be ecstatic to have you back.”

No one had ever been ecstatic to have him anywhere except perhaps a patient with an open fracture.

“Step,” he started to say and then grit his teeth.

He respected Wyatt. Even though he was young, he was already renowned as a talented, diligent surgeon highly skilled with traumatic orthopedic injuries that were not uncommon on the rodeo circuits and in ranching. He had also just watched him operate on a young ranch hand who had nearly been crushed by a bull when trying to move it. Whitman had been impressed with Dr. Gallagher’s skills, calm, speed and way of directing the operating team. He’d also been a little shocked at the efficiency of the hospital and the advanced technology he’d seen during all stages of the emergency.

He had just checked in to meet Wyatt, whom he hadn’t seen in years, when the call had come. By the time the cowboy had been brought in, everyone was ready in the ER, the surgical team was assembled, the emergency room doctor was communicating with the paramedics. Whitman hadn’t imagined a small hospital team could work as smoothly and efficiently as in Houston.

And then during surgery, Wyatt had had country music softly playing that he’d sung along with, which had made Whitman want to grind his teeth and slam his Bose noise-canceling headphones on his ears, but of course he couldn’t. Still Wyatt had operated with a skill and precision and confidence that had made Whitman reluctantly admit his time here, at least professionally, would not be wasted—although his ears felt like they were bleeding. He’d had the feeling at the end of the surgery that Wyatt had for some unknown reason deliberately chosen the country music to irk him.

He’d seen the extensive damage to the cowboy’s hip, pelvis, left femur and lower ribs. Wyatt referred to the X-rays, now and again, but hadn’t seemed to hesitate or question himself once. No one else had questioned him either. Whitman, who’d just spent four years in a highly coveted residency spot and before that four years in a high-pressured medical school, had been floored by the lack of ego and tenseness in the OR. Frankly, he’d never seen anything quite like it.

“Thanks for letting me view the surgery,” he said.

“Not a problem. Likely we’ll be assisting each other in the coming months,” Wyatt said, and Whitman thought about correcting him—a month—that’s what he’d agreed to although the CEO of the hospital’s parent company had waved his hand a little indicating that it might be a little more time than a month. But not months. He kept his mouth closed just as he’d done about the music choice in the OR. He knew, absolutely knew it was the lead surgeon’s choice of play list and if anyone bitched, the music was turned up louder.

He didn’t want to kick up a fuss so that his month became two or three unless he had to.

“Good to see you back in town.” Wyatt’s voice brought Witt back to the present. “Can’t say I wasn’t shocked to get a surgeon of your caliber here as part of a fellowship. Too bad you’re not looking to stay permanent,” Wyatt said, his smile easy, but his eyes were sharp with curiosity. “Early spring and summer’s when the fun for me really begins when ranch life kicks into high gear with the rodeo and bronc and bull and horse trainings and practices, but I don’t have to tell you that. You grew up ranch all the way.”

It was all Whitman could do to not recoil, but his spine did snap a little straighter, and he sucked in a breath. He was not ranch. Even when he’d been exiled to Paradise Springs Ranch at age twelve, to endure six years in exile, he had not been ranch. He could feel Wyatt’s gaze honing. Whitman had left his father’s ranch far, far behind in the rearview mirror and his conscious mind. He didn’t want Wyatt or anyone else reminding him about it.

“Thank you again,” he said formally. “I’ll check in with administration to ensure all my credentials have cleared so I can start tomorrow.”

Wyatt rocked back on his heels a little. “You just arrived earlier today. Don’t you want to settle in? Reacquaint yourself with the town? Relax a bit with your family? When’s the last time you were home?”

“I prefer to work,” Whitman said not answering any of Wyatt’s “friendly” questions. They wouldn’t be friends. They were colleagues. Wyatt was his supervisor. “Don’t want to miss any of my training. Besides you’re short a surgeon.”

