CJ Carmichael CJ Carmichael
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A Baby at Bramble House

Book 3 in the Bramble House Chronicles Series

You never know who will be checking into Bramble House in the charming Montana town of Marietta…

Weeks away from the arrival of their first baby, B & B owners Amy and Chet Hardwick have their hands full. They are fully booked, Chet’s new rodeo school is taking off, and they are both navigating some complicated emotions about becoming parents. Their guests, however always fascinate.

Edgar Keyes, widowed geologist for the US Park Service in Yellowstone has returned to Marietta to find the woman he dated long ago, yet he finds himself far more drawn to Tami, one of two empty-nester sisters, who are also guests.

Librarian Mackenzie Sifton is on a doctor-recommended vacation in an effort to recover physically and emotionally from a traumatic event at work. She’s looking for relaxation, not romance. But when her car breaks down, passing motorist Craig Denton arrives to the rescue with a toolbox and a dinner invitation.

Romance is the air at Bramble House when a medical emergency necessitates Amy and Chet thinking they need to close. Their guests have other ideas.

A Baby at Bramble House

Book 3 in the Bramble House Chronicles Series

A Baby at Bramble House



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Excerpt from A Baby at Bramble House: Chapter One

Amy Arden splayed her hands on her lower back as she studied the Bramble House B & B’s reservation logbook. With only three weeks to go before her baby was due, it seemed her back ached constantly. Not that she would admit as much to her husband, Chet. He already worried and fussed too much. At first it had been kind of sweet. But as her due date neared, his anxiety had become a palpable thing, like a third member of the family. She missed—

Amy caught herself. Mind wandering again. Another consequence of being pregnant, perhaps. She’d come here to check on the time her next guest, a librarian from Bozeman—what was her name?—was scheduled to arrive. She ran her eye over the open page. Though she used computerized spreadsheets for most aspects of her business, when she’d purchased the B & B a few years ago, she’d opted to continue to record bookings the old-fashioned way, in a leather-bound calendar with columns for the date, guest name, room name, number of nights, et cetera.

A name caught her attention: Mackenzie Sifton. That was the librarian.
According to her notes, Mackenzie had been due to arrive an hour ago. Amy hoped nothing had gone wrong. On the phone Mackenzie had sounded very anxious, asking lots of questions about the security of the B & B and whether her room would have a key.

It did. All the Bramble House rooms did—beautiful, ornate, brass ones—but guests rarely used them. Marietta, Montana, was about as safe as small towns came. Neighbors were friendly and looked out for one another. Some of them—Carol Bingley came to mind—looked a little too closely, but that was better than having neighbors who didn’t care or couldn’t be bothered.

Amy heard footsteps approaching from the kitchen. A moment later her husband’s arms went around her waist and he cupped her baby bump with both hands.

“Waiting for that guest who was supposed to be here at five?”

Amy nodded. “She even asked if the room could be available earlier, but I told her I couldn’t guarantee that.”

“Probably got caught up with some last-minute complication. She’ll be here.”

“I suppose.” Amy turned to face the handsome cowboy she’d married. Chet had wanted her to close the B & B last week, use the final month of her pregnancy to rest up and prepare for the baby. But they were already planning to close for October and November. She’d argued that it would be better to sock away a few extra weeks of income, though she had compromised by booking just four of the six available rooms.

The other guests, Edgar Keyes, a retired geologist, and two sisters from Helena and New York City, were scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

Chet kissed her gently. “Why don’t you sit down and relax while I rustle up some steaks and a salad for dinner?”

Ignoring the pain in her back, she said, “Don’t be silly. I’ll come and help.”

Chet shot her a look that was part concern, part annoyance. It was a look Amy was getting used to seeing on her husband’s face. It was like she’d morphed into a different person the day she’d told him she was pregnant, one made of glass, to be cushioned and cosseted. She appreciated his loving concern, she did, but even though she was carrying a baby—their baby—she was still a competent human being.

