Linda Fioretti was a grown woman. She'd left Los Angeles and a lousy marriage to make a new life for herself in Rumor, Montana. And that meant discovering just who she had become over the years. An artist? A teacher? Or the kind of woman who fell in love at first sight?
Carpenter Tag Kingsley had been hired to renovate her apartment, and when he swaggered into her home, Linda's pulse began to hammer. From his kind words to his sexy smile, this single father's dangerous sensuality and tenderness were unnervingly attractive--almost enough to tear down the walls around her heart....
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December 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Moon Over Montana by Jackie Merritt
The students and teachers at the Rumor High School were looking forward to the end of the school year, some more than others. Art teacher Linda Fioretti was more inclined to look ahead to the new school year rather than rejoice in the completion of this year's curriculum.
But then, Linda had only been a teacher for a short time--living in Rumor that same duration and loving her new job. Having been born and raised in the Los Angeles area, this was Linda's first experience with the slower pace of a small town and she was amazed by how quickly she had adapted. Of course, liking the pretty little town and the people she had met created a sound foundation for contentment.
She had established a comfortable routine, Linda decided while feeding her dog one sunny Saturday morning. Did she really want almost three months of total freedom from routine? Driving around the country and setting up her easel in places that took her fancy held much appeal, granted. But recently--Rumor's influence, undoubtedly--she'd been discovering things about herself that she hadn't known before. Maybe she was even less like her oddball parents than she'd always believed. Considering her unusual upbringing, it was a simple matter for Linda to assume that Vandyne and Hilly Vareck, her mother and father, had absolutely no conception of the word routine, if they even knew it was part of the English language. Certainly routines weren't something they had put into practice in her presence.
"There you are, Tippy," Linda said as she set his bowl of dry food on the old newspaper on the floor of the tiny laundry room in her apartment. She returned to the two-stool counter in her small kitchen, sat on one and picked up her cup of coffee. She still had three weeks to prepare for the end of the school year, as well as the science fair she'd organized with the science teacher and local inventor Guy Cantrell. Plenty of time to decide how she would spend the summer.
She was just beginning to relax and read the front page of the Rumor Mill, the town's newspaper, when someone rapped on her front door.
Tippy came tearing out of the laundry room, food forgotten, barking and sliding around corners in his haste to reach the front door and save Linda from whatever monster was daring to make noise just beyond the door.
"Tippy, calm down," Linda said. "Sit," she told the little white dog, which he did, but with a watchful, suspicious eye on the door.
Linda peered through the peephole and saw a man she hadn't yet met. He looked innocent enough, not at all like the characters that had recently called on her and then practically run for the street, mumbling something about having the wrong address when she opened the door. She'd been amused the first time it happened because the man had been wearing a perfectly ghastly-looking toupee. The second time it occurred she wondered if she should alert the law about the man dressed as an overweight woman who had just knocked on her door.
But hadn't she laughed herself silly at the way he had hastily limped away in huge high heels? Where on earth did a man find shoes like that? Anyhow, she'd decided the guy was probably the town's one eccentric and that she really shouldn't cause trouble for someone so obviously a cookie or two short of a full box. She certainly hadn't felt threatened by him or his penchant for knocking on strangers' doors, after all. At any rate, she hadn't alerted anyone. The sheriff would probably have laughed it off anyway.
When the normal-looking man on her doorstep knocked again, Linda opened the door and said "Yes?" in a polite but questioning manner.
Another eccentric? Good grief! Linda suddenly wasn't so polite. "So you are," she said dryly. "Would it be too much trouble for you to explain why you're here?"
"No trouble at all. You're next on my list."
How many nutcases lived in Rumor? Linda asked herself with an inner sigh. This one was awfully cute with his long-ish dark hair and twinkling hazel eyes. Very tall--over six feet, Linda was sure--and lanky. And he had the most incredible mouth--sensual lips--and an adorable grin. But precisely what list had he placed her on? Should she be worried?
No, she wasn't afraid. This good-looking guy had to be a salesman. She started to shut the door. "Thanks, but I'm not interested."
"Whoa, wait a minute. Didn't Heck tell you I was going to be here today to get started on the renovations to your apartment?"
