To Maureen Fink…
It was so wonderful to meet you at my signing in Boston. Thank you for your love of my books, for introducing your friends to my work and for writing to me with such enthusiasm after reading each new release. I’ve enjoyed the family pictures you’ve shown me and interacting with you since then via email and in my book group on Facebook. It’s always such a pleasure when a faithful reader becomes a wonderful friend.
“Well, if it isn’t the runaway bride.”
Talulah Barclay glanced up to find the reason a shadow had just fallen across her plate. She’d been hoping to ease back into the small community of Coyote Canyon, Montana, without drawing any attention. But Brant Elway, of all people, had happened to come into the café where she was having breakfast and stopped at her booth.
“Of course you’d be the first to bring up my past sins,” she grumbled. They hadn’t seen each other for nearly fourteen years, and he’d certainly changed—filled out what had once been a spare frame, grown a couple of inches, even though he’d been tall to begin with, and taken on a rugged, slightly weathered look from spending so much time outdoors. But she would’ve recognized him anywhere.
The crooked smile that curved his lips suggested he was hardly repentant. “I’m not likely to forget that day. I was the best man, remember?”
She wasn’t likely to forget that day, either. Only bumping into her ex, Charlie Gerhart, would be more cringeworthy.
She felt terrible about what she’d done to Charlie. She also felt terrible that she’d repeated the same mistake with two other men since. Admittedly, jilting her fiancés at the altar hadn’t been among her finest moments, but she’d had every intention of following through—until the panic grew so powerful it simply took over and there was no other way to cope.
It said something that, while she regretted the pain she’d caused others, especially her prospective grooms, she didn’t regret walking out on those weddings. That clearly indicated she’d made the right choice—a little late, perhaps, but better not to make such a huge mistake than try to unravel it later.
She doubted Brant would ever view the situation from that perspective, however. He’d naturally feel defensive of Charlie. He and Charlie had been friends for as long as she could remember. She’d hung out with Charlie’s younger sister, Averil, since kindergarten and could remember seeing Brant over at the Gerhart house way back when she and Averil were in fifth grade, and he and Charlie were in seventh.
Dressed in a soft cotton Elway Ranch T-shirt that stretched slightly at the sleeves to accommodate his biceps, a pair of faded Wranglers and boots that were worn and dirty enough to prove they weren’t just for show, he rested his hands on his narrow hips as he studied her with the cornflower-blue eyes that’d been the subject of so much slumber-party talk when she was growing up. Those eyes were even more startling now that his face was so tanned. Had he lived in Seattle, like her, she’d assume he spent time cultivating that golden glow. But she knew he hadn’t put any effort into his appearance. According to Jane Tanner, another friend who’d hung out with her and Averil—the three of them had been inseparable—Brant’s parents had retired, and he and his three younger brothers had taken over the running of their two-thousand-acre cattle ranch.
“What brings you back to town?” he asked. “You’ve laid low for so long, I thought we’d seen the last of you.”
Pretending that running into him was no more remarkable to her than running into anyone else, she lifted her orange juice to take a sip before returning the glass to the heavily varnished table. “My aunt Phoebe died.”
“That’s the old lady who lived in the farmhouse on Mill Creek Road, right? The one with the blue hair?”
Her great-aunt had been a diminutive woman, only five feet tall and less than a hundred pounds. But she’d had her hair done once a week like clockwork—still used the blue rinse she’d grown fond of in her early twenties when platinum blond had been all the rage—and dressed in her Sunday best, including nylons, whenever she came to town. So she’d stood out. “That’s her.”
Talulah got the impression he was assessing the changes in her, just as she was assessing the changes in him, and wished she’d put more effort into her appearance today. She didn’t want to come off the worse for wear after what she’d done. But when she’d rolled out of bed, pulled on her yoga pants and a sleeveless knit top and piled her long blond hair on top of her head before coming to the diner for breakfast, she’d assumed she’d be early enough to miss the younger crowd, which included the people she’d rather avoid.
That had proven mostly to be true; except for Brant, almost everyone else in the diner was over sixty. But he worked on a ranch, so he was probably up even before the birds that’d been chirping loudly outside her window, making it impossible for her to sleep another second. “She died of old age. Aunt Phoebe was almost a hundred.”
“I’m sorry to hear you lost her.” He sounded sincere, at least. “Were you close?”
“No, actually, we weren’t,” Talulah admitted. “She never liked me.” Phoebe hadn’t liked children in general—they were too loud, too unruly and too messy. And once Talulah had become a teenager, and her mother had allowed her to quit taking piano lessons from her great-aunt, they’d never really connected, other than seeing each other at various family functions during which Talulah and her sister, Debbie, had gone out of their way to avoid their mother’s crotchety aunt.
