Authors: Patti Berg
In other words, she’d been irresponsible—just
like her brother. “Don’t worry, Ellie,” Eric had said. “Matt Winchester told me once the place was refurbished, he’d keep the rooms filled with paying guests. It won’t take much to get it into shape. A little paint. Some cleaning. We can have it up and running in no time.”
looked around her again, taking note of all the obvious things that needed repair or replacement. Without a doubt, she knew she’d definitely made a mistake. And the biggest mistake of all was believing Eric would really join her in Sapphire, Montana, population 372.
The words Eric had uttered to her months after she’d bought the hotel and weeks after she’d closed her photography business rang out strong in her mind, too. “Sorry, Ellie. I can’t go with you. I’m getting married.” A week ago she’d smiled and thrown rice, and tried to feel good about starting a new life in a new town. It was one of the promises she’d made the year before; it was one of the promises she wouldn’t forget. Eric had a new life now, and she, apparently, had one, too.
Only, Elizabeth hadn’t planned on being alone.
In the cold.
In the middle of nowhere.
She took a deep breath of the frigid air and climbed ten creaking stairsteps that led to the expansive covered porch surrounding the Victorian. She ran a gloved hand over the railing and pictured a fresh coat of forest green paint glistening in the summer sunlight. Maybe Eric was right; maybe all it needed was a little cleaning, some paint and polish. A lot of work. And a lot of love.
Her home in Los Angeles had looked like a
dump in the beginning, but she’d turned it into a showplace. It wouldn’t be difficult to do that all over again. Maybe, just maybe, this was what she needed to take her mind off what had happened a year ago. Heaven knows the psychiatrist hadn’t been much help. Work had always been her salvation, and from the looks of her new home, she’d be stress and worry free for the rest of her life.
She studied her surroundings, picturing the place as it might look when summer arrived. She’d fill planter boxes and Grecian urns with red, pink, and white geraniums and scatter hanging baskets of English ivy and Boston fern along the beams. She’d serve iced tea and lemonade to her guests in cut glass tumblers and cheesecake and petit fours on antique china. Men and women would sit in wicker rockers on the porch and talk about the latest good book they’d read, about music, and their travels, or maybe debate politics.
It all sounded so wonderful, so dreamlike. She’d have a home again, a garden. She’d be in a town where clean, fresh air was the rule rather than the exception. Where people walked by slowly and smiled and maybe even stopped for a moment to chat. Sapphire, Montana, sounded so perfect.
Except for the cold.
She pulled the collar of her coat more tightly around her neck and attempted to get a view of the town through the blowing snow. She hadn’t seen much while she’d driven; most of the time she’d kept her eyes glued on what little road she could see and fought the storm to keep the Jeep on the highway. Now, only the brick bank building on one side of the hotel and the Tin Cup Cafe, which
sat directly across the street, were in sight. And out in front of the rustic restaurant was a man standing at the edge of the boardwalk—staring directly into her eyes.
A shiver ran down her spine and she couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or from the eyes boring into hers. The man reached up and tipped his hat, welcoming her, she imagined, in typical cowboy fashion. But he made no other move to approach, he just continued to stare.
Elizabeth’s heart began to race. She felt it thumping under the thick layers of her coat and sweater. What was it about the man’s eyes that mesmerized her? She’d been stared at before, but never so intensely, so thoroughly. She was flattered, yet frightened.
She forced herself to turn away and quickly retrieved an old brass skeleton key from her pocket. She slid it into the lock of the grimy beveled glass and oak-framed door, anxious to get inside, away from the heat of the man’s eyes, which she could still feel beating against her back. For some strange reason, she felt she had to get away from him. She attempted to turn the key, but it stuck.
She tried again. Nothing.
She looked back across the street. The man was still standing there, still watching.
Ignore him, Elizabeth. Just ignore him and maybe he’ll go away,
she told herself.
But he didn’t go away. Instead, he walked down the stairs and into the street. He was moving toward her. Still staring. With those eyes.
She turned away and tried the key again, imploring it to turn, but it wouldn’t budge. She
gripped the old brass knob with her leather glove and attempted to twist it, wishing she could push open the door and escape from the stranger.
She heard his boots on the walk. Coming closer. Closer. She gave the knob one more try. The leather of her glove slipped
on the handle; it was as if she were trying to twist a ball of melting ice. The soles of her boots slid on the icy doorstep and she grabbed at the handle again, trying to keep herself from falling. But her efforts were in vain, and she landed loud and hard, smack on her tush, which slid on the ice, and left her flat on her back.
“Need a hand?”
She looked up at the giant of a man looming over her. He didn’t look threatening any longer—even from this position. He just looked big and powerful, and those eyes of his blazed down on her from under his snow-dusted black Stetson. He was staring, from the top of her head to the tips of her boots and back again. She hated to be stared at. She hated to be laughed at, too, but those bright blue sapphire eyes of his were doing just that.
He reached toward her with a rawhide-gloved hand. “You’re going to get awfully cold if you lie on the front porch the rest of the day,” he said, and instead of watching his eyes, she looked at the grin on his face, at the lopsided way his lips cocked up on the right and not on the left.
The easy thing to do would be to accept the help he offered, but she’d been doing things for herself most of her life. She wasn’t about to accept help now, especially from a stranger. “Thanks,” she finally said, “but I got down here by myself; I’m sure I can get up on my own.”
“Suit yourself.” He leaned against the porch railing, folded his arms across his chest, and glared.
Her jaw tightened. Her eyes narrowed in determination. She pushed up with her elbows and hands until she was sitting upright. That hadn’t been too difficult. She hadn’t slipped even once. Proud of herself, she looked at him again to see his reaction to the feat she’d accomplished.
