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A Nugget Romance
By Stacy Finz
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Stacy Finz
All rights reserved.
Nate shielded his eyes against the flashing red lights and followed the ambulance into the Lumber Baron parking lot and up to the front door. At least the driver had the good sense to kill the siren. No need waking the entire inn. Not at this hour, when they had a houseful of paying guests.
He wondered if Samantha had already arrived and kind of hoped she hadn't. His sister Maddy, while still on maternity leave, had been the one to hire the inept socialite to handle the everyday running of the Lumber Baron. Why, he had no idea. Samantha Dunsbury had more money than brain cells and wasn't exactly reliable. Just four months ago she'd left her fiancé at the altar without so much as a goodbye text, got in her car and drove west from New York City. Given that the Dunsburys were Old Greenwich, Connecticut, money and there had been bogus reports that Samantha had been kidnapped for ransom, the fiasco wedding made national headlines. Folks in Nugget couldn't stop talking about it. Of course, it didn't take a whole lot to get the residents running their mouths. Pretty much anything remotely titillating got broadcast through the California town's expansive grapevine like political fodder on the cable news networks.
Here, Samantha Dunsbury may as well have been Paris Hilton. And the mystery of why she'd dumped her groom-to-be, a Wall Street tycoon, in the eleventh hour only added to the woman's mystique.
Nate didn't care what reason she had for leaving her intended standing in a Manhattan church looking like the world's biggest chump. His only concern was making sure she didn't treat the Lumber Baron with the same indifference. He suspected that the spoiled heiress would have no qualms about leaving him in the lurch when she got bored with playing innkeeper.
Nate glanced at his watch, let out a frustrated breath, and hopped out of his car. By the time he got inside the inn, the paramedics were rushing up the staircase to room 206. He trailed behind them, not wanting to get in the way, only to find that Samantha had indeed beaten him to the scene.
"Take deep breaths, Mrs. Abernathy." Sam held the guest's hand. Nate didn't know why Sam wanted the woman to focus on her breathing. According to Maddy, Mrs. Abernathy was having stomach problems, not a baby. "Maybe it's just one of those twenty-four-hour flus."
"Sam, dear, I'm an emergency-room nurse," Mrs. Abernathy said, her face mottled in pain. "It's appendicitis and I want the damn thing out."
Sam looked up from Mrs. Abernathy and made eye contact with Nate. "What are you doing here?"
The woman clearly thought she was the lady of the manor, and Nate wanted very much to set her straight. Not the time, nor the place, he told himself. "Maddy called me."
"Oh," was all she said as one of the medics jostled her aside.
"You need help, Mr. Abernathy?" Samantha called to a man Nate presumed was Mrs. Abernathy's husband. He'd been hurrying around the room, gathering up assorted personal items and stuffing them into a suitcase.
"I think I got everything," he said, his brows knitted as he watched the paramedics check Mrs. Abernathy's vital signs and move her onto a gurney. "How you doing, Alice?"
"I've been better," she responded, and Mr. Abernathy stopped packing to gently squeeze her foot, the only part of her he could get to while the medics worked.
"If you leave anything, don't worry," Samantha assured him. "I'll mail it to you. Let me take you to the hospital, Mr. Abernathy. I hate for you to drive when you're stressed out like this. I could drive your car and Nate could follow. Or maybe you would prefer to go in the ambulance?"
"You've gone to enough trouble," Mr. Abernathy said, patting Sam on the back. "We appreciate everything you've done and hope we didn't wake the entire inn."
"Don't be silly. I'm just sorry Mrs. Abernathy is sick and that you'll miss your bird-watching tour. I know how much the both of you were looking forward to it."
Nate had to keep from rolling his eyes. Sam poured it on a little thick. He moved out of the doorway so the paramedics could get through with the stretcher. As they lifted Mrs. Abernathy out of the room and down the staircase, her husband reached for the suitcase. Before Sam could help him with it, Nate grabbed the handle out of her hand and joined the procession to the main floor.
"You sure you don't want me to take you?" Sam asked the husband again.
"I'm fine, dear." Mr. Abernathy pulled a set of keys from his pocket. "Alice is one tough cookie. Aren't you, Alice?" He winked at his wife, who responded with a faint nod.
"I'll live," she said, and reached for her husband's hand.
Mr. Abernathy turned to Sam. "You have my credit card number, so we're square, right?"
"No charge, Mr. Abernathy," Samantha said, and Nate stiffened. "You just come back and see us when Mrs. Abernathy is better."
"We will certainly do that. And thank you, Sam. For everything." Mr. Abernathy quickly headed to the back of the ambulance, told his wife he'd be right behind her, and kissed her on the forehead before the paramedics closed the door.
Afterward, Nate helped him load the luggage into the couple's Honda Accord and went back inside to find Samantha behind the check-in desk at the computer. She was probably voiding the couple's credit card transaction.
