Nothing could stop small-town gal Reily Eckardt from heading to Nashville and living the dream until her car and cash savings were stolen en route. Now she was high and dry in Paradise, Colorado, population 1,632, relying on the kindness of strangers—in particular, bar and grill owner Joe Miller. But why did the single dad have to be so gruff—and cute—while he was being kind? Her mission: save up and split before getting sidetracked by this ...
Nothing could stop small-town gal Reily Eckardt from heading to Nashville and living the dream until her car and cash savings were stolen en route. Now she was high and dry in Paradise, Colorado, population 1,632, relying on the kindness of strangers—in particular, bar and grill owner Joe Miller. But why did the single dad have to be so gruff—and cute—while he was being kind? Her mission: save up and split before getting sidetracked by this sexy enigma.
Sure, Joe could offer Reily a job at his bar. Renting her his garage apartment—no problem. But giving her a place in his heart—no way! Poor Joe—it wasn't long before the country crooner had him singing a different tune.
USA Today Bestseller Michelle Celmer is the author of more than 25 books for Harlequin and Silhouette. You can usually find her in her office with her laptop loving the fact that she gets to work in her pajamas. Write her at: PO BOX 300, Clawson, MI 48017, visit her website at: michellecelmer.com or find her on Facebook at: Michelle Celmer Author
Reily Eckardt sat in the back of the Colorado State Police cruiser, palms sweaty, hands trembling, feeling sick down to her soul with dread. Since she'd left Montana three days ago it had been one disaster after another, but this time she had sunk just about as low as she could go.
First, in her excitement to make good time, she was pulled over for speeding as she crossed the border into Wyoming and had received a costly ticket for her carelessness. Then, halfway across the state, the water pump on her car blew and she'd had to spend the night while the part was ordered and replaced. She'd blown out a tire driving into Colorado, which turned into a four-hour fiasco that put her even further behind schedule and over budget, and she hadn't gotten back on the road until nearly four-thirty in the afternoon. But the icing on her disaster cake hadn't happened until she'd stopped at a gas station just off the highway around eight to grab a cup of coffee. She'd figured she could make up lost time by driving till midnight or so before stopping at a motel for the night. Bad move.
Apparently she'd been more tired than she had realized, or she wouldn't have left her keys in the ignition when she ran inside. And when she'd walked back out, coffee in hand, no car.
The officer who had taken her statement opened the rear door of the cruiser and gestured for her to come out of the air-conditioned interior. She grabbed her purse and climbed out. The sun had dropped below the mountains and a gentle breeze moved the hot, dry air around her. "Did you find it?" she asked, her voice filled with hope and desperation.
He shook his head grimly. "We put an APB out on the plate, but nothing so far."
Her stomach sank a little lower. It had been more than an hour since her car was stolen. Everything she owned in the world, including the money she had saved for the past two years for her new life in Nashville, had been in that car. Her clothes, her photos, her mom's guitar it was all gone. All that was left of her worldly possessions was her purse and the change from the fifty-dollar bill she'd grabbed from the stash in her suitcase before running inside.
How could she have been so careless?
"What do you think the chances are that it'll turn up?" she asked him.
His grim expression was her answer. "You'll probably want to file a claim with your insurance. Even if it's recovered, I doubt it will be in one piece."
The car was so old, it wasn't insured for theft.
She took a deep breath and steeled herself against the wave of hopelessness and despair, fearing she might be sick right there in the parking lot. Yes, things seemed pretty bad, but life had taught her that they could always get worse. She would get through this and come out swinging. She always did.
She'd already called her cousin in Arkansas and told her she wouldn't be stopping in for a visit. Sweetheart that Luann was, she'd offered Reily a place to crash for a few days. But as a divorcee on welfare with three small children to care for, she didn't have the space or the money to be taking in destitute houseguests. Reily's aunt barely got by on her Social Security so she was in no position to be loaning Reily the money to get to Nashville, and Reily refused to go running back to Montana with her tail between her legs. Besides, she was used to taking care of herself. She would get to Nashville, and she would make it big as a country singer. It just might take a little longer than she anticipated.
"Is there somewhere I can drop you, Miss Eckardt?" the officer asked.