His teeth flashed in a wider smile. “Maybe she was a friend of the Gerharts.”
Talulah gave him a dirty look. “So were you. But unfortunately, you’re standing here talking to me.”
He chuckled instead of being offended, which soothed some of her ire. He was willing to take what he was dishing out; she had to respect that.
“I’m more generous than most,” he teased, pressing a hand to his muscular chest. “But if it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one who struggled to get along with your aunt.”
“You knew her personally?” she asked in surprise.
“Not well, but I’ll never forget the day someone had the audacity to honk at her because she was driving at the speed of a horse and buggy down the middle of the highway, holding up traffic for miles.”
“Once I got around her, I found she was capable of driving a lot faster. She tailgated me to the bank, where she climbed out and swung her purse at me while giving me a piece of her mind for scaring her while she was behind the wheel.”
Talulah had to laugh at the mental picture that created. “You’re the one who honked at her?”
“The bank was about to close.” He gave a low whistle as he rubbed the beard growth on his squarish chin. “But after that, I decided if I was ever in the same situation again, I’d skip the bank.”
Most people in Coyote Canyon probably had a similar story about Aunt Phoebe, maybe more than one. She might’ve been small, but she was mighty and wouldn’t “take any guff,” as she put it, from anyone. “Yeah, well, imagine being a little girl on the receiving end of that sharp tongue. I’d dread my weekly piano lesson and cry whenever my mother left me with her.”
“I’ll have to let Ellen know that,” he said.
Talulah didn’t remember anyone by that name in Coyote Canyon. “Who’s Ellen?”
“I assume you’re staying at your aunt’s place?”
She nodded. “My folks moved to Reno a couple of years after I embarrassed them at the wedding,” she said glumly.
He laughed at her response. “Ellen lives on the property next to you. She and I used to go out now and then, when she first moved to town, and she told me the old lady would knock on her door to complain about everything—the weeds near the fence, trees that were dropping leaves on her side of the property line, the barking of the dogs.”
“But they both live on several acres. How could those small things bother Aunt Phoebe?”
“Exactly Ellen’s point. Heaven forbid she ever decided to have a dinner party and someone parked too close to your aunt’s driveway.”
Talulah found herself more distracted by the mention of his relationship with this Ellen woman than she should’ve been, given that it wasn’t the point of the anecdote. Brant had always been so hard to attract. Most girls she knew had tried to gain his interest, including her own sister, and failed. So she couldn’t help being curious about how he’d come to date her new neighbor—and why and how their relationship had ended. “Sounds like Phoebe.”
A waitress called out to tell Brant hello, and he waved at her before returning his attention to Talulah. “How long will you be in town?”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “Are you running recognizance for my enemies?”
“Just curious.” He winked. “Word will spread fast enough without me.”
“You can assure everyone who cares that it’ll only be for a month or so,” she said. “Until I can clean out my great aunt’s house and put it on the market.”
“If you weren’t close to her, how come you were unlucky enough to get that job?” he asked.
“My parents are in Africa on a mission.”
“For the Church of the Good Shepherd?”
“I didn’t realize they sent people out on organized missions.”
“Sometimes they do, but this one is self-funded, something my dad has wanted to do ever since hearing a particularly rousing sermon.” Talulah wasn’t religious at all—much to the chagrin of her parents. But a good portion of the town belonged to her folks’ evangelical church or one of the other churches in the area.
“What about your sister?” Brant asked. “She can’t help?”
“Debbie’s married and living in Billings. She’s about to have her fourth child any day now.”
He feigned shock. “Married? Fear of commitment doesn’t run in the family, I guess.”
She scowled. “It’s a good thing I didn’t go through with it, Brant. I was only eighteen—way too young.”
“I never said I thought it was a good idea,” he responded. “If you’ll remember, I made the same argument way back when.”
“How could I ever forget?” They’d always been adversaries. He’d hated the amount of time his best friend had devoted to her, and she’d resented that he was often trying to talk Charlie into playing pool or going hunting or something with him instead. “But let’s be fair. I doubt I’m the only one with commitment issues.” She glanced at his hand. “I don’t see a ring on your finger.”
“I’ve never left anyone standing at the altar.”
She could tell he was joking, but he’d hit a nerve. “Because you bail out before it even gets that far.”
He seemed to enjoy provoking her. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. I can teach you how, if you want me to.”
“Oh, leave me alone,” she muttered with a shooing motion.
