Melt My Heart, Cowboy

Book One of the Chocolate Shop Series

Who is the handsome cowboy who comes into small town Marietta’s chocolate shop every week to buy a box of chocolates? More importantly…who is he buying the chocolates for? These are the questions sales clerk Rosie Linn asks herself as she waits for her sadly neglected childhood home to sell so she can pursue an exciting new career in L.A.

Rosie finds out the answers the day rugged ranch hand Brant Willingham introduces himself and asks for her help in managing the care of his younger sister. Brant’s mother has recently died, leaving him the sole guardian of eighteen-year-old Sara Maria–who has been a puzzle to Brant ever since she began exhibiting signs of autism at age two.

Rosie and Brant come up with a plan. She’ll help with his sister if he handles repairs and a new paint job for her old house. It seems the perfect solution, but a new dilemma is created when the couple start spending time together. Brant discovers he doesn’t want Rosie to sell and leave, and Rosie fears she will have to choose between love and her dreams.

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Book Discussion for Melt My Heart, Cowboy

1. When we first meet the hero of the book, Brant Willington, at the chocolate shop, he’s buying a box of chocolates from the heroine, Rosie Linn. Did you have a theory about who those chocolates were for? Were you surprised when you found out they were for his sister?

2. How did you feel about Brant’s relationship with his sister at the beginning of the book? Did his lack of awareness of her feelings and abilities make you like him less? At what points in the story did your feelings toward Brant change—or did they?

3. How did you feel about Rosie keeping her screenwriting a secret from her friends and co-workers? Was it understandable, or do you think she should have been more truthful?

4. Rosie’s dog, Huck, is more than a prop in this story. In what ways is the old lab important to the plot and development of the characters…especially Brant’s sister?

5. How did you feel about Brant’s autistic sister Sara Maria? Did your opinion about her change during the course of the story?

6. What was the most emotional point of the story, and why?

7. An unresolved subplot in this book is the sudden appearance of Rosie’s boss’s niece Portia Bishop and her discovery that she is pregnant. What did you think of her friendship with Rosie? Do you have any particular hopes or expectations for Portia’s role moving forward in the series?

8. How does the title of the book reflect the main romance of this book? The setting? Are there other ways this title is appropriate for this story?

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Chapter One

“Can I tempt you with one of our cocoa peanut melts?” Rosie Linn wished she, herself, could tempt the good-looking cowboy on the other side of her sales counter.

But in the three months he’d been frequenting the Copper Mountain Chocolate shop—regular as Friday’s happy hour at Grey’s Saloon—he hadn’t come close to asking her out. So she doubted that was going to happen.

Instead she pointed out one of the delicate and dreamy confections her boss, Sage Carrigan, had handcrafted just that morning. “Rich dark chocolate, swirled with creamy peanut goodness… what’s not to love?”

The cowboy standing on the other side of the display case gave her a charming, slightly teasing smile, a smile that always made Rosie’s day and often her entire week.

“I’m sure they’re great, but I’ll take the usual—a box of the dark chocolate salted caramels.”

“Give these a taste, at least?” She proffered a tray with a sample of the cocoa peanut melts.

He just shook his head no. For months Rosie had been trying to entice him to try something other than a box of twelve Pink Himalayan Salted Chocolate Caramels.

But he would not be swayed.

“You don’t know what you’re missing.”

The cowboy leaned an arm on the counter, and cocked an eyebrow. “I’m sure you’re right, Rosie.”

His use of her first name would have flattered her if it wasn’t pinned to the front of her copper-colored apron.

“And if the chocolates were for me,” he continued, “I’d be going on your recommendation for sure.”

“But the chocolates aren’t for you.”

“Regretfully… no.”

She waited, hoping he would tell her who they were for, but he said nothing further.

Rosie really wanted to know the name of the lucky recipient.

She had her speculations.

The most obvious, of course, was that he had a sweetheart with a chocolate addiction. This was not her favorite theory, however.

She far preferred the idea that he was a dutiful grandson, making a visit to an old folks’ home.

But Sunday, not Friday, was the traditional time to visit the ill and the infirm.

Rosie knew this because, for the past five years, she’d nursed her diabetic father through a host of ailments until he’d finally succumbed to kidney failure. Most of the week she’d had to manage on her own, but on Sunday she could generally count on at least one or two neighbors or old friends to pop in with a casserole, or a vase of flowers.

With a pair of silver tongs, Rosie selected a dozen caramels bathed in rich, dark chocolate and speckled with pink Himalayan sea salt, sneaking glances at the cowboy as she carefully layered them into one of the shop’s signature copper-colored boxes. She could tell by the dust on his boots, the worn leather of his belt, and the calluses on his hands, he was a working cowboy, not just someone dressing the part.

