A Second-Chance Proposal
Book One of the Shannon Sisters Series
Two years ago, almost everyone in Canmore, Alberta, thought Dylan McLean was responsible for the death of a teenage girl on his father’s ranch. Only Cathleen Shannon believed he was innocent.
Then he left her at the altar and fled town. Now Dylan has returned, and he wants a second chance–from the townspeople and Cathleen!
Having been jilted on her wedding day, Cathleen is furious when Dylan shows up asking for assistance. But that doesn’t mean she wants him paying for a crime he didn’t commit. So maybe she will help him clear his name.
A second chance at love, though? That’s out of the question. Or is it?
- The setting for this series is a magical place about an hour west of where I live. Canmore is a mountain town on the edge of Banff National Park. Dominating the skyline are a grouping of mountains affectionately called "The Three Sisters."
- I'd always wanted to write a story about a man, wrongfully accused, who comes back to town to clear his name. Dylan McLean is that hero, and he's one of my favorites.
- One of my favorite scenes in this book is when Cathleen Shannon tells Dylan he's welcome to stay at her B&B--as long as he's willing to sleep in the barn. That line pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Cathleen Shannon.
Enjoy an Excerpt
Chilled currents of mountain air circled the Larch Lodge bed and breakfast and played on Cathleen Shannon's bare, wet shoulders. The cold autumn air only made the luxury of 104 degree bubbling water all the more sinfully pleasurable. Fitting her body to the sloped back of the hot tub's molded seat, she gazed upward. A sky of restless clouds offered teasing glimpses of a fluorescent half-moon.
This is nice. She took a sip of brandy from the plastic glass she'd brought out with her. The outdoor spa had been installed this summer for the benefit of her guests, but she really should make use of it more often herself.
A shadow shifted in the dark, about twenty meters away. Cathleen tensed, and focused on the spot. The dark shape kept moving, and she regretted having turned off all the house lights. But if something was out there, then why wasn't Kip barking?
Probably it was just an elk, they roamed freely over her property, but there was the off chance it could be a bear... She contemplated dashing for the house, but just then, against the backdrop of moonlight, she made out the silhouette of a lanky cowboy. She recognized him immediately from the set of his shoulders and the rhythm of his gait.
And there, trotting faithfully by his boots, was her dog. The traitor.
Like a figure in a dream, the cowboy kept advancing. She couldn't see his eyes--clouds had shifted yet again to cover the moon--but she had no doubt about that he watched her every step of the way. Only when he reached the cedar skirting around the tub did he stop.
"Well, well," she said coolly, hiding her shock by holding her trembling hands under the water. According to his cousin, Jake Hartman, Dylan was supposed to be in Reno, Nevada, the latest stop in his never-ending rodeo circuit. Jake always filled her in on Dylan's latest adventures, even though she'd let him know she couldn't care less what her ex-fiancé was up to. Still, when Jake talked, she rarely missed a single word. And she was certain that plans of Dylan McLean's return to Canmore had never been mentioned.
If they had, she would've prepared herself. Over the past two years, she'd come up with at least a dozen speeches to rake him over the coals with. Trouble was, now that he stood just a few feet away, she couldn't think of a single word, let alone a whole tirade.
He moved closer, then sat on the decking, folding his arms over the tub's white plastic ledge. Now she could see his face clearly. His gray eyes sought to engage hers. His smile conveyed a familiar combination of warmth and devilment. Eventually, his gaze skimmed from her face, down her neck, to the line where the water cut across the top of her chest.
"I like your outfit," he said. "Room in there for one more?"
After two years of silence, you'd think he'd have managed to come up with something a little more profound.
"The hot tub is for lodge guests only. Oh, and family and friends."
He registered the intended insult with a one-sided twist of his mouth. "I see. And I'm neither. Is that it?"
She didn't say anything. The answer should have been obvious to him.
"Look, Cathleen." He sighed, and tipped back his hat a fraction. "Things ended badly between us, but you know it wasn't what I wanted. If I'd had a choice..." He reached for her shoulder, and she pulled back instinctively.
"Hell, Cathleen. I wasn't going to hurt you."
"Don't touch me."
"Okay." Dylan shifted back on his heels. "You've got a right to be angry. But you received the letter, right? Jake said he put it directly in your hands."
"Yeah, Dylan. Thanks a lot for going to the trouble."