He chuckled but didn’t go. “How much are you hoping to get for your aunt’s house?”
“I have no idea what it’s worth,” she replied. “I live in Washington these days, where prices are a lot different, and haven’t met with a real estate agent yet.”
“You know Charlie’s an agent, right?”
Slumping back against the booth, she sighed. “Here we go again…”
He widened those gorgeous blue eyes of his. “That wasn’t a jab! I just thought you should be aware of it.”
“I’m aware of it, okay? Jane Tanner told me.”
“You still in touch with Jane?”
“We’ve been friends since kindergarten,” she said as if he should’ve taken that for granted. But she’d been equally close to Charlie’s sister, and they hadn’t spoken since Talulah had tried to apologize for what she’d done at the wedding and Averil had told her she never wanted to see her again.
“Maybe it’d help patch things up if you listed your aunt’s house with him,” Brant suggested.
“You’re kidding. I can’t imagine he’d want to see me—not even to make a buck.”
His eyes flicked to the compass tattoo she’d gotten on the inside of her forearm shortly after she’d left Coyote Canyon. “Does he know you’re in town?”
She shrugged. “Jane might’ve told him I was coming. Why?”
He studied her for a long moment. “I have a feeling things are about to get interesting around here. Thanks for breaking the monotony,” he said, and that maddening grin reappeared as he nodded in parting and walked over to the bar, where he took a stool and ordered his breakfast.
Disgruntled, Talulah eyed his back. He’d removed his baseball cap—that was a bit old-fashioned, perhaps, but her parents would certainly approve of his manners—so his hair was matted in places, but he didn’t seem to care. He came off more comfortable in his own skin than any man she’d ever known, which sort of bugged her. She couldn’t say why. He’d always seemed to avoid the foibles that everyone else got caught up in. For a change, she wanted to see him unable to stop himself from falling in love, do something stupid because he couldn’t help it or make a mistake he later regretted.
“Would you like a refill?”
The waitress had approached with a pot of coffee.
Talulah shoved her cup away. “No, thanks. I’m finished.”
“Okay, hon. Let me put this down, and I’ll be right back with your check.”
Leaving twenty-five bucks on the table, more than enough to cover the bill, Talulah got up and walked out. The last thing she wanted was to run into someone else she knew.
Most of the town had been at that wedding.
* * *
Aunt Phoebe’s house was going to take some work. Two stories tall, it was a Victorian farmhouse with a wide front porch, a drawing room/living room off the entry, a music room tucked to the left, a formal dining area in the middle and a tiny kitchen—tiny by today’s standards—at the back, with a mudroom where the “menfolk” could clean up before coming in from the fields at dinner. Probably 2,400 square feet in total, it was divided into thirteen small rooms that were packed with furniture, rugs, decorations, books, lamps and magazines. The attic held objects that’d been handed down for generations, as well as steamer trunks of old clothes, quilts and needlepoint—even a dressmaker’s dummy that’d given Talulah a fright when she first went up to take a look because she’d thought someone was in the attic with her.
The basement held shelf upon shelf of canned goods, a deep freezer full of meat that’d most likely been butchered at a local ranch, which meant there would be certain cuts—like tongue and liver—Talulah would have no idea what to do with, and stacks of old newspapers and various other flotsam Phoebe had collected throughout her long life.
Even if she started right away, it’d take a week or more to sort through everything, and the house wasn’t the most comfortable place to work. The windows, while beautiful with their old-fashioned casings and heavy panes, weren’t energy-efficient. There was hardly any insulation in the attic and no air-conditioning to combat the heat. Typically, summers in Coyote Canyon were quite mild, with temperatures ranging between fifty and ninety degrees, but they were in a heat wave. It was mid-August, the hottest part of the year to begin with, and they were setting records.
A bead of sweat rolled between Talulah’s breasts as she surveyed the basement. Even the coolest part of the house felt stifling. And it was only noon. She couldn’t imagine how Aunt Phoebe had managed in this heat. But her aunt could handle just about anything. She’d had a will of iron and more grit than anyone Talulah had ever met.
“How am I going to get through all this junk—and what am I going to do with it?” Talulah muttered, disheartened by the sheer volume of things her great-aunt had collected over the years.
Her phone vibrated in the pocket of her yoga pants. Pulling it out, she saw that her sister was calling. “Hey,” she answered.
“How’s Coyote Canyon?” Debbie asked.
“I just got in last night, but from what I’ve seen so far, it hasn’t changed much.” The town’s population had stayed at about three thousand since the end of the nineteenth century, when the railroad came to town and Coyote Canyon had its big boom.
