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Four Montana weekends, four sweet romance books.
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It was exactly the wrong time to show up at Joshua’s cabin. The would-be bride’s face was wet with tears, and her future father-in-law was pacing with one palm pressed to his forehead. Her future mother-in-law was sitting beside her, holding her hand. “It’ll work out, dear,” she was saying. Leah, the would-be bride, made an attempt at a hopeful smile. It didn’t work. Then, because she was trying not to cry, a sob leaked out and made an awful squeaking sound.
That sent the groom over the edge. “I know they have antinausea medications. Have they given her any? Why isn’t she better yet? I need to talk to that doctor.” With that, Joshua started pacing around the cabin’s great room, looking a lot like his father, who had already started to wear down the wooden floor.
Meg obediently closed the front door of the cabin behind her, wishing her aunt hadn’t said “Come in” a few moments before. What was this about nausea? Leah looked distressed, not sick. Meg looked at her cousin Joshua as he stomped around in a blur. He was definitely not sick, but he could end up that way soon if he kept this up.
Aunt Catherine turned and gave Meg a bright smile, as if nothing was wrong. “Come in,” she said again. “It’s so good to see you, Meg.”
Leah took a shaky breath. “I’m sorry,” she croaked, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
“Is there something I can do to help?”
The sudden end to the stomping caught her attention, and Meg looked up to see her cousin staring at her, his gray eyes wide and his mouth half open. He nodded quickly and mouthed yes. Then he glanced at his fiancée as if he was afraid she would see him.
She felt a touch on her arm and turned to Aunt Catherine, who was gently pulling her down to sit next to her. “We just got word that Brie, who is Leah’s maid of honor, has a severe case of food poisoning. She missed her flight, and the doctor doesn’t think she’ll be well enough to fly before the wedding on Saturday. We came up to give Leah the bad news.”
Now she understood why her aunt and uncle were at the cabin tonight, rather than hosting the flock of Parks family members down at their own house. There was no phone service at the cabin, where Leah and Joshua were staying. There was a spot a quarter mile up the mountain on a rocky outcrop where you could make a call if you held your cell phone up in the air, but if there was a message to deliver, it had to come in person.
Meg looked at Leah. Leah managed to make crying look pretty, except for the runny nose. "Can one of the other bridesmaids step in?”
Leah shook her head a little. “There’s just Brie and Cadence.” Cadence was Joshua’s little sister, and although she could be charming, Cadence was nineteen and spent a lot of time in her own boy-chasing little world, oblivious to anyone else’s needs. She wouldn’t make the best maid of honor.
“Do you have any other friends coming?” As soon as she saw the tears start to pool, Meg wished she hadn’t asked that. Brie had probably been the only one. Leah was from Texas, and it was a long, expensive trip. The nearest hotel to the cabin was an hour away. Some people didn’t mind camping, but it was a lot to ask. Besides, Meg realized, it was awfully late in the game to get someone else to fly up north just to be a backup. Leah was truly in a bind.
Movement down the hall caught Meg’s attention, and she could see someone in the shadows. A man, a tall one, was leaning sideways against the wall. He looked awfully comfortable in Joshua’s cabin, and she wondered who he was and what on earth he was doing there. He certainly wasn’t helping anyone. Meg felt Joshua’s eyes on her again, and she looked up to see the intensity on his face. She suddenly understood what he was waiting for. He wanted her to be the maid of honor.
Her head started to hurt. This weekend was going to be her only weekend off in two months. She had pulled her camper up here, and she was going to split her time between seeing family and reading a book or seven. She was only here now, standing in this cabin, to be polite and let Joshua know she’d be parking the camper down on the old logging road.
Leah was fidgeting with a wet tissue and let out another squeak. It was clear her mother wasn’t in Montana yet, or else she would be here now. And her sister wasn’t here, unless she was hiding in a back room. Meg vaguely remembered that she was out of the country. Now Leah’s best friend wasn’t coming.
Last December, just after Joshua had asked her to marry him, Leah had spent Christmas at Aunt Catherine and Uncle Jacob’s place. Meg had been there too, and the two of them had spent a lot of time together. Meg liked Leah. She liked her cheerful determination, even though she was a city girl in a house full of Montana loggers, cowboys, and refinery workers. She was looking forward to spending time with her again, but she was not Leah’s best friend. As she watched her shred the poor tissue, it came to her that she was probably the best friend Leah had in Montana. She reached over to the table, pulled out a couple clean tissues, and then handed them to Leah.
