(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
“You shivered, Miss Brown,” he said. “Are you ill?”
“Perhaps someone walked over my grave. Sit down.” I adjusted my lavender skirt over the low rock wall, creating an attractive drape against the granite stones. I’d purchased this dress to show off my tiny corseted figure, the gold pocket watch pinned to my waist, and the wide matching hat pinned securely to my mahogany pompadour.
The afternoon sunshine was warm, but being courted by John would make any woman shiver.
Tipping my hat up enough to meet John’s eyes, I said, “The thought needn’t make you smile.”
His grin spread and I caught my breath the way I did every time I looked at him. The man normally towered over my five foot four inches by another foot, but sitting forced me to view him the way pilgrims admired the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Deep shade from the oak trees above us dappled his suit in muted tones and where the occasional summer sunbeam broke through, red glints in John’s brown hair winked at me.
Taking a seat on the wall, our picnic tea arranged carefully between us, John said, “After twenty years of walking every square inch of Idyllwild, I’m certain to have stepped on your grave at some point.” He let his gaze wander the cemetery in front of us. “I don’t think it’s in here, though.”
Our rock wall surrounded a fascinating assortment of graves. Some gravestones were too old to read and others too new to discuss. John and I perched near a grave that made me feel nostalgic, happy, and sad all at the same time. It made me feel like I was part of the fabric of our mountain community. Part of its history. Part of its future.
“He was a good man,” I said, nodding to the marker. “Why wouldn’t I be buried near him?”
John poured tea from the Thermos into two delicate china cups. “Because I plan to be buried on my property, at the top of Pine Cove,” he said. “And you’re going to be buried next to me.”
I accepted the cup he handed me with suspicion and took a sip, but the tea was still hot. I gave a nod to modern miracles and said, “I already have two husbands buried here. You’re outnumbered.”
He raised an eyebrow. “A fellow leaves town for a few months and everyone gets married. I know about Billy. Who’s the tie breaker?”
I smiled. The grave in front of us held a brave man who’d masqueraded as my husband. The grave across the way held a cheating son-of-a-biscuit who’d been my actual husband.
“It’s Billy’s fault,” I said with a casual glance at the son-of-a-biscuit’s headstone. “After he died, I kept our wedding rings on a chain around my neck. A misunderstanding one day led to this man wearing Billy’s ring.” I nodded to the grave in front of us. “One thing led to another, and now he’s buried here with Billy’s ring on his finger.”
The arrangement was very satisfying.
“That’s some misunderstanding.”
“You have no idea.” I smiled into my teacup. John had missed many changes while he traveled east and I didn’t want to waste our precious time catching him up.
“Do you still have your ring?” he asked. The offhand question thinly disguised the jealousy behind it.
“Yes. In my trunk.” I reached for a slice of apple.
John stared at me, and his solemn eyes made me set the apple down quickly.
“I have a better one for you,” he said.
I tipped my chin up. “You don’t know that for sure. What if mine has twenty diamonds on it?”
He left the wall and went down on one knee. “Marry me, Loveda Brown.”
Brushing my gloved hands together first, I laid them both in his outstretched hand. It was heaven.
“No, Mr. Wyman.”
John squinted up at me. “Again? How many times are you going to say that?”
“As many as it takes for us to reach an intelligent decision.”
He gave a soft chuckle and kissed both of my hands before releasing them. I wished fervently that my gloves were out of the way.
“I can’t simply wander off into the forest and never be seen again,” I said as he stood, brushed off his trousers, and sat back down. “I have obligations.”
“You have a business,” he corrected.
“I have a family.”
He took in a deep breath and let it go. Our little crisis had passed for the moment, but John was a determined man and, beneath our banter, I was wearing out his patience.
“Are you sure there aren’t ghosts in the way?” he asked with the first tinge of bitterness.
“That isn’t fair.”
A mild breeze lifted the oak leaves above us in a murmuring rustle.
His repentant look acknowledged the pain in my words, but with it was the reminder that John had ghosts of his own. My list included beloved parents drowned in the Atlantic, a cheating husband shot and buried, and my own inadequacies. His involved a loveless marriage that ended in disaster, a father who died long ago, and an elderly mother in New York who waited for my acceptance as impatiently as he.
