Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Date Published: Apr 2017
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
Emery Wakefield looked up from the book she was reading—more like rereading for the hundredth time—and was disappointed that the man speaking wasn’t a handsome cowboy with a sexy smile. He was just the businessman sitting next to her on the plane.
He was nice-looking, but not nearly as nice-looking as Rory Earhart. Although few men could compare to her favorite fictional hero—the key word being fictional.
Emery had a wee bit of a problem keeping fiction separate from reality. As an editor and avid reader, she loved to get lost in the fantasy worlds of her characters, which sometimes caused her to lose sight of her own life. Her two older brothers teased her about having her head in the clouds. And her close friends Carly and Savannah were always reminding her to live in the real world. In the real world, there were no perfect heroes. Just regular guys like this businessman who had ignored her the entire trip to play video games on his phone. But if she ever wanted to be in a relationship again, she needed to lower her standards and make an effort.
She smiled. “Yes?”
He nodded at the aisle. “The plane’s landed.”
She finally noticed that people were out of their seats and collecting their luggage from the overhead compartments. “Oh! I didn’t even realize.” She pulled her laptop bag from beneath the seat in front of her and placed the tattered paperback in the side pocket.
“So you like those naughty romance novels?” When she glanced over, the businessman winked.
Emery felt her spine stiffen, but she quickly reminded herself that few men understood romance—books or otherwise. Romance to them was all about the sex. It wasn’t about the first prolonged glance. The first heated touch. The first breathless kiss.
She blinked. Reality, Emery, reality.
“Yes,” she said. “I like those ‘naughty’ romances. What genre do you read?”
“I don’t do a lot of reading. I usually just wait for the movie.”
Okay, she was willing to lower her standards, but not that much.
Since the conversation was pretty much dead, she busied herself by straightening the pages of the manuscript she’d been reading earlier. While most of the other editors at Randall Publishing did their reading and editing electronically, Emery preferred to have a hard copy. There was something about holding the pages in her hands that made the reading experience so much better. Although it hadn’t made this particular manuscript any better.
After talking to the writer’s agent and reading the first few chapters, she’d had high hopes for this book. The author had a fresh voice and a great ear for dialogue. Unfortunately, the entire plot had crumbled midway through, and there was little hope of salvaging it. Which meant that this wasn’t the book that was going to give Emery job security and make her boss overlook the other books that had flopped. But hopefully, she had the key to the one novel that would. She looked at the zippered pocket where she’d carefully tucked the envelope she had received a month ago.
She was a firm believer in fate, and there was no other explanation for her having received the envelope. When she’d first opened it, she felt like Harry Potter getting his invitation to Hogwarts. And even if her boss was convinced it was a hoax, there was no way Emery could ignore it. That would be like ignoring destiny.
The Tender Heart novels were her favorite books of all time. The ten-book series about mail-order brides in the old West had gotten her through her horrific puberty years. The pimples and braces wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d been a genius like her brothers and could’ve fit in with the geeks. But she wasn’t a genius. She was horrible at math, couldn’t have cared less about science, and hadn’t gotten through one Star Wars movie without falling asleep. In school she’d been labeled the homely, weird girl who walked around with her nose in a book.
It was in those books that she’d found refuge from school bullies and the fact that she didn’t fit in with the rest of her family of geniuses. And she was still struggling to fit in. She had yet to find her place in New York City and was only months away from losing her job.
Unless what was in the envelope turned out to be authentic.
“So what brings you to Austin?” The businessman pulled his briefcase out from under the seat.
She got to her feet. “I’m meeting my two best friends for spring break.” It wasn’t a lie. She had roped her two unsuspecting friends into joining her on this trip. They thought they were checking out the setting of their favorite series. They knew nothing about the letter Emery had received . . . or the chapter.
Something about her reply made the businessman’s eyes light up. Probably the prospect of spring break with three naughty romance readers who were only interested in sex. “Really? I live here so I’d be happy to show you and your friends around if you’d like. Austin is an exciting town.”
“I’m sure it is, but we’re not staying in Austin. We’re staying in Bliss.”
He looked confused. “Bliss? Why would you want to go there? It’s practically a ghost town.”
She glanced at her laptop case, and a smile bloomed on her face. “In a way, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. Ghosts.” She didn’t wait for him to ask any more questions before she moved into the aisle.
Since Carly and Savannah’s flights didn’t get in until much later, Emery planned to meet them in Bliss. Excited to get to the small town, she wasted no time picking up her luggage and renting a car. The entire drive from Austin, she couldn’t help feeling like she was on the Hogwarts Express headed to a place that had only existed in her dreams.