Without looking, Leah grabbed the tissues and dumped the sopping, shredded one in Meg’s open hand. A split second later she realized what she had done and looked at Meg with wide eyes. “Oh! I’m so sorry . . .”
Meg laughed and handed it to Joshua as he passed by in his pacing. “Better get used to this,” she said to him. “Wet tissue holder will be part of your job description.”
Meg turned back to Leah. “I’m sorry, Leah. I know you were counting on your friend being here. There’s still a chance, isn’t there? But if Brie doesn’t make it, you’ve got a whole bunch of Parks girls, including me, who would be honored to step in. You should just pick one who fits in the dress and put them to work.” And hopefully, she thought, it will be one of the others.
Leah took a deep breath and looked at her with pleading eyes. “Would you? Do you really mean it?”
Uh-oh. “I do.” Yikes, that sounded like a vow, Meg thought. What did maids of honor do, anyway? She’d have to ask Aunt Catherine. No one was better at coordinating events than her. She probably already had a list prepared.
“Oh, the dress! What if it doesn’t fit you?”
Meg’s head pounded now. She had a dress for the wedding, one she really liked, but she would probably wear jeans and a nice blouse instead. She really wasn’t the dress kind of girl, and a cabin in the woods wasn’t much of a high-heels place, anyway. Leah always looked so put together, accessories and all, so it was probably going to be a fancy bridesmaid outfit. Oh please, God, she thought, I want to be a friend for Leah, but please don’t make me wear dyed-to-match shoes. I really don’t like dyed-to-match shoes. “We’ll figure that out later.”
“Let’s go try it on now,” Aunt Catherine said, taking her hand. “Come on, Meg, this way.”
Leah gave Meg a real smile. Joshua had stopped pacing, and so had his father, Meg’s Uncle Jacob. They were all looking at her with hope in their eyes. All except for the lanky cowboy lurking in the back hallway, that is, who had an inscrutable grin on his face. Who let him in, anyway?
Catherine led her down the opposite hallway to the cabin’s main bedroom and opened the door. There was some nice luggage in the corner. Meg guessed it was where Leah was staying. There were three dresses hanging over the front of the wardrobe: a wedding dress, a nice blue dress, and a brilliant Kelly green halter dress. Catherine reached for the green one. Tucked against the wall was a strappy pair of matching shoes.
Not much got past Aunt Catherine. “Thank you, Meg. I know this isn’t your style, but it will mean the world to Leah. Do you know she hasn’t got a single friend coming up from Texas now? Her friends Marci and Nan just started new jobs and couldn’t take time off. Besides, as you know, this place isn’t on the way to anything those girls would find exciting. I’m just grateful Gage is here for Joshua.” She set the dress down on the bed. “I’ll be back to zip you up in a moment,” she said and she closed the door behind her.
Meg stripped down to her socks and underwear and put on the dress. She was hoping it would either fit perfectly or fit so badly that she wouldn’t have to wear it, but neither was the case. It seemed a little longer than it was supposed to be, and it was tight enough across her bust that it gaped in the front, showing off the edge of her bra when she moved. She tried on the shoes, and thankfully they didn’t even come close to fitting. Catherine came back in and stood before her, hands on hips. “Well, you’ll have to wear different shoes. Now just look at that face! You look like you don’t care for it, and you haven’t even seen how it looks yet.”
“All your murals have bright colors, Meg. I never understood that. Why is it you never dress yourself like you do your artwork?”
Well, that was an interesting question, but she wasn’t about to address it now.
Catherine moved the blue dress, revealing the mirror on the front of the wardrobe. Then she physically moved Meg over in front of it. “You don’t usually show that much skin, I know,” she said. “I wish you’d give my Cadence a good dose of your natural modesty; she could use it these days. Hers is the same color of green and has short sleeves, and she’d trade dresses with you in a heartbeat. And no, you may not suggest it.” She untied and retied the halter at the back of Meg’s neck, which helped a little. “It’s a little bit . . .”
“Busty,” Meg finished. “And it’s me, not the dress.”
Catherine laughed. “There’s nothing at all wrong with your figure, missy, you’re a bombshell. I’m quite sure the gentleman you marry won’t mind that at all.”
Meg felt embarrassed and fussed at her waist. “It’s tight here, too.”
“Well, Brie is a twig. I know you think it’s too flashy, but the truth is, you look lovely.”
Meg tilted her head sideways and gave herself a critical look in the mirror. “It’s just a little too tight. It makes the dress look . . . inappropriate.”
“I knew you were going to think that. If you knew Brie you’d realize she sees this dress as too plain. The truth is somewhere in between. It’s just for one day, anyway.”
“Ah, but the pictures live on forever.”
