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Valentine Valley #1
Finalist in the Contemporary
Single Title category of the
National Readers' Choice
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A Town Called Valentine
by Emma Cane
Emily Murphy never thought she'd return to her mom's rustic hometown in the Colorado Mountains. But after her marriage in San Francisco falls apart, leaving her penniless and heartsick, she returns to her old family home to find a new direction for her life. On her first night back, though, a steamy encounter with handsome rancher Nate Thalberg is not the fresh start she had in mind...
Nate has good reason not to trust the determined beauty who just waltzed into town--he's no stranger to betrayal. Besides, she's only there to sell her family's old property and move back out. But as Nate and Emily begin working side-by-side to restore her time-worn building and old family secrets change Emily's perception of herself, both are about to learn how difficult it is to hide from love in a place known far and wide for romance, family ties, and happily-ever-afters: a town called Valentine.
"Cane’s debut contemporary sparkles with charm and gentle humor...With an engaging narrative and charming setting, this cozy tale makes for a pleasurably satisfying read by a crackling fire on cold winter nights."
"Will leaving you smiling long after you've closed the last page."
Lori Wilde, NY Times Bestselling Author
"More than just a romance, it's also a tale of love in all its aspects."
RT Book Reviews Magazine
"...great laugh-out-loud moments, a ton of charm and smokin' hot cowboys"
"This is a town I can't wait to return to!"
Lush Book Reviews
"...a setting with just the right emphasis on romance and Valentine's Day characterizes this touching, family-centered contemporary debut."
"A feel-good tale filled with a bit of emotion, humor and sexiness."
Romance Reviews Today
"A TOWN CALLED VALENTINE is the perfect novel to curl up with on the infamous holiday and let your heart strings tear."
Love Romances and More
"a love story that tends to stick to you and leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling"
"Valentine Valley is the place to be! Emma Cane has created a heartwarming, fun unforgettable town filled with characters the reader will fall in love with. A TOWN CALLED VALENTINE swept me off my feet....
I can’t wait to visit Valentine Valley again!!"
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
(Story Setup: Emily Murphy arrives in Valentine Valley, a small town in the Colorado mountains, late at night, and stops for food at a near-deserted tavern. She’s left behind a nasty divorce and has little money. She doesn’t feel like herself anymore, and flirts with a handsome cowboy. They play a game of pool that leads to a scorching kiss. She stops it, appalled to be leading him on, then flees the tavern, only to discover that her car won’t start.)
Nate Thalberg felt perfectly steady on his feet, though still hot under the collar, as he turned off the light in the back room and reentered the bar. Three pairs of eyes fixed on him. Tony De Luca’s were the first to drop, as he smiled and continued to dry a tall glass before hanging it on the rack above the bar. The other two men, twin brothers Ned and Ted Ferguson, plumbers for Sweet Construction, were a good ten years older than him, and long past their pickin’-up-women-in-bars prime. But they still snickered.
Nate ignored them and sat down at the bar. “Another Dale’s.”
“You might as well head to Aspen if you’re going to drink that stuff,” Tony said, his usual response. He set it before Nate without another word.
Nate was grateful. He was still aroused and embarrassed and feeling like a fool, all at the same time. He hadn’t behaved like that since college, and that was almost ten years ago. Of course, he hadn’t left Valentine Valley much since then, and he was careful picking up a local woman in a bar. He knew them all, and all their relatives. A little fun wasn’t worth what would happen the next day, the assumptions of what he now owed them, the way they’d look at him as if he were their newly acquired property. Nope, when he went out with a woman, and that happened regularly enough, she knew exactly where she stood with him. And it wasn’t on the road to any sort of relationship.
But he’d come into Tony’s after a long day riding in the White River National Forest checking the herd. Once it would have been enjoyable to hang with his brother and talk about nothing and everything. But lately he and Josh had clashed over minor things, and every physical exertion ended up being a contest of wills. It made for a long, frustrating day.
Tonight Nate had needed some peace. He knew Tony could be quiet, at least when he didn’t have a hockey stick in his hand. So he’d come to the tavern to enjoy the rest of the baseball game.