She chuckled. “It never does. Bozeman is growing like crazy, though. I read somewhere that it’s the fastest growing town in America. You should see how much it’s changed.”
“No kidding? Who’s moving there?”
“Mostly families, I guess, but enough millennials and nature-lovers to change the whole vibe from Western to trendy.”
Only forty minutes away, Bozeman had been where their parents would take them to buy school clothes and other supplies. But she’d had no reason to go there since she’d left Coyote Canyon. Thanks to the stigma caused by the wedding, she’d tried to forget the whole area. “Did you guys come for Rodeo Days this year?” The week before the Fourth of July, Coyote Canyon held seven days of celebration that included rodeos, a 10K/5K run, a Mountain Man Rendezvous, parades, tractor pulls and bake-offs. Everything culminated in the fireworks of Independence Day.
“No. I wanted to,” Debbie said, “but Scott was under too much pressure at work to take the time, and I didn’t want to try to manage the kids on my own.”
“I’m sorry that Paul and I couldn’t make it.”
“Has something changed I’m not aware of? Are you two together now?”
He’d been trying to get with her since she met him, especially after they started the diner. But it was only recently that she’d gone on the pill and slept with him for the first time. “Not really. We’ve started dating. Sort of.”
“Sort of?” her sister echoed.
“You know how hard it is for me to know when I really like a guy. Anyway, how’ve you been feeling? Any news on the baby?” She asked because she was interested, but she was also eager to change the subject.
“I’m fine,” Debbie said. “Just tired.”
“It shouldn’t be much longer, right?”
“I’m due in a week, and the doctor won’t let me go more than a few days over.”
“Call me as soon as labor starts. I’ll come for the birth.” Billings was only a hundred miles to the east. Part of the reason Talulah had agreed to handle her aunt’s funeral and belongings was because it put her in closer proximity to Debbie. She wanted to be there for the arrival of the new addition, especially since their parents couldn’t be.
“I will. I can’t wait until this pregnancy is over.” She groaned. “I’m getting so uncomfortable.”
“You’ve done this three times before. I’m sure the birth will be routine.”
Maybe not strictly routine. Debbie had developed gestational diabetes, so there was a good chance this child would have to be delivered by Caesarean section. But they were pretending there’d be no complications. Neither of them cared to consider all the things that could go wrong.
“I feel bad that you’re having to take so much time away from the dessert diner,” she said. “Maybe I should drive over for the funeral, at least, and help while I can.”
“Don’t you dare!” Talulah said. “I don’t want you going into labor while you’re here. Your husband, your doctor, everyone and everything you need are there.”
“But I’m just sitting around with my swollen ankles while you deal with everything in that musty house.”
Musty, sweltering house. But Talulah didn’t want to make Debbie feel any guiltier. Besides, her sister wasn’t just sitting around. She was watching her other kids. Talulah could hear them, and the TV, in the background and knew that Debbie would have to bring her young nieces and nephew if she came here. Having them underfoot would only make it harder to get anything done. “The church is stepping in to organize the funeral. You set that up yourself. So you have been involved. Besides, much to our parents’ dismay, you’re the only one giving them grandkids. This is the least I can do for Mom and Dad.”
Debbie laughed. “Have you heard from them?”
“They called last night to make sure I got in okay.”
“How long did the drive take you?”
“It wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t fly—I knew I’d need a car while I was here.” She’d made the trip to Reno several times since her family moved from Coyote Canyon, so she was used to driving even farther. They’d only visited Seattle once, but Talulah had been so busy with college, then culinary school, then working in various restaurants before launching Talulah’s Dessert Diner with Paul, whom she’d met along the way, that she didn’t mind.
“I’m surprised they aren’t coming home for the funeral,” Debbie mused.
Not to mention the birth of their latest grandchild. Talulah thought she could hear the disappointment in her sister’s voice, but Debbie would never complain, especially to a defector like Talulah. Debbie remained as committed to their parents’ faith as they did. “I’m not surprised,” Talulah said. “Africa is so far away, and they’d only have to turn around and go right back. They want to remain focused on their mission, at least until they’re officially released.”
“Aunt Phoebe was so prickly, she and Mom were never very close, anyway,” Debbie added.
That wasn’t strictly true. Phoebe used to have them over for dinner every Sunday, and Carolyn brought Talulah and Debbie over for piano lessons. It was only later that they had a bit of a falling-out and quit talking. Despite that, Talulah guessed their mother felt conflicted about missing her aunt’s funeral. She also understood that Carolyn wasn’t going to change her mind. Choosing her mission over her family was almost a matter of pride; it showcased the level of her belief. “When we visited Aunt Phoebe, and we weren’t there for piano lessons, we had to sit on chairs in the cramped dining room or living room, and she’d snap at us to quit wiggling, remember?”