“Good enough,” Wyatt said after a long beat of silence when there was nothing but the hum of the vending machine and ambient noise of a busy hospital that both men were so familiar with they probably automatically tuned most of it out. “My fiancée will be thrilled that I might make it home to see her a few times before the wedding, and I can tell her the honeymoon is definitely back on. Owe you for that. Good to have you here, Dr. Cowboy.” Wyatt shoulder checked him hard. “I’ll go down to admin with you. They like me there.”

Everyone probably liked Wyatt, Whitman thought trying to quash his envy. He had that easy charm and comfort that had always eluded Whitman. Not that he wanted it. But still, he knew his social skills were lacking. Every review mentioned his lack of easy warmth, and he’d compensated by out-studying, out-working, out-performing everyone in his way to the top. As a doctor, skill, knowledge and confidence were king. And those cultivated and practiced traits had never once failed him.

He declined Wyatt’s offer of a drink at Grey’s. And also a dinner invitation to meet his fiancée and brothers and their wives at the ranch with a vague ‘another time,’ uttered by Wyatt not him. He avoided walking down Main Street though preferring to walk along the back side of the hospital to the back side of the Graff. Wyatt had been astonished to learn that he intended to stay at the Graff. He’d offered to put Whitman up or find him an apartment. Whitman had deflected and said the Graff suited for now.

“You’re not going to sneak out in the middle of the night are you?” Wyatt had demanded after they’d both ensured his paperwork and initial emergency credentialing had all cleared through the board.

“Certainly not,” Whitman said, shocked to have his work ethic questioned. No one had queried his academic or professional commitment ever. He might not want to be stuck in a rural hospital, especially not in the town where he’d endured his teen years, but he would never shirk a job assignment and his personal preferences would play no part in his professional performance.

“I was joking, Witt.” Wyatt laughed.

Whitman hesitated and then forced himself to speak. “Actually I go by Whitman now,” he said, not sure why he felt like wincing inside. He’d always gone by Whitman only no one had used it, certainly not his biological father who’d tried the word out and then said it sounded like a box of chocolates. Or a college, which Whitman had later found out it was—in Eastern Washington.

“That’s probably not going to work here,” Wyatt said easily. “Not much ceremony, pomp or circumstance in Marietta, and that’s how I roll. But whatever. Give it a try. See you tomorrow, Doctor.”

Whitman retrieved his long navy overcoat from the doctor’s locker room and braced himself for the cold. After four years in Houston with the average daytime winter temperature hovering in the mid-sixties, the frigid Montana winter that would likely stretch into April, was really going to suck. One more reason he wasn’t likely to stay at the ranch—if they’d even have him.

He exited the hospital out of a side door and the hulking outline of the Graff was visible a short walk away across the railroad tracks. He jammed his hands deep into his navy trench-style overcoat and walked quickly down Railway Avenue hoping that the back entrance to the Graff was open so he wouldn’t have to constantly face the cheerful faces of Bob or Cathi at the front desk every time he walked in and out of the lobby. Early this afternoon, he’d still been stewing about being back in the town he’d worked so hard to escape. Then there’d been the front desk clerk, Bob, who’d checked him in so cheerfully as if he truly were happy to have him as a guest and had then provided him with a list of restaurant suggestions, activities and places to visit. There was only so much perky he could take, and he’d hit his max in the first thirty seconds.

He was in luck. The back door was propped open. A sound of a bitten-off cry, followed by a scrape against metal, and then a soft thud and clang had him whirling to meet the threat.

That wasn’t. Even as his heart slammed ridiculously hard and adrenaline coursed through his body, he tried to remind himself he was no longer at one of the tougher inner-city hospitals in Houston.

The girl from today.

Woman.

Miranda.

Huge eyes, butt planted in the snow, a stepladder tipped over beside her, its legs jammed into her side.

“Are you hurt?” He squatted beside her. “Did you hit your head? May I see?”

“It’s you,” she breathed.

He stilled. Not sure how to take that. She sounded surprised. No, not that. More like amazed. Awed.

But like most social situations—although this barely qualified—he was likely reading it wrong.

“Your head, Miranda. Are you injured?”

