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Hot buttered rum standal.., p.28
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.28

           Tess Oliver

  Still, Nate had always brought that piece of stability into my life that I badly needed. My parents had died in a car accident when I was ten. I was an only child. I was quickly popped around from relative to relative as if I was just an unwanted possession that my parents had owned. Thankfully, my wonderful grandfather took me in for good. At that time, he was a widower in his mid-seventies. He knew far more about cattle ranching than raising a teenage girl, but, together, we made it work. He took care of me, and I took care of him.

  Grandpa died during my sophomore year at college, and his loss had left me feeling as if the only person who mattered in my life was gone. Then Nate moved into the apartment next door. He was handsome, charming and the catch of the campus. I fell instantly in love.

  I moved the mouse on my computer. Oddly enough, a website popped up. It was spam, obviously. Something about a Silk Stocking Inn and that I would soon be in need of a weekend away. I clicked out of it, but it stayed in place, tempting me with pictures of an old, weather-worn Victorian house and scenic grounds that bordered a countryside with white fences and pastures that seemed to stretch on forever. There were even a few horses standing nearby the Silk Stocking Inn. The sight of them sent a couple twinges of bittersweet nostalgia through me. After college, I’d moved to the city to chase down a good job. I’d found one working for a children’s television network. Through hard work and determination I’d managed to land a position as head producer on the studio’s top show. But there had been many times during my climb to the top and my whirlwind life in the city, that I’d felt homesick for the country, the smell of grass and horses and delicious down home country food.

  I clicked the website again, deciding I’d wasted enough time daydreaming. The website flashed the words ‘see you soon, Rebecca’ and then disappeared. I could see the stunned look on my face in the monitor.

  “Cookies and spam. It’s amazing what these sites can do to personalize their messages,” I muttered to myself. My phone buzzed. It was Nate. It was rare for him to call during the work day. Apparently what he needed to tell me couldn’t wait.

  “Hey, Nate, it’s been crazy here this morning, and I just didn’t have time to call you. What’s up?” His silent pause was overrun by many voices and far too much noise for his office building. “Where are you?”

  More silence.

  I glanced at my phone to see if the connection was lost. “Nate, are you there?”

  “Yes, Becca, I’m here. I just wanted to let you know that—” His voice trailed off and the void was filled by a flight announcement over a loudspeaker.

  “Are you at the airport?” The long, chaotic morning had left me at the end of my tether. I didn’t give him time to answer and jumped right into a rant. “That darn company you work for has no right to just send you off without a moment’s notice. We’ve got an appointment with the bakery tomorrow to pick cake flavors.” I picked up the empty coffee cup as if Nate could see me through the phone. “I’m leaning toward something with a mocha flavor. You know me and my coffee habit. Seems appropriate.”

  “Rebecca, please. I need to talk to you.” He rarely used my full name. His tone was beyond grim, as if something terrible had happened.

  “Oh Nate, is it Grandma Nellie in New York?”

  “Grandma is fine. I’m not in New York. I’m in Australia.”

  “What? Australia. You know I’ve always wanted to go there. What kind of business are you doing down there?”

  “I’m not on business.”

  For once, I decided not to respond. This conversation was heading somewhere very south, and it had nothing to do with the land down under.

  “Becca, I quit my job yesterday, and—” He stopped for a slightly unhinged chuckle. “I just got on a flight to Australia. I met someone.”

  I sat back hard on my chair as if someone had thrown a fist into my stomach. “You met someone?”

  “It was weird. We ran into each other at the lunch counter at George’s diner. She was here on spring break from college, and we just hit it off.”

  “Spring break from college?” It seemed constructing my own responses within my stunned brain was impossible. I found that all I could do was repeat what he was telling me. None of it sounded real. Just like when my uncle had picked me up from school and sat me down to tell me my parents were gone forever. The entire time I’d listened to his words but assured myself it wasn’t real.

  “I just needed to find myself. I wasn’t happy anymore. I’ll always love—”

  “Don’t.” I snapped out of my trance. “Don’t fucking tell my you’ll always love me because I don’t want to hear it. You needed to find yourself, so you ran straight into the arms of a college coed?” I swallowed hard determined not to cry. Every question from—what the hell did I do to scare him off to how much humiliating gossip will I have to avoid once word gets around that the wedding is off—swam through my head.

  A long pause made the whole thing feel as if it wasn’t really happening.

  “I hope you find happiness, Rebecca. Truly.”

  “Huh?” I asked, hardly able to focus on the conversation. Anger followed quickly. “Hope you find what you’re looking for, Nate, only don’t look too hard because frankly, you’re not all that impressive.”

  “You’re upset, Becca, and you’re saying things you don’t really mean. I understand. It’s just that Mindy and I—”

  “Mindy and you? Fuck. I just wasted six years on you. Six of my best years too. My tight ass and perky boobs years, you asshole. But I guess you needed a new pair of perky boobs. Mindy’s boobs.”

  “Rebecca,” he started, but I was in no mood to hear his simpering tone.

  “Fuck off, Nate. Oh, and don’t forget to swim with the jellyfish down there. I hear they have some really deadly ones.” I hung up and stared at my phone as if it was on fire.

