Read Haunting Ellie Online

Authors: Patti Berg

Haunting Ellie (6 page)

She couldn’t help but laugh. He said it so seriously, yet she could see the twinkle in his eyes and just the beginnings of a grin. “Thanks for the offer,” she said, closing the door behind her and taking hold of his arm. “If you’re sure I wouldn’t be imposing, I would like to join you and your friends, too.”

“If you were an imposition, I’d tell you. I don’t mince words.”

“I’ve noticed. Of course, you don’t talk a lot, either.”

“Always believed if you don’t have anything important to say, you shouldn’t say it.”

“Then I imagine the two of us will have a rather quiet dinner.”

He looked down at her and winked. “Don’t forget, we’re joining some of my friends. I’m sure they can keep the conversation going if we can’t.”

They headed down the stairs and into the street. He squeezed her hand tightly around his arm when she felt the slippery pavement under her shoes. The road didn’t seem nearly so treacherous when she walked at his side.

He stopped right in the middle of the street and she had the horrible fear he planned to let go of her arm and walk away. Instead, he started pointing out landmarks. It seemed a crazy thing to do
at twilight, with the snow falling down. But it was quiet out, the street wasn’t exactly bustling with traffic, and it was the first time the storm had let up enough for her to see the town.

Besides all that, it felt rather nice being held in such strong arms. If he kept it up, she just might find herself liking him.

“All but one of the buildings in town are well over a hundred years old,” he told her. “Used to be a thriving community when copper was mined here. Not much left anymore.” He pointed to a narrow, two-story white clapboard structure west of the cafe. “That was the newspaper office once; now it’s the grocery store and post office. You won’t find everything you need there, but it beats driving fifty miles for milk or beer. That’s Matt’s real estate office next door, and if you haven’t seen it by now, that place at the far end of town, past the gas station, is Winchester Place—Matt’s home.”

Through the lightly falling snow she saw an immense white mansion with columns out front. It looked like it belonged in the deep South rather than in cattle country.

“My great-grandfather considered himself a southern gentleman. Actually, he’d been a river-boat gambler before he came west, and when he struck it rich, he built a place that reminded him of home.”

Jon turned slightly, drawing Elizabeth’s attention to the other end of town. “We have only one church in Sapphire and most everyone shares it,” he said, pointing to the end of a tree-lined walk just east of the cafe. The church was white clapboard, like the grocery store, and had half a dozen
stairs leading to its double doors and a tall steeple with a cross on the top. It looked exactly like every church she’d ever seen in black-and-white westerns on TV. So did the entire town, only Sapphire wasn’t quite as big as Dodge or Tombstone, and there weren’t nearly as many people.

“That big stone place up on the hill,” he said, a smile of pride on his face, “that’s where I live.”

Elizabeth looked beyond the wrought-iron gates, past the high granite barrier that tapered down to a lower wall and eventually became a wooden fence that seemed to trail on forever.

High on an incline she saw
the white stone fortress, its black slate roof and copper spires looming over the town. At each end were towers with tall arched windows. Stained glass panels framed both sides of the massive front doors. “It’s beautiful.”

“Most people find it intimidating.”

“Not much intimidates me.” She looked at Jon and grinned. “Not even you.”

He only laughed and continued on across the street.

When he pushed open the cafe door, Elizabeth was amazed by what she saw. It was like looking back in time into a gay nineties saloon with red glass chandeliers and a highly polished bar. She expected to see a burly man with a handlebar mustache tending to customers and saloon girls sashaying around, serving drinks. But the place was nearly empty except for a few tables scattered about. It wasn’t brimming with patrons, either, just two men sitting at a center table.

She stepped inside and turned around, smiling her pleasure to Jon.

“I take it you like our cafe,” he said as he entered, his broad shoulders barely squeezing between the jambs. He even had to tilt his head down to keep the top of his hat from brushing the dried mistletoe hanging overhead. He looked powerful and intimidating, just like the mansion he lived in, but she sensed that buried deep beneath that ominous exterior there might be a touch of warmth.