But that was pretty much all she knew about him.

“Anything else?” she asked.

“Still trying to tempt me, Rosie?” His gaze swept over her, not the display of chocolates.

“Is it working?”

“Oh, I’m plenty tempted, Rosie. Just doing my best to resist.”

Her cheeks went hot as she wrapped the copper-colored box with some ribbon, wishing she could think of a clever retort. It was so frustrating that she excelled at writing clever dialogue for her brother’s screenplays, yet so often found herself tongue-tied in real life.

Maybe if she could say just the right thing, he would ask her out. Of course, it would help her cause if she wasn’t wearing her unbecoming work uniform.

The reddish-gold aprons looked fantastic on Sage, who had beautiful ginger hair and honey skin tones. But the hue did nothing for Rosie’s ordinary brown hair and eyes. Probably she was beyond hope.

She slipped the box into a logo-embossed bag before handing it to the cowboy.

Her thanked her, but seemed in no hurry to leave. “Sure is quiet here today.”

“It’s been slow since the rodeo wrapped up. But last week was crazy.” They’d sold all out of the chocolate molded cowboy hats that Sage created especially for the weekend long festivities.

“I’d hoped to watch the finals on Sunday. But the boss decided on Saturday we needed to start moving cattle.”

“Is it big, the ranch where you work?”

“Yup.”

She waited, hoping he would mention the ranch by name, but he didn’t.

“Thanks, Rosie. Have yourself a nice weekend, now.”

“Same to you.”

The enticing possibility of something more in the future hung in the air for a few moments, as his gaze lingered. Then he gave her a parting nod and left.

Outside, he stopped under the front awning.

Wherever he was headed, he didn’t seem in a hurry to get there.

Rosie leaned against the counter, watching as he settled his hat over his dark, curly hair, and then squared his shoulders. For a moment she thought he might turn on his heels and come back inside. But five seconds later, he was on his way.

Which meant she wouldn’t see him again for another week.

She sighed, not sure why, in a town that specialized in hot masculine dating material, it was this particular cowboy who’d caught her eye.

Maybe it was the hint of sadness she sometimes glimpsed in his eyes that intrigued her. Or it might be because of the time she’d seen him make funny faces at a crying baby, whose mother was trying to pick out a gift for her mother-in-law. The fussing baby had grown silent as he stared at the cowboy’s silly expressions. Then he’d smiled, and finally he’d chortled adorably.

The cowboy had brushed off the mother’s thanks, winking at Rosie before leaving the shop with his usual box of chocolate salted caramels.

A cowboy who was good with babies. What woman wouldn’t love that?

Rosie sure had. But he hadn’t asked her out then, or in any of the weeks that followed and it was probably for the best because Rosie had plans and they didn’t include Marietta.

As soon as the old family house was sold she was going to move to L.A. and live with her screenwriter, older brother, Daniel, and his actress wife, Glenda. Over the past few years she’d been helping Daniel with some of his scripts. She’d started out proofreading, then had begun making the odd suggestion.

Lately she’d progressed to entire scenes and at their father’s funeral Daniel had invited her to work with him full-time, with the credit and pay to go with it.

He’d already had a few minor successes with some low budget, made-for-TV movies. Now he—well, both of them actually—were working on a TV series for a major network. Daniel was hoping this would catapult his career—their careers—to the next level. Rosie prayed he was right.

She loved this town and working at the chocolate shop. And she’d never regret spending these last years with her father.

But she was tired of getting all her excitement vicariously—from books, movies, and Daniel’s accounts of the parties and night life he and Glenda enjoyed. She wanted to be part of the action.

If only the darn house would sell. It had been on the market now for over six months without so much as a hint of an offer. The leaves that had been a fresh new green at her father’s funeral now sparkled butterscotch yellow in the autumn sun. October already.

Rosie sighed, then turned to look down Main Street. The local merchants had already replaced the rustic fence posts, bales of hay, and posters advertising the Copper Mountain Rodeo with spooky Halloween ghosts, witches, and zombies in preparation for the next major holiday. Just last night Sage had decorated the chocolate shop’s window with fat, orange pumpkins and some matching Halloween inspired products.

Time was passing all too quickly.

Rosie made a promise to herself. She would be gone before the first snowfall. She couldn’t take another long, cold Montana winter.


Rosie was about to start closing up the shop for the night when a pretty woman, definitely under thirty, came through the door, rolling a large suitcase behind her.

“Hi! Is Sage Carrigan here?”

