His Blushing Bride
BOOK 4 in the Love in Montana Series
Wedding fever has hit the little town of Marietta…
Piper Tierney is busy wrapping up the school year and planning the music for Marietta’s Wedding Of The Century. She does not need one of her parents’ backpacking hippies under foot. Except the guy they let stay in their house is so much more than the California couch-surfer he resembles. Before she knows it, she’s making time to make time, even though he’s only in town for a couple of weeks.
Taking a break from working on his doctorate in political science, Sebastian Bloom wants to reassure himself his sister isn’t making another mistake with her upcoming wedding to a Marietta rancher. He’s definitely not looking for a bride for himself. Marriage and family are a trap. But Piper is cute, funny, and wants to move on from her ex.
They agree to a no strings affair, but will they wind up tying the knot?
His Blushing Bride
is BOOK 4 in the Love in Montana Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
"I don’t need a job. I have a blog."
— Sebastian, His Blushing Bride
When I sat down to write this book, I pitched a completely different hero to my fellow authors. Let me back up and describe the premise.
Like my other Montana Born books, this story is set in Marietta and is part of a multi-author series revolving around a celebrity wedding. A local girl (NancyLynn Pruitt) went on to become a famous soap opera star and comes back with something to prove. She’s staging a huge wedding and our assignment was to create characters Nancy uses for her wedding, so my fellow authors had heroines who are cake decorators and florists, etc.
I decided my heroine would be the high school music teacher who happens to conduct the Marietta community orchestra. My hero was going to be a rock and roll guy, a celebrity friend of the bride and groom, but I wasn’t feeling it.
Then I remembered that Liz in Blame The Mistletoe had mentioned her brother. He didn’t even have a name, but he traveled a lot. He was currently in South America for some unknown reason and he put himself through college by working at their mother’s nail salon.
What kind of guy is this, I wondered? Well, he’s drop-dead sexy, loves women and they love him back. He comes across as completely superficial, but soon reveals he has a lot more going on under the surface. I fell in head-over-heels love with Bastian and hope you will too.
Be sure to check out the bonus scenes here on my site.
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His Blushing Bride
Piper Tierney saw the email from her parents as she was tidying up the band room after the final bell.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” It was one thing when her father had picked up hitchhikers wherever he happened to find them and brought them home. Her mother had always been happy to give them a bed and a meal and Piper had to admit she had met some interesting people growing up, but now they wanted to send strangers to their empty house while they traveled South America?
“No,” she decided firmly, spelling out that she was in the middle of planning all the year end performances, including graduation, and had NancyLynn Pruitt’s over-the-top wedding to prepare for. No time to babysit. Sorry.
“Miss Tierney?” The girlish voice from the door was hesitant. Piper looked up to see an unfamiliar student, which was a strange experience this late in the year. By May she ought to know who belonged at Marietta High and who didn’t. There was something distantly familiar about her stunningly pretty face and long blond hair, but all Piper could think was that the boys in this school were going to drop two letter grades on her arrival alone.
“The final bell rang so I’m allowed to have this,” Piper said, pretending to be defensive as she held up her phone. The staff struggled daily against these devices so they were all trying to set the example they expected. Which meant students had as much right to ask teachers to put aside their phones as the other way around.
The teenager shook her head and smiled. “I wouldn’t tell anyway. I’m, um, Bella Davis.” She pressed curled fingers to her chest, coming in with slow steps. “The office said I should talk to you if I want to join band next year because I didn’t do it this year.”
Her gaze was openly nervous and hung up where the dark pink birthmark swept like a sideburn over Piper’s right cheek.
Definitely a new student. Each fall, even when she’d been a student herself, Piper had suffered through the stares. But school, and music, had eventually become her safe place, where everyone knew her and no one remarked on it anymore.
“It’s a birthmark,” she said casually, then asked, “Is your mom Magdalena Davis?” The grapevine had it that Marietta’s most notorious teen pregnancy had moved back to town fifteen years after the fact. “My dad always said she had the loveliest voice.”
“Your dad knew my mom?” Bella asked, attention quickly flashing up from her scan of the instruments set against the back wall.
“He was the music teacher here before me. He retired two years ago.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that. We only moved here a few weeks ago. Mom knows a lot of people in town, but I don’t.”
“You will,” Piper assured her. “And the first thing you need to know about us Tierneys is, we don’t turn away anyone who wants to make music. What would you like to play?”
Bella wasn’t sure. She didn’t have an instrument and didn’t know if she could afford to buy or rent one. They settled on flute, since one of Piper’s flutists was graduating this June and she only had one other. “I’ll look through Dad’s music room. He’ll have a used one you can borrow. I can even give you homework for the summer if you’d like to practice before starting in the fall?”
Bella agreed and ran off to catch her bus.
Piper moved to her desk and sent an email to the office, approving Bella’s enrollment.
That made her think of her friend Skye, who was on leave of absence from her position as secretary here. Piper had a feeling she wouldn’t be back. Skye was living the dream, engaged to Chase Goodwin, traveling with him as he played baseball in the majors. It sounded so perfect. Piper not only missed her friend, but envied her. Skye had reconnected with the hot guy from high school and made falling in love and getting engaged look easy.
Of course, not everyone got a happily ever after, Piper thought. Look at Bella’s mom, single all these years after who knew what kind of teenaged fling. And Skye had certainly paid her dues with her first marriage.