“That was if she’d let us in the house at all,” Debbie said drily. “She used to tell us to go out front and play.”
“With no toys.”
“She was the sternest person I’ve ever met.”
“She also never threw anything away.”
“She was a hoarder?”
“Kind of. She somehow managed to be fastidious and clean at the same time, so it’s not the type of hoarding you imagine when you hear the word, but it’s so cluttered in here I can barely move from room to room.”
“If it’s that bad, I should come over, after all.”
Talulah blew a wisp of hair that’d fallen from the clip on top of her head away from her mouth. “No, I’ve got it. Really.” There was no way Debbie would survive the heat, not in her condition.
“But you must be feeling some pressure to get back to Seattle,” Debbie said. “You told me you have a line of people every night trying to get into the diner.”
“We do, but Paul’s there.” She couldn’t have taken off for a whole month in any prior year. In the beginning, their business had required too much time, energy and focus—from both of them. She’d come up with the concept and had the name, the website, the logo, the location and the recipes figured out when Paul decided to come on board to help with the capital, credit and muscle required to get the rest of the way. It’d been touch and go for a while, but the place was running smoothly now, following a familiar routine. They had employees they could trust, and with her partner managing the day-to-day details, she wasn’t too worried.
“He doesn’t resent you being gone so long?” Debbie asked.
“He has a family reunion in Iowa at the end of September. Then he’ll be hiking in Europe for three weeks with a couple of friends. So I’ll be returning the favor soon enough.”
“He gets to go to Europe while you have to spend your vacation in Coyote Canyon, attending a funeral and cleaning out a house that was built in the 1800s?”
Talulah didn’t mind the work. It was facing the past and all the people she hadn’t seen or heard from in years that would be difficult. “It’s not a big deal,” she insisted.
“Okay.” There was a slight pause. Then her sister said, “I hate to bring up a sensitive subject, but…what are you going to do when you see Charlie?”
“I don’t know.” She certainly wasn’t looking forward to it.
“It’d be a lot easier if he was married.”
Talulah agreed. If he had a wife, he’d be able to believe she’d saved him for the woman he was really supposed to marry. His family and friends would then be more likely to forgive her, too. But according to Jane, he wasn’t even seeing anyone, so she had no idea how he’d feel toward her. “I ran into Brant,” she volunteered, simply because she knew her sister would be interested.
“How’d he look?”
Too good for the emotional well-being of the women around him. But such an admission would never pass Talulah’s lips. She preferred not to acknowledge his incredible good looks. “Haven’t you seen him fairly recently?” She knew her sister came back to Coyote Canyon occasionally.
“Four or five years ago.”
“He probably hasn’t changed much since then.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. I doubt he’ll ever settle down. What’d he say when he saw you?”
“Just gave me a hard time about Charlie.”
“When I was in high school, I was so disappointed I couldn’t get his attention. Now I’m glad he had no interest in me. He would only have broken my heart.”
“Probably,” Talulah agreed. But, truth be told, she felt sort of bad talking about Brant that way. It was a case of “the pot calling the kettle black,” as her aunt would’ve said. She’d broken her share of hearts, too, and possibly in worse ways, as he’d intimated. But she couldn’t seem to settle down. No matter how hard she tried to force the issue and be more like her sister—to do what her parents expected of her—she wound up having such terrible anxiety attacks she literally had to flee. Maybe Brant had the same problem when it came to making a lifelong commitment. Maybe he was just better at accepting his limitations.
The doorbell rang as her sister finished telling her about little Casey, her three-year-old niece, who’d gotten hold of a pair of scissors and cut her bangs off at the scalp. “That’s probably the woman from the church now,” Talulah said. “I need to go over the funeral with her. I’ll call you later, okay?”
Her sister said goodbye, and Talulah disconnected as she hurried up the narrow, creaking stairs. There was a woman standing on the stoop, all right. But before she pushed open the screen door—the regular door was already standing open because she’d been trying to catch even the slightest breeze—Talulah could see enough to know it wasn’t anyone from the church.
This woman had a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
Ellen had purple hair cut in a short, jagged style, a heart-shaped face, bottle-green eyes, a ring through her nose and a tattoo sleeve on one arm featuring mermaids and dragons. She was also wearing army boots with a pair of short shorts and a spaghetti-strap top. She reminded Talulah a little of Miley Cyrus. She was certainly beautiful, but Talulah couldn’t imagine anyone standing out more in this small, traditional community.
