Authors: Patti Berg
“It doesn’t sound like you and Matt are the best of friends.”
He laughed, just as short and clipped as when he’d said the word “cousins.” “We live in the same town. We run into each other occasionally. That’s enough.”
“Then I suppose he hasn’t told you we’ve formed a type of partnership?”
A slow frown crossed his face. His answer came even slower. “No. I hadn’t heard.” He backed against the peeling paint on the side of the house and folded his arms over his chest—again. But this time he didn’t have a grin on his face, nor a smile, and his eyes didn’t twinkle with laughter. “What kind of partnership?”
“My brother and I send would-be hunters in his direction; he lodges his clients here as part of his outfitting packages. I’ve been exploring other ways to entice guests to this place once I get it up and running, but Matt’s idea intrigued me.”
“I take it you don’t have a problem with hunters staying here?”
What a crazy question. They were in
Montana; everybody hunted in this part of the country. “My brother’s a hunter so, no, I don’t have a problem. I might even get some venison or elk as partial payment.”
“Is that what you plan to feed your guests?” Jon asked.
“Maybe on occasion. Not bear though. I tried it once, and that was more than enough. Matt plans to take me hunting in the spring. He’s got some wild game recipes he wants me to try out.”
Jon pushed away from the wall and paced across the porch. He stood right next to
Elizabeth and gripped the banister, staring off in the distance where wind picked the snow up from the ground and tossed it around and around. Finally he turned, looking her straight in the eye. He was close, much too close for comfort, and she leaned back into the post behind her. “What are you going to hunt in the spring?” he asked, as if he were an
attorney and she the witness he was grilling.
“I don’t know. Deer. Antelope. Does it really matter?”
“Of course it matters,” he exploded. “The only things you can hunt legally in the spring are turkey and black bear. Is that what you want? Do you plan on putting bearskin rugs on your floors? Are you going to stuff a turkey to stare at and show off to your friends?”
“I don’t plan to do any of those things,” she fired back, confused yet angered by his words and tone. “And I don’t plan to do anything illegal.”
“Then I suggest you find another outfitter to be partners with.” His coat brushed hers as he moved away and stalked down the stairs.
Elizabeth called after him.
He turned when he reached the street, tilting his Stetson low on his forehead. “Because,” he said, his blue eyes pools of cold, hard anger, “if you stick with Matt, one of these days you’re going to find yourself in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.”
Elizabeth could almost hear the earth quivering as Jon stomped away. If his boots came down any harder, she thought for sure the resultant pressure would put dents in the earth’s core.
She laughed softly. How many times had she been accused of having an easily combustible temper? How many times had she exploded over the years? Too many to count, in both instances, although she’d made a promise a year ago to try and curb her fiery emotions. She’d done a pretty good job of it, too, but she had the feeling if she spent much time around Jon Winchester, a man whose passions appeared to match her own, she might have to forget all about that promise.
She laughed again, crossed her arms over her chest, and tried to rub some warmth back into her body. Funny, how she’d turned cold the moment Jon had stormed away.
Without giving it another thought, she eased her way to the door, pulled out the key, and easily turned the knob. The door pushed opened with a soft, wailing groan.
A strong, musty odor smacked
Elizabeth in the
face, and she quickly covered her nose and mouth with one gloved hand, inhaling leather instead of decay. The entrance was dark and oppressive, dusty, and strewn with spider webs, what she imagined it might be like if she’d stepped inside a crypt. She pulled a heavy, tarnished brass hat rack across the entryway floor and propped it in front of the door to let in clean air. She didn’t care if drifts of snow and icy wind accompanied the freshness, because the stale air inside made it nearly impossible to breathe.
Stepping out of the doorway, she searched for a light switch to brighten the room, finally finding it hidden behind a long strip of wallpaper that had peeled away from the top of the wall and now lay haphazardly over the wall plate. She muttered a silent prayer for the room to fill with light when she switched it on, crossed her fingers, and flicked the lever.
Above her, dim light beamed from the few unbroken bulbs in a chandelier draped with strings of crystal teardrops and dusty cobwebs. The immense fixture hung lifelessly from the high stucco ceiling, sculpted in intricate patterns of swirling leaves and vines. The plaster had yellowed, but as with the chandelier, she could see the beauty beneath the thick coat of grime, and she knew if the rest of the hotel was just one-tenth as spectacular as this room, Eric’s decision to purchase the old place hadn’t been such a bad one.
Slowly she moved from the entry to the parlor, surveying the grandeur and formulating a plan of attack. The room needed a good scrubbing from floor to ceiling. The drapes were in tatters and
would have to be replaced, but the many Aubusson and Turkish carpets of deep gold with kaleidoscope patterns of red, green, and blue could be salvaged with a thorough cleaning. She’d have to strip away all the wallpaper, and sand and refinish the woodwork, but it would be a labor she’d love. She’d carefully wash and dry thousands of cut-glass teardrops and icicles to make all the chandeliers shine. So far she’d counted three—one in the entryway, one in the parlor, and one in the library, and when she had them sparkling clean, she’d turn on every one and fill the rooms with as much light as possible to show off the beauty within.
