., Dave Cousins eased open his daughter's door to check that all was well. Eleven-year-old Robin didn't stir from what he'd be willing to bet was a horsy dream. Merlin, their black poodle, raised his head from where he lay curled on the rug beside the bed. At Dave's silent gesture, his head went back down. Robin would take the dog out once she rose. Until then, it was Merlin's job to guard her while Dave, the owner of the Wild Rose Inn, went downstairs to do some work.
He cast one more loving glance at her face, so sweet and relaxed in sleep, and the tumbled chestnut hair that by day was always pony-tailed. He sure did like the days Robin stayed with him, rather than with Jessie and Evan. His ex-wife and her new husband lived outside town, surrounded by horses. In many ways, they had so much more to offer Robin. So far, luckily, that fact didn't seem to trouble the girl. Dave loved her to pieces, and she seemed to reciprocate.
When Robin wasn't around, his life, no matter how busy, felt empty. Lonely.
If Anita hadn't died, things would be so different.
The thought brought a surge of pain, anger, guilt, and desolation, that nasty thundercloud of emotions. He swallowed against the ache that choked his throat, and forced back the feelings.
was why he tried not to think of the fiancÃ©e who had been the love of his life.
Briskly he walked to the door of the two-bedroom owner's suite on the top floor of the Wild Rose and pulled on his cowboy boots, then let himself out. As he ran down the four flights of stairs, he was already looking forward to returning in a couple of hours to have breakfast with Robin.
When he entered the lobby, lit by early morning sun, the Wild Rose worked herâhe always thought of the inn as “her”âmagic on him, and he felt a sense of peace and satisfaction. He had rescued a lovely but ramshackle historic building that was destined for destruction and restored her, creating a haven for travelers and a gathering place for locals.
The dÃ©cor featured rustic yet comfortable Western furniture accented with photographs and antiques honoring Caribou Crossing's gold rush history. Behind the front desk, Sam, the retired RCMP officer who handled the inn overnight, frowned into space through his horn-rims.
“Morning,” Dave greeted him. “Words not flowing?” Sam was writing a mystery novel and it came in fits and starts.
“Got distracted.” Sam scratched his balding head. “By the woman in twenty-two.”
“Someone who checked in last night?” Twenty-two had been one of only three empty rooms at the beginning of the man's shift. “I take it she's pretty?” Sam had never married and had an eye for the ladies, which translated into a rough charm that suited the Wild Rose's ambience.
“For sure. Once she got some color back in her cheeks.” Sam paused, a born storyteller confident that he'd hooked his audience.
The night manager leaned forward, his pale gray eyes bright even after a night awake. “It's past eleven when she staggers into the lobby. Mid- to late twenties, slim build, some Latina blood. Jeans and a top that's too light for the nights this time of year.” June in Caribou Crossing featured warm, sunny days but the temperature cooled when the sun went down.
“Staggers?” Pale and staggering; that didn't sound good.
“Those white cheeks of hers, they weren't just from the cold. It's more like she's done in, on her last legs. She stumbles across to the desk, backpack weighing her down. I get up to go take her pack, but before I reach her, what does she up and do?” His shaggy gray eyebrows lifted.
“What does she up and do?”
“Faints dead away.”
Dave frowned, worried. “Did you call nine-one-one?”
The storyteller was probably incapable of giving a simple yes-or-no answer. “I bend down, make sure she has a pulse, and by then she's stirring. So I whip into the bar and fetch a shot of rye. The Caribou Crossing Single Barrel. Figure if our hometown drink doesn't fix her up, I'll call for help.”
Dave didn't know whether to groan or grin. “Did she drink it?”
“I wave it under the gal's nose, and she snorts and jumps back like a horse when it sees a snake. She sits up, grabs the glass, downs it in one swallow, and says, âDamn, that's good.'”
Surprised and relieved, Dave laughed and Sam joined in.
“I did offer to call a doc,” Sam assured him, “but she says no, she's just exhausted and hungry. Been hitchhiking all day, up from Vancouver, hasn't had much to eat. Says she came in to ask if there's a hostel in town. That whisky put some color back in her cheeks and she's trying to be all bright and cheery. But under all that, she looks like a nag that's been rode hard and put up wet. I tell her she'll stay here; she starts to argue; I tell her I won't take no guff. Give her a key, carry her pack up to twenty-two, then I heat up some beef stew and biscuits from the kitchen and take it up.” He shrugged. “After that, I don't hear another peep out of her.”
“Hmm.” Dave glanced at the ceiling, still concerned. “I'd feel better if a doctor had taken a look at her.” A few of the doctors had an arrangement through an answering service: one was always on call, and they made house calls.
“She said she wasn't going to waste a doctor's time. The gal was pretty damned firm about it.” He gave his balding head a shake. “Put me in mind of old Ms. Haldenby. You know?”
The retired schoolteacher was a fineâand intimidatingâwoman who definitely knew her own mind. “There's no arguing with someone like that,” Dave agreed. “It sounds like you did all you could. Good work, Sam.”
“See if you still say that when I tell you I didn't get a credit card or even a name. Figured it could wait till she was feeling better.”
“Yeah. Even if she skips, it's no big loss.” Dave was more worried about the woman's health. But Sam was a smart, observant guy. If he'd thought their visitor really was sick, he'd have overridden her objections, as he had when he'd given her a room.
“Anyhow,” Sam said, “the damned woman took my mind right out of my book. Got me thinking about her story, and I bet it's a good one.”
Dave rolled his eyes. “You and your overactive imagination. She's a hitchhiker who didn't have the sense to rest when she needed to. She'll be up and on the road, hopefully paying her bill before she goes.”