The woman had almond-colored eyes, creamy skin, and a lovely smile. She wasn’t tall, but she had a curvy figure, shown to perfection in her outfit of jeans, fashion boots, and a chunky wool sweater.

Not in a million years could Rosie have put together an outfit that looked so flattering and casually chic.

“Sage isn’t here right now. May I help you?”

The woman’s face fell and suddenly she looked younger than Rosie had first guessed. Early twenties, max, just a few years younger than Rosie herself.

“Thanks, but I really need to talk to Sage. She’s my aunt.”

Rosie knew Sage had three sisters. The youngest, Callan, was married without children and still lived and operated the family’s ranch, the Circle C. The next in line was Dani, who lived in Seattle with her husband and a daughter and newborn baby boy.

Which meant this girl must belong to Mattie, the oldest of the Carrigan sisters. Mattie and her second-husband had a ranch somewhere in the Flathead Valley.

“Are you one of Mattie’s twins?”

She blinked with surprise. “I’m Portia. How did you guess?”

“It’s a small town and I’ve been working for Sage since she opened her shop.” She’d been here when Sage’s ex, Dawson O’Dell, had shown up in town with his young daughter, Savannah, intent on winning back Sage’s heart. Now they were married and had added a cute baby boy to the family. Again, Rosie was reminded of how quickly the years were passing.

“I’m Rosie Linn by the way.”

“Nice to meet you.”

As Rosie stepped out from behind the counter to shake her hand, she noticed Portia’s gaze sweep down from her apron to her less-than-stylish black pants and the clogs she wore to work because they were so comfortable.

“Great outfit, huh? Sage insists we wear these copper-colored aprons. Dakota—she works here part-time as well—hates them, too.”

Portia rolled her eyes sympathetically. “I once worked in a restaurant where I had to wear this t-shirt with a picture of a chicken. It was pathetic. Still, the apron isn’t bad, it’s just too dull against the black shirt and trousers. If it were up to me, I’d pair it with a cobalt blue shirt and some really dark, crisp blue jeans.”

“Yeah?” Rosie made a mental note to do some online shopping later that evening.

“So, about my aunt, do you have any idea where I could find her?”

“She would have picked Savannah up from school at three-thirty. So they’re probably home by now.”

Portia wrinkled her nose. “I was hoping to talk to her here, rather than at her house. I thought it might be... easier.” As she spoke, she pulled out her phone. “I’ll send her a text.”

When she was finished, Portia wheeled her suitcase into a corner then strolled around the shop, pausing here and there to make minor adjustments to the stock. In every case, she managed to somehow make the displays look better. Rosie was impressed. This girl had a good eye. Rosie wondered if maybe she could get more fashion tips from Portia. She didn’t want to look like a country hick when she finally made her move to L.A.

“How is business?” Portia asked.

“This week has been slow. But rodeo week was terrific. And summer was quite good as well.”

“And with the holidays coming... Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas... the trend should continue upward, right?”

“November and December are two of our busier months,  that’s true.” Rosie glanced from Portia to the big suitcase.

Before she could say anything more Portia came round the counter and put a hand on her arm.

“I might as well tell you what’s going on, Rosie. I’ve just dropped out of college and I’m hoping my Aunt Sage will give me a job. Do you think I have a chance?”

“I don’t know.” Seeing the worry in Portia’s eyes, Rosie instinctively wanted to give her hope. “Chances are pretty good actually, since I’m going to be leaving soon.”

“You are?”

“My dad passed away this spring. He was my last tie to this town. As soon as our house sells, I’m moving to L.A. Sage knows this, it’s not a secret or anything.” And then, before she could stop herself, she asked, “Why did you drop out of college?”

Portia turned away, wrapping her arms around her body. “Sorry to hear about your father. That’s rough. As for college, I was only going to please my mother. I decided it was time I stopped wasting her money and my time.”

Sounded logical. But Rosie knew how emotional parents could get about higher education. Her own father had argued for months when she’d told him she was turning down her scholarship to stay home and look after him.

“What were you taking?”

“Just arts.”

“How far along?”

Again Portia looked away. “Senior year.”

Rosie bit back the obvious question. Why not finish after going so far? But Portia, who was so friendly in most respects, clearly wasn’t open to further discussion on this topic. She moved to the far end of the shop and then pulled out her phone again and began scrolling.

“My aunt’s coming to pick me up.” She announced a minute later. “Mind if I hang out until she gets here?”

“No problem. Want a cup of hot cocoa while you’re waiting?”

“Oh, I’d love that. Aunt Sage sends me chocolates all the time, but I’ve never tasted her cocoa.”

“It’s to die for.” Rosie turned to the back counter, where a copper pot rested on the built-in gas range top. She raised the heat and then used a wooden spoon to stir the molten chocolate concoction.