Both of us originated on the East Coast. Both of us had been born into wealth and left it behind. Neither of us had children or siblings. And neither of us wanted to live anywhere else but this California mountain wilderness.
John had his tiny cabin, his freedom, and almost two hundred acres of land to enjoy. Until I’d arrived in Idyllwild one fateful day, it had been enough.
In an attempt to shore up the shifting sands of emotion, I said, “I don’t know what the solution is, John. But we’ll find it.”
Over the teacups, he took my hand again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Your hotel is your home and your staff is your family. I understand that.” He ran a thumb over my knuckles. “We’ll find a way to make this work. You know I won’t give up, right?”
I smiled. “I’ve never seen you give up.”
“True.” He relinquished my hand. “Now. The sheriff can’t seem to operate without you, and the deputy appears to shadow you for no other reason than to make me ornery.” John frowned thoughtfully and finished his tea. “You’ve got a postmaster next door who acts like you’re his daughter.”
“He already has a daughter. And you forgot the blacksmith. He can lift a horse in one hand, you know.”
John nodded solemnly. “I don’t want to upset him either.”
I surreptitiously watched John set his cup down, knowing full well that beneath his shirtsleeve, he had a wicked scar running the length of his bicep. I’d seen John in a fistfight. If John worried about the people in my life, it was because he wanted their approval.
Although it chafed him, he’d upgraded his work clothes to a suit and modified his plan of elopement to this most agreeable courtship. He knew I didn’t dress in lavender silk every day. He knew I liked to ride astride and carried a holster on my hips when it was called for. And he knew my neighbors were as protective of me as I was loyal to them.
It had all been discussed before.
He met my eyes again. They went from confident to vulnerable. It was something I’d rarely seen.
“If there were someone else, you’d tell me. Wouldn’t you? I don’t think I could bear it, but I’ll walk away if you tell me you love someone else.”
“I mean it. I was gone too long and left you surrounded by eligible men. That’s not your fault.”
It was impossible for me to explain my refusal, even to myself. There was no one in my heart but John. Mute with contradictions, I bit my lip and shook my head.
“If it isn’t your past, and it isn’t the present,” he said, “then you’re worried about the future.”
“That’s it. I love what I do. What would become of my little hotel if I left it?”
John sent an exasperated look over his shoulder toward the stately and sprawling Idyllwild Inn. The cemetery sat roadside, but a wide gravel drive turned in to Foster’s Meadow and swept up to the beautiful building that was the only other hotel on the mountain.
Two of my dearest friends, Mr. Lindley and his new bride, Molly, owned the Idyllwild Inn. Recently back from their honeymoon at the coast, they made marriage look easy, and they ran the Inn together.
“No.” I brushed imaginary crumbs from my lap and John turned his attention back to me. “I won’t ask you to live in my hotel.”
His face relaxed. “Good. Apparently, it works for them, but I won’t do it.”
Encouraged by his common sense, I gave him a half-smile. “And I can’t ride back and forth every day from your place to manage it. I have to be there around the clock.”
“The postmaster does. The post office is secure while Mr. Hannahs is home with his family.”
“Having strangers sleep beneath your roof means nothing is ever secure in a hotel.”
“The sheriff lives ten feet away. He eats at your table.” A shadow crossed his face. “He sees more of you than I do.”
I sighed because there was nothing left to say. I’d been raised with an eclectic mix of educational mores that encouraged independent thought, and it hadn’t served me well. After my parents died, I became a governess in Boston. After the gentleman of the house made covert advances, I traveled to Texas and became a teacher in El Paso.
My next round of independent decision-making sent me into the arms of cheating Billy Dunn. Without any thought at all, I had given up my independence for a wedding ring. For the promise of a new family. A home.
“I won’t do it,” John said quietly.
I startled and realized I’d been scowling at Billy’s grave.
John waited for me to meet his eyes. “I won’t hurt you. Don’t you trust me?”
