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Valentine Valley novella #1
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A Wedding in Valentine
(a novella available at online bookstores)
by Emma Cane
It's the wedding all of Valentine Valley has been waiting for!
Bridesmaid Heather Armstrong arrives for Nate and Emily's big weekend, only to discover that one of the ushers is the man she had a close encounter with when they were trapped by a blizzard seven months before--and he's the bride's brother!
Cowboy Chris Sweet never forgot the sexy redhead, although she'd disappeared without a trace. At first the secret between them keeps them apart, but as they grow closer during the romantic weekend, will Heather dare risk her heart again?
(A Wedding in Valentine is available ONLY at online bookstores)
read, and great for a quick weekend read!"
Save Your Money For Books
"A perfect series for summer reading with just the right amount of sweet romance and attraction heat to keep me interest."
Urban Girl Reader
"Filled with a range of emotions, a wedding,
misunderstandings, sizzling sensuality, small town dynamics, romance and true
love, this story is a delight. I hated to see it end."
"A quirky fun-loving romance...truly charming characters."
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
Heather Armstrong gasped as the plane dropped down between the Colorado mountains, which were painted a myriad of greens below the tree line, barren and brown at the top, awaiting the next winter’s snow. The ground seemed to rush up, and only when they touched down at the small Aspen airport, did she let her exhilaration at her first mountain landing subside back into wedding excitement. She was about to be a bridesmaid in the June wedding of an old friend, Emily Murphy.
As she waited for a call from Emily, she wandered the small airport. It bustled with people dressed casually for the outdoors, many carrying cases for fishing equipment, a pastime this valley was known for in the summer. She’d always preferred being a people watcher, a person in the background rather than commanding attention to herself. It was one of the reasons she’d never enjoyed being in charge of a restaurant’s kitchen, and had opened her own catering business. But now her people-watching skills made her halt in her tracks as she caught a glimpse of a familiar face.
A man wearing a cowboy hat slouched in a chair near the main doors, as if he, too, was waiting for someone. With his head bent over a book, she couldn’t quite see his face. A feeling of unease shivered up her spine and made her so wary that she backed up to where she was partially hidden around the corner. Peeking out again, she studied his pale blond hair beneath the hat, the checked Western shirt that snugly outlined his broad chest, the long legs encased in faded jeans above worn cowboy boots.
The bang of dropped luggage drew his attention, and he looked up. Heather recognized him instantly, and with a gasp, she retreated behind the safety of the wall. His name was Chris, and that was all she’d known when they’d been snowbound together in the Denver airport seven months ago. Late night drinks at the bar and mutual attraction—make that lust—shared with Chris had turned her into a person she’d never been before, a daring flirt who’d ended up in bed with a cowboy. They’d spent two wild days together, exploring and laughing and connecting on an intimate level that had surprised her with its depth, considering they’d been strangers and all. Though she’d left him her number, assuming they’d see each other again, he’d never called. She’d felt like an idiot, a slut, and whatever other bad names she’d called herself over the following months.
Gradually she’d accepted the “adventure” as a risk she’d obviously wanted to take, and had learned from. She wasn’t cut out for one-night stands. She felt too much, expected too much. A man pursuing such a brief affair wanted only that and nothing else.
Today had been the first day airports hadn’t made her think about him, she thought bitterly. Tough luck for her.
To find some peace, she’d chalked the experience up to a valuable lesson. Other women had done stupid things in college, but not her. She’d been too focused on her business degree, and then culinary school, the future her goal, little lured by frat parties and wild drinking. She’d had a boyfriend or two, of course, serious engineering or business students, and that same pattern had continued throughout most of her twenties. Never time for an intense relationship—until Andrew, four years before. She’d thought everything so perfect, so wonderful, and hadn’t even seen that he was pulling away from her, that their sex life was full of desperation more than real passion. Everything on the surface had been too good to be true. The breakup with him was probably what had launched her desperation that snowy night in Denver.
But Chris’s face had haunted her a long time, lean and sculpted, his blue eyes almost startling in their intensity. She hadn’t been with another man since him, had been ready to change her life, find a new place to start over, all to forget her past and find more peaceful surroundings.
Heather had always thought she’d be the first one to give up the hectic, stressful pace of the city, not Emily. She’d gone to San Francisco for culinary school, and to make a name for herself, eventually establishing her own catering business. She came from a small town herself, but her own mountain town in California would never be able to support a fulltime catering business. Emily had assured her that Valentine Valley could. And who could resist a name like Valentine?
