Authors: Linda Carroll-Bradd
Copyright © 2013, Linda Carroll-
All rights reserved. Ebooks are not transferable. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage system without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Edited by Emily Marquart
Cover Art by
Book design by Eden Plantz
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
First Entranced Publishing, LLC electronic publication: 2013
Entranced Publishing, LLC
Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America
To my husband, Randy, who has supported me every step of the way on my writer’s journey
Thanks go to the San Antonio Romance Authors’
Kharities Critique group who helped me fine-tune this manuscript. More thanks go to my youngest daughter, Shenoa, who helped put the polish on my prose.
Can a pretend engagement rekindle their dreams?
When museum curator Vena Fenton returns to her small Montana hometown, she’s forced to live under the same roof as Finnian Quaid, the star of more than one teenage fantasy. Finnian is now an environmental lobbyist, making a bid for senate, and is as dreamy as ever.
needs a more settled image if he wants to get ahead in the polls. In order to do that, he needs a wife. With Vena living under his roof, his problem seems solved. As the romantic sparks fly, there’s more at risk than Finnian’s political aspirations. Can they keep their eye on the prize, or will their growing love derail them both?
AS A BOSS, NICHOLAS
Towers had dropped a couple pegs in Vena Fenton’s estimation. As a fiancé, he’d hit rock bottom. Even surrounded by a cherry wood Federalist desk, an early eighteenth-century standing globe, and a Tiffany lamp, the man had no class.
“You’re saying I can’t?” Vena stilled against the adrenaline rush that preceded an angry retort. Lips pressed tight, she gripped the supple back of a century-old, leather wingback chair.
“Really, Vena?” Nick swung an arm, barely missing the leaded glass shade. “Actors in a museum?”
Why not? Her thoughts went to the storyboard she’d struggled over for the past three nights. Covering her dining table, the board held only sketches of the Los Angeles Frontier Museum’s permanent exhibits. Every time she sat at her glass-and-chrome table to develop the details, her creativity evaporated. She refocused on the man seated behind the spotless desk. “Exactly. People interacting with the artifacts to demonstrate how they were used.”
“Too much clutter.” He shook his head, and a lock of wheat-colored hair fell over his forehead. “Better that patrons have a clear view of the museum’s holdings. I’m leaning toward Geoffrey’s info displays on computer tablets. Completely discreet, of course.”
“Way to have my back. I’d hoped for more from you.” The complaint escaped before she could stop it. When was the last time they agreed on anything? With rigid steps, she moved to the window and gazed across the six-lane street choked with mid-morning traffic. Faint blasts of car horns and erratic tire screeches seeped into the quiet room. Small monitors amidst butter churns, cast iron kettles, and flintlock rifles? Modern touch-screen electronics hardl
y inspired the mood of the Old West.
Papers shuffled behind her and manicured nails tapped against the desk top. “Nothing personal, my dear. The bottom line has to be considered.”
One more day. That’s all she had to endure before her long-overdue vacation. Two weeks of peace and quiet in her old Montana hometown. “But the decision isn’t final. Not until the board meeting in three weeks, right?”
“Vena, Vena. Testy time of the month?”
Irritation stiffened her body and she swung around. “Nick!”
“The stress is getting to you.” He approached and rested both hands on her shoulders. “That’s why you’re clinging to this actor idea and can’t see the logic of another possibility. You’re buried under the acquisitions inventory, budget meetings, plus the engagement announcement.” He squinted. “Is all this too much? I still advocate hiring a party planner.”
Is he doubting my capabilities? Again?
She gazed into his hazel eyes, as she had for the past three years, and spotted pinched skin at the edges. Distrust? Cynicism?
When had she lost his faith? Or had she ever had it? For a second, her knees actually wobbled. “I disagree.” The backs of her eyes burned and she shook her head, breaking from his grasp. “What I’ve needed is your input...and decisions. I always have.”
“Oh, sure.” His gaze focused off to the side. “When you return, we’ll check out, um, places.”
“You mean restaurants or halls?” At his distracted tone, a chill ran through her. Planning their future should inspire a bit more enthusiasm. Why was only her energy involved in making the arrangements? “About that—”
“No, no.” Nick brushed a chaste kiss on her forehead and held out his hand, smooth palm upward. “Give me your work phone. Take the rest of the day off. I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Vena hesitated for only a moment before giving him the museum’s unit. “Two weeks.” Those words sounded as final as giving notice to an employer. But they also propelled her from his corner office and down the hallway to her small, dim one. A quick scan was all she needed to spot the essentials: purse, personal cellphone, flat-heeled boots from her bottom drawer.
