Authors: Patti Berg
Jon sliced into a pork chop, but his glare was fixed on Elizabeth. “Okay, so maybe it’s not a real partnership. It’s more like he scratches your back, you scratch his.” He moved the fork toward his mouth and hesitated. “Isn’t that right?”
Elizabeth stabbed at her mashed potatoes. “It’s a business arrangement, as I already explained.”
Jon laughed. “So you did.” He bit into the pork chop, but his eyes stayed fixed on hers.
Harry and Andy were eating in silence, eyes tilted toward their plates. Libby was leaning her elbows on the counter, watching the table. And Elizabeth wanted to get up and walk out the door.
She felt a whole lot more comfortable when Jon turned away.
“Heard what you found out at Schoolmarm yesterday,” he said, directing his words to Harry. Elizabeth could see the noticeable thumping of a vein at his temple. She’d noticed it there before—when Matt’s name was mentioned. “Any sign of the cub?” he asked.
“No. Snow covered up any tracks there might have been. Didn’t see any blood except right outside
the den, where we found the other cub and the sow.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “What happened?”
Jon faced her, his eyes dark blue and angry. “Poaching. That’s what we call it when so-called hunters go after game out of season. The bears are hibernating now. They’re easy prey.”
“Is bear meat that popular?” she asked, feeling oddly naive and not wanting to mention again that she’d disliked it the one time she’d given it a try.
“It isn’t the meat,” Harry said.
“It’s the gallbladders. The paws,” Jon interrupted. “That’s all they take. The poachers aren’t interested in the meat or the skins, so they take what they want and leave the rest to rot or as easy pickings for scavengers.”
Elizabeth pushed her plate away, her hunger diminishing with the talk. “Why?” she asked again.
“Greed. Bear paws and gallbladders supposedly have some kind of medicinal value. It’s easy money. Big money, if you’ve got the right connections. But it’s not just bears these guys are after. Anything illegal, anything endangered, is a target. A few months back I found the headless carcasses of two bighorn dumped on a pile of rocks. And this,” he said, pulling a short, dark brown-and-white feather from his shirt pocket, “is what’s left of a bald eagle. It happens way too often, and there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing we can do about it.”
Andy leaned forward. “I heard they finally convicted that outfitter out of Billings,” he said. “Guy
got off with a twenty-one-thousand-dollar fine and three years in jail.”
“Probably won’t be there more than six months,” Harry added. “Then he’ll be right back doing the same thing all over again.”
“Do you have any idea who’s doing it here?” Elizabeth asked.
All three men looked at her, then Harry and Andy looked at Jon. “Yeah, we have an idea,” Jon said, “but the hell of it is, we’ve never found any evidence.”
Suddenly Elizabeth knew who they were talking about. “You think Matt’s responsible, don’t you?”
Jon’s gaze beat into hers, deep and intense. “Like I said, we don’t have any evidence, and I’m not pointing any fingers till we do.”
Jon dived into the meal before him, discussing other matters with Harry and Andy, like repairing potholes in the road through town when spring-time arrived, and organizing a workday late in March to get the townspeople together to paint the community church.
Elizabeth pulled her plate back toward her when she regained her appetite and ate in silence. She listened to the men’s discussion, wanting only to finish her meal and leave. She’d felt a glimmer of friendship when she’d entered the cafe—at least from Harry, Andy, and Libby. But it had seemed to disappear the moment moneymaking and her offhanded association with Matt Winchester had come into the conversation. She’d wanted so much to be part of this community—to make friends, something she hadn’t had a lot of. Apparently she wasn’t going to have them in Sapphire, either.
With the food thoroughly cleaned from their plates, Harry and Andy pushed away from the table, and both reached out to Elizabeth, shaking her hand. “It was nice meeting you,” she said quietly. They smiled, said they looked forward to seeing her again—which she doubted—donned their coats and hats, and left the cafe.
“I’d better be going, too,” Elizabeth said, but before she could leave the table, Jon captured her hand.
“Stay awhile longer,” he said. “Keep me company, at least while I eat some of Libby’s pie.”
“Why?” she asked, pulling her hand from his. “I didn’t think my presence was all that desirable.”
“Your presence isn’t a problem, Elizabeth. Not at all.” His lopsided grin returned. “Stay. Please,” he said, and when she leaned back and folded her arms across her chest, his grin softened into a smile, one she was sure wouldn’t last long. It seemed they were destined to fight about one thing or another.
Libby had disappeared into the kitchen, leaving them completely on their own. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling, Elizabeth realized. They were too alone, and the room was too quiet—for now.
Jon grabbed an extra fork from the table beside them and placed it in front of Elizabeth. He pushed the huge portion of huckleberry pie to the center of the table. “Care to help me with this?” he asked, digging into the pastry. He took a bite and pulled the fork slowly from his lips. It was the first time Elizabeth had noticed them. They weren’t particularly remarkable, except when they cocked up on one side in that crazy grin. But below those unremarkable
lips he had a slight cleft in his chin with a half-inch scar off to the left.
“How’d you get the scar?” Elizabeth asked, ignoring the offer of pie.
“A well-swung two-by-four.”
“I imagine you deserved it,” she said.
“More than likely. Of course, I knocked Matt out cold with my bare fist right after.
deserved it, too.”
Jon pushed the pie a little closer. “You really ought to give this a try. Libby makes the best huckleberry pie in Montana.”
“I make the best cheesecake west of New York,” Elizabeth tossed back, getting ready to open a sore subject again. “Of course, I can’t treat you or anyone else to my culinary masterpieces until I get the hotel refurbished.”
“I’m sure someone would let you use their stove.”
“I have a stove, thank you. What I don’t have is a decent place to cook, and it looks like I won’t unless I do all the work myself.”
