A Town Called Valentine - By Emma Cane

Chapter One

The car gave one last shudder as Emily Murphy came to a stop in a parking space just beneath the blinking sign of Tony’s Tavern. She turned off the ignition and leaned back against the headrest as the rain drummed on the roof, and the evening’s darkness settled around her. The car will be all right, she told herself firmly. Taking a deep breath, she willed her shoulders to relax after a long, stressful day driving up into the Colorado Rockies. Though the trip had been full of stunning mountain vistas still topped by snow in May, she had never let her focus waver from her mission.

She glanced up at the flashing neon sign, and her stomach growled. The tavern was near the highway and wasn’t the most welcoming place. There were only two pickups and a motorcycle beside her car on this wet night.

Her stomach gurgled again, and with a sigh, she tugged up the hood of her raincoat, grabbed her purse, and stepped out into the rain. Gingerly jumping over puddles, she made it beneath the overhang above the door and went inside. A blast of heat and the smell of beer hit her face. The tavern was sparsely furnished, with a half dozen tables and a long bar on the right side of the room. Between neon signs advertising beer, mounted animal heads peered down at the half dozen customers. A man and a woman sat at one table, watching a baseball game on the flat screen TV—at least there was one other woman in the place. Another couple men hunched at the bar, glancing from beneath their cowboy hats at her before turning away. No surprise there.

When she hesitated, the bartender, a man in his thirties, with shaggy dark hair and pleasant features, gave her a nod. “Sit anywhere you’d like.”

Smiling gratefully, she slipped off her raincoat, hung it on one of the many hooks near the door, and sat down. She discovered her table was opposite the only man at a table by himself. He was directly in her line of vision, making it hard to notice anything else. He was tall, by the length of his denim-clad legs. Beneath the shadowing brim of his cowboy hat, she could see an angular face and the faint lines at the corner of his eyes of a man who spent much of his day squinting in the sun. She thought he might be older than her thirty years but not by much.

When he tipped his hat back and met her eyes, Emily gave a start, realizing she’d been caught staring. It had been so long since she’d looked at any man but her ex-husband. Her face got hot, and she quickly pulled the slightly sticky menu out from its place between a napkin dispenser and a condiment basket.

A shadow loomed over her, and for a moment, she thought she’d given the cowboy some kind of signal. Maybe her presence alone in a bar late at night was enough.

But it was only the bartender, who gave her a tired smile. “Can I get you something to drink?”

She almost said a Diet Coke, but the weariness of the day overtook her, and she found herself ordering a beer. She studied the menu while he was gone, remembered her lack of funds, and asked for a burger when he returned. Some protein, some carbs, and with lettuce and tomato, it made a pretty well-rounded meal. She had to laugh at herself.

“I didn’t know the menu was that funny,” said a deep voice.

Not the bartender. Emily glanced up and met the solitary cowboy’s gaze. Even from one table over, she could see the gleam of his green eyes. His big hand lifted a bottle of beer to his lips, yet he never stopped watching her.

Was a cowboy trying to pick her up in a mountain bar? She blinked at him and tried to contain her smile. “No, I was smiling at something else,” she said, trying to sound polite but cool.

To her surprise, the cowboy simply nodded, took another swig of his beer, and glanced back at the TV. She did the same, drinking absentmindedly and trying to pretend she liked baseball. Her ex-husband had been a fan of the San Francisco Giants, so she’d gone to an occasional game when one of the partners couldn’t attend.

By the time her hamburger arrived, she’d finished her beer. The cowboy was watching her again, and she recklessly ordered another. Why not? Though she