“You remembered,” she said. Her breath was warm against his slightly exposed wrist as he attempted to tilt her head slightly forward away from the edge of the dumpster. She winced.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” he said softly.

“My name. You remembered this time.”

“You told me early this afternoon so that’s hardly an academic feat of memory,” he said, sliding his hand into the breast pocket of his wool blazer and fishing out his retinoscope. He shone it first in her right eye and then her left.

“Witt, did you just make a joke?” she whispered.

“Unlikely.”

She laughed. The sound was light and sweet like wind chimes and again he saw her mouth split into the lopsided grin he’d noticed earlier today. Something niggled at his memory, but he ignored it. Her loopy smile made him feel a little strange inside. Warmer, like the wind chill had loosened its grip.

“Follow my finger,” he said turning off the light.

She did, her gaze intent, but focused on his face, not his finger. “You’re shaking.”

“The adrenaline,” he dismissed. “My finger,” he repeated.

“Your face is way more interesting. And why do you have so much adrenaline? I fell, not you.”

He stopped moving his finger and stared at her. A memory crowded in of his first year of residency in Houston. All hands on deck in the ER from a gang shooting with a lot of vics. Him in the ambulance bay with an ER doc helping get the patients into trauma and the loud crash of metal as a car screeched to a stop, hitting a dumpster before several shooters poured out of the car, shooting like they were in a heist movie and him flinging himself over the two patients, grabbing the ER doc and making a lunge for the young medic. He’d been a little too late. She’d been hit, but had survived. He’d managed to put pressure on her wound while the cops and hospital security did their jobs.

He’d been jumpy around loud noises since. And he hated that three years later, he still couldn’t control his racing heart and adrenaline surge when startled by loud bangs.

“I didn’t get hit that hard, Witt. I’m okay.” She assured him, but he wasn’t convinced. Her gaze was a little…goofy. Good thing he’d gone for bones because he was positive ‘goofy expression’ was not in any neurology text, and he wasn’t quite sure why his brain had come up with that term. But her pupils were the same size and responded appropriately to the light, although her conversational asides were making him mentally dizzy.

“Why adrenaline?”

“You startled me.” He gave up ignoring her comments. “But I’m not sure if you’re neurologically uncompromised. You’re not making total sense,” he said softly. “I can bring my car around and drive you to the hospital emergency. We can get you a CAT scan.”

“I’m fine.” She batted his finger away. “It’s just the distraction of you. I always thought you were the most beautiful boy in high school and now I bet women throw themselves in your path on a daily basis. You’re likely used to stumbling over them. Good thing you rocked the hurdles in high school. You were so fast and smooth. Like a gazelle. Do you have to hurdle over star-struck women on your way to work or to get a coffee?”

He dropped his retinoscope in the snow and stared. Miranda picked it up and handed it to him. One corner of her mouth quirked up.

“Don’t freak. I didn’t fall because I’m taking up stalking you as a hobby. I’m fine. Besides, I heard you were an orthopedist specializing in sports injuries. Shouldn’t you be looking at my bones?”

“Did you injure your coccyx?” he asked cautious now, suddenly realizing they were alone at the back of the hotel in the dark and he wasn’t sure if she were concussed or coming on to him or hoped he would come on to her… He couldn’t think of another reason and even those were ludicrous. For years his studies had demanded all his attention and then his intense work schedule during residency had made anything except working out and volunteering at one of the free children’s clinics nearly impossible.

“Is that my tailbone?”

“Yes.”

Her eyes dropped to his mouth and then jerked up again. “Yes, it hurts, but I’m fine,” she said. “Just a little bruised and embarrassed, and…um…pretzeled.” She glanced down at her sprawled-out legs tangled in the legs of the bright yellow step stool. Even in the dark it looked garish.

“A hand?” He held out his hand. She looked at it and then at him, clearly a question in her eyes, and then she smiled. “I knew I was right.”

“About?” He took her hand and then slid his other under her arm and wrapped it a little around her waist. “Steady,” he said and then stood, taking her with him and keeping his grip light, but definitely present.

