Authors: Shelly Alexander
Also by Shelly Alexander
It’s in His Heart
It’s in His Touch
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Shelly Alexander
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
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Cover design by Laura Klynstra
To my husband, who captured my heart with his smile the first night we met.
To my mom, Frances, and her hilarious sidekick, Clyda. When you two get to heaven, the angels will belly laugh at your shenanigans.
To my dad, H1. I’ll meet you in the back right-hand corner of heaven someday.
To Mozart, a tiny toy poodle who is the newest addition to our family. I never thought a five-pound pooch could bring such joy.
And to the town of Red River, for being my muse and my inspiration.
Miranda Cruz was sure that getting hot and bothered at a
broke at least one of the unwritten rules of funeral etiquette. Especially since she was the hostess.
Ms. Bea, Miranda’s friend and mentor, deserved more respect.
The scent of freshly baked oatmeal and raisin cookies drifted over the bar that separated the kitchen from the dining area, to fill the room and hopefully bring some comfort to the mourners. Miranda pulled the last batch from the oven and dished them onto a plate with a spatula.
The heat climbing up her legs to settle between her thighs was from the oven, right?
Right. Of course it was the oven. Or her black formfitting pants. She probably should’ve bought the next size up.
It definitely was
because of Bea’s hot and handsome grandson, Talmadge. His mere presence was absolutely not the cause of her throat turning to chalk dust or her rusty girl parts turning a flip or her need to stay on the other side of the funeral parlor, the other side of the graveside service, and the other side of the room. All damn day. Until she felt like she’d been playing a game of keep-away, and he was it.
No, the heat seeping into every single inch of her five-feet-two-inch body was not because of Red River’s prodigal son—a leader in green architecture made famous for his environmentally friendly designs and for bringing hotel chains around the world into the age of energy efficiency—come home to bury his beloved grandmother.
Definitely the oven. She kicked it closed with her black ankle-booted foot. With a toss, her oven mitt landed on the outdated Formica counter.
When she’d bought the small Victorian inn just off Red River’s Main Street from Bea Oaks five months ago, she hadn’t considered that her first public event would be to mourn the loss of her old friend. She hadn’t considered that she’d have to figure out how to run an inn on her own without Bea’s experience and advice. She hadn’t considered that before opening for business, the renovations would chew up most of her savings from waiting tables since she was fifteen.
Obviously, Miranda needed to spend more time considering.
She waded through the ocean of mourners, offered condolences, sidestepped a few boxes of tile that her contractor still hadn’t installed, and placed the fresh plate of cookies on the table of picked-over food.
She arranged a few serving dishes, straightened the stack of napkins, made sure enough clean silverware was available. And then she had no choice but to turn her attention to the roomful of saddened guests who had no idea how much Miranda was really going to miss Beatrice Oaks.
No one except . . .
Miranda’s stare settled on Talmadge, who was standing on the far side of the inn’s large dining room. His injured arm in a sling under his suit jacket, he chatted with a middle-aged couple.
For the tiniest moment, her heart beat in an odd cadence before it caught the right rhythm again.
She had known Talmadge would come to his grandmother’s funeral. Of course he would. But a small part of her had hoped he wouldn’t show. Another teensy weensy part of her had hoped he would.
Wouldn’t. Would. Wouldn’t. Would.
And then there he had been, his broad shoulders filling the funeral parlor doorway. Eyes rimmed in red for the grandmother who’d raised him.
As they’d done then, her insides were back to doing the jive like she was a contestant on
Dancing with the Stars
. Or a pole dancer at a gentlemen’s club. Because Miranda was pretty sure that only a person of questionable habits would have carnal thoughts at a funeral.
Another wave of heat flamed through her.
Sandy hair slicked back, Talmadge’s strong jaw moved as he spoke to the middle-aged couple. Midsentence he turned and locked gazes with Miranda like he knew she’d been watching him. His lips stopped moving, and he just stared at her.
The hint of a smile settled onto his lips, and she suddenly found it hard to breathe.
