A Hometown Proposal
Book Three of the Shannon Sisters Series
She’s looking for a second chance to reconnect with her daughter but finds so much more.
Since her husband’s climbing death a year ago, Maureen Shannon’s relationship with her twelve-year-old daughter has spiraled out of control. Desperate, she resigns from her partnership at a legal firm and moves back to her hometown in Whitefish, Montana, with the hope that family and nature can heal their wounds. Her investment in a heli-skiing and lodge operation makes financial sense, but her attraction to the owner doesn’t. He’s everything she’s come to hate—a man who makes his living chasing adventure.
Jake Hartman knows Maureen Shannon is off limits. She’s an investor in his company—a silent investor who’s never silent. Worse, she’s a mom who’s beautiful, intelligent and makes him feel more alive than he’s ever known. A self-confirmed bachelor, he finds himself uneasily contemplating a very different partnership.
But will Maureen be able to let go of her past and build a future with a man who never imagined becoming a husband or a father?
Almost twenty years ago I published the Shannon Sisters trilogy with Harlequin Superromance. When I revisited the stories early last year I was hoping to love them. I did not. But I did see many ways that the stories and the trilogy as a whole could be improved. I wanted to add more heart, a bigger sense of community and smooth out some rough edges in the plotting. I hope I have succeeded in all these goals. If you've read the original books, I beg you to replace your copies with these new releases. And if you've never read the originals--please don't. I guess if I can take any solace in this whole process, it is this: I've actually learned a few things in my 25 year career. And that, at least, is a good thing.
Enjoy an Excerpt
Breakfast for Holly, shower, dress…don’t forget the papers you took out of your briefcase last night... Maureen Shannon ran through her mental checklist as she scanned the morning news items on her phone. One headline stopped her cold.
Flathead County Approves Development Plans for Thunder Valley. Clutching the lapels of her fuzzy warm housecoat, she scanned the article. It seemed Whitefish’s former mayor Max Strongman was going to get his golf course and recreational property development after all. Only, instead of building it on the ranch owned by his ex-wife and her son Dylan McLean, he had scooped up properties to the south and the east of the ranch.
Dylan and his new wife, Maureen’s sister Cathleen, would not be happy about this.
Especially since it seemed Max was getting off scot free after masterminding the murder of Joe Beckett and the subsequent shooting of Max’s ex-wife. Max’s son James Strongman, awaiting trial for both of these crimes, was loyally insisting he’d acted alone—but no one in Maureen’s family believed that.
Maureen stopped reading to sniff. That smell... Oh, no, Holly’s breakfast! She dropped her phone onto the counter and ran to the toaster. Too late. Both slices of bread were edged in black. Knowing her daughter wouldn’t eat toast this way, not even if Maureen scraped off the burned parts, she threw the pieces out and slipped two fresh slices into the slots.
She finished her coffee, then eyed the time display on her microwave. If she didn’t leave in fifteen minutes, she’d be late for the office. And she wasn’t even dressed. She’d have to finish reading the article later.
Ignoring the sick feeling in her stomach, she hurried along the hall to the single bathroom. When Holly was a baby, the nine hundred square foot floorplan of their home in historic Missoula hadn’t bothered Maureen. She loved the inner city location and the charm of their old neighborhood. Now that Holly was almost a teenager, however, sharing a bathroom was becoming a real strain.
“Holly? Are you finished in there?” Rod had always planned to renovate one day, build a bedroom and bathroom for Holly in the basement. He’d never gotten past the looking-at-glossy-brochures stage.
No answer from the bathroom, only the sound of water streaming into the sink. Well, she’d have to skip her shower this morning. Back in her bedroom, Maureen grabbed the first suit and blouse that came to hand, then yanked matching shoes from the shelf above them.
Catching her reflection in the mirror on her dresser, she frowned. The only way to deal with her cowlick was to put up her hair—another five minutes lost there....
Hair fixed, she tore back down the short hall. The bathroom door was still locked, and she could smell—
Damn it to heck!
Maureen raced to the kitchen where she tossed the second batch of ruined toast into the garbage. She checked the clock again. Five minutes.
