A Promise at Bluebell Hill

BOOK: A Promise at Bluebell Hill
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Dedication

To my husband, Jim, who brainstorms the best widow plots. Though I'm a writer, words cannot express my love for you.

 

Acknowledgments

M
y thanks to all the ­people who helped me research this book: Ginny Aubertine, Binnie Syril Braunstein, John Desantis, Gregory Roepke, Rudy Suarez, and Christine Wenger. Any mistakes are certainly mine.

 

Chapter One

I
n the workroom of Monica's Flowers and Gifts, Monica Shaw stood at a large table, critically studying the flower arrangement for a wedding the next day. It was May in Valentine Valley, Colorado, the start of wedding season, one of her busiest times of the year. She loved every moment of it, from helping a nervous man find the perfect flowers to ask his girl to marry him, to making the bride feel like she was the centerpiece of the altar, framed in beautiful flowers: roses, tulips, and dahlias, with a spray of white delphiniums. And she was good at what she did, as more and more of her customers confided that they'd been referred by their satisfied friends. The walls of the workroom were covered in photos from her successful events and reminded her of happy occasions and a job well done.

The bell at the front door jingled, and she glanced through the window that separated the workroom from the showroom. The door swung closed behind a tall man dressed in khakis, a dark blue polo shirt, and a windbreaker. He looked good—­broad, muscled shoulders tapering to narrow hips. He had a square-­jawed Captain America face, beneath a military cut of deep auburn hair, and carried himself with a regality that seemed out of place in a flower shop—­heck, in the whole town.

Dark sunglasses still hid his eyes as his head briefly turned from side to side. She knew the girly stuff he saw in her showroom: flowers, terrariums, plants in baskets along one side, and on the other, homemade crafts she took in on consignment, like quilted baby blankets, knitted layettes, ceramic vases, and leather frames. Behind the front counter were coolers full of flower arrangements anyone off the street could buy. Surely, he was there for roses—­he looked like a rose sort of ladies' man, no spontaneously picked wildflowers for him.

He finally took off the sunglasses, revealing the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen, piercing and intelligent, cool and impassive, above a nose with a slight crook in it, as if he'd broken it once and hadn't bothered having it fixed. With those eyes, he took in her work, her life, and didn't even twitch a lip in a smile. She immediately didn't want to like him, just from that lack of expression—­but she was far too fascinated already.

Through the window, Monica watched Karista, her freckle-­faced teenage sales associate, drop the tissue she'd shredded just looking at the stranger to approach the counter and speak to him. The words were too muffled for Monica to hear, but when the man turned away, it was obvious he meant to browse. He glanced at Sugar and Spice's daily pastry laid out on the little wrought-­iron table, today a raspberry torte, but moved on. How could he resist that? Not many ­people did.

Perhaps he was a Josh Thalberg groupie, trying to score leather-­carved goods before they were all gone. Josh's fame had started in her store, but now he was creating expensive shoulder bags for an Aspen boutique and exclusive necklaces for his wife's lingerie store, Leather and Lace. He didn't have as much time for the checkbook covers, key chains, and frames he'd done for Monica in the past. ­People were starting to express their disappointment that she didn't have a larger selection, and she was surprised how much his popularity was playing with her head—­as if her flower arrangements weren't enough to lure customers anymore.

The stranger did pause to look at Josh's work, intricate and unusual, standing out next to the crocheted baby bonnets. Then he gave Karista a nod, slid his sunglasses back on his face, and headed outside.

Monica hurried through the swinging door, and asked, “Who was that?” just as Karista exclaimed, “Did you see him?”

They laughed together.

“He can't be from around here,” Karista said, light brown ponytail bobbing as she shook her head. “But he doesn't exactly look like a tourist, either.”

“And he was just browsing?”

“That's all he said. Real deep voice, too. Called me ‘miss,' all formal.”

Monica came around the counter and moved through her shop until she reached the big plate-­glass windows that bracketed the front door. She leaned across her flower displays and could just see the stranger studying the sign above the shop next to her own,
SUGAR AND SPICE
, before going inside the bakery.

“Do you see him?” Karista asked as she reached her side.

“He just went into Em's place.”

