Read an Excerpt
Rust Creek Falls, Montana
Vanessa wasn't sure she'd heard Nate Crawford correctly.
A rushing noise that reminded her of the crazy bumper-to-bumper traffic on Philadelphia's Schuylkill Expressway filled her ears, except it was the beautiful mountain scenery around her that went a bit hazy as she choked down a mouthful of hot tea. Blinking hard, she focused on the disposable cup in her hand, noticing for the first time she'd grabbed two different flavored tea bags which explained the chocolateyorange taste burning her tongue.
Even though she'd remembered arriving early enough for this morning's meeting to grab some refreshment at the canteen here on the job sitenot to mention watching the breathtaking Montana sunrise through the two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows that filled the back wallmaybe it had all been a figment of her imagination.
Maybe she was still tucked beneath her goose-down comforter in that amazingly oversize Davy Crockett-style bed in her cabin, dreaming
"Are you all right?" Nate asked, getting her attention. She looked up in time to see him rock back on his heels, a slight frown on his handsome face. He then glanced at his fiancée, Callie Kennedy, a nurse who helped run the local clinic, who'd placed a hand on his arm.
"Yes," she gasped, "yes, I'm fine."
No, that was a lie. Vanessa was definitely not fine despite the fact she stood in the cavernous lobby and main entertaining space of a log mansion that Nate, a local businessman and member of one of the town's founding families, was converting into a year-round resort.
The gorgeous view of the Montana wilderness was at her back while a stone fireplace big enough to stand in filled the opposite wall. And then there were the rest of the walls. All empty. Her gaze honed in on one of themfreshly painted if the scent tickling her nose meant anything, above the oversize, hand-hewed, carved desk where guests would check in once the resort officially opened.
"You want to hire me" Vanessa asked, knowing she had to hear the words again. "to do what?"
"Paint a mural," Nate repeated, gesturing at the large blank space. "I thought it would be a great tribute to the people and places that mean so much to this town, to Montana. Rust Creek Falls has a connected history with both Thunder Canyon and Whitehorn and I'd like see all three towns honored here at the resort."
Her gaze followed, trying to see the vision the man's words created, but nothing came to her artist eye. Zero. Zilch. Her stomach cramped at the now conditioned sensation. How many times had she experienced that same feeling over the past year?
"I think he surprised you, didn't he?" Callie asked.
"Ah, yes." Vanessa glanced down at her cup again. "Maybe I should've gotten something a bit stronger to ensure I was fully awake for this."
"And maybe we shouldn't have asked you to meet us here so early, but we both have to be down in Ka-lispell for most of the day. Nate didn't want to wait, and you did say"
"Ah, no, early is fine. I'm usually up before the sun, anyway." Looking up at her friend, she waved off Cal-lie's concern. "But I'm still a bit confused. You're asking me to do this because "
"Because I was quite amazed." Nate paused and took a step closer, his head bent low even though the three of them were the only ones around, "and pleased when I found out the Vanessa Brent who's running an after-school art program at the community center and V. E. Brent, world-famous abstract expressionism artist, were one and the same."
Nate's soft-spoken words took her completely by surprise.
Not that she went out of her way to hide who she was or what she did with her life before moving to Rust Creek Falls back in July. When asked, she'd only said she'd worked in the creative arts, but was currently on a time-out, rethinking her career plans. She'd then change the topic of conversation because deep down, the explanation had more than a ring of truth to it.
Or more simply put, she hadn't painted anything in almost a year.
Oh, she'd thought about her craft often, obsessed about it, really. At least until she'd moved out here. Lately, she'd begun to dream about it again, like she'd done as a child. But even though she'd brought along all of her supplies, the white canvases that lined one wall of the cabin she'd rented a few weeks after arriving in town were still blank. Her paints and brushes lay untouched, her heart and her mind as vacant as the walls that surrounded them now.
"Ah, yeah, we're the same person," she finally responded to the expectant looks on Nate's and Callie's faces. "I mean, yes, I'm V. E. Brent, but I haven't been involved with the art world for quite some time."
Even now, Vanessa was still surprised at the deep depression she'd sunk into after Adele's death last year. Or the fact that she hadn't been able to fill the void with her art.