But was seeing Chris some kind of cosmic sign that a move here wasn’t for her? She didn’t believe in that sort of stuff, but still found herself praying that he was just passing through Aspen… . . .
And then Emily Murphy walked through the outer doors, strawberry-blond hair bobbing in a ponytail, a bright yellow sundress matching the brilliance of her smile framed in her heart-shaped face. And why shouldn’t she smile? She was the bride, about to marry her very own cowboy, Nate Thalberg. Heather felt tender affection relax her own worried expression, and she scolded herself for her panicky thoughts. She would find a way to avoid Chris and a possible scene. She wouldn’t do anything to disrupt Emily’s weekend.
But to her dismay, Chris rose to his feet and enfolded Emily in a big hug. They knew each other? Heather thought with disbelief. From her cowardly hiding place, she could hear their conversation.
“I thought you wanted me to pick up your friend?” Chris said.
Emily shrugged. “I know, but I got some things done and I just couldn’t wait. You don’t mind your big sister dropping in, do you?”
Big sister? Heather focused on those words in shock. She’d known Emily had found her biological father and stepmother in Valentine Valley, and more than once she’d mentioned her new siblings, but mostly Stephanie, the teenager who hadn’t been exactly happy to meet Emily.
And then Heather covered her mouth as realization dawned. She’d confessed her fling to Emily, having needed to confide in someone—what would Emily say if she found out her own brother was the mystery man? Not that Heather had given her any details like where or when. That had seemed too private even to share with a best friend. Heather didn’t know if she could live down the embarrassment, nor could she stand the thought of destroying their friendship if Emily took it badly—and on her wedding weekend, too!
Emily gave Chris a curious tilt of the head. “So how did you plan to recognize Heather?”
“Well, you said she was a redhead. How could I miss?” He grinned when Emily put her hands on her hips skeptically. “Naw, really, I brought a sign with her name on it. It’s folded in my book somewhere.”
“You and your books,” she teased. “She might have walked right past you.”
“I was being careful.”
Their conversation faded as Heather stiffened her shoulders with resolve. Her plans for a relaxing weekend were shot out the window, and there was nothing to do but grit her teeth and bear it for Emily’s sake—and her own. She hoped it wouldn’t be difficult to convince Chris to keep their affair a secret. Surely he cared about his sister’s feelings. She prayed he’d keep his thoughts to himself until they had a chance to talk in private.
And as for how he’d treated Heather herself? She wasn’t going to show this thoughtless cowboy that he’d hurt her by not calling. She’d make it perfectly clear that she was a worldly woman of the big city, who understood how unimportant a fling was.
If only she was that sort of woman . . . if only the thought of Emily being upset about their relationship didn’t unnerve her. She’d never do anything to risk losing her friendship—but now it looked like she’d already risked everything.
She couldn’t hide forever, she thought, taking a deep, cleansing breath to steady her nerves. Adjusting the large purse on her shoulder, she started to walk, pulling her suitcase behind. She felt like the entire airport was staring; instead it was just Chris who noticed her first. She couldn’t read his expression, but experienced the magnetism of his blue eyes as if she were back in biology class, a butterfly pinned to a display board on the teacher’s wall.
Did he recognize her? Did his heartbeat speed up like hers did—like hers had the first time she’d seen him in the Denver baggage area, trying to persuade a shuttle to drive through a rising snowstorm from the nearest hotel? His voice had been commanding but polite, and he’d at last won the operator over with easygoing cowboy charm, though she’d seen the tension in his fisted hands. The discrepancy had fascinated her, and she’d found her gaze constantly returning to him, as she waited in line to use the same hotel phone. And then he’d smiled at her, and she was lost. Now, months later, he was looking at her again, inspiring a mass of conflicting emotions: anger, hurt, and the undercurrent of desire that still flamed just as strong.
Emily must have realized Chris was looking past her shoulder, and she turned, her smile widening when she saw Heather. With a squeal, Emily opened her arms wide for a hug. After letting go of her suitcase, Heather enjoyed the temporary respite of being enfolded in Emily’s warmth and caring.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” Emily said, taking a step back, but still squeezing Heather’s upper arms.
“Me, too,” Heather answered, her attention firmly focused on her friend rather than the looming man behind Emily. “I can’t believe you’re getting married!”