Back down the hall.
“Holly, I can’t go to work without brushing my teeth and washing my face. And you need to eat. The toaster isn’t working so you’ll have to have cereal.”
Her twelve-year-old didn’t answer.
Maureen rested her head against the paneled door. From inside, she heard some suspicious sniffing. Was Holly crying? In the months following her father’s death, this had been a daily ritual. A familiar, helpless pain sapped the energy from Maureen’s limbs.
“Are you okay?”
The water came on again, blocking out the quiet sobbing.
“Please let me in. Holly?”
Still no answer. From past experience, Maureen knew there probably wouldn’t be. In her grief Holly had withdrawn from her mother, refusing to take the comfort Maureen ached to provide.
Silence descended as the water was turned off. Maureen made quick use of the opportunity to be heard. “Holly? Please tell me what’s wrong?”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Maureen flinched. When had her daughter perfected that icy, cutting tone?
Something slammed. The toilet seat? The medicine cabinet? A second later the door opened, and Holly glared at her. Eyes red, cheeks flushed, lips swollen. Maureen longed to hold out her arms, but she knew—oh, how she knew—that her daughter would just back away.
“What is it, sweetie?” Maybe she’d heard one of her dad’s favorite songs on the station she liked to listen to in the morning. Or had a sad dream.
“You are so insensitive. I can’t believe it.”
Maureen stepped to the side so Holly could leave the bathroom. Oh how she longed for the simplicity of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum.
“It’s a year today,” Holly burst out. “You didn’t even remember!”
Instantly Maureen understood. “I’m sorry, Holly.”
But her daughter had already taken off down the hall. A second later, the front door slammed.
Maureen swallowed an urge to scream, then went to the living room window. She caught a glimpse of Holly from the back as she ran across the street toward school. Poor sad, confused child.
She missed her father so much. Maureen wished her own grief could be so uncomplicated.
* * *
Two minutes after she was in her BMW, Maureen was on the cell phone, using the Bluetooth function. At a red light, she speed-dialed her assistant.
“Looks like I’m going to be a little late for the partners’ meeting. Could you pull the files I was working on last week? And order me a latte, please?”
Next she dialed her youngest sister who lived about two hours north of Missoula in Whitefish. Kelly was a patrol officer and could be counted on for level-headed advice. Last time Maureen had seen her in person had been at Kelly and Mick’s wedding, two months ago, but they spoke on the phone often.
“Hey Kel, are you at work?”
“I’m off for the next few days. Just dropped Billy off at kindergarten. What’s up?”
Maureen marveled at her calm tone. Kelly and Mick were raising Mick’s young nephew Billy and niece Amanda, quite a lot to take on for a woman who’d been single six months ago. Yet Kelly never seemed flustered by her new roles.
Which only made Maureen feel more incompetent as a mother.
“Holly was crying in the bathroom again this morning. As usual, nothing I said helped. Should I try a different grief counselor?”
Holly hadn’t seemed to benefit from sessions with two previous psychologists and Maureen had given up. But maybe she needed to try therapy one more time...
“It’s the year anniversary today, isn’t it?” Kelly said.
“Yeah.” Jeez, even her sister had remembered. Maybe she was the heartless monster her daughter thought she was.
“It’s pretty normal for her to be upset on a day like today. Honestly, I’m more worried about you. You’re so busy worrying about Holly, you never take time for yourself. I know it’s hard to lose a father—didn’t we all grow up without one? But you lost your husband, your life partner—”
Maureen resisted the urge to groan. Yes, Rod’s death had been a tragedy. But their marriage had been fair from the rosy union her sisters seemed to imagine.
“At least we had sisters,” Kelly continued. “Holly’s an only child. And she and Rod were so close.”
“They sure were.” It had been painful for Maureen sometimes how obvious Holly’s preference for Rod was over her. She couldn’t pinpoint the moment her doting toddler had begun running to Daddy when she had a problem, instead of Mommy. Probably shortly after Maureen had started back at work full-time and Rod had become the stay-at-home caregiver.
