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Aurora Vandergren Joneston Linden-March, otherwise known as Aurora Jones, picked up her buttercup-yellow Western boots-special ordered from a boot maker in Austin and worth every dollar-and carefully placed them inside an oversize shopping bag, along with her purse and the small box that contained a wedding gift. She'd wear her water-resistant, mud-proof UGGs until she arrived at the ranch, and then the yellow clipped-toe, stacked-heel beauties would make their debut in the recently cleaned and decorated barn.
She was late. She hated being late. Especially today, when everyone-everyone-was gathering at the famous Triple M for the wedding of the year.
The wedding of the decade, actually.
Who knew when the last wedding had taken place in Willing, Montana, home to too many bachelors and too few eligible women?
Before my time, Aurora decided, grabbing her car keys off the polished wooden counter of her bar. Way before my time.
Willing was not known for weddings, but if the mayor had his way, that was going to change. Aurora and her bar, the historic Dahl, would be thriving in the center of the Romance Capital of Montana before summer began. And Aurora was going to be ready for the influx of tourists.
She shrugged on an ivory down vest and had one freshly manicured hand on the door, ready to push it open and step out onto the sidewalk, when the door was pulled open from the outside. Aurora caught herself from falling forward into the weak Montana sunshine.
"Excuse me," came a deep male voice.
"We're closed," she said, looking past a denim-covered chest as a truck honked on the street. She waved absently, assuming it was the annoying mayor honking his perpetual enthusiasm toward one and all. She'd deal with him unofficially this afternoon and officially tomorrow morning. She could hardly wait.
"Closed," she repeated, her keys in her hand. "For the holiday."
That's when Aurora looked at him. Really looked at him. He was tall, late thirties, with dark brown hair that appeared a little too long and a face that should advertise male grooming products in upscale magazines. Hazel eyes, sexy stubble and a casual how-can-you-resist-me smile completed the picture. He was taller than Aurora, who was easily five foot ten, but by just a few inches. A child stood next to him, a young girl with white-gold hair who was bundled into a blue hoodie and jeans. The child stomped her sneakered feet as if she was freezing to death.
"A wedding, but I'm running late and don't have time to-"
"A holiday for a wedding?" He seemed baffled, but his eyes twinkled as if he knew he was being charming. "Must be some wedding if the whole town is celebrating. Or are weddings that rare around here?"
"As rare as my being on time," she grumbled, wondering how to get past him. She started forward, assuming he'd move back. Which he did, reluctantly. "It's the first unofficial Willing to Wed wedding," she said, knowing how ridiculous she sounded. "It's not one of the official ones."
"Jake," the child begged. "Please?"
"Look," the man said to Aurora. "I have an emergency-"
"It's not an emergency," the girl said, hopping up and down. "I just need to use the loo. This is so embarrassing."
"Could my daughter-" He gestured toward the child and smiled again, but this time Aurora saw that the smile didn't quite touch his eyes. He was in a bind and Aurora guessed it was an unfamiliar one. And the girl called her father by his first name?
Aurora frowned as she studied the man. She ignored the sexy stubble, the square jaw and the wrinkled denim shirt. Who the heck was he and why was he here in town, today of all days, when the whole place was practically deserted? She wondered if she should be afraid.
"If this is some kind of trick and you're actually intending to rob me, you should know that the cash went to the bank last night." She gave him a look guaranteed to intimidate. She'd practiced that look in front of the mirror for years and was very proud of it.
"Jake" held his hands up, palms out. "No weapons, see? I'll wait outside," he said. "If you have a sawed-off shotgun behind the bar, feel free to wave it around. I promise to be terrified."
"Well-" Aurora stepped back into the bar and flicked on the light switch. She felt sorry for the child, who, unless she was an excellent actress, certainly seemed distressed. But if this was a robbery attempt, the man was in for a fight. She had a can of Mace attached to her car keys and the sheriff's number on speed dial. Just to be on the safe side, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and made sure it was on.
"Go to the end of the room, down the hall- over there to the left-and two doors down on the right."
"Thank you." The child scurried toward the back.
"I appreciate this," the man called through the open door from outside. "There was a café on the main road, but it was closed. So was the gas station."
"I told you," she said, moving closer to the doorway. "It's a town holiday. And it's Sunday. Things are very quiet around here on Sundays."
"Right. The wedding."
She saw him take in her dress with its floaty skirt and violet flowers. The look was ruined with the down vest and thick suede boots, but a woman living in Montana needed to be practical.
"And you're late."
"How late? Will you miss it?"
She looked at the clock hanging over the center of the bar above the mirror. "No. Not if I drive fast. And they'll never start on time."
"I suppose you know everyone in town."
"What about Sam Hove? He moved here a few months ago."
"Uh, I think he was writing a book. I'm not really sure."
"No, I meant why are you looking for him?" She liked Sam. Everyone did. He and Lucia were together now, planning to get married sometime this summer. The former adventurer and documentary filmmaker had fallen in love with the nicest woman Aurora knew, and no one deserved happiness more than the widow and her three little boys.