To be fair, he wasn’t the only one who was uptight about the baby. These past few weeks a vague sense of unease had begun sneaking up on Amy in quiet moments. Not worry, per se, but a feeling that something wasn’t right. It couldn’t be medical—her prenatal appointments had all gone fabulously. More likely she was just missing her mother. Her death in a tragic car accident three years ago had precipitated Amy leaving her home and finance job in New York and buying this bed-and-breakfast just a few hours north of Yellowstone National Park.

It was a move that had changed her life. She’d found her father, David Wilcox, a local rancher and renowned former rodeo cowboy, and met the love of her life, Chet, also a rodeo cowboy, who now managed a rodeo school as well as helping with her bed-and-breakfast.

She had a wonderful life. But she missed her mom, who would have been so excited about becoming a grandmother. If she was here, Amy felt certain that both she and Chet would feel bolstered by her presence.

In the kitchen, Amy opened the fridge to gather vegetables for a salad, while Chet went outside to light the barbecue. As she washed and chopped romaine lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, and a red pepper, she kept an ear out for the welcome bell at the front door.

“It’s a beautiful evening,” Chet said. “Want to eat outside tonight?”

“Good idea.” With October fast approaching, they wouldn’t have many more opportunities for al fresco dining. Autumn was such a glorious season in Montana. Maybe not as spectacular as New England with the variety of reds and oranges and golds of the hardwood forests. But on a blue sky day, the sunshine yellow of the aspen and larch made Amy’s heart sing.

As Chet set the outside table and put on the steaks, Amy whisked together her salad dressing, a mixture of apple cider vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, and a few pinches of mustard powder. Mindful of her body’s need for calcium, she added generous crumbles of feta cheese to her salad, then took the bowl outside.

At the table center, Chet had placed candles, as well as a vase with some of their late-blooming flowers. Despite his rough-and-tumble—and sometimes abusive—upbringing, Chet was a softie and a romantic at heart. After setting down the salad, she kissed him.

“This looks beautiful, babe.”

“Now that you’re here, yeah, it does.”

Amy smiled, shaking her head at the same time. She loved being pregnant, but at this stage, it seemed almost every body part was either swollen or achy, and none of the parts felt anything close to beautiful.

A waft of smoke from the barbecue had her bringing her hands to her stomach. Grilled steak was usually an aroma she loved, but the past few days she’d been suffering from bouts of nausea, as well as some terrible spells of indigestion. She hadn’t shared any of this with Chet, since he was already so anxious, but she did intend to discuss the new symptoms at her next prenatal examination, on Friday.

“Cooked to perfection, if I do say so myself,” Chet said, as he brought the steaks to the table. He served Amy the smaller steak, then watched as she spooned a bit of salad to her plate.

“I’ve noticed you’re eating less lately.”

Amy patted her baby bump. “Not much room in my belly right now. I need to eat smaller portions—trust me on this.” As she surveyed her plate, another wave of nausea hit her, so she sipped some water and took a deep breath. Aware that Chet was watching, she gave him a reassuring smile. “Thanks for suggesting we eat outside. This is perfect.”

And it was. A perfect moment. She was here, with the man she loved, in a beautiful setting, one she could hardly believe she was lucky enough to call home.

The golden foliage of the aspens at the back of the property, the brilliant red of the Virginia creeper on the trellis wall next to the patio, and the planters overflowing with autumn-hued chrysanthemums had turned their backyard into a glorious paradise.

And soon there would be a new blessing in their lives. A baby. Quiet evenings like this would become a rarity.

“What are you thinking?” Chet asked.

“That we should enjoy the peace and quiet while we can.” She reached out to take his strong, capable hand in hers. “It’s so hard to imagine what our life is going to be like once the baby comes. But I’m guessing it won’t include romantic dinners for two.”