Until she’d shown up. Emily. Every other man at Tony’s had stared at her, however briefly, and he hadn’t wanted to be one of those. But she’d had this pink raincoat on, and when she’d taken it off at the door, her black sweater had ridden up an inch at her waist, and her long strawberry blond hair curled damply near her neck. She was short and curvy in all the right places, and when she’d looked around at the nearly empty bar with wide but tired blue eyes, something in him had paid a bit too much attention.
Remembering how he’d stared at her, unable to stop, he took another swig of beer in disgust. He was weak.
“That should be your last,” Tony said, leaning back against the shelf near the cash register. “You have to drive.”
Before Nate could take offense, Tony glanced with a frown at the door. “Maybe I should have stopped her, too.”
“Emily,” Nate said without thinking.
Tony grinned. “At least you got her name. Or did you get more?”
Nate winced and sighed. “Nope. Shouldn’t have been trying for more.”
“She seemed willing to me.”
“And tipsy. I shouldn’t have—”
The door jangled, and Nate automatically turned to look. Emily stepped back inside, rain dripping down her coat, her fingers gripping her purse.
Without looking at Nate, she said coolly to Tony, “My car won’t start, and I’m not certain who to call for a tow. Could you please give me a name?”
Tony walked to the end of the bar. “Sorry, but Ernie won’t come at night if it’s not an emergency.”
Nate thought she looked blank for a moment, as if it never occurred to her that there were parts of the country where you couldn’t have what you asked for twenty-four hours a day.
She took a deep breath, still not glancing at Nate. “Then if you could call me a taxi, I’d appreciate it.”
“It’s too late.” Nate said quietly.
“Pardon me?” she said, meeting his eyes at last.
He felt a jolt of need. Damn, but she still affected him, even though he regretted their little game and his lack of control. And then she bit her plump lower lip, making everything worse.
“Only one taxi driver in Valentine Valley,” Tony explained with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Let me guess,” Emily said with a touch of bitterness. “He only comes at night if it’s an emergency.”
“She,” Nate said reluctantly.
Her posture seemed to slump as she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. He’d smelled that hair, tasted the skin on her neck. He stirred on the barstool, wishing he could adjust himself. And it had been his stupid idea to head back to the pool room.
“Since you’re not from around here,” Tony said, “there’s a motel just down the block.”
Nate could see her jaw clench from across the room.
“I own a building in town,” she finally said. “I need to get there.”
Tony and Nate shared a surprised glance. Both of them knew just about everybody—and every building—in town. Who was this Emily?
“I can drop you off,” Nate offered. It was the least he could do.
She studied him, wariness in her narrowed eyes. “If you can tell me how to get—”
“You can’t walk there in this,” Tony interrupted. “You can trust Nate to take you, regardless of what happened in the back room.”
Her eyes shut as she grimaced. Ned and Ted Ferguson gave another matching set of snickers.
Nate frowned. He could see Emily’s blush like a beacon. He glared at the brothers, and they both hunched their shoulders and turned back to the game.
“But first,” Tony continued. “I’ve just brewed a fresh pot of coffee. Nate, how ’bout something to eat?”
He was just about to protest that he was not drunk, but then he remembered kissing a woman he didn’t know a thing about. “Sounds good.”
Emily perched on a chair closest to the door. “Thank you. I’ll wait.”
Tony served him some fajitas with the coffee, and although Nate offered her some, she didn’t leave the safety of her chair, making him feel even more like a monster. After a half hour, he quietly said, “Guess it’s time to leave, Tony.”
Tony smiled and glanced at Emily. “I might have to call you tomorrow.”
“There’ll be nothing to report.” He stood up and slid on his jacket.
Emily waited by the door, wincing as she glanced out at the rain.
He opened it and gestured. “After you.”
He ran toward the pickup as rain dripped off the edges of his hat. He followed her to open the door, but she veered toward her own car first and tried to lug a suitcase out of the trunk. He grabbed it out of her hand, opened the truck door, and slid it onto the rear bench. She was short enough that she had trouble getting up inside, and he almost boosted her up by the ass, but figured she wouldn’t appreciate it. He ran to his side and hopped in, and the slam of both doors echoed in the rain-drumming silence. He started the car and quickly rolled up the partially opened window, swearing again at the rain that streaked the inside of his door.