Piper supposed everyone had to. She had paid her dues with her first relationship, hadn’t she?
She absently touched her cheek, where her birthmark flamed. It didn’t feel any different from the rest of her face, but she knew exactly where it was and that it made her different.
That’s where the angels kissed you, her mother used to tell her when she was young. She’d been laughed out of the classroom the first time she tried repeating that at school.
For about the millionth time, she thought about seeing a specialist, convinced the birthmark was the one thing holding her back from happiness, but every time she started to book an appointment, she heard her mother say, Honey, the right man won’t even see it.
The wrong man, Kevin, had hated it. He’d nagged her to have it ‘fixed.’ But the students didn’t see it. She knew it was possible for this stupid birthmark to disappear over time as people got to know her.
So maybe she kept it as a test to weed out the jerks.
And maybe all the good, non-jerks in Marietta were taken. The bachelor auction at Valentine’s Day should have at least got her a date, but she’d lost on all her bids. Now it was wedding season, all these great guys were getting married, and she wouldn’t even be a bridesmaid. She was conducting the orchestra, for heaven’s sake. She might as well be sweeping up the rice.
Not that she needed a man to make her happy, she reminded herself. Her life was full and fulfilling. She had awesome family and friends. She laughed every day, especially at work. Yes, she’d like to marry and have kids, but that was a ‘someday’ goal, not a mad panic thing she needed to happen today.
No, she just thought it was time to move on from Kevin.
It was time to lose her virginity, damn it.
Which was a terrible way to think, she knew. In her heart of hearts, she wanted her first experience to be romantic and loving and sexy and satisfying. From what she’d heard, though, it was usually awkward and disappointing—much like Kevin, haha. But one act could accomplish both goals. She would finally feel like she was in the club with her peers and would firmly put Kevin behind her.
At the very least, dinner and a movie would be nice. Maybe a bit of making out. A small sign of interest was all she was asking for. Something to reassure her the fish in the sea thought she was worth a nibble.
Glancing at her watch, she shook herself out of her despondency, sent a brief email to Skye to ask how she was doing, then locked up and was out the door.
Honestly, the real reason she didn’t have a man in her life was probably that she was such a moving target. She couldn’t remember when she’d last gone straight home from school and not turned around and left again, or opened the door to a piano lesson, or spent the evening on the phone planning rehearsals and performances. After she got through June, she promised herself, she’d make more time for herself.
At least she had Charlie. The longer days meant she could take him for a run after dinner so—
Whoa. Who was that?
Pulling into the driveway of her parents’ house, Piper jammed the car into park and stared at the guy leaning on the veranda rail. He wore a white T-shirt, faded jeans and sneakers. He was reading the romance novel she’d left on the table between the two lounge chairs where she’d sat for five minutes and five pages while eating a breakfast wrap, catching this morning’s sun.
He lifted his head and Piper heard her own breath come in on a sharp inhale.
Wow. Goodbye virginity.
He was thirty-ish, muscled and tanned, had dirty blond hair that was overlong and shaggy, making him look very devil-may-care. Dark golden stubble coated his square jaw beneath hollow cheeks. When did the burgling industry start recruiting through modeling agencies?
Not bothering to pull into the garage since she had to run out again right away, she opened her door and set one foot on the ground, but kept the car between herself and the stranger. Marietta was about the safest place in the world, but she’d picked up some habits of caution at college in Billings. Her parents weren’t home and their neighbor was elderly. Better safe than sorry.
“Hi,” she greeted.
Inside the house, Charlie barked, letting her know he’d heard her pull in.
The stranger lifted one corner of his mouth in a friendly grin. “You must be Piper. You look just like your mother.”
“Do I?” She cocked her head, still cautious. “How do you know her?”
A flicker of surprise crossed his expression before his grin widened fractionally, making her feel like he was laughing at her. “I met Arlene two weeks ago, in Panama. With your father, Henry. They said I could stay in their house if I walked and fed the dog.” He thumbed toward the house, then came down the steps with his hand extended. “I’m Bastian. They said they were going to email you to let you know.”
“They did. Half an hour ago. It read like you wouldn’t be here for at least a week.” She hid her irritation as she stepped out of the car to slam the door and come around the hood.
Wow and wow again. He was tall and such nice shoulders—her fatal weakness. The line of his collarbone was even with the top of her head, filling her vision with his well-defined chest under that layer of damp, white cotton.
All she could think was that the universe had picked up her call on the first ring and sent Mr. Fantasy in response. Which only made her feel obvious and juvenile as she tried to catch her breath. Shut that down right now, she told herself, trying to keep her cool, but honestly. He dazzled.
“They would have sent it last week,” he said, amusement dancing in his blue-green eyes.
Seriously. Who in real life had eyes the shade of Caribbean waters? She couldn’t look away, they were so gorgeous.
“We met in a little town where the internet was really sketchy,” he explained. “The email might not have actually sent until they moved on to a bigger center and they had a decent signal.”
Terrific, she silently muttered, watching his mouth twitch. He knew exactly what was going on with her. He probably hypnotized women all the time. He was probably bored by her reaction.
“They said Sebastian, but you said Bastian?” She tried to pretend she wasn’t buzzing with electrified energy as she shook his hand. The contact actually made her pulse jump. Good grief, this was embarrassing. Since when did her hormones swarm for couch-surfing backpackers?