“That’s probably true.”
“Nothing I say is going to make you help me, is it?”
“I’m a busy man.”
“Yes, you’re the mayor. I’d almost forgotten.”
“I have one hundred and one people to keep happy,” he said.
“One hundred and two. You forgot about me.”
“I didn’t forget you at all. You’ve been on my mind since your car slid into town and I helped you get up off the porch.”
Elizabeth sighed deeply. Turning her eyes from
his, she finally cut into the pie. Their bantering was getting her nowhere; it was only making her confused. One moment he badgered, the next moment his voice would soften and he’d say something nice, sometimes suggestive. She didn’t know what to make of it.
“Y’know, Jon, every once in a while I get the feeling you’d like me to get back into my car and drive out of town.”
He laughed. “Even if that’s what I wanted, I can’t see you running off. You’re not going to let me or the fact that you can’t get help interfere with your plans. Something tells me you’re too stubborn and too resourceful.”
“I’ve never roofed a house before,” she stated. “I don’t know anything about plumbing, either.”
“Minor details.” A slow smile tilted his lips. “I’m sure you can handle just about anything.”
He scooped up the last piece of pie, holding the fork close to his mouth. “Why did you come to Sapphire?” he asked, changing the tone of their conversation once again.
“Do you want an honest answer?” she asked.
“It beats a dishonest one.”
“Well—” she began, then hesitated. She scraped her fork over the few remaining huckleberry seeds and the thin coating of purple filling on the plate in front of her. Jon already assumed the worst of her. He thought she’d come to Sapphire strictly as Matt’s partner. It wasn’t true, but did he have any right to hear the real reason? And if she gave him a straight answer, would he even believe it?
She set the fork down on the plate and looked into his eyes. He might be one of the most insufferable
men she’d met in a long time, but he stirred something inside her that hadn’t been touched in a long time—every one of her emotions. Maybe an attempt at friendship was needed. Maybe she had to make the first move.
“I got tired of L.A.,” she told him. “I got tired of the business I was in and the people I was working with day in and day out. I wanted a change, something completely new and different.”
He didn’t speak for a moment. Instead, he folded his arms on the table and looked into her eyes. “Do you think you’ll be happy here?”
“I hope so. Right now, I’m not totally sure.”
“I’ve lived here most all my life. I’ve never gone looking for something new. I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing to do.”
“It’s not. I gave up a lot to come here. I had a successful business.” She drew in a deep breath, thinking of what she’d left behind, what she’d found today. “I thought I’d come here and everything would be perfect. I hate the cold. The hotel’s a disaster. I can’t get help. But I won’t give up.”
“You may find help eventually,” Jon told her. “You may even get that hotel up and running. But there’s not a damn thing you can do about the cold. It’s that way eight months out of twelve. As for paying customers, you’re not going to get anyone except Matt’s clientele. I’m afraid they might be few and far between, and they might not even be the kind of people you want to cater to.”
Oh, he was so self-righteous, so... so... “With the right advertising—”
“Wrong,” he interrupted. “Do you think you’re the first person who thought they could start a
business here and make a go of it?” He laughed. “Two years ago it was a couple from Arizona who thought they could capitalize on the town’s name and sell custom sapphire jewelry. They failed. Before that it was a ‘Made in Montana’ gift shop that failed.”
“Nothing you say will convince me to give up or leave.”
“You don’t have to leave, just give up your crazy idea about bringing tourists and hunters to town.”
“Are you finished?”
“I could go on.”
“Don’t.” Elizabeth pushed away from the table, drew a ten-dollar bill from her pants pocket, and slapped it on the table. “That should cover my dinner and two bites of your pie.”
Jon grabbed her hand again. “I invited you. I’ll pay.”
She pulled her hand away. “I don’t particularly like you, Mr. Winchester. I don’t like your superior, condescending attitude. I don’t care for your opinions, and I don’t want you buying my dinner—tonight, or any night. You might be mayor, but you don’t own this town... or me. So do me a very big favor and stay out of my business and out of my life.”
Jon folded his arms across his chest, but she didn’t give him the opportunity to utter words she didn’t want to hear, like
She walked away from the table and pulled on her coat and gloves. She stuck her head through the kitchen door, said a quick thank-you and goodnight to Libby and Jack, and left the cafe, knowing Jon watched every step of her retreat. Just like earlier
in the day, she could feel the intense heat of his eyes against her back.
She crossed the boardwalk and gave little thought to being cautious as she went down the stairs and onto the road.
Behind her she heard the door open and close.
She heard Jon’s distinct bootsteps on the wooden planks. “Slow down, Elizabeth,” she heard him call out. “You’re going to fall.”
She wasn’t about to slow down. She wouldn’t dare fall.
But she did. One boot slid and the other followed.
She struggled to get up, struggled to keep tears out of her eyes. This wasn’t the way her new life was supposed to begin. Where were the friends she was going to make? Where were the people wanting to help?
“Give me your hand, Elizabeth,” she heard Jon say.
He was standing over her again, looking big and ominous, and oh so superior.
“I don’t need your help. I don’t need anyone’s help.” She attempted to get up only to slip again.
She felt Jon’s hands slide under her arms, but she shook him off. “I don’t care
you think of me. I don’t even care what you think of Matt. But trust me, I have every intention of fixing up that hotel and renting rooms to anyone willing to pay my price. As I said before, I don’t mind hard work. I don’t mind getting dirty.”
“Just let me help you up, Ellie.”
“My name’s not Ellie.” She glared up into his
eyes. “And if I have to crawl the rest of the way home, I will.”
Jon shook his head. “Suit yourself,” he said, as he walked away.
And Elizabeth’s tears began to fall.