At the soft “whoof” from the back seat, Emily gave a little cry. Scout stuck his black and white nose over the seat and sniffed at her. Nate held back a smile as she sagged against the door with a shudder.
“Afraid of dogs?” he asked.
“No, but he startled me.” She eyed Scout. “Does he like strangers?”
She put out her hand, palm up, and within a second, Scout turned traitor and happily licked her, before settling down again next to her suitcase on the bench seat.
“What’s his name?” she asked.
With a sigh, Emily buckled herself in then sat facing forward, hands in her lap. When Nate didn’t put the truck in gear, she glanced at him with a frown. He could sense the tension as if it were a force field around her.
“So where are you going?” he asked.
“Sorry. Two Oh Four Main Street.”
Damn, he knew that building. His luck had definitely run out tonight.
“I’m sorry if I didn’t appear grateful for the ride,” she began, speaking quickly. “It’s just that—”
“You don’t know me. I get that.”
She didn’t look at him, didn’t say anything more. He didn’t blame her. And she was about to find out some bad news.
Two Oh Four Main Street was less than six blocks away, so the drive didn’t take long. In the rain-soaked darkness, he could see nothing but the blurry image of lights along the street, and the flat-fronted buildings nestled side by side along each block of Main Street. There wasn’t even a traffic light to slow them down. He pulled into the alley behind the two hundred block. Of the four commercial buildings, three had lights shining above the door to help—but naturally, hers was out. He knew this building, knew it had recently been a small restaurant that had closed down just a few months before.
“Is this it?” she asked, obviously trying not to sound disappointed.
“You really haven’t been here since you were a kid?”
She shook her head. “This used to be my grandmother’s store. I was eight when she died. My mother never brought me back after that.”
“Did you have the electricity turned on?”
She sighed. “No. I had planned to arrive during the day.”
“There’s a motel back—”
“No, I need to go in.” She unbuckled herself.
With a sigh, Nate brought a flashlight out from beneath the seat. She gave him a quick, grateful glance, then jumped down into the rain. Nate glanced over his shoulder at Scout, who panted and watched her curiously.
“I know what you mean, buddy,” Nate said. “I’ll be back.”
When he joined her, she was already shivering, trying to enter a code in a numeric box next to the door. The flashlight helped, and soon she’d removed the keys from the box and was able to unlock the door. He followed her into a little hallway with two doors. He assumed one led upstairs to an apartment, like most of the buildings on Main Street. She used another key on the door directly in front of her and stepped inside. The place smelled musty and unused, but before he could even shine the flashlight around, he heard the squish of his foot stepping in water. Uh oh.
Emily felt the last hope she’d cherished dissolve inside her. As Nate slowly moved the flashlight around the room, she saw that they were in the kitchen of the restaurant. The stainless steel gleamed dully from counters and appliances, and she winced as she saw a splash of paint spattered down the door to the walk-in refrigerator. Holes gaped in the walls, and the sink, with a slow stream of water coming from the tap, had overflowed, leaving the floor wet, although a drain at her feet took the worst of it. Garbage was strewn everywhere and shelves toppled.
“Let me check in front,” Nate said. “Wait here.”
Offended by his peremptory attitude, she reached to take the flashlight, but he didn’t see her as he walked away. She gritted her teeth, put her hands on her hips, and waited in the dark until he returned a minute later.
“No sign of a break-in. The restaurant owners were your tenants?” he asked.
“Guess they were mad at you.”
“I had to raise the rent after my mother died.” She didn’t owe him any explanations, especially not since he seemed angry with her over their mistake earlier in the evening.
“They weren’t from here,” he said.
Maybe he was thinking Outsiders, and that she was one, too.
“What did you plan to do here?” he continued. “Open another business?”
“God, no. I need to sell it, but I certainly won’t get a good offer like this. I won’t be leaving as quickly as I’d hoped.”
He remained silent, probably disappointed.
“You can go, Mr.—Nate.”
“Thalberg. Nate Thalberg.”
“Emily Murphy,” she said, knowing their formal introduction was a bit too late.
