Authors: Emma Cane
A Town Called Valentine
To my Mom, Renee Kloecker, who nurtured a budding romance writer in the best ways. I wrote my first manuscript when I was sixteen, a Western. Guess I liked cowboys even then. For the love scene, not having any personal experience of my own, I gathered info from my favorite romances. My mom very calmly pointed out that although she liked my writing, I should take out the love scenes because I was too young. To this day, it makes me smile. Thanks for believing in me, Mom.
he car gave one last shudder as Emily Murphy came to a stop in a parking space just beneath the blinking sign of Tony’s Tavern. She turned off the ignition and leaned back against the headrest as the rain drummed on the roof, and the evening’s darkness settled around her. The car will be all right, she told herself firmly. Taking a deep breath, she willed her shoulders to relax after a long, stressful day driving up into the Colorado Rockies. Though the trip had been full of stunning mountain vistas still topped by snow in May, she had never let her focus waver from her mission.
She glanced up at the flashing neon sign, and her stomach growled. The tavern was near the highway and wasn’t the most welcoming place. There were only two pickups and a motorcycle beside her car on this wet night.
Her stomach gurgled again, and with a sigh, she tugged up the hood of her raincoat, grabbed her purse, and stepped out into the rain. Gingerly jumping over puddles, she made it beneath the overhang above the door and went inside. A blast of heat and the smell of beer hit her face. The tavern was sparsely furnished, with a half dozen tables and a long bar on the right side of the room. Between neon signs advertising beer, mounted animal heads peered down at the half dozen customers. A man and a woman sat at one table, watching a baseball game on the flat screen TV—at least there was one other woman in the place. Another couple men hunched at the bar, glancing from beneath their cowboy hats at her before turning away. No surprise there.
When she hesitated, the bartender, a man in his thirties, with shaggy dark hair and pleasant features, gave her a nod. “Sit anywhere you’d like.”
Smiling gratefully, she slipped off her raincoat, hung it on one of the many hooks near the door, and sat down. She discovered her table was opposite the only man at a table by himself. He was directly in her line of vision, making it hard to notice anything else. He was tall, by the length of his denim-clad legs. Beneath the shadowing brim of his cowboy hat, she could see an angular face and the faint lines at the corner of his eyes of a man who spent much of his day squinting in the sun. She thought he might be older than her thirty years but not by much.
When he tipped his hat back and met her eyes, Emily gave a start, realizing she’d been caught staring. It had been so long since she’d looked at any man but her ex-husband. Her face got hot, and she quickly pulled the slightly sticky menu out from its place between a napkin dispenser and a condiment basket.
A shadow loomed over her, and for a moment, she thought she’d given the cowboy some kind of signal. Maybe her presence alone in a bar late at night was enough.
But it was only the bartender, who gave her a tired smile. “Can I get you something to drink?”
She almost said a Diet Coke, but the weariness of the day overtook her, and she found herself ordering a beer. She studied the menu while he was gone, remembered her lack of funds, and asked for a burger when he returned. Some protein, some carbs, and with lettuce and tomato, it made a pretty well-rounded meal. She had to laugh at herself.
“I didn’t know the menu was that funny,” said a deep voice.
Not the bartender. Emily glanced up and met the solitary cowboy’s gaze. Even from one table over, she could see the gleam of his green eyes. His big hand lifted a bottle of beer to his lips, yet he never stopped watching her.
Was a cowboy trying to pick her up in a mountain bar? She blinked at him and tried to contain her smile. “No, I was smiling at something else,” she said, trying to sound polite but cool.
To her surprise, the cowboy simply nodded, took another swig of his beer, and glanced back at the TV. She did the same, drinking absentmindedly and trying to pretend she liked baseball. Her ex-husband had been a fan of the San Francisco Giants, so she’d gone to an occasional game when one of the partners couldn’t attend.
By the time her hamburger arrived, she’d finished her beer. The cowboy was watching her again, and she recklessly ordered another. Why not? Though she hadn’t eaten much today, the burger would certainly offset the alcohol. Hungrily, she dug in. The two men at the bar started to play darts, and she watched them for a while. The cowboy did, too, but he watched her more.