Chet gave the back of her hand a kiss. “Something tells me we’re in for the ride of our lives, darlin’. Now why don’t you eat, before your steak gets cold.”

He released her hand and Amy took a tiny bite of the tenderloin, chewing thoroughly before swallowing, and then pausing to see how she felt.
Not bad.

She took another bite, then some salad. All was fine until, suddenly, a third wave of nausea hit her, and this one meant business. Unable to speak, she dashed from the table to the nearest washroom, where her food, plus the apple and cheese snack she’d had two hours ago, ended up in the toilet.

“Are you okay?” Chet asked from the other side of the door, which she’d slammed shut behind herself.

“Just feeling a bit queasy.” She rinsed her mouth and checked her reflection. A bit pale, but otherwise okay. She left the washroom where she found Chet in the hall, looking worried. “So much for our romantic dinner.”

Chet placed his hands on her shoulders and studied her face. “You haven’t been sick like this since the first trimester. Is this normal?”

“I’m not sure.” She turned away, not wanting to dwell on what had happened, but Chet wasn’t ready to let the subject drop.

“What’s going on, Amy? Is this something new or have you been sick before?”

“A few times this week,” she admitted. “But the feeling always passes.”

Chet wasn’t appeased. “Your next appointment with Dr. Bedford isn’t until the end of the week. Maybe you should give her office a call tomorrow morning.”

Amy knew he was motivated by love and concern. But still, his request annoyed her. “Dr. Bedford is on vacation, remember? She won’t be back until Friday, but I promise I’ll discuss it with her then.”

Chet was quiet for a long time, then he nodded. “Okay. I’ll go clear off the table. I take it you’re in no shape to eat more dinner.”

Amy tried not to gag. “Sorry, love. You’ll have to eat without me. I’ll have some toast before I go to bed.”

As Chet exited out the back door, Amy suddenly remembered the librarian.
Mackenzie Sifton was now over two hours late.
* * *
One minute Mackenzie Sifton had her foot on the gas pedal, cruising along at sixty miles an hour, listening to her Best of Bach playlist, and enjoying the view of Copper Mountain ahead, signaling the end of her journey. And the next, her car suddenly lost power. The music stopped playing. Her running lights went dead.

Fortunately, no one was following too close behind her and she was able to guide her car—actually, her brother’s SUV—safely to the shoulder.
She shifted into Park. Turned off the ignition and tried restarting.

What in the world had just happened? This would teach her, for taking her brother’s vehicle instead of her own. Shaun had left his SUV parked in her driveway while he was away on a three-month trip to Costa Rica. He’d asked her to take it out on the road occasionally, so the battery wouldn’t die, and she’d figured the one-hour trip from her home in Bozeman to Marietta would be perfect.

But now this. She was stranded, five miles from her destination.

As vehicles sped by on either side of the divided highway, panic hit Mackenzie like a sledgehammer. Her brain froze and her body began to shake. She was back in that room, alone, as a strange man walked toward her…

No, don’t think about that. It was all in the past.

Only it wasn’t. There actually was a strange man walking toward her. He must have seen her leave the road, because he’d pulled his pickup truck to the shoulder and was now approaching. Long-legged and broad-shouldered, in jeans and a checked shirt, a tan-colored cowboy hat on his head.

Probably coming to help me, she told herself. So why were her hands sweaty and shaky? She hated that she was reacting this way. She’d been raised to be self-sufficient. Capable. Which normally she was, in spades. Here it was, still daylight, plenty of cars on the road. There was no way this man intended to harm her.

But it had been daylight at work, also. There had been patrons in the library. And still the man had come…

The stranger was at her driver’s side window now. He bent to her eye level, and she saw a ruggedly attractive face, tanned and weathered. Around forty, she guessed. As she sat there, staring into his blue-gray eyes, he motioned for her to lower her window. Intending to open it just a crack, she pressed the button. Nothing. Of course. Her car was dead.