“Sebastian Bloom, but call me whatever you want.” He had a strong grip and wasn’t shy about letting his blue eyes roam.
When his gaze hung up on the right side of her face, she lost her comeback and pulled away, shifting her gaze to the open door of the car so she wouldn’t see the What is that? question form behind his eyes.
“Welcome to Marietta.” She ignored the way his callused palm left a lingering impression on her hand and she moved back to the car to gather her things. “We’ll go in through the back—oh!”
He had followed her and was really close behind her. He took her school bag from her shoulder as she straightened and she stumbled against the car in surprise, flooded with a fresh rush of excitement. “What are you doing?
The corners of his beautiful mouth deepened. “Helping.”
He took her insulated coffee mug from her lax grip and stepped back, leaving her with the car keys and enough room to swing the door shut before she led him to where the backyard was fenced in six foot cedar planking. It was her father’s effort to keep the deer from jumping in to decimate her mother’s garden, but Charlie had turned out to be the better deterrent.
Her back and bottom tingled as she walked in front of Bastian. Her breasts felt heavy and achy, making her blush at how physically she was responding to just being in his vicinity. This was so weird.
“Don’t you have luggage?” she asked over her shoulder as she held the wooden gate, trying to act normal, but he came through her space in a faint cloud of masculine scent and stallion power. Her knees felt weak, for heavens’ sake!
“Stolen. In Dallas, if you can believe it. I made it six months across South America, but lost everything fifteen minutes after I hit American soil. I was holding my wallet and passport and was wearing these clothes, but I had just tucked my phone into a pocket on the backpack so I lost that, too. Everything was saved to the cloud, but still.”
“Bummer.” Awesome. She was regressing to twelve. Try again, Piper. “Marietta seems an odd destination from Panama,” she commented. “Do you have family here?” And therefore, why aren’t you staying with them instead of making me feel like an idiot?
“My sister is here. She’s getting married—”
“You are not related to NancyLynn Pruitt,” she charged, letting the wooden gate slam closed with a clank of its catch. She didn’t know all the Pruitts, but she would have remembered Sebastian Bloom if he’d grown up around here.
“Never heard of her. No, my sister is Liz Flowers. You might know my niece, Petra. You teach at the high school, don’t you?”
“Oh! Second flute and keyboard.” She had talked to Bella about how Petra would be a sort of mentor and was new to the area, too. It had seemed a good match.
Piper saw a vague resemblance in Bastian’s blond, blue-eyed California looks now. Darn it, why did he have to have such a nice family connection? Now she couldn’t help but warm to him on a more personal level.
“Your sister is marrying Blake Canon, isn’t she? I know who he is, but I’m more friendly with his sister, Meg.” Meg was yet another woman in town glowing with the joy of a fresh relationship.
“Yeah, she’s the reason I needed a place to stay. Moved back home, I guess, so there’s no room for me at the ranch. I’d rather be in town anyway. It was nice of your parents to offer their house.”
Piper couldn’t help pausing on the porch steps, not the least surprised her parents had done it and confident in their judgment. They wouldn’t have sent a creep to Marietta, let alone their own house where their daughter lived over the garage. Still, Piper thought it was curious. “How did they know you were coming here?”
He shrugged. “It was just one of those things where you hear an American accent in a cantina and get to chatting. They said they were from Marietta. I said, small world and that I was coming here for my sister’s wedding…”
She nodded and moved to set the key in the lock on the back door. “Brace yourself,” she warned and opened it.
Charlie came out in all his excited glory, never jumping, but he had to scramble a frantic, wiggling figure eight around both pairs of legs, bumping and nosing, tail whapping crazily against their legs while he moaned a prolonged greeting of whines and near-howls.
“Lab and spaniel?” Bastian guessed, bending to pat and make friends. Best friends. Charlie tried to lick Bastian’s fingers right off his hands.
“That’s our guess. He’s a rescue and so happy to have a home it’s ridiculous.” She gave Charlie a few jostles and rubs as he came over to her, scrubbing his ears and getting under his collar before she nudged him toward the stairs and the lawn. “Go, you goof. Work out your kinks. I’ve had to leave him inside the last few days. The neighbor is having some work done and he just stands at the fence and barks the whole time. But he should be fine until I get back in an hour or so?”
“Where are you going?”
That took her slightly aback. It must have shown. His mouth twitched again.
She was getting really tired of being laughed at. Especially by a guy who looked a little too old to be living like a broke student taking a gap year.
“I need some things,” he explained patiently. “Clothes. Groceries. Does it make sense to drop me off and I’ll shop while you run your errands? Your parents said I could use their car, but why waste the gas? Unless the store is close enough to walk?”
“Oh. Of course.” She supposed it was reassuring to know he planned to buy his own food, but she’d just been looking forward to time alone to pull herself together and quit acting like an infatuated teenager. “I mean, you could walk, but it’s a long walk back if you have a lot to carry. I can drop you. It’s on the way. Let me put my bag away and get changed.” And maybe stop babbling. Argh.
Bastion watched—and grinned—as Piper headed up the outside stairs on the side of the detached garage. The backs of her knees flashed from the short slit in her navy blue skirt. A stripe of red on the back of her heels matched the narrow strip of red that belted her white shirt. She was definitely working the hot teacher angle.
It was definitely working on him.