She pictured herself two years ago, standing at the open screen door of this very house, staring off into space. Her white dress flowed down to her sandled feet. Her long, normally rather wild, dark hair coiled in luxurious curls down her back. Two bouquets of orchids--one larger than the other--lay at the ready on the kitchen table.
She held an envelope in her hand. With her name on the front, penned in Dylan's distinctive bold script. Out in the distance, the dust from Jake's truck still hovered like a patch of white fog in the lane.
She hadn't needed to tear open the flap and read the single sheet of paper within to know there would be no wedding that day.
"I guess you didn't think your note ought to be supplemented by something as personal as a visit or a phone call."
He winced. "I was afraid you might talk me out of my decision. But you've got to admit, the situation was impossible. There was no way we could've gotten married as we'd planned."
She'd admit nothing of the kind. But she didn't argue with him. If he'd cared what she thought, he would have talked this over with her two years ago.
"I'm sorry you had to deal with the aftermath--telling the guests, canceling the minister and the caterer...."
Actually, her sisters had handled those details for her, but she didn't want to give him the comfort of knowing that. Besides, the logistics of the wedding arrangements had been the least of her heartaches back then. She held out her arms, skimming the bubbles that frothed on the water's surface. It still bothered her how much his desertion had hurt. She saw it as a sign of weakness in herself, and weakness was something she could not tolerate.
"What did you do with the ring." Dylan was staring at her hands, naked of jewelry of any type.
"I sold it," she improvised. "Just like I sold the wedding dress. Advertising them both in theCanmore Leader. I used the money to finance the renovations to this place."
"Yeah, Jake told me you opened in the spring of last year. He says--" Dylan leaned back and stretched out his legs. "--Jake says you've dated a little."
"A little," she agreed amicably. Actually, the tally was close to a dozen men in two years. An active social life had seemed the best way to prove to the town, her sisters and even herselfthat her botched wedding hadn't been such a big deal.
Dylan rubbed his chin. "So who's the current favorite?"
She hated that he made them sound like jelly bean flavors. "Actually, I've been seeing two guys lately. Friday, Thad Springer and I went to a movie in Banff."
"Springer? You mean RCMP Staff Sergeant Springer?"
"I sure do."
"Jesus, Cathleen..." He took a second to digest that, before asking, "And the other?"
If she'd surprised him with Thad, she shocked him with James.
"I don't believe this. You're kidding me, right?"
"I assure you, I'm totally serious."
"Of all the men in Canmore...you wouldn't date my stepbrother..."
"Why is that, Dylan? Because you never got along with the man? Because you hate his father? Those are your issues, not mine." Although she had put off James for more than a year simply because of his ties to Dylan. But James had been persistent. And still was. On their last date he'd made it clear he hoped for a more exclusive relationship with her.
"You'll think I'm just being jealous, but you should stay away from that man. You can't trust him."
"You mean if he asked me to marry him--which I think he just might do--he'd back out the day of the ceremony?"
"You know I had no choice..."
Liar! He'd had a choice. And he'd made it without even considering that she might have an opinion on the matter.
"Just for the record," he volunteered, "there's been no one in my life--no one--since you."
Ah. She turned her head and blinked. For a moment she wondered if he was telling the truth, then she reminded herself that it simply didn't matter.
"I don't know why you think I'd be interested in your love life or lack thereof. Dylan, this whole conversation is pointless. Why don't you just go back to wherever you came from."
"I can't. Jake gave me a ride and now he's gone."
She hadn't heard a thing over the sound of the hot tub motor and jets. "Well that was a really stupid thing to do."
"I kind of specialize in really stupid things."
Even if that was genuine regret on his face, it couldn't make any difference. Being sorry didn't change a damn thing.
"Oh hell, Dylan. What're you really doing here?"
He removed his cowboy hat. "I was back in Canmore. How could I not come to see you? Like you said, I owed you an apology. In person."
"So you're looking for forgiveness. Is that it?"
"Now that you mention it, do you think you ever could?"
"Dylan, I consider myself lucky that our wedding never took place. If that's forgiveness enough for you, then you're welcome to it. Now why don't you let yourself into the kitchen and phone Jake to come and pick you up."