Lured by the aroma, Portia moved closer again.

“Oh, my God, that looks so decadent. What’s in it?”

“It’s your aunt’s secret recipe. But I know she uses pure chocolate, lots of cream, and a dash of cinnamon. Would you like whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top?”

“Not normally. But after all those hours on the bus, I’d say I deserve a treat. Sure, go for it.”

Once the cocoa was steaming, Rosie ladled a serving into a tall mug, then added a spoonful of thick, sweet cream, and a generous shaking of dark chocolate shavings.

One sip had Portia moaning. “I can’t believe I’ve never tried this until now.”

Rosie smiled. She loved witnessing someone tasting Sage’s hot cocoa for the first time.

Portia savored a few more mouthfuls, then nodded at the copper pot. “Why don’t you have some too, then sit and talk with me for a while.”

They hadn’t had a customer since Portia arrived, so Rosie saw no reason not to agree, but first she slipped the pages of the screenplay she’d been working on during the lulls in business into her large purse.

She only worked on her stories when there was absolutely nothing left for her to do in the shop, but she still felt guilty about it. Besides, no one but family knew she helped Daniel with his screenplays.

She and Portia sat at one of the small tables at the rear of the shop, next to the door to the kitchen. Sage had added this small sitting area a few years ago when it became clear that some visitors wanted to linger and enjoy their cocoa inside—especially during the winter months.

It had proven so popular Sage had begun to consider expanding her square footage. But so far she hadn’t taken any action on the plan.

“So, Rosie,” Portia said, “tell me about yourself.”

Rosie swirled her spoon through the whipped cream and cocoa. “Not much to say. I’m probably the most boring person in Marietta.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I’ve lived here all my life. Only had one job and that’s this one.”

“What about guys? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No one serious. To be honest, I haven’t dated anyone in at least six months.”

Portia’s eyes rounded. No doubt she would consider a month to be an intolerable dry spell.

“I’m in a rut, and not a good one,” Rosie admitted. “When I was in high school, my father began suffering from serious complications from his diabetes. Against his protests, I put off going to college so he wouldn’t have to go into a care home.”

“You must have been really close.”

“It’s been just the two of us for a long time. My brother is twelve years older. I can hardly remember when he lived at home. And my mom died from cancer several years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Dad took her death especially hard. He used to write bestselling thrillers, but after Mom died he never wrote again.”

“How tragic.”

“Yes. It’s been tough.”

“I can see why you want to move. What are your plans when you get to L.A.?”

Rosie told her about Daniel and his wife. “They’ve promised to find me a job of some sort,” she finished vaguely, not wanting to reveal her writing aspirations. “I’m willing to try anything to get out of this town.”

“Not that Marietta is a bad place,” Rosie added quickly. “I just need a change.”

“I know that feeling,”

Rosie raised her eyebrows inquiringly.

Portia seemed on the verge of elaborating, but then the door opened and Sage rushed in. Even with her hair in a messy updo, and wearing yoga gear with a toddler perched on her hip, Sage looked gorgeous.

Rosie immediately leapt to her feet, worried her boss would think she’d been lazing around. While Sage was one of the sweetest people Rosie knew, she had exacting standards when it came to her chocolate shop.

But Sage wasn’t even looking at Rosie.

“Portia what’s going on? Shouldn’t you be at college in Seattle?”

And suddenly, shockingly, Portia started to cry.

 

Chapter Two

This town sure is full of pretty women. As Brant Willington passed a sweet, young thing, lugging a big suitcase along Main Street, his thoughts were still on the chocolate shop sales clerk. The fifteen minutes he spent chatting with Rosie and resisting her attempts to get him to buy something new were the highlight of his Friday afternoons. If he was in a different place in his life, he’d be tempted to ask her out.

But he had no time for dating. Between his job and his obligations to Sara Maria he was pretty much tapped out.

Thinking of the evening ahead, his stomach felt the way it had as a kid when he’d been in the waiting room for the dentist. The antiseptic smell, the whining of the drill, those things had made him want to bolt.

Which was what he longed to do right now.

If this had been a regular Friday night three months earlier, he would be in the bar with his buddies right now, looking forward to a few games of pool and possibly a little dancing and romancing, if he found the right girl.

But those days were gone now. Probably forever.

Brant forced his feet to move in the direction of the May Bell Care Home. The small town was quiet in the aftermath of the rodeo, but with the aspen leaves newly golden, he’d never seen it look prettier. Longingly he glanced down the block to Grey’s Saloon, before turning on Second, then again on Church.

And there it was.

