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When the Rancher Came to Town

Return to Valentine Valley novella #2

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When the Rancher Came to Town
a Valentine Valley novella
by Emma Cane


Welcome to Valentine Valley!

The Silver Creek Rodeo is in full swing, and everyone's talking about the rancher who came to town …

Bed-and-breakfast owner Amanda Cramer wants nothing more than a quiet, private life. Well, she wants guests too, but after suffering her share of unwanted notoriety, she's gotten comfortable hiding out in her inn … perhaps a little too comfortable. When her newest customer arrives—tall, dark, and breathtaking—Amanda begins to question her self-imposed exile.

Ex-rodeo star Mason Lopez knows all about the limelight. He'd avoid it if he could, but since one last ride could mean saving his family's ranch, he'll go all in. When he gets to Valentine Valley for the Silver Creek Rodeo, Mason checks into the Connections B&B and finds himself immediately drawn to the beautiful, reserved woman who owns it.

Mason has only three days in town … can he convince Amanda to open her heart to him and welcome the world back in?



"Sweet and sexy...a quick and easy tale of healing and female empowerment from Cane, with an understanding hero and a vulnerable heroine whom readers will find endearing."
Library Journal

"Immediate attraction and chemistry...the perfect weekend read."
Roberta's Dreamworld

"Waking up to find a new Emma Cane on my Kindle
is the best way to start the day!"
author Kris Fletcher

"Cane's settings are always lovely and are almost a character of the story itself - she's a master at creating rich, dimensional places where you'd want to live."
At the Corner of First and Romance

"Entertaining and quick read...I like the chemistry between Amanda and Mason."
My Book Filled Life

"Mason's laid back attitude, gentleness, and understanding with Amanda were the shining points of this story."
Written Love Reviews

"A wonderfully sweet romance and a story of strength and courage."
Brit Nanny Reads

"A sweet romance."
Cat's Reviews

"Adorable...sweet, romantic."

Crystal Blogs Books

"I am looking forward to spending more time in Valentine Valley."
Manga Maniac Cafe

"Emma Cane has written another heartwarming story with charming characters and the promise of new love."
The Many Faces of Romance



(The following is the property of the author and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)

Chapter One

          Mason Lopez pulled his pickup into a parking spot next to Connections Bed and Breakfast in Valentine Valley, Colorado. Though only a couple blocks off Main Street, the B&B looked remote, surrounded by trees and lush summer gardens. Not that he was going to enjoy it all that much. He had a business meeting at the Sweetheart Ranch that started in an hour. He’d arrived early to check in, hoping it wouldn’t inconvenience the innkeeper too much. Maybe he should have called.

          Getting out of his pickup, he could smell the earthy moisture of Silver Creek, which ran behind the B&B, a rambling old Victorian gem of a building. It had three stories, painted yellow, with white trim around all the windows and the wraparound porches. White wicker furniture and potted plants made the porches seem like an oasis of calm, and multicolored impatiens hung from baskets centered between the porch posts. He’d read on the website that the place was the first home built in Valentine that wasn’t a miner’s shack, back in the early 1880s. Someone had treated it with loving care, restoring it for guests to enjoy.

          He’d been to Valentine before, but never overnight. His family owned the Lake Ridge Ranch and Cattle Company up in the mountains near the small town of Elk’s Crest. It was only about a half hour drive from Valentine, but since there were meetings today and tomorrow, there was no point in driving back and forth.

          He grimaced. And there was the Silver Creek Rodeo on Saturday. He’d signed up to compete, and he wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. It had been five years since he’d been on the professional bull riders’ tour. He’d had to retire due to an injury and his dad’s bout with cancer, but he hoped that competing again would get the attention of Nate Thalberg of the Silver Creek Ranch. Mason’s ranch and stock contracting business was on the man’s list as a possible investment, but Nate had warned him up front that he took his time researching and making a fair decision. Mason no longer had time to wait. His dad had made a few shaky business decisions when he’d been ill, and now a loan repayment had come due, surprising them all, including his embarrassed father.