“It’s nice of you to walk over and introduce yourself,” Talulah said. “I was wondering if I’d get to meet you.”
One thin eyebrow slid up. “You’ve already heard of me?”
Talulah couldn’t resist laughing, especially since she could tell Ellen wasn’t all that surprised to think people were talking about her. “I ran into Brant this morning. He mentioned you weren’t exactly on the best of terms with my great aunt.”
Ellen took a drag of her cigarette while considering Talulah’s response. “Yeah, well, I won’t lie to you. I didn’t care much for her. She was the reason I took up smoking. I needed something to calm my nerves. But—” she formed her china-doll face into a more sympathetic expression “—if you loved her, I’m sorry for your loss.” She handed over the wine while being careful to blow her cigarette smoke in the opposite direction.
Talulah read the label: Orin Swift Papillon. “Thank you.”
“Call it a bribe,” she said. “I’m hoping you’ll like me better than your great aunt did, and I can finally have some peace.”
Although Talulah laughed again, she could tell Ellen was only partly joking. “You don’t have to worry about me. I figure you’ve been through enough. Would you like to come in?”
She wrinkled her button nose. “Are you kidding? It’s too fucking hot in there.”
Wiping the sweat running down the side of her face, Talulah gestured at the wicker chairs on the porch. “What if we sit out here?”
“It’s hot here, too. But I might as well stay until I finish my cigarette.”
“When I was growing up, there was an older couple who lived on the adjacent property,” Talulah said. “My great aunt actually liked them. She used to take them various things she’d canned—peaches and dill pickles and beets. And the man would come over and fix a leaky faucet now and then or shovel her walks in the winter, that sort of thing.”
“That had to be my grandpa. He’d do anything for anybody. It’s too bad you didn’t get to know him. How often did you visit your aunt?”
“Often enough. I grew up in Coyote Canyon.”
“I didn’t realize that. When I saw you pull into the garage, I thought you were family from out of town, coming to take care of things.”
“That’s basically what’s happening. But I’m familiar with the town because I lived here until I graduated from high school. Then I went to San Diego State University,” Talulah explained. “I wanted to spend a few years close to the beach.”
“What kind of degree did you get?”
“None. Regular college wasn’t for me. After two and a half years, I dropped out and enrolled in culinary school in Denver.”
Ellen got up to flick her ashes over the porch railing. “Did you like that better?”
“Much better. I now own a dessert diner, together with a partner, in Seattle. We specialize in fancy cakes, pies and other pastries.”
“Sounds like you found your calling.”
“Feels that way.” Talulah watched Ellen closely, trying to figure out what about her had attracted Brant. Was it because she looked like a hard chick in the sea of softer good girls who made a play for him?
If so, her sweet-faced sister, who’d never dream of getting a tattoo, let alone wearing a nose ring, never had a chance. “What’s your story?” she asked. “How’d you come to live in such a sleepy town—and on the property next to my mother’s peevish aunt?”
“When my grandparents moved to Phoenix two years ago, they offered me their house.”
“That was nice of them.”
“I like it. And I immediately added air-conditioning. So if you get too uncomfortable over here, feel free to come on over.”
“I would take you up on that, except it’d be pretty hard to sort through things from there. Where’d you live before Coyote Canyon?”
“Anaconda. Have you heard of it? It’s a small town, too, only about an hour from here.”
“I’ve heard of it, but I would’ve guessed somewhere more like LA…”
“Because I don’t look like I fit into any small town, especially one in Montana, but that’s okay. I don’t care what people think.”
“Why didn’t you choose somewhere like Bozeman? Judging by what my sister just told me, folks there might be a bit more open-minded.”
“I go over there occasionally. But I’ve decided to settle here. This is where I’m building my business.”
“What kind of business?”
“I drill wells for a living.”
“No kidding?” That was the last occupation Talulah had expected Ellen to have. She didn’t know of one other female well-driller.
Ellen shrugged. “It’s a living.”
“How’d you get into that?”
“Runs in the family. My father’s a driller. So was his father.”
“He taught you everything he knows?”
She grimaced. “No. He saved that for one of his stepsons. But I don’t need him. I figured it out myself.”
“Brant told me you and he used to date.”
“It’s been over a year, but…yeah.”
“Have you…gotten with someone else since?” She was prodding, but she was so curious she couldn’t resist.
“No. When you’ve been with Brant Elway, it’s not easy to find someone who measures up,” she joked.
