Excerpt from YOUR RANCH OR MINE?
Thirty-year-old Anna Anderssen never considered herself a coward. Still, she backed out of the café in Sweet River, Montana as fast as her legs could carry her.
Once outside she pressed her spine against the brick wall, taking in huge gulps of air. Her heart slammed against her ribs and her insides trembled.
Mitchell Donavan. Her first lover. The man she thought she’d never see again…had come home.
She’d been lucky. Although his back had been to her, at any moment he could have turned around. If he had, their eyes would have locked. Anna knew what would have happened then. The surprise in the vivid blue depths would have been replaced by anger. Perhaps even hatred. After all, what kind of woman—
Stop, she told herself, as she had so many times over the past years, you’re not that girl anymore. But was that true? Could a person really change their character? A frisson of doubt washed over her and it suddenly became hard to breathe. Anna closed her eyes and a mantra, or was it a prayer, found its way to her lips. “Oh, God. Please. Oh, God—”
Her lids flew open and Anna blinked against the bright sun. When the person who stood before her came into focus, she nearly groaned aloud. Having a meltdown on Main Street was bad enough. But having one in front of Loretta Barbee, the pastor’s wife, was disastrous.
“Are you all right, dear?” Clearly distressed, the woman’s hands fluttered in the air as she spoke. The short quick movements reminded Anna of the wrens that frequented her backyard bird feeder. “You’re white as a sheet. Tell me what’s wrong. I’m sure I can help.”
Help? Anna swallowed a nervous giggle. There was no cure for what ailed her. And, as far as what was wrong, what could she say? That she’d seen Mitch Donavan talking to her brother and had run out of the café faster than a white-tailed Jack Rabbit?
Yeah, right. Saying that to this concerned soul would be the height of foolishness. Although Mrs. Barbee was a genuinely nice person, she was also one of Sweet River’s biggest gossips.
Since a direct answer was clearly out, Anna was forced to try a different tactic. She fanned her face with exaggerated movements of one hand. “I’m fine. Just overheated.”
“Perhaps I should get Seth.” Mrs. Barbee’s gaze darted to the front door of the café as if expecting Anna’s brother to instantly appear. “He could take you home.”
“No.” The word burst like a bullet from Anna’s lips.
Mrs. Barbee took a step back and brought a hand to her chest as if she’d felt the impact. But instead of pain, her eyes gleamed with curiosity.
The screen door of The Coffee Pot swung open and Anna jumped.
Two cowboys who she recognized as acquaintances of Seth strode out of the café. When they shot a curious glance her way, Anna realized that unless she wanted her reunion with Mitch to occur under Mrs. Barbee’s watchful eyes, it was time to get moving.
She looped her arm through Mrs. Barbee’s and propelled the woman around the corner.
“I’m so happy I ran into you,” Anna chattered, before the minister’s wife had a chance to speak. “I promised Stacie I’d ask Pastor Barbee if he could mention something in his community announcements this Sunday about the Young Professionals group having their first meeting Tuesday night.”
Anna almost ran out of breath before she got it all out. But the string of non-stop words had the desired effect. The suspicious glitter in Mrs. Barbee’s eyes dimmed.
“Lloyd should be at the church.” A thoughtful look crossed the matron’s finely lined face. “I’m headed there now. Would you like to come with me and ask him yourself?”
“What a good suggestion.” Even as she spoke, Anna started down the sidewalk. The way she saw it, each step toward the church was one more step away from the café. “I stopped by The Coffee Pot this morning hoping business would be slow so Stacie and I could have a cup of coffee. But when I saw all the customers, I knew she was too busy to talk.”
“Once your roommate decided to settle here she certainly embraced our little community.” Mrs. Barbee slanted a sideways glance at Anna. “Buying the café. Resurrecting the Young Professionals group.”
“Stacie likes to keep busy.” Anna kept her response simple knowing whatever she said would be analyzed and repeated.
“Yes, well.” Mrs. Barbee’s lips pursed together. “Hopefully you can convince her to use some of that boundless energy for projects that benefit the Lord as well.”
“I’m sure she will, once the wedding is out of the way.” The wedding, or rather the bachelorette party, had been the main reason for Anna’s trip to the café this morning.
A smile lifted her lips at the realization that in only four short weeks, Stacie would marry local rancher Josh Collins. When she’d brought her two friends to Sweet River for a brief stay, she’d never expected one of them to fall in love, buy a diner and decide to make this small town in southern Montana her permanent home.