          Mason swung his bag out of the backseat and jogged up the steps. He’d never stayed in a B&B, preferring dive motels early in his rodeo career or his RV later on, now long since sold. A B&B had just seemed girly. But he’d been lucky to get a room at all on rodeo weekend.

          Once inside, the scent of something baking wafted around him, and he inhaled deeply of cinnamon and other spices as he took off his Stetson. Connections wasn’t all that girly, though there were lace curtains in the windows. He was standing in a front entrance hall, with a wide staircase leading up to the next floor. Overhead, mahogany beams intersected in a square pattern. Carved wooden columns separated the hall from the long parlor, which seemed to run to the back of the house. The lower walls were paneled, and the upper had striped wallpaper. He noticed polished antiques: a display cabinet with a selection of glass vases; wingback chairs intermixed with fancy little tables, some of them glass- or marble-topped; the rolling, curved backs of old-fashioned couches upholstered in yellow or maroon velvet.

          On the other side of the hall, curtained French doors were ajar, letting him glimpse bookshelves lining one wall. He could hear women’s voices from inside, a mixture of elderly ladies and one younger woman with a voice that was rather deep and sexy. The women weren’t being quiet. Mason circled his hat in his hands and felt like an eavesdropper, but he had to check in and change into fresh clothes for his meeting. Maybe they’d finish up soon…

          “Look,” said the younger woman with a touch of polite exasperation, “I know it was rude of me to ignore your later e-mails, but I did answer the first one—and my answer was no. I’m happy Valentine Valley is trying a new Wild West Weekend for the tourists to go along with the rodeo, but Connections doesn’t need to be a part of it. We’re off the beaten path—they won’t want to walk away from Main Street just to see a B&B. And the event starts in two days—isn’t it a little late to worry about convincing me, when you ladies obviously have so much to do?”

          “Amanda, they will want to see a buildin’ that’s so important to women’s history,” said an old lady with a strong Western accent.

          “Mrs. Palmer—”

          “No, no, hear me out. This lovely house was goin’ to be torn down willy nilly, as if it hadn’t once been used as a brothel with poor Chinese immigrant ladies.”

          Mason’s eyes widened, and he couldn’t help glancing around, intrigued. A brothel, huh?

          Amanda said, “I know that if it hadn’t been for you ladies, it would have been torn down, and I can’t thank you enough for saving Connections for me to eventually own.”

          “You did hear the story about what we were forced to do,” said another elderly woman, her voice melodious and good-natured.

          “Some of it, of course, Mrs. Thalberg. It’s a legend around here, even for people like me, who haven’t been in town all that long.”

          Mrs. Thalberg chuckled. “I can still see Connie setting aside her walker and putting manacles on her wrists.”

          Mrs. Palmer’s laugh was a cackle of delight. “The mayor tried to stop us from chainin’ ourselves to the front porch, but he didn’t dare put his hands on us.”

          A third woman said with the voice of a proper schoolteacher, “It was necessary to show we would not be deterred. I did not mind the manacles. And we were successful. We will not hesitate to employ the same tactics with you, young lady.”

          Mason barely stopped a snort of laughter.

          “Are you going to chain yourself to my front porch until I give in, Mrs. Ludlow?” Amanda asked, her voice laced with reluctant amusement.

          “Most likely not,” Mrs. Ludlow replied coolly. “But I simply don’t understand why you wish to abstain. We have ample nineteenth-century costumes for you to choose from.”

          And for a moment, Mason wondered how the young woman with the sexy voice would look dressed scandalously…

          Amanda seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “You can’t expect I’d want to costume myself like a resident of a brothel.”

          “No, no, of course not,” Mrs. Thalberg assured her. “As the owner, you’d be the madam.”

          Mason heard a choked cough, probably from Amanda, and it made him grin.

          “Next thing you’ll want my guests to be prostitutes.”