She studied him back. “Don’t cowboys have to get up early? You’re out awful late.” What was she doing? Talking to a stranger in a tavern?
But she was away from home, and everything she’d thought about herself had gone up in flames this past year. Her belly had warmed with food and the pleasant buzz of her second beer. Emily Murphy would never talk to a man in a bar—but Greg had made sure she didn’t feel like Emily Murphy anymore. Changing back to her maiden name would be a formality.
And then the cowboy gave her a slow smile, and she saw the dimples that creased the leanness of his cheeks and the amusement hovering in those grass green eyes. “Yes, ma’am, it’s well past my bedtime.”
She bit her lip, ready to finish her burger and scurry back to her car, like the old, properly married Emily would have done. But she wasn’t that person anymore. A person was made up of what she wanted, and everything Emily had thought she wanted had fallen apart. She was becoming a new woman, an independent woman, who didn’t need a husband, or a mother, to make a success of her life.
But tonight, she was also just a single woman in a bar. And who was that hurting if she was? She could smile at a man, even flirt a bit. She wasn’t exactly dressed for the part, in her black sweater and jeans, but the cowboy didn’t seem to mind looking at her. She felt a flush of reaction that surprised her. How long had it been since she’d felt desirable instead of just empty inside? Too long.
“You’ll hear this a lot if you stick around,” the cowboy continued, “but you’re a stranger around here.”
“Yes, I am,” she said, taking the last swig of her beer. Her second beer, she thought. “I’ve just driven from San Francisco.”
“Been here before?” he asked.
She grinned as she glanced at the mounted hunting trophies on the walls. “Not right here. But Valentine Valley? Yes, but it’s been a long, long time. Since my childhood in fact. So no one will know me.”
“Don’t worry,” he said dryly. “Everyone will make it their business to fix that.”
She eased back in her chair, tilting her head as she eyed him. “You don’t like that?”
He shrugged. “It’s all I’ve ever known.” Leaning his forearms on the table, he said, “Someone waiting for you tonight?”
“No.” A little shiver of pleasure stirred deep in her stomach. She wouldn’t let herself enjoy this too much. She was a free woman, flirting in a bar to pass the time after an exhausting day. It didn’t mean anything. The bartender brought over another beer, and she didn’t protest. “None of my family lives here anymore.”
For a moment, the cowboy looked as if he would question that, but instead, he glanced at the bartender. “Tony, since the dartboard’s taken, mind if we use the back room?”
Emily gaped at him.
The cowboy grinned as if he could read her mind. “Pool table. Do you play?”
She giggled. Oh, she’d really had too much to drink. But it was dark and raining, and she had no family here, and no one who cared what she did. She got to her feet and grabbed her beer. “Not since college. And I was never good. But if you need a reason to stay up past your bedtime . . .”
His laugh was a pleasurable, deep rumble. As she passed his table, he stood up, and for the first time she got a good look at the size of him, the width of his shoulders thanks to whatever work he did, the flannel shirt open over a dark t-shirt, those snug jeans following long legs down to well-used cowboy boots.
He could really work a pair of jeans. And who would have thought she’d find cowboy boots hot? She’d always been drawn to a tailored suit and the subtle hint of a well-paid profession.
The back room was deserted on this stormy night. Low central lights hung over the table, brightly illuminating the playing surface but leaving the corners of the room in the shadows. Emily set her beer down on a nearby table, and the cowboy did the same.
He chose a cue stick. As she was pulling her hair back in a quick ponytail, he turned and came to a stop, watching her. His hungry gaze traveled down her body, and though she realized her posture emphasized her breasts, she didn’t stop until her hair was out of her face. It had been so long since a man looked at her with admiration and desire and need. Surely she’d be flustered—if it wasn’t for the beer.
She took the cue stick from him and smiled, saying, “Thanks,” knowing he’d chosen for himself.
