(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
The letter itself wasn’t the problem. The letter itself, typewritten in tidy capital keystrokes, was short and to the point. Gummed on the closure, with a two-penny postal stamp up front, the envelope could have contained an advert for hotel linens or a request for one of our house recipes, or ideally, held another applicant for the job I posted in the Los Angeles Times.
We had woefully scant responses.
I turned on my heel and marched across the wooden landing again, the offending letter crumpled in a fist, and my shoe leather thumping hard on the planks. As if stomping would make this particular letter vanish into the hazy, receding afternoon heatwaves.
I hesitated at the corner and shot a glance over my shoulder at the post office door. Mr. Hannahs didn’t know about it.
Swiss on the outside and United-States-of-American on the inside, the elderly Idyllwild post master took great pride in his position behind the counter. Once an original landowner and logger, he now sorted mail for the entire mountain range. In the process, he somehow deciphered the contents of nearly everything that passed through his large, restless hands.
But not this one. I turned and paced past the door again, knowing full well he watched through the screen and, on principle, would not abandon his post for something so trivial as to question my presence on his landing.
Sooner or later, everyone came to him.
Both a blessing and a curse, that.
Five minutes until the stagecoach arrived. I could wait him out. Another small bead of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades.
Mr. Hannahs had critiqued my advert until it passed his rigorous standards and posted it for me. The man read every newspaper from New York to our glorious state of California, and if it was a manager for my hotel I needed, Mr. Hannahs knew how to get me one.
It wasn’t his fault we lived in the middle of nowhere. I wadded the sheet of paper into a ball.
Why hadn’t I tossed it into the oven like the others?
With a huff, I smoothed the paper back out and read it once more.
THERE IS NO HAPPILY EVER AFTER FOR YOU, MISS BROWN. I’M GOING TO MAKE CERTAIN OF IT.
No letterhead. Plain, cheap stationery. Like the others, I had no way of deciphering who’d sent it or what it referred to. Unlike the others, this one was personal. Nasty. If I shared it with anyone, I’d get my ear chewed off.
At the moment, only the rustle of pines and birds as they settled in for the evening accompanied my steps. A horse nickered. A pan clanged. A crow squabbled with his neighbor. The peace and quiet of Idyllwild.
Of my happily ever after.
I balled the letter back into my fist and paced. My wedding was three weeks away. All the plans were in place now. Nothing was going to stop it.
Yes, I’d helped put a lot of people behind bars. Typewriters weren’t normally part of the jailbird’s kit. Had there been any prison breaks lately? Who was out on parole?
I smirked. Had a criminal taken a few heartfelt moments to let me know they were thinking of me? Not likely.
I shoved the letter into my skirt pocket and out of my mind.
I wasn’t the sheriff. Not even the deputy. I rubbed my gloved hands together to rid them of the idea. I was just a woman trying to hire on a manager for my little hotel so I could ride off into the sunset with my beloved John.
And if John thought I should have more sunsets and fewer criminals in my life, I heartily agreed. He thought I made mountains out of molehills and told me once, with a perfectly straight face, that a married woman didn’t keep a Colt .45 under her pillow.
A rumble came from the road.
Well. John wasn’t always right.
I tugged at my gloves, sticky in the typical August heat. The landing roof shaded my hat and my hat shaded me, but neither could prevent the beads of sweat forming along my hairline. It was silly to complain. The woman in the approaching stagecoach had it worse.
Normally, the lavender dress swishing around my ankles served for an afternoon tea party, not a Tuesday night supper, but I intended to distract Mrs. Bouma with something civilized and dainty after her uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and filthy ride up the mountain.
And I was determined that she like it here. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was home.
My two-story hotel sat at one end of a boardwalk that ran the length of town. I’d walked from it to the post office, a squat building on a tall stone foundation. Mr. Hannahs was our next-door neighbor Monday through Saturday, from five in the morning until the stagecoach arrived just before supper.
On the other side of the post office, a vacant blacksmith shop stood with huge double doors flung open to the dusty road. Ladders, paint cans, lumber, and other signs of construction festooned the building, from its giant beams to its gleaming windows. The fourth and final building beyond was a small single room from which the sheriff presided.
And there the boardwalk ended.
