Here’s a quick look at my upcoming Love Inspired Romance, Home to Montana, which should be available online and in bookstores in late February 2013.
“A pretty lady like you shouldn’t have to chop your own firewood.”
Alisa Machak nearly sliced off her foot with the ax. She whirled toward the sound of the deep masculine voice.
The stranger stood in a column of sunlight that slid between the pine trees, highlighting his unkempt ebony hair, a matching beard and his equally disreputable dog sitting beside him. He wore old jeans and a khaki jacket that looked like it had come from an Army surplus store years ago.
A ripple of recognition stole through her, and a shiver raised the hair at her nape. A drifter.
Drifters passed through the town of Bear Lake, Montana on a regular basis, some heading to Glacier National Park up Highway 93. Some with no particular destination in mind. None stayed long. She’d learned that lesson ten years ago, a painful lesson she would not soon forget.
Flashing him the friendly smile she used with strangers, she hefted the ax. “Someone has to make kindling for the fire.” She and her mother owned the Pine Tree Diner and the adjacent Pine Tree Inn. Unfortunately, their handyman, Jake Domino, had gone to stay with his daughter while she recovered from an auto accident. He’d be away at least a couple of weeks. So Alisa was chopping wood, among other chores that had to be done.
The stranger strolled toward her, all long legs and a gait that seemed a little uneven. “I’m pretty good with an ax. I’d be glad to help out. You wouldn’t have to pay me.”
She cocked her head in disbelief. This guy was a drifter with a silver tongue, the kind of man who Alisa had learned to keep at a distance while doing her smiling welcome-to-Pine-Tree-Diner shtick.
“If the diner has some scraps for Rags, I’d appreciate that.” His baritone voice sounded as smooth and rich as homemade gravy.
That stopped her. “Rags?”
“My dog.” He patted his thigh. The dog stood looking up at him waiting for his next command. “I figured when I found him that he looked like the old rag bag my mother used to have. She used the rags for cleaning and scrubbing the house.”
“You found the dog?” She’d heard that some pickup artists used a dog to put a woman at ease and get her off guard. Vulnerable. But surely a man like that wouldn’t go out of his way to look so scruffy. Maybe his angle was playing for sympathy. She wasn’t going to bite on that gimmick either.
“Found him a week or so ago. I pulled into a rest area to sleep. In Colorado, I think. Nobody else was around except Rags. No tags on him. No collar. And pretty hungry.” Casually, he patted the dog’s rough, ragamuffin coat colored in shades of wheat and tan. Floppy ears hung down on either side of an imposing head. “Guess you could say we sort of adopted each other.”
He’d evidently been on the road a while. Just drifting, Alisa gathered. She supposed she ought to give him credit for taking care of a stray dog. The affection between the two seemed genuine. Two lost souls? Maybe. Or maybe not. Not that it was any of her business.
She looked toward the back of the diner, three stories tall, painted a bright pink, family living quarters in the top two floors. Planter boxes filled with pots of colorful geraniums were placed in front of the second floor windows.
They’d have a big crowd tonight at the diner for their Thursday night Special. Alisa had plenty of work to do inside, setting up for the evening while her mother, who everyone called Mama, handled the kitchen preparations. She really didn’t have time to chop kindling for the big fire pit in the outdoor patio. September evenings had begun to turn cool.
She swung the ax, imbedding the blade in the chopping stump.
“Okay, mister . . . ?”
“Nick. Nick Carbini.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal, Nick. I’m Alisa Machak, half owner of the diner and motel next door. You make us a big pile of kindling, and I’ll make sure your dog gets the best scraps in the county.”
His dark beard shifted as he smiled, revealing a row of perfect white teeth. She noticed he had incredibly blue eyes, the color of the sky on a clear winter day. Squint lines fanned out at the corners.
Yet she also saw a hint of sadness in those clear eyes. A shadow of loneliness she sometimes saw in her own mirror and had learned to ignore.
She forced down her curiosity about where he had come from and why he had no place to go. That was none of her business either. From her perspective, he was simply another tourist passing through town.
“When you’re done, stack the kindling under the lean-to by the kitchen. There’s a wheel barrel you can use.” She gestured vaguely toward the woodpile.
“No problem. I’ve got it covered.”
Based on his over six-foot height and the breadth of his shoulders, he’d be able to turn a whole cord of wood into kindling without breaking a sweat. At least that would save her from developing calluses on her palms for one day.
She turned, her steps light as she walked back to the kitchen entrance, her senses vividly aware of the chunk, chunk of the ax on a pine log. Aware of the stranger’s strength. The power of his arms. His tempting smile.
And determined not to acknowledge how thoroughly he’d stirred memories she’d rather forget.
In the kitchen, three big pots of water steamed on the stove ready for Mama to drop in the loaves of bread dumplings for tonight’s paprika chicken House Special. A recipe Mama had learned from her own mother in Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, Hector Gomez, their short order cook and kitchen helper was serving up buffalo burgers and fries and cold sandwiches for the mid-afternoon crowd.
The scent of baking bread, grilled meat, and aromatic spices were as familiar to Alisa as a mother’s perfume. She’d grown up here in the kitchen. First in a playpen safely away from spattering grease and well out from under the hurrying feet of the waitstaff. Later, standing on a chair so she could reach the prep tables, she’d rolled dough for biscuits and grated potatoes for potato pancakes, another Czech specialty. Served with apple sauce and sour cream, they had been a staple in Alisa’s life.
Her father had done most of the cooking when Alisa was young while Mama worked the front of the diner. But he had passed away ten years ago, leaving Mama and Alisa to manage the diner.
This was her home, the place that held her heart and consumed the vast majority of her waking hours. The regular customers she served were her extended family. Old timers who had lived here most of their lives. New folks who had more recently found a home under the wide Montana sky.