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Lisa Berthoff switched her cell to her other ear and eased the sporty rental car to the shoulder of Highway 1.
"Lisa, Francie here. I need you in Colorado to do the story on a bed-and-break-fast. We're backlogged for weeks. Your ticket's waiting at the airport. Leaves this afternoon."
"When?" Lisa's voice rose an octave. She looked longingly at the Pacific Ocean. Tell me I'm not hearing this. "Come on, Francie. I finally make it to the coast just in time for the migration of the whales, and you send me off to cover a bed-and-breakfast?" She shouldn't complain. A job was a job, even a temporary assignment.
"What's wrong? Did you finally meet someone to take your mind off of Dale?"
"That's not it at all. He did me a favor by leaving. I was just hoping to see the sights while I was here this time. I've been going full speed for months. Give me a couple of days." She hoped her hard work would pay off soon. Lisa had bailed the magazine out of more binds this past year than she had had dates.
"Sorry to tell you this, dear, but we really need you to get moving on this right away."
Lisa moved the phone to the other ear as the editor explained the circumstances. One of these days, she would be able to be picky. Until then "Of course I'll cover the story. I hope everything goes okay for the Greens and their baby."
"This place is north of Denver somewhere. Let me see here Loveland. Hmm. LovelandValentine's Day. There's your angle. Get it?"
"I get it. And I'm familiar with the area. My sisters live"
Her no-nonsense editor's voice broke her off. "Pull this one off, Lisa, and Steve's agreed to put you on the payroll full-time."
Those magical words caught her attention, even though she knew better than to get her hopes up. "Promises, promises," she said. "You know as well as I do Steve's been stringing me along for months."
"He's serious this time ."
She paused, barely allowing Francie enough time to finish her explanation. "I'm already interested," she said impatiently. "I didn't say no, did I?"
Lisa jotted down the airline and flight information. "Email me the specifics. I'll be in touch." She pressed End and set the phone in her bag.
Lisa glanced at her watch. "Francie, how could you do this to me again!" She had less than three hours to get to the airport, return the rental car and pick up her ticket. Lisa quickly reviewed the route on her map and took one last longing look at the waves hitting the jagged shore.
Footloose and fancy-free. I knew it would catch up with me. Farewell, San Francisco. Another time.
The cash machine at the airport was out of money, security lines were frustratingly long and breakfast had worn off hours ago. Lisa slipped her boarding pass into her pack and ran down the concourse, her camera case bouncing along on built-in wheels.
When she reached the gate, the door was closed. Looking out the window, she saw her suitcase tossed into the luggage compartment beneath the airplane. She ran to the next desk and asked the agent for help. Moments later, a flight attendant met her at the end of the walk. "That was close," she said cheerfully. "We're just starting our preflight check."
"This flight does go to Denver, right?" Lisa asked breathlessly.
"Certainly does." The attendant read the row and seat number. "Take your seat quickly, please, Ms. Berthoff. We'll be taking off momentarily."
"Sorry, I'm not usually so late." Lisa secured the pack on her shoulder. "My editor called just as I was headed to the Monterey Peninsula. So much for shooting the whales this year."
The woman's eyes opened wide. "Shoot?"
Lisa laughed. "I'm a photojournalist." She braced her camera case on her hip to squeeze through the aisle. "Only damage this thing can do is if it lands on someone."
The woman laughed. "I see. Have a nice flight." She opened an overhead compartment and helped secure Lisa's bag.
"Thank you." Lisa clicked her seat belt just before the plane backed away from the terminal. She leaned her head back, determined to relax.
As soon as the captain gave the clearance, Lisa used her laptop computer and checked for messages, hoping to find out transportation arrangements from Denver International Airport to the bed-and-breakfast. She would call Katarina and Emily once she knew more about her schedule. Raking the unruly strands of hair out of her eyes, Lisa took a deep breath. Come on, Francie.
Despite the frustrations of the sudden change in plans, she couldn't deny it would be good to see her older sisters again.
She knew Loveland was close to Springville, but she wasn't exactly sure where this bed-and-breakfast was in relation. Surely she could squeeze in a few days with Katarina and Emily before she rushed off on her next assignment. A smile teased her lips. Kevin and Emily's daughter would have her first birthday soon, while Katarina and Alex were due to have their first baby in just a few months. It seemed like just yesterday that she'd flown into a Colorado blizzard for their wedding. Had it really been a year already?