He saw the flip remark forming and joined me in saying, “Never trust anyone but your dog.”
It got a smile out of me. “How is the beasty thing?” I asked.
He accepted my change of subject with grace and gestured toward the base of a tree where his massive black dog waited. Watching us. “He thinks Idyllwild is paradise.”
“He’s very perceptive.” I glanced at my watch.
John stood and began to pack our tea into the hamper at my feet.
“Did she say yes?” called a tremulous voice from across the cemetery.
John peered over at Mrs. Hannahs. “Not yet,” he called back.
I could see, rather than hear, her tsking under her breath. The elderly lady’s hat swayed in disappointment as she daintily picked herself up from her spot in the shade and made for the parked buggy.
“You’ve let her down.” John’s mild reprimand made me smile and I stood up.
“She loves every minute of this,” I said. “She repeats everything she sees all over town.”
“I thought having a chaperone was Mr. Hannahs’ idea?” John lifted the hamper in one hand and held out his other arm to me.
“He does insist on the proprieties.” I took his arm and smiled up at him.
“Something tells me half the town would gun me down if I took liberties.” He stared at my lips.
Heat rose in my face. Maybe he admired the tint of my new lipstick. Maybe.
“Who’s coming up on the coach today?” he asked, still staring.
“I never know.” I kept my tone light. “Last week, it was an arthritic widow woman up for our healing mountain air and her son who spent the entire time helping her up and down the staircase. He was a banker, as I recall.”
“Was he handsome? This banker?”
“Come along, Miss Brown,” Mrs. Hannahs called from the buggy. “I’m not getting any younger. More’s the pity.”
John escorted me to the buggy and handed me up. He placed the hamper behind our seat.
“Thank you, Mr. Wyman,” I said politely. “I’m looking forward to seeing you at Lindley’s supper party Saturday evening.”
“I’ll ask you again,” he said cheerfully. “Maybe a spin on the dance floor will change your mind.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t!” Mrs. Hannahs said, putting a hand to her collar. “We won’t be there.”
“Molly can capture the moment with her new camera,” I said. “But I promise I won’t say yes unless you’re on hand to witness it, Mrs. Hannahs.”
“Well,” she sputtered, gathering the reins. “You’re a woman grown and will do as you see fit, I’m sure.”
We said our farewells and Mrs. Hannahs turned the mule, pulling our buggy away from the cemetery. Over my shoulder, I watched John fetch his horse. The golden palomino contrasted with the black dog at his heels.
“He’s a good man,” Mrs. Hannahs said once we were out of earshot. “Not the type to wait for a girl. I never took you for a tease.”
I turned to her in surprise. Gentle Mrs. Hannahs was known to speak her mind, but normally reserved it for her husband.
“A girl could do worse,” she said. “I’m sure you have reservations. What woman doesn’t?” She cast a sideways glance at me. “If you’re worried about child birthing, I knew a woman once every bit as small as you who had seven children. Narrow hips are no match for a good midwife.”
My face flushed again.
“Will Emily be at the supper party?” I asked. It was a snippy change of subject. Their daughter and her two young children lived with them and rarely left the house. Why couldn’t Mrs. Hannahs worry about her instead?
Mrs. Hannahs slapped the reins on the mule’s haunches, but it continued at a sedate walk. “Yes.”
“Good,” I said. “She should try the dance floor, too.”
“A widow with two children doesn’t dance,” Mrs. Hannahs said. “But we can’t very well force her to refuse the invitation.”
I knew better. Mr. and Mrs. Hannahs loved having their daughter live with them and doted on the children.
“You aren’t opposed to Emily dancing?” I pushed. “I’m sure every man there will go out of his way to make sure she has a lovely time.”
Her cornflower-blue eyes widened behind her spectacles. “Goodness. She will be happy serving punch.”
“Not even with Mr. Wyman?”
“How inappropriate. Especially not.”
I finished her sentence. With a man seeking matrimony.
“My dear,” she said sternly as my hotel came into view, “secure your gentleman before the best years of your life drift by.”
“I’m only twenty-two.”
She nodded. “But he’s forty. Don’t let the grass grow.”