  I didn’t know what to feel. It should have been devastation, and I considered that it might be coming along soon. Strangely enough, the man I’d spent the last six years of my life with had left me for another woman, and all I could think about were the calls and cancelations I was going to have to make to erase our wedding plans. Of course, I really only had to cancel the dress and the flowers. Everything else was on Nate’s credit card, where it could stay until it was too late for a refund.

  Chapter 3

  The late Friday afternoon wind down was over, and most of the cast and crew had left for the weekend. I meandered around the dark set for no real reason except I wasn’t in a hurry to head home. It would be my fourth weekend as a newly minted single. I’d promptly packed up all of Nate’s stuff and donated it to the local homeless shelter. We’d always both kept our own places, more to hold on to some slice of independence than anything else. There had been plenty of times during our six years together when I’d needed space from him and he’d needed to be away from me. That was something that was blisteringly apparent now that he’d flown half way around the world to put some true distance between us.

  The strange thing was that I should have felt devastated and brokenhearted, but aside from a few twinges of loneliness, a nice bout of self-doubt and an occasional urge to call and talk to him, I’d felt little else. One thing was certain, I felt a big sense of relief that we’d never gone through with the wedding. It would have been far worse to have him walk away once we’d tied the knot. This way the strings were easily broken with no legal commitment or lawyers.

  Footsteps traveled along the corridor from the costume studio to the stage. Isabel, who had now taken to wearing hats over her over-processed hair, peeked around the corner in her tweed newsboy cap. The look of worry that she’d perfected since Nate left me crossed her face again.

  “Becca, are you sure you don’t want to come to happy hour with the rest of us? It’ll be fun. I’m worried about you. You need to get back on the horse.”

  I laughed. “You sound like my grandfather, only he literally meant get back on the horse.” I fingered the fake ferns running along the edge of the set. They were our prehistoric backdrop, and like my social life, they were looking a bit tired and dusty. “Thanks for the invite and for worrying about me, Isabel, but I think I’ll just go home, zap myself a frozen dinner and watch some old westerns on the classic movie channel. I know you don’t believe me, but I’m really not depressed about Nate. I just don’t see myself out in the world, drinking, dancing and meeting new people yet.”

  “All right, Becca. If you’re sure. I’ll see you Monday.”

  “Have fun tonight.” I checked that the lights were off and headed back to my office to shut down my computer. Isabel waved as she shut down her computer and pulled out her purse.

  My computer monitor glowed on my desk as I stepped into my dark office. I walked around to the keyboard to power off. A website blinked back at me. It was the same unexplained site I’d seen before, on the day when had Nate called to tell me he’d flown off to find himself in the arms of another woman. A banner that read ‘Silk Stocking Inn where every heart’s desire is filled . . . and then some’ splashed across the top of the page.

  Right below it, a box with text appeared. “It’s time for that weekend away, Rebecca. Happiness awaits you.”

  I glanced through the doorway to the center room. “Isabel? Are you still out there? Did you pull up this website?” I chuckled on my way out of the office. “Where on earth did you scrape up that cheesy dating site?” I stopped. Isabel’s desk was deserted, and my voice echoed back to me in the empty room. I was alone. I laughed again, figuring Isabel was having a good laugh about it all the way home.

  I walked back to the office. It had been a long week. I looked forward to curling up on the couch draped in my favorite sweats, clutching the remote and devouring a bag of powdered sugar donuts.

  I ignored the flashing prompt that said ‘you deserve this, Rebecca’. I shut down the computer and walked to the closet for my purse and sweater. The glow of the computer hadn’t dimmed by the time I pulled the sweater on and fished out my car keys.

  I returned to my desk and stared down at my computer. The Silk Stocking Inn with its shabby exterior and impressive collection of roses blinked back at me.

  “What are you waiting for? Did I mention we have horses? And you look like a girl who could use a little cowboy sweet talk in your life.”

  I dropped my purse to the ground as I sat at the keyboard. “Is this a prank?”

  “Not at all. See you soon.” With that, the computer shut down.

  Chapter 4

  My mind had been preoccupied with the silly website and the notion that, once again, I was headed home to spend two days alone, doing nothing. It wasn’t like me to feel sorry for myself, but I was definitely feeling a twinge of self-pity. And, it must have been because of those few moments wallowing in my misery that I managed to take a completely wrong turn. I found myself driving down a long road that I’d never seen before. It was a little frightening to think that I’d been so completely out of it, I’d managed to end up utterly lost and confused on a route that I drove every single day.

  Somehow I’d managed to travel far enough from the city that paved asphalt and parking lots had morphed into green pastures and open land as far as I could see. Which, with the abnormally heavy fog coasting in, was not terribly far.

  The early evening summer warmth that had prompted me to roll down my car windows slowly disappeared, and chilly, moist air swept in to replace it. I cranked up the windows and turned on my windshield wipers. With one wrong turn, I’d found myself in an unfamiliar place and stuck in a clammy fog, an eerie mist that had somehow spontaneously formed in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. I could see no buildings, no cars and no people. I had no idea which way I was headed.

