currents of mountain air circled the Larch Lodge bed and breakfast and played
on Cathleen Shannon's bare, wet shoulders. The cold autumn air only made the luxury
of 104 degree bubbling water all the more sinfully pleasurable. Fitting her body
to the sloped back of the hot tub's molded seat, she gazed upward. A sky of restless
clouds offered teasing glimpses of a fluorescent half-moon.
is nice. She took a sip of brandy from the plastic glass she'd brought out with
her. The outdoor spa had been installed this summer for the benefit of her guests,
but she really should make use of it more often herself.
shadow shifted in the dark, about twenty meters away. Cathleen tensed, and focused
on the spot. The dark shape kept moving, and she regretted having turned off all
the house lights. But if something was out there, then why wasn't Kip barking?
it was just an elk, they roamed freely over her property, but there was the off
chance it could be a bear... She contemplated dashing for the house, but just
then, against the backdrop of moonlight, she made out the silhouette of a lanky
cowboy. She recognized him immediately from the set of his shoulders and the rhythm
of his gait.
there, trotting faithfully by his boots, was her dog. The traitor.
Like a figure in a dream, the cowboy kept advancing. She couldn't see his eyes--clouds
had shifted yet again to cover the moon--but she had no doubt about that he watched
her every step of the way. Only when he reached the cedar skirting around the
tub did he stop.
"Well, well," she said coolly,
hiding her shock by holding her trembling hands under the water. According to
his cousin, Jake Hartman, Dylan was supposed to be in Reno, Nevada, the latest
stop in his never-ending rodeo circuit. Jake always filled her in on Dylan's latest
adventures, even though she'd let him know she couldn't care less what her ex-fiancé
was up to. Still, when Jake talked, she rarely missed a single word. And she was
certain that plans of Dylan McLean's return to Canmore had never been mentioned.
they had, she would've prepared herself. Over the past two years, she'd come up
with at least a dozen speeches to rake him over the coals with. Trouble was, now
that he stood just a few feet away, she couldn't think of a single word, let alone
a whole tirade.
He moved closer, then sat on the decking,
folding his arms over the tub's white plastic ledge. Now she could see his face
clearly. His gray eyes sought to engage hers. His smile conveyed a familiar combination
of warmth and devilment. Eventually, his gaze skimmed from her face, down her
neck, to the line where the water cut across the top of her chest.
like your outfit," he said. "Room in there for one more?"
two years of silence, you'd think he'd have managed to come up with something
a little more profound.
"The hot tub is for lodge
guests only. Oh, and family and friends."
registered the intended insult with a one-sided twist of his mouth. "I see.
And I'm neither. Is that it?"
She didn't say anything.
The answer should have been obvious to him.
Cathleen." He sighed, and tipped back his hat a fraction. "Things ended
badly between us, but you know it wasn't what I wanted. If I'd had a choice..."
He reached for her shoulder, and she pulled back instinctively.
Cathleen. I wasn't going to hurt you."
"Okay." Dylan shifted back on
his heels. "You've got a right to be angry. But you received the letter,
right? Jake said he put it directly in your hands."
Dylan. Thanks a lot for going to the trouble."
pictured herself two years ago, standing at the open screen door of this very
house, staring off into space. Her white dress flowed down to her sandled feet.
Her long, normally rather wild, dark hair coiled in luxurious curls down her back.
Two bouquets of orchids--one larger than the other--lay at the ready on the kitchen
She held an envelope in her hand. With her name
on the front, penned in Dylan's distinctive bold script. Out in the distance,
the dust from Jake's truck still hovered like a patch of white fog in the lane.
She hadn't needed to tear open the flap and read the single sheet of paper within
to know there would be no wedding that day.
you didn't think your note ought to be supplemented by something as personal as
a visit or a phone call."
He winced. "I was
afraid you might talk me out of my decision. But you've got to admit, the situation
was impossible. There was no way we could've gotten married as we'd planned."