Adele had hung on until just before Thanksgiving and the day of her memorial service had been the start of an arctic winter that had settled in Philadelphia, and most of the country. Vanessa, too, had become locked in her own personal deep freeze. For months she'd mourned, but unlike when her mother died, she failed to find the same solace and comfort in her work. No matter how hard she'd tried, no matter the techniques or tools she employed, her gift had faded into a vast wasteland where nothing flourished.
Even after she'd finally broken out of her self-imposed grieving this past spring, thanks to an intervention led by Adele's mother, the ability to create was still dormant and she'd decided something drastic was needed to shake her back into the world of the living.
Number ten: move out west.
Vanessa had been reading a weekly blog by a bigcity volunteer coordinator who'd moved to Rust Creek Falls to help the town recover from a devastating flood the year before and ended up falling in love and marrying the local sheriff. Soon the idea to move to this little slice of cowboy heaven planted itself in her head and wouldn't let go. So she'd sublet her loft apartment, refused to listen to her father's halfhearted attempts to change her mind and bought a one-way plane ticket to Big Sky Country, placing the first check mark on her and Adele's bucket list in months by arriving just before the July Fourth holiday.
"But you are involved in art," Callie said, breaking into Vanessa's thoughts. "You're great with the kids at the community center."
Vanessa smiled, remembering how she'd gotten roped into helping with a summer day camp that'd showed up at the center looking to entertain a group of kids on a rainy day. "That's pretty much finger painting, playing with clay or simple watercolors. Other than that I'm not."
Her voice cracked and she looked away, that familiar lump back in her throat. Damn! She walked across the vast space, her gaze centered on the empty fireplace. "I'm not well, let's just say that side of meV. E. Brentshe isn't painting. At all."
"Oh, please don't think we've invaded your privacy." Callie hurried to her side. "We haven't told anyone else who you really are. Nate came up with this idea before we even knew thanks to your beautiful sketches."
She looked back at them. "My sketches?"
"Yes, the ones you've been doing of the locals around town. They're amazing. I love the portrait you did of me when I was tending to a scraped knee at the playground. I never even realized what you were up to until you gave it to me. I've got it hanging in my office at the clinic."
A few weeks after her kids program took off, Vanessa had started to once again carry a sketch pad and colored pencils in her oversize bag.
Something she hadn't done in months.
At first, the blank pages seemed to mock her whenever she opened the pad, but then she'd forced herself to do quick exercises, simple pen-and-ink sketches of whatever might catch her eye.
Surprisingly, it had been people.
The citizens of Rust Creek Falls had become her test subjects, either in the park, the community center or while sitting tucked away in a corner of a local business. Sometimes she asked for permission, but usually the sketches were done so quick the focus of her practice exercise didn't even realize what Vanessa was doing until she'd rip out the page from her sketchbook afterward and offer it to them.
So far, no one had been upset with her. She'd figured most had just been tossed away, but she had spotted a few, like Callie's, posted around town. Evidence that her creativity was trickling back little by little.
"The drawing you did of my mother working the counter at Crawford's Store is now matted, framed and holds a place of honor in my father's study," Nate said. "Callie and I were there for Sunday dinner and that drawing got me thinking about the mural, the resort and you."
Surprised at that, Vanessa's gaze was drawn back to the empty space over the desk, looking very much like the oversize blank canvases in her cabin. Nate's request caused her fingers to itch, a familiar sign they wanted to be wrapped around a paintbrush again. But Vanessa knew what would happen. As soon as she'd pull out her paints nothing. Sketching a few random subjects was vastly different than taking on a commissioned work, where the nuances she'd have to capture in oils required planning and a delicate touch.
Things that were still beyond her reach.
Moving far away from home and memories of Adele had been her way to start her life again, and deep down, hopefully restore her spark, her inspiration for her craft. Except for those rare moments when she tried to paint and still failed, Vanessa was enjoying her time in Rust Creek Falls. She'd been lucky enough to find a great place to live, joined the Newcomers Cluba social group of women new to Rust Creek Fallsmade some great friends and explored the area. The art program at the center kept her busy, she'd gone on a few dates with some of the local cowboys and made a point to appreciate each day of her new life.
Number thirteen: stop and enjoy sunrises and sunsets.
Another check mark on her list, made the first morning she woke up in Montana. Adele had been right. Concentrating on her life, and using their list as a guide, had helped her to find joy again.