  I decided to stop and check my phone to see where I’d landed. I pulled off the road and picked up my phone. My screensaver, a picture of Spike, the dinosaur puppet, a sexy, sophisticated screensaver if there ever was one, appeared, but none of the apps worked. There was no service at all. It was almost as if I’d driven right into a time zone where the internet and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.

  After wasting several minutes trying to revive my phone and the service, light suddenly flooded the car. I lifted my face. The phone slipped from my hand as I sucked in a stunned breath. The fog had dissolved as quickly as it had appeared. But the true source of my shock was the large old house glowering down at me from atop its hill. It was the house from the weird website, minus the garlands of beautiful roses. Without the roses, the house looked tired and lifeless as if it needed a major dose of TLC.

  My phone beeped. I glanced frantically around for it. After a bit of contortion and putting some of my yoga moves to good use, I managed to free it from beneath my brake pedal. Spike was gone, and his picture had been replaced by a luscious looking cupcake. A text message popped up beneath it. “Now that you’re here, come on up to the house. I’ve just finished a batch of my newest cupcake flavor—mocha latte.”

  I was crazy for even considering it, but without much thought, I found myself putting the car in gear and chugging up the long driveway, right past the Silk Stocking Inn sign. None of it made any sense, yet somehow, that didn’t matter. I spent my entire workday living on the set of a fantasy show where dinosaurs talked and wore sneakers. Just maybe my life away from work needed that same break from reality. With the sour turn my life had taken recently, and the humiliation I’d had to endure telling everyone that the wedding was off, not to mention pestering myself about what I might have done wrong, I was willing to chance it. The offer of a mocha latte cupcake didn’t hurt either.

  Chapter 5

  I drove up to the house and parked. It seemed the whole place was held together by luck. One good wind would surely bring it down around the owner’s ears. Which brought me to the obvious question—who was the owner? Someone with amazing marketing skills that was for sure. That was someone I needed to meet. Marketing was always at the top of my priority list. If I could grab some tips from the inn’s owner, it would make this unexplained detour worth the confusion.

  I grabbed my rather useless cell phone, deciding that even if I couldn’t call help with it, I could at least bludgeon someone if necessary. I grabbed my purse, also heavy enough to give someone a good wallop, and headed up the warped steps to the front door. A prickly vine, the last dead remnants of what must have once been a thriving rose bush, grabbed at my sweater. I unhooked it and took a deep breath before knocking.

  The door opened on its own. The inside of the house looked nothing like the outside. Inviting decor and sumptuous wallpaper flooded the entryway. One step inside and my senses were overwhelmed by the rich mingling scents of coffee and chocolate. If the aroma was any indication, I was soon to be rewarded for my courage and initiative with an incredible mocha latte cupcake.

  “Hello?” My voice echoed back to me.

  “Just down the hallway. Follow the cupcake scent.” The woman’s voice was welcoming and kind. I did as she’d instructed and followed the delicious aroma down the narrow hallway and into a large room that had been set up with quaint tables, metal chairs and all the decor and flowers of a street corner bake shop.

  I’d had only the slightest apprehension about entering the house, and it had all but disappeared. I felt welcome and safe and inexplicably happier than I had been in a long while. I chalked it up to the charming ambience and the tray of luscious looking cupcakes that silently begged me to approach the sparkling counter that was bursting with an array of baked goods. But my eyes and my nose stayed focused on the dark brown cakes. Each one was topped with a rich chocolate glaze.

  I could hear someone clinkering around in the kitchen, so, like a well-disciplined child, I sat on the stool in front of the cupcak
es, nearly drooling over them, as I waited for permission to try one.

  And as if my thoughts had been read, the woman called out from her kitchen. “Please, help yourself to a cupcake. I’ll be right out.”

  It was all the invitation I needed. I picked up the cupcake. With no patience for removing those pesky paper wrappers, I dragged my tongue across the chocolate glaze on top. It was melt in your mouth delicious, and I made a sound that went along perfectly with the taste.

  My sugar taste buds saturated with topping for the moment, I took some time to strip the tender cake of its paper peel. The bite I took nearly obliterated half the cupcake. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the shiny marble tile on the backsplash. My cheeks puffed out like a well-fed hamster’s. I chewed the massive bite into something more manageable. I finished by licking my fingertips. The creamy, coffee-infused glaze was not the kind of thing you wasted on a napkin, even though there was a stack nearby.

  “Think I might just need a cold shower after watching you eat that cupcake.”

  I spun around on the stool and nearly toppled sideways when my eyes landed on the tall figure in the far corner of the bakery. He had pulled out a second chair, and his boots were crossed at the ankles as he had them resting up on the seat of the chair. His hat, a black Stetson, was sitting on the table next to a plate of food and a bottle of beer. I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dark corner, but he had nice shoulders and an unshaven jaw that looked pretty damn good from my vantage point. The kind of tight angular chin that went well with a black cowboy hat.

  I was never easily embarrassed, and while I should have been somewhat ashamed of my unabashed finger licking session, I couldn’t work up even the lightest blush. I even concluded my snack session with a final lick of my thumb.

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