That meant her only option was to open the door. But she didn’t want to do that.

Mackenzie took a deep breath. What were her options here? Slowly her panic-frozen brain began to thaw. Call AAA. Of course.

With trembling fingers, she picked up her phone and located the number, which was on her favorites list even though she rarely used it. As she explained the problem to the operator, the man outside was clearly losing patience. He stood tall, then started walking back toward his truck. Partway there he paused and turned to look at her with an expression that clearly meant, What the heck?

After hearing, to her dismay, that help would arrive in under two hours, Mackenzie disconnected the call and continued to watch the stranger return to his truck. When he reached for the door, she decided there was enough distance for her to quickly step out and talk to him.

“Thanks for stopping, but I’ve called Triple A.”

“They’ll be here soon?”

“Within two hours.”

His face registered disapproval. “It’ll be dark by then. You seem the nervous type. You okay with waiting alone on the highway? And what if they’re delayed?”

She bristled at being called nervous. Her old self had been anything but. “I don’t have much choice. My car is completely dead.”

“I know a thing or two about engines. I could take a look.”

She hesitated. She did not want him coming closer. But the prospect of waiting several hours alone out here, as night slowly descended, was even more terrifying.

He let go of the door but didn’t move. “My name is Craig Denton. I’m a mechanic from Marietta.” He nodded up the road, toward Copper Mountain. “I’m also a part-time instructor at a rodeo school, working with kids around high school age. If it makes you feel comfortable, you can lock yourself in your car while I look under the hood.”

Since her car was completely dead, would the locks even work? But Mackenzie found herself nodding, despite her reservations. He could be lying, of course, but his credentials sounded good. Also, she’d just noticed he had a dog in the passenger seat of his truck, which she took as a good sign.

“Okay. Thank you.” She popped the hood, then went toward him, holding out her hand. “Thanks again. I’m Mackenzie Sifton.”

She felt callouses as he accepted her handshake. She liked that his gaze was direct but polite.

His mouth curved with the hint of a smile. “Not locking yourself inside?”

She nodded toward his dog. “Golden retrievers are good character references.”

His smile widened, bringing a dash of charm to his rough features. “I think so too. Now tell me what happened to your car.”

“I was just driving along when, without any warning at all, everything went completely dead. The engine, the sound system, even the running lights went out.”

His smile faded. “That doesn’t sound good. Do you know when you last replaced your timing belt?”

She threw up her hands. “I have no idea. This is my brother’s car. He’s on an extended trip and wanted me to take his car on the road periodically.”

“I think I can guess what happened, but let me get some tools and take a look.”

She watched as Craig Denton got a tool box and a square thing with long cords from the back of his truck. Minutes ticked by as he went through a series of diagnostics.

“The battery is charging,” he commented.

“That’s good, right?”

“Not really. Replacing a battery or a fuel pump would be relatively easy.”

Remembering his initial impulse she asked, “And if it’s the timing belt? Can that be fixed quickly?”

He straightened and gently lowered the hood. “The short answer is no. The longer answer is even worse. When a timing belt breaks while a vehicle is being driven, it can cause all sorts of damage to the engine. We’re talking about repairs that could take a week or longer, depending on availability of parts. In addition, the cost may be more than the vehicle is worth.”

“Oh no.” This was so not what she needed right now. This was supposed to be a quick week-long holiday. A chance to relax before she went back to Bozeman to convince the board she was fine and ready to return to work. Why, oh why, had she chosen to take Shaun’s car?

“I’m sorry. I wish I could offer you an easy fix.”

“That’s okay. I just—I don’t know what to do. My brother’s off the grid in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t want to authorize expensive repairs without speaking to him. Meanwhile this is leaving me stranded. I’m supposed to be on vacation at a B & B in Marietta this week.” She stopped. What was she doing, sharing all this personal information with a stranger?