Of course, Anna had never expected to see Mitch either. Still feeling the shock, Anna let her gaze linger on the active senior next to her, arms churning as she power-walked her way toward the church. Everyone knew this petite dynamo had her finger on the pulse of the small community. Anna experienced an overwhelming urge to ask her what she knew. Why was Mitch back in Sweet River? Was he here to stay? Or just visiting?
Thankfully she came to her senses before the questions made their way past her lips. Satisfying her curiosity wouldn’t be worth the price she’d pay for the information. One simple question and by nightfall, it would be all over town that Anna Anderssen had been asking after Mitch Donavan.
So, instead of treading on dangerous ground, Anna kept the conversation light. By the time she concluded her business at the church, she’d had a chance to recover from her shock and plot a course of action.
The next time she saw Mitch Donavan she wouldn’t run. She’d walk over and very politely say hello. After all she wasn’t a spineless wuss. She was a mature, confident woman. It was time she started acting like one.
Anna stared at the picture and wondered if Mercury was in retrograde.
When she’d gotten home from her visit with Pastor Barbee her roommate, Lauren Van Meveren, had been waiting. The psychologist had announced she had a surprise then asked Anna to meet her on the porch for some lemonade. Anna had barely sat down when Lauren had pressed a photo of Mitch into her hand.
“Meet Mr. Right.” Lauren flashed a bright smile. “Survey says…the two of you are perfect for each other.”
A distant clap of thunder punctuated the comment. Anna dropped the picture to the table like a hot potato. “Is this a joke?”
Lauren looked up from the lemonade she was pouring and chuckled. “I know. You are so lucky. The guy is super hot.”
There wasn’t a woman alive who’d argue with that. From the time Mitch had been a small boy in Sweet River, Montana, the black-haired child with brilliant blue eyes had turned female heads. His rugged good looks coupled with a standoffish attitude had certainly caught her eye. And with the confidence of a seventeen-year-old beauty queen used to getting her way, Anna had been determined to make him hers. There had been several months of exciting secret trysts before the fun had come to an abrupt end.
Lauren’s blonde brows pulled together when Anna didn’t comment. “Do you know him?”
“I do.” Anna kept her voice offhand but when she picked up the crystal tumbler filled with lemonade, her hand trembled. If Mitch had been any other ex-boyfriend, Lauren would have already known all about him. But Anna had kept her long ago relationship with Mitch secret. From the community. From her family. From even her closest friends.
Staring down into the pale yellow liquid in the glass, Anna marveled at the change a few hours could make. When she’d hopped out of bed this morning her life had been sunny-side up. Now the yolk had busted.
“Is something wrong with him?” Lauren pressed. “Should I drop him from the study?”
Anna heard the concern in her friend’s voice and realized her silence was giving Lauren a skewed picture of her former lover.
“Mitch’s family didn’t have the best reputation but he’s a good guy.” A gust of wind off the Crazy Mountains ruffled the napkins on the table but, consumed by her own storm of emotions, Anna barely noticed. “He and Seth were best friends in high school.”
Anna let the words hang in the air, knowing the fact that Mitch was Seth’s friend would go far to soothe Lauren’s concerns.
“I hope you’re not hesitating because you think your brother had something to do with the match,” Lauren said finally. “I’d never compromise my research data…not even for Seth.”
Though Lauren’s words were matter-of-fact, Anna could hear the underlying hurt. She leaned across the table and gave her friend’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “I know you wouldn’t.”
Lauren was the most ethical person Anna knew, not only personally but professionally. It was Lauren’s research for her dissertation that had brought the three Denver roommates to Montana.
In order to gather the necessary data, Lauren needed immediate access to lots of single males. Anna’s hometown fit the bill.
From the moment they’d arrived in Sweet River four months ago, the research project had been the talk of the town. Though what Lauren regarded as pure science, the locals saw as plain ole matchmaking.
“Even without your participation, I should have an adequate sampling.” Lauren’s lips curved in satisfaction. “Thanks to Seth.”
Anna nodded in agreement. Her brother had “encouraged” every single male within a hundred mile radius to participate in Lauren’s survey. That meant he must have asked Mitch. Why else would Mitch do it? The guy could have any woman he wanted…
She stole another glance at his photo. Her heart fluttered in her throat at the thick dark hair and penetrating blue eyes she remembered so well. There was a maturity to his face that hadn’t been there at twenty. The fine lines which now fanned the corners of his eyes only added to his masculine appeal. His lips were--
“I can tell you’re interested.” Lauren’s tone turned teasing. “You need to give your brother’s friend a chance.”
Anna shook her head. “He’s not my type.”