Heck Sommers managed the building, the man from whom she'd rented her cozy and rather unusual two-story apartment. The two bedrooms were on the second floor. One had a tiny wood balcony, just big enough for a couple of chairs, and the other had a skylight. Linda had signed the lease immediately, envisioning warm summer evenings on that little balcony. Plus, the bedroom with the skylight made a perfect studio.
Heck had mentioned some building renovations when she'd first rented, but she'd put the whole thing from her mind. Besides, she liked her apartment just fine, and she had turned it into a cozy little home for her and Tippy.
"I don't need you to do anything in here, but thanks," she said, and again tried to shut the door.
"Look, my name is Tag. Call Heck for confirmation if you wish, but I have a contract to do some work in this apartment and I'm supposed to start today."
"Good idea," Linda snapped, getting impatient with this guy, cute or not. "And I am going to shut the door while I make that call, so let go of it!"
"Fine." Grinning, Tag stepped back.
Linda slammed the door shut and made sure it was locked. She went to the phone and dialed Heck's number. When he answered she got right to the point.
"This is Linda Fioretti. There's some guy named Tag at my front door who says he has a contract to destroy all the improvements I've made in my apartment. Does he? Do I have to let him in?"
"Now, Linda," Heck said in a voice that Linda found annoyingly obsequious; Heck Sommers wasn't even slightly servile in person, and he was putting on a big act to soothe her ruffled feathers. After all, teacher or not, she was still just a woman. Sexist attitudes really fried Linda, but she let Heck finish without interruption. "Tag has a contract to do renovations to the whole building. He's a darn good carpenter and painter, and I'm sure he isn't going to destroy any of your improvements." Heck was suddenly his normal gruff-speaking self. "Which, by the way, consist of what? Your lease clearly states no painting or wallpapering without owner approval."
Oh, for crying out loud! "Believe me, I haven't challenged or compromised the terms of the lease in any way.
All I've done is hang a few pictures and...oh, forget it. I'll let him in. Goodbye."
Linda returned to the front door and jerked it open. "Come on in," she drawled. "Make yourself at home, which for some reason I'm certain you fully intended to do."
Tag had been told that a single lady lived in this apartment, and now that he'd seen her he deemed that information to be good news because she was just about the prettiest woman he'd ever met face-to-face. He was especially taken with her long blond hair and gorgeous green eyes, although the rest of her was just as noteworthy.
He held out his hand. "Tag Kingsley."
Linda didn't want to shake his hand. She touched it tentatively and said, "Linda Fioretti." Drawing back quickly, she asked, "So what are your marching orders? How much mess am I going to have to contend with?"
Tippy yapped, which Linda knew was a bid for attention. Obviously, the little dog didn't sense danger from Tag, and if the nice man wasn't dangerous he was a friend.
"Tippy, Tippy," she said with a sigh that labeled her best buddy a traitor.
Chuckling, Tag bent down and petted the dog's head. "So you're Tippy," he said. "Well, maybe your mistress will let me bring you doggy treats next time I come by."
"No, she won't," Linda said, getting more put out by the minute. "I would appreciate knowing what you intend doing to my apartment."
Tag stood again. "I'm going to check the woodwork and paint in each room, for starters." He took out a small spiral notebook and pen. "Where would you like me to begin?"
"How about Siberia?"
"Very funny." With a crooked grin curling his lips, Tag walked away from her and went into the kitchen.
Linda stewed for a moment then followed. He had the nerve to look into her cupboards! Every one of them, even the one under the sink.
"You're a good housekeeper," Tag remarked, making some notes in the spiral. He went on to the adjoining laundry room, checked it out and made more notes.
Linda followed him into the living room, stood in the hall while he inspected the first-floor powder room and then up the stairs into the bedroom she used as a bedroom. Then there was the main bathroom and finally her studio.
"Hey, you're an artist," Tag said, visibly impressed by the canvases he could see around the room.
"Big deal," Linda muttered.
"It is a big deal." Tag squatted to better see the detail in a painting leaning against a wall. It depicted a crowded-street scene. "This is terrific. You didn't use Rumor as a model for this one," he said with a laugh.
"Of course not."
"Is this oil or acrylic?"