He laughed and put several quarters in the table to release the balls. She watched him, drinking her beer and having a handful of mixed nuts from a basket on the table. Normally, she never would have eaten from food that could have been sampled by anyone. Tonight, it didn’t matter. She was a new woman.
“Do you have a name, cowboy?”
He’d been leaning over the table to rack the balls, but he straightened and looked at her from beneath the brim of his hat. “Nate.”
No last names. She felt a thrill of danger. “Emily.”
Though she normally would have blushed, this new, adventurous Emily smiled. “Thank you. But then I had no say in it.”
“I wasn’t talking about your name.” His voice was a low drawl, his eyes narrowed and glittering.
Had it gotten warmer in here? she wondered, unable to stop looking at him. Though there were several windows, they were streaked with rain, and it would be foolish to open them. Her sweater felt like it clung to her damply.
“So, Nate,” she said brightly, “are you going to take me for all my money?”
“I’m a high roller,” he said. “I might bet all of a dollar.”
She snorted, then covered her mouth.
“Or I might bet a kiss.”
She stared at him, still smiling, playing his game and not thinking. She was so tired of thinking. “Is that the prize if I win or what I owe if I lose?”
He chuckled. “Depends, I guess. Am I worth it?”
She couldn’t seem to take a deep enough breath. “I don’t know. Guess we’ll have to play and find out.”
They didn’t speak during the game, only watched each other play. Emily had to be honest with herself—she was watching him move. She liked the way his jeans tightened over his butt, how she could glimpse the muscles in his arms when he stretched out over the table. He took his hat off, and the waves in his black hair glinted under the light. The tension between them sizzled, and she wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a hiss. They walked about the table, about each other, as if in a choreographed dance of evasion and teasing. This was flirtation as a high art, and he was far better at it than she’d ever been.
But the beer was helping. When it was her turn to lean over the table to line up a shot, she knew he was watching her hips, knew what, as a man, he was thinking. And although she would
have sex with a stranger, the thought that he desired her gave her a heady, powerful feeling. This new Emily, in the next stage of her life, could be lusty.
But not with a stranger, she reminded herself.
And then she lost the game, as she knew she would. She still had so many balls on the table as he sank his last one and slowly straightened to look at her.
“I’ll take that kiss,” he said, coming around the table.
She was breathless already, looking up and up into those narrowed green eyes. He stopped right in front of her, her breasts almost touching his chest. She could feel the heat of him, the tension, the tug of danger, but it wasn’t exactly him she was afraid of. She was drunk enough that she was afraid what she might do if she tasted him.
But she was also drunk enough to try it. As she stepped forward, their bodies brushed. His inhalation was sexy in itself, letting her know that she could affect him. She waited for him to lean down over her, arched her neck—and then he put his hands on her waist. She gasped as he lifted her off her feet and set her on the edge of the pool table. With wide eyes, feeling breathless, she watched him, unaware that she kept her legs pressed together until he leaned against them.
He smiled, she smiled, and then she parted her knees, holding her breath as he stepped between them. Their faces were almost level.
He leaned in and very lightly touched his lips to hers. “Breathe,” he whispered, softly laughing.
She did with a sudden inhalation. What was she supposed to do with her hands? She was beginning to feel nervous and foolish and that she was making a mistake. And then he put his hands on the outside of her thighs and slowly slid them up, past the roundness of her hips to the dip in her waist.
“So delicate,” he murmured huskily, and kissed her again.
Part of her had expected a drunken kiss of triumph, but he took his time, his slightly parted lips taking hers with soft, little strokes. Soon she couldn’t keep herself from touching him, sliding her hands up his arms, feeling each ripple of muscle with an answering ripple of desire deep in her belly. Her thighs tightened around his hips, she slid her hands into his hair, then, as one, they deepened the kiss. He tasted of beer, and it was an aphrodisiac on this lost, lonely night. The rasp of his tongue along hers made her moan, and he pulled her tighter against him. She was lost in the heat of him, the feel of his warm, hard body in her arms. He tugged the band from her hair, and it spilled around her shoulders. She had no idea how long they kissed, only reveled in feeling absolutely wonderful. It had been so long.