And even if she was interested, Anna had no doubt she was the last person he’d want to date. She couldn’t help but remember the hurtful accusations they’d flung at each other after the town’s centennial celebration all those years ago.
“Okay.” Lauren shrugged and took a sip of lemonade. “I’ll throw you both back into the mix.”
“You can put him in but leave me out.” Anna could have cheered when her voice came out casual and offhand, just as she’d intended. “Between Stacie’s wedding and my work at the law office, I don’t have much free time.”
The excuse sounded convincing. And it was true. She was busy. Several months ago, she’d taken a position helping out local attorney, Alexander Darst. The job was supposed to be only part time, but lately she’d been at the office more than she’d been home.
“We’ll be heading back to Colorado soon, anyway,” Anna added.
“Don’t remind me.” Lauren glanced around and for a second her expression turned wistful. “I’m really going to miss this town. And this house.”
Anna had to agree. When she’d returned to Sweet River, she’d been unsure of the reception she’d receive. To her surprise, she’d been welcomed back into the fold as if she’d never left. After living in a large impersonal city for thirteen years, it had been…nice. She found herself invited to christenings, to barn dances and to coffee at the café.
“By the way, how did the estimates come out?” Lauren asked.
The question pulled Anna from her reverie.
“Shocking. Horrible.” When Anna had inherited the home from her grandmother, she’d known it needed some work. But she could barely get the estimate for the new roof past her lips.
Lauren gasped. “No way.”
“Way.” Anna sighed. “The contractor said the cost is high because the roof is steep and has all those angles.”
While it might make shingling more difficult, the peaks and valleys were part of the house’s charm. Just like the leaded glass above the large picture window that overlooked the porch. And the high ceilings with the ornate crown mold.
Thunder rumbled overhead and Anna glanced at the sky. The way her day was going it seemed fitting that bright blue had given way to a muddy grey.
“What are you going to do?” Lauren asked, as if Anna had more than one option.
“Have it fixed,” Anna said glumly. She couldn’t believe the money she’d worked so hard to save for the past five years would now go to pay for shingles, nails and black paper. Her dream of owning a clothing boutique had never seemed further away.
Lauren took another sip of lemonade and absently crumbled the last bit of sugar cookie on her plate. “You could sell. Let the buyer pay for the roof.”
“I thought about that.” Anna felt guilty even admitting she’d considered the possibility. Parting with the house would be like selling a member of the family.
Every time she opened the closet door beneath the stairs, the lingering scent of moth balls brought memories from her childhood flooding back. The darkened area behind the coats had been her favorite place to hide from her brother. And the bedroom she now used with the antique medallion-and-leaves wallpaper was where she’d slept whenever she spent the night with her grandmother. Though it might sound crazy, sometimes when she was drifting off to sleep she swore she felt her grandmother’s lips brush her cheek.
“Grandma Borghild gave me her home to love.” Anna blinked back unexpected tears. “I can’t sell it to a stranger.”
“I understand this is difficult.” Lauren’s gaze lingered on Anna’s stylish geometric print dress and the chunky bracelets encircling her wrist. “But you’re no longer a small town girl. The place needs constant attention and it’s not like you’re ever going to live here again. In fact, after you leave who knows when you’ll be back in Sweet River?”
While Anna acknowledged the logic in Lauren’s argument, heaviness filled her heart. Her beloved grandmother had passed on. Her parents now lived in Florida. All she had was her brother, her niece…and this house. “You think I should sell.”
The words came out in a matter-of-fact tone, but inside Anna trembled with pent-up emotion.
“Only when you’re ready,” Lauren said softly. “Not before.”
“Montana is such a beautiful place. I wish I could be content here.” Anna glanced at the patch of prairie coneflowers to the left of the porch. They’d been her grandmother’s favorite flower. She’d called them “Mexican Hats” because of their sombrero-shaped flower heads and drooping petals. “Sweet River has just never been enough for me.”
She saw no need to mention that it had been enough once. But she’d been young back then. Naive. In love with someone she’d ultimately let down.
“You and I are a lot alike,” Lauren said. “We know what we want out of life and we’re willing to work hard to make our dreams a reality.”
Lauren didn’t give compliments easily and for Anna, the support was a much needed confidence booster. The way Lauren talked, the yolk hadn’t broken. The world was still hers for the taking.
“Be careful,” Anna warned, feeling her spirits rise. “Or I might think you’re telling me I can have it all; a new roof, the boutique I’ve always dreamed of and eventually a family of my own.”
“I wouldn’t bet against you.” Lauren shot her a wink. “A determined woman always finds a way to get what she wants.”