Her response prompted Talulah to dig a little deeper. “Would you mind a personal question from a total stranger?”
Fresh interest glittered in Ellen’s eyes. “You and I aren’t strangers anymore. You already like me better than your great aunt did, right? You said so yourself.”
There was a transparency to Ellen that made Talulah feel comfortable asking almost anything. “Then I’ll go ahead. What happened between you and Brant?”
“I wish I could tell you.” Dropping her cigarette, she crushed it beneath her boot. “We’re still friends. He treats me great whenever he sees me and stops by to visit now and then. The only thing I can figure is that he didn’t want to lead me on when he was just trying to make a statement.”
“A statement?” Talulah echoed.
“I’m guessing the reason he asked me out in the first place was because he wanted me to feel accepted and welcome. By being seen with me, he was putting everyone here on notice that different isn’t always bad, essentially trying to make it a little easier for me to fit in and become part of the community.”
Talulah wasn’t convinced Brant was that perceptive, that kind or that deep. And even if he was, she didn’t want to think so flatteringly of her old archenemy. She’d never hated him, exactly. But they’d battled over Charlie for two years, and she’d prided herself on being one of the few women in town he couldn’t count among his many admirers. “Are you sure he wasn’t just after a piece of ass?” she joked.
Ellen picked up the stub of her cigarette. “I’m sure, since I would’ve gladly given him one had he ever made a move,” she said. “Let me know when you’re ready to open that bottle. I’ll come over again.”
Brant hadn’t tried to sleep with her? Talulah hadn’t anticipated that. “I will,” she said and lifted the wine in farewell.
* * *
Brant had been expecting a call from Charlie, so he wasn’t surprised when his phone went off while he was fixing the roof on the barn closest to the house. He rocked back on his haunches, removed his gloves and used the bottom of his T-shirt to mop the sweat from his face before he answered. “What’s up?”
“Talulah’s back in town, man. I just ran into Marie Christensen at the grocery store. She said she waited on her at the diner this morning.”
Brant probably should’ve been the one to tell Charlie about Talulah. But he’d put off relaying that bit of news. There’d been something in her eyes that reminded him of a cornered animal, and that had made him want to cut her a break in spite of what she’d done at the wedding.
It shouldn’t have stopped him, though. She had no excuse for hurting Charlie so deeply. Even if she had to break up with him, why couldn’t she have done it before the wedding? Putting it off until the very last second had heaped so much embarrassment on top of the rejection. “Is that all Marie said?” he asked tentatively.
“What do you mean?”
Apparently, the waitress hadn’t mentioned that Brant had been in the restaurant at the same time. He wondered if he needed to divulge that information, but ultimately chose not to say anything. He’d get grilled if he did: Why didn’t you tell me? Did you talk to her? What’d she say? What does she look like? Did she mention me? What’s she doing these days? Is she seeing anyone?
The fact that Charlie still compared every woman he dated to Talulah, and the new prospect always came up short, indicated that he hadn’t gotten over her, even after all this time. That became more apparent than ever when he was drunk. Then he’d ramble on, crying in his beer about the various things he’d seen her post on Instagram, especially the pics that included some guy named Paul. “You gotta forget her, man—move on,” Brant said. “I’ve told you that before.”
Conveniently ignoring his advice, Charlie asked, “Why do you think she’s here?”
Since Brant knew the answer to that question, he had to be careful how he responded. “I heard her great-aunt died, so there must be a funeral, right?”
“I heard about that, too. But I didn’t expect Talulah to come back for her funeral. They were never close. Her aunt was a miserable person to be around.”
“They were still family.”
“True.” He hesitated for a moment before revealing what was really going through his mind. “I wonder how she’d react if we were to bump into each other. Do you think she regrets what she did to me?”
If she regretted not going through with the wedding, Charlie probably would’ve heard about it long before now. But wishful thinking could blind a person to the most obvious truth. “I have no idea. Does it matter? You’ll only get hurt again if you go back to her.”
“I’ve decided to attend the funeral.”
“I knew her great aunt,” he said, somewhat defensively. “She was my Sunday School teacher way back in the day.”
She’d also been Brant’s Sunday School teacher. Brant and his family weren’t religious, but he’d often attended church functions with Charlie. “Considering the circumstances, it’d be perfectly understandable if you skipped out on the funeral.”
“But it would also be understandable if I went. That’s the point.”
Brant could tell he was getting sunburned. He hadn’t planned to be on the roof for so long. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m curious about what Talulah’s like these days. That’s all.”