An hour later, she sat in a cab en route to LAX. Holding the solid slab of a new smart phone, she searched the little squares on the display for the one to make a simple call. Quick hop-scotching punches of a fingertip, and her best friend’s name appeared on the screen. “Hey, Anita.”
“Finally, a return call.”
Did I miss something?
“Are you already in the wilds of rural Montana? Is that why I haven’t heard back?”
Guilt settled between her shoulders. “Sorry, I’ve been busy. Plus I got a new phone.”
“Come on, Anita. You know me and gadgets.” As the car swerved, Vena’s shoulder bumped against the window. “I can barely figure out how to make a call, let alone retrieve voicemail. Nick recommended this super-charged unit…” Irritation ran through her at another example of his persistent influence and his insistence she ditch the number with an area code from her college days. A niggle of defiance edged her thoughts. “But I’ll read the how-to’s on the plane.”
“We’re not having dinner tonight?”
Vena winced. Their long-standing girls’ night. “Sorry again. I’m leaving on the first available flight. Nick and I got into a”—
what to call that scene in his office?
—“disagreement, and he told me to leave for my vacation early. So I wanted the one who loves me best to know.”
“And that I do, girlfriend. Is this your new number?”
“Yeah.” Her gaze flitted to the stream of cars passing in the opposite direction.
“Wait. ‘The one who loves me best’? Are you ducking Nick?”
Vena couldn’t miss the hopeful tone in Anita’s voice. Ducking her fiancé? Is that what getting a new phone number and not telling him meant? She held out her left hand and gazed at the sparkling diamond engagement ring. The cab changed lanes and she grabbed the edge of the seat to keep from sliding. Pain stabbed her little finger where the diamond dug in. In a move that had become her usual habit, she removed the ring and stuck it in her purse. An action that spoke volumes about Nick and their engagement. “I’m at the airport. Call you later.”
The cab skidded to a stop at the curb. “Thirty-seven fifty, lady.”
Fare paid and with hands gripping her suitcase handles, Vena faced the huge glass windows of the airport terminal, took a deep breath, and stepped forward. Her vacation had officially begun.
“You took your sweet time getting here, Elfie.” The screen door opened, and a jean-clad leg stepped out.
Rising from retrieving the hidden house key, Vena glimpsed a flash of bare chest before the door hit her square on the shoulder. She fell flat on her rear with an “
oof.” Too tired to put up a self-defense move, she yelled, “Hey, watch it.”
“Do you know how late it is?” a male voice rumbled.
A chord in her memory reverberated, pinging along tired nerve endings all the way to her toes. She knew that voice. Finnian Quaid, the star of her teenage fantasies. Though deeper now, that same voice had echoed through her dreams over the years. He wasn’t supposed to be in Dry Creek. Her childhood friend Moira—Finn’s sister—told her he’d moved away years earlier.
“Finn.” She gazed up and saw a head of dark wavy hair haloed by the porch light. His face was cast in shadow, but the outline of a well-muscled torso was hard to miss. She raised a hand to shade her eyes. “Want to help me up?”
He extended a hand and leaned forward. “Sorry about the door. Are you okay?”
His hand engulfed hers and lifted her upright. The warmth of his strong fingers around her cold, cramped ones melted her annoyance at the rude welcome. Ten years had passed since she’d last seen
Finnian. As was typical, her bad luck held, and this first meeting had her sprawled flat on her derriere.
Judging by his attire, he’d just crawled out of bed. Her gaze strayed from eyes the color of a summer sky to a solid, muscular chest. The flood of teenage memories wouldn’t stop. Images of a younger Finn at the swimming hole, his body shimmering with droplets as he cannon-balled off the jumping rock, filled her head. She bit her bottom lip, but couldn’t hold back a groan.
Finn stepped close, put an arm around her shoulders, and peered into her face. “Elfie, are you sure you’re okay? Did I hit your head?”
She winced at the nickname. He’d chosen it when they were children because of her petite size. No one had called her that in years. She inhaled the frosty night air, hoping to cool her racing thoughts. “I’m all right, but could I come inside?”
The bang of a raised window sounded from the house next door. Finn grabbed her bag from the edge of the porch and motioned her to the doorway.