It was around that time that Rod had started to pull away emotionally from her too. He would make cutting remarks about Maureen in front of Holly. And undermine her authority whenever she tried to discipline their daughter. Whenever Maureen tried to address the problems in their marriage Rod would always blame everything on the fact that she worked too hard.
Their arguments had become tiresomely predictable and Maureen had learned to just hold her unhappiness and resentment inside.
“Of course I understand how hard this is for Holly. But you have to consider yourself, as well. You’ve a single mom now working in a demanding legal profession. That’s a lot.”
It was a lot. And Maureen was tired. “Lately I’ve been fantasizing about quitting my job. Crazy huh?”
“Not so crazy. Rod had insurance, right?”
“Yes.” And lots of it, as did she. But only because she’d filled out the forms for both of them and paid the premiums every year. She’d discovered early in their marriage that she couldn’t count on Rod for mundane, practical matters.
A lesson Holly had never learned. No way could she admit that her darling father had died as a result of his carelessness. No. In her mind, his death had become her mother’s fault. As if Maureen had wanted him to climb that bloody mountain in the first place!
“It can’t hurt to consider your options,” Kelly said. “You could use the break, and having you around more might help Holly. And of course, if you quit your job, you and Holly could move back here.”
Maureen’s sisters were always trying to convince her to move to Whitefish, the mountain town where they’d all grown up and where her two sisters and their husbands now lived.
In a way the idea had appeal. She could start her own legal practice there. It would be much smaller and less stressful than her work for a big firm here in Missoula. Equating to more time spent at home with Holly.
But Holly didn’t want to spend time with her mother. She’d probably hate the idea of moving. And surely an upheaval, just when she was beginning to adjust to junior high, would be a mistake.
Maureen ended the call with her sister as she approached her usual parking lot. Soon she would be in her office. Any problem that came up there, she would know how to handle.
The lousy start to the day had been portentous, however. At the partners’ meeting, Maureen was urged to take on a new child custody case that would have her spending significant time in Condon, almost two hours northeast of Missoula. She used her lunch break on the phone with Rod’s mom, who called from Seattle to commiserate on the sad anniversary.
Maureen listened, feeling for the woman’s pain, never letting on that their marriage had been on the verge of splintering, that Rod had been other than the ideal father and husband, or that the accident had been anything but bad luck.
Her husband had been addicted to extreme sports. Eighteen months ago, he’d decided he had to tackle Mount Everest. In preparation, he’d signed on with a team to climb Mount Aconcagua, a less-demanding peak in the Andes.
At more than twenty-two thousand feet, Aconcagua was the highest mountain in the world, except for those in the Himalayas. Though the ascent didn’t require technical expertise, it would give him an opportunity to see how his body reacted to the drop in oxygen at high elevations.
Unfortunately, altitude sickness had stricken him early on in the climb. Instead of moderating his ascent, Rod had tried to speed up. When his companions noted his growing disorientation, they’d urged him to slow down. But he’d refused until it was too late.
Death, Maureen was told later, can come quickly to those who ignore the early warning signs.
If Rod had gambled with only his life, Maureen could have forgiven him. But his loss had devastated their daughter, and that was hard to absolve.
* * *
During dinner that evening, Holly was silent. After dessert, when Maureen suggested they watch some home videos of her father, she relented enough to settle in front of the entertainment unit.
Maureen stretched her feet out on the sofa as her daughter selected from the dozens of home videos stored on the cloud. Seeing Rod’s face suddenly appear on the TV screen made Maureen feel instantly tense. Across the room on the love seat Holly pressed a tissue under her eyes.
They came to some footage Maureen had shot from the back deck a couple of autumns ago as Rod and Holly were horsing around in the abundant piles of raked leaves that Maureen hadn’t yet bagged for composting. On the screen father and daughter tumbled and wrestled and shrieked with laughter. But in the tidy family room Maureen and Holly watched in silence.
Maureen was aware of Holly’s quiet weeping. She, however, didn’t shed a tear. Not until the camera caught Rod smiling at his daughter, reaching out to touch a strand of her almost white hair. The expression on his face was absolutely doting.