“Sorry,” she said, quickly. “None of this is your problem. It was very nice of you to stop and try to help. I’ll be okay waiting here for the tow truck.”

He didn’t look convinced. “Why don’t you call and instruct the tow truck driver to take your car to Denton Garage in Marietta? You can leave the vehicle with me until you find out what your brother wants. Meanwhile I’ll drive you to Marietta. Drop you off at your B & B.”

She hesitated. His plan was much more appealing than remaining here on the side of the highway. But it just didn’t seem smart to get into a vehicle with a virtual stranger.

“Hang on,” Craig said. “What’s the name of your bed-and-breakfast?”

“Bramble House.”

Craig grinned. “Oh, this is easy. I know the couple who own it. In fact, the husband manages the rodeo school where I teach. Why don’t you give them a call and let them know what happened.”
* * *
As Mackenzie Sifton placed a call to Bramble House and explained her situation to Amy, Craig surreptitiously took in details of her appearance. She was lovely to look at, with smooth, chin-length blonde hair, silvery-gray eyes, and a long, elegant neck. Her dark jeans and leather loafers, white T-shirt and blue sweater were casual, but obviously good quality. He guessed she was a bit younger than him, somewhere in her late thirties.

His attention perked when he heard Mackenzie say his name. As she listened to the other woman her features gradually relaxed. Presumably Amy was reassuring her that he wasn’t an axe murderer. When the call was over, Mackenzie gave him her first unreservedly warm smile.

“Amy says I’m in good hands with you. I’ll gladly accept that ride, if your offer is still open.”

“Absolutely.” He helped Mackenzie remove all her personal belongings from her car and transfer them to his truck. Then he shifted Daisy Jane from her preferred seat to the back.

“Thank you for going to all this trouble,” Mackenzie said, after she’d apologized to Daisy Jane and climbed into the front seat.

“As a mechanic, I’m always going to stop and offer help to someone on the side of the road with car troubles.” He shoulder-checked before merging back onto the road. “But I’m much happier doing it for attractive blondes.” He shot her a quick look to see how she reacted. “Notice I didn’t admit that until Amy gave you my character reference. Now dash my hopes and tell me you’re married.”

She laughed, as if taking his invitation as a joke, yet he noticed her glance at his hands on the steering wheel. Checking for rings? It had been five years since he’d removed his wedding band for the last time. Now there wasn’t even a tan line where it had been.

“No, I’m not married, or seeing anyone at the moment. But I’m not exactly looking, either. This is supposed to be a relaxing holiday.”

“May I ask what you’re relaxing from?”

“If you promise not to laugh. I work at the Bozeman Public Library.”

“Why would I laugh?”

“Most people don’t consider librarian as a very stressful job.”

Maybe not. But he’d heard a news report about an assault in the main library in Bozeman last week. Craig wondered if it had involved this woman, and if so, in what capacity?

He waited, to see if she would mention anything. But she didn’t.

“Is eating dinner on the agenda of your relaxing holiday?” he asked, as he slowed to the town speed limit. They were in Marietta. Bramble House was just a few minutes away, but he wanted more time with Mackenzie.

Why, he couldn’t say. She’d made it pretty clear she wasn’t interested. But at his age and stage of life he didn’t often meet women who both attracted and intrigued him.

“I am planning to eat on my holiday, yes.”

“Well, since it’s past seven, and I assume we’re both hungry, how about we grab some grub together? There’s a good Italian place just a few blocks from Bramble House.”

“Yes, on the condition you let me treat. It’s the least I can do.”

“But I won’t get a Boy Scout badge if you reward me for my good deed.”

“I’m guessing you already have enough Boy Scout badges, Craig.”

He liked hearing her talk, and especially liked hearing her say his name. She had a mellifluous, clear voice, and the good diction of a radio host.

He drove her past Bramble House so she could see the place before it was dark. It was the sort of house that seemed to throw open its arms and welcome a person inside. Come sit on my porch, have some iced tea, stay for a week, a month, a year…

“It looked lovely on the website,” Mackenzie murmured. “It’s even nicer in person.”