After weeks of construction, the old blacksmith shop now held a new sheriff’s office with a garage below and a refurbished single room above it. A kitchen nook was in the corner where the bellows used to squat. The room above contained a brass bedstead and two small cots, with just enough space for clothing and a chamberpot.
Although horses remained corralled behind it, Idyllwild no longer had a blacksmith shop. The sheriff, his new bride, and two small children were about to move in.
Idyllwild’s growth was unstoppable and I was the next step forward in its future. All I had to do was hire my replacement and move on with the wedding. Letter be damned.
With a growing rumble that became a deafening thunder, the daily stagecoach arrived.
I stepped back as Jim Roster orchestrated his team with a firm and practiced hand. Four horses, lathered with the day’s climb, pawed and blew as they pulled alongside the wooden planks.
My hand crept to my stomach.
“Miss Brown, you look ravishing this evening,” a voice crooned in my ear.
My elbow went flying backward and rammed into a midriff before I could think. I spun around to find a man clutching his heart, his brown eyes crinkled with laughter.
“Why’d you sneak up on me like that?” I hissed.
John Wyman grinned as I rubbed my bruised elbow. He ran a hand over his shoulder-length brown hair before popping a battered Stetson over it. A long day’s work never kept him from being a tease.
“Well, you do,” he repeated, taking a careful step back.
“Poppycock.” I tossed my head and turned back to the coach. “I have a guest, Mr. Wyman.” And it was imperative that Mrs. Bouma see me as a professional. Not swooning over my fiancé, devastatingly handsome as he was.
“Evening, Miss Brown,” Jim called from his perch. “Mr. Wyman.” He set the brake and clambered down, dragging the long metal lockbox over his shoulder.
Jim disappeared into the post office as the stagecoach door opened.
I gave my gloves one more tug.
The coach door swung open and an older gentleman in a fine suit stepped out. His piercing gray eyes took in the town with one attentive sweep. Guests normally came up on weekends, which is why I was interviewing for a new hotel manager midweek. The gentleman passed his hand over a heavy mustache, one slowly going to gray, and as his eyes met mine, he gave me a tentative smile.
I sighed with chagrin.
“Is that so?” John muttered.
I ignored him and fixed my smile in place.
“Some day soon,” John murmured behind me, “you’re going to meet me at the end of a long day like this.”
My heartbeat sped up at the idea, but my eyes remained focused on my guest. “Mr. Wyman,” I said, the reprimand clear in my tone, “if you don’t mind. I have a business to run.”
The gray-eyed gentleman turned and offered his hand to a heavy-set lady climbing out of the coach. With a toss of her black hat, the woman fisted both hands in her long skirt, a carpetbag swinging from her elbow, and stepped out on her own.
“There she is,” I said, and took a step forward.
The lady and I both paused as Jim swung out of the post office with a slam of the screen door and walked briskly across the landing again. The gentleman passenger, ignoring the woman’s slight, turned to inspect the horses, and I remained in place as yet another man emerged from the coach.
“Full house?” John asked.
The next man did not so much step out of the coach as he unfolded himself from it. Impossibly tall and lanky, the man planted his boots on the landing and stretched. His huge hands unfurled as high as the stagecoach roof where Jim was busy with the baggage.
“It’s too early in the week for guests,” I said through clenched teeth. Nonetheless, there were three passengers instead of one. “Tell Hattie to set more plates.”
“Yes, m’lady,” John said. I didn’t have to look to know his cheeky grin returned. He walked toward the hotel. As he passed the horses, he turned and yelled, “Come down and wash!”
Footsteps raced overhead and a boy swung from the landing roof, fell to his feet on the bench at the corner of the building, and hopped down to run through the grass.
“Use the ladder!” John said.
The boy was gone.
I cringed inside as the woman approached me.
Although both Mrs. Bouma’s locks and eyes were startlingly black above her flannel traveling coat, the fine lines and crow’s feet around them implied the woman’s vanity had succumbed to a bottle of dye.
“Welcome to Idyllwild,” I said, extending my hand. “Miss Loveda Brown. How do you do?”
“Fine, I thank you,” she replied, pumping my hand with a strong, self-assured grip. “Mrs. Cox at your service. I’m mighty pleased to be here.”