"Hey, little Miss Sunshine, next time you decide to give away three nights in one of our best rooms, check with me first," he told her. "We have a forty-eight-hour cancelation policy."
"I'm sure Mrs. Abernathy didn't know two days ago that she'd be coming down with appendicitis or she would have canceled," Samantha said, her blue eyes narrowing.
Nate didn't appreciate the attitude. "Those are the rules," he said. "I'm sorry she got sick. I really am. But while this may be a hobby to you, it's a for-profit business for the rest of us."
"Why do you always talk to me like that?" She raised her chin above the computer and stared him straight in the face. Still, he detected a slight tremble in her voice.
Here come the tears. It was nearly two in the morning and he didn't have the patience for any more drama. He wanted to go home and back to bed.
"You ever think that doing the right thing is good for business?" she asked. No tears. Just a bucketload of indignation.
Great, now she wanted to tell him how to run a hotel. Well, he had news for her: He'd been working in the hospitality industry before she was old enough to teethe on her silver spoon. His parents ran one of the most successful boutique hotel operations in the Midwest and he'd learned how to take a reservation before he could ride a bicycle without training wheels.
"Samantha, just check with me before you start comping the guests. Where's Andy?"
She looked down at her shoes, designer ones if Nate had to guess. "I told him he could go in the break room. There was no reason for the both of us to—"
"He's in there working on his music, isn't he?" Nate wanted to put finger quotes around music, because the emo crap Andy wrote sounded more like the caterwauling of a feline in heat. Nate shook his head and wondered when he'd begun running a charity for slackers and dilettantes. At least the members of his staff in San Francisco were professionals. Every last one of them. "Well, get him back in here. Come on, I'll follow you home. At least you can catch a few hours of sleep before opening."
"I don't need you to follow me home," she said, and headed to the break room in the back. The staff lounge was isolated from the guest rooms so that employees could take breaks without fear of disturbing sleeping residents. Sam returned with a repentant-looking Andy and seemed to be stalling. But Nate would be damned if he'd let her walk to her car alone. Nugget was a safe country town—his brother-in-law, the police chief, kept it that way. But bad things could happen anywhere.
When Nate and Maddy had first bought the Lumber Baron, they'd had their own brush with crime. A meth head had set up shop in the then-decrepit Victorian and attacked Maddy when she'd been there alone. Then Rhys Shepard had saved the day. He'd shot the bad guy, married Maddy, and the town had been relatively crime-free ever since.
Nate glowered at Andy and turned to Samantha, who was gathering up her purse and jacket. "You ready to go?"
Between clenched teeth, she said, "You go ahead. I'm fine on my own." She clearly disliked him as much as he did her, which was fine as long as she did her job.
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Samantha, we live next door to each other." Not by Nate's choice. He'd bought his house before Sam and her Mercedes convertible had slammed into Nugget. That had been right after Christmas, back when half the town thought the woman had escaped from a loony bin. But because Sierra Heights had the fanciest homes in town, Miss Richie Rich had to lease the place next to his. Right on the golf course.
"Whatever," she huffed, and turned for the door, giving him a spectacular view of her heart-shaped ass, not that he wanted to look. He knew all about beautiful spoiled princesses. Been there, done that, and had the returned engagement ring to prove it.
He followed her to the gated community where they both lived, watched her taillights disappear behind her garage door, and waited until he saw her silhouette through the living room window before pulling into his own driveway.
He walked into his empty house. Other than the log bed he'd bought from Colin Burke, Nugget's resident furniture builder, he hadn't had time to purchase couches or even a kitchen table. Anyway, he usually ate all his meals at the Ponderosa, Nugget's only sit-down restaurant, which seconded as a bowling alley. His best friends owned the joint and were the reason he and Maddy had chosen Nugget as the location for their hotel in the first place.
Hoping that if they built it, tourists would come, he and Maddy had bought the Lumber Baron eighteen months ago. At the time, the Victorian mansion was the most dilapidated building on the town's square. They'd sunk a ton of money into renovating, fought the city for a lodging permit, and opened their doors on a wing and a prayer.
Ever since, business had fluctuated. Sometimes, like now, it was better than Nate could've imagined. But during the months of December, January, and February, when Nugget got socked in with snow, the place had been emptier than a bar after last call. Ordinarily, spring would've been the perfect time to go full bore on promoting the fledgling bed-and-breakfast with extra ad campaigns and more Internet visibility, but Maddy had to go and get herself knocked up. Nate tried to do his best, but he had nine other hotels to operate in San Francisco, four hours away.