"You actually know there's a difference?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
Tag stood and, eyes twinkling, looked at her. "Imagine that," he drawled good-naturedly. "So, what's on the easel? May I take a look?"
"I'd rather you didn't. I never know if I'll finish anything until it's actually...finished. Some pieces start out good and then inspiration sort of dribbles away to nothing."
"I know exactly what you mean. I've started dozens of projects in my shop through the years that ended up on the scrap heap. Of course, being good wood to begin with, I keep every piece. Never know when something I'm working on will require one more length of mahogany, or redwood or teak, or...well, you get my drift."
"I'm not sure I do. What kind of projects do you work on in your shop?"
"Oh, tables and things. I'm a carpenter."
The light dawned. "Oh, you have a carpentry shop. Then home renovation isn't your only job."
Tag grinned. "It's not even my second job. I don't consider anything I do a job."
"But it's how you make your living, isn't it? What is carpentry to you if not a job?"
"A passion. After my daughter, carpentry is the most important part of my life."
Surprisingly, Linda's stomach sank; he was married. "You have a daughter. How old is she?"
"Five. My wife died when Samantha was still a baby."
"Oh! I'm...very sorry."
"Thanks." He looked around the room. "These walls could use a coat of paint. Could you spare the room for one day? Actually, it's a small area and I could probably do it in half a day." He swung around to see Linda again. "What do you think?"
She shrugged. "You're the one with the contract. What do you think?"
"I really hate the thought of me causing a blip in the progress of great art."
"Oh, come on. This is hardly great art."
"Looks pretty great to me."
"Oh, sure, like it should be hanging in the national gallery."
"Maybe it should. Maybe it will. Someday." Damn, she was pretty. How long had it been since he'd been instantly attracted to a woman? Had he ever been instantly attracted to a woman? Wasn't this some kind of first for him? "Do you sell your paintings?"
"I've sold some, yes, but not since I moved to Rumor."
"In Los Angeles. My parents are both artists, quite well-known in the L.A. area." Linda felt her face color. Why on earth was she running off at the mouth with a man she'd just met? She never volunteered information about her past, her life-before-Rumor, so to speak. Was her divorce anyone's business? Her unusual childhood?
"When did you move here?" Tag asked. "I don't remember seeing you around town, and I'm sure I would have noticed."
Linda's pulse quickened. He was flirting with her! He'd been flirting from the moment he stepped through her door. "If you hung around the high school, you would have seen me. I teach there," she said, cursing her inability to put an end to this question-and-answer session. Yes, she'd been as guilty of curiosity about him as he was about her, but this was all extremely foreign territory for her and it might be safer to nip it in the bud.
Tag's face lit up. "You're the new art teacher! I've heard about you."
"Yes, well, I've only lived here a short while, but it didn't take long to discover that very little goes on in Rumor that doesn't spread with the speed of light."
"Rumor's a typical small town, Linda. People gossip, sure, but it's still a great place to live."
She actually felt a thrill go up her spine when he said her name. It occurred to her to ask him to call her Ms. Fioretti, just as she had told her students to do.
But how childish would that be? Just because she was feeling giddy over a good-looking guy, experiencing physical sensations she'd only been equipped to imagine before this, didn't mean she should turn prim and proper and forbid him to use her given name.
"I take it you've never lived anywhere else?" she said, definitely not speaking her mind.
"Rumor's always been home and probably always will be. You know, I live on this same street, other side of Main. You should drop in sometime and see what I've got to offer."
Tag chuckled. "Sorry, that didn't come out the way I meant it to. I was referring to the finished pieces of furniture in my shop."
Linda's face was flaming. "Oh...I see. Well, are you through in here?" She began sidling toward the door.
Tag wrote something in his notebook and shoved it into his shirt pocket. "My inspection is over. Now all I need to do is discuss what needs to be done and set up a work schedule convenient to yours."
"You need a discussion. I see. All right, let's take care of that in the kitchen."
"Anyplace is fine." Tag followed her down the stairs and to the kitchen. He'd spotted the almost full pot of coffee his first time in there, and it smelled awfully good. He could ask for some, but he would rather that Linda offer it.
The newspaper and a single cup were on the counter in front of one stool, so he went to the other and waited for her to sit first.