Her gaze flitted away, and she offered a kind word to a guest who walked past, then busied herself with rearranging the food. Maybe the ham should go next to the mashed potatoes? Should her homemade oatmeal cookies really be next to the sauerkraut? And should her obnoxious female pheromones be spewing sexual attraction so close to the deviled eggs?
That might actually be a health department violation, now that she thought about it.
Note to self: no pheromone spewing when the inspectors come to give their stamp of approval.
Talmadge returned his attention to the couple, shook the man’s hand, and headed . . . toward
Miranda swallowed and looked around for any excuse to avoid speaking to the famous Talmadge Oaks. The man who walked on water—as far as
was concerned—and raised out-of-practice girl parts from the dead.
Ms. Bea’s toy poodle huddled in the corner of the dining room and watched the crowd while tremors of fear racked his tiny body. Miranda hustled over to him.
She was being silly, right? So what if she’d crushed on Talmadge since she was in ninth grade. Who cared that he was the only man who made Miranda’s insides go all molten and quivering just as much now, at twenty-eight. She was a grown woman! It was time to stop running from him. She’d been avoiding him during his rare visits to Red River for so many years she’d lost count.
Actually, no. No, she hadn’t. It had been seven years since she’d decided to never cross paths with Talmadge Oaks again. Seven years, three months, and twelve days, but who was counting?
Talmadge worked his way through the crowd toward her, shaking hands and speaking to the guests as he passed. His stare kept returning to her, and his progress didn’t slow. He kept coming. And kept coming. And kept coming.
Grown woman my ass.
A girl was never too old to play keep-away, and it was time to run before she became “it.”
She scooped up the dog and patted the beige mound of fur on top of his little head. “You need to pee, Lloyd,” she informed him. She raced down the hall and eased out the back door.
The screen door banged shut behind her, and she nudged the wood swing into motion as she walked across the wraparound porch and descended the stairs. Wheeler Peak was stark white with snow against the blue New Mexico sky, and a few end-of-the-season skiers dotted the slopes. The chairlift creaked as it eased up the face of the powdered mountain, mostly empty because it was the middle of the week.
“Go on, boy.” She set Lloyd on the snowy ground and tried to shoo him toward the evergreens that separated the inn from the ski lodge and gave it a quaint air of privacy.
He looked up at her and sniffed as though she’d just asked him to compete in the Iditarod.
Shivering against the mid-April cold, she rubbed the arms of her gray sweater and studied the thawing icicles that hung from the weathered eaves of the porch. Her contractor should’ve sanded and repainted those already. A prickle of worry shimmied up her spine. Her contractor should also show up for work once in awhile.
Someone inside lifted a window in the dining room. Muffled voices spilled out along with the sound of silverware clinking against plates. Talmadge’s deep voice drifted out and coiled and curled around her. A voice so smooth it should be bottled and sold as an aphrodisiac.
She tossed her long black curls over a shoulder and stepped farther away from the window.
A high-pitched squeal from a pair of female skiers riding the chairlift sent Lloyd scurrying under the picnic table that was pushed against the peeling white siding of the inn. Miranda peeked underneath. A small mound of trembling beige fur huddled against the wall.
“It’s okay, Lloyd.” She patted her knee, but he trembled harder. She eased onto her hands and knees in the snow and scooted under the table, a hand outstretched to coax the dog out. He whimpered and cowered against the wall.
“Let’s go, Lloyd.” Her tone bloomed into that of a Disney princess. “It’s really cold out here, buddy.” She smooched for the dog to come.
The dog plastered himself to the wall and shook like a bowl of Jell-O.
Miranda reached for him.
“Dude, I’m putting this on YouTube,” a guy said from behind her.
She tossed a look over one shoulder and did a double take. Two stringy-haired teenaged snowboarders held up their phones.
On all fours.
With her ass pointing right at them.
“Hey!” she yelled at Frick and Frack. Gossip in this town already flew at the speed of light. One compromising situation could set tongues wagging for years. “Stop that! You are
putting me on YouTube.”