Which made this idea of Nate's downright scary. What if she said yes and her creative block kept her from putting anything on the wall? And her work was abstract in the truest sense of the word. Powerful color compositions with no reference of any kind to anything recognizable. What Nate was describing was much more detailed, and in a way, more personal.
Still, she found herself wanting desperately to take on the challenge.
Maybe this mural was a chanceher last chanceto find her talent again.
Jonah Dalton breathed in the cool morning air, holding it for a moment in his nose and mouth, like he used to do as kid. The air had a bite to itlike the fresh tartness of a Granny Smith apple the moment you first sink your teeth into itthat couldn't be matched anywhere but here in the wilds of Montana.
He'd missed that taste more than he'd been willing to admit.
The air in Denver, his home for the past eight years, had a flavor that was a mix of excitement and culture, but that was to be expected in a sophisticated city of over 600,000 people, he guessed.
He released his breath, watching the white puffs disappear. He stood on the large circular drive outside of Bledsoe's Folly, soon to be known as well, whatever Nate Crawford decided to name his as-yet-unopened resort. All Jonah knew was that when the chance came to restore and revitalize this twenty-year-old log mansion into a state-of-the-art, and hopefully popular destination for year-round vacations, his architect's heart wouldn't let him turn down the project. Not when the initial construction of the castle-like mansion had fueled his love of architecture and design all those years ago.
So he'd taken a leave of absence from his job with one of the top firms in the country and worked pretty much nonstop on the plans and blueprints for the necessary renovations.
And now he was here.
Even though he'd been less than thrilled about Nate's condition that he be onsite for the last three months of the project in case any problems arose, Jonah had always enjoyed seeing his designs come to life. At work, he forgot everything else. And that's just how he liked it.
He figured he could do the same thing here, even if it meant coming home. And he had to admit he was looking forward to the quiet and slow pace of his home town, especially after all the crazinessprofessional and personalhe'd left behind in Denver. He'd arrived late last night after driving fifteen hours straight and hadn't made it past the living room couch at his parents' place.
Yet, here he was at the job site first thing the next morning, anxious to see his dream turned into reality.
His shiny Cadillac Escalade looked a bit out of place in the parking lot crowded with older-model cars and trucks, but Jonah took the number of vehicles present as a good sign that the crew was already hard at work. He grabbed his white hard hat and turned to head inside, surprised when his older brother Eli pulled up the long winding paved road in a battered pickup.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Good morning to you, too, little brother." Eli waved a piece of paper at him. "Hey, I found your note on the kitchen counter as I was heading out. Decided to stop by and"
"What are you doing with that?" Jonah cut him off. "I left that for Mom, warning her I plan to stay out at the cabin and not to worry about getting my old room ready."
"I know, I read it. Here, take this." Eli handed over a travel mug stamped with the brand of the family's ranch, The Circle D. "Jeez, you're just like the rest of the family, a bear without your morning cup of joe.
Nice to know some things haven't changed. Oh, and welcome home."
The enticing aroma filled Jonah's nose and his blood cried out for caffeinated bliss. Not wanting to wake his family, he'd only grabbed a quick shower and dressed, figuring he'd see everyone tonight at dinner. He'd guessed there'd be a canteen set up inside for the crew, but this was better.
Jonah took the cup. After Eli shut off the truck and climbed out to join him, he grabbed his brother's outstretched hand and allowed Eli to pull him into a quick hug that ended with a strong slap to his back. "Thanks, it's ah, it's good to be back, but I still don't get why you took my note."
"You can't stay at the cabin." Eli stepped back and righted the dark Stetson he wore so much Jonah had often wondered if his brother slept with the darn thing. "It's been rented."
Surprised filled him. "You rented out my cabin?"
"Technically, it wasn't me. It was Mom. And it's not your cabin."
"I designed it. I built it. It's on the acreage Grandpa and Dad set aside for me." Jonah held tight to the mug as the memories that went along with the one bedroom cabin he'd forged with his own hands came crashing back to him. After eight years one would think he'd be over it by now. "Why would Mom rent my cabin to a stranger?"
"I guess because nobody knew when you planned to show your face in town again." Eli turned and headed for the main house. "This place must still have working bathrooms, right?"