She'd admit nothing of the kind. But she didn't argue with him. If he'd cared
what she thought, he would have talked this over with her two years ago.
"I'm sorry you had to deal with the aftermath--telling
the guests, canceling the minister and the caterer...."
Actually, her sisters had handled those details for her, but she didn't want to
give him the comfort of knowing that. Besides, the logistics of the wedding arrangements
had been the least of her heartaches back then. She held out her arms, skimming
the bubbles that frothed on the water's surface. It still bothered her how much
his desertion had hurt. She saw it as a sign of weakness in herself, and weakness
was something she could not tolerate.
"What did you
do with the ring." Dylan was staring at her hands, naked of jewelry of any
"I sold it," she improvised. "Just
like I sold the wedding dress. Advertising them both in the Canmore Leader.
I used the money to finance the renovations to this place."
Jake told me you opened in the spring of last year. He says--" Dylan leaned
back and stretched out his legs. "--Jake says you've dated a little."
little," she agreed amicably. Actually, the tally was close to a dozen men
in two years. An active social life had seemed the best way to prove to the town,
her sisters and even herselfthat her botched wedding hadn't been such a big deal.
Dylan rubbed his chin. "So who's the current favorite?"
hated that he made them sound like jelly bean flavors. "Actually, I've been
seeing two guys lately. Friday, Thad Springer and I went to a movie in Banff."
You mean RCMP Staff Sergeant Springer?"
"Jesus, Cathleen..." He took a
second to digest that, before asking, "And the other?"
If she'd surprised him with Thad, she
shocked him with James.
"I don't believe this. You're
kidding me, right?"
"I assure you, I'm totally
"Of all the men in Canmore...you wouldn't
date my stepbrother..."
"Why is that, Dylan?
Because you never got along with the man? Because you hate his father? Those are
your issues, not mine." Although she had put off James for more than
a year simply because of his ties to Dylan. But James had been persistent. And
still was. On their last date he'd made it clear he hoped for a more exclusive
relationship with her.
"You'll think I'm just being
jealous, but you should stay away from that man. You can't trust him."
mean if he asked me to marry him--which I think he just might do--he'd back out
the day of the ceremony?"
"You know I had no
Liar! He'd had a choice. And he'd
made it without even considering that she might have an opinion on the matter.
"Just for the record," he volunteered, "there's
been no one in my life--no one--since you."
She turned her head and blinked. For a moment she wondered if he was telling the
truth, then she reminded herself that it simply didn't matter.
don't know why you think I'd be interested in your love life or lack thereof.
Dylan, this whole conversation is pointless. Why don't you just go back to wherever
you came from."
"I can't. Jake gave me a ride
and now he's gone."
She hadn't heard a thing over
the sound of the hot tub motor and jets. "Well that was a really stupid thing
"I kind of specialize in really stupid
Even if that was genuine regret on his face,
it couldn't make any difference. Being sorry didn't change a damn thing.
hell, Dylan. What're you really doing here?"
removed his cowboy hat. "I was back in Canmore. How could I not come to see
you? Like you said, I owed you an apology. In person."
you're looking for forgiveness. Is that it?"
that you mention it, do you think you ever could?"
I consider myself lucky that our wedding never took place. If that's forgiveness
enough for you, then you're welcome to it. Now why don't you let yourself into
the kitchen and phone Jake to come and pick you up."
frowned, then slipped a pack she hadn't noticed off his shoulders. He set the
canvas bag on the deck and balanced his hat casually on top of it. "I can't
call Jake. He's on his way to Calgary. Flies out tomorrow morning for a three-week
tour of Australia while his town house is being remodeled. Paint, carpets, the
works. I'd stay there, but the furniture's in storage, and the fumes are something
Wasn't that convenient timing? But his story
was probably true. She'd known for sometime that Jake had planned a trip for this
summer. And on the last occasion she'd run into him, he'd been standing in front
of the display of paint chips at the local hardware store, contemplating the subtle
difference in tone between "tumbleweed" and "flax."
case you've forgotten, Canmore is a tourist town. There are plenty of motels and
other bed and breakfasts."