The dull pain in Maureen’s chest tightened. The video confirmed how much Rod had loved Holly. When he’d been around, he’d treated their daughter like a princess. No wonder poor Holly was so devastated without him.
Maureen pulled a tissue from the pocket of her jeans and blew her nose. She wanted to go and hug Holly, but when she stood up from her corner of the room, Holly muttered good night and scurried to her room.
Maureen tidied the family room, stacked a few glasses in the dishwasher, then brewed herself a little coffee, which she mixed with half a cup of hot milk and a teaspoon of sugar.
She picked up a book, but after ten minutes, set it down again. Rubbing her eyes, Maureen sighed. Just the prospect of preparing for bed exhausted her.
Physically, Maureen still had Holly by her side.
But emotionally, they’d lost contact years ago. And Maureen had no idea how to go about regaining it.
“Your profits have been very healthy, Jake,” Harvey Tomchuk said between sips of his coffee. “But given the capital outlays you want to make this year, you could use a cash infusion.”
Jake Hartman liked the sound of the phrase. Sort of New Age—like a vitamin or herbal infusion. “Are you talking about a bank loan, Harvey? You know I’m not keen on debt.”
“No debt.” His accountant—greying, with arthritic knees, but as mentally sharp as ever—helped himself to another cup of coffee from the machine on the counter. “I’m thinking of equity here, as in cash provided to the business by a new investor. Simple enough for you yet?”
“Oh, sure. Now I get it. You want me to find someone with a quarter mil to invest in my heli-skiing business. That should be a snap.” Jake was mostly teasing. Harvey had been his accountant since the inception of his business and he trusted the man. He didn’t know what he was going to do when Harvey retired—something he’d been threatening to do since he turned sixty-five three years ago.
“You could always ask Patricia for the money.”
Jake snorted. He’d rather see his business fold than go into partnership with his mother. She’d never been the silent type. About anything. Not that he didn’t sympathize with her. She’d lost her husband in a ranching accident when she was only thirty, and been left to raise on her own a rowdy boy she’d never been able to understand.
After his dad’s death, she’d sold her share in the Thunder Bar M and moved them east to a series of big cities before settling in Philadelphia. For about ten years she tried to mold Jake into a cosmopolitan urbanite, before throwing in the towel and kicking him out of the house at age eighteen.
Jake’s happiest memories were of his early childhood and the summers he’d been allowed to spend with his uncle Bud McLean’s family, on the Thunder Bar M in Montana. So he headed west and never looked back.
His mother was furious and refused to so much as visit him. Out of duty more than affection, Jake made an annual pilgrimage to Philadelphia so she could frown at him and heave great sighs of disappointment. Once a week he called to assure her he hadn’t killed himself on some godforsaken mountain.
Ask his mother for money? No way.
“I guess I’ll think of something,” he said. “How much, exactly, should I be looking for?”
“For the kind of renovations you’re thinking of?” Harvey circled the bottom number in a long line of figures. Jake winced.
“Of course,” Harvey pointed out, “you could avoid all this by lowering your standards just a tad. No one expects a world class spa in a remote mountain lodge.”
“Actually they do.” Grizzly Peaks was Jake’s baby, his life. His clients came from all over the world, willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to ski in the backcountry wilderness of the Rocky Mountains.
But Jake wanted more. Not necessarily bigger—in fact, definitely not bigger—but the best of everything. One day Grizzly Peaks would be the premier heli-skiing operation in all of North America.
“Planning any mountain climbing this summer?” Harvey asked as he gathered up his papers.
“Maybe a trip or too. Dylan needs help at the ranch. He’s still trying to recover from those years when his ex-stepfather was in charge. Strongman really neglected the land and the herd.”
“Too busy with his development plans,” Harvey sympathized. “Now I hear he’s bought up adjacent land and is going ahead.”
Jake shook his head despondently. “No way to stop him, it seems.”
Harvey finished his coffee. “Well, I guess we’re done here. I’ll put together the final financial proposal, then you can go out and try to find your money.”
After a warm handshake, he shuffled out the door. A moment later the older man poked his head inside and handed Jake a rolled up newspaper.\
“This was on your front porch.” He handed over the Whitefish Journal then left.