Thank God she was wearing pants. Even if they were a little too formfitting. Formfitting was the style. And they showed off her curves, made her feel more confident. Ms. Bea had raved about Miranda’s figure when she wore these pants.
She just never thought her ass would end up on YouTube while she was at her friend’s wake.
One of the snowboarders snickered.
Miranda’s voice softened to a coo. “Lloyd, the show we’re putting on is over.” She reached for the dog, stretching, stretching . . .
damn these tight pants
. Her fingertips brushed against his curly fur. Just a little farther and she could grab him around the belly.
Her tongue slid between her teeth, and she reached that extra few inches . . .
A loud rip echoed through the entire Red River Valley.
At least it sounded that loud to her. Cold air slid over her silk undies and the bared back of her thighs, the chill biting at her skin.
“Hellfire,” Miranda said.
This one’s gonna get a ton of views!” said Frick.
The searing heat of humiliation singed every nerve ending in her body. A feeling she was well acquainted with. A feeling that had shadowed her since she was a kid, sunk its teeth into her, and refused to let go because of a mother who’d been the center of town gossip for years, her colorful past with men the cause of whispers and taunts. Hell, her mother didn’t even know who the fathers of her two children were. Some people in Red River had kept track of her mom’s long string of boyfriends, though. Every single one. Until her mother moved to the next town.
“Sweet,” Frack joined in. “She’s definitely not a dude.”
Oh, for God’s sake.
She snagged the dog with one hand and pulled him to her.
“Get lost, boys.” Just three words, but Talmadge’s voice was firm. Authoritative. The voice of a leader.
the singe in her nerve endings turned to a five-alarm fire.
Frick and Frack stumbled over each other, gathered up their boards, and mumbled, “Yes, sir.” Miranda could see their legs disappear around the corner, presumably headed for the lift.
“Miranda?” Talmadge asked, but his tone held no doubt as to her identity. He knew the ass greeting him was hers.
Miranda scrambled backward so fast her head connected with the edge of the table. “Ow!” Her free hand flew to the pain that lanced through the top of her head, but her hair caught in a sliver of the rotting wood. “Ah!”
Her eyes clamped shut.
“Stay still.” Talmadge bent and managed to free her hair from the headlock the table had her in. Unfortunately, keeping her eyes shut couldn’t protect her from the awkwardness of the situation. She straightened. Ignored the incinerating heat that crept up her neck. Focused on the owner of that almost edible voice.
And finally forced her eyes open only to realize she was on her knees, eye-level with Talmadge Oaks’s crotch.
Another wave of heat nearly stole her breath. She swallowed, wanting to crawl back under the table.
He offered his good hand. “Let me help.”
Miranda’s gaze slid up the expensive fabric of his custom-cut suit that fit his tall frame to perfection. A thick, corded neck flexed with power when he spoke, or laughed . . . or just stood there doing nothing except looking like sex on two legs . . .
Miranda lost her train of thought and swallowed again.
With his usual air of confidence, he raised his brows.
Her attention snapped to his outstretched hand. “No! Um, I’m fine.”
She tried to stand, but the dog squirmed. Afraid she might drop the fragile little guy, Miranda overcompensated and lost her footing. A powerful arm caught her around the waist and hauled her to her feet. Pressed her against a hard and hot body that towered at least a foot above the top of her head.
She landed against his firm chest and pressed one palm to it.
A brick wall of muscled stealth.
Her stare anchored on the slight dimple in his chin, then moved to his mouth. She lingered there for a second before looking up into silvery-blue eyes, and just like that, she was crushing on him all over again. Just like she had so many years ago in high school while he totally ignored her. Looked straight through her like she was invisible because she was three grades younger than him. The fact that he had been the quarterback of the football team didn’t help either. A never-ending entourage of friends—both girls and guys—had followed him everywhere, vying for his attention, while Miranda worked every day after school, waiting tables at Cotton Eyed Joe’s to help her irresponsible mother pay the bills.