From the outside it looked pleasant enough. A three story brick building with nice landscaping out front, including two benches, which were both currently occupied.

He nodded at an older lady settled on the bench to his left, with her hands resting on her walker.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Powell.”

“Hello, Brant. It’s nice to see you. Your visits are the highlight of her week you know.”

Mrs. Powell was so arthritic she could hardly walk, but mentally she was a force to be reckoned with. Brant considered it both a blessing and a curse that she had the room next to Sara Maria’s.

Inside, he stopped briefly to check-in at reception, before turning right and walking to the end of the hall. The door to Sara Maria’s room was shut, which meant she was still watching Jeopardy.

Brant squared his shoulders. Sara Maria had been born ten years after him. He’d adored his cute baby sister at first, and the feeling had been mutual. His mom had always said that when Brant was in the room Sara Maria would look at no one else.

Then Sara Maria turned two. And all of a sudden she’d changed. She’d become quiet and withdrawn. No more smiles, no more adoring gazes at her brother. After numerous doctors’ appointments and hours of scouring the internet, his mother had come to realize Sara Maria was autistic.

Family life had never been the same after that, especially once their father left. Their mother had borne the brunt of the burden, until three months ago, when she’d been killed in a car crash.

Now Brant was the head of the family. If only he had half the strength and patience of his mother.

Brant inhaled deeply, then tapped on the door and walked into the darkened room. Sara Maria had closed the curtains to eliminate any glare on the TV screen. She was sitting in her chair, gaze fixed on her favorite show. She didn’t even glance at him as he crossed in front of her to perch on the edge of her neatly made bed.

On screen the show host gave the name of a city.

“What is the capital of Belize,” Sara Maria responded quickly, before any of the contestants.

“How the hell did you know that?” Brant shook his head in amazement.

She didn’t have the good judgement to turn off the stove burner after using it, yet she knew facts about the world he had no clue about.

Predictably Sara Maria ignored his praise. When she was watching television or a movie, she devoted one-hundred percent of her concentration to it.

Five minutes later, after the show had ended, Brant knew enough to let all the credits roll and wait for a commercial to start playing before turning off the TV. To do otherwise, to shorten her program by so much as one second, could cause a tantrum.

The moment the room was silent, Sara Maria finally looked at him. “Did you bring me my chocolates?”

He resisted the urge to tease her by pretending he’d forgotten. Such pranks never ended well.

“Sure did.” He handed her the bag.

“Thank you, Brant.”

“No problem.” He went to the window and pushed open the curtains, so he could stare out at the view while she ate the first of her treats. He didn’t need to watch to know she would first lick the pink flecks of salt from the top, then the chocolate coating on each side of the square until all that was left was the caramel, at which point she would finally pop the damn thing in her mouth.

He’d had sixteen years to get used to his sister’s peculiarities and her obsession with routine. But not until three months ago had he realized how much his mother had acted as a buffer between the two of them.

Mom had filled the awkward silences with cheerful chatter. She’d protected Sara Maria, while giving her son the freedom he’d craved.

Only now did Brant wonder if she’d felt as trapped as he did.

“I’m finished. Can we go for pizza now?”

“Maybe we should try the Main Street Diner for a change,” he teased.

She didn’t even smile. She almost never did.

“Friday is pizza night.”

Her total lack of a sense of humor was tough to deal with. He remembered complaining to his mom, who had cautioned him not to judge. “You’re not so normal yourself, Brant. Who grows up to be a cowboy in this day and age?”

Touché, Mom.

“Yup, let’s go for pizza.” He handed his sister her jacket, careful to not touch her fingers. Sara Maria hated physical contact.

The Pizza Parlor was on Front Street, conveniently located less than a block from the movie theater where they’d be going next. Their walk was a silent one. If Sara Maria had any thoughts, she didn’t share them, and neither did Brant share his, which had circled back to the curly-haired clerk at the chocolate shop, with the sweet, round face. He wondered what she was doing this evening. Probably something a heck of a lot more interesting than he was.

The silence between him and his sister continued after they’d been seated in a booth and handed menus they wouldn’t need because they always ordered the same thing.

Several years ago, his sister had turned vegetarian after watching an upsetting documentary on the meat processing industry. Even their mother’s attempts to source “happy” chickens and “free range” beef hadn’t swayed Sara Maria, and eventually all their family meals became vegetarian because she wouldn’t touch her food if there was any sort of meat product on the table.

As they waited for their veggie pizza and colas to arrive, Brant glanced around at the other diners. There were several families as well as couples out on a date night. He glanced longingly at a table of guys who looked to be in their late twenties like him. He’d bet their biggest worry right now was whether they’d be able to talk any ladies into dancing with them later tonight at Grey’s.

