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"Are you sure you're ready for this?"
Connall Flannigan didn't answer his brother at first. He just kept staring at the three-story, gray-wooded St. Valentine Hotel with its lacy curtains peeking through the windows.
How many times had he seen flashes of this place in what was left of his memory?
As a few obvious tourists brushed by him, Conn looked down at his hand, where he'd been palming a necklacegolden, shiny, with a pendant in the shape of an R that separated into two pieces that never seemed to fit together. It'd been found in his pocket after the car accident, and he'd come to St. Valentine to find out why it might've been significant, and to fill the holes in his memorythe gaping spaces from the amnesia.
Conn wrapped his fingers over the necklace. "I'm not sure about much these days, but this?" He nodded. "I'm sure."
Emmet, who had the same blue eyes and black hair as Conn did under their cowboy hats, looked wary. "I don't know what you think you're gonna find here when the family can tell you everything you need."
Conn shook his head. What he needed was something to jar his mind back to where it should bea place where he would be forced to completely remember just what had happened right before the accident and even previous to that.
A place where he could find himself again.
Once more, the flashes came back to him: this hotel. The name "St. Valentine." A truck bearing down on his pickup just before the world went into a tailspin. And
He held his breath, waiting for the most puzzling and heart-clutching image of all. A woman. Dark brown hair, curling over her bare shoulders. Gray eyes full of affection as she looked up at him from where she was lying on the bed, her arms reaching up for him
According to Emmet and his other two older brothers, Conn had enjoyed his share of women in the past. He'd never been the type to settle down, they said. Footloose, fancy-free and raising hell whenever possible. One woman on this livestock trip, another on that one.
Yet here he was, in search of this one woman who'd haunted his thoughts since the accident four months ago, flash by provocative flash.
But if there'd been so many women, why her in particular?
And why did he ache every time he thought of her? "I just want to see what's in here," he said to Emmet, gesturing toward the hotel. "There's got to be a reason I'm remembering this place more than any other. And a reason I'm recalling "
"Her," Emmet said just before he chuffed.
Conn sent a sidelong glance to him.
"I've told you," Emmet said. "She's just one of many, Conn. Your time would be better spent on the ranch with your family, relaxing, not running off to a little town that you drove through one night."
"So you've told me." Over and over. Conn's brothers in particular had been pointedly direct with him about his habitsall the flirting, all the disappointed women he'd left behind. They told him that, even though he'd always made it clear that he wasn't in anything for the long haul, he'd always managed to make the ladies think that they were the ones, only to break their hearts in the end.
Conn had a hard time imagining he could be that callous, even if he was friendly enough about loving 'em and leaving 'em.
"Well," Emmet said, planting a booted foot up on the boardwalk. "If that's how you want to go about this, the sooner you get this done, the sooner we can go back home."
Conn grabbed onto the image of home, as if he was afraid of losing that, too. Home was the cattle ranch he ran with his brothers about a hundred miles away from St. Valentine, Texas. They told him that he went on business trips, such as for selling and replenishing livestockthe type of trip he'd been on when he'd had the accident. He'd felt a connection to home when he'd returned there, although there'd been something else, as well, along with the comfort, a yen to go somewhere beyond the ranch. And, months later, it'd turned out to be St. Valentine, for whatever reason.
He stepped onto the boardwalk, taking off his hat and running his fingers through his hair. His heart was beating a mile a minute.
Brown hair gray eyes
At the flash that kept coming to him every once in a while, his pulse jerked to a pause before jumping to a start once again.
He was just anxious about getting this over with, getting on with his life. That had to be it.
As he and Emmet walked toward the hotel, then entered the lobby, Conn took a moment to absorb the fringed lamps, the velvet-upholstered furniture, the scent of lemon polish and wood. Tasteful maroon-and-beige wallpaper lent some ease to the tone of the room, but Conn wasn't feeling so easy at all.