Catherine laughed again. “Come on, Meg. You have to give a fashion show now, goofy wool socks and all.”
She hoped Leah would be happy. Joshua would be happy if Leah was happy, and if Joshua was happy, his mom and dad and even she would be, but . . . “Aunt Catherine, who is that guy out there?”
“The handsome stranger in the cowboy hat? It’s about time you asked. That’s Gage, Joshua’s best man. I’m guessing he’s going to like the dress, too.”
If he did, he didn’t give any indication of it. He had moved out of the hallway and into the great room, but he was still silently leaning against the wall like some sort of western decoration. The sun was starting to set outside, and the light was turning gold. Through the window it struck his tan skin and amber eyes. He looked as if he’d just come in off the range. Yes, he was handsome, but he was also a stranger, and she felt so awkward in her tight dress and gray wool socks she wanted to crawl into a hole.
“Thank you,” she said as she climbed into the driver’s seat, “but I don’t really need any help.”
“No problem.” He put his hat back on, got in the passenger side, slammed the door shut, and made himself comfortable. When she didn’t make a move, he turned to her in surprise and added, “Oh, should I help you get this thing turned around?”
She didn’t have anything polite to say to that. Frustrated, she cranked the ignition and started to back up the rig. She had to calm herself a little bit. If she wasn't careful she could turn the Jeep too tightly and bang the back corner of the Jeep into the camper. There were at least three paint swipes on the camper that demonstrated how she’d learned that lesson.
Once she’d turned the rig around, she started down the steep road in first gear. The camper didn’t weigh much, but the Jeep wasn’t really made to tow. She was thinking about how she was going to get onto the old logging road. The only way that made sense was to pass it, then back the camper onto the narrow road. It would make getting out a lot easier, but it was going to take some gas to get the old Jeep to shove the camper uphill, and backward, for a few feet. The Jeep wasn’t what it used to be, thirty years ago.
As she crept past the turn for the logging road, she noticed a large branch across it. She should have checked the old road on the way up to the cabin, but she’d been anxious to get situated. And now that it was late, it was getting harder to see, and she had to park the camper. She put on the brakes and got out to put rocks in front of the tires just in case. She heard Gage jump out of the Jeep and head down the road. “It’s been a while since someone drove down this road, huh?” he yelled cheerfully.
Once she was sure her rig was safe, she walked around the back and headed down the abandoned road. Gage was reaching down for the branch. “I’ll get that,” she said. She was irritated at herself for not taking care of this before, and that irritation was coming out in her voice.
Gage backed off, both hands raised, and she reached down.
The branch didn’t budge. It didn’t look that heavy, but it was dead solid. She knew at first touch she was going to have to ask for his help, but she kept trying to move it. Finally, she looked up. It was getting dark fast, and she’d better admit defeat.
“I can’t move it."
“You don’t say.”
“Would you please be so kind as to help me?”
Gage walked over behind her back, up onto the slope, and started tugging hard at another branch. It had pinned down the one that lay across the road. She hadn’t taken the time to size up the situation, but evidently he had. With the other branch moved, the two of them were able to move the branch that blocked the road.
They walked together down the old logging road, each one in a tire rut, kicking their way through the tall grass and moving rocks and branches. They made it to a nice level spot that was well hidden in the trees, and she put her hands on her hips and looked around. “This looks great,” she murmured to herself. She kicked off the extra branches and rolled a stone farther down the road. She could hear Gage walking back to her rig, but she had no idea how far he’d made it until she heard the unmistakable rasping roar of the old Jeep’s engine.
“Wait!” she called and started running, but it was too late. Hitting RPMs the engine hadn’t hit in years, her camper bounced up and over the hump where the two roads met and rocked perilously side to side. Then the rig was fully on the logging road, the engine was still running, and Gage jumped out looking proud of himself. “How far back do you want it?”
She resisted the urge to say she wanted it parked over his dead body, even though it was nearly true. He hadn’t exactly committed car theft, but he was at least rude. “I’ve got it from here,” she said calmly.
He shrugged and held the door open for her. And took his hat off again. Maybe it was the color of the straw cowboy hat, but she had assumed he was blond, so the shock of dark hair—black in this dim light—surprised her again.
Once she was in, he slammed the door. She looked at him in surprise, but he was smiling. He looked to be around thirty years old, but he still seemed to think that was the normal way to close a car door.
“I’ll be fine,” she said through the plastic window and started backing up. But instead of heading back up the drive, he strolled after her, lit by the headlights as she backed up through what looked like a pitch-black tunnel in the rearview mirror.