Emily Thalberg was one of Monica's best friends. She'd arrived in Valentine Valley a ­couple years before to sell a building she'd inherited but ended up finding a passion for pastry and marrying a local cowboy, instead.

“And now he's left Em's empty-­handed—­guess he was browsing there, too—­and is heading into Wine Country. Weird.”

“He could just be sightseeing. You never know what tourists want to see,” Karista added with a teenager's faint disdain.

Monica grinned. “He doesn't look like a tourist.” Then her stomach growled. “Hey, Karista, I'm going to take my lunch outside and sit in the sun.”

“You just want to spy on him,” the girl teased.

“And maybe I do. I'll let you know while you slave over those bows that need to be made.”

Karista gave a cute, fake pout and followed her behind the counter. Monica took her salad from the flower cooler, grabbed a fork, napkin, and her water bottle, and headed outside to sit on the bench in front of one of her big windows. It was a crisp mountain day, brilliant blue sky encompassing the nearby Elk Mountains like an umbrella. Some of the hardier summer perennials were already filling planters along Main Street. Freestanding display signs stood on the sidewalk outside several businesses, advertising the day's specials. Her block was filled with two-­story clapboard buildings painted blue and yellow and red like a field of flowers. At the end of the street, closest to the mountains, rose the stone tower of town hall, the highest point in Valentine. The Hotel Colorado took up the whole block directly opposite her, three stories of stone, with arched columns along the first floor like the vaulted ceilings she'd seen in photos of castles.

Was the stranger noticing the prettiness of this little town? Or did he have something else in mind? He didn't seem like a browsing tourist. Sure enough, as she worked her way through the salad, she saw him appear out of another ­couple stores along the north side, then cross the street and go from store to store along the south, too, making his way slowly back toward her. Occasionally, he answered a phone call or text. She didn't hide her curiosity, and she noticed him look at her. When he came out of another store, he glanced again, and this time she gave a little wave. What the hell. Maybe he'd come talk to her, and she'd figure out what was going on without having to chase him down. He didn't wave back.

She noticed the oddest thing about him, how he looked at every person he passed, even glancing down at their hands, both men and women. He seemed so . . . alert, not caught up in his “browsing,” not like a tourist out for a sightseeing stroll. And if he was killing time before some kind of event, well, he'd chosen an odd way. Most guys would find a bar and watch a game. In fact, he'd already gone into the Halftime Sports Bar and come back out again.

He reached the hotel and put a hand on the big glass door to go inside—­and then turned and looked at her again. She stiffened, waiting, then felt a sharp sizzle as he headed back across the street and straight toward her. Why was she letting this guy get to her? He was staying at the hotel, obviously just passing through, and man, did he look full of himself. And they hadn't even exchanged a word!

That was about to change.

He stepped onto the sidewalk and stopped in front of her. A ­couple strolling hand in hand shot him a look as they had to veer around him. They went inside her shop.

“Excuse me,” he said, in the deepest, most delicious voice she'd heard in a long time, “but is there a reason you're watching me?”

Shielding her eyes with one hand, Monica gave him a sunny smile. “Is there a reason you're going from shop to shop, staying nowhere long, like someone casing each place?”

From behind the sunglasses, he lifted an eyebrow. “I'm new to town—­you're bothered that I'm checking out places I might like to shop or eat?”

She thought she detected the faintest trace of amusement in his voice, as if he was trying to suppress it.

“Or you might want to buy flowers? Or jewelry?” she asked sweetly.

“I'm here a few weeks for business. Have to fill my time somehow,” he added lightly. He glanced from her lunch spread to the flower-­shop sign. “So you work here?”

“I'm the owner.”

He nodded as if in understanding. “No wonder you feel like you can interrogate customers.”

She laughed. “Only ones who are trying to appear mysterious.” She put out a hand. “I'm Monica Shaw. I don't suppose you want to sit down on this bench so I don't pull something in my neck trying to get a good look at you.”

“Travis Beaumont.”

His handshake was firm and warm. He sat down beside her, his back as straight as a character from one of her favorite historical romances—­the duke who deigned to visit a commoner. But he didn't seem to be arrogant, just . . . alert, as his gaze scanned the street before resting with interest on her face again.

“Nice name, Travis Beaumont.”