She sighed. “Everything.”

“You would be the first.”

“I think that’s another joke, Witt. Progress.”

“Don’t go jumping to conclusions now,” he said and righted the step stool. “What were you doing out here with this?” It seemed the height of stupid with the snow and ice and evening closing in.

“Trying to get the fake Christmas tree out of the dumpster. I don’t know who threw it in here, but I spotted it when I brought some boxes out to the recycling.”

His glove was smeared with blood. Her head was definitely injured.

“Miranda, do you have a first aid kit in your store?”

She looked at his glove. “Oh. That’s mine? My bad. Sorry. I have a leather cleaner. I can clean that for you.”

She was worried about his glove, not her head?

“Let’s get you inside and in better light.”

“I’m fine,” she said. Her cheeks, in the wash of light from the open door went from white to bright pink. “First I want to grab that tree.”

“We’re long past Christmas,” he said herding her toward the door. “When was your last tetanus shot?”

“I saw a show on the Science Channel about the bacterium Clostridium tetani and the tetanus booster shot being given every ten years is just a random guess. Doctors used to tell people to have it every year. But now some speculate you can go thirty years without a booster. Did you know that?”

“I might have heard something about that.” He kicked the door to the Graff shut behind them.

Chapter Three

You’re not going to need stitches, Miranda,” Witt said after gently probing her scalp and then carefully flushing the wound with fluid and patting an antiseptic wipe on her scalp.

She held herself very still. He was touching her, and it felt so wonderful. He smelled amazing. Not at all like how she imagined someone who worked in a hospital would smell—cold, scary, sterile, chemical, but instead Witt smelled fresh like the mountains—pine and cedar. She wanted to lean in and inhale him, absorb his warmth and maleness, and she was afraid she’d give in to the impulse, which she knew would be really, really weird, especially for someone so reserved. In her mind she knew she could rationalize it—she was lonely, she hadn’t been on a lot of dates, and even with trying to get her store completely opened before February 1st, she had too much time to think now that she was no longer helping her beloved grandparents to stay in their own home. She hated living alone in the single bedroom apartment converted from a garage on Bramble Lane. She hated being alone.

And Witt had been her biggest fantasy since forever.

And he was here. Talking to her. Touching her. Taking care of her. She knew it wasn’t personal. She didn’t get that lost in her fantasies. He hadn’t even remembered her from high school although she’d tried to put herself in his path at every opportunity back then.

Stalker.

She’d probably been lucky he hadn’t noticed her and had her arrested for harassment. With his brain and ambition, they hadn’t been in a lot of classes together. But she had joined the chess club just so she could watch him, tanned arms folded on the table, concentration absolute, his dark hair so thick and full of body waving back from his face, and falling too long over his collar. And then she’d joined the debate team just to listen to him speak.

He rifled through her first aid kit, frowning a little.

“This isn’t bad,” he said. “But you may want to consider an upgrade.”

“Okay,” she said, realizing that she’d probably agree to anything he suggested. Miranda knew technically he was considered way out of her league—probably a whole different game—but still, she could look. And smell. Gosh he smelled as gorgeous as he looked. And his hands were beautiful. Large, square, tapered fingers, a little rough, which surprised her as she had suspected doctors would keep their hands pretty protected.

“What did you think of the hospital?” she asked, desperate to be more than a patient.

Immediately his face shut down; the professional interest as he had examined her scalp was gone like a light turned off.

“It’s fine.”

He turned his attention to a leather satchel that she thought perhaps contained some medical supplies as well as his computer.

Miranda huffed out the breath she’d been holding and relaxed her posture into a slump. Her head did throb. And her…what had he called it—a coccyx? That sounded like Russian soldiers to her, the historical kind marching in the snow fighting Napoleon’s army or maybe the dancing ones or the ones who somersaulted off galloping horses. Her coccyx felt like someone was hitting her with a hammer. Pain radiated up her spine and down her right leg. It had been hard to sit still while he’d examined her head, but she could hardly have him look at her butt—at least not in a professional context.


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