“And in two days! I feel like there’s so much to do, but that’s just panic, I think. Nate says I need to calm down and enjoy the festivities, and of course, he’s right.” Emily laughed at herself. “Oh, and you may be wondering about this handsome guy behind me. I asked him to come get you, but then I was able to get away, too, so here we both are. Heather Armstrong this is my brother, Chris Sweet.”
And then Heather was forced to meet his eyes again, and she didn’t know how she kept up her polite smile. She was just as captivated as the first time, but if she was waiting for—dreading—an answering smolder of awareness, she got nothing, only a friendly smile in return. She swallowed hard, not knowing whether to be confused or grateful that he didn’t spill out the truth. Oh, I’ve met Heather before. Let me tell you the whole story . . .
“Nice to meet you, Heather,” Chris said, in that deep cowboy drawl that had once made her melt right on her bar stool when they’d decided to get a drink to pass the long snowbound evening.
She broke eye contact and chirped, “You, too!” She smiled at Emily, trying to smother her nervousness. She wasn’t the kind of woman used to hiding secrets—which is why she’d confessed the fling. She wished she could link arms with Emily and march out of there, leaving Chris in the dust, but she wouldn’t be so impolite. “Thanks for offering to pick me up.”
“No problem,” he said, giving his hat a polite tug.
Emily gave her brother a quick hug. “I’ll let you head back to the ranch. Are you coming to the party tonight?”
Emily had sent a schedule ahead, so Heather knew exactly what they were talking about—a co-ed bachelor/bachelorette party. She’d probably see Chris Sweet at every single event over the weekend. She could have groaned. With her luck, they’d be paired up walking down the aisle!
“I’ll leave you two girls to chat,” Chris said. “See you later.”
Had that been directed right at her? Heather wondered. But she put it aside, feeling only slightly relieved as he walked away. If only she could have ignored the way his jeans clung to his hips—hadn’t that gotten her in trouble with him the first time?
The half-hour drive through the Roaring Fork valley was beautiful, the mountains tall sentinels on either side of the highway, their peaks jutting unevenly above the tree line. The women’s conversation flowed fast, and Heather was relieved to simply catch up in person rather than over the phone. When they were driving down Main Street in Valentine Valley, she let Emily’s enthusiasm for her new hometown sweep over her. Beneath a vivid blue sky dotted with cotton-ball clouds, everything was so picturesque, like an old-fashioned postcard. One- and two-story clapboard or brick stores were interspersed with more majestic stone buildings like the Hotel Colorado and the Royal Theater. Emily slowed down to point toward her bakery, Sugar and Spice, with plate glass windows on either side of the door overflowing with mouthwatering displays of her creative genius, cakes and pastries and tarts. Everywhere planters spilled over with summer flowers, and U.S. flags heralded the coming Fourth of July holiday. People strolled arm in arm down the sidewalks, window-shopping or already carrying loaded bags.
“Do you see all those couples in love?” Emily said happily. “We’re known for romance around here—and romance needs food. You really should move here, Heather. You’ve made no secret that you don’t like living in the city. And we don’t have a full-time caterer.”
“So you’ve said,” Heather began, looking over her shoulder at the hotel they’d just passed. “But that place looks like it would have a wonderful restaurant.”
“It does, Main Street Steakhouse—and they get their beef from our ranch,” she added proudly, before insisting, “But they’re very busy—too busy for a lot of catering.”
“Our ranch” was the Silver Creek Ranch, which Emily had told her had been in her fiancé’s family for well over a hundred years. They’d raised cattle for generations, working together as a family. Even the groom’s sister, Brooke, rode alongside her two brothers and shared in every chore.
They turned the corner where Main Street ended at the imposing town hall, with its clock tower jutting into the sky. And then Heather inhaled at the sight of a beautiful, sprawling Victorian mansion, nestled in the foothills of the nearby mountain range. Turrets rose up through three stories of the beautiful old home, and sunburst trim spanned between every porch rail.
“So this is the Sweetheart Inn,” Heather breathed, reluctant to leave the car. “It’s as beautiful as you said—with another great restaurant that caters, I bet. And your grandmother owns it?”
Emily nodded as she pulled the keys from the ignition and tossed them in her purse. “My dad mostly works their ranch, but several of my family help out around here. And the restaurant would be relieved to reduce its catering load. They turn away too many customers as it is.”
Heather gave a reluctant smile. “You’ve done your research.”
“You bet I have,” Emily shot back, opening her car door.
As Heather walked around to the trunk she couldn’t help wondering if Chris would be hanging around the inn. She wasn’t going to ask about him, of course. If Emily suspected even a hint of interest, she would be trying to fix them up. Now that would be a laugh, she thought, seeing some humor in the situation for the first time.