They moved to the reception area, where tourists lingered, reading framed newspaper articles on the walls about the so-called ghosts that haunted this Old West establishmentsupposedly a gentleman and a lovelorn woman from the 1930s. There would also be articles about the town founder, Tony Amati, and that was why these tourists had come to town on a warm November weekday, Conn thought. They'd been lured by a new mystery that had been uncovered by a couple of town reporters who'd realized that old Tony, the former Texas Ranger, had died under a shroud of seeming conspiracy and strange circumstances.
To hear the tales, Amati, who'd settled in these parts and founded St. Valentine way back in the late 1920s, had started to matter more than ever around here after a man who was his spitting image had wandered into town over four months ago, before Conn had arrived. People had started looking very closely at the pictures of the town founder then, comparing them to the stranger, the cryptic Jared Colton. They'd started getting very interested in Tony, tooa man who'd done so much for St. Valentine, yet had managed to remain a puzzle all the same.
Both Tony and this modern-day stranger had certainly captured everyone's romantic inclinations and imagination. And the town, which had suffered through rough economic times, was now starting to benefit from the story, attracting more and more tourists. Just how had Tony died? everyone wondered. And why had he been so darn reclusive? Everyone wanted to poke around and solve the mysteries. Magazine articles and travel shows had been sniffing around town, toothere'd even been some kind of TV ghost show that had camped out in the St. Valentine Hotel, the papers said.
Yup, Conn had sure done all the research he could about St. Valentine before coming out here. Not that it had helped with his own mysteries.
"Any of it look familiar?" Emmet asked.
Emmet gestured toward the reception desk. "You want to find out if you checked in here that night?"
The hotel had wanted to see some ID in person before giving out that kind of sensitive information. "Yeah."
Conn took a step toward the long desk, then stopped in his tracks, stilled by a bolt of electricity.
A woman with brown curly hair pulled into a side ponytail that flowed past her shoulder, her torso covered by a white old-fashioned, high-collared blouse that was obviously a part of the hotel's uniform. She had a lush mouth in an angular face, and light-colored eyes that reflected the same blindsided attraction he was feeling.
All Conn could do was hold his hat to his stomach, which was flipping end over end, crackling with the tremors dancing through it. It was as if a bright light was blazing over his sight, a lightning strike that illuminated that night again.
White sheets on a bed a woman lying down on them, her hair curled over the pale linen. "Come here, cowboy" she whispered
She'd been in St. Valentine.
She was the reason he was here. Somehow, he knew that without a doubt.
When his vision cleared, she was still staring at him, just as if she'd seen one of the ghosts that this hotel was supposed to house.
Did his knees ever go this weak with all those other women he'd supposedly been with? It sure as hell hadn't happened with the nurses at the hospital. Then again, they hadn't looked like this brunette.
Besides, something inside him told him that this had never happened before.
But how could he know for sure?
Clutching the necklace until its edges dug into his palm, Conn left Emmet and went to the desk. The woman was still behind it, by herself, but from the way she looked away from him, down at the counter, Conn could tell that she wished she had any guest but him in line for some service.
In fact, as she glanced up again, her gaze had gone from thunderstruck to steely, all in a tumultuous second.
He didn't even have the chance to utter a hello before she said in a low tone, "So you're back."
Steely, all right. A gritted comment that nearly set him back on his heels.
This was the woman in his fragmented memories, right? The limpid-eyed lady who'd begun to appear to him recently at night, giving him pleasant dreams. The one who'd been so happy to be in his bed.
He showed her the necklace, the R split in half across his palm. She sucked in a breath, but then, as if she was real good at recovering quickly, that breath turned into a small laugh.
"You came here to return this?" She was still talking quietly enough so that her voice didn't carry. "Better late than never, I suppose."
Return it? Why had he taken it in the first place? He thought that maybe he should apologize about something, but he wasn't sure just what it was he would be sorry for.
"Can we talk?" he asked. "I need"
"Talk? That's a good euphemism." She laughed again, taking up a pile of paper and neatly straightening it on the desk. "I'll tell you what, cowboyyou just keep that trophy of yours and we'll call it even." She nodded at the necklace he was still holding. "You've had it for going on four months, anyway."