Even if she looked a shade too young for him. Not young, actually. If she was teaching she had to be mid-twenties. No, she seemed innocent. Inexperienced. Her reaction had been something like when his niece’s girlfriends met him and fell into an instant crush. They tended to giggle and blush—which had been an exciting reaction when he’d been a teenager himself, but these days just made him shake his head at having ever been so young.
Not that Piper had acted quite that immature, but she definitely didn’t have a handle on her reaction. Women her age, with a track record and an interest, usually looked at him with invitation. That, he liked.
If she’d waved him in with something like that, he would be upstairs with her right now. She was cute. Her blond hair looked glossy and soft, her brown eyes warm and confident despite the air of jittery shyness she projected. The way she’d angled her face told him she was self-conscious about the birthmark on her cheek, which maybe accounted for some of her wariness. He wanted to say, Forget about it. I already have.
He wondered how she’d react if he told her he was feeling all the same sparks and runs of heat, just hiding it better.
He hadn’t expected that. He’d seen the twinkle of a set up in Piper’s mother’s eye as she’d offered their house, mentioning that Piper could use the help with the dog since she was so busy. There’d been a note of caution—protectiveness maybe—in Henry’s tone as he’d agreed that of course Bastian could use their house.
Bastian had read the undercurrents and figured he’d be facing a woman of marriageable age, but Piper was no desperate spinster who needed her mother to find her a husband. That was serious temptation living a short fumble in the dark away. Good thing he knew how to keep a lid on his libido, because he was really tempted.
But he wasn’t about to repay his hosts’ kindness by banging their daughter. The Tierneys were obviously solid folk and Piper struck him as equally conservative. Best to keep her on the no fly list. He was only here a few weeks then heading home to California anyway. An affair would be awesome, amazing, a huge relief, really. But wasn’t going to happen. Not here. Not with Piper.
Stepping into the house, he glanced around the laundry room, then walked through to the living area. It was a standard American bungalow, very middle-class and modest, like its owners. At the same time, it was luxury compared to some of the places he’d been staying. In those one-room shacks, the kitchen had usually been a single hotplate burner, the pantry a box about the size of a milk crate. If it had a tap, the water was cold. Refrigeration had been non-existent.
Scratching the prickling stubble on his jaw, he decided it was probably a good thing he’d come here instead of going straight back to L.A. The electricity and television were going to be culture shock enough, he thought wryly.
The old-fashioned landline and phone book were quaintly familiar, though. He used them to let Liz know he was in town and made plans to drive out and see her tomorrow. He was beat from over thirty hours of non-stop travel and tempted to fall on his face, but he would power through to the end of the day and hope to adjust his body clock quickly.
Besides, he wanted to talk more with Piper. He wasn’t going to make any moves, but flirting was harmless.
He watched her through the window over the sink, as she descended the stairs and he drank a glass of water. She’d changed into a pair of blue shorts and a white and blue striped T-shirt, losing the heels for a pair of open-toed flat sandals. Her legs were really nice. Long and slender with enough muscle and curve to make them very appealing. She’d tidied her ponytail, but otherwise didn’t look like she’d dressed to impress.
Maybe she isn’t interested, Bloom. Maybe you’re seeing something that’s not there.
He wasn’t at his best, that was for sure. But even scruffy and decidedly white in a Latino and indigenous landscape, he’d garnered more than his share of female attention. Girls liked him. They always had.
“Are you going to behave yourself?” he heard Piper ask.
She was talking to Charlie, but he mentally answered with a beleaguered, I’ll try.
Charlie was acting like he hadn’t seen her in days. She bent to pet him and her shorts snugged her backside, making Bastian itch to take his time fondling and getting to know those bare thighs and plump cheeks.
He swallowed another gulp of cold water.
“If you bark, Mrs. Clements will tell me. Don’t think I won’t find out. Hear me? Ready?” she asked Bastian as she straightened, cheeks flushed, gaze skittering away from his.
She might not be interested, but she was definitely feeling the chemistry.
He patted for his wallet and nodded, silently letting out a slow breath as he took in the way her shirt hugged her breasts. Not heavy, but very nice.
He came to the door, but she didn’t move.
“I’ll just, um,” she edged around him in the small laundry room, taking a key off the hook behind his shoulder, giving him a whiff of girly smells and toothpaste. “Wait a sec before you lock it.” She grabbed a handful of kibble and stepped outside to throw it into the lawn. One foot came up and so did her shorts as she leaned over the rail, exposing even more of the backs of her thighs.
Dear God. Was she trying to kill him?
“That’ll keep him busy until we get back and I can run him.” She brushed past him again and rinsed her hands in the laundry sink, then motioned for him to lock up while she dried her hands on the seat of her shorts.
He had to consciously drag his eyes off her legs as she got behind the wheel of the car.
“I was thinking, you probably do know NancyLynn Pruitt,” she chattered as she backed out. “She’s Nancy Parsons, the goody-goody from that show—”
“The actress?” He brought his eyes up from where her breasts were straining against the fabric of her shirt. “Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. She was on that high school soap opera— That’s it,” he said, remembering the name of the show as she said it. “I didn’t watch it, but my sisters loved it. She’s here in Marietta? Why?”
“She grew up here. She’s getting married to Jared Lovell.” She paused at a stop sign and gave him a What do you think of that? brow-lift. “I’m meeting her to talk about the music for the wedding.”