“What’s going on,
Finnian?” a woman’s reedy voice called out. “Should I call Sheriff Andrews?”
Vena rested her head against the doorframe and watched Finn cross to the side of the porch. He walked with athletic grace, and appeared to have grown a couple inches since high school.
Head angled upward, he leaned over the whitewashed railing and waved a hand. “Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Sampson. Just a late arrival. Go on back to bed.”
From this angle, the view was almost as good as from the front. A tingle ran over her entire body. She knew from Moira he’d been working in Helena, in a position connected to Montana’s state government. But what did he do to keep in such great shape? Highlighted by moonlight breaking through the trees, Finn’s physique blurred into a haze of images of him racing on a bicycle, jogging along a trail, and playing killer tennis.
A hand rested on her shoulder and gently shook. “Elfie?”
She startled, blinked, and gazed into a pair of concerned blue eyes. Oh, yeah—Montana, The Shamrocks, and
Finnian. A sigh escaped.
“Come inside.” His lips drew into a tight line as he stifled a laugh. “You fell asleep on your feet.”
“Mmm, I wasn’t a-asleep.” She stiffened, heat flaming her cheeks. “Only resting my eyes.” Ten minutes in his presence and she was just as tongue-tied and thunderstruck as a teenager.
Finn watched a blush redden Elfie’s cheeks and wondered at its cause. A breeze ran over his skin, and he shivered. Resting a hand on her back, he steered her into the foyer, closed the door, and set down her case. Her floral scent reached him, and he sucked in a breath.
If they passed on the street, he’d never have recognized this intriguing woman as his sister’s best friend. Probably because he had no clue what in hell she was wearing. His gaze traveled her figure, from light brown hair capped by a crooked hat, to a billowy dark cape hiding her figure, ending in mid-calf black boots. Was this a costume?
The change from gawky adolescent to beautiful woman was dramatic. Now her huge hazel eyes fit her heart-shaped face—a face that had become striking, with high cheekbones, an impish chin, and wide, smiling lips. A thrum of sexual awareness beat in his blood.
If I want her cooperation, I need to stay focused.
He gestured to his right before starting down the hall. “Have a seat in the living room. I’ll grab a shirt and join you.” Moments later, he crossed the room, tucking a black T-shirt into his jeans, and sprawled in an armchair. “So, Elfie, is this the time you planned to arrive?”
“Please, I prefer Vena these days.” Her eyes narrowed in a glare. “And don’t you dare tease me. I left my condo anticipating a few hours’ journey to start my vacation. My day disintegrated into a marathon of overbooked flights, missed connections, and a defective rental
car. I’ve been on the move for”—she pulled a silver chain from under the cape’s closure, glanced at an antique pendant watch, and groaned, falling back against the sofa— “more than fourteen hours. Please just point me to a dark room and a soft mattress.”
Finn rubbed his chi
n and, hearing the rasp of stubble, wondered if he appeared as tired as he felt. The heavy physical work of the past couple days had tested his endurance. Running a belt sander and wielding a pinch bar definitely used more muscles than making phone calls and sitting in meetings. “You made reservations expecting a full-service stay, right?”
She tucked herself into the corner of the sofa, letting the back cushion pillow her head. “I reserved a room for two weeks. Since Nana’s passing, the inn is my home base here.” Her head rolled to the side, and she stared. “Why don’t I trust your I’m-trying-to-be-kind expression? Don’t tell me you gave away my room the same way that stupid car agency rented the last vehicle with a working heater before I arrived.”
Finn’s resolve to inform her of the new circumstances wavered. Poor kid, she’d really had a rotten day. “I’m doing restorations on The Shamrocks, and conditions won’t be—”
“Finn, I am a woman on the edge. Give me the bottom line.”
Woman on the edge?
He shrugged. “The electricity and water will be turned off at various times. Living conditions aren’t hotel quality, only one bathroom works, and no one is cooking meals.”
“If the other guests don’t mind, I can rough it, too.” Her voice was gravelly, and her eyelids drooped to half-mast. “Just tell me where my bed is.”
The image of his own firm mattress and rumpled sheets crossed his mind. His immediate response was, ‘Well, there’s mine.’ But the poor thing didn’t look like she’d appreciate playful innuendo. “No other guests, and Ma and Da are in Ohio.”
Her eyes shot wide open, and she scooted to the edge of the cushion. “Come again? Moira didn’t mention any of this in our phone call.”