Jake took the paper to his favorite reading chair. A breaking story by Mick Mizzoni had captured the headline. Jake swore softly as he read about council’s approval for the Thunder Valley Development project. Once he’d absorbed all the implications, he cut out the article and added it to the others he was saving in an old shoebox.
The past few years had been tumultuous for the ranch and the family that he loved so much. He’d watched helplessly as his cousin became “a person of interest” during the police investigation into Beckett’s homicide and he felt equally helpless about Max Strongman’s development plans now. He didn’t like or trust Max, but had no idea how to stop him.
Jake reached for the phone to call his cousin.
“Did you hear the news about Strongman?”
“We’re still in shock,” Dylan said. “Max should be in jail for conspiracy to murder Joe Beckett and attempted murder of my mother. I don’t know why James is protecting him.”
“James idolizes his father. Don’t know why.”
“Well, unless Max is implicated, I don’t think we can stop his development. According to Mick Mizzoni they’ve already acquired over one thousand acres. The development will cut right across the natural wildlife corridor along Thunder Creek.”
“It’s a disaster,” Jake agreed. He’d hoped—the entire family had hoped—that with Max out of the Mayor’s office the development plans would be out too. But while feelings against development in Whitefish ran strong, in far too many cases economics trumped nature.
After a depressing pause, Jake told his cousin about the plans for upgrading Grizzly Peaks.
“So you need a silent partner? I may know just the person. Let me check and get back to you.”
“That sounds intriguing.”
“Oh, she is. But I have to go, buddy. Cathleen’s giving me that look....”
“Say no more.” Jake hung up, knowing his cousin was referring to the look that every man longed for. The look that meant Come to bed, darling.
Lucky guy. Jake hadn’t been the recipient of the look in a long time.
* * *
Maureen was pulling into her driveway after a long day at work when her cell phone rang. “Sis #1” showed on the display. Maureen turned off the car then answered the call.
“Cathleen?” With her free hand she reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed the bag of groceries.
“Hey, Mo. Dylan has an opportunity he wants to run by you. It’s with his cousin, Jake Hartman.”
Jake had been around Whitefish during holidays as they were growing up, but Maureen had never had much to do with him. While Cathleen and Kelly loved the outdoors and rode horses every chance they got, Maureen preferred books and organized sports.
Maureen had last seen Jake at Dylan and Cathleen’s wedding. Jake was a big man, well-muscled man with dark blond hair. She’d noticed him watching her from time to time at the wedding, but they’d only spoken once, when he’d offered his condolences on her husband’s death.
As she made her way into the house she asked, “What’s the deal?”
“Jake is looking for new capital for his heli-skiing business. It sounds frivolous, but trust me, his business is extremely profitable.”
Maureen’s interest plummeted. Heli-skiing. Sounded like something her husband would have loved, if they could have afforded the expensive sport.
“What’s this have to do with me?” Maureen set the grocery bag on the kitchen counter. She could hear the muffled, pulsing bass of Holly’s music coming from down the hall. Her daughter was listening to awful stuff these days, heavy metal from bands like Faith Warning and Bitter End and she used Maureen’s Spotify account to make soul-destroying playlists that Maureen was tempted to delete.
“You have that money from Rod’s life insurance, and I know how pitiful interest rates are these days.”
Maureen pulled out a bowl for salad, then a knife to carve the roasted chicken she’d purchased. “You think I should invest Holly’s inheritance from her father in a heliskiing business? Cathleen, that’s nuts!”
‘‘Why? Jake’s a great guy and Grizzly Peaks has a world-class reputation. With your cut of the profits, you wouldn’t need to work as hard.”
Maureen wondered if this could be it—the sign that she needed to change her life. Maybe she shouldn’t reject it out of hand. “I have to admit, I’ve been thinking Holly and I could use a change.”
“Then you should definitely check out Jake’s proposal. If it appeals, you could move back to Whitefish. There are some cute townhouses near the high school for sale right now.”
“How much capital is Jake looking for?” Bespoke vacation experiences were very hot right now. If she thought of it simply as an investment, it might make sense.
End of Excerpt
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