"Yeah, but somehow
none of them seemed to have a room available once I gave them my name."
the old rumors hadn't died. It was all such nonsense she couldn't believe it.
"And this is my problem because...?" She reached
for the controls to the hot-tub jets, but was stymied when Dylan laid his hand
over hers. She hated how familiar his touch was, right down to the rough cowboy
calluses. This time it took her several seconds before she jerked away.
"Oh yeah. No touching. I'm sorry,
but it's hard. You're still so beautiful. Even more than I remembered."
resented the compliment as much as his touch. Whatever was going on just didn't
Then suddenly she understood. He wasn't really
here to apologize. He'd come expecting he could turn on the old charm and she'd
crumple at his feet. He'd end up with a place to stay and a woman in his bed.
"Well, I wish I could say the same for you,"
she said. "What happened to your forehead? And your shoulder?" The scar
was new, one she'd noticed when he raked back his thick dark hair with his hands.
As for his shoulder, he held it stiffly when he walked.
acknowledged his injuries with a shrug.
Do you think you could've found a more dangerous rodeo event than bull riding?"
"Hey, I wore off a lot of anger on those babies.
And won a good pile of money at the same time. Figured I could pay down the rest
of your mortgage."
She refused to see anything sweet
or honorable in the offer. "So now you're trying to buy me off. As if I would
touch your money."
He'd put up most of the down payment
on the house, which they'd registered in her name for legal and tax reasons. In
his note, he'd told her to keep it, sell it, whatever she wanted. Covering the
mortgage payments while financing the renovations had been a struggle, but selling
the house hadn't been an option she could bear. Even though she would have loved
to throw his portion of the down payment in his face. Of course, his face hadn't
been here for her to throw anything at.
"I don't need
your money, Dylan. This place pays for itself."
heard you've been busy. Anyone staying with you right now?"
one guest at the moment." But once the snow fell and skiing season started,
she'd be full again, as she'd been all summer.
a hand on his pack. "Which means you've got a few rooms available."
should've seen that one coming. Folding her arms over her chest, she narrowed
her eyes at him. "The answer is no."
you're hurting my feelings."
"We've already established
your feelings don't run much deeper than the bark on a birch tree."
He adjusted the position of his hat, balancing it carefully on the top of the
canvas pack. "Well, you're probably right about that. Fortunately, yours
don't, either. Got rid of the dress and the ring--wasn't that what you said?"
"Well then. Why not put me up? I'll pay
for one month up front."
least. I've got a little unfinished business here in Canmore."
"Family business. Old scores to settle."
are you talking about?"
He propped an elbow against
the hot-tub edge and made himself comfortable. "You know as well as I do.
I haven't been able to forget about that poor kid."
Beckett. The memory of the teenager shot down in cold blood on the McLean ranch
made Cathleen shiver, despite the heated water surrounding her. "The family
had a memorial for her a year after it happened, Dylan. I went. For a sixteen-year-old,
she was pretty accomplished."
"She would've turned
eighteen this year. She'd be starting university..."
never did arrest anyone." There simply wasn't enough evidence. Not that lack
of proof had stopped people from drawing their own conclusions.
did you ever think I--"
She shook her head. Like so
many things, it was too late for him to ask that question.
pinched his features. "For the record, I didn't."
you think I know that? God, Dylan, you're so dense sometimes."
turned his head, facing out into the dark. "Ain't that the truth."
their heads a cloud drifted by and the moon washed the deck in light. Dylan faced
her again. "If I'm innocent, that means the real killer is out there. And
you know what's really scary?"
She was almost afraid
to ask. "What?"
"He's living with my mother."
END OF EXCERPT. LIKE IT? ORDER