Love ‘em and Leave ‘em Lovell was getting married? Bastian couldn’t help snorting with prediction of disaster.
Piper flung him another glance, this one amused, before turning left at the next light. “Celebrity marriages, right? Lots of people are taking that attitude, but I hope it works out for her. I, um, kind of know her.”
She spoke with the cautious excitement of someone who had never been around celebrities and didn’t know how many of them turned out to be assholes.
“She was older than me, but she came to our house for singing lessons when she was in the beauty pageant. Mom gave them to her for free, ‘cause she couldn’t afford them.” Her tone changed to admiration. “She was so determined to find a ticket out of town. She deserves a happily ever after. She sure doesn’t get any on Sultry Suburbs.”
“Another soap opera of some kind?” he guessed, angling slightly so he could see her better. He ought to be getting his bearings, but the town was small and Piper was infinitely more interesting.
“You haven’t seen it?” The car was a standard and she shifted with confidence, legs moving easily to clutch and accelerate. Her hair ruffled in the light breeze coming in through the open windows. It was probably the sexiest thing he’d ever seen.
“I’ve been in South America,” he reminded absently. Her skin looked incredibly smooth, if still winter pale, but that creamy color was riveting. He wanted to touch it.
“You’ve been watching telenovelas then,” she teased.
“Right,” he agreed dryly. He was a little more concerned with genuine human drama, but didn’t have time to say so. She slowed and nosed into an open space alongside the curb, then pointed across the street.
“You want the western shop. Sometimes the boutique up the block has a few pieces of men’s wear, but this is your best bet unless you want to try the thrift store.”
“Jeans and a few shirts is all I’m after,” he said, then frowned as she climbed from her side of the car. “You’re coming in? I thought you had somewhere to go.”
She gave him a look of amused tolerance over the roof of the car. “I’m meeting Nancy at the bridal shop around the corner.” Moving to rest a leather portfolio on the hood, she walked her fingertips through the colored tabs, double-checking the contents.
He leaned his forearm above the windshield, enjoying the way she pursed her lips into a pout of deliberation. He bet she alphabetized the hell out of seating plans.
Her head came up as if she suddenly realized he hadn’t moved. “Problem?”
“Just wondering how any of those freshly wired teenaged boys learn anything over at Marietta High. Must be tough to concentrate.”
“What do you mean—” she started to say, then her eyes widened with surprise before doubt flickered. She lowered her lashes, shy and disconcerted. Her brow crinkled and her mouth firmed.
With her cheekbones flaring like brake lights, she said “Grocery store is that way. I’ll be half an hour. Meet you there.”
He touched the tip of his tongue to his bottom lip, realizing she was more unsure of herself than he’d realized. He almost felt like he should apologize for letting her know he was attracted, but he wasn’t sorry. She was so damned cute.
“What if I’m late?” he said instead, flirting openly.
“Then you’ll have to walk.” She pulled out her sternest schoolmistress tone and clipped the strap closed on her portfolio.
Oh punish me, teach. Please.
Her gaze came up for his response, but he only offered his most appreciative smile, making zero effort to show he liked that tartness under the sweet.
A flash of vulnerability went through her expression and she dropped her gaze, then pivoted to skip onto the sidewalk and start down the block.
“Hey,” he called.
“Yes?” She spun back, definitely testy. Must be the heat.
“Be careful,” he warned. “Hollywood thinks the universe revolves around them. Don’t let anyone push you around.”
“I work with teenaged boys all day,” she scoffed, brows lifting in a way that lumped him in with them. “They think the same thing. I never let them get away with it.”
Cute and tough. Absolutely perfect.
He watched her walk away, so enamored with those legs it was bordering on lechery. The next few weeks were going to be hard. Really, really hard.
He was going to be really, really hard.
Awkward. Piper silently groaned as she headed back to Marietta Western Wear. She’d really been looking forward to a reprieve from Bastian’s radiation of sexual energy and then, right before they’d parted ways, he’d ramped up to outright flirtation.
She couldn’t decide if he’d been sincere or not. He seemed so easy-going, not the type to mock someone, but she didn’t really know him. Her father had always had a good radar for the travelers he brought home, but maybe he was off the mark this time. Men like Sebastian, scruffy appearance aside, could have anyone. He wouldn’t be interested in her.
She had really needed the switch in gears to process it all, but NancyLynn wasn’t in town yet. Piper wasn’t sure if she’d got the wrong Wednesday or if NancyLynn had changed her plans. Point was, the bride wasn’t here. So now here Piper was, pushing into the Marietta Western Wear like she couldn’t bear to be separated from that mountain of masculinity for more than five minutes.
The pine-y, cowhide scent of the store took her back the way it always did to the teenaged angst of feeling like an outsider. So many of the school kids seemed to have bonded over horses and the rodeo, spending time together on the bus route out on the ranch runs and hanging together in the Four-H. Piper had been the daughter of a teacher, marked as an infiltrator from the get-go. She had desperately wanted a job in town, in this store, as soon as she was old enough, but her mother had pressed her to give piano lessons. Instead of finally having an opportunity to socialize with her peers, she’d played chopsticks with kindergartners and taught them how to find Middle C.
Maybe her vision of the store being packed with teenagers after school wasn’t exactly reality, however. It was empty right now, aside from the shelves of jeans and boots, gloves and T-shirts against the gleam of yellow knotty-pine paneling.
“Hi Emily,” Piper greeted the girl behind the counter.