Reily turned to him, really seeing him for the first time. He had a kind face and a paunch belly, and that middle-age softness where there had perhaps once been lean muscle. His name badge said he was Officer Phillip Jeffries, and though he'd probably told her that when he'd arrived on the scene, she had been too shaken to absorb much. Stepping out of the gas station to find the spot where she'd left her car empty had been without a doubt the most surreal experience of her life. Even now it was hard to believe it was really gone. But dwelling on her troubles wouldn't solve them. She needed a plan of action. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
"You could give me a lift to the nearest town," she told Officer Jeffries.
"That would be my hometown of Paradise, about five miles up the road."
It's not as if she had a whole lot of choice. Denver was two hours in the opposite direction. Besides, a small town would be cheaper than a big city. And a town called Paradise, small or not, would have to be pretty nice. "I don't suppose Paradise has a women's shelter or a YWCA?"
"Nope. But we've got the Sunrise Motel if you're looking for cheap. Tell Roberta I sent you and she'll put you up for twenty-five dollars."
It was that or the gas station parking lot. "Sounds good to me."
He let her back into the cruiser—the front passenger seat this time—then climbed into the driver's seat.
"I don't suppose you know if anyone in town is hiring," she asked as he pulled back out onto the interstate.
He glanced over at her. "You planning on sticking around for a while?"
"I don't have a choice. Everything I owned, every penny I've saved, was in that car. I have forty-eight dollars and fifty-two cents to my name. Unless my car is miraculously found, I need to make some money before I can go anywhere."
"You don't have any family who could help you out? Maybe wire you some cash? There's a Western Union at the post office in town."
She shook her head, the knot in her belly cinching tighter. "I'm pretty much on my own."
As a state trooper he probably saw lots of people in bad situations. But that didn't mean he would help her.
"What kind of job would you be looking for?" he asked.
"I can do pretty much anything I set my mind to. But most of my experience is in bartending and waitressing.
And singing. And I have excellent references. You can run a background check or whatever it is that you do. I've never been in trouble with the law. And until two days ago, I never even had a parking ticket."
He glanced her way and said with a grin, "I know."
Of course he would have already checked to see if she had a criminal record or warrants against her.
He was quiet for a minute, then said, "I don't make it a habit of rescuing strangers, but you seem like a nice girl and you're in a pretty bad spot. How about if I take you by Joe's Place? He can usually use an extra hand. And if he can't, the diner at the opposite end of town might have a place for you."
She was so relieved and grateful she could have wept. "You have no idea how much I would appreciate that. I'm so desperate, any job would be a blessing."
"No promises," he said.
"I understand. And thank you, Officer Jeffries."
"Call me P.J.," he said. "Despite thirty years as a state trooper, the folks in Paradise never did take to calling me 'Officer.' I guess that's the problem with small towns."
"I grew up in a small town, too. And I know just what you mean about people not taking you seriously." Since she was ten she had wanted to be a country-western singer, but no one ever believed she would have the guts to go to Nashville. And when she'd finally worked up the courage and saved enough money to start over, even her best friend thought she would come crawling back a failure after a month or two. Which was why she just couldn't go crawling back after only a few days. The town would never let her live it down.
P.J. turned off the highway onto a deserted, two-lane road bordered by farmland on one side and dense wilderness on the other.
"Is Paradise a tourist town?" she asked.
"Nah. We're too far off the highway and too far from any of the good skiing spots. We're mostly a farming community."
It sounded a lot like her hometown in Montana. Which was exactly what she was trying to escape. A cosmic joke perhaps? But it was only temporary, she reminded herself again. She had the feeling she would be doing that a lot until she could get back on the road.
They drove another few miles, before the Sunrise Motel and RV Park came into view up on the left. It was a little run-down from age but it looked clean and well kept. She just hoped it was cheap. They hit a curve in the road, then it dipped and flattened out and Paradise popped up out of the landscape. The welcome sign boasted a population of 1,632.
"This is it," P.J. said, driving past a row of neatly kept little houses and straight down Main Street into downtown, which couldn't have been more than three blocks long. She was no architectural expert, but some of the buildings looked to be over one hundred years old. Like most old towns, some were recently renovated while others sagged in disrepair. But all in all, from what she could see in the waning light, it seemed like a nice little town.