“You follow her on Instagram. You see what she posts.”
“You know about social media. Everything’s designed to be flattering to whoever’s putting it up. You can only believe about half of what you see.”
Which was part of the reason Brant hardly ever went on Instagram. He checked it out occasionally, when he was bored, but he rarely posted anything. “Seriously? It’s been fourteen years since you two were a thing.”
“You never really get over your first love.”
Maybe there was something wrong with him, but Brant had never been unable to get over a woman. Did Charlie think Talulah was secretly pining for him?
“I wonder where she’s staying,” he mused. “Her parents sold their house to the Willoughbys years ago when they moved to Reno, so she can’t be there. She must be at one of the motels. Or maybe she’s at Phoebe’s.”
“I’m up on the barn,” Brant said, trying to put a stop to the conversation before it went any further in the wrong direction. “I have to finish patching this roof.”
“I’ll let you go, then. But let’s play some pool tonight.”
“Okay, I’ll call you later.” Brant disconnected but before he could put his phone back in his pocket he received a text.
It was from Ellen, which was a surprise. She didn’t contact him very often these days.
Hey, remember that portable AC unit you brought over when I first came to town? If no one’s using it right now, my new neighbor doesn’t have any AC. I was wondering if you’d let her borrow it while she sorts through her aunt’s belongings.
Brant squinted up at the broiling sun. It didn’t usually get this hot in Coyote Canyon, but the heat wave wasn’t supposed to break until Wednesday.
I can do that. No problem.
Thank you. And can you deliver it, too? I’m going out of town for a wedding and won’t be back for a week or more.
No problem. I know Talulah. I’ll throw it in the back of my truck and swing by in an hour or two.
I’m sure she’ll be grateful. She seems like a nice person.
After what Talulah had done to Charlie, at least half the community would argue with Ellen about Talulah being “a nice person,” but he didn’t feel it was his place to tell her what’d happened.
How’d you meet her? Did she come over?
I took her a bottle of wine an hour ago. That’s how I know it’s sweltering over there.
It was sweltering on the damn roof, too.
Awful neighborly of you to bring the wine.
I would’ve been happy to share it with you instead, but you never come around anymore. 😉
We’ll have a drink together someday soon.
When she didn’t press him for a date and time, he breathed a sigh of relief. Ellen was attractive, unique, open-minded and perceptive. She was tough as nails, too. He’d enjoyed getting to know her. But as soon as he could tell she was beginning to have feelings for him, he’d backed away. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her.
“Damn, it’s hot,” he muttered and mopped his face again. Then he finished patching the roof, took a shower so he wouldn’t smell like the cattle he worked with and found the portable cooler in the storage closet off the bunkhouse.
He had no doubt Charlie would want to be included on this errand—or at least know about it—but after the way he’d behaved on the phone, Brant wasn’t going to call him.
* * *
When Brant arrived at the farmhouse on Mill Creek Road, he found a dusty Lexus SUV with Washington license plates in the garage. That told him Talulah was home, but it would’ve been obvious, regardless. Music was blasting through the house so loudly he knew it wouldn’t do any good to knock. There was no way Talulah would hear him.
He could text her—if only he had her number.
He glanced at the property next door, but trees blocked his view of the house. He could ask Ellen for Talulah’s number, although he doubted she’d have it, either. The two women had just met. Besides, he didn’t want to be here for too long. This was supposed to be a quick errand. If he could get Talulah’s attention, it still could be.
The screen door hung crookedly on its hinges, leaving a gap that made it obvious the hook could no longer latch even if someone tried to lock it, so he stepped into the living room and called her name.
There was no response, but he wasn’t surprised. The music was even louder inside.
“Talulah?” He went from room to room, looking for her, but he didn’t see anyone. She wasn’t upstairs, either, which meant she had to be in the attic or the basement—and in this heat he was willing to bet on the basement.
Planning to make sure she’d accept the portable air conditioner before he hauled it inside, he’d left it in his truck, so he was unencumbered when he jogged down the narrow stairs. “Talulah?” he called again and had to bow his head as he reached the basement because of the low ceiling.
Since the music was coming from upstairs, it wasn’t quite as loud down here. He heard Talulah when she gasped and dropped the box she’d been lifting. Something that sounded like dishes broke, but neither of them paid any attention to that. Her eyes flew wide and so did his. She wasn’t wearing anything except a pair of panties and some slippers.
He immediately spun around to charge back up the stairs. But he forgot about the low ceiling. Whacking his head so hard he saw stars, he felt his legs crumple beneath him—and the next thing he knew, he was laid out on the floor.