“The atmosphere’s wonderful,” she said, slipping off her gloves as she studied the room once more.

She was just unbuttoning her coat when she felt Jon’s hands on her shoulders, felt the leather of his gloves lightly touch the hair at the nape of her neck. He was standing very close, peeling her coat away as she released the last of the buttons, and she felt uncommonly warm all over. In fact, she realized, she’d felt warm ever since she’d opened her front door and seen him on the doorstep with firewood in his arms.

Their gazes met when she turned around, his sapphire eyes shining brightly from under his hat. He reached somewhere to his right and got rid of her coat. And he didn’t look away. Not once.

He swept his black felt Stetson from his head. A lock of wavy blond hair fell across his forehead as he smacked the brim against his Levi’s to shake off the snow. It was the first time she’d seen him without his hat. Oh, she’d seen the neatly trimmed sideburns, but she hadn’t noticed the way his thick blond hair waved around his ears and just barely
brushed the collar of his coat. She liked what she saw, and she liked the way that errant strand fell right back over his forehead after he combed his fingers through the top.

With their gazes locked, she was finding breathing difficult. Somehow she tore her eyes away and watched h
im shrug out of his jacket, getting her first good look at his body. Not an ounce of fat anywhere, and she’d been right when she’d made her earlier observation about his build. He was definitely a combination of every he-man on record. Through his blue denim shirt she could make out the play of muscles in his arms and his chest, even the flat planes of his stomach. She couldn’t picture him standing on stage with his body oiled and glistening. No, Jon would never stand around flexing and posing. He didn’t have to prove himself that way.

He took her arm, drawing her attention from his chest to the smoothness of his cheek as he leaned over to whisper in her ear. “My friends have been staring at you since we walked into the room. Promise you won’t ogle them like you’ve been ogling me.”

His words stung, and she tried to pull away, but he kept her close, that insufferable grin spreading across his face before he whispered to her again. “They’ve got wives at home who might not approve. I don’t have a wife—”

She gritted her teeth and started to throw back a retort, something like
An arrogant son of a gun like you will probably never have a wife,
but he ushered her across the room before she had the chance.

“Elizabeth Fitzgerald,” Jon said, as they reached
the only occupied table, “I’d like you to meet Andy Andrews and Harry Dodge.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, shaking Andy’s hand.

“You, too.” He was short and rotund, with gray hair styled in a crewcut. He stood and reached a red flannel-covered arm across the table, taking her hand in his and pumping it up and down. “I own the spread just south of town. You probably drove through a few miles of it on your way here. Couldn’t miss it.”

“You mean the place covered with snow?” Elizabeth laughed. “Of course I remember it.”

“I like this one, Jon,” Andy said, pumping Jon’s hand just as he’d done Elizabeth’s.

Harry had stood, too, extending a thick, callused hand which seemed the perfect match for his darkly tanned weatherbeaten face. He had near black hair salted with white, a broad chest, and an even broader stomach that pushed at the buttons on his green plaid shirt. “I’m the warden for fish and wildlife,” he said rather quietly. “It’s nice you could join us.”

“Thank you,” she said, taking the chair Jon pulled out for her.

A petite, white-haired waitress with a pencil stuck above her ear bustled over to the table and slid white ceramic mugs in front of both Jon and Elizabeth. She poured coffee and placed the black and bronze thermal pitcher in the center of the table. “You must be the new owner of the hotel. We heard you were coming. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, right?”

Elizabeth had no time to answer. The woman
talked so fast she could hardly keep up.

“I’m Libby. I own this place, along with my husband, Jack.” She nodded to the bald man sliding a steaming plate onto the stainless steel counter between the kitchen and the dining room.

“Nice to meet you,” Elizabeth said.