As Brant was watching, one of the guys at the table noticed Sara Maria. He sat up tall, the way a guy would do when he spotted a pretty woman. But after a few seconds the guy’s admiring smile was replaced by a puzzled shrug.

It was a familiar reaction.

Brant's sister was very pretty, with light blonde hair and delicately feminine features.

It was only on the second glance, or possibly the third, that someone picked up the “different” vibe. And that was obviously what the guy at the other table was sensing.

Brant looked for their server, anxious for the food to arrive so he’d have something to focus on besides his sister’s quiet presence. He took a sip of water, then adjusted his place setting.

“Stop playing with your cutlery,” Sara Maria said, mirroring the very words his mother had often spoken to him.

Brant let out a breath of relief as he spied the server coming with their order.

He’d only finished his first slice, when Sara Maria said, “Mom is in heaven.”

Brant’s stomach tightened, and his appetite ebbed. “Yup.”

“She’s never coming back.”

“No.” He reached for his cola.

Why did she insist on saying these things every, single time he saw her? He got that she couldn’t help her various eccentricities. But why did talking about their mother’s death have to be one of them?

Aware his sister was still looking at him, Brant gulped the rest of his cola, then pulled out his wallet.

“I’m not finished eating.”

“No rush,” he lied.

It wasn’t until twenty minutes later, when they were seated in the theater watching previews for upcoming movies that Brant could finally relax. This was the only time he truly enjoyed being with his sister, mostly because he could sort of forget about her. As long as he bought her a small box of popcorn and a bottle of water, as long as the movie wasn’t overly sexual or violent, he could count on her being still and quiet until the credits finished rolling.

And, yes, they had to stay until the screen had gone dark before they could finally leave.

But Brant didn’t mind that part, just as the walk back to the care home would be fine as well. His sister liked to analyze movies after she’d seen them, and she did just as good a job as any film critic he’d ever seen on television. Generally, she would talk without the need for any response from him about the film for the entire walk home, at which point he could hand her over to the care of the evening nurse with a clear conscience.

After all, he’d done his duty.

And he’d have an entire week to himself, before he had to do it all over again.

Only this night didn’t go according to plan.

The night nurse at the care home was waiting for him when they walked in the main doors. Donna was a short woman, with stocky legs and tight blonde curls, about mid-thirties. While she had a quick and easy smile, her eyes always seemed to be quietly judging him.

Or that was how she made him feel, anyway.

“Hi, Sara Maria. Did you have a nice night out with your brother?”

“The movie was rated seventy-four on Rotten Tomatoes. I think it should have been seventy-eight, at least.”

“Is that so?” She turned to Brant. “Before you leave, could I have a quick word?”

“Sure,” he said, feeling ambushed.

Leaving Sara Maria to head to her room and prepare for bed, the nurse led Brant to the first floor lounge room, where they both sat down.

“Brant, Margie from admin has been trying to reach you.”

He nodded, guiltily aware of not having returned any of her messages.

“You can’t keep avoiding her, Brant. Or the fact that your sister no longer fits in here with us at the care home.”

Oh, God. He so did not want to hear this.

“When you first brought her to us in July, she was hardly eating, and wouldn’t communicate with anyone.”

He nodded. His sister had taken their mother’s death badly, in fact had suffered a total breakdown. She’d been hospitalized for several weeks before she’d finally improved to a state where he could move her here.

“At that point, she was a good candidate for us. But this last month she’s made remarkable strides. Emotionally, she’s on an even keel. And she manages all of her daily needs completely independently.”

Brant studied the nurse’s eyes, trying to figure out if he could appeal to her sympathy. “Yeah, but she’s still not capable of living on her own.”

“Is there another family member she could move in with?”

He thought of his dad, who’d been out of their lives since Sara Maria’s autism diagnosis. Remarried with two young children, their father made it clear he was good for the occasional visit and regular financial contributions to Sara Maria’s care and nothing else.

“Not really.”

She shook her head, looking genuinely worried. “I’m not sure what to suggest then. Maybe you could explore other living arrangements for the two of you?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “I work on a ranch outside of Bozeman and live in a bunkhouse with three other guys.”

“I see. Well, that is tricky.”

“I brought Sara Maria here on the understanding this would be a long-term arrangement. My sister likes routine. She’d be upset if I moved her.”

“We’re not going to kick her out, if that’s what you’re afraid of. But you need to think about what’s best for your sister. She’s bored here, I’m afraid. Her potential—which is much greater than we initially accessed—is terribly underutilized.”

Brant stared at the woman as if she’d just handed him a prison sentence.