He hesitated, then said, “I can’t leave you like this.”
At last she turned to him. His face was in shadows, since the flashlight beam was aimed away from him, but she could see the gleam of his eyes.
“Of course you can leave.” She spoke more sharply than she’d intended.
“You’re going to stay here?” he demanded.
“It’s mine.” The last thing I own, she thought. But it was hers. “There’s an apartment upstairs.”
“And you think it will look any better?”
“Guess I’ll go see. Can I use the flashlight?”
He handed it over, then crossed his arms over his chest, obviously planning to wait.
“If I could borrow this until morning…” she began.
“The apartment won’t look better, Emily, but go ahead and check. I’ll wait here.”
She went back to the hallway off the alley, used another key while holding the flashlight under her arm, and went upstairs. The smell alone already convinced her, and the debris was just as bad, if not worse. Piles of furniture and boxes were toppled around her, and she couldn’t even get a sense of the apartment. It felt like a horror movie set, where she didn’t know what she’d find when the lights were eventually turned on. What was she supposed to do now?
Without answers, she trudged back down and found Nate in the hall, waiting for her. She couldn’t see his face, with that cowboy hat hiding everything.
“Let’s go,” he said quietly.
She frowned and opened her mouth to protest.
He took the flashlight back. “I shut off the water. There’s nothing else for you here tonight. You can come back tomorrow and see the rest of the damage.”
She felt exposed, vulnerable, and suddenly so weary. He’d seen the mess in the restaurant, just as if he’d seen the mess in her life. She couldn’t waste the last of her money when she was going to need every dime to fix this place.
“Listen, cowboy,” she said firmly, “I know this looks bad, but it isn’t up to you to make my decisions for me.”
“Is that right?” He tipped up his hat to look her in the eyes.
She suddenly noticed that his drawl had disappeared, and he spoke in crisp, cool tones.
“Well, it’s a shame you didn’t tell me what you were doing here from the beginning, because I could have saved us all this hassle. I do have a say in your decisions”—he briefly looked past her—“or at least my father does, because you don’t own this property outright. My dad lent your mother money, and he has a lien on the place. She’d been paying him back over time.”
Emily gaped at him, still standing a step up so he couldn’t crowd her in the tiny hallway. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I wish I was. I’ll tell my father about your arrival and word of your mother’s death.”
“She died last year!”
“We’ve been receiving regular payment through a lawyer. If you don’t believe me, I’ll bring the papers to show you.” He sighed. “He would never stand in the way of you selling the building—to an appropriate business, of course.”
She felt her face heat. “Excuse me?”
“With how land is selling in Valentine Valley,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “you’ll have no problem getting a decent price, and you’ll be able to keep most of it.”
Swallowing, she knew it was best to keep her temper until she saw these papers. She’d thought she was on her own, independent at last, and now to find out someone else controlled her, after everything that had happened in her marriage…To her mortification, she felt her eyes sting. Thank goodness for the darkness.
Nate was still watching her. She stiffened and met his gaze with what she hoped was a look of cool defiance and a tilt of her chin.
“I’m glad you’re being calm and reasonable about this,” he said. “That means you’ll also understand that you can’t stay here tonight. It may be spring, but the nights are cold in the mountains. I have a place you can stay.” When she drew in a furious breath, he held up both hands. “Not with me. My grandmother has a boarding house for her and all her friends, and I do occasional work for her. There’s an empty apartment right now, and you can stay there until you figure things out.”
For a crazy moment, Emily wanted to refuse, to kick him out, to hunker down in the only place that was hers. But common sense intervened at last, and she let out a frustrated breath. “I guess I don’t have a choice. I’m sorry you’re forced to help me once again.”
He didn’t answer, just stood looking at her. She was suddenly very conscious of the quiet, of the lateness of the hour, of how very alone they were. Without thinking about where she was, she took an instinctive step back—and hit her heel on the next stair and started to fall backward.
He caught both her arms and briefly steadied her. Even that little touch brought back those hot moments when he’d stood between her thighs and they’d kissed.
“Let’s go,” he said gruffly, and walked out of the building into the rain.
|Copyright © Emma Cane|