“You, too, honey.” Libby whipped a menu out from under her arm and held it out to Elizabeth. “You can order just about anything you want, but the special tonight’s pork chops. Same special every Monday night. That’s what Harry and Andy are having, and I highly recommend it—right, Mayor?” She looked straight at Jon.

“Right, Lib. Best in Montana.”

Mayor?
Jon Winchester was the mayor of Sapphire? He didn’t look like a mayor; he looked more like a rancher just in from the range.

“So, would you like the pork chops, hon?” Libby asked.

“If that’s what the mayor recommends, guess I’ll give them a try.”

“Make that two, Lib,” Jon said.

“Double order?”

Jon grinned. “You know me too well.”

“Been feeding you since you were a baby,” she said, pouring out more coffee. “Orders will be up in just a few minutes. I’ve got fresh huckleberry pie in the back, too. Make sure you save room.”

As Libby t
ucked the menus back under her arm and bustled away, Elizabeth picked up the steaming mug of coffee and turned her attention to Jon. “You didn’t mention anything about being mayor.”

“No, guess I didn’t.” He dumped two heaping
spoons of sugar into his coffee and stirred it slow and easy. “Harry and Andy are the town council,” he said with a laugh. “The sign at the edge of town says three-seventy-two, but it’s more like one-hundred-and-one, give or take a few. Not too much to govern, and not much to make a big deal over.”

“Most of us aren’t big on politics,” Andy chimed in. “Just want to keep things running right around town.”

“Would that include helping me find a contractor to do some hotel renovation?” She started to relate Matt’s comment about the mayor helping her out but remembered Jon’s reaction the last time Matt’s name had come up and decided it might be better left unmentioned.

Jon tilted his cup toward his mouth and watched Elizabeth through the steam. “We don’t have any contractors in town. No builders, no plumbers, no electricians, and no handymen.”

“What do you do when you need something fixed?”

“Do it ourselves.”

“Is everyone in town that self-sufficient?”

“Have to be when you live out here,” Harry told her.

“Well,” Elizabeth said, “I can do a lot on my own. Nothing ever stopped me before. Of course, I’ll need help with the heavy stuff. Maybe you know some high-schoolers looking for spending money.”

“Kids are in school and have chores and sports after. Sorry, Elizabeth,” Andy said, “there just aren’t too many people in Sapphire looking for
jobs. They’re either retired, working out of town, or too busy.”

“Andy’s right,” Harry said. “This town’s too small, and anyone who’d be able to give you a hand is probably already busy at something else. You could try calling someone in Anaconda. Maybe Butte or Helena, but I’ve never seen anyone want to come this far out to work.”

“I’d have thought the city council would be eager to assist me. Once I get the hotel opened, there might be a few more people frequenting Sapphire businesses. That means more money in town.”

All three men laughed. “I ran on a platform of no growth for Sapphire,” Jon said. “I don’t think any of us would mind having at least the outside of the hotel fixed up, but having it open for business is another matter entirely.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“Forty-eight people voted for mayor. I won forty-seven to one. Matt Winchester—my opponent—wanted to bring more business into town. He wanted to restore all the buildings and make this a historical tourist trap full of souvenir stores, antique shops, and cheap museums.” Jon smiled slowly. “He lost.”

“Doesn’t seem like anyone in town looked at the positive side of his ideas. Business never hurt anyone. If I’d been living here, you probably would have won forty-six to two.”

“Yeah, you’ll probably vote for him next time there’s an election, too. He
is
your partner, after all.”

Harry came close to choking on his coffee. “You’re partners with Matt Winchester?”

Libby shoved plates in front of everyone and added her two cents to the conversation. “I’d have thought someone like you would have more sense.”

Elizabeth sighed. “It’s not a true partnership.” She wished the subject could just go away. The pleasant dinner with new friends she’d envisioned as she’d walked across the street was turning out to be anything but. Throwing her association with Matt into the mix was bound to send the conversation spiraling downward.

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