          “Well, only if they want to,” Mrs. Ludlow said matter-of-factly. “Saloon girls would be the better choice. We’ve already put together a brochure of the town history where Connections is mentioned. It will be wonderful for tourism—and for your prospective guests, of course. There’s a bit more involved, but we’ll be discussing it all in detail at the meeting tonight at the community center. We think you should attend.”

          “I know my B&B has some important history,” Amanda said, “but don’t you think it’s a little…icky to dramatize the poor women who were forced into prostitution, for what’s supposed to be a fun family event?”

          “Surely you know your home’s history,” Mrs. Ludlow said. “The next owner was a con woman, who specialized in luring men into her house and getting them inebriated enough to think they’d enjoyed the favors of the young saloon girls, when in reality she was fleecing them of their money. This ‘madam’ even had a dalliance with the local sheriff, who made sure the men caused no trouble. Surely you see how play-acting this could be amusing.”

          There was a weighted silence that the elderly women did not break. Mason imagined them staring Amanda down. He had to wonder why she didn’t just say she’d go to the meeting. Then the ladies couldn’t say she hadn’t given them a fair hearing.

          And then he realized it was none of his business, that he was letting a low, sexy voice draw him in.

          “Ladies, I can only promise to think about it,” Amanda said firmly.

          He heard a rustle of movement and hoped she was drawing this meeting to a close, so he could check in.

          “But now I really have to get back to work. I have a guest arriving in an hour and—”

          The French doors both opened wide, and Mason put on a polite smile. The gaggle of ladies came to such an abrupt stop that the back two bumped into the front two. The walker just missed his shin.

          “Ladies, I’m Mason Lopez, and I’m early for check-in.”

          If Amanda was at all annoyed, it only showed with a brief narrowing of her deep blue eyes, maybe because he hadn’t announced himself right away. And perhaps he should have.

          Her smile was gracious as she extended a hand. “Mr. Lopez, I’m Amanda Cramer, the owner of Connections.”

          Her grip was warm and firm. “You can call me Mason.”

          She was a tall woman, with the kind of generous curves that made a man want to see what was beneath her jeans and sleeveless V-necked shirt. Her sandy blond hair was gathered back in a ponytail, emphasizing high cheekbones and severe brows, and her skin was pale, as if she never saw the sun. This was a no-nonsense businesswoman if he ever saw one. He couldn’t imagine her dressing up as a brothel madam, even for these old ladies.

          “Well, well,” said one elderly woman, eyeing him up and down like he was her favorite apple pie. “I’m Mrs. Palmer. You must be here for the rodeo.”

          The Western drawl belonged to the woman wearing a big blond wig with a bow in it, lots of makeup, and a dress with a wild pattern of linked horseshoes. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anything like it. Must be in honor of the Wild West Weekend.

          “Yep, I’m competing in the bull riding,” he answered, trying to keep his ambivalence hidden. “I have some business in town, too.”

          “Mr. Lopez, my name is Mrs. Ludlow,” said the woman with the schoolteacher voice. “Where are you from, young man?”

          Of the three of them, she was the only one who looked like the typical grandma, with pressed slacks and a white blouse, wearing a sweater over her shoulders although it was an unusually warm day for summer in the Rockies. It was her walker that had almost collided with his shins.

          “My ranch is near Elk’s Crest, ma’am,” he said, nodding to her.

          “I’m Mrs. Thalberg,” said the third elderly lady. “Which ranch do you mean?”

          She had curly red hair, and her makeup was subtle and flattering. She wore jeans and a vest over a top, and her good-natured smile matched her voice.

          “Not just being nosy for no reason,” she explained before he could answer. “My family owns the Silver Creek Ranch.”

          Of course—Nate must be her grandson. “I’m with the Lake Ridge Ranch and Cattle Company, ma’am. We’re providing some of the rough stock for the rodeo.”

          “Oh, Lake Ridge. I think my late husband knew your granddad.”

          Mason grinned. “Probably. My abuelo knew everyone.”