And she imagined the hotel—the Sapphire Inn, she’d call it—constantly filled with guests—more than just hunters. Honeymooners would come from far away, looking for a memorable setting for their first days together. Long-married couples would renew their love in one of the bedrooms upstairs. And others would come just seeking a quiet, beautiful setting for a romantic tryst. No, the rooms of her inn would never be empty.
Nor would her life. Not again.
After she quickly assessed the downstairs, she marched from one room to another, ripping rotten fabric from the windows and dusty covers from tables and chairs. The place was a veritable treasure trove of antiques: French art nouveau tables and chairs in mahogany and walnut and fruitwood, carved cherry
wood armoires, side cabinets, and secretaries, just waiting to be stripped, sanded, stained, and polished—something she’d loved doing in her spare moments. Scattered about were
porcelain and ceramic figurines and vases and plates, nearly all in mint condition except for the layers of grime.
She couldn’t understand why so many valuable pieces littered the hotel, why the place had been unoccupied for over sixty years and no one had taken these treasures. They were worth a small fortune—she knew because she’d filled her place in
L.A. with dozens of similar priceless pieces. They’d looked ugly and forlorn when she’d found them in thrift stores and out-of-the-way antique shops. She’d haggled and bargained and gotten her finds for a steal. And she’d lost them all in a matter of seconds.
Well, now she had the chance to turn another place into a living, breathing museum of beautiful antiquity.
It felt so good to be in Sapphire, Montana, population 372. Her life had been spared a year ago and she had the chance to start all over again. This town and this hotel seemed the perfect place for new beginnings.
She began to hum as she uncovered sofas and chairs upholstered in worn purple velvet and faded tapestry patterned in multicolored roses and ferns. She smacked one of the cushions and dust billowed out of the fabric. She couldn’t help but laugh. It would take an army and endless amounts of time to get this place fit for paying guests. Fortunately, she had the time, and the money; unfortunately, from the looks of Sapphire, Montana, she doubted she’d find the army.
When all but one dust cover had been heaped in a pile in the middle of the room, she grabbed the
edge of the last one that hugged the high back and arms of a soft, comfortable-looking chesterfield. She pulled, but the dust cover wouldn’t budge. She pulled again and frowned. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear someone was sitting smack in the middle of that sofa, laughing at her predicament.
Casually, she moved around the couch, inspecting the sheet, looking for pins or tacks or something that could be holding it in place, but she found nothing. She could lift the corners, the edges, but one strip about two feet wide stuck to the back and the seat, as if Crazy Glue had been applied, or as if, she laughed to herself, someone invisible sat there, refusing to move.
Alexander Stewart slouched in the dusty chesterfield and twiddled his thumbs. Haunting a hotel without any guests had been a miserable way to kill time, and boredom was a pain in the rump. Finally, someone had invaded his turf, but he hadn’t yet worked up the energy or desire to kick up a ruckus. He wanted to wait, to give this person time to settle in, and then...
Thunder and tarnation! What was he thinking? He’d been waiting too long already, and this woman looked like the perfect foil for his games.
Alex let loose a laugh that shook the walls and made the crystals in the cobweb-coate
d chandelier clink. What a hoot! The woman dropped the edge of the sheet and rolled her eyes, looking from one wall to the other, then to the swaying light fixture overhead. He’d frightened her, and all he’d done was laugh. What an easy target! This one was bound to be a whole lot more fun than the last
occupant, that dandified young man with a ponytail down to his waist and a ring in his ear, who wouldn’t stick around at night and had hightailed it out of town after only thirteen days.
But that had been a long time ago. Seven months, to be exact. Seven months of roaming the halls and rooms aimlessly, looking for something to occupy his time. It had been a hell of a long time—maybe he shouldn’t get all fired up to get rid of this newcomer.
He stopped laughing.
He waited in silence.
His timing had to be perfect for his next move.
Alex watched the woman roam around the room, staring again and again at the sofa, at the sheet, at the precise spot where he sat—invisible to human eyes.
She seemed to have regained her nerve, her drive. The woman grabbed two comers of the sheet into tightened fists. She was going to try it again.
Ah, she was counting down. A grin crossed Alexander’s face.
Alex got ready. Three had always been his favorite number.
Alex swooped from the couch to the mantel, stretched out on the cold slab of marble above the fireplace, and watched the woman yank as if she was pulling out an old man’s stubborn and rotten tooth.
The sheet pulled away. The woman lost her balance, and those highfalutin boots of hers slipped out from under her bundled-up body. She flew
backward across the room and landed with a thud on her rump, her legs spread-eagled, right there in the middle of the pile of decomposing sheets.
Alexander grinned. Ah, life was sweet!
He watched the woman push up from the floor, dust off her behind, and unbutton her parka. She was going to get down to work. Alex liked that idea. Just what his old place needed—someone to liven it up a bit, put a broom to the floor, a swat to the carpets, and maybe some water and good old lye soap to the windows. Hell! They were so crusted over with dust and dirt and grime, he couldn’t see out. And he liked looking out at the town. It was the only connection he had to the outside world because no matter how many times or how hard he tried, he just couldn’t bust through the doors, the windows, or the walls.
Of course, maybe staying inside wasn’t all
bad. At least it seemed a little better, now that this woman had come into his home. She sure was fun to watch, especially when she was falling down.
Having her around was definitely better than being alone.