"I'm done," the girl called, hurrying back to the door. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Aurora couldn't help smiling. The child was very serious and composed. With her round cheeks and light coloring, she looked nothing like her father. Aurora couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew something wasn't quite right. The two didn't seem to mesh like a father and daughter. The child wore expensive clothing, but the father certainly didn't. She stopped the girl before she reached the door and leaned down.
"Are you safe?" she whispered.
"Safe?" The girl's blue eyes widened.
"Yes," Aurora said, feeling foolish but unwilling to let the girl leave with someone who didn't seem to be her father. It was none of her business, of course, but still . "You know, do you need help?"
"You mean, am I being abducted? Really?"
"Call me crazy," Aurora replied. "But I have to make sure you're not in some kind of trouble. I can call the sheriff and keep you safe."
"It's fine." She rolled her eyes. "Jake's my father but I just met him last week. He's okay."
The girl surprised her with a quick hug.
"Thank you. It was really nice of you to be so considerate."
"You're welcome." Aurora grabbed her shopping bag and followed the girl outside, but she wavered between feeling foolish and feeling protective. She just met her father last week?
"Yes," the man-Jake-said, obviously hearing his new daughter's words. "Thank you for your help."
Aurora pulled the door shut and locked the dead bolt. "Well. Have a good day."
He hesitated. "So, everyone in town is at this wedding?"
She took a deep breath of spring air. It was warmer than she'd thought it would be. And the sun was out, thank goodness. "I would think so."
"What do you want with Sam?"
"He's my brother. I'm Jake. Jake Hove." He looked at her as if he thought she would recognize the name.
"I didn't know Sam had a brother."
Something flashed in his eyes. "We're not close. But we're working on it."
Aurora wanted to go to the ranch. She wanted to get into her great big SUV and head out to the Triple M, where she would help celebrate. She did not want to stand out in the wind and discuss bizarre family issues with a total stranger.
"Well," she said, moving away. "Good for you."
"Where is this wedding?"
She stopped, turned around. "That's private information."
"Not exactly." He pointed to a poster in her front window. Sure enough, he'd noticed the "Meg and Owen" wedding announcement, Meg's solution to inviting the town without accidentally leaving anyone out. "I gather this is the special event. Where is the Triple M?"
"Ninety miles from here."
"I guess that's why my brother isn't home. He's gone to an unofficial Willing to Wed wedding."
"Yes." Aurora ignored the charming smile he gifted her with. "Does he know you're in town?"
"When you see him, tell him I'm here, would you?"
"Sure." But she didn't know whether to believe he was related to Sam. This man was too handsome, too sure of himself, too accustomed to having his way. Not at all like Sam Hove, who tended to slip quietly into crowds and not attract attention. Both men were dark-haired and tall. And there could be a resemblance around the nose and mouth. Maybe. She didn't want to stare.
And she was late, she thought, hurrying to her car. Late, when she should have been early, except that Bill sent an email with the updated designs attached and she'd had to send changes back to him, because it all had to be perfect for tomorrow's meeting.
"Thanks again for your help," he called after her.
She opened the driver's door, tossed her bag inside and scooted behind the wheel. The wedding and barn-dance reception was the social event of the season, and she didn't intend to miss a minute. She'd ordered very good champagne, she'd helped decorate the barn yesterday and today she was going to party.
After all, she hadn't been to a wedding since her own. But she wasn't going to think about that. She was going to think happy thoughts.
She'd chosen a dress covered with violets for the occasion because the bride had gently hinted that she hoped her two friends would wear either violet or yellow, if that wasn't too much trouble. Meg was the least fussy bride that ever walked down the aisle. After sixteen years apart from her first love, the rancher Owen MacGregor, Meg had found true love once again with Owen when, last October, he'd finally returned to the town his ancestors founded. It hadn't taken him long to decide to stay.
Meg was the kind of woman who didn't care for shopping and didn't like a lot of fuss made over her, something that amused her friends. Lucia was the queen of thrift stores and Aurora was no stranger to online shopping and discreet shopping trips to New York.
"Of course, we'll wear whatever you want us to," Lucia had promised, knowing full well that she and Aurora would use every resource to find the perfect outfits.
"We'll match the cupcakes," she'd said, giving Aurora a wink. Lucia was Meg's best friend, their having met in culinary school, and was the town's baker. She was baking the wedding cake, plus crate loads of cupcakes so that no one in town would miss out on the wedding dessert. Aurora couldn't imagine how the woman managed it. Baking was a mystery, and
Aurora was on the outside looking in when it came to that particular skill.
In fact, most of her domestic skills were nonexistent.
Despite a knack for shopping, Aurora had never dressed to match bakery products before, but in the past four years she'd done a lot of things she'd never done before. She bought a bar, she ran a business, she quilted-quilted, how odd was that!-and she had girlfriends.
Wait until they heard that someone who claimed to be Sam's brother was in town.