“Hi Miss Tierney.” Emily wore a western shirt and too much make-up, having reached that special age where a girl had to try all the colors she owned, at once, before she learned to take a less-is-more approach. She had her chemistry homework open on the counter and was bopping her head to the twangy beat of the country song—Jake Kohl.
Piper cocked her head to listen. He had a gorgeous voice, all rich and smoky. He wasn’t hard to look at, either. She’d seen him last year at the rodeo and developed a teensy music-geek crush on him. When she’d heard he’d settled down here, she’d kept an eye out for him, but hadn’t had a reason to meet him until this wedding thing came up. He was singing a few songs at Nancy’s wedding while the community band was doing the waltzes. She had kind of jumped at the opportunity to take the gig just to work with him and yes, she’d entertained a few loose fantasies involving—
Bastian stepped out from behind a column, right in front of her. No shirt. New jeans on, but only zipped, not buttoned. Flat tanned abs with a neat line of hair from his innie to—
Oh wow. Eyes up, Piper.
“Hi,” he said without surprise. “You’re back. Blue or gray?” He held first one, then another pair of shorts in front of himself. They were both long and loose with a black waistband and a black stripe down the outsides of the legs.
They were standing too close. She could feel herself warming again. He smelled like he’d been working out, which should have been a turn off, but it just seemed really intimate and kind of sexy. She wanted to die.
“I know where you can get your colors done,” she offered, backing away to look at the colorful western shirts on the rack, determined to hide her discomfiture. She could josh and banter same as anyone. Some guys liked to come on strong. One of the teachers at school regularly went over the top with exaggerated, You’re the best, I love you, Will you marry me and have my baby? silliness, usually in response to an unexpected delivery of a cup of coffee or after having saved him ten steps to the copy machine. If that’s what Bastian liked to do, she wanted him to know she didn’t take it seriously.
“Gray it is,” Bastian said, mouth quirked. “You finished your appointment already?”
“She wasn’t there. I have to reschedule.” Which was annoying in the extreme. She needed the play list to start sourcing the sheet music.
“That’s Hollywood for you,” Bastian said with a disgusted shake of his head.
“Sounds like the voice of experience,” she said, intrigued into glancing his way.
“Mmm.” He searched through the folded T-shirts for the size he wanted.
“Is it?” she prompted, growing more curious.
“Yes. And you couldn’t get me drunk enough to tell you what kind. Did you say we’re running the dog when we get home?” He threw a package of three boxer shorts on the load in his arm.
“What? No.” Piper shot a glance at Emily, finding the girl watching them openly. Small town. “I’m running the dog. You’re my parents’ houseguest. You can do whatever you want.”
If that came out extra loud with a too-obvious attempt to clarify, well, good.
Bastian didn’t seem to notice. He walked into a change room and loosely pulled the bi-fold door, bare elbow and shoulder still visible as he took off his jeans. He spoke just as loudly and clearly as she had. “I could use the exercise. If we don’t run, I’m going to want to go straight to bed.”
Could he hear himself? Was he doing this on purpose? Piper folded her arms and blushed yet again. And glared holes through the vents on the half-closed door.
Bastian came out in the shorts and a loose, sleeveless shirt. He carried his things to the counter where he paid with cash. Then he held the door for her onto the street and stabbed his final sword deep into her unsullied reputation.
“What should we have for dinner?”
“Can I explain something to you?” Piper said in a voice that bordered on strident.
She was shoulder-checking for traffic as she pulled away from the curb so he couldn’t read her face, but she definitely sounded pissed.
“Okay,” he said with the caution of a man who’d grown up with two older sisters and a whole lot of women at his mother’s shop. He knew that tone. It meant he was standing on the detonator of a landmine. There was no safe retreat. He’d already screwed himself and hadn’t even seen where he was putting his foot.
She straightened and accelerated. Her lips were tight, her profile stressed as she paused mid-block for a pedestrian, then carried on. They’d left the windows open, so the car wasn’t too hot, but the light breeze felt good. Smelled good. This was a perfect day.
“This is a small town,” Piper said. “When you talk in public like we’re sleeping together, everyone I know is going to assume we’re sleeping together. Kindly don’t make it sound, in front of a student, like we’re going home to cook a cozy dinner, then skip going for a run so we can fall into bed.”
A possibility struck Bastian with surprisingly unpleasant force. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Why hadn’t that occurred to him? Of course she was involved.
“What? No!” She braked at a light and jammed the car into first, shooting him a look that kind of hated him.
In the back of his mind, he wondered why his question was so outrageous, but she was continuing to rail, grabbing and holding his attention again as the light changed and she pulled forward.
“Things get around, is what I’m saying. Especially at school. I realize it sounds paranoid and backwater. The truth is, I don’t really care what people say about me.” Her lips went tight again. She muscled the car down to second as she took a hard corner. “But I have a job working with kids. I can’t have parents thinking I’m screwing around with a drifter before teaching little Suzy how to blow the French horn. Know what I mean?”
Whoa. Colorful with her insults, which was funny, but that was quite an indictment.
“A drifter,” he repeated. Is that how he was coming across? He looked worse than he thought.
“I didn’t mean anything by that,” she muttered, swinging into the grocery store parking lot.
“Yeah, you did,” he said, and decided he’d hold off on clarifying things. It was actually refreshing to be seen as a have-not even if the ‘amount to nothing’ implication was not unfamiliar.