Memories invaded her thoughts and threatened to send her into a tailspin of emotions. She forced them away and moved to the next email, making notes to send a requested article as soon as she reached the bed-and-breakfast.
Francie's message finally arrived, instructing Lisa to take a shuttle to a west Loveland store and wait for the proprietor to pick her up.
"We received the attached brochure from the owner's sister. From what she sent us about the place, I think we might want to feature Whispering Pines Guest Ranch in our monthly column, 'America's Most Romantic Getaways.'"
Most romantic getaway? "You've got to be kidding," she muttered. Lisa turned off the laptop and put it away. How did she get stuck with these assignments? No one would take her seriously with stories like this. The passenger beside her left his seat and Lisa stretched her arms. "It's amazing what a person will do to get a job."
Several hours later, after taking a shuttle bus from Denver to Loveland, Lisa dragged her luggage to the curb.
A spry, silver-haired woman approached. "You must be ours." A smile crinkled her delicate pink skin and brought a sparkle to her eyes. "I'm Meg, from the ranch. We're so delighted that you're here."
She eyed Meg again. This frail-looking woman couldn't possibly run a ranch. "Are you sure? I mean, that you're expecting me?"
Meg snatched the huge suitcase from Lisa's grasp and hoisted it over the side of the truck. "Well, I did think there would be two of you," she said, glancing at the shuttle as it pulled away. "But if you're from the magazine, then this is just perfect."
Lisa nodded, suddenly a bit flustered. "I'm the Greens' replacement, Lisa Ber-thoff. The couple you were expecting went into premature labor."
"Oh, my. Well, I'm delighted that you're here, Lisa. Millie apologizes for not being able to pick you up herself."
Meg filled the thirty-minute drive with a history lesson on Whispering Pines Guest Ranch. "Millie has turned the ranch over to her son now."
Lisa learned that Meg and her late husband had worked for the Carter family for three decades. From Meg's descriptions, Lisa had wonderful mental pictures of the ranch, as well as the generous family determined to share their land with others instead of breaking it up into exclusive residential property.
Meg slowed the truck around a curve. The road opened before them into an enormous valley of gently rolling hills, jagged bluffs and wooded fringes. "Welcome to Whispering Pines Lodge, Adam's plan to save his grandparents' property," she said softly. "Bless his heart. He's put everything he has into saving this place."
"He must love it." Lisa pulled her camera from the bag and focused on the stately new guest house. "Wow " She sighed. "Can you stop here, Meg? I want my first impressions on film."
Lisa hopped from the truck. The camera clicked.
On one side of the valley she photographed horses corralled between a weathered barn and split-rail fence. On the other, snow-dusted pine trees climbed the mountain. She snapped a series of shots of the icy creek meandering under a rustic stone bridge that separated a smaller home from the land where the new addition was located.
Lisa lowered the camera and filled her lungs with the pine scent. She paused. An odd feeling stirred within her. Anticipation was to be expected on any new job, but that wasn't all.
Mystified by the intensity she felt about this assignment as they drove closer to the lodge, Lisa felt her usually "on-edge" nerves dissipate. She squirmed in her seat, uneasy with the sense of hope and tranquillity. If she didn't know better, she'd think there was something to this romantic getaway idea.
How Meg had managed to convince a skeptic like Lisa was a mystery. She'd given up on romance long ago. Yet, in that brief moment when she first saw Whispering Pines, it was as if she knew everything she needed to know in order to write this story.
Meg pulled through the circular drive to the impressive front entrance and shut off the engine. Lisa slid from the seat of the truck and looked around. In the distance a man carrying a huge ax over his shoulder like Paul Bunyan disappeared behind a miniature barn-shaped building.
Lisa lifted her eyebrows. Hmm, this may not be so bad after all. When he appeared again, Lisa was waiting with camera focused. Click click click He propped the ax against a tall evergreen and turned toward her. The man was tall, broad-shouldered and much younger than she'd anticipated. He sauntered closer in long, purposeful strides. The lens cap dangled in the icy breeze, tapping against her hand.
Seconds later the man's hand pulled the camera away from her face.