Emily paused with her hand on the closed trunk and spoke in a sober voice. “You know, the Sweets could have rejected me. I was the child of a teenage romance, and my mom had lied to Joe Sweet for years about my true parentage. She never did confess before she died, not even to me.”
Heather gently touched Emily’s arm. “You don’t need to relive this again. Memories can be so painful.”
“I know you’ve heard it all before, but when you meet all of my family, I wanted you to remember how special they are. Dad was gentle and understanding about the crazy news, and so glad to know me. My brothers were open to a relationship, even happy they had another sister to tease—though I was their ‘big’ sister. I know I complained a lot to you about Steph disliking me, but she’s really come around, and things are so much better.”
Heather pulled her suitcase out of the trunk. So Chris was a nice guy when life threw the family a curve ball. That didn’t change the fact that he’d picked her up in a bar—and that she’d let him, encouraged him, even. Emily wouldn’t want to know such things about the brother she was just getting to know.
Heather forced a determined smile. “You sound so happy.”
Emily bit her lip, as if to withhold a quiver. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted—and a wonderful man to share my life with. I can’t wait for you to meet him tonight!”
Emily slammed the trunk and they began to walk up the path toward the wide front porch.
“I’m sure his pictures don’t even do him justice. You sound like the perfect bride,” Heather added, feeling a mild pang of envy. She cleared her throat. “You’re lucky all your wedding guests can stay right where the reception is.”
Emily gave her sidelong grin. “A change of topic from all the mushy stuff. I get it. Most of the guests live right here in town, but I’m sure there’ll be a few to keep you company—not that I plan on letting you have a moment to yourself. We have such a packed schedule! But I’ll give you a couple hours to relax. Can I pick you up around seven for the party? Don’t wear anything fancy—it’s a jeans-and-cowboy-boots kind of crowd.”
Heather smiled. “Who’d have guessed?”
Checking in was painless, and she was able to meet Mrs. Sweet, Emily’s very proper grandmother. Her room had an incredible view of the mountains, and for a while she busied herself unpacking. To her surprise, she ended up dozing with her e-reader in her lap, then had to rush to get dressed. She debated over what to wear—everything was too proper or too relaxed. But when she and Emily met up in the lobby, and both were wearing short jean skirts, they burst out laughing and slung their arms around each other. It was as if they’d never been apart.
After a short drive across the little town and closer to the highway, Heather saw that the party was at a dive of a place where the blinking neon sign read TONY’S TAVERN.
Emily laughed at Heather’s skeptical look. “This is where Nate and I first met. It holds a special place in my heart, and the owner is a wonderful man, one of Nate’s good friends. All the guys hang out here pretty regularly.”
The tavern had more neon signs between mounted animal heads and flat screen TVs. As they walked past the bar running along their right, Emily grinned and acknowledged all the well-wishes from jean-clad guys and girls wearing t-shirts and ball caps or cowboy hats.
When they entered a back room furnished with a pool table amidst scattered tables and chairs, there was a burst of cheering that made Emily put a hand to her chest and blink rapidly. “Oh my!”
People rushed forward, and Heather found herself overwhelmed by faces and names. She told herself she’d focus on learning the bridal party’s names as soon as she could. At last she met Emily’s groom, Nate Thalberg, a tall cowboy with dark wavy hair, and green eyes that barely saw anything beyond Emily. His tender gaze gave Heather all the proof she needed to know that her friend was in good and loving hands.
The bridal couple was swept away in the crowd, and for a moment, she was alone. She eyed a table filled with appetizers, nachos, veggies, and cheese trays, but her stomach was too clenched to eat. Someone put a beer in her hand and she took a cautious sip, knowing she had to stay coldly sober that night. She stiffened as she saw Emily say something to her brother Chris, and then his gaze darted Heather’s way.
Alone, he purposefully came toward her, and it was all too much, the worry and the anxiety that had been building up since the moment she’d seen him again. She held up both hands until he came to a stop, then whispered urgently, “Look, you don’t need to keep an eye on me. We don’t owe each other anything. Nothing’s going to happen between us, so let’s just pretend—”
“I’m sorry,” he interrupted, his stare full of confusion, “but I don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve never met you before today at the airport, have I?”
Heather could only gape at him. She’d been nervous all afternoon over how this first meeting alone would go—and he didn’t even remember her?
Copyright © Emma Cane