He just glared. Even that lopsided grin was gone.
She smiled sweetly, and with great effort.
She drew up her knees, ground her boots into the thin sheet of ice on the porch, wrapped a hand around each knee for leverage, and pulled upward.
Her boots lost their grip and slid right out from under her again. Her bum landed with a thud on the wooden planks and she didn’t know which hurt more, her backside or her pride. She looked at the man out of the corner of her eyes. His grin had returned.
Slowly his arms unfolded from in front of his chest, and she heard each of his bootsteps as he moved toward her. “As much as I’m enjoying the floor show, I think it’s about time I stepped in to help.”
He didn’t wait for her to accept, didn’t wait for her to reach out, he just leaned over, slid his big hands under her arms, and lifted her easily, like a tiny child.
Which she wasn’t.
“Thanks for your help,” she said, pulling quickly out of his arms and latching onto one of the porch rails. Hard wood seemed a much safer thing to hold onto than one of his arms. This man, this stranger, might not look intimidating up close, but
when she felt herself in his arms, breathing became much too difficult. And she had to breathe, for heaven’s sake!
“Need help with anything else while I’m here?’ he asked, folding his arms once more across his chest. “Or do you have everything under control?”
She could answer yes, but the problem with the lock on the door hadn’t been resolved, nor had the problem of how she could get up off the ground if she fell again. “I can’t seem to get the door unlocked,” she answered. Oh, how she hated to ask for help, but she swallowed a bit of her pride. “Do you think you could give it a try?”
His grin widened. She knew he sensed her discomfort in asking for assistance and that he was bound and determined to make her wallow in forced acquiescence. Slowly he unfolded his arms, took two steps to the door, pounded the side of his fist on the wood just below the lock, and turned the key.
Elizabeth heard the click. Why did it have to be so easy for him? Why couldn’t
have trouble, too?
She looked away from his eyes, over his shoulder, at the facade of the Victorian she’d purchased. “You could replace the roof, fix the banister, and apply a coat or two of paint to this place.”
He smiled finally. It wasn’t just a grin cocking one side of his mouth, but a wide, white-toothed smile. Even those sapphire eyes of his smiled, filling with glints of sparkling light. “It’s not exactly what you expected, is it?”
“No,” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “I
thought I was going to have a little work to do, not a major overhaul.”
“This place was boarded up for a good sixty, seventy years. A few months back, someone came in and did a little work, but not much.”
“My brother,” Elizabeth divulged, feeling an uncommon need to explain. “Buying it was his idea. He put in new wiring and got the lights working. He said he put in a stove and refrigerator, too, but that’s about it. He was going to come here with me.” She shrugged slightly. “He got married instead.”
“So it’s all up to you now?”
“It’s all mine. Every creaking board, every broken window.” She laughed for the first time in weeks, maybe even months. “I don’t mind hard work.”
With her left hand still wrapped around the railing for support, she stuck out her other. “I’m Elizabeth Fitzgerald.”
He moved easily from the door to stand right in front of her. He took her gloved hand in his and she liked the way it felt—not too tight, not too loose. That hand was just as powerful as the rest of him. “Jonathan Winchester,” he said, and for the first time she noticed the deep baritone of his voice. She also realized that in spite of the freezing temperatures, in spite of the chill that had run through her body earlier, she now felt warm: her toes, her fingers, the tip of her nose.
He was still holding her hand in that just right way and the warmth began to spread. “Do you go by Jonathan, or John?” she asked, prolonging the introduction, prolonging the way his gloved thumb
absently circled the back of her leather-covered hand.
“Jon, without the H. And Jonathan when I’m being chewed out, but no one’s dared do that since I was a kid.”
Elizabeth laughed again. No, she couldn’t imagine anyone daring to confront the man who stood in front of her. He had a strong chin and a broad, cleanly shaved jaw, tanned a rather nice bronze from many days in the sun. She couldn’t see his shoulders and chest through the coat he wore, but from sheer size alone she figured he was a cross between Paul Bunyan and Hercules. And she had to look up at him, something she rarely did with a man because she stood just over six feet in heels. But looking up at him now, she assumed Jon Winchester must stand at least six-foot-six, and that didn’t include the inch or two added by the heels of his boots.
If she hadn’t sworn off photographing men, especially the emaciated-looking
models who'd come to her studio, she might have grabbed her camera out of the car and asked him to pose.
“Is it the coat you find interesting?” he asked, his voice interrupting her thoughts and drawing her attention from his chest back to his face. “Or maybe you’re wondering just how many sheepskins it takes to make a coat this big?”
He was laughing, and she felt heat rush up her neck and come close to flowing into her cheeks. Blushing was something entirely new. She’d photographed nude men and women alone, in pairs, even in triples, and in all sorts of compromising positions. Yet she’d never blushed. She’d never
even felt uncomfortable, because it was all part of the business, all part of the game.
But Jon Winchester, with his hot, mesmerizing sapphire eyes, made her cold body turn warm and her face feel as if it had been hit with a blowtorch.
She pulled her hand out of his and wrapped it around the rail right next to the other. “In my former life I was a fashion photographer,” she told him, trying to redeem herself and make up for her unconscionable stare. “A lot of underfed people paraded in front of my camera. There weren’t many like you.”
The lopsided grin returned. “Do you have a preference in size?”
“No,” she lied, and realized if this conversation continued, she’d dig herself into a hole she’d never climb out of, so she sought a topic that would change the conversation completely, and Jon’s last name came to mind.
“I bought this place from Matt Winchester. Are you related?” she asked.
“Cousins.” Short. Clipped, as if uttering that word bothered him. She didn’t know Jonathan Winchester well enough to ask him if there was a problem between him and his cousin, but she planned to ask anyway.