My hand froze. The name was distressingly familiar. “Cox?”
“Indeed. And although you’ve asked another candidate to come at the same time as m’self, I want you to know I’ve no objection to the comparison. A body ought to make these decisions with careful consideration as to personality and compatibility, true enough.” She released my hand. “Hiring on a manager is no small job.”
My smile never wavered.
“It was my understanding that you weren’t to arrive until next week,” I said, scrambling to review the calendar in my mind. “The third of September?” How could I have been so careless? Where was Mrs. Bouma? I glanced back at the stagecoach.
Mrs. Cox bent to rummage through the carpetbag at her feet. “I’ve got your letter here, Miss Brown. It clearly directs me to arrive today. I’m not one to make such a mistake.”
The two gentlemen glanced away as her generous bottom swayed in the air. With the luggage safely on the landing, Jim drove his coach away in the dusk.
“No need, Mrs. Cox,” I said in a rush. “Please. No harm done. I must have been distracted and written the date wrong.”
She straightened. “There now. It could happen to anyone.” She saw my attention shift to the men and stepped aside with her bag.
The tall man reached me first. He seemed to cover the distance in a single fluid stride. My neck nearly snapped in two, I had to tip my face up so far to meet his. I was used to being on the shorter side of a crowd, but this man made me feel knee high to a grasshopper.
His hand was knobby, rough, and hesitant when he shook mine. “How do?” he asked in a deep voice. “Matthew Bouma.”
“Mr.” I blinked and forced the second word from between a clenched jaw. “Bouma? You’re here for the position?”
He nodded slowly and chewed a toothpick, hat in hand. His head swiveled as he took in the scenery. “Yes, ma’am. Good country you’ve got up here. Trees look healthy. It’s good to see a fine set of horses on the job, even if the ride makes a man want to climb out and get hisself uphill by the bootstraps instead.”
“Indeed,” breathed Mrs. Cox.
Mr. Bouma turned his face back to mine. “Those horseless follies can get you from here to there, I reckon. But they aren’t going to kiss you goodnight by the campfire, now are they?”
His chuckle rolled out into the growing dark as he turned to gather suitcases.
I was speechless.
The other gentleman gripped his bowler in two hands and stepped quickly forward. “Good evening. Adams. Norman Adams.” He squinted. “I beg your pardon, but are we already acquainted?”
His eager question had been asked before by lonely men who noticed a pretty face and ignored the ring on my finger. Thankful that John had not witnessed the hope in poor Mr. Adams’ voice, I nipped it in the bud.
“That’s not possible, Mr. Adams. I rarely leave Idyllwild.” I turned to address the group. “Please, everyone. Supper and a fresh room are waiting for you.” I waved a hand toward the hotel. My cheeks hurt, and I allowed my smile to fade.
The cool tone did the trick. Chastised, Mr. Adams took up a suitcase and a leather satchel and led the charge. Mrs. Cox lifted a small case along with her carpetbag and, with an arch look at Mr. Adams’ backside, followed him.
Mr. Bouma hefted two suitcases in one hand and a shapely musical case and a hatbox in the other. He waited.
It might have been the slight breeze, the dip in temperature as the sun set, or the way Mr. Bouma stared at me with deep-set eyes sober to the point of deadpan, but the hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
The slam of a door made me jump.
“Goodnight, Miss Brown,” Mr. Hannahs said. He locked the building and headed for the corrals.
Before I could feel any more alone with the giant before me, I turned for the hotel.
Mr. Bouma followed. I felt his eyes on my back.
Stomp, stomp, stomp.
Mrs. Cox was my first choice for the position, but she was here on the wrong date.
“Mrs.” Bouma was Karine’s. And Mrs. Bouma was a man.
Stomp, stomp, stomp.
Mr. Adams traveled alone. No camping gear. No distinguishing luggage. What was he doing here?
Stomp, stomp, stomp.
The letter rustled in my pocket as we approached the veranda.
Stomp, stomp, stomp.
“Miss Brown?” Mr. Bouma’s deep voice drifted behind me. “You all right up there?”
“Fine,” I said brightly, and reached for the lobby door. “Just dandy.”
Mr. Hannahs rode past and, without a glance in our direction, headed for home.