Four months. She would've been here, at the St. Valentine Hotel, during his fateful trip.
He glanced down at the necklace again. The letter R. Then he looked up at her name tag.
Except, on the tag, her name in cursive was one continuous string, unlike the separated necklace. Unlike his life now.
She called over a young clerk who was straightening a rack of brochures, and once she was manning the desk, Rita walked to the far end of the structure, to a quiet corner where the desk still barred her from him. Conn could hear Emmet clearing his throat as he left him behind.
Conn peered over his shoulder at his brother, who was awkwardly standing there with a "So? What gives?" expression. But it might've also been a "Told you this woman was just as temporary as the others" look.
Conn jerked his chin toward Rita, conveying that he still had a lot to take care of and that maybe Emmet should read some of those framed articles on the wall to pass the time. Emmet shrugged and wandered off.
As Rita shuffled papers, probably wishing Conn would think she was too busy to continue talking, he didn't take her none-too-subtle hint.
"I apologize for the inconvenience," he said softly, not wanting to make a scene. Strangely, that woman-luring charm his brothers had commented on still came easily to him when not much else did. "But I could really use your help."
He added a smile for good measure. He had a feeling it had worked a million times.
"My help?" She didn't look up at him. "Are you asking me for a place to stay the night again? A warm bed? A willing woman who doesn't know any better than to listen to your promises?"
"Begging your pardon," he said, "but I hope you'll believe me when I tell you that I don't know anything I said to you that night. There's a good reason I came back here, and it wasn't to return a necklace."
Eyes narrowed, she waited for him to go on.
He leaned his elbow on the desk, setting his hat down on it. Even from this distance, she smelled like berries and vanilla, and he nearly closed his eyes as the scent traveled through him, warming him deep down. It was as if he hadn't ever forgotten this part of her, even though the memory had just reemerged.
But he shook himself out of it. Good God, he didn't have time to be sniffing around a random woman who was no doubt one of many more. He needed to talk to her, not to get her into bed again.
"This is going to sound odd," he said. How did a guy get around to telling a woman something that amounted to the lamest excuse in the world? Why would she even believe him?
But what else was he going to say?
He was still holding her necklace. "I'd really like your help in Well, first off, I need to know when we."
"Did it? You've got to be kidding me."
All right. That was one way of getting over the awkwardness. She was just as forthright as his brothers.
"I wish I were kidding," he said. "I had some business at the Hervy Ranch about a half hour away in July"
"I know. You were dealing with livestock. You told me that right before you talked me into."
She pressed her lips together, color rising in her cheeks. A buzz skimmed his belly at just the mention of what had gone on between them, even though this wasn't the time or place for it.
The important thing was that he'd done more than just had sex with her. She was someone he'd talked to around the time of his accident, although he didn't know how long they had chatted before getting to the bedroom. If she could just give him more details about their time together, maybe that would kick-start his brain and he could piece together more of what had happened before and just after the accident.
She shot him a slanted look. "Why the hell wouldn't you know when we " She lowered her voice, glancing around. Discovering that the lobby had emptied, she added, "Were together?"
Here it went.
"When I left St. Valentine," he said, "I got in an accident on the way to my appointment. Enough of one to send me in an ambulance to the hospital."
She raised her eyebrows. On her face he saw shock until her gaze softened for a vulnerable moment.
"An accident?" she asked.
"That's right. And afterward I didn't remember where I was, who I was. My brothers and mom were there to help me put things together. Most things, anyway. I've got holes right where a lot of my memory used to be."
She just kept watching him, her gaze finally going from soft and gray to unreadable and cool.
Then she laughed softly, and it wasn't a funny laugh. Her gaze was sad now.
"This is a joke, right?" she asked.
"No." What kind of psychotic would approach her again just to lay a line like this on her?
"Whatever it is, it's not funny at all."