“No, honestly,” she insisted as she parked and yanked up the emergency brake. “I didn’t mean that to sound judgmental. I’m not like that. I wish I were the kind of person who knew how to travel on a shoestring and stay with strangers and not freak out after being robbed. You’d think I would be exactly like that, since Dad brought backpackers home all the time while I was growing up, but I guess I always saw us as the port in the storm, not the adventurer sailing the ship.”
She flipped up the visor, dipped her head to look through the windshield, then did a one-eighty shoulder check out their open windows before continuing.
“The thing is, it was a lot different when Dad brought strangers home and I was nine and my mother was in the house. I don’t think they thought this through when they offered to let you stay. I’m supposed to be a stable influence here, and it really doesn’t look good if… Please stop laughing at me.”
“I’m not. I’m really not,” he said, fighting to control the chuckle that had pushed up from the walls of his chest. “I hear you. It’s a different village, but the same local politics. I just didn’t realize there were still places like this in America. It is the twenty-first century in case everyone was too busy watching Sultry Suburbs to notice.”
“I know, right? But that’s the thing. People love to watch the drama unfold, and if there is no drama, they are more than happy to make it up. I like my job. I like my life here. Please respect that.”
“Message received.” No boyfriend. Keep it discreet.
“Thanks for understanding.” She shot him a relieved grin that hit him right in the middle of his chest.
She climbed from the car so he had a moment to absorb the impact of everything she’d said and wonder exactly what was going on here. He liked women as much as they liked him. Sex was pretty much his favorite pass-time, provided the woman in question was interested and wanted to keep things light.
Piper might be responding to him, but not without reservations, and she had just spelled out for him that casual affairs didn’t have a place in her life.
Totally understandable. He did respect everything she’d just said.
His reaction was the disturbing part. He didn’t like being rebuffed. At all.
An hour later, Piper watched Bastian’s head pop out of the river and heard him curse.
“I told you it’s too early to swim.” The water was still running high and fast. He was in a back eddy, though. It would push him into the rocks rather than sweeping him downstream so she wasn’t worried for him, but it was still a bold move to jump in this time of year.
“It’s perfect,” he insisted, voice strained. He ducked and came up closer to shore. “You should come in.” He planted his feet and stood. Water sluiced down his bare chest, flattening the fine hairs and glinting off his hard nipples.
She looked away, seriously tempted. She was really hot. They had jog-walked through the streets where the warmth of the early spring day had clung to the sidewalks, feet hitting the pavement in perfect timing. The cooler air at the river’s edge had been a blessed relief until Bastian had peeled off his shirt, kicked off his shoes, and followed the dog into the water.
“I wait until school’s out for the summer. That’s my rule,” she told him.
Charlie had been swimming since the ice had broken. He bee-lined like a tug straight for Bastian, a stick clutched in his teeth.
“I’m getting the impression you live by a lot of rules, Piper.” Bastian wrestled the stick from Charlie and threw it a little ways away, then waded out.
“Not really,” she defended. Maybe she’d made Charlie wait to go off lead until they were officially on the section of beach designated for dogs, even though no one else was around, but that was just old-fashioned courtesy. “What’s wrong with following rules, anyway. Do you break them for the sake of it?”
He paused. His silky gray shorts were dark and clinging to his muscled thighs. His torso glistened and his eyelashes were spiked. He skimmed his hair back to push out the water then shook his hands. His blue-green eyes came to rest on her in the way that was starting to put a funny tremor in her middle.
“I rewrite them,” he said with supreme arrogance. “And bend them when I want to.”
One of them had a filthy mind, because that sounded really dirty. She looked for Charlie, calling a strained, “Come.”
He did, waiting to shake until he had dropped his stick at her feet. She tsked and stepped back, then clipped on his leash, waiting while Bastian used his new shirt as a towel, drying his face then his feet before putting on his shoes.
“You grew up here?” he asked as they started walking back.
The way he looked around made her view her home with fresh eyes. The trees were filling out with bright green leaves. Sharp blades of grass rose from the fallen yellowed husks of last year. Birds were squawking and the noises and smells of outdoor living—mowers and barbeques and radios—were beginning to fill the air. Marietta was waking up after winter in all its small and simple, but safe and familiar glory.
“They try to do the births at the bigger hospitals now, but yeah, I was born here. Mom and Dad grew up in Livingston and moved here when Dad got on at the high school. Did he tell you he was the music teacher before me?”
Bastian shook his head. “But they said you have a lot of music commitments along with teaching. Not enough time for the dog.”
“I make time for Charlie. He’s a big goof, but he makes me get my exercise and I always have someone to talk to. Right, champ?” She nudged the wet dog with her leg and he gave her a glance, tongue lolling happily as he paced alongside her. “I said earlier that I never thought of us as adventurers, but Mom and I were the homebodies. I think Dad would have traveled given half a chance. He put it off because of—well, not just me, but family life in general. Mortgage, bills, you know. And—”
She stopped, realizing she was bordering on TMI. He was really easy to talk to.
“What?” he prompted, looking genuinely interested.