“Thank you. Not that I had anything to do with it.”

“Your parents gave it to you, and you didn't make it up here on the spot?”

He cocked his head, his voice pleasant as he said, “If I didn't want you to know my name, I wouldn't have told you.”

“Right, like the mysterious business trip.” She held up a bag of almonds. “Want some?”

“No, thank you.”

She got the feeling that he was waiting to see what she'd come up with next. Maybe he was flattered by her curiosity. “Have you ever been to Valentine Valley before?”

“No. I've been to Denver, but that was it. Have you lived here your whole life?”

“Yep. A small-­town girl, that's me. Except for college, of course.”

“Where did you attend?”

“Think you know me from somewhere?”

“No, because I'm pretty sure I'd remember you.”

“Flatterer.” She took another bite of her salad, chewed, and swallowed before answering. “I have a business degree from Colorado State, and took courses in floral design. So I've answered your question, and now maybe you'll answer another of mine. Where are you from?”

“Right now, Washington, D.C.”

“But that's not where you're originally from, of course.”

He linked his hands together, forearms resting on his thighs. “I'm from a small town in Montana that you would never have heard of. My turn to ask. Do you own the shop with anyone else?”

Now
that
was a curious question. “Nope, I'm the sole owner.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry if I'm out of line. You just seem young.”

For some reason, she got the feeling that wasn't the whole explanation.

“I was going to ask the concierge a question,” he continued, “but maybe you can help me. Do you know a place off the beaten path where my men can relax this evening?”

His men.
Spoken like a soldier. Travis Beaumont seemed nothing like the laid-­back guys she knew. But that was most of his appeal. And his handsome face, of course.

“Tony's Tavern. It's on Nellie Street, by Highway 82. Dark bar, pool table, darts. Maybe I'll see you there.”

He stood up. “Thanks for the information. Nice meeting you.” After nodding, he headed back across the street and disappeared inside the hotel.

Monica slowly gathered her lunch and took it inside. The strolling ­couple was just taking a bag from Karista, and they smiled as they passed Monica and went outside.

The door had barely closed when Karista said, “I could hardly concentrate on them—­what was that hot guy saying to you?”

“Not much, but it was fun anyway.”

Now she'd have to decide if she actually meant to search out Travis Beaumont at Tony's. There was something far too intriguing about him.

S
ecret Ser­vice Special Agent Travis Beaumont stood at the window of the third-­floor hotel room that he'd begun to transform into a command center. He stared thoughtfully at Monica's Flowers and Gifts down below, with its backdrop of mountains, some still dusted with snow at the peaks. Behind him, a number of agents were setting up conference tables, radios, printers, and computers, which would eventually connect all the agents on the ground with headquarters and the White House. President Alanna Torres would be visiting Valentine Valley within two weeks, attending her son's wedding—­not that more than a handful of ­people in town knew those details yet. Travis had been entrusted with his first assignment as lead agent with the advance team. And he wasn't about to blow it because of a cute, flirtatious woman with the most incredible deep brown eyes.

He told himself to stop, that he was sounding hung up on her. But there was no denying she was gorgeous, with a headful of black curls like a starburst, flawless light brown skin, and high cheekbones that gave her an exotic look. Her slim, cropped pants had hugged her hips, while her short-­sleeve top had shown off toned arms. It had taken everything in him not to stare at her, to pretend indifference. It had been a while since he had felt this attracted to someone. After his divorce two years ago, he'd shied away from dating altogether, then occasionally had a meal out, mostly with women his buddies had set him up with. Nothing had clicked.

But all he'd had to do was look at Monica Shaw's wry grin to feel his pulse rev up. And that was bad news.

Walking the streets of Valentine Valley had almost reminded him of his own hometown, where, as a boy, he could race the streets, playing cop or soldier, and someone would always be looking out for him, prepared to tell his mom if he was up to no good—­or prepared to keep him safe. But this small town was now part of his job, and he would have to know it inside out, meeting with the police and fire chiefs, even the medical personnel at the closest hospital. And if he didn't have an exact presidential itinerary yet? Well, that was nothing new. Sometimes, the president's junior staffers were clueless.

BOOK: A Promise at Bluebell Hill
8.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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