          During this exchange, Amanda kept a smile in place, looking both gracious and interested, but he got the faintest feeling that she was very good at putting on a mask. But then, she was in the hospitality business. It wouldn’t look good to be bored by a guest.

          “You’ll love stayin’ here,” Mrs. Palmer said in a confidential voice, her hand on his arm. “Amanda knows how to take care of people. Remind her to come to the rodeo.”

          Amanda sighed and shook her head. “I don’t think so, Mrs. Palmer. It’s a busy weekend for me.”

          All three ladies gave her pointed looks. If Mason had been a kid, he’d have jumped to attention and agreed to anything to avoid those well-intentioned looks.

          Mrs. Ludlow glanced at him. “Young man, if you can’t get her to attend the rodeo, then remind her about tonight’s meeting. I’m certain that, standing here in the hall, you heard all about it.”

          Caught in the act of eavesdropping, he couldn’t deny it, so he only said, “I’ll do what I can, ma’am.” Amanda was frowning, so he hastened to add, “But I’m a stranger, so I wouldn’t blame Ms. Cramer for taking my advice lightly.”

          “Now that would be a mistake,” Mrs. Palmer said, “ignorin’ a fine cowboy like yourself.”

          Mason glanced at Amanda, feeling a little desperate.

          “Ladies, why don’t you let the poor man check in,” Amanda said. “It sounds like you’ll see him this weekend.”

          “I hope before that,” Mrs. Palmer said with a wink.

          Was she flirting with him? He gave her his best rodeo-tour smile—cheerful but devoid of real depth, the one he’d used when he hadn’t wanted to give any encouragement to the buckle bunnies who followed the rodeo tour. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever called an elderly woman a buckle bunny…

          “Come join us tonight, Amanda,” Mrs. Thalberg encouraged as the ladies moved to the door in a cluster.

          Mason opened the door for them.

          “She already said she’d think about it, Rosemary,” Mrs. Ludlow said. “No need to browbeat the girl. Good day, Mr. Lopez.”

          Mason closed the door behind them and caught Amanda sizing him up. She didn’t blush.

          “I apologize for forgetting to call and let you know I’d be arriving early,” Mason said.

          “It’s okay. You’re just lucky they were here”—she gestured to the front door—“or otherwise I could have been gone, leaving you unable to check in at all.”

          “Then it’s a good thing for me. Need to change out of my travel clothes.”

          She was still studying him, and he let it happen without comment. It wasn’t an interested sort of look, to his regret. He would be a guest in her home, and he’d already disobeyed a rule, it seemed, so she was evaluating him.

          “So this Wild West Weekend sounds fun,” he finally said.

          She arched a brow.

          “But a lot of work for you,” he quickly added, “especially at the last minute.”

          “I won’t be doing it, so it doesn’t matter to me.”

          “What, you can’t picture me and your other guests draped over a porch railing luring in customers?”

          He wanted to hear her laugh, but all she did was wince.

          “The other guests are members of a female country group, the Sassafras Girls,” she explained. “I didn’t tell the widows, because I didn’t want to give them ideas.”

          “The widows?”

          “That’s what we call them. The three old ladies live in the Widows’ Boardinghouse across the creek from me. And no, they don’t take in boarders. They just like the name. They even have a sign out front labeled with it, but they’re on Silver Creek Ranch land, so it’s not like tourists see it as an advertisement for a place to stay.”

          “They seem…busy.”

          She chuckled, and he was glad she was beginning to thaw.

          Busy isn’t even enough of a word for them. They’re the main committee members of the Valentine Valley Preservation Fund. Everything they do is to support the town, encouraging small businesses and helping with historic renovations. From what the previous owner told me, they were instrumental in getting him a grant to remodel and create Connections.”

          He looked around. “They did a great job. And it’s obvious you keep it up real well.”

          “Thank you. Now why don’t you come into the library and you can check over the paperwork you filled out online. I’ll need a form of identification and your credit card, please.”