“You’ll like the couple who run the place, too.” He almost mentioned the fact that Amy was pregnant, expecting their first child in a few weeks, but didn’t. He was happy for his buddy, Chet, but for him, children were still a bit of a hot button. Sally had seen to that.

At Rocco’s they settled in a booth, and when Mackenzie asked if he’d like to share a carafe of the house red, he happily agreed. Though she’d assured him this wasn’t a date, it was a pleasure to sit across from a pretty woman. There was a lot he wanted to know about her, but she got in the first question.

“Tell me about you,” Mackenzie invited. “Have you lived in Marietta long?”

“All my life.”

“And how did you come to be both a mechanic and a rodeo school instructor?”

“Horses were my mom’s passion, cars were my dad’s. I’ve never been able to pick one over the other. When I was younger, I’d spend summers on the rodeo circuit and winters working at my dad’s garage. But once I hit thirty-five, I gave up the rodeoing and started working as a mechanic full-time.”

He’d also gotten divorced. But he didn’t want to mention that yet.

“Do you miss the rodeo?”

“I did. Then Chet offered me a job teaching youngsters the trade. And that’s been a lot of fun.”

Rocco, the restaurant owner, brought them their wine and asked for their order, before discreetly withdrawing.

Craig took the opportunity to switch the focus to Mackenzie. “Your turn. Did you always know you wanted to be a librarian?”

“Not really. I did a lot of traveling when I was younger. I’d work in a bar for six months, saving money, then jump on a plane with my backpack and go exploring until I was broke.”

“Really?” He was intrigued. “That’s pretty adventurous.”

“I was just really curious to see the world. It wasn’t until I turned thirty that I finally decided to go to college. I figured if my traveling days were over, I’d keep learning about the world through books. That’s how I made my career choice. By the time I graduated, most of my friends were already married, with children. I kind of missed that boat.”

“Any regrets?” His stomach tightened as he waited for her answer.

“Sometimes yes, mostly no.”

Rocco returned with their pasta dishes, and for a few minutes they were quiet as they sampled their dishes: his spaghetti carbonara, her linguine primavera.
He took a drink of the wine, and watched as she twirled her fork in the linguine. “So, what are your plans for your week in Marietta?”

She glanced down at her meal. “Pretty low-key. I have some reading, want to go on long walks. I also thought I’d explore the area, but with my vehicle out of commission, my wings are clipped.”

An idea that he’d never have considered when he first met her popped into his head. “You don’t happen to have a motorcycle endorsement on your license do you?”

“I do. I rode a lot of Vespas on my travels. After college, I treated myself to a secondhand Harley Road Glide.”

This woman was sounding more perfect all the time. “If you want, you can borrow my bike while you’re in town. The weather in September is great for exploring on a bike.”

Her eyes sparkled, then suddenly dimmed. “That’s a kind offer. But I’m not feeling very adventurous these days. I think I’ll just enjoy the town and the bed-and-breakfast. I haven’t had much downtime lately, and like I said, I’ve got some books to read.”

Craig was reminded of the fear he’d seen in her eyes when he’d first approached her car. He could understand a woman being nervous in a dodgy area, at night, or if the roads were deserted. But this was friendly, rural Montana, where stopping to help strangers was pretty much the norm. Now that he’d heard how widely traveled she was, her reaction made even less sense.

Something must have happened to her. Maybe related to the incident at the library. Or something more personal.

Her eyes were downcast. She was not inviting further conversation, but he decided to gently press.

“I get the sense you’re trying to get over something. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, but—”

“You’re right,” she said quickly. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She forced a stiff smile. “Do you mind if we skip dessert? I think it’s time I checked into my bed-and-breakfast.”

end of excerpt

A Baby at Bramble House

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Sep 18, 2024


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