Dylan frowned, then slipped a pack she hadn't noticed off his shoulders. He set the canvas bag on the deck and balanced his hat casually on top of it. "I can't call Jake. He's on his way to Calgary. Flies out tomorrow morning for a three-week tour of Australia while his town house is being remodeled. Paint, carpets, the works. I'd stay there, but the furniture's in storage, and the fumes are something awful."
Wasn't that convenient timing? But his story was probably true. She'd known for sometime that Jake had planned a trip for this summer. And on the last occasion she'd run into him, he'd been standing in front of the display of paint chips at the local hardware store, contemplating the subtle difference in tone between "tumbleweed" and "flax."
"In case you've forgotten, Canmore is a tourist town. There are plenty of motels and other bed and breakfasts."
"Yeah, but somehow none of them seemed to have a room available once I gave them my name."
So the old rumors hadn't died. It was all such nonsense she couldn't believe it.
"And this is my problem because...?" She reached for the controls to the hot-tub jets, but was stymied when Dylan laid his hand over hers. She hated how familiar his touch was, right down to the rough cowboy calluses. This time it took her several seconds before she jerked away.
"I told you--"
"Oh yeah. No touching. I'm sorry, but it's hard. You're still so beautiful. Even more than I remembered."
She resented the compliment as much as his touch. Whatever was going on just didn't add up...
Then suddenly she understood. He wasn't really here to apologize. He'd come expecting he could turn on the old charm and she'd crumple at his feet. He'd end up with a place to stay and a woman in his bed.
"Well, I wish I could say the same for you," she said. "What happened to your forehead? And your shoulder?" The scar was new, one she'd noticed when he raked back his thick dark hair with his hands. As for his shoulder, he held it stiffly when he walked.
Dylan acknowledged his injuries with a shrug.
"You idiot. Do you think you could've found a more dangerous rodeo event than bull riding?"
"Hey, I wore off a lot of anger on those babies. And won a good pile of money at the same time. Figured I could pay down the rest of your mortgage."
She refused to see anything sweet or honorable in the offer. "So now you're trying to buy me off. As if I would touch your money."
He'd put up most of the down payment on the house, which they'd registered in her name for legal and tax reasons. In his note, he'd told her to keep it, sell it, whatever she wanted. Covering the mortgage payments while financing the renovations had been a struggle, but selling the house hadn't been an option she could bear. Even though she would have loved to throw his portion of the down payment in his face. Of course, his face hadn't been here for her to throw anything at.
"I don't need your money, Dylan. This place pays for itself."
"I heard you've been busy. Anyone staying with you right now?"
"Just one guest at the moment." But once the snow fell and skiing season started, she'd be full again, as she'd been all summer.
Dylan put a hand on his pack. "Which means you've got a few rooms available."
She should've seen that one coming. Folding her arms over her chest, she narrowed her eyes at him. "The answer is no."
"Cathleen, you're hurting my feelings."
"We've already established your feelings don't run much deeper than the bark on a birch tree."
He adjusted the position of his hat, balancing it carefully on the top of the canvas pack. "Well, you're probably right about that. Fortunately, yours don't, either. Got rid of the dress and the ring--wasn't that what you said?"
"Well then. Why not put me up? I'll pay for one month up front."
"At least. I've got a little unfinished business here in Canmore."
"Family business. Old scores to settle."
"What are you talking about?"
He propped an elbow against the hot-tub edge and made himself comfortable. "You know as well as I do. I haven't been able to forget about that poor kid."
Jilly Beckett. The memory of the teenager shot down in cold blood on the McLean ranch made Cathleen shiver, despite the heated water surrounding her. "The family had a memorial for her a year after it happened, Dylan. I went. For a sixteen-year-old, she was pretty accomplished."
"She would've turned eighteen this year. She'd be starting university..."
"They never did arrest anyone." There simply wasn't enough evidence. Not that lack of proof had stopped people from drawing their own conclusions.
"Cathleen, did you ever think I--"
She shook her head. Like so many things, it was too late for him to ask that question.
Pain pinched his features. "For the record, I didn't."
"Don't you think I know that? God, Dylan, you're so dense sometimes."
He turned his head, facing out into the dark. "Ain't that the truth."
Above their heads a cloud drifted by and the moon washed the deck in light. Dylan faced her again. "If I'm innocent, that means the real killer is out there. And you know what's really scary?"
She was almost afraid to ask. "What?"
"He's living with my mother."
End of Excerpt
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