          She was swift and competent with the check-in, then gave him a quick tour of the public rooms, including the dining room beyond the library, where drinks were available along with a bottomless cookie jar. She pointed through the French doors of the dining room to an expansive garden, complete with wandering paths, fountains, and a gazebo-enclosed hot tub, all of which she assured him he was welcome to use.

          He found himself studying Amanda Cramer more than the surroundings, asking himself why he was so curious about her. Her participation in the Wild West Weekend was her private business—maybe it was the fact that she intended to skip the rodeo. He hated to think she worked so hard that she didn’t enjoy life.

          Of course, who was he to talk? Lately, it was hard to find a Saturday evening to hang out at the local bar.

          At last he picked up his bag and followed Amanda up the carpeted stairs. He did his best to disguise the fact that he was checking her out from behind. She glanced over her shoulder at him, and he swiftly met her eyes.

          “I thought I’d put you in Castle Peak, the only suite on the third floor. That way, if the Sassafras Girls get a little rowdy, at least it won’t be over your head.”

          “I’ll try not to be too rowdy over their heads,” he teased.

          She didn’t turn around, only continued up to the next floor.

          “Castle Peak?” he said. “Named after the mountain?”

          “All four suites are named after the fourteeners of the Elk Mountains—the ones at or above fourteen thousand feet. The others are Snowmass Peak, Pyramid Peak, and Capitol Peak.”

          “Nice idea.”

          “Thanks. It’s better than Suite number one, number two…”

          She opened a door on the third floor to a light, airy room, white curtains billowing from the breeze through the open windows. The ceiling with exposed beams sloped up to the top of the house, but it was high enough that he wouldn’t hit his head. A large old-fashioned white-iron bed was directly beneath a skylight, bookended on each side by tables with those stacked-globe lamps that made him think of the old west. A curved rocking chair rested before the gas fireplace. The marble-topped bureau was adorned with fresh flowers. Old-west accents decorated the room: a spittoon in the corner, a pitcher and basin on another table, framed black-and-white daguerreotypes on the walls. Through a door, he could see the clawfoot tub in the otherwise sleek and modern bathroom.

          “You’ve done a nice job decorating everything in the house,” he said.

          She smiled, and now that they were no longer talking about the rodeo or the Wild West Weekend, she seemed more relaxed, happier. She obviously loved her work. It softened the angles of her face, brought a sparkle to her deep blue eyes that had been missing.

          “Thanks,” she said. “I admit I spend way too much time on eBay and craigslist, hunting down furniture and knickknacks.”

          “And there’re a lot of antique stores up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.”

          She gave the briefest hesitation before saying, “Yes, you’re right, and those are fun, too.”

          She handed over a set of keys and became an innkeeper again, explaining the binder on the desk, where she’d listed the Wi-Fi password, restaurants, maps, local sightseeing, and a schedule of events in Valentine that weekend.

          “In the evening, there’s always a snack in the parlor or the dining room, so you’re welcome to help yourself if I’m not around. I serve a hot breakfast, but I need to know roughly when you’ll be down.”

          “Is eight all right? I have a nine o’clock meeting.”

          “That’s fine. Knock on the kitchen door if I don’t hear you, but since these floors are old and creaky, I can usually tell when someone’s coming down to eat.”

          “I’ll keep that in mind if I decide to explore the house.”

          She grinned. “You’re welcome to. Now I’ll leave you in peace to get to your meeting. If you need something, give me a call. Enjoy your weekend at Connections.”

          She closed the door behind her, and he heard the quiet squeak of the floorboards as she started down the stairs. At last he looked at his watch—and grimaced. Good thing Valentine Valley wasn’t a large town. He just hoped he wouldn’t be late for his meeting at the Sweetheart Ranch.

          But even as he took a quick shower and threw on a clean pair of jeans and Western shirt, he thought of Amanda, and why she was so against helping out the widows for a good cause. She seemed like a nice person—but he knew all about showing the world only what you wanted everyone to see.

Copyright © Emma Cane