It wasn't Nashville, but it would do until she could make a few dollars and be back on her way.
Lou's Diner occupied the first city block corner and across the road was Parson's General Store. The next corner was home to a feed store and a thrift shop, and across the street were the post office and a dollar store. In between were small shops and professional offices, all closed for the day.
There were a few cars parked in front of the diner, but otherwise the street was deserted until they reached the opposite end of town. Across the street from the VFW hall was Joe's Place, a massive log cabin-style building on the farthest corner of the business district. It was clearly the town hot spot. The street out front and the adjacent parking lot were packed with vehicles. Mostly pickup trucks and a few older-model cars, with a motorcycle or two in the mix.
"This is it," P.J. said. "It looks busy."
"Joe does a good business. He took it over when his father, Joe Senior, passed three years ago." P.J. pulled up and double-parked near the front door. "Used to be it wasn't much more than the local watering hole, but Joe Junior took the insurance money his daddy left him and gave the place a complete overhaul. Smartest thing he ever did if you ask me."
Country music blasted from inside the bar as P.J. and Reily got out of the cruiser. Butterflies danced in her belly in time with the beat as she followed P.J. to the door. He opened it for her, and what she saw inside took her breath away.
The interior was gorgeous. All rich wood and smalltown charm. Booths lined both sides of one end of the room and tables filled the space between. The stage and wood-planked dance floor occupied the right side of the opposite end, and on the left wall was a massive and well-stocked bar with an enormous flat-screen television tuned to ESPN. From the walls hung a variety of vintage-looking signs and antique sports equipment and a collection of mounted animal heads. Though dead animals usually creeped her out, somehow it fit.
Joe Junior clearly had spared no expense when he renovated, and if the food was half as appealing as the atmosphere, it was no wonder it was so busy.
P.J. led her across the room to the bar and had her wait while he talked briefly to the bartender, a petite and energetic-looking woman. She gestured him through a door next to the bar. Reily assumed it was probably the kitchen.
She waited, pulse jumping in anticipation, watching as the waitresses hustled food and drink orders to their tables. If it was this busy on a Thursday night, she could only imagine how packed it would be on the weekends. Even if she could only get a position part-time, she could make a killing in tips.
P.J. reappeared a minute later, emerging from the back with a man Reily assumed was the owner.
P.J. gestured her over. "Reily, this is Joe Miller. Joe, this is Reily Eckardt, the woman I told you about."
For some reason she had pictured the owner as older. In his forties or fifties at least. In reality he couldn't have been much older than thirty. He was tall and slender, and attractive in a dark, brooding sort of way. He wore faded blue jeans, a black T-shirt with the bar logo and a deep scowl.
Uh-oh. He did not look happy to have been disturbed.
P.J. took Reily's hand and shook it warmly. "I have to get back on patrol. It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Eckardt, and I hope everything works out for you. Hopefully I'll be seeing you around. And of course if there's any news about your car I'll call you."
There wouldn't be, and they both knew it. It was long gone.
She smiled anyway and said, "Thank you, Officer."
When he was gone, Joe Miller leaned against the edge of the bar and regarded her with a long, slow, assessing look, his dark eyes lacking even the slightest trace of warmth or friendliness. When he spoke, his voice was so low and deep she had to strain to hear him over the blare of the jukebox. "P.J. tells me you've hit hard times and you're looking for temporary work here in town."
Hard times was an understatement. "I'm pretty desperate, Mr. Miller. If you have any position at all I would be eternally grateful."
"What kind of experience do you have?" he asked.
She had to lean in so close to hear him, she caught the scent of his aftershave. Old Spice, just like her father used to wear. It made him seem slightly less intimidating. "I've waitressed and tended bar for the past six years."
"You've got references?"
"Of course. I had a resume but it was stolen with my car."
He grabbed a pen and an order tablet from behind the bar and handed it to her. "Write down the name and number of your most recent employer."
She hesitated. The bar she'd worked at since she was eighteen was owned by her best friend's father, Abe. Abe was the town gossip. If Joe called him, it would take five minutes flat before the entire city learned that she hadn't made it to Nashville.