But it wasn’t Nurse Donna’s fault. His fate had been imposed the moment after his mother died.

His sister’s welfare was in his hands and it would remain that way for the rest of his life.

No chance of parole.

 

Chapter Three

Sage was handing Portia a copper apron when Rosie arrived for work on Saturday morning.

“Good morning, Rosie,” Sage said. “I’m glad you’re here. You can show Portia how to ring in sales and explain how our pricing works. I’ve just outlined the shop rules concerning dress and cleanliness.”

Sage sounded distracted, which meant her mind was on something else... no doubt she had some chocolates at a delicate stage of production.

“I guess you got the job.” Rosie smiled at Portia. “Congratulations.”

Portia and Sage exchanged a glance loaded with emotion. Rosie imagined they’d had a long discussion last night. No doubt Sage had tried to talk her niece into finishing her degree, but obviously she hadn’t succeeded.

“Portia will be working rotating hours, some days with you, others with Dakota,” Sage said. “She’s also agreed to handle some of our marketing duties, like maintaining the website and organizing special events.”

“That’s great.” Sage was awesome at creating delicious chocolate treats, but in Rosie’s view she didn’t spend nearly as much effort on promotion as she should.

Besides, it would be fun to have someone new to work with. After just a few hours, Portia proved to be a quick learner. Business was a bit more brisk now that it was the weekend, but between customers they chatted about music, fashion, and their mutual love for quirky rom-coms.

Several times Rosie was tempted to tell Portia about the TV pilot she and Daniel were working on. It had some elements that reminded her of the Gilmore Girls, but with more action and a thread of mystery running throughout. She just knew Portia would love it.

But talking about the pilot would mean coming clean about her part in the writing. And it was too soon for that.

At lunch time, Sage came out of the kitchen looking pleased. “My dark chocolate truffles turned out perfectly. Why don’t the two of you take your lunch break together? I’ll watch the shop until you’re back.”

Happy for the rare opportunity to go out for lunch—normally she ate a sandwich and apple from home—Rosie whipped her apron over her head.

“I need to use the restroom first,” Portia said. “Meet you out front in a few minutes?”

“Sure.” Rosie was going to sit on the outside bench and soak up some sunshine, but Sage stopped her.

“Could I have a quick word, Rosie?”

Her mouth went dry. Surely Sage wasn’t going to fire her to make room for her niece? Though she was planning to leave, eventually, Rosie had hoped to work as long as she was still living in Marietta.

Slowly she turned to face her boss.

“Though you’ve never asked, I’ve sensed you wouldn’t have minded working some extra hours each week, Rosie. And now that I’ve hired Portia, I’m not going to be able to give them to you, at least for a while.”

“That’s okay.” Rosie smiled with relief. “I’m still planning to move to L.A. once the house sells.”

“Have you had any offers?”

“Not yet.” She couldn’t blame her realtor Maddie Cash.

Maddie had brought in lots of prospective buyers, but so far none of them had been able to see beyond the rotting porch and peeling paint on the home’s exterior. It went against the grain to hire someone other than Edmond Burgess to do the work—for as long as Rosie could remember her father had hired him for all their family’s painting and home repairs—but since Edmond always seemed to be too busy, perhaps she ought to find someone else.

“Well, I’m sure going to be sorry to lose you when you go. In the meantime I’m glad you don’t have a problem with my niece working here.”

“I think it’s great,” Rosie assured her.

“Good.” Sage hesitated, then added, “I’m afraid Portia’s in a fragile place right now. She told you she dropped out of her senior year at the University of Washington?”

Rosie nodded.

“Something must have happened to make her take such a drastic step. I don’t know what. She refuses to talk about it. But she needs a safe place to hide from the world right now.”

And what safer place than working in a chocolate shop in Marietta, Montana?

“I’m glad you gave her the job. I think it will be fun to work with her.”

Sage’s smile showed her relief. “I was hoping you two would get along. Maybe you can introduce Portia to some of your friends. Show her around town and help her feel at home.”

“I’d be happy to do that.” Not that she had many friends to introduce.

Her best friends in high school had mostly moved away for college, careers, or to follow other dreams, and she’d drifted apart from the rest. Rosie supposed to most people her age she was deadly dull, but going out to drink and party when her father was alone and sick at home had never felt right.

Portia emerged from the washroom then, looking pale, but smiling. “So where should we go for lunch?”

The day was gloriously sunny. Rosie felt almost giddy with the prospect of an hour of unexpected free time. “Beck’s is known for amazing bison burgers.”

“Hm. A little heavy for lunch.”

Rosie guessed Portia would feel the same about her second choice, pizza. “They have nice salads at the Main Street Diner.”