"What are you doing?" Lisa yanked it from his hand and snapped the lens cover in place to protect it from any chance of damage. "Excuse me, but this is my camera."
"And this is my land." His voice left no room for discussion.
Lisa glanced up again. He had a strong jaw, deep-set eyes and sun bleached brown hair that desperately needed a cut. Nevertheless, he was still one drop-dead handsome cowboy. He crossed his arms over his chest and Lisa felt her heart race. Whispering Pines Guest Ranch. It couldn't be. "Adam?" She stepped back, confused. "I thought "
He looked puzzled. He obviously didn't recognize her from their sisters' and brothers' weddings.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am. I don't believe we've met. May I ask what in tarnation you're doing with that camera?"
Pulling herself together, Lisa extended her hand. This was a professional assignment. Not a family gathering. The backpack slid from her shoulder, and with the flick of his wrist, the stunning proprietor caught it. Lisa lifted it back to her shoulder. "I'm taking pictures ."
"I figured that much out." His frown deepened. "Question is, why?"
"I'm " Momentarily, she wasn't sure who she was, and less sure of what she was doing here. "I'm Lisa Berthoff, Ka-tarina and Emily's sister."
One eyebrow lifted. "Lisa?" A look of shock plastered onto his face, Adam tried to regain his composure. "I didn't recognize you."
No kidding. "Must be my hair. It was shorter."
"And " Adam raised his hands to his hair and awkwardly let them drop again. "Umm curlier."
Lisa nodded, remembering. "Yes, it was." The expense of curling her stubbornly straight hair was a luxury she'd had to go without after the surprise that awaited her return from Kat's wedding. The changes in her appearance were obviously not improvements from the look on Adam's face. She had stress to thank for the weight loss. Stress and Dale. Or were the two one and the same? At least her perception had improved since he'd walked out on her. When it came to men, she now had twenty-twenty vision. She'd been blinded by love once, but never again.
Adam stared, speechless.
Mrs. MacIntyre came down the guest house steps and broke the uncomfortable silence. "Lisa? I didn't know you were coming."
"Hello, Mrs. MacIntyre. The magazine sent me as a last-minute replacement for the Greens. I'm here to do the write-up on Adam.I mean, on Whispering Pines."
"Magazine? What magazine?" Adam said.
Ignoring his questions, his mother continued. "Call me Millie, please." She wrapped an arm around Lisa and looked at her son. "Isn't this just perfect, Adam, dear? Lisa's doing your story." Millie beamed, and her voice was overly enthusiastic, even by Lisa's estimation. "I can't wait to tell Elizabeth that you're here."
Adam plastered a smile across his face.
"Is that so?" Without another word to her, Adam reached for Lisa's bags in the back of the truck. "Thanks for bringing our guest out, Meg. Have a good weekend."
"It was my pleasure. Enjoy your stay, Lisa."
"Thank you, Meg. I'm sure it will be wonderful."
Adam groaned, but whether it was because of the conversation or the seventy-pound suitcase he was lifting, Lisa wasn't sure. What did he expect? Her entire life was in these bags.
Adam glanced at his mother, who'd followed Meg to the white sedan in the parking lot across the yard. He turned to Lisa and lowered his voice. "And just to set things straight, Mrs. Sorry, I didn't catch your married name."
Lisa was stunned. Married? What, or who, had given Adam the impression she had married?
"Never mind. Just so you realize, I'm not interested in advertising in any magazine nor am I doing any interview for one."
Keep your cool, Lisa. You need this job.
"Thanks for clarifying that. Good thing I'm not in advertising, then, isn't it? And just to clear up one more thing." She hated to add to his problems, whatever they might be, but she believed in honesty. "I'm not married."
"Great. Just great," he said, then took off across the flagstone walk, mumbling.
Millie's voice startled Lisa. "Oh, dear. Look at the time." Adam's mom smiled at Lisa then climbed into the truck, calling sweetly to Adam as he closed the distance between himself and the front door of the house. "Don't count on me for dinner tonight. I'm having dinner with Mr. Miller. Why don't you catch Lisa up on all the family news?" She turned the key and revved the engine. "Don't pay any attention to his grumbling, Lisa. He'll be fine soon. I'm sure of it. I'll look forward to visiting with you tomorrow."