Unfortunately, that excitement fizzled when she drove into Bliss and reality hit. She knew a modern town wasn’t going to be like an old western town—especially a fictional western town—but she had expected to find something that reminded her of Tender Heart. A quaint knick-knack shop that sold souvenirs. A bookstore with the entire series displayed in the window. The 1950s diner where the author Lucy Arrington had plotted her famous stories. The pretty little chapel where all the mail-order brides had found their happily-ever-afters.
Instead, the two-lane highway Emery drove into town on was lined with vacant brick buildings that had fading signs and cracked windows. Rusty grain silos stood like aged sentinels, and weeds filled every empty lot.
The businessman had been right. It did look like a ghost town.
There were few cars on the road. So when a muddy pickup truck passed her going the opposite direction, Emery couldn’t help but stare. The old guy behind the wheel stared back with a suspicious look. Or maybe it was her clean Hyundai that he found suspicious. The few vehicles parked along the street looked as dirty as his truck. It was hard not to feel disappointed. She had arrived at Cinderella’s castle to find a hovel nothing like her fantasies.
She glanced at her laptop bag on the front seat next to her. The town might not look like what she expected, but there was still hope that her fantasies would be realized—if not in the town, then on paper.
Pushing her disappointment down, Emery searched for the Bliss Motor Lodge where she’d made reservations. It was the only place to stay in town, and she hoped she hadn’t booked the Bates Motel. If she walked into the lobby and spotted a bunch of stuffed birds, she was out of there.
Since Main Street was only a couple of blocks long, she easily found the motor lodge. But before she pulled in, she couldn’t help driving a little further to see if she could find a little white chapel with beautiful stained-glass windows. She didn’t, but what she did find was a gas station that wasn’t boarded up. In fact, two men sat at a table in front. And she couldn’t help pulling in to see if she could get some information.
The old guy with the balding head looked at her just as suspiciously as the man who had driven past her on the street. She couldn’t tell how the other man looked. He wore a brown felt cowboy hat that was tugged low on his forehead and shaded his face. But the hat turned in her direction when she got out.
Since she couldn’t just start asking questions without adding to their suspicions, she decided to get gas. The pump didn’t have a credit card slot, so she topped off her tank, then leaned into the car to get her purse from the front seat. That’s when she heard one of the men speak.
“You gonna gawk? Or are you gonna play?”
She straightened and peeked around the pump in time to see the cowboy hat turn away. She had assumed he was the same age as the old guy. But on closer examination, she realized her mistake. The hard chest and broad shoulders that filled out the western shirt belonged to a much younger man. As did the dark hair curling on the back of his strong, corded neck.
She watched the muscles in that neck tighten as the old guy continued, “I thought you just got finished telling me that you didn’t have time for women.”
“Would you keep it down, Emmett?” the cowboy hissed as he picked up a domino. His hands were big, but agile enough to manipulate the small white tile into place on the table. Something about those long fingers made Emery’s heart skip and her stomach feel all light and airy. The empty stomach she could blame on being hungry. She’d only had a bagel at the airport and a Cranapple and peanuts on the plane. The skipping heart was a little harder to explain.
“Now that was stupid.” Emmett positioned a domino on the table, then picked up the pencil next to the notepad to put down his score. “Almost as stupid as wasting your time gawking at a woman who’s just passing through. That’s a rental car if ever I saw one, and no woman from around here wears heels that high unless it’s Easter Sunday.” He glanced over at Emery and noticed her watching. He smiled, revealing a chipped front tooth. “Howdy, ma’am.”
Emery stepped around the gas pump, and both men stood up from their chairs. But it was the cowboy she couldn’t look away from. If she’d thought his body was nice sitting down, it was nothing compared to how he looked fully stretched out. He had to be well over six feet tall with long, muscled legs that were emphasized by the fit of his well-worn blue jeans.
And his legs weren’t the only things they emphasized.
Her gaze zeroed in on the bulge beneath the zipper. Not a small bulge, but a long, hard one. Before she could blink, his cowboy hat blocked her view. She lifted her gaze. Everything inside Emery went very still as reality collided with fantasy.
She had been searching for some sign of Tender Heart. Some small piece of the series she loved so dearly. And she’d finally found it. From the lock of raven black hair that curled over his forehead to the intense eyes as blue as a Texas sky at twilight, the man standing in front of her looked exactly like her favorite book boyfriend.
Her hero Rory Earhart had come to life.