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"You want me to assist in a tour?" Bethany Marlow asked, in disbelief. Surely her friend and ex-boss was joking. "You're kidding, right?"
"No kidding involved," Amy James said, and though she was smiling, the petite, blonde owner of Alaska's Treasures tour company looked like she wasn't taking no for an answer. "I'm so glad you've chosen to move back to Treasure Creek and open a wedding-planning business. It is going to be a wonderful addition to the town. I know I'm springing this on you, and probably before you've even unpacked your suitcase. I'm desperate, though. This is a family tour that I feel needs a woman guide assisting the lead guide."
Bethany couldn't believe her ears. Her plane had landed barely an hour agoand yes, her bags were still packed. She'd been in such a hurry to get outside and not waste any of the precious Alaskan daylight that she'd simply slid them inside her hotel room and hurried outside. She'd been stopped several times by acquaintances who were as excited to see her as she was them. Seeing her old friend Amy coming toward her lifted her spirits even higher. But help lead a tour? This was the last thing she had expected to hear from Amy. She hadn't led a tour in years. The idea was kind of tempting, however, opening her wedding-planning business had to come first.
"Amy," she said, feeling bad, "I'd like to help, but I have to put finding a spot to open my store first."
Amy smiled, her eyes twinkling. "Got that covered already. There's a space that opened up around the corner from The General Store just off of Main Street. It's just the cutest, quaintest storefront, with personality plus. I can see your name on the window right now. The location is great. Not that it will matteras soon as these women hear you're in town, I have a feeling you'll be overrun with clients."
"My word, Amy, you're like a steamroller!" Bethany laughedmore from surprise than anything. "You've been thinking ahead on this curve ball you've thrown me." She sobered. "And all before I've even had time to tell you how sorry I was to hear about Ben. I am really so sorry." Amy's husband, Ben had died in a tragic accident just a few short months ago. His death left Amy to raise their two young sons on her own, plus running the tour company business, Alaska's Treasures, by herself. "You have a lot sitting on your shoulders. How are you holding up?"
The entire town was reliant on the tour company to bring in the visitors that kept the town going. Tourist trade was the primary support for all the businesses in town.
"It has to have been so hard on you. I can't imagine."
Amy pushed her red curls from her face with one hand, a softness coming to her eyes. "It has been hard, but God's been right there beside me. And the people of Treasure Creekoh, Bethanythey have just been wonderful. There isn't a better bunch of people in all of the world."
"I agree," Bethany said, and meant it. She'd met some nice people in San Francisco and on her trips around the country, but her heart had a special fondness toward the people of her hometown. She'd missed them. Not that it really was her hometown. Her dad's job in the oil industry had transplanted them into the community when she was in elementary school, but she claimed it as her own. Sadly, she hadn't really appreciated it until she'd moved away and been gone for a while.
"So, will you help out and take the tour? It will be good for you. Like getting your feet wet again with the way of life here in town. You'll be getting in touch with your roots."
"You make it hard to say no."
"I try. Ever since that Now Woman magazine article came out about all the hunky tour guides working for me, the tour business has really picked up. It's just been a blessing to everyone. And not just single women are coming to town looking for love, but also the family tours are picking up, too. Why don't you do this? The reason I need you so much is that the family on the tour has just adopted the little boy they've been foster parents to. They really could use your help. The mom is nervous about the trip and feels like a woman guide will help her feel more at ease."
Amy was watching her intently. She was the type of person who'd always tried to take care of everyone around her. She was still doing it. Bethany knew there was no way she could refuse to help her friend. She'd worked as an assistant guide all through high school. It had been a while, but she was pretty sure she still had what it took to get the job done. At least she liked to think that she still had it. She might have moved to the big city, but she hadn't gone soft.
Plus, Amy was right. The article had been a blessing to everyone, even her. If it hadn't been for Amy's interview with the Now Woman writer, Bethany would still be back in San Francisco, growing more dissatisfied by the minute with the way her life was going. The article had been about how gorgeous and wonderful all the eligible bachelors were who worked for Alaska's Treasures tour company. It had shocked Bethany at firstnot the hunky bachelor part, since she knew all too well how true that part wasbut it had shocked her that Amy had given an interview about them like that. It hadn't seemed like Amy. Talking about her love for her town and her tour company, now that was Amy. Bethany had learned later from her mom who'd heard it through the grapevine that the reporter had given the article "the bachelor twist" all on her own. Romance sold articles, and it had also sold the town. Interest picked up; women were everywhere, coming to town in the hope of falling in love and getting married ever since. Reading it herself had brought tears to Bethany's eyes, and she had to come. It was the answer to her prayers.
After all, where there were weddings there needed to be a wedding planner, and she just happened to be a very good one.
Being home did have its problems though namely, Nate McMann.