That's why he constantly traveled back and forth. But living out of a suitcase had started to wear on him, so he'd bought the Sierra Heights house, thinking it would be a good investment. Mostly, though, he liked having his own space, especially since lately he spent more time here than in the city. The house—a sprawling two-story log cabin with mammoth picture windows—also had plenty of space for Lilly, his daughter. He went to bed thinking how much he missed seeing her every day and experiencing parenthood the way a normal father would.
Just about the time he drifted off to sleep, the incessant beeping of his clock roused him awake. Nate shut off the alarm and lay there for a few minutes with his arm covering his eyes, then got up and took a shower. The huge tiled stall had multiple spray nozzles and a rain showerhead. The house had a lot of great features: tall ceilings, radiant floor heating, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and views that wouldn't quit. But he hadn't exactly made it a home. Between the birth of his daughter and running Breyer Hotels, there hadn't been time.
In San Francisco he lived in one of his hotel's penthouses. Small but fully furnished, the suite came with round-the-clock room service. As the boss, he never had to wait long for anything. Despite the ease of living there, he found it impersonal, and all the pampering and sucking up made him feel soft.
No pampering here. He didn't even have a coffeemaker. He knew Samantha had one; a stainless-steel job that looked like it would also rotate your tires. The one and only time he'd been inside her place, he'd seen the machine, along with enough paintings and sculptures to fill the de Young. If you asked him, she'd decorated the place a little over the top for a town like Nugget, where chainsaw bears and mud-flap girls amounted to high art.
He put on a pair of boxer shorts, went to his bedroom window, and separated a few of the blind slats with his fingers to peek at her window. She had her drapes drawn so he couldn't see anything. For all he knew, she'd already left for work.
One thing he'd say for Sam was that she was always on time. He presumed she'd read somewhere that being prompt was a big part of keeping a job. According to Maddy, other than volunteering, Sam had never actually worked a day in her adult life. Nate couldn't imagine being that idle, not to mention that his parents wouldn't have tolerated it. The Breyers might be relatively well-off, but they'd earned their fortune, not inherited it. And they'd worked damned hard and had raised their kids to do the same.
He finished getting dressed, made half a dozen phone calls to check on his San Francisco hotels, and jetted over to the Ponderosa. He'd barely been there long enough to get comfortable when Owen slid into his booth. The barber was the unofficial leader of the "Nugget Mafia," a group of the town's power brokers who also happened to be the biggest busybodies around.
"What's up, Owen?" Nate had helped himself to a cup of coffee and was waiting for a waitress to take his order. There was no sign of Sophie or Mariah, the Ponderosa's proprietors. But Nate seemed to remember something about them doing errands in Reno.
"How's the redhead?"
"No. Howdy Doody. Who else would I be talking about?" Owen waved over a server. "Who does a guy have to sleep with around here to get some service?" He pointed to Nate. "This fellow wants to order."
Nate got his usual: two fried eggs, hash browns, bacon, and toast.
When the waitress left, Nate said, "She's doing fine, Owen."
True to form, Owen actually expected Nate to share personnel information with him. Not a lot of professional decorum—or boundaries of any kind—in this town.
"Why do you ask?" Nate asked, curious. Sometimes Owen's nosiness paid off. The man usually had the best intel in Nugget.
"Just curious. You gotta admit she's a hottie."
She was that. She was also a fickle, spoiled, trust-fund baby. Something Nate didn't plan to lose sight of.
"Why do ya think she left that fiancé of hers?" Owen continued.
"How would I know?"
Nate's food came and he prayed Owen would let him eat in peace. No such luck. Owen was a man born to loiter. "Don't you have hair to cut?"
"It's Darla's day," Owen said.
Darla was Owen's daughter, who'd taken over the barbershop so the old man could retire. Nate, however, doubted that would ever happen. Owen liked being at the center of it all, and the barbershop was practically town hall. That's why the old geezer held on to a few longtime customers, mostly members of the Nugget Mafia.
"You think he might've been one of those Bernie Madoff characters?"
"Who?" Nate asked, flagging over the waitress for more coffee.
"I don't know, Owen. I don't know anything about the guy." Just that Nate felt an affinity for the dupe.
"Well, why else would she have left him? Unless he beat her. You think he beat her?"
Nate blew out a breath. "You watch too much daytime television, Owen. But if you're so curious, ask Darla. She probably knows."
"Beautician-client privilege," Owen said.
But Nate doubted that even Darla knew the truth. From what he'd heard, the runaway bride had kept the secret of her failed nuptials pretty close to her Versace vest.
All anyone knew about Samantha Dunsbury was that she'd shown up in Nugget with a head of hacked hair and 2,700 miles of road stuck to her tires. According to her story, she'd gone scissor happy on her hair the morning of her wedding, got in her car, and kept driving until she landed here, the middle of nowhere. Then she holed up at the Lumber Baron until Darla fixed her hair and Maddy gave her a job.
Excerpted from Starting Over by Stacy Finz. Copyright © 2015 Stacy Finz. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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