She shrugged. “I had an older brother. He died when I was a baby, so I don’t remember him, but it made Mom really protective of me. Not a risk taker at all, so it’s no wonder I turned out the same,” she said wryly. “I think all those hitchhikers Dad brought home were his way of connecting with the world he was dying to explore himself. And he basically admitted to me once that losing his own son made him kind of, I don’t know, want to be there for other people’s kids. Be the safe place they could sleep so they didn’t get themselves into trouble. Kind of doing his part for the parenting collective.”
“Which would be why he asked for my itinerary and family contacts when I left on a three-day hike into the jungle.”
“You did meet my dad.”
“They’re nice folks. What happened with your brother?”
“Hit by a car. It was one of those things where it happened in one second and Mom spent the rest of her life blaming herself for it.” Piper shrugged, heart aching for her mom. Arlene’s grief and regret were real and heavy. Piper had spent her own life wishing she could somehow ease the burden, being good and careful and there. Always there if her mom wanted her near. Sometimes it felt suffocating, but she knew her mother was operating from a place of love and fear of loss. Letting go was not easy for Arlene and honestly, there were worse things than having parents who loved you.
A boyfriend who didn’t, for instance.
“Your mom is quite the adventurer now,” Bastian said. “That was no resort town we met in. They were at a home-stay in a working class village. And it’s getting into the rainy season.”
Piper nodded. “She got sick a few years ago. Breast cancer. She made a deal with God that if she got better, she’d quit being afraid to live and go with Dad wherever he wanted. He eased her into it. First it was Hawaii, then Europe, then Mexico. This year it was the Panama Canal and an open mind. I’m glad they’re seeing the real country, not just the tourist side of it.”
“But you’re not ready to travel?”
“Somebody has to feed the dog.” They weren’t even trying to run, just ambling, all three of them. “I lived in Billings for a couple of years. I went there to start college, then came home and did two years online while Mom was in treatment, then went back for the last year.”
“California for the theme parks. Wyoming for Yellowstone.”
“Nothing that needs a passport? Not even Canada?”
“The community band has talked about doing a road trip, maybe getting some bookings in Alberta. I wouldn’t mind, but I also don’t mind staying here with Charlie so Mom and Dad can travel.”
They’d reached the house and Bastian opened the gate. She waited until he’d let it lock behind them before unclipping Charlie’s leash. He ran to patrol the fence, nose down, while she topped up his water dish.
“What about you?” she asked as she straightened. “You’ve traveled a ton, haven’t you?”
“It would be quicker to tell you where I haven’t been,” he admitted.
“Why? I mean, what makes you want to do it? Are you a nerd for natural wonders or history or something? ‘Cause it doesn’t sound like you’re sitting on a white beach waiting for drinks with umbrellas to be delivered.”
“I’m a fan of all those things, including the umbrella drinks, but it started as a giant F.U. to my dad, actually. He said he’d pay for college if I went straight there from high school. Better yet, I could enlist and let the military pay for my education. I didn’t want to do either so he kicked me out. I spent a year in Europe then came home and put myself through college. Yes,” he said dryly as he read her surprise. “I’m smart. I have a Masters and I’m finishing my doctorate. That’s what took me to South America”
“You’re a scientist? Were you finding new bugs or the cure for cancer or something?”
“Nothing so exciting. I’m a poli-sci major. A policy wonk.”
“Are you serious?” She laughed at what she’d been thinking of him, embarrassed, especially because he was eyeing her in a way that told her he knew how badly she’d underestimated him. “How could I have guessed that you were smart and boring?”
He folded his arms, chest still bare, shirt hitched over his shoulder and wet hair drying in messy waves. He lifted his stubbled chin in mock disgust. “It’s fine. No one ever takes me seriously.”
“Because you look like a surfer dude! May I suggest a haircut before you start looking for a job?”
“I don’t need a job. I have a blog.”
She burst out laughing.
“See, I’ve never understood why that’s funny, but everyone thinks it is,” he said with a baffled shrug, which only made her laugh harder.
And fall harder. He was not only gorgeous, but secure enough to live on his own terms and not take himself too seriously. She couldn’t help admiring him for that.
While still feeling like an idiot herself.
He grinned like he enjoyed making her laugh, but his gaze lingered too long, stroking her face like a caress. She grew self-conscious and looked away, heart giddy and skin prickly and tight.
“I, um, have some emails to answer and I have to get hold of Nancy, try to reschedule.”
“Sure. I’ll have dinner ready in an hour.”
Oh, she envied how smooth he was. The best she could do was adopt her show-no-fear teacher persona and pretend his effortless charm didn’t effect her. “Do you flirt out of habit? Or is it a natural gift?” she asked blithely.
“A little of both.” His mouth pursed ruefully, then he added, “But cooking is the least I can do, since your parents didn’t want any money for letting me stay.”
Not a real date then. That shouldn’t pinch, but it did.
“I ate before we ran. You could keep Charlie in the house overnight, though. I’ve been bringing him up to my place, but he gets restless and wants out all the time. He’s better in the laundry room where he can see into the yard.”
“Sure.” The dog had come over to lap water, splattering his shoes, but Bastian only bent to give Charlie a couple of friendly pats.
“Okay. Well then, good night. Nice meeting you,” she added lamely. “Sleep well.”
“You, too.” He was privately laughing at her again. She could tell.
This was why she needed to date, she mentally grumbled as she climbed her stairs. She didn’t know how to deal with men. A hot one asked her to have dinner and she panicked, flopping completely. If she couldn’t handle a conversation turning into an evening, how would she ever get through lovemaking without humiliating herself?