Her heart skipped a couple of beats at the thought of him. After all these years and all that had happened, how was that? Unfortunately, it was inevitable that she'd run into him. Treasure Creek was small. She wondered what it would be like to see him again. She'd heard that he had never marriedbut she wasn't going to think about that. Instead she focused on Amy. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I do need to get in touch with my roots. I have missed the wilderness. There is nothing to compare to the beauty of Alaska in the raw."
Amy looked pleased. "So you'll do it?"
Excitement hit her. "Sure, why not," she said, with gusto. "If the guys are still as rough as they used to be, then I'd feel guilty if I leave that poor mother to make it on her own," she said, laughing.
"Oh, they are that. Although you know as well as I do that there is more marshmallow beneath most of their thick skin."
Bethany had learned that with many of the older guides she'd helped out during high school. But she wondered about the guys who'd been her age. Specifically, she wondered about Nateit was something she was going to have to stop doing. She'd heard that he'd taken over running the family ranch when his father retired. She knew from the hours his dad had worked that it was a full-time job. That meant she could relax. It was highly improbable that Nate was a guide any longer. Even in high school, she'd been part-time because of the demands of the ranch.
"Count me in," she said. "Will I have time to get the space leased and then get my gear together before this tour leaves?"
"This is wonderful!" Amy exclaimed. "You have two days before the tour heads out, and everything except clothes will be packed and ready for you. Can you come by the office tomorrow for a briefing?"
What was she doing?
"And no worries about the shop. I'm sure before the sun goes down you'll have a lease on that space. I'm telling you, it is perfect. You run on over there now and look. I'll give Maxine at the real estate office a call, so she can head in that direction and meet you there."
"Hold on," Bethany laughed. "You never told me who was leading the tour or where it's going."
Amy already had her cell phone out and pressed to her ear"I'm still juggling the guys around because of all the honeymoons we've been working into the schedules. Oh, hi, Maxine, this is Amy James, how are you today?" Nodding at something Maxine was saying, Amy cupped her hand over the phone and whispered, "Go on now. Maxine will be there in a few. Come see me tomorrow for a briefing at ten, and I'll get you filled in on everything Yes, Maxine, I'm still here." She waved toward the direction of the office and mouthed the word go.
Bethany did as she was told.
How had this happened? She was home, she was on the scent of the perfect office space and she was booked on an Alaskan wilderness tourall thanks to Amy. And she hadn't even been back in Treasure Creek for an hour. Her head was spinning. People thought life in a small town moved slowlyobviously they hadn't been in Treasure Creek lately.
She hadn't gone but a few steps around the corner when she saw him. Tall, broad-shouldered and as strikingly handsome as he'd always been, Nate McMann was coming out of The General Store with a box of candy in his hand. He wore a rugged sheepskin jacket, his thick blond hair showing beneath his tan Stetson. She'd always loved his hair.
Her footsteps faltered and her heart began pounding, banging against her chest double-time at the sight of him.
He was the most handsome man she'd ever seennothing about him had changed. From the shadow of his Stetson, his blue, blue eyes locked onto hers.
She couldn't breathe.
How was it that the man who'd broken her heart into a thousand pieces could still cause her to go weak in the knees?
It was pathetic then again, she guessed weak in the knees was okay as long as she didn't go weak in the brain.
She had no intention of doing that. She'd become strong and independent in the last few years. It hadn't been easy, though. After he'd sent her away, she'd had to strong-arm herself out of the fog of longing and hurt before it got the better of her.
And now, here she was standing in the middle of town gawking at him and feeling as vulnerable as a kitten.
She needed to act.
To do something.
Say something. But what?
She focused on the positives. Thanks to Nate, she hadn't just talked about her dreams, she'd gone for them and achieved everything she set out to do funny how things had worked out.
"Hello, Nate," she said, just as casually as she greeted every other old friend she met strolling down the street. It sounded good. Strong. Self-confident. Unhurt. In control.
He shifted from one boot to the other.
His eyes, the color of the Pacific Ocean washed over her. Was it her imagination that, for an instant, she thought he'd been drinking in the sight of her as she'd done with him? Foolish was what that was.
She wouldn't let that thought cross her mind again. "Bethany," he said quietly. "Hi."
She always loved the way he said her name. There was something so gentle in the sound, coming from such a rugged man. It had always made her feel protected and special to him. What a lie that had been, she thought, with a jolt of reality. "You look great." She wanted to kick herself for blurting out the first thing that came to mind. But she felt like a schoolgirl again, all uncertain and nervous. It was horrible.
"So do you," he said, dropping the ribbon-tied box of chocolates to his side. Her gaze followed it.
He had a woman in his life, it seemed.
"Why are you back in Treasure Creek?"
Bethany almost laughed. Everyone in town more than likely knew why she was back by the time her f light landed. They probably even knew that she was walking down the street at this very minute and was now stopped, talking to her old boyfriend.
"You haven't heard?" she asked, dismayed, feeling like every moment standing there with him was endless.
"I heard that you're opening a wedding-planning service." His gaze sharpened, pinned her like blue darts. "Why is what I'm asking. You don't belong here."