Portia brightened. “That sounds perfect. I hope it isn’t too far?”

“Are you kidding? You know you’re in Marietta, right?”

Portia laughed. “It’s funny. I’ve spent a lot of holidays visiting my mom’s family, but we mostly stay on the Circle C Ranch. The few times we go to town, it’s usually to watch the rodeo.”

“Trust me, it won’t take long until you know our downtown better than your own home.”

“Don’t be so sure. I swear I’m directionally challenged.”

“Well, in Marietta, all you have to do is turn in the direction of Copper Mountain to orient yourself. The mountain and the court house are both due west. And the Main Street Diner we’re going to for lunch is right across from the court house, just two blocks away.”

“Sounds simple. I remember getting so lost in Seattle after my first frat party. Of course all the beer I’d been drinking didn’t help.”

Rosie felt a twinge of envy. As they walked the two blocks to the diner, she asked Portia for more details about college life.

“I partied way too much my first semester,” Portia admitted. “Then I met this really great guy—he helped me get my head on straight.”

“Are you still seeing him?”

“No.” Portia stopped smiling and fell silent, reminding Rosie of how she’d reacted yesterday when she’d been questioned about dropping out of college.

Was this great guy she’d mentioned connected to her decision to quit?


Once they’d been seated at the diner, Portia quickly became cheerful again, and the two of them talked nonstop over their lunch. Portia half-complained and half-bragged about her brainy twin sister, Wren, who was studying geology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In turn, Rosie shared about her brother Daniel and some of the interesting people he’d worked with so far in his career.

“That’s so cool that he’s actually had two screenplays turned into movies. Have I heard of them?”

“They were both made-for-TV movies. His wife, Glenda, was the female lead for the second one. That’s how they met.”

“Oh, how romantic. I love it. Do you visit them very often? Have you been on a movie set when they’re filming?”

Rosie sighed. “Daniel and Glenda have invited me. But it was difficult to travel while our father was alive. He couldn’t be left alone for more than a day.” Portia didn’t ask for details, and Rosie didn’t offer them.

She’d learned discussions about insulin injections and other medical minutia were not interesting conversational fodder for the majority of people unless they happened to be a doctor or a nurse.

“So, you’ve never even been to L.A?”

“No.”

“Maybe you should check it out before you move there. What if you don’t like it?”

“Seriously? Of course I’ll love it. It won’t be Marietta, that’s the main thing.”

“It must be an expensive place to live, though?”

“My brother’s house has a separate casita with a bedroom, kitchenette, and bathroom. They’re going to let me stay rent-free for the first few months. It’s right by the outdoor pool. The whole place looks like a spread in a decorating magazine.”

“I’m sure it’s beautiful. It’s just—sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss home until you leave.”

Rosie ate the last leaf of kale from her plate. Portia had barely touched her own lunch. All she’d had so far was a piece of sourdough bread and a glass of water.

“Were you homesick in college?”

“I had lots of fun. But I did miss home. Unfortunately for me, there’s no going back. My parents split up during my freshman year. Now my mom is married to someone else and lives at his place. Nat is a great guy and his house is incredible—but when I go to stay with them, it doesn’t feel like home.”

“I know what you mean. My house feels so empty now that it’s just me and Huck.”

Portia’s eyes widened. “Huck? Have you been holding out on me?”

Rosie laughed. “He’s my father’s golden lab. The poor guy is so depressed, he misses Dad terribly. I’m hoping whoever buys the house will be willing to take Huck on, as well. He sure wouldn’t do well in L.A.”

Not only that, but Rosie was pretty sure neither Daniel nor Glenda would want him.

“Any other fellas you haven’t told me about?” Portia teased.

Rosie hesitated. “It’s kind of silly—but there is this cowboy who comes into the store every Friday afternoon to buy chocolates. In fact, he’d just stopped in a few minutes before you yesterday.”

“I think I know the one. I passed by this really good-looking guy on the street. I noticed he was carrying a Copper Mountain Chocolate shop bag. He was a real hottie.”

“Right?”

“What’s his name?”

“I don’t know! I know nothing about him, at all. We always chat when he comes into the shop—and he does flirt a little. But whenever I try to find out anything about him, he shuts right down.”

“Ah—a man of mystery. How intriguing.”

“I’d love to know who he buys the chocolates for. I don’t think they’re for him. And somehow I don’t feel they’re for a girlfriend, either. At least I hope not.”

End of Excerpt

Find out more about the Chocolate Shop Series →

Melt My Heart, Cowboy is available in the following formats:

Melt My Heart, Cowboy
October 6, 2016
Tule
Romance