Around eleven, Dave was at the front desk relieving Deepta, the receptionist who worked week days from six-thirty to two-thirty. He was trying to book opera tickets in Vancouver for guests who were heading there tomorrow, but the online system kept glitching. Frustrated, he took a deep breath, unsnapped the cuffs of his Western shirt and rolled them up his forearms, and gave the system another go. It stalled again.
“Hi there,” a cheerful female voice said. “Anywhere around here I can get a good capooch?”
He looked up and his eyes widened in appreciation. This had to be the guest in twenty-two, and yeah, she sure was pretty. Medium height, slim, nice curves shown off by shorts and a purple tank worn over something that had pink straps. He saw the Latina in her olive-toned skin and the shiny black hair cut in a short, elfin cap. Her black-lashed eyes were blue-gray and sparkling, matching her white smile. She was the picture of health, he was relieved to see.
And that smile was irresistible. He smiled back. “That translate to cappuccino?”
Humor warmed her eyes. “What else?”
“Thought maybe you were talking about some weird mixed-breed dog,” he drawled.
Her burble of laughter was musical and infectious. “No, it's caffeine I need right now.” She yawned widely without covering her mouth.
It should have been unattractive but he had trouble imagining that anything this woman did would be unattractive. Something stirred inside him, a warm ripple through his blood. “Caffeine does come in handy now and then.”
“A double-shot capooch sure would.” She stuck a hand out. “I'm Cassidy. Cassidy Esperanza.”
With guests, he aimed for the personal touch, so he came out from behind the desk and extended his hand. “Dave Cousins.”
He spotted a tattoo on the cap of her right shoulder: a Canada goose flying across the moon. Striking, almost haunting.
Cassidy's hand was like the rest of her: light brown, slender, attractive. Her shake was full of vitality. He shook a lot of hands in the course of a day, but this one felt particularly good in hisâand now the ripple in his veins was a tingle of awareness. No, more than awareness; he was
of lots of appealing women. This was attraction.
His heartâthe part of it that could fall in loveâhad died three years ago. His body hadn't, but he had zero desire to follow up on any hormonal stirrings.
So why was it so difficult to free his hand from his guest's? “Best coffee in town's right here.” A couple of the coffee shops did a fine job too, but for some reason he wanted to keep Cassidy Esperanza at the Wild Rose. “Good food too, if you're hungry.”
“Cool.” She gave another of those huge yawns, stretched her arms up, and raked her fingers through that cap of hair, ruffling it. Normally, he preferred long hair on women, but the pixie cap suited Cassidy's slightly exotic face.
“I'm awake,” she said with a quick laugh, eyes dancing as she studied his face. “I swear I am. Got a good sleep too. Don't know why I'm yawning.” Her face sobered. “Before I do anything, I need to have a talk with the manager.”
“Let me guess, you're twenty-two.”
“Twenty-two?” She shook her head slightly, looking confused. “No, I'm twenty-seven. What a weird question.”
“Sorry, I mean room twenty-two. The woman who came in last night and . . .” He paused, curious to see what she'd say.
“Did a face plant?” She raised her brows ruefully. “You heard about that? Yeah, that's me. Totally embarrassing. But the guy on the desk was great. Only problem is . . .” She pressed her full, pink lips together, then released them. “Can I confide in you? Maybe you can give me some advice.”
He dragged his gaze from her lips. “Uh, sure.”
“The nice guy gave me a room last night, and food, but the thing is, I don't have the money to pay. I came in to get warm and see if someone could point me toward a hostel, and next thing I knew I was on the floor and this guy was”âshe broke off and grinned with the memoryâ“waking me up with a whiff of whisky. Which tasted delicious, and I guess I owe for that too, now that I think of it.”
“No, I realize I owe for the room and everything, and this is a classy place so it won't be cheap. But the thing is, I'm pretty much broke.”
He opened his mouth, but she rushed on again. “I swear I won't cut out on you. I was going to look for a job in Caribou Crossing anyway, and as soon as I get one and have some money, I'll pay up. But it might take a few days and I'd sure understand if the manager was mad. So if you could give me any tips on how to deal with him, I'd really appreciate it.”
As best he could tell, she was sincere. “Tell him the truth. And you did. I'm the owner of the Wild Rose.”
“Oh! My gosh, I didn't realize. Wow. You don't look old enough.”
He'd heard that before. “Just turned thirty.”
She studied him again, lips curving. “Gotta love a hotel where the owner wears jeans and cowboy boots.”
“It's part of our ambience.”
She glanced around the lobby. “Yeah, it's kind of a cool blend of Old West and Santa Fe. That roomâtwenty-twoâis awesome. That four-poster canopy bed with all the ruffles and flounces, the stool to climb up into it. I worried when I saw the chamber pot, but then I realized it was for decoration and there was a real bathroom. Claw-foot tub and all.”
Canopy bed. Claw-foot tub. Slim, vibrant, sexy Cassidy. Physical stirrings below the belt had him giving a mental head-shake. He would never fool around with an inn guest. In the past three years, he'd pretty much figured he'd never fool around again. If he wanted female companionship, he had platonic friends. Casual sex wasn't his thing, and love wasn't going to happen. Anita had been the love of his life. His heart belonged to her, and always would.
And there he went, thinking of her again. The familiar sense of desolation threatened, but somehow the grin Cassidy tilted toward him countered it.
“So, Dave Cousins, Mr. Owner, want to have breakfast with me? I'll run my tab even higher and you can tell me where I might find work.”
Though he liked being friendly and informal with guests, he kept it professional. Occasionally, he joined them for a drink or a coffee, but not often. This time he was temptedâagainst his better judgment. There was something about Cassidy that made him feel . . . lighter.